Throwback Thursday – Trollslayer by William King

Trollslayer Cover 2

Publisher: Games Workshop (Audiobook – August 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book One

Length: 9 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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.  In this latest Throwback Thursday article, I review a classic Warhammer Fantasy novel, the iconic Trollslayer by William King.

Over the last year or so, I have started to get back into the exciting and captivating extended universe that surrounds the Warhammer tabletop game franchise.  The Warhammer games are a lot of fun to play, but I have always deeply enjoyed the rich and extensive universe that has formed around it.  This is particularly true when it comes to the extensive literary world that has been created, with a huge collection of unique novels added every year.  I personally have barely scratched the surface of this franchise, having only recently read the exciting Space Marine novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker, and the fun crime novel Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.  For this review, however, I veer away from the science fiction based Warhammer 40,000, and instead look at a book in the Warhammer Fantasy universe.

The Warhammer Fantasy universe is set on a fantasy world where various races and factions fight for power, immortality, dark deities, and a general desire for bloodshed (Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne!) in both large-scale battles and smaller skirmishes.  I love the fantastic and thrilling world of Warhammer Fantasy, especially as I used to play (my preferred factions were the Empire and the Lizardmen).  While there are many great novels set in this universe, the most recognisable and well-established series are the Gotrek and Felix books.

The Gotrek and Felix novels are some excellent dark fantasy books that follow the titular heroes, Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, as they traverse their world, facing every single monster, demon or villain they can find.  Created by William King, this long-running series has also been authored by fellow writers Nathan Long, Josh Reynolds and David Guymer, the last of whom has just released the latest entry, Gitslayer.  I have always heard good things about this series over the years, and I have previously enjoyed some of the short stories featured online or in the White Dwarf magazine.  As a result, when I had the brainwave to expand my knowledge of the Warhammer canon, this is one of the main series I wanted to check out, and to do so properly, I had to start with the original novel, TrollslayerTrollslayer, which was originally released in 1999, is an interesting novel that features seven original Gotrek and Felix short stories, including Geheimnisnacht, which was originally written as a one-off in 1988.  These seven stories have been bundled together into one continuous narrative, which proves to be an excellent and entertaining fantasy adventure.

Trollslayer Cover

Felix Jaeger, the son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, used to live a blameless and dull life until he met the deranged Gotrek Gurnisson.  The son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, Felix’s life was changed forever when Gotrek saved his life.  Gotrek is a Slayer, a dwarf who, after committing a terrible crime, has sworn to seek out a glorious death in battle, and who now wanders the world to find a foe worthy of killing him.  After a particularly damaging night of drinking, Felix drunkenly swears to follow him on his adventures to compose an epic ballad about Gotrek’s glorious death.

Bound by his oath, Felix now reluctantly accompanies Gotrek wherever he goes.  Their latest adventures will take them far and wide, as they venture throughout the Empire and beyond, travelling to the notorious holdings of the Border Princes, the mountainous realms of the dwarves and even under the halls of the conquered dwarf city of Karak Eight Peaks.  While they experience many unique discoveries and locations, one thing remains the same: enemies lurk around every corner, and Gotrek and Felix are forced to battle against some of the most dangerous creatures in existence, including orcs, goblins, trolls, the undead, mutants, beastman and more.

However, the most dangerous foe they face may be something far more insidious and unknowable.  The fell powers of Chaos are gathering throughout the land, and Gotrek and Felix seem to constantly become wrapped up in their plots and vile missions.  With danger and deadly foes all around, will Gotrek find the glorious death he seeks, and will Felix be able to survive whatever might foe eventually manages to kill his companion?

Wow, that was a cool novel I really should have read years ago.  Trollslayer was a fantastic and exciting novel that does a great job exploring some of the more dangerous settings in the Warhammer Fantasy world with two amazing characters.  Featuring seven dark and compelling short stories, Trollslayer is an outstanding book, and I had an incredibly fun and entertaining time getting through its audiobook format.  Banded together by some journal entries which bring the separate stories together, Trollslayer has a fantastic joint narrative that presents the reader with a collection of epic adventures.

TrollSlayer-john-gravato-Gotrek-and-Felix-1st-edition-cover

The book begins with the original Gotrek and Felix short story, Geheimnisnacht (Night of Secrets).  The two companions are stuck out in the dangerous forests of the Empire during Geheimnisnacht, an auspicious night of the year.  After nearly being run over by a dark carriage on the road, Gotrek and Felix investigate the actions of a dangerous Chaos coven out in the woods, and find more than they bargained for.  This is a rather entertaining and short entry in Trollslayers that serves as a fun introduction to the main protagonists and their quest.  King does a great job setting up both characters and you soon get a fantastic glimpse into their compelling personalities.  The author presents a very dark story within this first tale, as the heroes discover and fight the true horrors of chaos.  An excellent and intense opening story that will get you pumped up for the rest of the book.

The next entry contained within Trollslayer is called Wolf Riders, which sees Gotrek and Felix at the very edge of the Empire with plans to venture to the fallen dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks.  After encountering a beautiful young woman, Felix convinces Gotrek to join the doomed expedition of a cursed, banished noble family as they journey to the Border Lands to set up their own settlement.  Hired on as guards, the two heroes are forced to protect the caravan against a ravenous Greenskin horde, who are determined to destroy every one of them.  However, the true threat may lie within the convoy, as it soon becomes clear that someone has their own nefarious plans to kill everyone journeying with them.  Wolf Riders is an incredible second entry in the collection of stories, and it is easily one of the best tales in Trollslayer.  Not only does it reinforce the likeability of the two protagonists, but it also contains its own compelling and impressive narrative.  King manages to achieve a lot in Wolf Riders, introducing a cohort of great characters, showing several intense action sequences, and even presenting a clever and malicious mystery.  The entire narrative comes together extremely well, and readers are soon wrapped up in the compelling tale of redemption and bloodshed, which culminates in a tragic and memorable ending that forever changes one protagonist.

The third story is The Dark Beneath the World, which follows on immediately after Wolf RidersThe Dark Beneath the World sees Gotrek, Felix and some new companions journey into the dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks, which was infamously conquered by greenskins and Skaven in ages past.  Seeking treasure, holy relics and a glorious battle, the adventurers will face untold horrors in the halls beneath the city.  However, nothing will prepare them for the true dangers of Karak Eight Peaks, as the restless dead are stirring in response to a monstrous presence.  This was another great story that really highlights have exciting and action packed one of these stories can be.  I love how King takes his great characters right into the heart of one of the most iconic and dangerous settings in the entire Warhammer canon, and it proves to be an amazing backdrop to this compelling story.  A brutal hack and slash epic with some very intense moments, this is an excellent and fast-paced addition to Trollslayer that was an extremely thrilling read.

From powerful action to great humour, the next entry is the slightly shorter The Mark of Slaanesh.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix return to the Empire, where they encounter some malicious cultists of the Chaos god Slaanesh in a small town.  Unfortunately for Felix, Gotrek is suffering from amnesia after a blow to the head.  Forced to shepherd a docile Slayer through the town’s many dangers, Felix takes drastic action to bring his friend back to his senses.  The Mark of Slaanesh represents a very intriguing change of pace, with more of a focus on humour, as a weary Felix is forced to contend with a pacifist Dwarf Slayer, an eccentric doctor, and comedic mutants.  There are several extremely funny moments in this short story, which helped to turn The Mark of Slaanesh into one of the most entertaining entries in the entire novel.  I particularly appreciate how King was able to craft together such a despicable central antagonist in quite a short period of time, and it was great to see his implied comeuppance towards the end of the story.

