The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence

The Girl and the Stars 2

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 20 April 2020)

Series: Book of the Ice – Book One

Length: 473 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of fantasy and science fiction superstar Mark Lawrence comes The Girl and the Stars, a superb and endlessly fascinating novel which takes the reader on an epic adventure in a unique new setting.

Mark Lawrence is a science fiction and fantasy fiction author who burst onto the scene in 2011 with his debut novel, Prince of Thorns. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, having written several additional books across four intriguing series, all of which have received a lot of attention and praise. Indeed, when some of his latest novels were released (Grey Sister and Holy Sister in particular), you couldn’t escape reviews of his books even if you tried, as every single review site I followed seem to have some commentary about how much they enjoyed them. Despite seeing all this online praise about his work, I have not actually read any of Lawrence’s previous novels. This is not because his books do not interest me; quite the opposite! I actually consider this inadvertent exclusion of his work to be a major hole in my fantasy/science fiction knowledge. However, I just never seem to be able to fit his books into my reading schedule, even after I featured The Broken Empire series on my Top Ten Series I Want to Get Into list. So when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Lawrence’s new book, The Girl and the Stars, I thought that I would take the opportunity to finally read something from this author, and I ended up getting really sucked into this cool and clever novel.

This book is set on the planet Abeth, a dying world that is slowly being frozen over by vast sheets of ice. Despite the cruel and harsh conditions, several human tribes exist out on the ice, scraping a living and managing to survive. However, there is no tolerance of variation or differences out on the ice, and only those people who are whole and normal are considered capable of living their lives out in the cold. For the rest, there is the Pit of the Missing, a vast and gaping black chasm that burrows deep into the ice and the earth from which no one has ever returned.

Every several years, the various tribes living on the ice gather around the Pit, and their children are inspected by the regulators. If a child is normal, they are returned to their parents and allowed to live their lives, but if a child is shown to be different, either because they are weak or they are in the process of developing unique abilities that may cause them to burn out faster on the ice, they are thrown into the Pit in what is considered a mercy killing.

Yaz has always known that she is weaker and not as resilient as the fellow members of her tribe, but she is able to survive thanks to a source of power only she can access. Prepared to be pushed into the Pit, Yaz is instead chosen by the regulators to be taken to their fortress and trained. However, when the regulator pushes her little brother down into the pit, Yaz does not hesitate before diving in after him.

Against all the odds, Yaz survives and finds herself in a strange and wonderful new world under the ice, illuminated the powerful gems, or stars, that provide heat and light deep beneath the surface. As Yaz explores the vast underground labyrinth, she discovers that the other children thrown into the pit over the years have survived and formed their own society. But as Yas searches for her brother, she soon discovers that life underground is not as the utopia it seems. Many dark and terrible things lurk under the ice, determined to claim the bodies and souls of those people it encounters. But Yaz is different; her power seems to affect the star-like gems surrounding her and may prove to be the tool needed to free those people trapped in the darkness. But Yaz’s potential has been noticed, and soon everyone is fighting to get their hands on her power, which can flip the war being fought beneath the surface. Can Yaz save her brother and escape the darkness of the Pit, or is she doomed to be consumed by the conflict?

The Girl and the Stars is a clever and addictive novel from Lawrence that serves as the first entry in his brand new Book of the Ice series. This latest book is set in the same world as the author’s bestselling Book of the Ancestor series and focuses on a new group of protagonists in a unique and compelling setting. Featuring a unique blend of fantasy and science fiction elements, The Girl and the Stars contains an elaborate and epic narrative. Lawrence once again excels at drawing the reader into his novel with the compelling story of a young woman discovering her powers in a strange world. Told with a deeply detailed writing style which forces the reader to absorb and enjoy every word of this epic book, The Girl and the Stars was an incredible novel, and I had an outstanding time reading it.

At the heart of this intriguing book is a compelling and sophisticated adventure story that sees the protagonist encounter all the dangers that live underneath the ice, whilst finding her own inner strength and resolve. This story, which at times reads a bit like a young adult narrative, turns intense rather quickly, as within the first 25 pages the protagonist has already jumped into the unknown to save her brother. What follows is a non-stop thrill ride which sees Yaz encounter a huge raft of crazy characters and strange horrors underneath the ice. The story continues a brisk and exciting pace, as the protagonist jumps from one situation to the next with intriguing plot developments every couple of pages. There are some big set pieces, plenty of daunting opponents, cunning intrigues and manipulations, fun side characters and a fast-paced storyline, all of which come together to produce a really captivating and exciting read, topped off with a shocking cliffhanger of a conclusion. Lawrence sets up a number of intriguing plot points for the future entries in this series, and I am rather curious to see what happens in the next book, and what adventures the protagonist will find herself on next.

The major highlight of this book has to be the incredibly inventive and intricate settings that Lawrence produced. The Girl and the Stars actually has two really cool settings in which the characters find themselves. The first is the wild ice fields of Abeth, a harsh and unforgiving landscape populated by hardy and practical tribes of humans, who are controlled by a wise and manipulative priesthood. Lawrence does an incredible job of introducing the reader to this setting in the first chapter, making it sound like a fun and intriguing location for the book. However, the second chapter sees the protagonist go into the Pit of the Missing, which takes her to a different world under the ice. This new landscape underneath the pit is far more complex and imaginative than the great ice setting at the start of the novel, filled with a huge collection of different landscapes, from icy caverns, fields of fungi, labyrinthine structures, ancient alien cities and areas of darkness. Into these clever locations, Lawrence installs a number of different groups, factions and monsters, which the protagonist needs to understand or avoid if she is going to survive. The sheer number of features and settings proves to be extremely beneficial to the story, as the reader is left wondering what new obstacle or ally the protagonist is going to meet next. I also rather enjoyed how Lawrence blended together fantasy and science fiction elements throughout the course of the book, with the characters tapping into seemingly magical abilities to survive, and with their major opponents appearing to be demons. However, there is a more scientific explanation to these abilities and antagonists that ties into the origins of the planet and its previous inhabitants. There are also a variety of pure science fiction elements, including mechanical monstrosities, sentient cities and ancient technology. All of these elements, whether they appear more fantasy or science fiction based, prove to be really fascinating, and I quite enjoyed seeing how they played into the book. Overall, this was a really unique and memorable setting, and I loved how the author cleverly wove his compelling story throughout it, allowing it to enhance the narrative with its inventive and distinctive elements.

I have to admit that I was initially a little hesitant when it came to reading The Girl and the Stars, mainly because it was connected to Lawrence’s previous series, which I have not read. From what I have heard, the Book of the Ancestor series contains quite an elaborate narrative and setting, and I was worried that my lack of knowledge about the previous books would impact my understanding of the plot of The Girl and the Stars. However, once I dived into this book’s compelling story my fears proved to be rather unfounded, as I had no trouble following the plot or understanding the unique elements. No prior knowledge of any of Lawrence’s previous books is needed, especially as the story follows a brand new protagonist who has no idea of the events of the Book of the Ancestor’s novels, and who herself needs a crash course in the planet’s history, the varied physiology of the humans who inhibit it and other integral plot elements. As a result, this is an extremely accessible book for readers unfamiliar with Lawrence’s work, and, based on my experiences, I would say that it is a good introduction the author’s writing style and wild imagination

That said, I could tell that The Girl and the Stars is also going to be extremely appealing to fans of the Book of the Ancestor’s series, who will no doubt appreciate the similarities this novel has to Lawrence’s previous work, following a young female protagonist who is new to her power through this unique world. While I did not personally understand the significance of them, this book was obviously chock full of references and world-building knowledge that people who are familiar with the previous books are going to really appreciate and find intriguing. I do have to admit that I was bit uncertain about when The Girl and the Stars occurred in relation to the Book of the Ancestors series, and I really have no idea about whether this book is a prequel, sequel or is running concurrently to the previous books. While this did not impact my enjoyment of The Girl and the Stars in any way whatsoever, I did feel that this is something that Lawrence could have made a little clearer for new readers, especially if there are some connections between this series and the previous books is revealed later in the trilogy. Overall, I would definitely recommend this new entry from Lawrence to any science fiction and fantasy fans, whether they are established readers of the author or new readers looking for something interesting to check out.

I also have to spend a little bit of time highlighting the amazing and eye-catching cover my copy of The Girl and the Stars had (see above). While the alternative cover (see below) was also cool, I really loved the cover that my edition had, which was done by artist Jason Chan. Chan, who has done work for several Lawrence’s previous novels, did a fantastic job with this artwork, producing a cover that is striking and which perfectly reflects the unique setting that the book’s protagonist finds herself in. I absolutely loved it the first time I saw it, and this appreciation only grew once I started reading The Girl and the Stars and fully understood what Chan is portraying. This is an excellent bit of artwork, and it is one of my favourite pieces of cover art I have seen so far this year.

The Girl and the Stars is an exceedingly inventive and exceptionally exciting novel that expertly blends together fantasy and science fiction elements to create a widely entertaining and compelling read. I absolutely loved the unique and imaginative setting that Lawrence came up with for this book, and it proved to be a fantastic background to the novel’s enjoyable story. This was easily one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020, and it has become clear to me that I must read more of Lawrence’s books in the future. Highly recommended.

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The Russian by Ben Coes

The Russian Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 30 July 2019)

Series: Rob Tacoma – Book One

Lenght: 9 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thriller author Ben Coes returns to the world of his Dewey Andreas series with The Russian, the first book in spinoff series which sets the CIA against the Russian mafia in a violent conflagration.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, some of the most dangerous and ruthless criminals from Russia emigrated to the United States in order to take advantage of the unique opportunities available there. This led to the creation of the Russian mafia, a group whose capacity for violence, murder and collateral damage knows no bounds. The Russian mafia are now the most effective and feared criminal organisation in the world, and conventional law enforcement seems unable to stop them. However, after elements of the Russian mafia organise the brutal assassination of two prominent American politicians, the President of the United States has had enough. Utilising a top-secret piece of legislation, the President authorises the CIA to run a small kill team on US soil. Their mission: kill those responsible for the assassinations while also taking down the Russian mafia by any means necessary.

Tasked with pulling together an elite two-man kill team to undertake this dangerous mission, the director of the CIA knows that his first recruit needs to be Rob Tacoma. Tacoma is one of the best killers the CIA ever produced, an operative without peer who is able to think on his feet and adapt to any situation. Tacoma is the perfect man for this dangerous and secretive job, especially as he already bears a hefty grudge against the Russian. However, this assignment begins poorly when Tacoma finds his new partner murdered by mafia hitmen before he even officially joins the team. The Russians already know what his mission is, and with his identity exposed, Tacoma is now being hunted by the entire Russian mafia. Can even this legendary CIA operative survive against a criminal army without rules, conscious or limits?

The Russian is the first book in the new Rob Tacoma series of thriller books. The Rob Tacoma books are a spinoff of Coes’s Dewey Andreas series, which ran between 2010 and 2018, featuring eight novels. Rob Tacoma was a popular supporting character in the Dewey Andreas books, and it’s interesting to see him getting his own adventures. I have had my eye on The Russian for a little while now due to its awesome-sounding plot, and I really wanted to read it last year when it first came out but I didn’t get a chance. As a result, when I was in the mood for an exciting thriller, The Russian was at the top of my list of books to check out. I ended up really enjoying The Russian as it has a fun, fast-paced story with a lot of action that I was able to power through in a very short period of time.

This new book from Coes features a rather intriguing plot idea of a CIA agent, and by extension the CIA, going to war with an organised crime group, the Russian mafia. I really loved this concept and I think that Coes did a wonderful job expanding it out into a thrilling and enjoyable story. The start of the book is set out perfectly, with the event that shows off the notoriety of the Russian mafia and prompts the President to set the CIA on them, presenting the reader with a pretty compelling start to the book. I appreciated the author taking the time to explore how the CIA were allowed to operate on US soil, and the explanation for this was a really cool plot element. I also loved the quick jump into the next part of the book, which saw Tacoma fall headfirst into trouble when the Russians find out who he and his partner are and send hitmen after him. From there you have a great, fast-paced story, as Tacoma works his way up the food chain of the Russian mafia to the very top. Coes does a fantastic job introducing the Russian mafia and setting them up as major antagonists. Not only does he examine the history of the mafia but he also explores the background of several of the major antagonists in the book, presenting them as real threats.

Among the highlights of this book were the awesome action sequences that Coes inserts throughout the story. In his attempts to take down the Russians, Tacoma engages in a number of gun fights and covert infiltrations to find and kill his targets. Each of these is a lot of fun to see unfold, and there are some really impressive sequences throughout this book. My personal highlight was an extended sequence in an airport, where Tacoma, in the midst of a busy crowd of civilians, must take down a team of assassins who are gunning for him. There were also several great and brutal scenes involving close-combat fighting, including some knockdown brawls between competing Russian gangsters, which of course Tacoma eventually gets caught right in the middle of. Needless to say, there is plenty in this book to keep those action junkies happy, and it I found it to be an enjoyable part of the book. However, readers should be warned that there are several gruesome torture scenes in this novel, which are probably not everyone’s cup of tea.

I felt that The Russian was an excellent introduction into a new major series for Coes, and I liked how he was able to change the direction of his antagonists away from more usual spy thriller targets and towards organised crime. While the author is moving in a new story direction, The Russian is strongly associated with the Dewey Andreas universe. There are a ton of references to the events that occurred in the previous books, and a number of characters from this original series are included, such as the titular Dewey Andreas. Coes does a great job of introducing all the relevant character backgrounds and previous plot events that the reader needs to know, and absolutely no knowledge of these prior books is required to enjoy The Russian. Still, fans of the original Dewey Andreas books will no doubt enjoy seeing how the universe has progressed, especially as The Russian includes a range of different characters from the previous book.

While I did really enjoy the story that Coes pulled together in The Russian, I did find that it was occasionally let down by elements of the author’s writing style. In my opinion, a bunch of plot points were repeated unnecessarily throughout the book and there were several inconsistencies in the book’s timing and characters that stood out to me. In addition, I had issues with some parts of the dialogue, which I found to be a bit unnatural in places. The above issues occasionally broke up the flow of the story for me and they were a bit discordant. However, I still really enjoyed this book, and I felt that the amazing and action-packed story really overcame some of these technical issues. That said, I did find that some of the book’s major twists were a tad easy to predict, especially the last one, which was tied into the background of Tacoma’s character and revisited several times by a bunch of different characters.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Russian, which was narrated by Ari Fliakos, who has previously narrated one of the books in the Dewey Andreas series. The Russian is a relatively short audiobook which ran for 9 hours and 20 minutes. I quite liked the audiobook format of this novel, especially as it allowed me to get through the book really quickly. Fliakos is a pretty good narrator, and he was able to produce a number of excellent voices for the characters, giving many of them passable Russian accents. I did think that listening to The Russian on audiobook made several of the dialogue issues I discussed above stand out a little more, but overall this was a fantastic format on which to enjoy this book.

Overall, The Russian by Ben Coes is a fun and exciting read that I had an amazing time listening to. Coes has done a wonderful job spinning this book off from his previous series, and I really enjoyed the compelling and action-packed story that he came up with. At this point in time, I am planning to read the next book in the Rob Tacoma series when it comes out, and I am looking forward to seeing where this compelling series goes next.

Just Watch Me by Jeff Lindsay

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Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 10 December 2019)

Series: Riley Wolfe series – Book One

Length: 358 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the world’s most popular thriller authors, Jeff Lindsay, comes Just Watch Me, an electrifying heist novel that pits an intriguing new protagonist against impossible odds.

Prepare to meet Riley Wolfe, the world’s greatest thief. Wolfe is a master of disguise, an expert con artist and a true devotee of the ridiculous heist. There is nothing he can’t steal, and he lives to target the super-rich with his capers in order to make them suffer. However, Wolfe is starting to get bored. His last few heists have gone off without a hitch and he is looking for a challenge. But his new target might be truly impossible to steal, even for him.