King again rapidly switches gears with the next entry in the book, Blood and Darkness, a grim war story set in the darkest forest in the Empire.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix come across a ravished village within the Drakwald Forest, which has been utterly destroyed by beastmen.  Finding a young survivor, Kat, Gotrek and Felix escort her through the woods to the next village.  However, a vengeful and ambitious champion of Chaos is close behind them, with unholy plans for Kat and anyone else she comes across.  Blood and Darkness is another exceptional entry in the series, which is probably my overall favourite Trollslayer story.  Loaded with action, fantastic new characters and a particularly gruesome premise, Blood and Darkness really stands out from some of the other stories in this book, and I was blown away by how dark King made the narrative.  I really loved the story’s complex antagonist, and the entire plot surrounding Kat comes full circle in a great way.  While it is a tad creepy to see just how young Kat is in this story, especially as Felix apparently falls in love with her in a future novel (she gets aged up like 20 years before this happens, but it is still weird), this was an impressive and powerful story that really showed how complex, powerful and mature a Warhammer story can be.

The penultimate story in Trollslayer is The Mutant Master, which again switches pace and has a more humorous tilt to it.  After being attacked on the road by a swarm of mutants, the protagonists arrive at a struggling village and soon discover that the mutants are being controlled by a sorcerer in a nearby tower.  Betrayed by the villagers, Gotrek and Felix find themselves as prisoners and soon must deal with an insidious sorcerer who shares a history with Felix.  This was another great short story that places the protagonists into a uniquely dangerous position.  King includes some excellent humour in this novel, especially in the scene where Felix and the sorcerer have a very entertaining encounter, which proves that everyone, even dark sorcerers, fall to pieces when encountering former classmates.  While much of this story is dedicated to humour, the author fits in a particularly dark moment towards the end of the novel, which pushes one protagonist further than ever.  Another awesome and memorable story, I powered through this one extremely quickly.

The final entry in this book is the intense Ulric’s ChildrenUlric’s Children sees Felix trudging through a snowed-in forest, attempting to escape the cold and the wolves.  When they hear the sounds of a fight up ahead, Felix gets separated from Gotrek, and ends up getting captured by a dangerous group of soldiers.  The soldier’s leaders end up being revealed as cultists of the Chaos god Tzeentch, who are desperate to capture a mysterious family living nearby, who have strange powers and strengths.  Caught up in their conflict, Felix soon finds himself trapped in a manor house with two very different monsters and must try to overcome the powers of Chaos that threaten to consume him.  This was another fantastic story that serves as a great conclusion to the entire novel.  While I think that Ulric’s Children was one of the weaker stories in Trollslayer, it was still a compelling and thrilling tale which readers will enjoy.  I loved the inclusion of werewolves in this novel and it was fun to see Felix attempt to overcome a dangerous foe without Gotrek’s determined backup.  With some intriguing foes and an exciting story, this is a fun and fantastic entry in the book which will leave readers wanting more Gotrek and Felix in the future.

King really has loaded Trollslayer with an amazing range of different stories that highlight the gritty adventures of two memorable and loveable characters.  I had a great time getting through each of the short stories contained within this novel, and I think that the author did a good job combining seven shorter stories together into one cohesive tale.  I love how each of the stories has some impressive action set pieces, and readers are given an in-depth look at the true dangers and darkness that inhabits the Warhammer world.  King has also ensured that each tale contains a compelling blend of humour, dramatic character development and dark fantasy elements, all of which produce an outstanding overall narrative.  It was also very cool to see just how dark and gruesome King could make his narratives, and quite a few elements of this book closely bordered the horror genre.  Since the stories were originally published in instalments, readers are in for some repetition, especially as King rehashes Gotrek and Felix’s origin in every entry, and you also get quick summaries of their prior adventures.  While this and other pieces of repetition (for example, Gotrek runs his finger over his axe blade in every tale) can be a bit annoying at times, I personally thought it was a small price to pay for such an awesome and epic book.

One of the most impressive things about Trollslayer is the complex and distinctive characters.  Naturally, the main characters are series protagonists Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, both of whom prove to be really fantastic and exciting characters.  King has come up with an exceptional pairing in these two characters, and I absolutely love the combination of a doomed dwarf Slayer and a disgraced human with a penchant for poetry.

As the primary narrator of the separate stories in this book, Felix gets a great deal of attention, and you really get to grips with his superb character throughout the book.  I loved the depiction of a former arrogant dandy who finds himself in a situation well over his head, and Felix has a “fun” time facing off against all sorts of monsters in this book.  While most of the novel depicts him as a bit of a coward, Felix does manage to achieve some major heroics and you cannot help but sympathise with the terrible situations he finds himself in.  While the use of multiple short stories does tend to backslide Felix’s character at times (he reverts to a coward at the start of each story), I did enjoy seeing some of the excellent development that occurs around Felix.  Not only does he grow more confident in his own abilities, but he also becomes harder with each adventure, especially as he experiences tragedy and despair around every corner.  It was actually hard to see how some of the more tragic events of the book affected him, but I really appreciated the amazing character work that King worked around him.

The titular Trollslayer, Gotrek Gurnisson, is one of the most beloved figures in Warhammer Fantasy lore, and a magnificent character who I really enjoyed.  Much of Gotrek’s past is shrouded in mystery, and all you really know is that he is a mighty warrior who previously committed some great crime that still haunts him to this day.  Determined to find a glorious death, Gotrek willingly walks into the most dangerous of places, but always survives, much to his displeasure (even doomed dwarves are far too stubborn and proud to simply let an enemy kill them).  King mostly paints Gotrek as a crude, rude and bloodthirsty being, which is a lot of fun to see.  However, there is so much more to Gotrek than killing and fighting, and you see several glimpses of his true inner self in this book, especially when he thinks about the past.  I loved how King keeps Gotrek as a mostly enigmatic figure, mostly by not showing any of the story from his point of view, and the reader is never quite sure what he is thinking or planning.  All of this results in an excellent and memorable protagonist, and I am deeply intrigued to see what sort of adventures he has in the future, as well as any revelations about his past.

Aside from Gotrek and Felix, Trollslayer contains a range of interesting and compelling characters, several of whom act as point-of-view figures at various parts of the book.  King does a really good job of introducing and utilising so many unique figures throughout his various stories, and it is simply amazing how well he can develop and establish his character in such a short amount of time.  Even though you only see some characters for a few pages, you quickly become quite invested in their stories, which is the sign of a really good author.  However, readers are advised not to get too attached to anyone, as most of the side characters will come to a gruesome and tragic end.  Still, these supporting characters are really fun, and I look forward to seeing what unique figures are introduced in future Gotrek and Felix books.

Trollslayer also features the dark and well-established background setting of the Warhammer Fantasy world, with the protagonists adventuring through many iconic locations.  King makes excellent use of this fantastic background throughout his story, and I loved seeing all the cool locations, interesting factions and dangerous monsters contained within the story.  This actually serves as a really good introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy world, and readers unfamiliar with the various aspects of Warhammer will learn a lot here.  King can really craft together some dark and dangerous locations with his writing, and I love how spooking and claustrophobic some of his settings felt, especially the ancient dwarven catacombs and the haunted, monster infested forests.  I also loved the sheer range of different creatures and races featured within Trollslayer, as the author includes as many foes as possible.  It was extremely awesome to see Gotrek and Felix cut their way through various greenskins, monsters, and servants of Chaos, and there is something for all fantasy fans within this book.  I am extremely keen to see what other monsters and races are utilised in the future novels, and I am sure they will be pretty amazing.

I ended up listening to the Trollslayer audiobook format, which was an outstanding way to experience the awesome adventures contained within this book.  With a decent run time of just under 10 hours, I powered through this audiobook in a matter of days, especially once I got caught up in the fantastic depictions of intense action and dark creatures.  I was also really drawn in by the impressive narration of Jonathan Keeble, who has lent his voice to all the Gotrek and Felix audiobooks, as well as several other Warhammer projects and some of my favourite historical fiction novels, such as the Eagle of the Empire series.  Keeble has an epic voice, and the sheer passion that he brings to Trollslayer is immediately obvious, especially during the action scenes, where his excited voice captures the intensity and movement of the fights.  I also felt that Keeble did an exceptional job bringing all of the characters to life in an impressive way.  I particularly loved the gruff voice that he used for Gotrek, which fit the doomed dwarf warrior perfectly, and he also does a really good job voicing the often terrified Felix.  I also found some of the voices that he used for the supporting characters to be really fun and fitting, and I had a lot of love for a couple of the crazed sorcerers/alchemists they encounter, which were quite amusing.  All of this helps to turn the Trollslayer audiobook into an outstanding experience, and I think that this will be the format I check out the future Gotrek and Felix novels out in.  I might also have to consider listening to some historical fiction novels on audiobook in the future, especially as I know that Keeble will do a wonderful job narrating them.

Trollslayer by William King is an exceptional and clever Warhammer Fantasy novel that showcases the exciting and powerful adventures of the iconic Gotrek and Felix.  Serving as the main introduction to these two iconic heroes, Trollslayer contains seven outstanding and wildly entertaining short stories with some fantastic and wacky plots.  Readers who check out Trollslayer are in for a heck of a lot of fun and will swiftly become fans of this great duo and their outrageous adventures.  A highly recommended read, I suddenly have some major plans to check out more Gotrek and Felix novels in the future.

Firefly: Life Signs by James Lovegrove

Firefly Life Signs

Consulting Editor: Joss Whedon

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 15 March 2021)

Series: Firefly – Book Five

Length: 377 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite tie-in series returns with another awesome Firefly novel by bestselling author James Lovegrove.  This time, Lovegrove digs up an intriguing unaired plotline for the epic science fiction series and crafts an outstanding story out of it for Firefly: Life Signs.

Set between the events of the Firefly television series and the Serenity film, Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity are still scraping by, earning a living from barely legal jobs while also dealing with the consequences of their previous capers.  Life seems to be normal (well, normal for this motley crew) until they receive some shocking news: former crewmember Inara is dying from a terminal illness.

Rushing to her side, a devastated Mal learns that Inara is suffering from Kiehl’s Myeloma, an incurable form of cancer.  With only a few short weeks until Inara’s time is up, Serenity’s crew look set to lose one of their own, until a rumour reaches them of a potential cure.  Esau Weng, a maverick scientist, was rumoured to be working on a medical breakthrough that could potentially treat Inara’s condition.  However, the unethical and secretive nature of his work landed him in trouble with the Alliance, who arrested him and bundled him off to their most notorious prison.

Tracking Esau’s location, the crew are disheartened to learn that he has been sent to the prison planet of Atata, a dangerous and harsh place where the worst criminals and dissidents the verse has to offer are housed.  Inmates are abandoned on its surface and are forced to survive with no guards, no protection, and limited resources.  Worse, the planet is a frozen wasteland, nearly uninhabitable thanks to its failed terraforming, with its snow-covered surface filled with mutated animals.  Determined to save Inara no matter what, Mal organises a desperate infiltration of the prison with Zoe, Jayne and Simon.  However, finding Weng will prove to be harder than they imagined, as they are forced to deal with the deranged ruler of the prison.  Can Mal and his team find Weng before it is too late, and even if they can, will his supposed cure be enough to save Inara?

Over the last couple of years, there has been an excellent resurgence in Firefly/Serenity tie-in fiction as new publishing companies have taken charge of producing content for the franchise.  One of the best examples of this has been the new collection of Firefly novels that introduced some compelling original stories surrounding various members of Serenity’s crew.  All of these novels have been pretty awesome so far, and I have really enjoyed the awesome and impressive stories they have created.

While other authors have been lined up for these books, such as Tim Lebbon (who wrote Firefly: Generations), the MVP of this series has been James Lovegrove, who has written four out of the five novels (including this one).  His previous books have included Big Damn Hero (with Nancy Holder), The Magnificent Nine and The Ghost Machine, all three of which have been exceptional tie-in reads.  In my opinion, each of Lovegrove’s Firefly novels has been better than the last, and this continues to be the case with Life SignsLife Signs was an outstanding and clever read that explores some of the most interesting and compelling aspects of the Firefly universe while also getting to the very core of some of its iconic characters.

For his latest Firefly novel, Lovegrove comes up with an awesome narrative that is both exciting and emotionally powerful, as the crew engage in a prison break to save one of their own.  Like the rest of the Firefly books that I have had the pleasure of reading, Life Signs is an extremely fast-paced novel, which makes great use of multiple character perspectives, including all the members of Serenity’s crew as well as several new characters, to tell a complete and intriguing story.  The novel starts at pace, with the crew receiving the devastating news about Inara’s upcoming death, which hits all the characters, especially Mal, extremely hard.  From there the story splits into two linked but separate story arcs: one on the planet and one in space.  The storyline set on the prison planet is pretty good, and it was a lot of fun to see the more criminally minded Mal, Zoe and Jayne attempt to blend in, along with a faltering Simon.  Their attempts to infiltrate the criminal inhabitants of the prison ends up producing several interesting issues that they need to overcome, and they eventually engage in a desperate battle for survival out in Atata’s snowy wasteland.  There are some great twists associated with this part of the story, including a clever one surrounding an inmate who joins their team, and this was a fantastic part of the book.  At the same time, the three other members of the crew are out in space aboard Serenity and must deal with a fanatical Alliance captain who is determined to capture them, resulting in some amazing space exploits which push River to the fore.  Both these separated arcs are pretty awesome, and they come together extremely well, ensuring the reader gets a fantastic blast of action and character development.  I also enjoyed the additional emotional weight that the life-or-death storyline surrounding Inara has, and it was definitely a powerful and compelling narrative that readers are guaranteed to want to finish off as quickly as they can.

Life Signs is an intriguing and clever addition to the wider Firefly canon.  While the story is quite open to new readers or those who are unfamiliar with the franchise, this is definitely a novel best enjoyed by fans of the Firefly television show and additional tie-in media, as there are a number of fun references and major character moments that they will find particularly appealing.  One of the most interesting parts of this book is the storyline surrounding Inara having cancer.  As some Firefly fans may be aware, members of the show’s creative team have revealed that they initially planned a whole major storyline around Inara suffering from a terminal illness, which would have appeared in a future episode of the show.  They even layered a few hints about this in the first season, such as her mysterious syringe and the reasons why she was travelling on Serenity rather than a more luxurious ship.  I was very excited to hear that parts of this storyline were being used in Life Signs and I think that Lovegrove did a great job examining this interesting character thread surrounding Inara.  Not only does this result in some brilliant and dramatic moments, but Lovegrove makes sure to make mention of several of the hints that were shown in the television series, which fans will deeply appreciate.  Lovegrove provides several additional references that eagle-eyed fans will appreciate, such as the very start of the book containing a fun follow-up to one of the crew’s previous adventures.  Lovegrove also subtly ties Life Signs into some of the previous Firefly novels he wrote, including through a key supporting character, and I quite liked the continuity of the novels.  As a result, this is a perfect read for Firefly fans, although general science fiction buffs or those who enjoyed the show will have a great time with this novel as well.

As usual with Lovegrove’s Firefly novels, one of the most impressive highlights of this book is the fantastic depiction of the fantastic characters from the show.  Lovegrove has always done an amazing job of bringing these great characters to life within his novels and I really love his attention to character detail, emotion and their inner selves.  Life Signs continues this trend by thoroughly examining several members of the crew and I deeply enjoyed the emotional and enjoyable inclusions to the plot.