Wolfe has his eyes on some of the most impressive treasures in the world, the Crown Jewels of Iran, and in particular the Daryayeh-E-Noor, a gigantic pink diamond that is valued beyond compare. With the jewels finally out of Iran and in New York for a tour, Wolfe knows that this is the time to steal them. They have been placed within the most secure gallery in the country, which utilises impenetrable security systems, state-of-the-art alarms and a small army of former special forces soldiers acting as guards. In addition, a regiment of the lethal Iranian Revolutionary Guard are also standing watch, ready to kill anyone who gets too close. With these security measures in place, the jewels appear to be beyond the reach of any potential thieves, no matter how careful or elaborate their plan may be, and anyone who tries is going to end up dead. However, Wolfe is no ordinary thief, and he has come up with a cunning scheme that no one else would have ever thought of. If all his planning succeeds, he will have an opportunity to make off with the jewels. But with all manner of complications in front of him and a determined FBI agent hunting down his past, can even the great Riley Wolfe succeed, or will his most daring heist be his last?

When I first saw that Jeff Lindsay was doing a heist novel, I knew that I was going to have to grab a copy of it. Lindsay is a bestselling thriller author who debuted in 1994 with the novel Tropical Depression. Lindsay is of course best known for his Dexter series, which was adapted into a highly popular television series. While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Lindsay’s work prior to this book, I did really enjoy the first few seasons of the Dexter television show, so I was really interested in seeing the author’s take on a heist novel. I am really glad that I checked Just Watch Me out as Lindsay has produced a deeply compelling and exceedingly fun novel that not only contains a really cool heist story, but which also features another complex protagonist for the reader to sink their teeth into.

First of all, let’s talk heists. For Just Watch Me, Lindsay came up with a very interesting heist scenario which sees one man try to break into a massively secure gallery guarded by some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, as well as some of the deadliest killers. The story follows Wolfe as he attempts to find some way into the building that everyone agrees in impenetrable, and while he initially encounters major setbacks, he eventually comes up with an audacious plan to get in. This plan is very bold and complicated, and involves a lot of manipulation, disguises, seduction, confidence work, forgeries, doublecrosses and even a couple of well-placed murders. All of this comes together into one fun and exciting conclusion which sees everyone understand the full extent of the plan. Lindsay paces out all the parts of the heist extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the entire thing unfolded, especially as it was a cool, roundabout way to attempt to steal something from a gallery. The heist proves to be an exceptional centre to the whole narrative, and I really enjoyed seeing how this part of the book progressed.

I also liked the way that Lindsay utilised multiple viewpoints to tell this story. While several chapters are told from the protagonist’s point of view using the first-person perspective, a large amount of the book is actually told from the perspective of the book’s side characters. These side characters include a range of different people, such as Wolfe’s allies, the people he is trying to manipulate, the FBI agent hunting him and even several bystanders who are caught up in the whole heist. All of these different viewpoints help to show off the various angles of the heist, which I felt helped enhance this part of the story. It was also really cool to see how normal people, including police officers, guards, gallery employees and some of his marks, perceive the various disguises he comes up with or the confidence tricks that he is pulling. I loved seeing this outside perspective of Wolfe’s criminal techniques, and it was a great way to portray a large amount of the heist.

While the heist is a really amazing part of this book, one of the most compelling parts of Just Watch Me is actually its protagonist, Riley Wolfe. Lindsay obviously has a lot of experience writing complex and intriguing protagonists for his thrillers, and he has done an amazing job creating another one here in Wolfe. Wolfe is a master thief whose defining characteristic is an overwhelming compulsion to steal from the mega-rich, especially those who obtained their wealth by screwing over the little people in the world. Wolfe is absolutely obsessed with his crusade against the rich due to his experiences as a child, and this obsession forces him to complete his heists no matter the cost. The author spends quite a bit of time exploring Wolfe’s hatred for the rich, and it is quite fascinating to see his internal thoughts on why he is stealing from them. The reader also gets to see some of the events from the character’s childhood which form the basis for this obsession. Ironically enough, the reason we get to learn so much about Wolfe’s childhood is because one of the book’s antagonists, FBI Special Agent Frank Delgado, becomes so obsessed with learning more about him that he briefly leaves the FBI in an attempt to hunt him down (obsession is a key element of several of the book’s main characters). Delgado spends several scenes scouring the country trying to find out Wolfe’s history, which is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book. I really enjoyed that Lindsay included this dive into the character’s past, and I felt that it really complemented the main heist storyline and helped to create a fantastic overall narrative, especially as this investigation into his history, represents the biggest risk to Wolfe’s freedom.

Now, as Wolfe steals from the richest of the rich, it might be easy to assume that he’s a good guy or an anti-hero you can cheer on, but that is really not true. Not only does this protagonist come across as an excessively arrogant person who is high on himself, but he also does a ton of stuff that is totally morally wrong. For example, throughout the course of the book, Wolfe commits several murders, frames people for crimes they did not commit and totally ruins a number of people’s lives. While some of these people probably deserve to suffer at the hands of Wolfe, a bunch really did nothing wrong; they were either born into money, in his way, or merely collateral damage. In one case, he even spends time thinking about how much he respects one of his victims right before he arranges for her to be arrested for art fraud. What’s even worse is that, in many cases, Wolfe doesn’t even realise that he’s done something wrong. While he knows that he maybe should not have committed some of the murders, he totally fails to think of the emotional consequences some of his cons or manipulations will have on the people he is playing. He is even called out about some of his actions towards the end of the book by his only friend; however, he completely fails to see her point of view. Instead he merely thinks that she is overreacting and goes right back to plotting to get into her pants. Stuff like this makes Wolfe a very hard protagonist to like, and even the knowledge that his actions and viewpoint are the result of a messed-up childhood doesn’t really help. It does result in a much more compelling story though, and it was refreshing to follow a morally ambiguous protagonist. I will be interested to see if Lindsay will examine the impacts Wolfe’s actions had on some of the supporting characters in a later book, and I personally would love to see a story where one of his incidental victims attempts to hunt him down to get revenge for their ruined lives.

I have to say that I was also really impressed with all the discussions of art, paintings and other valuables that the author was able to fit into the story. Lindsay obviously did a large amount of research into the subject (his acknowledgements mention an art professor he consulted) and it was interesting to read the various discussions about art and art forgery. I have to admit that I have no real knowledge of or appreciation for art (except comic book art), but I really enjoyed all the discussions about art style and technique that were peppered throughout the novel. Overall, this was a pretty intriguing inclusion in the book, and I found it to be quite fascinating at times.

In conclusion, Just Watch Me is an amazing fast-paced heist thriller that is really worth checking out. Lindsay has come up with not only an awesome scenario that features a fun heist at the centre but also another complex and morally corrupted protagonist whose inner demons and powerful obsessions we get to explore. I really enjoyed this excellent new book from Lindsay, and I am definitely planning to grab any future novels that come out in this series.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

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Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: Legacy trilogy – Book 1

Length: 768 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive new author Matthew Ward comes Legacy of Ash, a massive and entertaining new fantasy adventure that was amongst one of my favourite debut novels of 2019.

Legacy of Ash is set within the Tressian Republic, a powerful nation controlled by a council of nobles. The Tressian Republic is beset by many dangers, including the constant threat of invasion from the massive Hadari Empire on its border; open rebellion from the nation’s southernmost lands, the Southshires, which have been seeking independence for years; and the machinations of the dark magic-wielding criminal organisation known as the Crowmarket.

When the Hadari Empire invades the Southshires, the political ambitions and old grudges of the Tressian Council results in a muted military response. It falls to Viktor Akadra, the champion of the Tressian Republic, to lead a small force to the Southshires in order to make a stand against the invaders. However, Viktor is the last person the inhabitants of the Southshires want defending them, as years before he brutally put down their last rebellion, which resulted in the death of their beloved Duchess Katya Trelan.