You can probably guess that Inara gets a bit of focus in this novel, due to the reveal that she is dying.  As I mentioned above, I really enjoyed that Lovegrove utilised this story arc in Life Signs, and the author leverages this plot to provide a fantastic and powerful dive into Inara’s character, a re-examination of her actions during the television show, as well as an exploration of her relationship with the other people aboard Serenity.  This serves to be one of the more intriguing portrayals of Inara in this series of novels, although it is rather brief as Inara spends most of the novel in a near-death state.  Due to Inara’s illness keeping her out of much of the plot, a lot of the story’s emotional weight fall to Mal, who ends up getting most of the focus of this novel.  While you do get his typical cocky attitude, fun humour and ability to annoy anyone around him, you also get to see Mal on the emotional edge during this book.  Mal is naturally devastated by the news that his unspoken love interest is dying, and he quickly latches on to any hope for her survival.  As a result, he dives into the hunt for a cure with reckless abandon and ends up taking some big risks.  Lovegrove did an amazing job portraying Mal as a bit deranged in this novel, and it was fascinating to see the usual conscientious captain seemingly prioritise Inara’s survival over the safety of his crew.  There are some amazingly dramatic and moving moments throughout this book as Mal struggles to deal with the emotions surrounding Inara’s potential death, and Firefly fans will be left on the edge of their seats as Lovegrove provides some new angles to their complex relationship.

While a good portion of the novel focuses on Mal and his concerns for Inara, the rest of Serenity’s crew also appear throughout the novel, as each of them has at least one chapter shown from their point of view.  Interestingly enough, both Tam siblings get a decent chunk of focus, with their storylines not as connected to each other’s as usual.  Simon has a great arc down on the prison planet after he is dragged along to determine if Weng can actually help Inara.  Due to his lack of criminal believability, Simon ends up having a very interesting time in the prison, especially after he befriends a seemingly innocent female inmate, who forms a romantic attachment to Simon.  This ends up causing many problems with Simon, due to his poor lying abilities and conflicted feelings over Kaylee, and it was really interesting to see how his arc ended up.  On the other hand, River spends her part of the story aboard Serenity, and is called into action when the ship is threatened by Alliance military vessels.  I loved that Lovegrove spent time exploring River’s piloting Serenity, something that is shown at the end of the Serenity film, and it was really cool to see her do some complex and insane manoeuvres.  The chapters shown from River’s point of view are amongst some of the most entertaining parts of the book, and it is always great to see this crazy genius in action.

Zoe, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne round up the main cast of this book, although each of them has more of a supporting role.  Zoe does have an intriguing storyline that sees her bond with a fellow former soldier in the prison, and there were hints back at her past as a Dust Devil, something that was initially introduced in one of Joss Whedon’s comic books.  All these characters are portrayed in exquisite detail however, and Lovegrove does a good job replicating their personalities and characteristics throughout the story.  Overall, fans of the franchise will love the way that each of the characters are utilised throughout Life Signs, and I cannot wait to see which characters are featured in the next Firefly novel.

Firefly: Life Signs is another exceptional and clever Firefly tie-in novel from the impressive James Lovegrove.  Lovegrove has come up with an exciting and clever tale that successfully utilises a planned storyline from the show and produce an addictive and memorable narrative with it.  Readers will love the awesome call back to this iconic science fiction show including the excellent portrayals of the main cast of characters.  I had an amazing time reading this book and Firefly fans are going to love every second they spend reading it.  While I cannot wait to get my hands on the next entry in this series, which looks set to be Carnival by Una McCormack, Life Signs is an outstanding novel to check out now and comes highly recommended.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds

Kal Jerico - Sinner's Bounty Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 February 2020)

Series: Necromunda – Book 11

Length: 14 hours and 43 minutes.

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

After enjoying the exciting novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker last year I once again dive into the intricate Warhammer 40K expanded universe with another fantastic tie-in novel.  This time however, I check out the awesome pulse pounding Necromunda adventure, Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, which reintroduces the iconic and entertaining bounty hunter Kal Jerico.

Warhammer 40K fiction is a particularly fascinating franchise built around Games Workshop’s tabletop war game of the same name, which follows armies, heroes and monsters as they fight for supremacy in a gothic far future.  While Warhammer 40K started as models and gaming, it has since evolved into a massive expanded universe, featuring comics, video games, board games, a film, an upcoming television show and a vast collection of tie-in novels written by an impressive group of science fiction authors.  This is a really fantastic universe that I have a great deal of love for as I was a major Warhammer nerd when I was younger (heck, I’ll admit it, I’m still a Warhammer nerd).  Thanks to an incredible amount of lore, history and character bios that have been created to accompany the various iterations of the tabletop game, this universe has so much potential for great fiction and stories that are a lot of fun to explore.

While my last dive into Warhammer 40K fiction focused on the wider wars of Space Marines versus aliens, this time I am looking at something very different as I check out my first Necromunda novel.  Necromunda fiction is based around the spin-off Necromunda game which was launched in the 1990s.  Set in the same universe as the rest of Warhammer 40K, this sub-franchise takes place on the industrial planet of Necromunda, a desolate husk of a world devastated by thousands of years of pollution and expansive industrial ambition.  The stories take place within and under the Hive Cities, vast multi-layered industrial hubs resembling termite mounds that reach both high into the sky and deep underground, and which are home to untold billions of inhabitants.  Broken up with the wealthy on the top spires and the poor on the bottom and below (the Underhive), control and influence of these cities is constantly fought over by powerful clans, families, and gangs, resulting in a huge range of different conflicts, which fuel both the tabletop game and the associated fiction.  With Game Workshop’s recent relaunch of the Necromunda game a couple of years ago, several new Necromunda novels have been published, including this novel which focuses on one of the most intriguing characters ever created as part of this game, Kal Jerico.

Kal Jerico, the self-proclaimed greatest bounty hunter in Necromunda, was introduced back in 1998 in the Kal Jerico comic strip, written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Karl Kopinski, which appeared in the Warhammer Monthly magazine.  The Kal Jerico comic ran for 30 comic strips between 1998 and 2004, although the character subsequently appeared in three Kal Jerico novels written by Will McDermott (with Gordon Rennie co-authoring the first novel), Blood Royal, Cardinal Crimson and Lasgun Wedding.  I am a bit of a Kal Jerico fan, as I was lucky enough to receive several Warhammer Monthly magazines when I was a kid and I used to really enjoy all the cool and fantastic comics contained within.  Out of all the comics, the Kal Jerico ones were always my favourite and I absolutely loved seeing the outrageous and daring adventures of this cocky bounty hunter.  My love for this character is the main reason that I decided to check Sinner’s Bounty out, and I was really interested to see a more modern take on the character years after seeing him appear in comic book form.

In the sordid depths of Hive Primus, the biggest hive city on Necromunda, a daring crime has been committed and all hell is about to break loose in the aftermath.  The infamous and manic preacher, Desolation Zoon, led a brazen robbery on a guilder tithe-hall, stealing vast quantities of weaponry, credits, imported goods and other mysterious treasures.  Now, with his band of fanatical followers, Zoon is heading downhive in an armoured mining hauler, modified with an impressive amount of firepower.  However, these zealots are not the only ones heading downhive as they are being followed by every hired gun and killer in Hive Primus, each of whom wants a piece of the massive bounty that has been placed on Zoon’s head.

At the forefront of the rogues, killers and gangers chasing after Zoon is the infamous bounty hunter Kal Jerico.  Travelling with his faithful sidekick, Scabbs, the murderous woman he was forced to marry, Yolanda, and his cyber-mastiff, Wotan, Jerico is determined to catch up to Zoon and claim both the money and the accompanying reputation boost.  To claim their prize, this unconventional team will need to traverse some of the most dangerous locations in the Underhive and face off against giant monsters, dangerous tunnel creatures and mutant cannibals, as well as all their friendly bounty hunter colleagues.

However, as they get closer to capturing Zoon, Jerico and his cohorts will swiftly discover that is far from the simple bounty mission they thought it was.  Many powerful people, both inside and outside of Hive Primus, have a stake in Zoon’s capture, and soon Jerico will face off against some old rivals who are just as likely to settle old grudges as they are to claim Zoon’s bounty.  Worst, something dark and dangerous is rising in the deeps of the Underhive, and Kal is about to find himself in the middle of a massive fight that even his unnatural good luck may be able to save him from.

Now, that was a fun novel!  Sinner’s Bounty is an awesome read that not only successfully reintroduces a fan-favourite character but which also provides a pulse-pumping science fiction adventure for reader in the mood for an exciting and captivating story.  To tell this impressive new Kal Jerico novel, the Black Library has recruited veteran tie-in author Joshua Reynolds to continue the legacy started by authors like Renni and McDermott.  Reynolds is a talented author who is well-established in Warhammer fiction, having written a substantial amount of Warhammer 40K and Warhammer fantasy novels over the years, following a wide range of different characters and storylines.  I ended up really enjoying Reynold’s Kal Jerico novel and I was deeply impressed with the excellent combination of compelling narrative, great characters, and an iconic setting, all wrapped up with a fantastic sense humour, that helped to turn Sinner’s Bounty into such an exceptional read.

Sinner’s Bounty contains an epic tale of greed, adventure and friendship in the twisting tunnels of the Underhive that provides a ton of action and excitement.  Reynolds starts this story off with a bang (well, several bangs, a multitude of bangs if I am going to be honest), setting up first the main plot catalyst in Desolation Zoon and his mission, before introducing Jerico and his partners as they encounter their first obstacle on their hunt.  This entertaining first encounter serves as a fantastic introduction to the main protagonists, and Reynolds swiftly hurries them on their way, ensuring that they encounter more of the deadly elements of life in the Underhive, such as their lethal competitors.  At the same time, Reynolds starts introducing several additional characters who embark on the same mission of catching up with Jerico and Zoon.  These additional side characters introduce some intriguing alternate viewpoints and opinions, especially as each of them have their own agendas and motivations for being there.  These alternate viewpoints work extremely well in conjunction with the main narrative around Jerico, and Reynolds starts adding more and more in as the novel progresses, with nearly every supporting character and plot point coming together towards the end of the book.  Reynolds writes up a big conclusion with every major character in the same location forced to work together to survive in a scenario that was fantastically reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven.  At the same time, every character attempts to betray each other, resulting in some extremely entertaining and fun sequences, with the reader unsure who is going to end up on top and who is going to survive.  All of this is wrapped up perfectly, with a clever and fitting conclusion to the main story, while several open story threads set up some additional stories for the future.  All of this was deeply captivating, and while I personally got hooked on the cool story within the first few pages, there is so much intense action, clever betrayals and compelling plot points, that most readers will find themselves wanting to see how this awesome book ends as quickly as possible.

While many tie-in novels in the Warhammer 40K range have a somewhat limited audience, often requiring pre-knowledge of game lore, I felt that Sinner’s Bounty was extremely accessible and can be easily enjoyed by anyone interested in a fun science fiction adventure.  Reynolds does an exceptional job introducing all the relevant elements of Necromunda throughout the course of Sinner’s Bounty, and the reader is easily able to understand what is happening and why without any issue whatsoever.  Indeed, Reynolds makes this book so accessible that I would recommend Sinner’s Bounty as a fantastic introductory novel to anyone interested in seeing what Warhammer 40K fiction is all about, especially the Necromunda subset.  At the same time, Reynolds also ensures that Sinner’s Bounty caters for established fans, as there are a ton of references to the Necromunda game, previous Kal Jerico adventures and wider Warhammer 40K lore.  Not only do huge amounts of elements from the tabletop game make it into Sinner’s Bounty’s story, but Reynolds skilfully references events that occurred within both the Kal Jerico comics and novels, recapping them for new readers while also making some jokes about the events that occurred.  This great blend of references and detail makes Sinner’s Bounty an excellent Warhammer 40K novel for all readers and you are guaranteed to have a good time no matter how familiar you are with Kal Jerico or this fictional universe.

Without a doubt one of the best highlights of this entire novel was the incredible setting of the Underhive of Necromunda.  Reynolds goes all out throughout the course of this book to bring this grim, cavernous and incredibly deadly expanded setting to life in all its gory glory, and it is spectacular.  The reader gets a real sense of how life in the dark under a massive hive city must be like and the author has included all manner of details about crumbling façade, the unusual life forms and perilous living conditions that its many, many inhabitants must face.  Naturally, this turns out to be an outstanding setting for this action-packed storyline, and I had an amazing time seeing which horror or unique landscape would appear next.  Reynolds also loads up his novel with a huge amount of additional detail about the various gangs, families, and groups that control Hive Primus and inhabit the Underhive, which proves to be deeply fascinating.  The author really goes out of his way to provide a fantastic introduction to several factions that were featured in the tabletop game, allowing readers with limited knowledge of this universe to easily follow who these groups are and how they relate to wider story and world.  All of this proved to be extremely fascinating and readers are guaranteed to want to dive back into the depths to see more outstanding adventures here.

Another impressive part of Sinner’s Bounty was the extremely likeable and distinctive characters whose adventure the readers follow during this multi-perspective narrative.  Many of these characters were originally introduced in the previous comics and novels and Reynolds does an excellent job revitalising them and fitting them into his fantastic story.  The main protagonist of Sinner’s Bounty is the titular Kal Jerico, the Underhive’s most dashing and fashionable bounty hunter.  I really enjoyed the excellent version of Jerico that appeared in this novel, and the author has styled him as a particularly bold, resourceful, vain, and exceedingly lucky figure who moves from place to place bringing chaos and destruction.  Jerico is a very entertaining character, constantly delivering witticisms and fun one-liners to his compatriots, his enemies and himself, and you cannot help but enjoy seeing everything going wrong around him as he manages to annoy or enrage everyone he comes across.  It was particularly fun to see so many other characters get drawn into the events of this book partially out of spite towards Jerico, after being bested by him in previous adventures.  Despite his outer edge of pragmatism, greed and selfishness, Sinner’s Bounty shows that Jerico has a bit of a soul when it comes to some of the other people he encounters.  Not only is he shown to care about both his companions, despite several discussions where he implies he would sell them for his own benefit, but he also has a deeply ingrained sense of honour that drives him to do the right thing, even if it puts him in greater risk.  This makes for a fantastic and enjoyable character and I had a wonderful time seeing him scamper around in the Underhive making enemies and generally pissing everyone off.

In addition to his own vaunted self, Jerico also brought along two of his long-term associates Scabbs and Yolanda, both of whom have been part of the Kal Jerico series since the beginning (Scabbs appeared in Issue #1, while Yolanda was introduced in #2).  Both characters are heavily featured in Sinner’s Bounty and proved to be an excellent addition to the story.  The most significant inclusion is probably Scabbs, Jerico’s long-time friend and sidekick with a serious skin condition (hence the name Scabbs), who often unwillingly follows Jerico into danger.  Scabbs is a fun character who serves as a great counterpoint to Jerico’s insanity, often complaining about the terrible plans and generally looking for a more intelligent way to complete the mission.  Scabbs has a rather significant character arc within Sinner’s Bounty which forces him to examine his half-ratskin (a gang/clan in Necromunda) past, especially when he encounters Amenute, a ratskin mystic who is inexplicably drawn to him.  This forces Scabbs to re-examine his loyalties to Jerico, and it is intriguing to see this character act rashly as he faces off against powerful gangs to save his new acquaintance.

Next we have Yolanda, the dangerous and unpredictable wild woman who is currently Jerico’s wife (see the previous Kal Jerico novel, Lasgun Wedding).  Despite this marital relationship with Jerico, Yolanda is a just as likely to cut her husband’s throat as she is to help him, as she only serves her own best interest or her desires to kill as many people as possible.  Yolanda is another great character, especially as the reader is constantly left waiting for her inevitable betrayal of Jerico and Scabbs (I also had a good chuckle at an early joke about a poet trying to describe Yolanda, which does not go well for the poet!).  While Yolanda is a tad one-dimensional at times, Reynolds does a good job of trying to explore her inner psyche, showcasing some interesting parallels between her and Jerico, as both fled from a cushy life in the Spire to experience the joys of the Underhive, and there are some hints of some genuine feelings for Jerico, even though the two mockingly reference their sham marriage throughout the book.  I had a lot of fun with both these supporting characters and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to Jerico’s antics.