In order to defeat the Hadari Empire, Viktor needs to work with the children of Katya Trelan, Josiri and Calenne, both of whom hate and fear him, and who both have different plans to ensure their future freedom. However, as fate, self-interest and the future of the Southshires forces them together, these three must find a common ground if they are to survive. But even if they manage to face the forces of the Hadari Empire, far darker threats are assailing the Tressian Republic from within and they will stop at nothing to achieve their terrible goals.

Ward is an interesting new author who is probably best known for his work with Games Workshop, where he served as a principal architect for the company on many of their properties, including Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and their The Lord of the Rings range. However, in recent years he has turned his hand to fantasy writing, creating several novellas and short stories, as well as releasing two ebooks, Shadow of the Raven and Light of the Radiant. Legacy of Ash is Ward’s first printed novel, and it is actually set in the same universe as his previous ebooks. It is also the first book in his planned Legacy trilogy, with the second book in the trilogy, Legacy of Steel, set for release later this year.

Legacy of Ash is an excellent new read which contains an exciting and elaborate story, set in a large and creative new world and featuring a substantial group of point-of-view characters. I have actually been looking forward to Legacy of Ash for a while, as it sounded like one of the more exciting new fantasy books that were set for release in 2019, and I am very glad I got a chance to read and review it. However, readers should probably be aware in advance that this book is nearly 800 pages in length, making it a pretty substantial read, and requiring a significant investment of time in finishing it off. This took me a couple of weeks to read in full, mainly because Legacy of Ash would actually come in at number 12 on my recent Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list. That being said, Legacy of Ash is well worth the time, as this was an amazing and fascinating new fantasy adventure.

Ward has come up with a large and impressive story for his first book, and there is a lot going on within it. The story actually splits up into two separate locations within the Tressian Republic, with half of it set down in the Southshires and the other half set up in the capital of the Republic, Tressia (with small parts also set in a couple of locations in between or within the Hadari Empire). The parts of the book set down in the Southshires deal with the impending invasion of the Hadari, the repression of the Southshire inhabitants by the Tressian council and the attempts by Viktor to work with both of the Trelan siblings. At the same time, the parts of the book set up in Tressia contains a lot of political intrigue, criminal undertakings, dark magical plans and gambits for control of the nation. Both sets of storylines are a lot of fun, and it was really amazing to see all the various story elements occurring at the same time in the different locations. In addition, these two storylines are strongly related to each other, with events happening in one location impacting characters down in the other part of the Republic. All of these story elements and character arcs come together to form an extremely compelling overarching narrative and I quite enjoyed how Legacy of Ash contained such a wide range of different plot points.

Legacy of Ash is populated with a multiple point-of-view characters from whose eyes we see this whole massive story unfold. The use of all these characters allows for a much richer and expansive story, especially as you get to see every side of all various character’s plots and plans as everyone attempts to come out on top of the events unfolding around them. In addition, nearly all of the point-of-view characters have some incredibly captivating and enjoyable character arcs, many of which reach their full potential within this book. There are such an interesting range of different character based stories going on throughout Legacy of Ash, from the mysterious divine magic that starts to infect the honourable knight Roslava Orova, the machinations and manipulations of Ebigail Kiradin, the chaotic adventures of Crowmarket member Apara Rann and the fun friendship that forms between old opponents Kurkas and Halvor. However, the main elements of character development occur around the book’s three central characters, Viktor Akadra, Josiri Trelan and Calenne Trelan. Due to history, resentments and circumstances, these three characters start the book with fairly distant or hostile relationships to each other. However, these barriers are slowly broken down as the book progresses, and each of these main characters slowly works to come to terms with each other and their own individual issues, such as Viktor’s hidden dark magic, or the expectations or resentments that surround Trelan siblings thanks to their long-dead mother. Overall, this is some fairly impressive character work, and Ward did an excellent job creating a fantastic cast for this novel, each of whom add a whole lot to book’s story.

While I did enjoy how this novel progressed and all the interesting story points and character inclusions that were featured, I do feel it was a perhaps a little too long. In particular, I really think that Ward would have been better off not featuring the book’s final antagonist (a long-dead magical queen), who starts to appear around two thirds of the way through the book. Instead, the author could have perhaps only hinted at her return and shaved off most of the final 100 pages. Not only would this make Legacy of Ash a bit more of a manageable read, but it would have allowed the author to expand on this antagonist’s motivations and history a lot more in the subsequent book, rather than having her introduction be somewhat rushed, like it was in this book. Still, the inclusion of this final antagonist led to some rather intriguing and emotional moments, and it also sets up some potentially fantastic story arcs for one of the main characters in the next book in the series.

I also need to say how impressed with the massive and complex new fantasy landscape that Ward created for his debut series. Ward has come up with a number of unique and enjoyable elements for this fantasy world, which really add a lot to the story. The central location of the Tressian Republic was a lot of fun, as it is filled with all manner of perils, conflicting ideals, fermenting hatreds and a hidden death-worshipping criminal organisation, while also featuring a number of external or divine groups or threats at the same time. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all of these unique elements throughout the book, and I was never too lost or confused by any of the inclusions.

I also really enjoyed the huge number of battle sequences that took place throughout this harsh fantasy landscape, especially those which were enhanced by the series’ unique fantasy inclusions. For example, one massive sequence featured two armies, one with magical constructs and the other with armoured rhinos, facing off against each other as strange and divine magics rain down chaos all around them. Other scenes include a number of different characters attempting to combat the eldritch-enhanced assassins of the mysterious Crowmarket, often resulting in some really impressive battles. I also liked how Ward utilised the multiple point-of-view characters during some of these longer conflicts, ensuring that the reader got to see both sides of the battle, as well as the various thoughts and fears of the characters involved. All of this ensured that the book was chocked full of intense and exciting fantasy action, which is always a plus in my book.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward was an extremely well-written and addictive fantasy debut, which I am very glad I made the effort to read cover-to-cover. Full of some excellent characters, a multi-faceted story and an intriguing new fantasy landscape, the first book in the Legacy trilogy was a really great read, and I had a lot of fun getting through it. Ward has a lot of potential as a fantasy author, and I am quite excited to see where this series goes next.

The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 24 September 2019)

Series: The Tide Child – Book One

Length: 17 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the brightest new stars in fantasy fiction, R. J. Barker, comes The Bone Ships, a remarkable and extremely captivating new adventure that can be described as Gaunt’s Ghosts meets Moby Dick in an incredibly inventive new fantasy world.

Barker has been making some serious waves in the fantasy genre over the last couple of years, ever since bursting onto the scene in 2017 with his debut novel, Age of Assassins, which started The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. He quickly followed this up in 2018, when he released the second and third books in this trilogy, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. I absolutely loved all three books in this trilogy, although I haven’t yet reviewed King of Assassins. Spoiler: it does get five out of five stars from me and recently made my Top Ten pre-2019 Books list.

As a result, I was very excited earlier in the year when I found out that Barker was writing a whole new series. The Bone Ships is the first book in The Tide Child series, and it has been pretty high up on my to-read list for a while, as I have featured it on both my Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases and my Top Ten Books I Would Like to Read by the End of 2019 lists. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Bone Ships, narrated by Jude Owusu, and what I found was an excellent and inventive fantasy read that might just be one of my favourite books of 2019.

For generations the rival nations of the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands have been fighting each other for dominance of the vast oceans that make up their world. In order to fight this bitter conflict, great ships of war were constructed using the bones of the giant sea dragons, the arakeesian, as only these boneships could withstand the rigours of battle and all the horrors the seas contain. However, years of warfare and shipbuilding has taken a terrible toll, as the arakeesian are now all extinct, and both sides’ supplies of dragon bone are nearing their end.

Of all the remaining boneships in the Hundred Isles fleet, none are considered lower than a black ship. Black ships are ships of the dead, where every crewmember aboard has been condemned to die in shame, unless they can redeem themselves through some great act of bravery. However, the crew of the black ship Tide Child have no intention of performing any acts of bravery, and they and their shipwife, Joron Twiner, are content to drink themselves into oblivion—that is, until the arrival of “Lucky” Meas Gillbryn.

Meas is one of the most respected and feared commanders in all the Hundred Isles, but she has recently been disgraced and banished to Tide Child. Quickly taking control of the ship from Joron, Meas works to turn Tide Child and its crew around and make it into an efficient and proud crew of sailors, because they have a dangerous mission to undertake. The first sea dragon in a generation has been spotted, and whichever side hunts it down and claims its bones will gain a distinct advantage in the war. However, Meas has a different plan in mind, and sets out to protect the dragon from all who want it. Facing off against rival ships, raiders, pirates and treachery from within, can the crew of Tide Child survive to become the stuff of legend, or will their death sentence finally be carried out?

Well damn! Now that was a pretty awesome read! This latest offering from Barker was a superb and elaborate tale of redemption, adversity, camaraderie and adventure on the high seas. Not only is it based on an inventive premise and an elaborate new fantasy world but it contains a first-rate and compelling story that I absolutely loved. This is an absolutely fantastic story which is paced out extremely well and, after the necessary introductions, quickly turns into an addictive yarn with a number of clever elements to it. The end result is a powerful and enjoyable tale which is a wonderful self-contained story but which also sets up some intriguing storylines for any future instalments of this new series.

At the heart of The Bone Ships is an excellent story of camaraderie, respect and selfish people coming together to be part of something bigger. The main setting for the book, the boneship Tide Child, is completely crewed by condemned men and women, most of whom have given up on any form of redemption and are more concerned with petty crime and getting drunk. However, when Meas enters the picture, she quickly turns them into an efficient crew and reignites their pride as sailors and soldiers for their nation. This evolves into a really good redemption arc, as the entire crew really starts to come together as a close-knit team and are eventually given a task which could make them all heroes. The vast majority of the crew subsequently rise to the challenge, so much so that their usually hard-as-nails and determined shipwife is at one point willing to sacrifice everything to save them. This is a pretty fun and amazing part of the story, and it helps that Barker spends time introducing a number of key members of the crew and building them up as likeable characters. There are quite a few fantastic and enjoyable characters scattered throughout the story, and their inclusion really helps the reader grow to care about the people on the ship.

The best character relationship in the book can be seen between the two main characters, Joron Twiner and Meas. Joron is book’s point-of-view character and starts the story off as a drunken, apathetic wreck. Upon losing the position of shipwife to Meas, he expects to be placed at the bottom of the ship’s pecking order, but Meas keeps him on as her deckkeeper (first mate), despite her evident low opinion of him. Throughout the course of the book, these two characters grow closer and eventually become something closer to friends, while at the same time they both show considerable growth as characters. Meas spends a lot of time mentoring Joron, and he slowly moves on from his personal despair to become a respected and capable officer on the ship. Moreover, Joron slowly begins to lose the resentment he holds for Meas for taking his position as shipwife, and starts to really respect her, and see why she is a better commander of the ship. At the same time, Joron also starts to better understand what drives Meas, and why she is so determined to succeed in her mission. The two make for a wonderful partnership, and I think that Barker did a particularly fantastic job with the character of Meas, and I loved his portrayal of her as a rough, tough captain with a secret heart of gold.

While all the character elements I mention above are pretty spectacular, to my mind, one of the most striking and enjoyable things about The Bone Ships is the excellent nautical elements that the author was able to work into the story. I have to say that I was very impressed that Barker, whose previous series was set entirely on land, was able to come up with a detailed and exciting story set mostly aboard a ship, especially as he was utilising these elements for the first time in this book. The author installs a huge amount of nautical detail into his story, and the depictions of life and work aboard a ship of war was pretty amazing, so much so that at times, the reader feels like they are actually aboard this ship. I felt that Barker did an amazing job of combining these cool nautical details with the new fantasy elements he introduced in this book to produce a truly unique adventure on the high seas. I also loved all the shipboard action and combat that occurred throughout the course of the book. There were some really elaborate battles set throughout the story, from an attack on the Tide Child from a flotilla of smaller boats, to a wide-ranging battle between opposing groups of larger ships. The utilisation of unique tactics and fantasy elements, such as powerful crossbows, wind magic and the fact that they are fighting above a giant sea dragon, make for some truly thrilling and exciting battle sequences, which were an absolute treat to read. I am so glad that Barker decided to set this story on the open seas, as it made for truly amazing novel.

One of the other things that I liked about The Bone Ships was the excellent new dark fantasy world that Barker created for this new series. Barker has a real talent for this, as seen in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and he did it again for this latest book, where the reader is given a fascinating glimpse into a large, ocean dominated world, with all manner of unique fantasy elements in it. This new world is a harsh and deadly place, filled with a huge number of deadly sea beasts that can kill a man in a number of gruesome ways. Into this, Barker also introduces a fun new ship-based culture, complete with a matriarchal society, an intriguing religion and enslaved wind-controlling bird-people. In addition, the two nations that are showcased in this first book are locked in a massive, generations-old conflict, which has completely consumed their societies. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all the elements of his new world to the reader in a timely and complete manner, and there was never any deficit of knowledge that reduces the reader’s enjoyment of the book. There are so many tiny details that Barker installs in this world, such as the use of paint for good luck, the rarity of metals (island nations, not much room for mines) and the gender bending of ship names and titles (ships are thought of as male, while the captain is called shipwife, no matter their actual gender). All of this, as well as the cool new fantasy elements that Barker comes up with for the story, such as the giant sea-dragons whose bones are used for shipbuilding (what a concept!), make for an exceedingly fascinating background for this fun story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version The Bone Ships, narrated by the talented Jude Owusu. It ran for just over 17 hours in length, which I was able to power through extremely quickly, especially once the story really got going. I have to say that I was really glad that I decided to utilise the audiobook format, as I felt that it helped me visualise all the cool action and excitement that was occurring aboard Tide Child. In addition, I always find that the audiobook format helps me appreciate all the details of a story’s universe, and this was definitely true for The Bone Ships, as I was really able to dive in and fully experience the great new fantasy world in all its glory.

I also have to say how impressed I was with Jude Owusu’s excellent narration of this audiobook. Owusu has a fantastic voice, which I felt really fit into the nautical theme of the entire book. He also comes up with some very distinctive and fitting voices for the various characters that feature within the book, which I felt helped bring out many of these characters personalities. I was particularly impressed with the harsh and commanding voice that he utilised for Meas, and the various sequences where she was barking out orders and threats aboard the ship were a real treat to listen to, as it perfectly encapsulated the shipwife. Other standout characters that Owusu brought to life include Mevans, who the narrator gifted with an exceedingly cheerful voice which fit his personality perfectly, and the mysterious Gullaime, whose narration contained a certain birdy quality to. I also have to commend the real and obvious enthusiasm that Owusu brought to the role. I have always found that enthusiastic narrators can make an audiobook truly come to life, and Owusu was a really good example of this. Not only did his voice contain some noticeable excitement when he narrated the various action sequences throughout the book, but he really got into voicing elements of the story, such as the various shanty-like rhymes that Barker installed throughout the story, or the various nautical response of the crew. The way that he shouted out “Ey” (the sailor’s way of saying yes) multiple times throughout the book was a lot of fun, and I could feel the infectious enthusiasm of the crew while he did this. The sheer passion and vocal skill that Owusu puts into this audiobook is just fantastic, and I cannot recommend this format enough, as it was an amazing way to enjoy this epic book.

The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker is an absolutely outstanding read that I cannot recommend enough. Barker is quickly becoming one of the most impressive new fantasy authors out there, and he honestly gets better with every book he writes. The Bone Ships had so many cool elements to it, and any readers who check it out will be quickly hooked by its captivating story and bold adventure. I cannot wait to see where Barker will take this story next, and I would strongly encourage any reader looking for their next amazing fantasy tale, to check out this great new book. Also, how awesome is the cover for this book!!

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

the ember blade cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Master of Sorrows by Justin Call

Master of Sorrows Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback format – 21 February 2019)

Series: The Silent Gods – Book 1

Length: 576 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I have been looking forward to reading and reviewing Master of Sorrows for a while now.  I previously mentioned this book in one of my Waiting on Wednesday articles, which got a fair amount of attention, which I took as a sign of some interest from the general fantasy fandom.  The intriguing-sounding plot also made me extremely eager to check this book out, so I was very happy when I received a copy of it from Hachette Australia.  In the end I found Master of Sorrows to be a terrific piece of fantasy fiction and an outstanding debut from first-time author Justin Call.

The world of Luquatra has known much chaos and turmoil throughout its long history as three elder gods and their followers have battled for supremacy.  But now with the dark god Keos banished from the land, the greatest concern for many is the presence of magic.  The ancient and hidden Academy of Chaenbalu has long been a bastion against all things magic and will go to extreme lengths to achieve its primary objective of finding and containing the vast number of magical artefacts scattered throughout Luquatra.  No artefact, no matter its strength or intended purpose, can be allowed to remain outside the control of the Academy, as even those artefacts created for good can be used for great evil.

In order to fulfil this sacred work, the Academy trains all the children of Chaenbula in the arts of combat and magical detection.  Only the best students will become Avatars, warrior thieves capable of infiltrating any location and making away with the hidden artefacts.  Most importantly, an Avatar is trained to resist the lure of magic and the corruption of Keos.

Annev de Breth has always dreamed of becoming an Avatar and is determined to pass the Academy’s tests.  However, Annev is different from every other student at the Academy; trained by the town’s mysterious priest, Annev has an affinity for magic and hides a secret disfigurement that would see him immediately put to death.  Caught between the warring ideologies of the man who raised him and the head of the Academy, Annev needs to decide what kind of man he wants to be while navigating the complex politics of Chaenbalu.  But ancient powers are rising from the past, and it soon becomes apparent that Annev might not be the hero of this story; instead, he may be the man destined to unleash Keos once more upon Luquatra.

As I mentioned above, Master of Sorrows is author Justin Call’s debut novel.  It is also the first book in his The Silent Gods series, which is going to be made up of four books.  Call has already announced that each of the three upcoming books will be released in late February of each year for the next three years, with this series set to wrap up in February 2022.  This first book is an ambitious introduction to series that does a fantastic job of setting up the main story, as well as introducing the reader to an intriguing new fantasy universe.

I really enjoyed the story contained within Master of Sorrows, as it is well paced out and contains some fantastic moments.  The first part of the book features Annev attempting to pass the Academy’s tests in order to become an Avatar.  I love a good magical school storyline, and this one is pretty fantastic, featuring some unique, complex and entertaining testing sequences, as well as an introduction to the complex and restrictive life within the Academy.  The rest of the book is extremely exciting and eventful as the protagonist learns more about the threats and complex world outside of Chaenbalu, and even embarks on a dangerous mission where he encounters a series of mysterious threats.  This all leads up to the book’s spectacular conclusion, which not only sets the scene for all manner of adventures in the future but also results in some interesting character development while also setting up several dangerous new antagonists with personal grudges against the main character.

One of my favourite things about the plot is the general intrigue and hypocrisy surrounding the Academy of Chaenbalu.  The Academy is framed as some ultimate bastion of good in the world, opposing the evils of magic and Keos.  However, as the book progresses, the reader, through the protagonist’s eyes, begins to see that everything about the Academy is more complex and morally ambiguous than it first appears, resulting in a number of powerful story developments.  For example, in this universe, any disfigurement or disability is viewed as a mark of the dark god Keos’s favour, and people who bear them, especially those born with some sort of disfigurement, are shunned or killed.  These rules are especially enforced within the Academy, and Annev is forced to hide his disability to stay alive.  Watching a basically good character be vilified for something outside of his control makes the reader lose trust in most of the characters associated with the Academy.  It is also very thrilling to see the lengths the protagonist will go to in order to hide his disfigurement and try to live a normal life within Chaenbalu, knowing that his secret could be discovered at any turn.  The reader is also left questioning the Academy’s many archaic rules, as these rules and blind obedience are particularly frustrating to the protagonist, who chafes at the restrictions and is constantly questioning everything.  There are also a huge number of different plots and schemes occurring within the Academy, with many of the characters having secret allegiances and plans, many of which come to the surface by the end of the book.  All of these elements are fantastic, and they really add a keen edge of intrigue and thoughtfulness to an already captivating story.

Within Master of Sorrows, Call introduces his readers to a deep and enjoyable new fantasy universe that serves as an excellent basis for his story.  While the author does make an effort to set up a much larger world, the vast majority of the story is set in and around the village of Chaenbalu, which houses the Academy.  As I have mentioned before, I loved the Academy as a setting, but some of the other locations are also intriguing, such as the massive magical forest that surrounds the town.  I really loved the overall setting of the gods and magic within this world, especially when it comes to people’s perceptions about them, as they have some fantastic impacts on the story.  Call spends a bit of time expanding on the mythology of this world’s main gods, telling their stories and explaining the impacts that they had on the world.  These are quite interesting, especially as the stories they tell reveal that the conflicts of the gods were just as complex as the issues occurring within the Academy.  The author has also come up with some fun and dangerous new fantasy creatures, mostly as servants of the god Keos.  These creatures have some great scenes, especially towards the end of the book, and I look forward to seeing more of them and this intriguing new world throughout the rest of The Silent Gods series.

I really need to the hype up some of the incredible action sequences featured within Master of Sorrows.  Call has created several exceptional extended action scenes within this book, including two intricate tests within the Academy, where the students must overcome not only each other but also the various obstacles set up against them.  These testing scenes are extremely elaborate and feature some interesting rules and opposition.  I loved reading these scenes, and it was great watching the protagonist try to complete them his way.  In addition to these testing scenes, there is also a great magic based combat sequence featured later in the book, where the protagonist and his companions must overcome all manner of magical traps and attacks in order to complete their objective.  This scene is massive in terms of destruction and brutality featured and was an excellent addition to the book.  As a result, readers who love a good amount of thrilling action in their fantasy stories should definitely check this book out as Call demonstrates a real skill for creating unique and captivating fantasy action sequences.

Master of Sorrows is an amazing debut from new author Justin Call, who has done a wonderful job setting up a fresh and intriguing new fantasy series.  This first book in the planned The Silent Gods series has some awesome and memorable plot points and features a thrilling and captivating action-packed adventure.  Call has certainly set himself up as a fantasy author to watch, and I am extremely eager to see where this story goes next.  I cannot wait to check out the second book in The Silent Gods series.

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

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Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018

Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1

Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list.  I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.

Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels.  Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent.  In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar.  Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series.  In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron.  Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.

I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career.  I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia.  Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books.  So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews.  After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago.  I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.

Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire.  Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students.  But fate has something special in store for Aranthur.  Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn.  When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play.  His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.

After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies.  But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands.  The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other.  Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic.  Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city.  Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?

I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me.  Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world.  I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue.  This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book.  It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language.  This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.

The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy.  There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic.  The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time.  I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence.  The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements.  I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training.  All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.

For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world.  The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations.  Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story.  This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use.  The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well.  The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story.  The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well.  There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations.  The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.

One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues.  For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes.  Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people.  At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills.  The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power.  This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful.  I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels.  Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction.  In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.

Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book.  There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay.  All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides.  For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes.  However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities.  Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay.  There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights.  Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic.  These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.

I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book.  The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book.  Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long.  The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group.  My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy.  My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help.  Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny.  Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.

I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book.  Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly.  I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story.  I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion.  Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format.  Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life.  I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story.  Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality.  Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.

Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art.  Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below.  I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely.  The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well.  However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme.  Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.

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I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings.  Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me.  This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters.  Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for.  Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in.  However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book.  Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

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Publisher: Orbit (Paperback Edition – 17 January 2019)

Series: Black Iron Legacy (Book 1)

Length: 512 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

From debuting author Gareth Hanrahan comes the grimdark fantasy book that everyone has been talking about, The Gutter Prayer.  This debut novel has been getting some serious hype from a lot of fantasy reviewers, so I was very happy when I got my copy earlier in the week, as it will give me a chance to check it out for myself.

For thousands of years, the large, sprawling city of Guerdon has survived against all manner of attacks and calamity.  In recent years, the city’s alchemical industry has taken off, producing powerful weapons and twisted creations to sell to Guerdon’s warring neighbours, involved in the destructive Godswar.  But with the rival nation’s eyes on Guerdon, refugees flooding into the city and the city’s various factions fighting for power, the potential for chaos is great.

In the middle of all this, three mismatched young thieves – stranger to the city, Cari; the Stone Man, Spar; and Rat the ghoul – find their lives changed forever.  Hired by the leader of the city’s criminal element, these three thieves attempt to break into an important civic building, only to be nearly killed by a massive explosion and framed for the crime.  Pursued by the Alchemist Guild’s murderous enforcers, the Tallowmen, and the relentless thief-taker, Jere, the three friends attempt to escape their pursuers, but find themselves entangled in a terrible plot to bring destruction to the city.

Ancient creatures are rising from the city’s bloody past, and the city’s old gods are prepared to rise once again.  As Cari, Spar and Rat uncover the full extent of these gods’ power, they must contend with others who seek to use the chaos for their own ends.  With everything on the line, can the three friends find a way to stop the events unfolding, or will their failure result in the destruction of everything they hold dear?

This is Hanrahan’s first fictional book, although the author has written a number of gaming manuals and fantasy guides over the years.  However, with the evident popularity of The Gutter Prayer among the fantasy community, it seems extremely likely that this will not be Hanrahan’s only book.  Indeed, the author already has plans for a sequel, and The Gutter Prayer will form part of this planned Black Iron Legacy series.

I thought that The Gutter Prayer was an ambitious and intriguing new entry to the fantasy genre, and it is definitely worthy of the hype around it.  Hanrahan presents a wide-ranging and dark story of magic, religion and betrayal, and he sets it within an imaginative new fantasy landscape with a ton of unique fantasy elements and creatures.  The story is then based around several great characters, each of whom has their own compelling arc within the narrative.  The result is an excellent and memorable novel that showcases Hanrahan’s creativity and serves as an amazing introduction into a bold new fantasy universe.

This book contained a fantastic and intense story which focused on a variety of different characters and follows their attempts to investigate and forestall the strange events occurring around them.  I really enjoyed this story, although I had a little bit of a hard time getting into it at the start of the book due to mass of story and fantasy elements I was bombarded with.  However, I am extremely glad that I powered past this first part of the book because once I was able to place all the story elements together I appreciated the book’s wild and intricate plot.  One of the main things that I really loved about this book was the inclusion of a significant number of different characters and factions, each with their own motivations and hidden secrets.  As a result, you have no idea who is going to do what next and who is going to betray the protagonists to serve their own needs, creating an unpredictable story.  The narrative is also extremely dark, and readers should be prepared for characters dying or being altered in some way or another.  This is some fantastic storytelling from Hanrahan, and an overall clever narrative.

One of the most talked-about elements of this book is the author’s use of a huge range of unique fantasy elements.  Hanrahan has come up with and expertly utilised a ton of creative, inventive and at times just plain creepy new fantasy elements.  The best example of this has to be the Tallowmen, humans that have been turned into living candles, often as punishment for crimes.  These creatures are strong, lethal and fast, serving as the guards and law enforcers of the Alchemist Guild.  Their terrifying appearance, distinctive abilities and the glow of their candle flames as they hunt down the protagonists are extremely memorable.  Another terrifying inclusion is the Ravellers, servants of the city’s ancient gods who have the ability to unravel people out of existence and take on their appearance.  There are also the ghouls and Stone Men.  Stone Men are humans infected with a disease that slowly turns them into stone, although their condition can be held back by an alchemical compound.  The depictions of their condition are pretty horrific, and there is the interesting double-edged sword of the disease: they become stronger the more their condition progresses, but they also become less able to live normal lives.  The ghouls, humanoid creatures who feast of the dead flesh of humans, are an element that most fantasy fans will be familiar with, but Hanrahan has made some clever alterations to these creatures by expanding on their life cycle and making them a key part of the city’s history.  Another awesome creation is the Crawling Ones, a sentient hive of worms who take a human shape and are powerful magic users.

In addition to the above unique fantasy creatures, The Gutter Prayer also introduces the author’s great new twist on fantasy gods.  The world of the Dark Iron Legacy is filled with a vast pantheon of powerful gods, which forms a critical part of this universe.  Many of the deities outside of the city are engaged in a massive conflict known as the Godswar, where these gods and their followers are involved in battles against each other for supremacy.  While we get a brief look at this in The Gutter Prayer, most of the focus of this book is on the gods of Guerdon.  While a few other religions are mentioned within the city, the main two pantheons are the Kept Gods and the Black Iron Gods.  Both of these different gods are extremely intriguing, and I particularly loved the concept of the Kept Gods, who are chained and whose intake of prayer is controlled by their church to limit their power and control their actions.  The Black Iron Gods are a darker and more ancient pantheon with a great history, a horde of sinister followers and a captivating physical presence.  I also liked this universe’s concept of saints, those humans gifted power by their connection to the gods.  There are a couple of saints featured throughout the book who form an integral part of the plot, powering through the story with a range of different powers and abilities.  Quite frankly, all of these unique fantasy elements are deeply intriguing, and Hanrahan uses all of them perfectly to enhance his outstanding story.  I do hope that the Godswar will be explored in future books, as that sounded like a really fun concept that I would be deeply interested in.

Guerdon is a decent grimdark fantasy city, and it serves as the primary setting for most of the city.  The city’s range of interesting and unique residence allows for a fascinating overall story and makes this a fantastic setting.  I really like how the city is home to a range of competing factions, such as the Alchemists, the Church, the criminal organisation known as the Brotherhood, politicians and the city’s non-human races, each of whom have different plans for the future of the city.  This is a pretty typical dark, crime-ridden fantasy city, but it works really well as a setting for this story.  The author’s deep exploration of the history of his fantasy city served as a useful plot point, and I love how the city’s past came back to haunt it in a number of ways.

I have to say that I was really impressed with Hanrahan’s character work within this book.  The author introduces a number of amazing characters, most of whom get deep and satisfying story arcs.  The main three characters are particularly great.  I really liked Spar, who is not only the son of one of the city’s most famous criminals, but who is also a Stone Man.  It is through this character’s eyes that we get the best view of the living hell of life as a Stone Man, as Spar is forced to deal with all the unpleasant side effects that his condition brings.  At the same time he must deal with his family legacy as he fights to achieve his father’s dream of a more noble Brotherhood while forced to work for its current corrupt leader.  Rat the ghoul is another interesting character.  As a ghoul, he is generally supposed to live under the city, but he likes living above the streets with his friends.  Rat is constantly conflicted between loyalty to his friends and to his race’s ancient promises, as well as dislike for the traditional ghoul lifestyle.  Finally, there is the mysterious young thief, Cari, who holds a dark secret in her past.  Cari is a rebellious young female protagonist who is developing strange new powers.  The exploration of her past and her abilities is a key part of the book and a good basis for a large portion of this plot.  I liked the way that these three characters cared for each other and how their stories remain interconnected even as they have their own unique adventures within the story.

While these three main characters serve as an extremely powerful narrative base for The Gutter Prayer, the author also focuses on a couple of additional point-of-view characters, including the veteran thief-taker, Jere; Cari’s cousin, Eladora; and the saint of the Kept Gods, Arla.  These characters do not get as large a focus as the book’s three main characters, but their parts of the book are quite significant.  Each of them also has a full character arc within the book, and they all develop or change in substantial ways.  Jere is a grizzled private investigator obsessed with taking down the Brotherhood, and his investigations for the first two-thirds of the book provide the reader with some vital plot detail.  I really liked the end to Jere’s character arc, which was both dark and satisfying.  Eladora is a sheltered scholar who gets a rather rude awakening about life throughout the course of this book.  Eladora is not my favourite character, but I did like her gradual transformation from damsel in distress to something more useful.  Finally, there is Arla, who would have to be my favourite side character.  Arla is a saint of the Kept Gods blessed with fiery powers as a result.  Arla is a badass and entertaining character who spends most of the book fighting her opponents with her fiery sword and generally not acting in a way most people would consider saint-like.  I especially love when she utilises her god-empowered voice to command people, as she is usually swearing while doing this.  This comes up in the text in all caps, and you have to imagine it sounds pretty impressive in this book’s audiobook format.  There were a number of other entertaining side or minor characters throughout the book that the author put to good use, and I will enjoy seeing what role they will play in any future books in the series.

Overall, I truly enjoyed The Gutter Prayer and was impressed by Hanrahan’s magnificent debut.  This was an excellent piece of grimdark fantasy which expertly combined some very inventive fantasy elements together with a fantastic story and some excellent characters.  With this first book Hanrahan has shown some incredible talent as a fantasy storyteller whose outstanding imagination is his biggest asset.  This is a highly recommended book which lives up to the substantial hype surrounding it.  I am already extremely keen for any additional books in the Black Iron Legacy, especially as the interview at the end of the book implies that Hanrahan has some brilliant ideas for the rest of the series.

Skyward, Volume 1: My Low G Life by Joe Henderson and Lee Garbett

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Publisher: Image Comics

Publication Date – 25 September 2018

 

Those looking for the next amazing comic book adventure they can get addicted to should look no further than Skyward, one of 2018’s breakout hits, which takes away a fundamental force and replaces it with a sensational story.

One day, around the planet, gravity all but disappeared, and the one thing that was previously holding everything to Earth’s surface all of a sudden became a fraction of what it previously was.  In the resultant chaos, huge swathes of the population simply floated away into the atmosphere.  Those that remained were forced to adjust to a new world with different rules.
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Twenty years later, humanity has adapted to its new low-gravity reality.  For some, such as Willa Fowler, it’s the only way of life they have ever known, and Willa excels at navigating the skies above Chicago.  Living with her father, Nathan, a brilliant scientist traumatised by the events that sent his wife tumbling into the skies, Willa scrapes a living as a high-speed delivery girl with a number of risky and dangerous tricks up her sleeve.  But when her father reveals he has a way to bring gravity back, Willa doesn’t believe him and instead plans a meeting with Roger Barrow, her father’s rich former research partner, who has created much of the technology that allows the world to survive its new situation.  Descending to ‘The Streets’ of Chicago, the lowest level, inhabited by its richest citizens, Willa quickly discovers that Barrow is not the saviour she thought he would be.  Instead he is determined to keep gravity from returning, and will go to extreme lengths to stop Willa and her father.

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This is one of the first comic book works from Henderson, whose main claim to fame is as showrunner for the Lucifer television show.  The artist, Garbett, is probably best known for his work on the comic Loki: Agent of Asgard.  Together, this new team has created an incredible new comic book series that has already been picked up by Sony for a potential feature film, and it will be intriguing to see how this challenging and creative series will be adapted to the screen.  This first volume contains issues #1-5 of this new series.

Skyward contains an excellent story that examines life in a different and catastrophically affected version of Earth while also presenting an action-packed adventure with a wild protagonist.  The central idea of this series, the removal of gravity, is a crazy concept that allows for an exceptional overall package that combines great storytelling with incredible and unique artwork.  Throughout this first volume, there is a great combination of humour, action, character development and powerful emotional moments, all set within a fascinating new world shown in great artistic detail.

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It was quite intriguing to see the various ways in which a lack of gravity could affect the world that we live in.  Henderson and Garbett have come up with a range of different ways for the characters in this book to navigate around the skyline, and it is interesting to see the range of tools that are shown in the artwork.  The creative team has done an amazing job highlighting the various ways that the lack of gravity has affected the world, from food production to water gathering to human mobility.  One of the more intriguing aspects of the new world is the way in which guns have become obsolete due to the recoil pushing shooters back through the air, making it an ineffective weapon and more dangerous to the user than the target.  That said, the protagonist, Willa, has some more extreme and effective uses for the gun she carries around with her.  Perhaps the most intriguing idea presented in Skyward is the location known as The Streets, the lowest street level of Chicago, where the city’s richest inhabitants live in a state of denial at the changes that have happened and are trying to live like there is still gravity.  This includes wearing grav-boots to keep them stuck to the ground and forcing a man with no legs to sit in a wheelchair rather than floating in the air as he would prefer.  There are also some crazy inventions, like a magnetised hem to keep a dress from rising up.  These inhabitants of The Streets are absolutely terrified of the sky and have a very different lifestyle from the people living in Chicago’s skyline, who have embraced the new world.  One funny scene involves Willa traumatising an obnoxious bouncer by wrecking his grav-boots and making him float up into the sky a little.  Overall, this is a fun new world to set this great story in and has a lot of potential for future volumes of this series, where additional changes to day-to-day life are no doubt going to be revealed.

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The artwork in Skyward is just gorgeous and is definitely a key highlight of this incredible book.  The creative team have done an outstanding job showing off the low-gravity concept in art form, creating some fantastic scenes and drawings.  Most of the characters are shown floating around and navigating the air, which creates some amazing panoramas of the city from high above for the reader to enjoy.  All the characters, even those rich individuals trying to ignore the lack of gravity, are shown with their hair floating up in the sky, and multiple scenes have various liquids floating in the air around the characters attempting to have drinks.  It also means that fight scenes are constantly surrounded by droplets of blood that float around the characters and add a whole new sense of realism and brutality to the story.  The artistic highlight of this book has to be the incredible and exceptional drawings of the storm in low gravity that becomes such a massive part of the background in the later part of the volume.  Due to the effects of the low gravity, the storm manifests itself as a gigantic ball of water in the sky, surrounding several high-rise buildings.  The first drawing of this is amazing, and the following scenes which show the main characters navigating around this bubble and creating massive pockets of air are just fantastic, and represent some exceptional comic book art.  I was also suitably terrified by several of the drawings in this volume, from the opening scenes which show multiple people being lifted away by the low gravity, to the horrifying shot of the planet Earth and its new artificial ring, made up of planes, cars, ships, other debris and of course multiple dead animals and humans that have not decayed in their 20 years in orbit.  Lee Garbett and the creative team have outdone themselves in Skyward and I cannot speak highly enough of the artwork in this book.

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The main character, Willa, is an excellent protagonist for this series.  As a character who has never known what it’s like to live in a world with gravity, Willa’s antics through the air are pretty crazy and she does some amazing and unpredictable things throughout the book.  Whether it’s using a gun to gain rapid altitude and to come down again, or blowing out a window underwater in a low-gravity storm of water after creating an air pocket with her oxygen tank.  The constant incredulity of the other characters as she does these things is very amusing and makes it quite clear that these actions are not the social norm in the new world.  My favourite quote of the books is when the antagonist, realising that Willa is about to blow open a window with her gun says ‘She wouldn’t…’ while Willa’s friend who is being held hostage responds with ‘Oh, she would.’ I must again return to the artwork of Skyward when it comes to showing off this main character.  The artists do a fantastic job highlighting the joy on Willa’s face as she flies around in the upper city; she looks like she was born to float.  I also loved the drawings that show off her crazy antics, from the early sequence which shows her using a gun to blast off away from people attacking her, to that fantastic scene where she blows open the underwater window.  The drawings themselves are incredible and really show off the action, while the looks of shock and amazement on the faces of onlookers tell a whole new story.  Henderson and Garbett have created a perfect main character and protagonist in Willa, and I can’t wait to see what she gets up to in future volumes of this series.
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Skyward is an incredible new series from the fantastic team of Henderson and Garbett.  I really enjoyed the central concept of a lack of gravity, as it allowed the creative team to present a bold and exceptional new setting for this exciting and powerful story.  I really cannot hype up the artwork of this series enough, and I love the various ways that the artists show off what impacts these gravitational changes would have to everyday life on the planet.  An outstanding five-star start to a series with incredible potential, this is the perfect read for current comic book readers and a great starting point for those trying to break into the medium.

My Rating:

Five Stars