Aside from these three protagonists, Reynolds has also loaded up Sinner’s Bounty with a raft of side characters, each of whom has their own agenda or plan, most of which revolve around killing Jerico (the guy is very popular).  The side characters featured within this book are an intriguing combination of established Necromunda bounty hunters and power brokers (I believe several are playable characters in the tabletop game), and original characters.  As a result, the reader gets to follow a range of religious fanatics, outrageous bounty hunters, scheming gangas, deranged mutants (including an entertainingly grandiose queen) and a whole range of other intriguing figures.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives, the reader gets a useful and suitable introduction to each of these characters, ensuring that they can be easily slotted into the narrative when necessary and cause their little bit of havoc.

Out of all these supporting characters, one of my favourites had to be the Adjurator (a fancy bounty hunter) Baertrum Arturos III, who serves as a major point-of-view character and secondary antagonist for this novel.  Baertrum is a slippery and treacherous hunter who is drawn into this chase not just for money but for the opportunity to one-up Jerico, who he has a deadly rivalry with.  Baertrum’s scenes are fun to read, especially as he is usually coming up with a new way to betray the other characters, and the reader has a great time hating him throughout the book.  I also liked the character of Desolation Zoon, the mad preacher whose brazen heist is the cause of all the events of this book.  Reynolds creates a particularly intriguing character in Zoon, showcasing him as a tired old preacher who, after a lifetime of piety and bloodshed, is starting to lose his faith and question his past actions.  However, this old dog still has some holy fire in him, and readers are in for a great time seeing him lay into his enemies with sword and blistering verse in equal measure.  Zoon has some particularly fantastic exchanges with Jerico in the second half of the novel, and I really enjoyed seeing this compelling figure come to life and be utilised throughout the book.  Overall, I thought that each of the characters in this exceptional novel were pretty damn fantastic and I had an exceptional time watching them attempt to survive and betray everyone they encounter.

I chose to grab Sinner’s Bounty on audiobook, which ended up being an amazing way to experience this fantastic and compelling novel.  The Sinner’s Bounty audiobook had a decent run time of just under 15 hours, which I managed to get through in about a week with a few extended listening sessions once I really got hooked on its outrageous tale.  I had a lot of fun listening to this audiobook and I found that the cool action sequences and gloriously gory setting of the Underhive were particularly awesome in this format.  A lot of this is down to the excellent narration of the talented Mark Elstob.  Elstob, who has previously narrated a small but interesting collection of audiobooks, has a lot of fun with Sinner’s Bounty as he comes up with some unique voices for this fantastic science fiction adventure.  All of the characters are gifted with a fitting and fun voice that really captures the depth of their personality, whether they be a scheming bounty hunter, a former aristocrat or a fantastical preacher, while also modulating to match their emotional state at that time.  This makes several of the battle scenes particularly fun, especially when you have characters like Desolation Zoon shouting out religious verse during a fight.  I also really appreciated the more nasal or gravelly voices the narrator came up for the various Abhuman or mutated beings featured within the book, and it was great to have some of the more different characters identified differently (I need to give a particular shoutout to one of characters, a mutant pirate captain, to whom Elstob gives a very enjoyable Scottish accent).  Overall, this was an outstanding way to enjoy Sinner’s Bounty and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this book.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty is an outstanding Warhammer 40K novel that reintroduces the epic Kal Jerico back to his adoring public after a lengthy absence.  The always impressive Joshua Reynolds has produced another outstanding Warhammer novel, containing an exciting and compelling adventure story, equipped with an incredible setting and some fantastic characters.  This results in an addictive and entertaining novel that I had an absolutely awesome time getting through and which made me so very glad that Kal Jerico is back.  Here’s hoping that we’ll get some more Kal Jerico novels in the future, especially if they feature more of Reynolds’s epic writing.

Uncanny X-Men – Vol. 2: Wolverine and Cyclops

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Publisher: Marvel Comics (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2019)

Series: Uncanny X-Men (2018) – Volume 2

Writer: Matthew Rosenberg

Artists: Salvador Larroca

               John McCrea

               Juanan Ramirez

Colour Artist: Rachelle Rosenberg

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to enter a whole new era of X-Men comics as writer Matthew Rosenberg and artist Salvador Larroca bring forth a second volume in the new series of Uncanny X-Men and focus on the aftermath of the latest disaster to befall mutantkind.

No More X-Men!

For years, the X-Men have tried to fulfil Charles Xavier’s dream of unity between mutants and humans by being the shining examples of their species as superheroes, protecting even those people who hate and fear them. However, in one devastating moment, that dream has been smashed. The godlike mutant X-Man, in an attempt to remove all opposition to his messianic desires, combined his powers with that of the reality-bending mutant Legion in order to end all the X-Men who stood against him. In a single instant, nearly every mutant who had served as a member of the X-Men was gone, and the world reacted accordingly.

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In the aftermath of this loss, Mutantkind is on the brink of extinction. Already suffering from years of losses caused by the Genosha genocide, the M-Day Decimation, the Terrigen Mists and Disney’s wrath for being owned by Fox, the remaining Mutants are now left without their protectors. With public opinion firmly against them, government agencies hunting down and imprisoning any surviving mutants and the new mutant vaccine being made mandatory for the entire population, this looks like the end for the species. However, one mutant is desperate to change this: the original leader of the X-Men, Cyclops.

Having been recently returned from the dead, Cyclops attempts to find his way in the new world, where all his X-Men comrades have disappeared. After an encounter with the mysterious mutant Blindfold, whose cryptic visions now contain nothing but despair, Cyclops will try to do what he always does, attempt to save his species. However, with no allies willing to help and even the Avengers turning against them, Cyclops is finding it hard not to give in to despair. In a desperate move, he makes a televised plea for any remaining X-Men to join him at the remains of the X-Mansion. While at first it appears that only the X-Men’s enemies have turned up in order to kill him, one X-Man answers the call, the last person Cyclops expected to come to his aid, his long-time rival Wolverine.

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Having also just come back from the dead, Wolverine is reluctantly drawn back into Cyclops’s orbit. In their recent past these two legendary X-Men have fought, gone to war and nearly killed each other over their ideals, the future of mutantkind and the heart of Jean Grey, but now they can agree on one thing: the X-Men need to come back. Pulling together a rag tag team, including Magik, Wolfsbane, Havok, Dani Moonstar, Karma, Chamber and Jamie Madrox, Cyclops and plan to go after the biggest mutant threats they can find on order to stop additional escalations against mutants and to leave the world in a better place if this is truly the end of mutantkind. But what happens when they are forced to go up against old friends such as Banshee or Hope Summers, as they attempt to obtain their own form of justice leading a new version of the Mutant Liberation Front?

The second volume of this new series of Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine and Cyclops, is a fantastic and enjoyable comic that does a wonderful job introducing a cool new version of the X-Men following the major changes that occurred in the first volume of the series, X-Men Disassembled. Featuring issues #11-16 of the 2018 series of Uncanny X-Men, this volume does an excellent job of showcasing the new, darker version of the Marvel Universe following the disappearance of the X-Men.

Cyclops and Wolverine is written by Matthew Rosenberg, who has been working on a number of cool series for Marvel lately, including the extremely entertaining new Punisher series. In a nice sense of continuity, Rosenberg returns to write this second volume of Uncanny X-Men after completely changing everything with X-Men Disassembled. After setting up the cool story in that book, Rosenberg now puts his thoughts to exploring the aftermath of this tale, not only in this volume but in a number of future entries. For this second volume, Rosenberg is joined by artist Salvador Larroca, who provides the art for most of this book, while veteran artist Rachelle Rosenberg serves as the colourist for all the issues in this volume.

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After the previous entry in the series, the creative team was left with the interesting problem of how to run an X-Men series after you sent away all the X-Men (probably to the universe featured in the various Age of X-Man miniseries). What they came up with was a fantastic story that featured a new end of days for mutantkind and a new version of the iconic team. Since the events of the last volume, the whole world has dramatically changed for mutants. While they were never popular, now they are being actively hunted down, captured, experimented on or exterminated by government-sanctioned groups and there is no one able to stop them until this new team of X-Men come along. I really liked one of the ideas broached in the story that the X-Men, despite their attempts to be peacemakers, really only stopped this sort of government attack because they intimated the government, and now that the X-Men gone, there is nothing stopping them from ensuring there are no more mutants. As a result, this is a really interesting setting for a new X-Men series, and Rosenberg has come up with a really cool story. This is a much grimmer version of the classic X-Men story, as the team no longer has a high-tech base, matching uniforms or an advanced jet. Instead, they are a small team of rebels, hiding out in a bar and getting involved in fights for survival. This first volume contains a number of big plot moments, including the additional deaths of several mutant characters (which probably won’t last that long), noteworthy character developments (one character’s code-name gains a whole new level of significance) and the formation of an intriguing new team of X-Men.

I really enjoyed the way that the creative team set out this story in the first volume and I particularly enjoyed the first issue of the volume (Issue # 11). This issue does a wonderful job introducing the new Marvel Universe, and showing Cyclop’s difficulties coming back to such an altered world, bereft of hope for mutants. As the first issue continues, Cyclops meets several former friends and allies, such as Blindfold, Chamber, Ben Urich, Jamie Madox and Captain America, each of whom try to convince Cyclops that the X-Men are dead and that his mission is over. All of these encounters, including a second tragic meeting with Blindfold, drive Cyclops to his former home at the X-Mansion, where it appears he is truly the last X-Man, and only his enemies, such as the Reavers, the Purifiers and the Sapien League remain. However, at the last second, it is revealed that Wolverine was also on the scene and joins the fight, teaming up with Cyclops to defeat the mass of foes in the front of them in a particularly satisfying fight sequence to end the first issue. The volume then goes on to show two mini-stories, which show the reader that Wolverine had been following Cyclops for a while and had actually been helping him without the reader or Cyclops knowing it. Another story also shows why Blindfold had gotten involved and adds a whole new layer of tragedy to the story. The rest of the volume unfolds in a pretty logical way; without going into too much detail, Cyclops and Wolverine manage to form a team of X-Men, and in the following volumes they face a variety of different threats and find new allies, all of which will set up some interesting storylines for the next few volumes of the series. I liked where the story went towards the volume, and there were some really interesting developments that did a fantastic job following the strong opening issues.

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While this volume features a number of great characters, as the name suggests, the story is mostly focused around Cyclops and Wolverine, who team up again for the first time in years. These two are probably two of the most iconic X-Men ever created, and the longstanding rivalry and dislike between them has long been a recurring X-Men story arc. However, in recent years, this dislike has turned into direct antagonism, especially after the events of the 2011 miniseries, Schism, where a fight of their respective ideological differences saw them split off and lead two separate groups of X-Men. This antagonism continued through several major X-Men arcs, including Avengers vs X-Men, but it was ultimately left unresolved due to Wolverine’s death in 2014. As a result, this volume is the first time Wolverine and Cyclops have both been alive in nearly five years, and it was interesting to see the two of them finally come together again. I really enjoyed their reconciliation in this volume, especially as all it took for these two to get on the same page was two simultaneous resurrections, the complete destruction of the X-Men, one cathartic fight against a group of bigots, and a one-word greeting on the battle field.

The rest of the volume continued to build on their relationship as they work together to reform the X-Men. It is a fun return to the pre-Schism dynamic, as Wolverine once again follows Cyclops’s lead, and the two have a fun, banter-laden relationship built on mutual respect. However, Rosenberg does not ignore some of their prior conflict; rather he incorporates it into their relationship. Cyclops is fully aware that much of the X-Men’s current issues are due to his past actions, such as pushing for a more militant approach while he was the mutant leader, going to war with both the Avengers and Inhumans, and killing Professor X. As a result, he starts to rely on Logan’s opinion a lot more than some of the other X-Men, such as his brother Havok, as he knows that Wolverine won’t just agree with him if he is in the wrong again. This new era of cooperation between Cyclops and Wolverine forms a fantastic heart of this volume of Uncanny X-Men, and it was great to see these two characters back in action again after their lengthy absences.

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I rather enjoyed the artwork that was featured in Wolverine and Cyclops, and the artistic team of Larroca and the colourist Rosenberg do a good job producing an interesting art style for this volume. I personally liked the darker artistic tone quite a lot of the scenes had, which I felt reflected the tone of the series and which was also a result of the X-Men trying to remain hidden by doing their missions at night. I also liked the interesting character designs that featured in the book, as the team is forced to wear a mismatched bunch of scavenged uniforms from across the various X-Men eras, which really helped highlight the low resources and support they have. There are a number of detailed and exciting action sequences throughout the book that the artists do an amazing job bringing to life. I was particularly fond of the first major sequence, in which Cyclops and Wolverine took on the anti-mutant soldiers near the X-Mansion. It was a particularly brutal couple of pages, and I loved seeing the two main characters in action again. I also really liked the scene where Wolverine first reveals himself. The look of horror and resignation of several characters’ faces when they hear “snikt” was just beautiful. Extra art done by John McCrea and Juanan Ramirez for the two background stories, Wolverine Returns and The Last Blindfold Story, added an interesting new element to the volume, and it was cool to see their different art style in the middle of the book. Overall, this was some great artwork, and I cannot wait to see what this team produces in the future.

Wolverine and Cyclops is a bold new direction for Uncanny X-Men that I really enjoyed. With a darker universe, some interesting story directions and the return of two of the team’s most iconic characters, the X-Men have entered a brave new era, and I was glad to be there for the ride. This new creative team for Uncanny X-Men did a fantastic job reintroducing these two amazing characters, and they have proven that they have some intriguing ideas. The next volume of this series is out in October and is already one of my top comics to buy later in the year.

X-Men Red Volume 1: The Hate Machine by Tom Taylor, Mahmud Asrar and Pascal Alixe

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 18 September 2018

 

Writer Tom Taylor and his artistic team have created an excellent and thought-provoking new X-Men series that not only follows the reintroduction of one of comics’ most interesting characters to the turbulent Marvel Universe but once again examines the real world problems of hatred and prejudice.

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For years, Jean Grey’s fate has always been tied to the universe-ending Phoenix Force, the cosmic entity of rebirth and destruction that is constantly seeking the most powerful host it can find.  However, following her latest resurrection during the events of Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey, Jean has renounced the Phoenix power once and for all and is now determined to live her life on her own terms.  Still one of the most powerful mutants in the entire world, Jean Grey sets out to restore her connections and find her place in a world that has changed dramatically since her last death.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that mutants are still feared and hated by a world that doesn’t understand them.  Despite all the adventures and endeavours of Charles Xavier and his X-Men, animosity towards mutants has never been higher.  Determined to change the world for the better, the resurrected founding member of the X-Men sets out to achieve her vision for the future and change world opinion about mutants once and for all.  To do that, Jean first attempts to create a mutant nation at the UN.  But when she is framed for the murder of politician, Jean is declared a criminal and mutants are subject to greater hatred from mankind.

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Realising that someone must be behind the recent upswing in anti-mutant sentiment and determined to protect those mutants targeted by hatred, Jean forms a new team of X-Men, made up of Nightcrawler, Storm, Namor, Gambit, Gentle, Wolverine (Laura Kinney – X-23), Honey Badger (Wolverine’s adorable clone) and newcomer Trinary.  But even as Jean and her team fight to save those mutants being targeted, more hatred and attacks are occurring around the world.  The sinister Cassandra Nova is determined to wipe mutants out once and for all and views Jean Grey as the greatest threat to this goal.

Following the end of his All-New Wolverine series, Australian author Tom Taylor returns at the head of a brand new X-Men series, X-Men Red, which takes fans back to the basics of the X-Men franchise.  Volume 1 of X-Men Red is made up of issues #1-5 of this new series, as well as Annual #1.  After enjoying Taylor’s work in All-New Wolverine (check out my review here: https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/09/08/all-new-wolverine-volumes-1-6-complete-series-by-tom-taylor/), I was excited to see him continue to work with Marvel, especially as it allows him to expand on characters and story elements he introduced in his previous Marvel series.  Most of the artistic work in this new series has been produced by veteran artist Mahmud Asrar, who has significant work in DC, Image, Marvel and other publishers.  X-Men fans may be familiar with his work on All-New X-Men and Wolverine and the X-Men.  Asrar was the main artist for issues #1-5, while the work on Annual #1, which is placed at the start of the volume, was drawn by Pascal Alixe.

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It is always fun when starting a new superhero team comic book series made up of established characters to see which heroes the creative team will include in their version of the team.  Taylor has certainly chosen an intriguing and previously unseen mixture of characters for this new X-Men series, and it is interesting to see which characters he focuses on.  The central character of this new team is the newly resurrected Jean Grey, the red in the series title.  This is one of the few times we see Jean step up to lead a team, as she is no longer in the shadow of her mentors or former lovers.  Aside from Jean, the main team members are Nightcrawler, Wolverine and Honey Badger, who are featured in all the issues contained within this first volume.  It was great to see Nightcrawler given such a prominent role in the comic, and it feels like it’s been a while since he’s been such a major character within an X-Men series.  I also liked new character Trinary, who is introduced in this series and is given an interesting set of powers.  Trinary is from India, and has technopathy powers, or the ability to manipulate technology.  Introduced as a new mutant who is attempting to fight the good fight in her own way, Trinary is given a key role in the series understanding the full nature of the technological attacks of the volume’s antagonist, while also taking over a sentinel to use as the team’s new primary source of transportation.  I think this character is given a great introduction, and could have an interesting future in the Marvel universe.  Other characters, Namor, Gentile, Gambit and Storm join the team at various points in the volume, and have a slightly reduced role, appearing for some of the big team ups, with only some short introductory storylines.

I was especially happy to see Taylor transplant the main characters of his previous All-New Wolverine series, Wolverine and Honey Badger, into his next project.  As I mentioned in my previous review, this version of Wolverine, Laura Kinney, also known as X-23, has always been one of my favourite X-Men characters, so I was very happy to see her used again in this series.  She plays a similar role in this team to the original Wolverine, as the silent infiltrator and bodyguard who is loyal to the team’s leader, who in this case is Jean rather than Professor X.  Just like in All-New Wolverine, the heart and soul of this series is definitely Honey Badger, Laura’s clone, who, as well as being a full member of the team, is the series’ comic relief.  Her humorous interactions with all the other characters in the book, especially the stern and serious characters, add a good amount of levity to the book.  Having her refer to Namor as Abs-lantis, or making Gambit hurriedly justify his actions for blowing up Honey Badger by saying it was “for strategic reasons” is particularly amusing and definitely made me smile.  However, the best line in the book has to be given to Wolverine, who casually replies to Jean’s amusement about Laura’s excitement about being in an underwater city with “Being Wolverine doesn’t make me impervious to the wonder of a #$%@%$& mermaid”.

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One of the most defining things about the start of this new series is how it focused on the evolution of the character of Jean Grey.  Despite being a founding member of the X-Men, Jean’s most significant storylines have usually been about her relationships with Cyclops and Wolverine, or her connection to the Phoenix Force.  Now, after coming back to life, Jean has stepped out of these currently deceased characters’ shadows and starts her own attempt to change the world, as she is no longer content to return to her old life.  Essentially, Taylor is trying to set Jean up as the new Professor X, with her own vision for mutant kind and her determination to change the world for the better and end the current level of hatred and prejudice.  While she has her own unique style and vision, there are a lot of call backs to the original Professor X, including the standard “To me, my X-Men” saying that Professor X and other X-Men leaders utilised throughout X-Men history.  I also enjoyed seeing a Jean Grey that is no longer defined by her relationship with the Phoenix Force, especially as Jean lets it be known that the Phoenix Force was holding her back.

It was also nice to see Jean repair the relationships she previously lost with several prominent X-Men characters, as well as establishing new relationships with characters she’s never had a chance to meet before.  This is particularly prevalent in Annual #1, which starts the volume, as she reunites with her surrogate X-Men family, which is heart-warming, especially as there is a focus on her friendship with Nightcrawler, who spends the volume as her BFF.  I also really enjoyed seeing her think about her relationships with Cyclops and Wolverine.  For the first time in X-Men history, Jean is alive when Cyclops and Wolverine are both dead, and must focus on the world without the two men she’s loved.  As such, she spends time adventuring with the daughters of these two men, Rachel Grey and the new Wolverine, and meeting up with them is one of the first priorities she has returning to the world.  I liked how one of the definitive love triangles of Marvel Comics is acknowledged in this new series, even though two points of the triangle are currently dead, and the focus of Jean’s relationship with the next generation of these characters was a clever idea.  I’ll be very interested to see what relationships are explored in the future, with all sorts of different iterations or offspring of Jean and Cyclops out in the world at the moment.  It will also be very intriguing when the original Wolverine is resurrected to see what role he plays in this series, as the creative team will have to have a look at the relationships that this character has with Jean, the current Wolverine and Honey Badger, a new daughter character he’ll have to interact with.
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Since its earliest days, X-Men has always been about the fight against prejudice, as the hatred the mutant characters experience has often been seen as an analogy for social issues such as racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.  Taylor and the creative team behind X-Men Red continue this tradition of using their X-Men series to reflect social issues, in this case focusing on modern issues such as the latest rise of the extreme right-wing, intense nationalism, islamophobia, fear and concern about refugees and migrants, as well as racism.  All of these social issues are reflected in the portrayed hatred of mutants in this volume, with various elements of recent world events shown directed towards the mutant characters.  For example, you have Poland attempting to use their military to round up and detain mutants, similar to how some countries have been using their military to stop or detain refugees.  In another very unconcealed scene, rioters carrying tiki torches start attacking mutants, not considering them people, and even killing one mutant counter protestor, in events that are reminiscent of those of Charlottesville.  There is also a focus on the damage or the impact that social media and the internet can have on these events, as many of the anti-mutant events or rhetoric are contained online.  This will be very familiar to readers, as it is impossible not to see the online hatred that many anonymous people direct towards various groups around the world, and at least the one in the comic may be the result of supervillain plot.  Overall this focus on prejudice is a familiar subject to X-Men readers, and many will appreciate how the creative team have tried to bring in modern issues in this new series.  The creative team do end Volume 1 with a message of hope, with some of these antagonist people given a proper understanding of an opposing viewpoint, momentarily giving up their hatred and prejudice, and is something aspire for in the real world.

The artwork within Volume 1 of X-Men Red is just gorgeous and a real highlight of the book.  As mentioned above, Alixe does the artwork for Annual 1, while Asrar does the artwork for issues #1-5.  Both artists’ works are visually distinctive and give the reader something different when it comes to character design, displays of power and fight sequences.  Asrar in particular does some gorgeous backdrops and landscapes, as the stories he is illustrating see the characters go to all sorts of locations, including India, underwater cities and Wakanda.  There are a lot of well-drawn action scenes throughout this volume, although I found the final pages of issue #1 to be some of the most powerfully drawn in the entire volume.  Not only is there a somewhat graphic scene for a Marvel comic but the final panel shows the look of despair on the main characters as the volume’s antagonist makes her first move.  The artistic team of X-Men Red have outdone themselves in this first volume, creating some superbly drawn artworks that are catch the eye and the imagination.

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X-Men Red takes this new version of this iconic superhero team back to the sort of storylines that made the X-Men such a smash hit in the first place.  With a resurrected Jean Grey taking the lead, Australian author Tom Taylor and his creative team have cleverly brought current social issues to the forefront of their new series while also doing some superb character work, including redefining one of the original X-Men.  This is a great start to an amazing new comic series and a fantastic read for fans of the X-Men franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars