Leviathan Falls by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Falls Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Recorded Books (Audiobook – 30 November 2021)

Series: The Expanse – Book Nine

Length: 19 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

For my last review of 2021 I check out the epic and highly anticipated final book in the iconic The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Falls.

For the last ten years the science fiction genre has been dominated by the impressive and captivating The Expanse series.  Written by James S. A. Corey, the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, The Expanse series consists of nine awesome novels that navigate the troubles and wars of future humans in both our solar system, and other systems accessed by ancient alien technology.  This has been a pretty amazing series which has moved from wars between Earth, Mars and the Belt, to intergalactic travel and battles between galactic empires and interdimensional aliens.  I have been really enjoying this series lately, and the last two novels, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath were extremely fun, especially as they utilised the conquering Laconian Empire, which forced the protagonists to form a rebel movement known as the underground.

The plot of Leviathan Falls starts a few months after the events of Tiamat’s Wrath, which saw the underground destroy Laconia’s shipyards and free James Holden, captain of the Rocinante, and Teresa Duarte, the daughter of the Laconian high consul.  Now the Rocinante flies throughout the various settled systems attempting to keep the underground alive and bring down the faltering Laconian Empire.  At the same time, unnatural and destructive alien forces, disturbed by the intergalactic technology used to traverse space, are reaching into our universe and attempting to exterminate all human life.

The best hope for humanity may lie in the hands of the Laconian high consul, Winston Duarte, whose alien enhancements have given him unnatural insight into the universe.  However, Winston Duarte is currently missing, having vanished from his room as he attempts to unleash his ambitious master plan.  To find him, the Laconians unleash their ultimate hunter, Colonel Aliana Tanaka, who focuses on the Rocinante, determined to use Teresa as bait.  At the same time, Dr Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to uncover the secrets of the ancient aliens whose technology has allowed humanity to expand throughout the universe.  But her progress is dependent on the lives of the mysterious half-alien children in her care, whose ability to connect with the past could save the future.

As the situation in the universe becomes even more desperate, the crew of Rocinante are once again thrust into the midst of the battle for humanity’s survival.  Entering a desperate alliance and faced with near certain extinction, the Rocinante and their allies embark on a final battle for the future.  However, not only are they facing the malevolent forces from outside their universe, but also the radical and altered Winston Duarte, whose plan to save the species comes with an impossible price.  Can Holden and his crew stop him before it is too late, or is the final chapter in humanity’s story?

Leviathan Falls was another intense and impressive science fiction read from Corey, who brings this epic series to an end in a big way.  This ninth and final Expanse novel had a captivating and intense narrative filled with amazing and realistic science fiction elements, complex characters, and a fitting and heartbreaking conclusion that wraps everything up extremely well.  This ended up being a fantastic novel and I was glad I had a chance to see how everything finished up.

There is a great narrative for this book that takes the reader on a powerful and compelling ride as the authors seek to wrap everything up.  Leviathan Falls continues several of the storylines set up in the previous novels, especially Tiamat’s Wrath, and takes them towards their inevitable conclusion.  Told through multiple characters, including several minor figures, this is a slow-burn narrative that methodically sets up the various storylines and explores them to their full extent.  The story gets quite complex in places as the protagonists attempt to survive not only the various battles between the Laconians and the underground but also the malevolent entities attempting to take them down from another universe.  The first half of the story focuses on a cat-and-mouse battle between the protagonists on the Rocinante and the Laconian Colonel Tanaka, while there are some interesting examinations of Elvi’s attempts to understand the threat facing humanity.  These storylines lead up to a big event that sets up the intense and exciting second half of the novel and forces the previously disparate characters to come together and face the major threat.  This results in a massive, extended sequence that forces several characters to make some major decisions, and a moving conclusion that is both devastating and a fitting ending to the franchise.

The team behind The Expanse have a really unique writing style that I think fits the epic scope of their series.  Using an intense amount of description, as well as some colourful analogies, the authors paint a brilliant picture of the events occurring around them that perfectly encapsulates the insanities and complexities of the situation.  The Expanse series is known for its realistic approach to science fiction, and this continues through in Leviathan Falls as the reader gets a real sense of the awesome nature of space flight through the various characters’ eyes.  While some of the science fiction elements are obviously invented solely for the narrative, most of the human technology in this book appears to be quite realistic and well thought out.  I also love the cool take on space travel, communication and fights, with many of the events in space taking hours or days to complete due to distance and light delays.  This is particularly impressive during the battle sequences which rely more on calculations and manoeuvres than fast-paced firepower, and it really added to the intensity of multiple scenes throughout the book.

While I enjoyed the narrative and the way that the authors told the story, Leviathan Falls did drag a little in places.  I honestly think they could have streamlined this into a better novel by taking out, say, 50 to 100 pages, and I personally would have cut all the chapters told from the perspective of Kit Kamal, which have no major impact on the overall story.  I also think that the authors went a tad overboard in places trying to make some of the elements and experiences seem a little cleverer than they needed to be, such as certain long-winded interludes.  While I understand that this is their writing style and it usually works, I felt that it made parts of the book a little unwieldy and unnecessarily complex.  Being the grand finale, it was also a very inaccessible novel for new readers, especially as so much of the plot relies on knowledge of some of the preceding books, particularly Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath.  However, the rest of Leviathan Falls story more than compensates for some of the above issues, and this still ended up being an excellent and compelling read.

Fans of this series will no doubt appreciate some of the excellent world building that took place in Leviathan Falls.  The author introduces some interesting and compelling expansions of various elements of lore and technology within this universe, especially when it comes to the two ancient alien races who the protagonists have been encountering throughout the series.  It was rather fascinating to see how certain elements were utilised throughout the plot, and they ended up enhancing the narrative extremely well.  I loved all the use of alien technology, especially as there are some great call-backs to the previous books and the weird molecules and artefacts the protagonists previously encountered.  There was also a good wrap up with the universe that I really appreciated, and it think it ends everything on a compelling and interesting note.

Leviathan Falls features an impressive cast of complex characters, and the multiple perspectives are used to great effect throughout the book to craft a massive and elaborate narrative.  I liked the cool range of characters in this book, especially as it primarily focuses on the well-established cast from the previous novels, as well as one great new antagonist.  The vast array of perspectives proves to be a lot of fun to explore, although I do question the necessity of one or two overutilised point-of-view characters.  I also appreciated some of the development that occurred around the recurring cast of the series.  This included a tangible sense of weariness that multiple characters experienced, especially the series’ long-running protagonists, which helped to reflect how they have aged and evolved over the years, especially in the face of so much adversity.  There are also a couple of interesting inclusions that I quite enjoyed, including one excellent character whose return will come as a pleasant surprise to fans of The Expanse.

There are several extremely awesome characters that I really must highlight in this book, including protagonist James Holden, the captain of the Rocinante and main character of the series.  Holden has gone through a lot throughout The Expanse novels, and it shows in Leviathan Falls.  The character is clearly dealing with some PTSD following his extended imprisonment in the prior novel, and there are some compelling and intense trauma storylines around him.  Holden has a particularly major moment in this novel, and it ended up being an interesting and moving novel for this great central character.  Aside from Holden, you also must love the work put into the surviving crew members of the Rocinante, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton and Alex Kamal, each of whom have their own interesting storylines and serve as great point-of-view characters.  I particularly enjoyed the increased focus on Naomi now that she’s the head of the underground, and it was still fascinating to see her as a confident and capable leader.  Amos’s storyline was also rather interesting, especially after he died and was resurrected by alien technology in the previous novel.  This gives him some unique perspectives throughout the book, although there were only so many times you can hear about the “unnatural pauses” he now has.

In addition to the Rocinante crew members, several other exceptional characters also really stood out to me.  I continued to enjoy the inclusion of Elvi Okoye, the brilliant scientist who was drafted into the Laconian military force as the leading expert on alien technology.  Elvi offers most of the scientific insight into the events occurring in the novel, and it was interesting to see her experiences as she attempts to understand the ancient alien technology and discover a solution to the mysterious attacks plaguing the various human systems.  I also really appreciated Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a Laconian soldier who is sent to track down the missing Winston Duarte by hounding the Rocinante and trying to take back Teresa Duarte.  Despite being a new character, Tanaka has one of the best arcs in the entire novel, as she is forced to contend with not only the boldness of the protagonists but also her own instabilities and issues.  While she initially appears to be a mostly rage filled attack-dog, the author soon expands on her character and backstory turning her into a very complex and somewhat sympathetic figure.  This is particularly true after a major event results in an unwelcome intrusion in her mind, and her inability to cope makes her even wilder and angrier.  These brilliant characters really helped to enhance Leviathan Fall’s plot and it was an absolute pleasure to see all the great character driven story arcs come to an end.

While I did receive a physical copy of Leviathan Falls, I ended up listening to the audiobook version to fit this book into my reading schedule.  This was a pretty good audiobook, and I had a fantastic time getting through it.  Leviathan Falls has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, which did take me a while to get through, especially in some of the spots where my engagement slipped a little.  Despite the length, this was a fantastic audiobook adaptation and I appreciated the impressive narration from Jefferson Mays, who has previously lent his voice to all the previous The Expanse novels.  Mays’ voice seems to fit the massive and epic format of the series extremely well and I found myself appreciating and following some of the heavy scientific elements, battle sequences and intriguing analogies a bit better with his work.  He also provides some excellent voices to the various characters featured in the series which fit their various personalities and helped to showcase their emotions.  I had an awesome time listening to this latest audiobook and it is an impressive way to check this novel out.

After nine epic novels, The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey finally comes to end with the fantastic Leviathan Falls.  This final book does an excellent job of tying together the various story threads from the previous novels and giving this impressive series the outstanding conclusion it deserves.  Filled with complex characters, a powerful and rich science fiction setting, and an intriguing central storyline, Leviathan Falls was an awesome read.  An amazing and cool conclusive episode, Leviathan Falls is really worth checking out and I loved its compelling and exciting story.

The Bone Ship’s Wake by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ship's Wake Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 28 September 2021)

Series: The Tide Child Trilogy – Book Three

Length: 20 hours and 49 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the fastest rising fantasy authors in the world today, the brilliant and exceedingly talented R. J. Barker, brings The Tide Child trilogy to an end in epic fashion with the exceptional and powerful The Bone Ship’s Wake, one of the best fantasy reads of 2021.

There have been some really impressive fantasy authors producing great reads over the last few years, but in my opinion none have been as consistently amazing and addictive as R. J. Barker.  Barker burst onto the scene in 2017 with Age of Assassins, the first book in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and soon followed it up with two additional outstanding reads, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins.  While I have a lot of love for this brilliant trilogy, especially the final novel King of Assassins, Barker has since eclipsed it with his second series, The Tide Child trilogy.

The Tide Child trilogy is a grim and powerful series that follows a unique set of characters in an exceptional, character driven, adventure tale.  The Tide Child books are set in a dark fantasy world, primarily made up of deadly oceans and seas which have produced a harsh breed of warring humans.  The inhabitants of this world traverse these oceans in ships made of the harvested bones of sea dragons, known as the keyshans, the creation of which led to the mass extinction of these dragons.  The first novel in this series, The Bone Ships, set the scene for this great series and introduced the primary characters as they set out on an epic quest to hunt the last sea dragon aboard the boneship, Tide Child.  This was an exceptional read that ended up being one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  Barker followed this up in 2020 with Call of the Bone Ships, a great sequel that saw the crew of Tide Child engage in a rebellion against the established order.  Call of the Bone Ships ended on a pretty massive cliffhanger that set the scene for an exceptional and stunning conclusion.  As such, the final entry in this trilogy, The Bone Ship’s Wake, was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, and Barker did not disappoint here, as he produced an epic and captivating read.

It has been a year since the climactic battle that saw the boneship Tide Child and the rebel fleet barely escape the wrath of the Hundred Isles after being forced to abandon shipwife Meas Gilbryn.  In that time, loyal deck keeper Joron Twiner has taken on the mantle of leadership for the rebel black ships and turned them into a fleet of marauding pirates.  Now known by all as the feared Black Pirate, Joron constantly raids the Hundred Isles, determined to weaken its fleet and devastate its defences for an invasion from the rival Gaunt Islands, Joron’s only true priority is to discover the location of his lost commander and rescue her.

After a particularly vicious raid nearly sees the destruction of Tide Child, Joron is only more determined to find the shipwife before the entire fleet is lost.  With time running out for Joron thanks to the insidious keyshan’s rot that is slowly eating away at his body, Joron embarks on an ambitious plan to find and rescue Meas by returning to the most dangerous place in the world, the capital city of the Hundred Isles.

Accompanied by a small crew, Joron hopes to infiltrate the city and force Meas’s location from the ruthless rule of the Hundred Isles, Meas’ estranged mother.  However, all Joron will discover is blood and betrayal, as dangerous forces seek to take control of the oceans for their own nefarious ends.  Worse, Joron must continue to struggle with the dangerous legacy of the magical gullaimes, who believe that he is the Caller, the man who can sing up the keyshans and use them to destroy the world.  Will Joron and his crew succeed against impossible odds, or will the final voyage of the Tide Child result only in the death of everyone and everything Joron loves and cares about?

Well damn, now that was an incredibly awesome book.  I have said time and time again that Barker seems to get better with every book he writes, and I honestly believe that The Bone Ship’s Wake is the very best so far.  The Bone Ship’s Wake has an exceptional narrative filled with emotion, tragedy and powerful action on the high seas, which perfectly wraps up this epic series and provides the reader with an emotional and captivating goodbye.  Easily one of the best books of the year, The Bone Ship’s Wake gets a full five-star rating from me.

This final entry in The Tide Child trilogy has an extremely powerful, character-driven narrative to it, which perfectly continues the epic tales told in the preceding novels while also providing an extremely satisfying and moving conclusion to the entire series.  Told nearly exclusively from the perspective of central protagonist Joron Twiner, The Bone Ship’s Wake starts one year after Call of the Bone Ships, with some major changes occurring to the world and the characters during this period.  Told in three parts, this book has a bit of a slower introduction, which Barker uses to full effect to highlight the situation the characters find themselves in, while also reintroducing all the key elements of the fantasy world.  The first part of the novel is primarily used to show how far Joron has come, placing him in command of a ship as he faces off against his enemies.  This outstanding introduction sets up several key storylines while also featuring a tense and detailed chase out on the seas, with deadly and monstrous consequences.  The second part of the novel follows a desperate Joron, after leaving his ship and most of his crew behind, as he embarks on a dangerous all-or-nothing quest to save his shipwife and bring her back to the fleet.  This second part is loaded with some major dramatic moments, intrigue, treachery, and politics, which does an outstanding job expanding the already captivating storylines, while also serving as a great buffer from the nautical heavy start and end of the novel.  The story goes in some amazing directions here, and Barker throws in some captivating and surprising twists that alter everything you thought about how the story would end.

All this leads up to the conclusion of the novel, which sees the surviving primary characters caught in a desperate situation on the high seas.  After some daring actions and clever plans which have some unfortunate costs, all the characters are perfectly set up for their final places the series’ brilliant storyline.  This last part of the novel is deeply thrilling and powerful, and it honestly proves impossible to put it down as you wait to see how everything comes to an end.  Barker really amps up the desperation and hopelessness during this part of The Bone Ship’s Wake, as the crew of Tide Child and its allies are pressed in some destructive naval actions.  It all leads up to one final gambit, with the lives and the hopes of the survivors held in the balance.  This epic conclusion is extremely dramatic and powerful, with some big sacrifices and major character moments that will leave you breathless and deeply moved.  I thought that this amazing conclusion perfectly wrapped up the entire series, with all the key storylines and character arcs coming to a very satisfying and emotional end.  I loved every single second I spent getting through this exceptional story, and every brilliant turn, clever revelation and powerful character moment is still firmly engrained in my mind.

I really need to highlight Barker’s fantastic writing style, which brings this brilliant story to life.  It has been an absolute pleasure to see Barker grow as an author throughout the last few years, especially as he utilises more and more complex techniques with each passing novel.  The Bone Ship’s Wake is a particularly good example of this, as an amazingly well paced novel that slowly builds momentum as the story requires, with the intensity of the book turning on a dime, from the deep slowness of sailing to the fast pace of an epic nautical battle.  This is often accentuated by the author’s great use of repetition, with key sentences throughout the novel repeated multiple times to build up tension or to highlight the rapidity of duty aboard a ship.  This pacing and repetition almost gives The Bone Ship’s Wake a pulse, and you can feel the rhythmic build towards the high points of a novel.

I was once again deeply impressed by Barker’s incredible ability to produce a nautically focused novel.  Nautical novels require an insane amount of detail and dedication to work, and Barker has done that in spades throughout The Tide Child trilogy.  Thanks to Barker’s ultra-detailed writing style, life aboard the boneships is brought to life for the reader, showcasing every single action of the crew or movement of the ship.  The reader gets an amazing sense of what is happening aboard Tide Child, and you feel that you are aboard the ship itself, watching the crew in action.  This works particularly well during some of the intense, high-concept naval battles, where the actions of multiple ships are followed, ensuring that the reader gets a great idea about what is going on.  Barker also works in a lot of ship details that are unique to the series’ fantasy universe, allowing for a much more distinctive and compelling time at sea.  The combination of traditional nautical elements and fantasy features, such as ships crafted from dragon bone, ultra-powerful bolt throwers, wind calling bird men and the various monsters stalking the deeps is particularly striking and really helps this cool trilogy stand out.  This is honestly one of the best series set on a ship you are ever likely to read, and I am still so impressed with how well Barker was able to feature it in his novels.

I also must highlight the cool, dark fantasy world that Barker has created for this series.  Throughout this trilogy Barker has put an amazing amount of work into crafting this complex and deadly fantasy world, containing hostile oceans with only a few small islands, where the inhabitants are forced to fight on ships made from dragon bone.  I have had an outstanding time exploring this complex and compelling landscape, and I have a lot of love for some of the more unique details, including the enslaved gullaime (bird-like windtalkers), crazy monsters, the gender reversed human society which includes subtle changes like ships being consider male by their crews, and the constant naval warring and raiding such a landscape has created.  Barker does some very interesting expansions in this final entry, resulting in some substantial changes and journeys to new locations within the world.  There are some cool new creatures, including a mist-spewing kraken, as well as some fascinating and intense developments amongst the established creatures, including the gullaimes and the keyshans.  I similarly appreciated the way Barker examined the troubles with his female dominated society, especially as the motivations for some of the antagonists are closely tied into it.  Overall, I had a wonderful time with my last exploration of this unique and dangerous setting, and I cannot wait to see what sort of distinctive setting Barker comes up with next, although I already know it will be pretty incredible.

You cannot talk about any novel in The Tide Child series without praising the outstanding character work that Barker has done.  Each of these novels has done an exceptional job of building up all the major characters, from the central point-of-view perspective, to the various supporting characters found upon the central ship setting.  I have deeply enjoyed seeing each of these characters develop into better and well-rounded figures as this series has progressed, and Barker makes sure to give them an impressive send-off in this final entry.  Pretty much all the key surviving characters get some great moments throughout The Bone Ship’s Wake, and most of their associated storylines come to an end, one way or another.  This naturally results in some intense emotional moments throughout the novel, especially as readers of this series will have become deeply attached to a lot of these characters, and you will not be prepared for how some of these characters go out!

Just like in the previous two novels, the central focus of The Bone Ship’s Wake was on Joron Twiner, the deck keeper (first mate) of Tide Child, who has grown from scared drunkard to experienced officer within the course of the series.  Twiner has gone through an incredible amount during the last two books, and when we first see him again in The Bone Ship’s Wake, he is a very different person.  Joron has since lost a leg and is now infected by the keyshan’s rot, an incurable disease that is slowly eating him alive.  Despite this, he has finally taken on command of his vessel and an extended fleet and fashioning himself a new persona, that of the Black Pirate, a notorious killer of ill-repute.  This is a fascinating change for Joron, and it is absolutely amazing to see how the differences between this character and the one we first saw in The Bone Ships.  While this change is substantial, it has been well built up in the last few books, and it was great to finally see Joron take on the command he was always meant to have.  Despite this, Joron still has some uncertainty dogging his steps that proves great to explore, especially as he is hesitant to risk the lives of those under his command on his missions.  Joron is also forced to deal with the insane prophecy and power hanging over his head, as he is forced to contemplate his ability to summon the sea dragons and potentially end the world.  Throw in his unwillingness to take on the role of his mentor, and the extreme guilt he feels for all the lives he has taken in her name since the conclusion of the last book, and you have a quite a conflicted figure, desperate to do anything to redeem himself.  This makes for some amazing character moments, and I really appreciated the sheer amount of development that went into Twiner in this novel.  A lot of Twiner’s storylines come full circle in this novel, and there are some extremely satisfying moments  between him and the other characters in the novel.  I deeply enjoyed this flawed and uncertain protagonist throughout this series, and Baker ensures that he is given a fitting and powerful ending.

The novel also spends a lot of time examining Tide Child’s shipwife, Meas Gilbryn, also known as Lucky Meas.  When we last saw Meas, she was surrendering herself to the Hundred Isles to give her fleet a chance to escape.  In the year that follows, she has been brutally tortured by her captors, who are attempting to gain all her secrets, especially regarding the sea dragons.  Due to her capture, and the primary focus on Joron, we don’t see that much of Meas for the first half of The Bone Ship’s Wake, and when we finally do, she is very different.  Rather than the always confident captain we are used to, we have a broken and brooding figure, unsure of the correct actions to take and unprepared for how much her legend has spread in the year she has been gone.  This makes for a very interesting counterpoint to the growth in Joron, and it is fascinating to see the slight role reversal that occurs between them.  I loved this exceptional character change that occurred around Meas, and Barker uses it to full effect to create some dramatic and emotionally charged moments.  The author also ensures that several lingering questions about Meas are answered, especially as she finally gets some closure with members of her family, such as her mother.  It was also amazing to see the unique relationship she forged with Joron come full circle, as the man she chose to be her second surpasses her.  The outstanding character work surrounding Meas, especially when it comes to her connection to Joron, added so much to the overall quality of this novel, and it was great to see how Barker altered and explored this character in The Bone Ship’s Wake.

I have to highlight the outstanding storylines surrounding the Gullaime, the ship’s windtalker of legendary power, who is destined to destroy the world alongside Joron.  This humanoid bird creature is always an entertaining figure in the novel, due to their unique appearance and outrageous behaviour and Barker does an exceptional job giving unique avian features to it.  However, like the other characters, the Gullaime goes through some big events in this final novel, especially once certain species detail is revealed, as well as the full scope of its powers and prophesised responsibilities.  Out of the all the characters in this series, the Gullaime is probably the easiest to like, and the end of its story cuts deep to the heart.

I also really appreciated Cwell’s storyline in this novel, especially after all the changes that occurred around her in this series.  Cwell initially started as a secondary antagonist who led a mutiny against Joron in the previous novel.  Despite this, Joron spared her life and kept her as his shadow, a silent bodyguard always watching his back.  This final book really explores the extent of this bond forged between them, as Cwell’s loyalty is tested multiple times throughout the course of the novel.  Barker is such a canny writer when it comes to Cwell, and it was fascinating to see some of her final depths in this book, especially as you honestly have no idea what she is going to do and whether she will end up betraying Joron.  It was also great to see more of Farys, the young woman Joron mentored through the series, and who now finds herself as his second.  Farys has a complex and compelling storyline in this novel, and I really appreciated how much time Barker put into enhancing her role in this final novel.  I also want to give callouts to recurring characters Mevans, Solemn Muffaz and Aelerin the courser, who all have some great moments in this novel, and whose roles each had their own emotional weight.  There is also a certain interesting reveal about one side character, right at the end of the novel that was a little surprising to me, but which I really appreciated, especially as Barker set up some great hints about them as the novel progressed.  Overall, all the side characters in this book are extremely awesome, and I am so deeply impressed with the work that Barker put into them, and the outstanding impacts that had on this already epic and captivating tale.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Bone Ship’s Wake, I ended up enjoying this novel in its audiobook format, not only for scheduling reasons but because I knew that I would have an amazing experience with it.  The Bone Ship’s Wake’s audiobook format has a substantial runtime of just under 21 hours, which does require a substantial time investment to enjoy.  I can guarantee that the time spent is well worth it, as the audiobook format perfectly gets the reader into the flow of the story and the detailed fantasy world of the series, and I found myself really absorbing all the many details Barker places into his writing.  I was also deeply impressed with the narration of Jude Owusu, who really threw himself into voicing the various books in The Tide Child trilogy.  Owusu has a brilliant voice that perfectly fit the epic, marine based tale, and which perfectly translated every single action and move to the listener.  Owusu has an excellent range of voices for the various characters featured throughout the novel, and each character ended up with a distinctive voice that perfectly fit their personality and demeanour.  I particularly enjoyed the weird and hyper-excited voices he utilised for the various gullaime characters, fully highlighting their birdlike characteristics in his voicing.  I felt that the narrator did an amazing job of injecting all the relevant emotion into the tale, and you have no doubt what the characters are feeling as they speak.  This brilliant and powerful voice work really helped to bring this epic tale to life, and I loved every single second of this fantastic audiobook.  This format comes very highly recommend, and it was easily one of the best audiobooks I have had the pleasure of listening to in 2021.

With The Bone Ship’s Wake, the final incredible and epic entry in The Tide Child trilogy, the unstoppable R. J. Barker has once again shown the world he is the future of the fantasy genre.  This outstanding and captivating nautical fantasy novel masterfully wrapped up one of the best trilogies I have ever read, ensuring that the reader will be emotionally blasted by this brilliant and clever tale.  The entire story came together perfectly, and fans of this series will be amazed and moved by the fates of so many well-established characters.  Not only was this Barker’s best book to date, but The Bone Ship’s Wake is also one of the most impressive novels I have enjoyed all year.  An exceptional five-star read that comes very highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  Anyone who loves fantasy needs to read this series!

The Pariah by Anthony Ryan

The Pariah Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 24 August 2021)

Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book One

Length: 19 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling fantasy author Anthony Ryan returns with the first book in an epic, brand new series, The Pariah, a massive and captivating tale of one young man destined to alter an entire kingdom.

Anthony Ryan is an impressive and highly regarded fantasy author who has been a leading figure in the fantasy fiction landscape for the last 10 years.  Ryan has already written several compelling series, including the Raven’s Shadow trilogy (succeeded by the Raven’s Blade duology), the Slab City Blues series, the Draconis Memoria trilogy and his Seven Swords series.  All these series sound pretty awesome, and I have been meaning to check out some of Ryan’s works for years, especially his Raven’s Shadow books.  Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to go back and read any of them, which I really regret.  So when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Pariah a couple of weeks ago, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it serves as the first book in the brand new The Covenant of Steel series, which I thought would be a good way to experience Ryan’s writing style.  I am very glad that I did as The Pariah was an outstanding and powerful fantasy read that I had a wonderful time getting through.

Alwyn is a young outlaw, trained by his band to steal, kill, spy and deceive.  Raised in the massive and forbidding forest known as the Shavine Marches, in the heart of the kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn serves the notorious Deckin Scarl, a feared and revered bandit king who rules the forests with an iron fist.  Following a deadly civil war, Deckin finds himself with an opportunity to eliminate a recently installed duke and his family and seize his power and lands.  However, before he can enact his ambitious and murderous plan, the bandit horde is betrayed, Deckin is executed and Alwyn is imprisoned, sent to work a lifetime in the labour prison known as the Pit Mines.

Determined to escape the mines and get revenge on the person responsible for the death of everyone he knew and loved, Alwyn finds himself under the sway of an inspirational cleric imprisoned alongside him.  Under her tutelage, Alwyn learns a subtler art and becomes a scribe of great skill.  However, his desire for freedom and revenge is never far from his mind, and he soon leads the inmates of the pit in an ambitious escape attempt, and so sets forth a series of events that will change Albermaine forever

Managing to escape from the prison and find sanctuary, Alwyn learns much and finds himself taking on many guises including that of scribe, scholar, advisor, and thief, as he attempts to find safety, wealth, and revenge.  However, fate never appears to be on Alwyn’s side, and his bad luck eventually forces him to join a military company serving a noble lady who believes herself touched by the gods.  Pledging himself to this company to save his life, Alwyn traverses battlefields and warzones across Albermaine, encountering some of the unusual people who inhabit this chaotic realm.  His adventures will place him at the centre of the formative events of the kingdom and the church, but how will this scribe of bastard birth rise to become one of the most infamous figures of the age?

This was an outstanding novel from Ryan and one that makes me really regret not checking out some of his previous novels earlier.  The Pariah contains an epic and comprehensive fantasy tale that sees a flawed protagonist traverse a compelling and well-established new fantasy realm.  I had an amazing time getting through this impressive novel and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Pariah has a really great story that I got pretty damn addicted to.  This latest book from Ryan is told in the chronicle form, as penned by its protagonist, Alwyn Scribe, who recounts his life story, including the early events which are the focus of this book.  Ryan dives right into The Pariah’s narrative extremely quickly, with details of the setting and history weaved in as the tale progresses.  The story has an intriguing start to it, showing Alwyn as the young member of a bandit crew with an ambitious leader.  However, the story goes in some very interesting and devastating directions fast, with a brutal massacre changing the entire status quo for the protagonist and forcing him onto a new path.  The rest of the story follows Alwyn as he becomes mixed up with a series of inspirational leaders, mysterious magic users, and fun side characters, whose plans and beliefs forces the protagonist into great adventure and intrigue.  This leads to some awesome and memorable scenes, including a dangerous prison break, some epic battle sequences, and innumerable mysteries and revelations, several of which are left open for the author to explore in the rest of the series.  This all leads to an intriguing and action-packed conclusion that showcases the protagonist’s growth, while also setting up the future entries in the series pretty well.

I deeply enjoyed the author’s impressive writing style in this novel, especially with the entire novel set out in the form of first-person chronicle.  Due to the cool stories that it can tell, I have a lot of love for the chronicle format, and I felt Ryan did a really good job of utilising it in The Pariah.  The post-examination of Alwyn’s story from his older self provides a unique and compelling view of the events unfolding around him, and I enjoyed the various notes from his older self that hint at future events and hidden secrets.  These discussions of future events help to add a certain amount of anticipation and suspense at various points at the novel, such as the early hints about the ambush at the bandit camp or mentions about future dark meetings with certain characters.  I also found the focus of this book to be quite interesting, especially as a large portion of the novel was more concerned with setting up future storylines, rather than moving the story along at a quicker pace.  This is a very classic epic fantasy move from Ryan, and it quite enjoyed the way in which he took the time to establish the protagonist, the supporting cast, and the settings, with a particular focus on some of the formative events of Alwyn’s life.  While I enjoyed this set-up, it does steal a little excitement and momentum from the narrative, although I think the sheer amount of interesting setting detail and the intriguing potential of several established, long-term storylines more than makes up for it.  All these interesting writing elements helped to turn The Pariah into a very exciting and compelling read, and I really loved the way in which they enhanced the already awesome narrative.

I also quite enjoyed the new setting that Ryan set up for The Covenant of Steel series, which has an interesting medieval European feel to it, equipped with knights, forest-dwelling bandits, and religious crusades.  The entire novel is set within the Western Duchies of Albermaine, a nation riven by civil war, invasion and religious instability.  This proves to be an outstanding and compelling background to the awesome story contained with The Pariah, especially as the protagonist finds himself visiting some of the more unique locations of this setting during major historical events.  I personally enjoyed the cool forest lair portrayed in the start of the novel, mainly because Ryan was trying to emulate a darker version of the Robin Hood tale, but there is also a deadly prison mine and an elaborate cathedral that serve as major settings which I thought were really good. 

There is also a great focus on the political and religious makeup of Albermaine, and this results in some fascinating storylines.  I really liked the focus on the martyr-based and corrupt overarching religious organisation that has substantial control of the kingdom, as that forms a driving point of the plot, with the protagonist becoming involved with several unorthodox clergy members, who bring down the wrath of the rest of the church for their actions.  Also, I am kind of curious to see if a prophesied end-of-the world event that multiple characters preach about actually occurs in future novels, especially as it would be a pretty fun story moment if it did.  The protagonist also seems drawn to several people with magical abilities considered heretical by the church, which offers an interesting counterpoint to his other threats, especially as each of these magical characters produce impressive mysteries and potential dark storylines.  I was impressed with how much time the author takes to imbue his setting with a massive amount of detail and after the quick start to the narrative, the reader is given a crash course in the history and politics of the realm.  Despite the level of detail, I think that Ryan spread the world building out to an acceptable degree, and I never felt too overwhelmed with the various explanations and world expansions.  I had a wonderful time traversing Albermaine with the protagonist and I look forward to seeing what additional developments and storylines occur within it in the future novels.

As I mentioned above, the novel is solely told from the perspective of protagonist Alwyn, later known as Alwyn Scribe once he takes up his profession, who is penning the events of his younger life.  Alwyn is an interesting protagonist to follow and thanks to the author’s use of the chronicle style, you really get a sense of the character’s personality, motivations, and intentions as the novel progresses.  Initially starting off as a young thief with immense loyalty to his chief, Alwyn goes through a lot as the novel progresses, forced to make hard decisions and encountering horrors, mistakes and a load of enemies as his tale progresses.  I found Alwyn to be a complex and compelling figure, and I didn’t always like him or his decisions, especially when he was reckless and rash.  However, he does grow as the novel progresses and, while he still has a lot more development to go, I felt that he was a better character at the end of the novel.  I liked the various talents that Alwyn develops throughout the novel, and it was fun to have a more complex and less noble figure, thanks to his past as a thief and conman.  I especially enjoyed his transition into a scribe, which the character soon sees as his primary profession, and it certainly is an interesting and compelling role for a fantasy protagonist.  I liked the way in which the older version of the character tells the story, especially as there are some great reflections about his actions and his personality during that time, and you can often hear the protagonist’s regret over what he did and what is to come.  I cannot wait to see what happens to this character in the future, and I kind of suspect that his tale is not going to come to a very happy end.

Aside from Alwyn, The Pariah is filled with a massive contingent of side and supporting characters who Alwyn meets throughout his adventures.  These characters are featured perfectly throughout the narrative and I loved the unique and compelling ways in which they influenced the overall story.  Ryan invests a lot of time into developing many of these characters, even some who had more minor roles, providing interesting personal histories and personality traits to make them stand out, and I appreciated how complex and compelling their storylines could turn out to be.  I found it interesting that there was a focus on inspiration leaders, with Alwyn falling in with three separate figures in this novel, each of whom commanded his loyalty through different means and whom he became close with in different ways (one is a surrogate father, another a teacher, while the third has a very complicated and constantly evolving relationship with the protagonist).  There were also some interesting antagonists featured throughout the novel, and while a couple died before their time, Ryan made sure to leave some of the better ones alive for the next entry in the series, and I am sure they will have an impact there.  Each of the characters featured in The Pariah added a lot to the plot, and I cannot wait to see what unique figures are featured in Ryan’s next entry.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Pariah, I decided to try out the audiobook format instead.  I am glad that I did as this was an excellent and enjoyable audiobook that was really fun to listen to.  Due to its massive story, The Pariah has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, although I managed to get through it in less than a week as I really got into the amazing story.  The audiobook moved at a great pace, ensuring that there were never any dull or slow moments for the listener to get bogged down in.  I also found that the audiobook format was a great way to absorb the intense amount of world-building, and it also lent itself to some of the exciting fight scenes extremely well.  I was also impressed by the narration of Steven Brand, who brought a wonderful energy to this format.  Brand has an amazing voice and he quickly leapt into the role of the narrator, telling the unique tale of the protagonist’s life and inhabiting the character seamlessly.  I loved the distinctive and well-fitted voices that Brand used throughout The Pariah, and he really helped to turn this format into something special.  As a result, the audiobook version of this book comes highly recommended and I will probably end up listening to the rest of this series in this format.

The Pariah by Anthony Ryan is an epic and deeply compelling piece of fantasy fiction that is really worth reading.  Perfectly setting up Ryan’s intriguing new series, The Pariah was an awesome outing from this talented author, and I loved the brilliant story, complex characters and chaotic setting that was featured throughout it.  I cannot wait to see how this awesome series is going to turn out, and The Covenant of Steel novels look set to be one of the most iconic fantasy series of the next few years.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 19 January 2021)

Series: Rook & Rose – Book One

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic and masquerade combine into one of the most creative fantasy releases from the first half of 2021 with The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick, the first book in the Rook & Rose trilogy.

The Mask of Mirrors was a fantastic novel that caught a lot of buzz earlier in the year.  This book was written by M. A. Carrick, the joint pen name of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, two established fantasy authors who are teaming together for their first novel.  This debut novel was pretty impressive and the two talented authors ended up producing an exciting and complex fantasy tale that sees a young con artist attempt to change her fate.

Welcome to Nadežra, a city of iniquity and greed that forms the gateway between two warring cultures.  Many people call Nadežra home, although few truly prosper, with only the great noble houses and their supporters gaining any true wealth.  However, one young woman is about to change everything.  Ren is a former street rat of Nadežra who escaped the city years ago to seek her fortune.  Returning after several years, Ren has taken on an entirely new persona: Renata Viraudax, a mysterious and seemingly wealthy noblewoman from the capital, come calling on her long-lost relatives.  Ren hopes to con her way into the once great noble family of House Traementis and use their name and legacy to make her fortune and ensure a comfortable life for herself and her sister.  But as she begins to worm her way into the family, she soon finds that the life of a noble in Nadežra is far more complex than she ever imagined.

Despite their noble standing, House Traementis is in poor shape, and if Ren is going to make money off them, she first needs to ensure their success.  However, a powerful rival family is seeking to destroy House Traementis, and they will do anything in their power to get their way.  Forced to work with criminals and shadows to achieve her goal, Ren will find just how ugly the glittering nobles of Nadežra can be.  Unbeknownst to Ren, a far more insidious presence is lurking within the city, killing children and unleashing corrupt magic for their own goals.  Worse, this evil has a deadly connection to Ren’s past and wants to use her to destroy everything she holds dear.  Can Ren overcome this evil while maintaining her cover, or will the nobility of Nadežra eat her whole?

This was an extremely captivating first outing from this new writing team, and I deeply enjoyed the cool and compelling story that they came up with.  The Mask of Mirrors is a complex tale that expertly combines intriguing and clever fantasy elements with a thrilling confidence trick, as the protagonist attempts to work her way into high society.  Of course, nothing works out that simply, as the protagonist soon finds herself embroiled in all manner of scandals, plots and deadly feuds, producing an excellent story. 

While I did enjoy the overall narrative, the book did start off a little slow and it took me a while to get really excited about it.  I personally only got hooked when the character of the Rook was added in.  The Rook is a mysterious, Zorro-esque (perhaps more Tuxedo Mask than Zorro) character who haunts the streets of Nadežra, fighting oppression and tyranny while thumbing his nose at authority.  Following a great duel sequence, the mystery of the Rook’s identity becomes a major part of the plot, and I found myself really getting into this and the other interesting storylines.  The rest of the novel flows at a fantastic pace, especially after the authors set up so many fascinating and compelling plot points at the start of the book that slowly come to fruition.  There are some amazing moments throughout the novel, and I was really impressed by a particularly tragic moment that occurred around two-thirds of the way through, which was shocking and surprising.  The entire narrative comes together in an excellent conclusion, providing a satisfying and moving ending, while also setting up some excellent moments for the next two entries in the series.  I did think that the novel could maybe have benefited from either finishing at the big moment I mentioned above, or by trimming around 100 pages out of the middle of the book.  Some of the twists at the end of The Mask of Mirrors were also a little predictable, especially around the identity of the antagonists (it literally could not have been anyone else).  However, I think that the eventual reveal about who was under the Rook mask was handled beautifully, and I honestly did not know which direction they were going to go in for much of the plot.  I had a really amazing time getting through this story, and I look forward to seeing how these two talented authors continue it in the next two entries in the series.

The Mask of Mirrors contains a fantastic collection of characters who offer up a range of different perspectives and vantage points to tell a massive and complete narrative.  The authors behind this book spent a lot of time building up the various characters, ensuring that they had intriguing and tragic backstories, which leads to some fantastic development throughout the course of the novel and the entire series.  The most prominent character is Ren, a former local who attempts to pull off and ambitious con.  Ren is a confident, talented, haunted figure, who experienced great tragedy at an early age and is still trying to pull herself together.  She is forced to return to the city that she fled from years before to achieve greatness and make money and ends up connecting to her heritage as well as being forced to relive her greatest mistakes and traumas.  I loved the fantastic storylines surrounding Ren, and she proves to be quite a complex character.  Rather than being obsessed with money and dislike of the noble class in Nadežra, Ren grows to care for her marks and works to save them and the entire city when the antagonist makes their move.  Ren proves to be an exceptional central character to follow, especially as she provides the most insight into one of the main magical disciplines featured in the book, and it will be very interesting to see how her storyline continues later in the series, especially after she gains a mask of her own.

Other great characters contained within this novel include ruthless rising crime boss Derossi Vargo, a man with great ambition who is willing to risk anything and anyone to achieve his goal.  Vargo, a seemingly self-made man, proves to be one of the most entertaining and enthralling figures in the entire novel, and I deeply enjoyed seeing him work with Ren while enhancing his own plans.  It looks like Carrick has some major plans for Vargo, and he could be an amazing overarching antagonistic figure.  Another excellent character is Grey Serrado, a police officer and friend of the Traementis who finds himself investigating some of the major activities occurring the city.  Grey is a conflicted and damaged character, constantly torn between his duty as an officer and his heritage.  He goes through some major events throughout this novel and looks set to be a major figure throughout the rest of the series.  I also enjoyed Ren’s adopted siblings Tess and Sedge, who act as fantastic supporting figures to Ren and her plans.  Carrick develops them quite nicely and they prove to be entertaining figures who have a long and caring relationship with Ren.  I also appreciated the focus on the members of House Traementis, the people that Ren is trying to con.  The Traementis are a once great house who have fallen on hard times and are slowly falling into oblivion due to a rumoured curse.  While you initially aren’t too concerned with these characters, due to their status as patsies, the three surviving members swiftly grow on you, enough that you eventually start to judge Ren’s continued attempts to con them.  Finally, I have to say that the masked Rook was a particularly awesome character, and I deeply loved his inclusion in the plot.  It was so much fun trying to figure out who he was, and the authors utilised him to perfection to create an outstanding narrative.

You cannot talk about The Mask of Mirrors without discussing the complex and distinctive setting that is the city of Nadežra.  Nadežra is a sprawling, independent city state resting on a delta, filled with palaces, slums, massive buildings and all manner of different people.  Due to its unique history, Nadežra is home to several distinct ethnic groups, the local Vraszenians underclass and the Liganti upper class.  The two ethnic groups are opposites, and there is substantial friction between them, especially as the Vraszenians feel like second-class citizens in their own historical city.  While most of the novel shows the two groups living mostly in harmony, the lingering tension between the two groups becomes a major plot point as the novel, and I think that the authors did an outstanding job highlighting this and using it as part of the story.  Carrick provides detailed explorations of the different cultures between the two groups, and it was interesting to see how it partially paralleled some real-life political situations.  It was also quite interesting to see that, despite the cultural differences and clashes, Nadežra proves to extremely woke and tolerant when it comes to issues of gender and LGTB+ issues.  Not only are there several prominent female figures within the city but there also several homosexual, nonbinary and transgender characters.  I love the way in which most modern fantasy novels are featuring more and more of these aspects in their settings, and this was a great example of that.  The city of Nadežra proves to be a very magical place, and there is so much detail, backstory and culture contained within that the reader will feel like they are actually walking the streets.

Carrick also comes up with several distinctive forms of magic, which are as diverse and different as the various cultures contained within the city.  There are three major forms of magic shown in the book, although I had to say that I found all three of them to be a little less dramatic than you would expect in a fantasy book.  The first one of these is numinata, which is sort of a combination of geometry and astronomy, often using complex glyphs or geometric patterns.  Numinata is generally used by the Liganti and is considered a more cultured and precise form of magic.  The Vraszenian magic, on the other hand, is based on patterns and dreams, and is mostly shown through the protagonist’s pattern reading, a form of tarot card reading which gives glimpses into the past, the present and the future.  The final form of magic is imbuing, which allows the user to put a little bit of their essence into an item or product to enhance its effect.  All three magics are featured fairly prominently within The Mask of Mirrors and prove to give the novel a unique feel, while also highlighting the cultural and social differences between the ethnic groups.  While I did think that much of the magic was a little undefined in the novel, it becomes a key part of the plot, and it was interesting to see how the combination of magics could create some nightmarish results.  Overall, I deeply enjoyed the extraordinary and detailed setting that Carrick came up for The Mask of Mirrors and I found myself getting really lost in its spectacle and details.  While I would have preferred just a little more info about the universe’s magical rules, I felt that Carrick did a wonderful job pulling this together, and it was a definite highlight of this great book.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Mask of Mirrors, narrated by Nikki Massoud, who has done several interesting audiobooks in the last year.  While this is a pretty long audiobook (at 23 hours and 13 minutes, it is the 17th longest audiobook I have ever listened to) I am actually incredibly glad that I ended up checking out the audiobook format of this book.  The complex narrative and immensely detailed setting really came to life, and I found myself absorbing a whole lot more of the story and the beauty of the background.  However, the real advantage of this format was the outstanding narration by Massoud.  Massoud did an exquisite job portraying the various characters featured within The Mask of Mirrors, capturing each figure perfectly and providing them with an outstanding and wildly fitting voice.  To achieve this, Massoud utilises a wide array of different voices and accents, which really help you differentiate the various characters, and which help to show their nationality or social status.  I was particularly impressed at how Massoud was able to showcase the various personas of the main character, Ren.  This was achieved by seamlessly changing accents depending on which character Ren was playing at the time.  For example, when Ren was with her sister or pretending to be a local, Massoud would use the rougher, more exotic accent that all the Vraszenian characters have.  However, when the character changed back into the persona of Alta Renata, her voice would become a lot more cultured, mimicking the nobility.  This seamless change between the various voices was perfectly done, and I really appreciated the narrator’s determination to capture the separate halves of the character.  This was some truly impressive voice work, and I think that listening to the audiobook format ended up adding to my overall rating for the novel.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick is an outstanding and moving fantasy novel that I had a wonderful time reading.  Featuring an excellent narrative, some complex characters and a detailed and memorable fantasy setting, this debut novel from the writing team of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms was an immense amount of fun and I really got into this fantastic story.  The Rook & Rose trilogy looks set to a spectacular series and I am quite excited to see how all the books turn out.  The next entry, The Liar’s Knot, is set for release in December, and I look forward to continuing this great series into the New Year.

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 4 May 2021)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a dark and powerful Norse-inspired fantasy with the incredible and addictive new novel from superstar fantasy author John Gwynne, The Shadow of the Gods.  Gwynne is highly regarded fantasy author who has been making some major waves since his 2012 dark fantasy debut, Malice, the first book in The Faithful and the Fallen series.  Gwynne has so far written two major fantasy series, the four-novel long The Faithful and the Fallen, and the sequel Of Blood and Bone series.  His latest novel, The Shadow of the Gods, is the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, which will follow a group of epic protagonists in a bloody and grim Norse-inspired fantasy world.

I must admit that until recently I had not had the pleasure of reading any of John Gwynne’s novels.  This has always seemed like a major oversight on my behalf, especially as most fantasy reviewers massively talk up Gwynne’s existing series. While my attention was drawn to this book thanks to its baller cover (I mean look at it, so awesome), it initially was not a major reading priority for me.  However, this changed once the reviews for The Shadow of the Gods started pouring in.  Within a day of its release, my inbox was getting blown up with glowing reviews, as nearly every member of the fantasy fiction community started singing the praises of Gwynne’s new book.  While I generally like making my own reading decisions, after seeing so many different reviewers claim it was one of the best books of the year, I honestly had no choice but to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did.

Hundreds of years ago, the gods fought in a brutal and fatal war in the lands of Vigrið for power, vengeance, and pride.  When the fighting stopped all the gods lay dead, the land was shattered, and hordes of monsters and demons were unleashed upon the world.  Now, after barely surviving the carnage of the god’s war, humans dominate Vigrið, with powerful jarls fighting for control of the towns while mercenary war bands quest after monsters and the most feared inhabitants of Vigrið, the Tainted.  The Tainted are human descendants of the gods who bear small remnants of their savage power, and who are now hunted out of fear and a desire to harness their power for the wars to come.

While life is always bloody in Vigrið, times are especially bleak now with war looming on the horizon, monsters roaming the wilds and sinister forces gather out of sight.  In these dark times, three dangerous people will find the fate of Vigrið resting in their hands.  These new heroes include Orka, a hunter and trapper who lives a quiet life in the wilds with her family, attempting to avoid her troubled past while raising her young son.  Meanwhile, Varg, an escaped thrall seeking answers, finds unexpected friendship by joining the legendary Bloodsworn mercenary company.  Finally, Elvar, a young noblewoman running from her family, seeks glory and battle fame as part of the Battle-Grim, another mercenary band who specialise in capturing Tainted humans.

Soon, all three of these fighters are faced with new and life-changing challenges.  Orka is forced to embark on a bloody mission of vengeance when her peaceful life is shattered and her son is taken from her.  Varg attempts to reconcile his responsibilities to the Bloodsworn and his own personal oaths, as the war band march into the wilderness to face a mysterious foe.  Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a legendary quest to find the final battleground of the gods.  However, all three will be unprepared for the revelations, lies and bloodshed about to be unleashed before them.  A dangerous conspiracy is forming in Vigrið that will shatter the very land and bring untold chaos to humanity.  Not all the gods are dead, and those that survive are very angry!

So, a little life lesson for me here: when the entire reviewing world says a book is good, then you can be damn sure that it will be an amazing read!  In this case, The Shadow of the Gods turned out to be an exceptional and captivating novel which provides an intense and clever story with great characters exploring a harsh and broken world.  Gwynne did an incredible job with his latest novel, and this was easily one of the best fantasy books I have read so far this year, earning an easy five-star rating from me.  The Shadow of the Gods has an incredible and powerful narrative that becomes even more addictive and exciting the further you get into it.  This is an outstanding and dark fantasy story which cleverly Gwynne has anchored to three separate point-of-view characters, Orka, Varg and Elvar.  I really liked how Gwynne came up with three separate narratives that are fun and memorable in their own unique way, and The Shadow of the Gods is stronger because of this.

The first one of these independent storylines revolves around Orka, a skilled and deadly warrior who has taken to living as an isolated hunter with her husband and young son.  Initially attempting to stay out of the politics and battles of Vigrið, and with a mysterious past surrounding her, Orka is eventually forced into action when her home is destroyed and her son is kidnapped.  What follows is a bloody and brutal revenge story, as Orka traverses the landscape in search of her son, killing everyone in her way.  Accompanied by two inexperienced fighters, Orka cuts a fantastic path of vengeance and despair throughout the world, eventually revealing just how dangerous she can be.  Orka’s story is really fantastic, and I loved seeing her on her quest for vengeance, blood and her son.  Gwynne weaves an incredible narrative around the character and takes her to some dark and dangerous places, as she is forced to contend with conspiring jarls, rogue warbands, vengeful fighters and dangerous Tainted with unknown agendas.  The author also puts some very impressive character work into Orka.  Initially shown as a mysterious being who is haunted by her past and is only just keeping her aggressive instincts in check for the sake of her family, Orka soon displays increasing violence and prowess as her storyline continues and she loses more control.  This was a fantastic and epic story, which has an outstanding ending with some extremely fun, if slightly predictable, twists to it.

The next storyline follows the amazing Varg, a former thrall who has run away after killing his owners.  In desperate need of magic to avenge his dead sister, Varg attempts to join the Bloodsworn, a highly regarded mercenary company, to make use of their seiðr-witch.  After impressing the Bloodsworn, Varg travels with them as an apprentice mercenary, unable to use the seiðr-witch until he proves his worth.  His first quest with the Bloodsworn takes him to a remote part of Vigrið to investigate missing villagers.  As Varg struggles between fulfilling his oath to his sister and starting a new life, he will experience betrayal, despair, and terrible revelations.  This is another excellent storyline which has a lot of awesome elements to it.  Not only is there a lot of action and intrigue as the Bloodsworn find themselves in the middle of the chaos infecting Vigrið, but it also serves as a fantastic tale of friendship, redemption, and camaraderie.

Varg proves to be a really good central protagonist and readers will quickly become attracted to his resilience, natural battle prowess and deep inner tragedy.  A former slave, Varg is unused to friendship or support from those around him, as the only person he could ever count on was his sister, whose death he seeks to avenge.  However, when confronted by the easy friendship of his fellow Bloodsworn brothers, Varg finds himself suffering from some dramatic inner conflict, especially as he believes himself undeserving of support and kindness, and his happiness feels like a betrayal to his dead sister.  This is an amazing bit of character work here, and I really appreciated Varg’s impressive personal story.  His background as a slave also ensures that this storyline features more background about this world than some of the other stories do, and you also get a series of training montages as Varg learns how to fight as a member of the Bloodsworn.  This storyline is further enhanced by a great band of supporting characters, especially as Varg finds himself fighting side by side with an eclectic group of unique and outrageous warriors.  There are several fantastic and enjoyable side characters featured amongst the Bloodsworn, although my favourite must be the cocky and entertaining Svik, a skilled warrior with a love of cheese and a funny tale to back it up (trust me, it is worth reading just to see him tell his cheese tale).  These supporting characters help to make Varg’s storyline the most entertaining and humorous parts of the book and it is near impossible not to fall in love with the various members of the Bloodsworn.

The final character arc featured in The Shadow of the Gods follows the young warrior, Elvar.  Elvar is the daughter of a powerful jarl who gave up a life of comfort and forced marriage to join the Battle-Grim, another notorious mercenary warband who specialise in killing monsters and trapping Tainted to sell them for profit.  After capturing an unusual family of Tainted, Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a quest of epic proportions that will change the world.  This was another impressive and captivating storyline which has some very unique differences from the other character arcs.  Elvar is an excellent point-of-view character with a complex past, who presents an interesting counterpoint to the other two protagonists.  While Orka and Varg and primarily motivated by family and vengeance, Elvar is primarily concerned with proving her worth to her crew, her commander, and her overbearing family, and is determined to win enough battle fame to outshine her father.  I also loved the comparisons between the Bloodsworn and the Battle-Grim, and it was interesting to see how the similarities and differences between the warbands, especially as the Battle-Grim are more concerned with wealth and reputation.  This storyline is a particularly ambitious and contains some amazing battle sequences, especially one at the start against a troll, and there is much more of a focus on fighting within a shield wall as a unit.  This storyline also has one of the best twists in the entire novel, as well as an extremely impressive ending that will have major implications for the rest of the series.

The three narratives are generally kept very separate right up until the end with only a minimal amount of crossover.  This means that the readers end up getting three distinct stories with a unique group of characters set within the same book.  I think that this was a pretty cool way to start the wider series off, especially as it let the reader see more of the universe, while also expertly establishing the main protagonists and their storylines.  At the same time, limiting the narrative to only three major characters (I understand that Gwynne usually uses more), also ensures that the story does not get too fractured, and that the reader has time to get properly invested in each storyline.  I had a wonderful time reading each of the three storylines, and I honestly enjoyed each of them pretty much equally.  This is pretty rare for novels that use multiple POV characters, as there is usually one narrator or storyline that the reader enjoys more than others.  I will admit that Elvar’s storyline did take me a little longer to get into, but I become extremely hooked on it after a few chapters.  If I had to choose an absolute favourite storyline, I would say that the Varg chapters were really appealing to me, and I enjoyed seeing his cool story of redemption, as well as his fun companions.  While the stories were primarily kept separate, a few overarching plotlines and a couple of supporting characters are shared between the three arcs.  While subtle, it does perfectly set up an overarching conspiracy that has major implications for the entire plot and which sets up the next novel perfectly.  This makes for a pretty epic novel, and it is one that no fantasy fan will be able to easily put down.

I was deeply impressed by the clever and memorable fantasy universe that Gwynne came up with for The Shadow of the Gods.  The world of Vigrið is a thrilling dark fantasy setting, filled with all manner of dangerous monsters, dead gods and roving warbands, all of which proves to be an amazing backdrop to the overall story.  I loved the beautiful combination of fantasy elements with Norse historical inspirations, and it was pretty damn cool to see Viking-esque warriors facing off against monsters and magically enhanced beings.  The author does a great job capturing the intricacies of these Norse elements, and the reader is treated to detailed depictions of Viking tactics, weapons and fighting styles, such as a several brutal shield wall sequences.  Gwynne really tries to enhance the authenticity of these elements by using the Norse names for various things, such as brynja for a coat of mail, and I really appreciated this attention to detail.  I am not entirely sure he needed to describe someone’s head as a thought-cage every single time, though, as it that was a tad annoying.  In addition to the cool Norse elements, I loved the whole concept of a land of fallen gods where their human descendants are hunted and enslaved.  This opens some great storylines, especially around how the Tainted are treated, and it proves to be rather interesting to see which characters are secretly empowered (some are more obvious than others).  I think that Gwynne did a good job of introducing all the key elements of his universe throughout the course of the book, and the reader is never unsure or confused about what is going on.  This truly was an impressively inventive new setting, and I look forward to seeing what chaos and destruction occurs throughout it in the next novel, especially after that ending.

I ended up listening to The Shadow of the Gods’ audiobook format, which turned out to be an amazing and captivating production.  The Shadow of the Gods has a substantial run time of just over 18 hours; however, listeners are guaranteed to power through it in no time at all.  I found myself really enjoying into this book’s audiobook format, especially as it really helped to bring the excellent story to life for me, with many fantastic details and thrilling fight scenes become so much clearer.  One of the main reasons that this format works so well is the excellent narration from Colin Mace, a man who has lent his vocal talents to some great novels in the past, including The Black Hawks by David Wragg (as well as its upcoming sequel, The Righteous).  Mace has a very gruff and commanding voice that perfectly fits the dark, Nordic tone of The Shadow of the Gods.  Mace does an awesome job moving the story along at a quick pace, and there is never a single slow spot for the listeners to get stuck in.  At the same time, he produces some rough and damaged voices for the various characters featured within the book which I felt fit each of them perfectly and which helped to highlight their distinctive personalities.  This results in an exquisite and memorable audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking this impressive novel out.

With his latest incredible novel, the impressive John Gwynne once again shows why he is one of the leading authors of dark fantasy fiction.  The Shadow of the Gods is a fantastic and captivating read that takes the reader on thrilling adventures with some exceptional characters.  Featuring a powerful narrative and an intricate and grim new fantasy setting, The Shadow of the Gods is an outstanding and addictive novel that is one of the best fantasy books of 2021.  A highly recommended read for anyone looking for their latest dark fantasy fix, I cannot wait to see where Gwynne takes The Bloodsworn Saga next, but you have to know it is going to be something particularly epic.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 8 September 2020)

Series: The Drowning Empire – Book One

Length: 439 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From outstanding new fantasy author Andrea Stewart comes The Bone Shard Daughter, the first entry in The Drowning Empire series and one of the best debuts of 2020.

For generations the Sukai Dynasty has ruled the floating islands of the sprawling Phoenix Empire, protecting it from a mysterious force from the past.  In exchange for the Sukai’s protection and governance, each citizen must provide the Emperor with a shard of bone from their head, which can be utilised by the royal family to bring life to magnificent and dangerous magical constructs of flesh and power.  However, as the Emperor’s influence fades, revolution and change is coming to the Phoenix Empire, and the fate of the land lies with a handful of exceptional people.

In the capital, Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, has lost her status as heir after a disease takes her childhood memories from her.  Desperate to gain her father’s respect and her rightful place on the throne, Lin embarks on a dangerous quest to unlock the secrets of her father’s palace and gain the knowledge to master her family’s dangerous bone shard magic.  However, ambition and fear will drive her to attempt the impossible: turning her father’s most powerful constructs against their creator.

Elsewhere, Jovis, a notorious smuggler, is chasing the ghosts of his past as he attempts to find a shadowy ship that took something precious from him.  As he scours the seas of the Empire, he becomes an unlikely hero to the people, saving children from the Emperor’s bone shard tithe and ensuring their safety.  His mission will take him to the island of Nephilanu, where rebels are massing, and the governor’s unruly daughter Phalue finds herself torn between love and duty.  At the same time, a mysterious woman awakens on an isolated island with no memories of her past and a desire to gain freedom.  Each of these people will find the fate of many thrust upon them, and their adventures will shake the Phoenix Empire to its foundation.  But are any of them truly prepared for the consequences of their actions?

The Bone Shard Daughter is a fantastic and clever novel from Andrea Stewart that was one of the most hyped-up fantasy releases of last year.  I have been meaning to read this excellent book for a while now and I finally got the chance to do so a couple of weeks ago.  I am extremely glad that I did as Stewart’s debut novel was an exciting and captivating book that transports the reader to a compelling and unique fantasy setting with all manner of conflicts, magic and terrible secrets.  This was an outstanding debut novel, and I had a great time reading it.

Stewart has come up with a captivating and complex character-driven narrative for her first novel, which sees several young protagonists from various walks of life attempt to survive in this brutal empire while also discovering its dangerous and earth-shattering secrets.  The Bone Shard Daughter contains four separate and distinctive storylines, each of which follows a separate protagonist (or in one case, two linked protagonists), on their own adventure of discovery.  Stewart does a fantastic job of introducing each of these storylines at the start of the novel, with some compelling opening chapters that hook the reader in different ways, whether with descriptions of complex magic, the start of an apparent kidnapping or a frantic attempt to escape from a sinking island.  Once these storylines have their hooks in the reader, Stewart starts to grow each of them throughout the course of the book, with all four of them maintaining a well-balanced pace.  While some of the storylines have a little more prominence than others, they are all really intriguing and exciting in their own right, especially as they have different focuses based on their respective protagonist’s abilities and history.  As the narrative progresses, the separate storylines start to come together as the various protagonists interact with each other, and the reader is gradually treated to a much more cohesive tale.  I felt that these unique storylines fitted together well, and Stewart ensured that they support and strengthen each other, forming a coherent and captivating narrative.  The end result is an excellent tale, filled with conflict, revenge, betrayal and magical chaos.

Stewart sets the narrative around five excellent point-of-view characters, each of whom narrates several chapters within The Bone Shard Daughter.  All five of these fantastic protagonists have their own enjoyable tale to tell, and their varied narratives helped to produce a comprehensive and rich overall narrative.  While each character has their own role to play in the novel, two of these characters in particular, Lin and Jovis, have more prominence then their fellows, especially as their chapters are told in the first person.  Lin is the young daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire, who has only recently recovered from a peculiar sickness that took away her childhood memories.  Now out of favour with her father, who instead focuses on training her rival, Bayan, Lin uses her skills for climbing, exploring and thievery to steal her father’s keys and gain access to the locked rooms of the palace.  With each key she gains, Lin obtains more information about her past and the secrets behind her family’s powerful bone shard magic.  However, the more information she uncovers, the more she becomes certain that something is wrong, and that her father is no longer fit to be emperor.  I really enjoyed the Lin storyline; not only does it give the reader the most information about this series’ distinctive bone shard magic but there is a substantial amount of intrigue and mystery surrounding Lin’s entire life which I found really fascinating to unravel.  There are some really good twists involved with Lin’s tale, and this was definitely a standout part of The Bone Shard Daughter’s overall story.

The other major character is Jovis, a skilled smuggler, sailor and navigator with a knack for getting into trouble.  Jovis is a fun and entertaining fellow with a heart of gold, who runs afoul of everyone while trying to find his lost love, Emahla, who was taken from him by an unknown ship with blue sails many years before.  While searching for the ship, Jovis finds himself caught up in the wider story when he survives the sinking of an island, managing to rescue a small child and a strange aquatic creature he names Mephi.  Returning the child to its parents, Jovis gains a reputation as a legendary hero, especially as he finds himself gaining unnatural strength and other abilities, and he soon becomes a key figure in the rebellion against the throne.  Due to his likeable personality, the adorable relationship he formed with Mephi, and his action-orientated chapters, Jovis quickly grew to become my favourite character within The Bone Shard Daughter and I deeply enjoyed seeing his adventures unfold.  Jovis proved to be the major bridging character of this novel, as he was the person who encountered many of the other protagonists, bringing their tales together and ensuring that they were all connected.  I also liked how Jovis’s story and points of reference were so different from Lin’s, due to his underprivileged start in life, as he has seen the worst that the Phoenix Empire and the Sukai Dynasty have to offer.  Jovis is also the most insightful and realistic protagonist of the bunch, able to spot the deeper and sinister motivations of some side characters that the other characters miss, and I appreciated how and why he developed these much-needed survival skills.  Overall, Jovis proved to be an exceptional and enjoyable character, and I looked forward to reading his chapters the most while getting through The Bone Shard Daughter.  There are a lot of questions left over when it comes to Jovis’s tale, especially with his relationship to Mephi, and it will be interesting to see how they unfold in future entries in this series.

In addition to the main characters of Lin and Jovis, there was the intriguing couple of Phalue, the Governor of Nephilanu’s daughter, and her girlfriend, Ranami.  Their joint storyline, which is told in the third person, follows the two as they become embroiled in a plot to overthrow Phalue’s corrupt father, with Ranami acting as the idealistic rebel while Phalue reluctantly goes along in the name of love.  This proved to be an excellent and enjoyable narrative that aims to highlight the inequality in the various classes featured throughout the empire and which seeks to explore the rebellion of the group known as the Shardless.  While neither character is featured as heavily as Lin or Jovis, Phalue and Ranami easily have the most interconnected storyline, and together they narrate nearly as many chapters as either of the main two protagonists.  While I quite enjoyed seeing Phalue and Ranami’s chapters unfold, I do have to admit that I wasn’t as invested in their storyline as I was with Lin’s or Jovis’s, as it just was not as interesting.  This was particularly true when Jovis arrives at Nephilanu, and becomes embroiled in their rebellions, as the charismatic smuggler immediately starts to steal focus from Phalue and Ranami.  I also really didn’t buy the relationship between these two as the book progressed, as there were way too many betrayals and lies by the seemingly highly moral Ranami to her girlfriend Phalue, and I am very surprised that they stayed together.  Still, there were some excellent moments in this chapter and it proved really intriguing to see.

The final point-of-view character in this novel is the mysterious Sand, who awakens on an island with no clear memories of who she is or how she arrived there.  Working with the similarly amnesiac inhabitants of her island, Sand attempts to find out something about her past, and swiftly determines that there is something very wrong with her life.  The chapters focusing on Sand and her compatriots, which are also told in the third person, are an intriguing and compelling addition to The Bone Shard Daughter but get the least amount of prominence throughout the book.  Due to the amnesiac nature of the protagonist, these chapters are shaded in mystery and uncertainty, and at first it is very unclear how they fit into the greater story, making them a little hard to get invested in.  However, as the novel progresses and more details are revealed about the island and its inhabitants, the reader swiftly begins to understand just how significant the character of Sand is and what has happened to her.  This was an interesting fourth storyline to this book, and while it was not featured as heavily or appeared to be as significant as the others, it is obviously going to be a major part of the series as a whole and was well set up.  Overall, I was deeply impressed with each of these fantastic characters and their captivating personal storylines, and it proved to be an exceptional and powerful centre to this entire novel.

In addition to the great story and excellent characters, I also really enjoyed the unique and inventive new fantasy world that Stewart created for The Drowning Empire series.  The Phoenix Empire, where the entirety of the series is set, is made up of a range of populated floating islands separated by sprawling oceans.  I quite enjoy novels that feature an oceanic or nautical theme to them, and Stewart features a number of fun sequences aboard or around boats, which here are powered by burning a magical substance to gain speed on the water ways.  I also liked the sequences set within the islands, as there is a particularly cool Asian influence to the people and settlements contained on them and I loved the unique and clever tale that they were able to inspire.  While there are some really cool elements to this setting, such as the vast and complex royal palace where Lin roams, the highlight of this world had to be the magical constructs that are powered by bone shard magic.  Each of these constructs contains a number of bone shards depending on their complexity, which give them intelligence and power, while simultaneously draining the life force out of the person from whom the shard was extracted.  Stewart, through the medium of her curious character Lin, provides a detailed and compelling examination of these constructs and the magical science behind them, and I really appreciated how the author set them up and utilised them throughout the novel.  These were a cool and distinctive part of The Bone Shard Daughter, and I look forward to seeing how Stewart expands on them in later books in her series.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is an amazing and incredible fantasy read that serves as the fantastic first entry in the cool new The Drowning Empire series and which really lived up to the hype I was hearing about it.  I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I really got lost in the inventive new fantasy world and the multiple compelling character perspectives.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to the see what happens in the series next.  The second entry in this series, The Bone Shard Emperor, is currently set for release in November this year, and I think it will end up being one of the top fantasy releases of 2021.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.

Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders.  Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world.  The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls.  However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned.  With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves.  However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.

Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose.  As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict.  A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.

Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it?  Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels.  I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last.  However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones.  I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019.  Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020.  Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.

For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world.  Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal.  While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are.  After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them.  At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events.  All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released.  While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.

One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story.  Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it.  Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships.  This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences.  In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them.  Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story.  I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine.  All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.

While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner.  At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination.  But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission.  Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel.  However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy.  Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination.  However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc.  A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour.  Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character.  The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.

In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew.  These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative.  The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly).  Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility.  Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience.  She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory.  Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature.  The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series.  The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew.  The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters.  However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader.  A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.

I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing.  I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him).  I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative.  Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations.  All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.

The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format.  I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison.  The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series.  I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel.  Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book.  Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do.  All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years.  This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world.  The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.  If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 29 September 2020)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book 17

Length: 15 hours and 43 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of the urban fantasy novel, Jim Butcher, returns with the next entry in his world-acclaimed Harry Dresden series, Battle Ground, an awesome novel that was one of the most anticipated releases of 2020.

Jim Butcher is a highly acclaimed fantasy author who has been dominating the market since his debut novel in 2000.  Butcher has written a number of books throughout his career, including his Codex Alera series, the first book of his planned Cinder Spires series, The Aeronaut’s Windlass and even a Spider-Man tie-in novel, Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours.  However, the body of work that Butcher is best known for is his long-running urban fantasy series, the Dresden Files.  The Dresden Files started back in 2000 with Storm Front and follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard who works as a private investigator in Chicago, solving supernatural crimes and protecting humans from dangerous magical creatures.  This series proved to be incredibly popular and is widely considered to be the gold standard of urban fantasy novels.  The Dresden Files currently consists of 17 books, with the universe expanded out with short stories, novellas and even some graphic novels.

While I have always heard incredible things about the Dresden Files books, I have not previously had the pleasure of reading any of them yet.  This is an admittedly massive gap in my fantasy reading knowledge, and it is one that I have been meaning to fill for a while.  So when I recently received a copy of the latest novel in the series, Battle Ground, I figured that this would be a perfect opportunity to finally break into the series.

For years, Harry Dresden, rogue wizard and general smartass, has defended the city of Chicago from all manner of supernatural threats and each time he has managed to keep it safe, until now!  War is coming to Chicago as a being of unbelievable power, the Last Titan, Ethniu, marches towards it, determined to have her revenge.  To achieve her goal, she has assembled a vast supernatural army and is in possession of a magical superweapon of unbelievable destructive power.  With these forces at her command, Ethniu has sworn to wipe out the entirety of Chicago in one night and kill all eight million of its inhabitants.

In order to combat this terrible threat, Dresden must rally together every friend, former enemy and magical ally he can find in order to face down the opposing army and stop Ethniu.  However, this will be no easy task.  Not only must he deal with the conflicting politics of the rival magical factions but dangerous monsters are also loose in the city, determined to take advantage of the destructive circumstances.  Worse, thanks to Ethniu’s superweapon, every electronic piece of technology in Chicago has been knocked out and the entire population is now helpless and unable to flee from the oncoming chaos.

As Dresden and his allies attempt drive back the enemies coming towards them, they face an uphill battle.  Ethniu is one of the most powerful beings in existence, and not even the combined might of Chicago’s magical elite may be enough to stop her.  Throughout this night Dresden will face terrible losses and be forced to make some of the hardest decisions in his life.  But even Dresden’s most desperate tricks may not be enough to turn the tide and save the city.  One thing is clear: no matter who wins, Dresden and the entire city of Chicago will never be the same again!

Well damn, Jim Butcher really went all out with Battle Ground and has produced one heck of an impressive novel.  This was a spectacular read, filled with a lot of huge, epic moments, smart storytelling, extremely likeable characters and clever fantasy inclusions, all wrapped up with a fun sense of humour and excitement.  Battle Ground is the 17th Dresden Files book, quickly following up the 16th book, Peace Talks (where several storylines explored in the novel originated).  I had an absolute blast reading Battle Ground, and I do have to admit that I am currently feeling a lot of regret for not getting into this series a heck of a lot sooner, as this latest entry is easily one of my favourite books of 2020.

At the heart of this outstanding novel is an extremely powerful story that sees beloved series protagonist Harry Dresden attempt to save his city from all-out destruction as a magical army invades, intent on killing everyone.  This results in an intense and action-packed novel that is a bit of a change of pace from some of the previous novels in the series, which usually read more like fantasy detective fiction.  Battle Ground is a war story, with the protagonist engaged in the battle of his life throughout the entirety of the novel.  Butcher starts Battle Ground off quickly with the protagonist having to face off against a kraken, which easily draws the reader in off the bat (I know I was pretty darn impressed with that introduction).  From there he sets up the start of the war perfectly, with a number of characters introduced as their roles in the coming fight are established, as well as an exploration of the various magical political entities in the city and why they are supporting Dresden in his fight.  It does not take long for the actual war for Chicago to start, and once it does the story does not slow down again until the battle reaches its brutal climax.  There are some truly epic and captivating battle sequences throughout the course of this book as Dresden and his allies face all manner of dangers and turmoil, including a range of distinctive adversaries from the previous entries in the series.  There are so many memorable and exciting moments that featured in this part of the book and I found myself going through an emotional ringer as everything unfolded, from feeling saddened at some critical scenes, to being inspired as a beloved character led an impassioned charge against the foe.  I was on the edge of my seat as I listened to Battle Ground’s story, and it honestly did not take me long to get completely and utterly addicted to the narrative as I desperately waited to see how the story would conclude.  When it did, I found myself completely satisfied with the ending and it left me with a deep longing to see where Butcher takes the series next.  Overall, this was an incredibly well-written and wildly exciting narrative which will stick in the readers mind as they wait for the next Dresden Files book to be released.

Now, was it a mistake coming into this series on the 17th book that serves as an epic conclusion to a number of key storylines?  Potentially.  But do I have any regrets about reading this latest Dresden Files novel?  Absolutely freaking not!  I had an incredible time with Battle Ground, especially as Butcher made sure to make this novel accessible to new readers, even with the book’s huge range of characters and massive stakes.  Pretty much every major character or event that is relevant to the main narrative of Battle Ground is explained in sufficient detail so that new readers coming to the series for the first time can follow what is happening and get a decent sense of the significance of a location, event from a prior book or the personal history that Dresden has with a character.  I do have to admit there were a few things I was a tad uncertain about, mainly because they would have been covered in Peace Talks.  For example, I did find the motivations of the book’s main antagonist, Ethniu, a little vague and there was a lack of build-up around her various allies and minions.  There is also a major twist towards the end of the book which did not hit me as significantly as it would have for a long-term reader of the series, as it is tied into several overarching plot threads from the previous books.  Despite this, I was able to follow the plot extremely closely, and my lack of prior knowledge in no way stopped me enjoying all the incredible action and wonderful characters that were part of the books plot.  As with any later addition to a series, Battle Ground is definitely intended to be enjoyed by established fans; however, I will recommend this to readers unfamiliar with the series as I know they will have an amazing time reading it.

One of the key things that I enjoyed about Battle Ground was the extremely likeable and entertaining series protagonist, Harry Dresden, who serves as the narrator of the entire story.  Dresden is a very fun and unique protagonist, and for most of the series he has worked outside of the established system of magical rule as a private investigator.  However, in this book he is part of the government, serving both the White Council of Wizards and as a member of Queen Mab’s court.  Despite this, he still retains his extreme anti-authoritarian streak and is constantly infuriating those people who are higher up on the magical hierarchy with his glib attitude.  I have a strong attachment to sarcastic and infuriating protagonists and Dresden is one of the more enjoyable ones I have seen in fiction.  Butcher really goes out of his way to make Dresden as likeable and entertaining as possible and most of the book’s brilliant humour is derived from Dresden’s comedic observations and statements about the events occurring around him and the outlandish people that he meets.  I also had to have a chuckle about the various pop-culture references that Dresden brought up throughout the course of the book, even in life threatening situations, such as the way he imitated Gandalf while holding off opponents on an iconic Chicago bridge.  Despite this carefree and entertaining exterior, Dresden is actually a very deep protagonist, weighed down by the responsibilities he faces and the constant desire not to be corrupted by the forces he encounters or bargains with.  Dresden goes through a lot of emotional damage in Battle Ground as he must not only contend with the guilt of letting this destruction reign down on his beloved hometown, but also with a series of losses that he faces along the way.  Butcher expertly captures Dresden’s emotional turmoil through his use of the first-person narrative, and the reader cannot help but be entranced by some of the darker moments this usually cheerful character experiences.  This excellent combination of characteristics really helps to turn Dresden into a relatable individual and an impressive protagonist and I cannot wait to see what happens to him in the future books of the series.

In addition to Dresden, Battle Ground features a veritable smorgasbord of cool side and supporting characters who the protagonist encounters throughout the course of the novel.  Due to the high stakes of the plot, this book contains a massive cast with a huge number of characters from all the previous books and novellas appearing in cameos or significant roles.  Most of these characters are really amazing, and Butcher does a fantastic job introducing them and ensuring that the reader knows who they are, what their connection to the protagonists is, as well as key elements of their history.  Due to my lack of familiarity with the series, I really appreciated the author’s dedication to reintroducing these characters and I felt fairly confident following who the various people were and what their role in the story was.  That being said, I was probably a little less emotionally impacted with some of the resultant twists and turns involving some of these characters, and I imagine long-time readers of the story are going to get a lot more out of their actions then a newcomer to the series.  These long-term readers should be warned that Butcher takes the stakes of this book particularly seriously and several characters are going to meet some dramatic fates.

I personally enjoyed many of the characters that were featured in the plot and I felt that each of these inventive personalities either added some real emotional depth to the novel or served as an entertaining additional to the story.  Some of my favourite characters in Battle Ground included River Shoulders (full name: Strength of a River in His Shoulders), a Sasquatch magician who wears Victorian era garb and who is one of the most likeable creatures in the book.  River Shoulders has a lot of fun moments throughout the story, although I have to highlight the quick scene which saw him make a pitch to improve race relations with an improvised ventriloquist act, as it made me laugh pretty hard.  I also really enjoyed Major General Toot-Toot Minimus, a small fairy who leads an army of Little Folk in defence of Dresden, all in the name of pizza.  Toot-Toot is one of the main comic reliefs of their entire novel and it was quite entertaining to see in action, especially when he manages to overcome the bigguns in defence of Za Lord.  However, the character I enjoyed the most aside from Dresden was Waldo Butters, Knight of the Cross.  Now, despite the fact that I would constantly think about the character of Butters from South Park whenever he appeared (in fairness, they have a lot of similarities with each other), Waldo Butters is probably the character who gets the most development and use throughout the course of Battle Ground.  Butters, who only recently took on the mantle of a Knight after spending most of the series as a defenceless sidekick, really comes into his own in Battle Ground, acting in a major defence role throughout the fight for the city.  Not only does he have some very inspiration fight sequences, but he also has a series of particularly emotional scenes with Dresden and adds a lot of heart to the narrative as a result.  I also really loved some of his scenes where he squares off against Battle Ground’s big bad, and you get a real Neville Longbottom vs Voldemort feel from it.  You can clearly see that Butcher has some big plans for Butters in the future, and I am personally cannot wait to see what they are.  I am honestly only scratching the surface of the various side characters who appeared throughout Battle Ground, but needless to say that they were all pretty exceptional and it was a real treat to meet them.

Battle Ground also served as my introduction to the magical version of Chicago that serves as the setting for this fantastic series.  This proved to be an excellent setting for this great book, and I really enjoyed the way that Butcher has melded together regular Chicago with some more subtle magical elements, such as a ruling magical council, hidden enclaves of power and mysterious creatures hiding just beneath the surface.  There are a lot of cool elements to this setting, and I think that the author did an amazing job reintroducing it for the context of this latest novel.  I was particularly impressed by the way Butcher brought a number of key city landmarks to life in this book, with several iconic pieces of Chicago used to great effect throughout the book as settings for epic scenes.  Unlike any previous book in the series, the events of Battle Ground ensure that Chicago goes through some massive changes as a magical army invades.  The destruction levelled upon Chicago is substantial, and there are several emotional sequences that see the citizens attempting to deal with these forces coming to kill them.  Naturally, this is going to have some major impacts in the future entries in the series, and I look forward to seeing what the long-term impacts of this book are going to be.

I also need to mention that, aside from Battle Ground’s main story, this novel and its associated audiobook format also contains the short story, Christmas EveChristmas Eve is a relatively tiny part of the novel, only made up of 15 pages (or around 25 minutes of the audiobook), and shows Dresden encountering several people on Christmas Eve.  This short story is set after the events of Battle Ground (despite being initially written and released in 2018) and contains a rather nice and emotionally rich narrative that examines Dresden’s emotional state as a father and friend.  Christmas Eve is a much more relaxed and lower-stakes story that Battle Ground, and I personally really enjoyed reading it after all the bloodshed, sacrifice and death of the main story.

While I did receive a nice hardcover copy of Battle Ground, I ended up listening to its audiobook format instead.  The Battle Ground audiobook runs for a little under 16 hours, which I powered through in only a few short days; it did not take me long to get addicted to this novel.  I deeply enjoyed the Battle Ground audiobook and I felt that it was an awesome way to enjoy this great book.  Not only did I find myself absorbing more of the story elements and getting drawn more into the plot but I also loved the top-shelf narrator they utilised for this audiobook.  Battle Ground was narrated by James Marsters, best known as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who has also narrated all the previous books in the series as well as the short stories and other associated novels.  I am a major fan of Marsters, having watched a ton of the television shows he has appeared in, so I was very excited to listen to one of the audiobooks he narrated.  Unsurprisingly, Marsters proved to be an outstanding narrator, empowering this already impressive novel with his amazing vocal talents and moving the story along at a brisk and exciting pace.  Marsters did an awesome job providing each of the characters with their own unique and distinctive voice which fit the personality and depiction of each character perfectly.  I was also particularly impressed with how he brought the book’s protagonist to life.  Marsters really dove into the character of Harry Dresden, providing a perfect voice for the maverick wizard that effectively captured his various quirks and personality traits.  This excellent narration also explored the various raw emotions that Dresden experienced throughout the course of the novel and you get a fantastic sense of what the character is going through and how much he is struggling.  I really have to highlight the enthusiastic emphasis that Marsters utilises when reciting Dresden’s various spells and I could totally imagine the protagonist shouting out his incarnations in that way.  I also liked the humorously altered voices that were utilised for some of the supernatural creatures, such as Toot-Toot, which was not only widely entertaining but which fit the outrageous character extremely well.  All of this makes for an incredible audiobook experience and I fully intend to listen to the other entries in the series rather than seeking out a physical copy.

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher is an extraordinary and epic urban fantasy novel that serves as the latest novel in Butcher’s acclaimed Dresden Files series.  Butcher has done an incredible job with Battle Ground, presenting the reader with an awesome and captivating narrative, filled with a huge array of enjoyable characters and clever fantasy elements.  The result is an outstanding and deeply impressive novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Battle Ground gets an easy five-star rating from me and it was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2020.  I cannot praise this novel enough and it certainly served as a wonderful introduction to the Dresden Files.  I am intending to go back and start reading the series from book one and I have no doubt I will love each and every entry in the series.  I am especially keen to check them out in their audiobook format because James Marsters has narrated each of them and I know I will deeply enjoy hearing these clever stories read out.  Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to see what other extraordinary stories exist within Butcher’s extensive Dresden Files.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 18 August 2020)

Series: The Siege – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to laugh like crazy with How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker, an intensely funny and clever fantasy read that was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

Several years after their home fell under a brutal and prolonged siege, the inhabitants of the City have settled into a new way of life.  There may be a vast army camped on the plains outside and the occasional catapult shot may demolish a house or two, but that does not mean that people cannot make some money and get on with their lives.  This includes Notker, an acclaimed actor, skilled lookalike and mediocre playwright, who scrapes a living by impersonating the rich and powerful of the City at parties while trying to get someone to pay him money for his latest play.  However, what Notker does not know is that fame, opportunity, and a rather large boulder are about to land in his lap.

When the City’s greatest hero and nominal leader, Lysimachus, secretly dies, his followers/handlers, desperate to stay in power, recruit Notker to play the role of a lifetime.  Impersonating Lysimachus, Notker continues to act as the city’s figurehead, allowing life to go on, and he even begins to think he has a handle on this simple job, until someone tries to murder him.  Now he finds himself in the midst of a brutal and ongoing power struggle as the various power players in the city attempt to manipulate him for their own ends resulting in him being crowned as Emperor of the entire Robur Empire (or what is left of it).

As Notker attempts to find some sanity within his home, he begins to understand what a fragile position the City is in.  With enemies surrounding them and the besiegers slowly overcoming the City’s defences, Notker needs to choose between making a run for it or trying to save the City.  But what difference can one very good actor make in a war?  If Notker has anything to do with it, everything!

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is another spectacular and extremely entertaining fantasy novel from legendary fantasy writer, K. J. Parker.  Parker, a pseudonym of bestselling author Tom Holt, has written a vast catalogue of books over the years, including a substantial collection of humorous and satirical fantasy novels.  I first really got into Parker’s work last year when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the awesome Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, a very funny novel that focused on a conniving engineer as he thwarted a massive army through guile, tricky and a substantial amount of BS.  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was an amazing read and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2019.  As a result, I have been eagerly keeping an eye out for any additional releases from Parker and was very excited when I saw that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It was coming out.  I was especially intrigued when I learnt that this latest Parker novel was some form of sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, and I was very, very happy when I got my copy of this latest book.

This new novel from Parker proved to be an extraordinary read and it was easily one of the funniest novels of 2020.  The author writes a clever, fast-paced and addictive story that utilises the author’s unique sense of humour to create a very entertaining piece of literature.  This is a very enjoyable read, and fans of Parker’s work will love that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, continuing some of the great storylines from the prior book.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star review from me.

Parker presents another brilliant and witty story for How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It that follows the adventures of another unlucky and jaded protagonist as he tries to survive the chaotic events unfolding around him.  Just like with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, this novel is written purely from the perspective of the protagonist as he chronicles his actions and personal history into a historical text.  This results in a very fast-paced and hilarious story, as the main character bounces from one bad situation to another, encountering plotters, ambitious politicians, angry crime bosses, dangerous invaders and one particular fierce actress who serves as Notker’s leading lady.  I absolutely loved the various outrageous and challenging situations that the protagonist finds himself in, and Parker does a fantastic job presenting them in a humorous way, showing how silly everything is and the various, clever and well-written solutions to these problems.  The entire story goes in some very fun and compelling directions and this ends up being an overall excellent narrative that is extremely well written.  I was able to predict the overall conclusion of the story somewhat in advance, but Parker did an amazing job setting it up and it resulted in a very entertaining and satisfying conclusion.  This was such an amazing story and I had an absolute blast getting through it, laughing my head off the entire time.

As part of this awesome and entertaining story, Parker sets up a whole new protagonist for this novel, Notker the liar.  Notker is another fun protagonist in a similar vein to the main character of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, in that he is a self-serving and opportunistic individual who is mostly looking out for his own wellbeing.  This changes once he takes on the assignment of impersonating the dim-witted but charismatic Lysimachus and soon finds himself responsible for the safety of the city.  While at first he is mostly trying to survive and find a way to escape from all the insanity and backstabbing that is his life, once he becomes more aware of the situation facing the City and the danger it is really in he begins to take on more responsibility, manipulating everyone so that they can start fighting a more effective war.  I really liked seeing this protagonist attempt to take control of the situation surrounding the City, especially as he appears to be one of the only sane people around.  Watching his various incredulous reactions to the problems presented to him and his various solutions, which are a combination of common-sense responses and brilliant but out-there tactics, is really entertaining.  I especially loved how Parker played up the actor/screenwriter aspect of the character as many of his greatest tricks are derived from theatre techniques, such as selling something to a crowd, misdirection or the value of good lighting.  There is also a great underlying aspect to the character as he pretends to be Lysimachus and he needs to strike a balance between responses that Lysimachus would have done and his own common sense and craftiness.  This compulsion to act like Lysimachus actually becomes a major problem for Notker as he enjoys being the heroic former gladiator and soon begins emulating him instead of acting in his usual manner of self-preservation.  All of this results in another complex and likeable central character who the reader cannot help but root for as he attempts to survive.  I really liked how Notker’s story progressed and it was a real joy to read about him from start to finish.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the way in which it acts as a fantastic and humorous follow-up to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled CityHow to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is set in the same city as the author’s 2019 release, and the story begins a few years after the events of this proceeding novel.  This new novel mostly presents a new story, told from the perspective of a different protagonist, but it does have a lot of connections to the previous novel.  The individual Notker is impersonating, Lysimachus, was a side character in the first novel, serving as a bodyguard to the original protagonist.  In this book it is revealed that following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Lysimachus, a champion gladiator and a revered public figure, was given all the credit for the original protagonist’s efforts following his death.  Parker does a fantastic job revealing this to the reader, and it is extremely fitting in the scope of the first novel as this original protagonist was always getting overshadowed and overestimated.  The author makes sure to really drive this point home by completely excluding the name of the previous protagonist throughout How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, just to emphasise how no one in the city truly remembers who he was or what he did, which is pretty darn hilarious.  The novel contains a number of fantastic references to the events that occurred with the previous book, including giving Notker a copy of the previous protagonist’s memoirs (which formed the basis of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City).  Notker of course then provides his own witty two cents to this memoir, providing a writer’s critical analysis, including doubting some of the events that occurred, such as the coincidence around the protagonist being the childhood friend of the mastermind of the siege.  All of this definitely adds a lot to the book’s overall humour, and it is always entertaining to see an author make fun of his own work.

Despite these fun references and the continuation of some story elements from Parker’s previous book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is very much its own novel, taking the reader on a whole new fun adventure.  As a result, you really do not need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first, although it is a lot of fun to see the previous book’s events lampooned in this novel.  Indeed, due to the fact that the protagonist and point-of-view character has no idea of the full events of the previous book, you get a good overview as everything is explained to him, which is fun.  Overall, this serves as a very entertaining sequel to this amazing previous book and I will be interested to see if Parker decides to continue the story in some way, which I have no doubt will be another incredible read.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a truly awesome and enjoyable read, and author K. J. Parker lived up to all my expectations with this book.  Not only does it contain a captivating and addictive narrative anchored by a likeable and complex main character, but it is also intensely funny.  I loved every second that I spent reading How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, and this was without a doubt one of the best books that I have read this year.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 6 February 2020)

Series: Fletch Phillips Archives – Book One

Length: 318 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

From debuting Australian author Luke Arnold comes The Last Smile in Sunder City, an absolutely superb piece of fantasy fiction that presents a unique and powerful story of loss, redemption and despair in fantastic new universe.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the debut novel of Australian actor Luke Arnold. Arnold, who has appeared in a number of Australian television shows and movies, is probably best known internationally for playing Long John Silver in the pirate adventure series Black Sails. Arnold has now made the rather interesting career change to writing fantasy fiction with this first book, which is the start of a new series known as the Fetch Phillips Archives. I have actually been looking forward to The Last Smile in Sunder City for a little while now, as I liked the intriguing-sounding plot synopsis and I thought that this book had some real potential.

The continent of Archetellos has always had magic, with nearly every race or being having some access to the power that ran through the lands, extending their lives and giving them rare and amazing abilities. With these powers, the magical races ruled Archetellos, until the humans, the only race not gifted with magic, attempted to steal it for themselves. This resulted in the event known as the Coda, which saw all magic erased from the world. Overnight, the multitudes of beings who relied on magic for their very existence either died or were stricken down. The few survivors of these former magical races are now deformed, crippled and slowly dying in pain.

Fetch Phillips has been many things in his life (a guard, a peacekeeper, a soldier and a criminal) but now he is barely eking out a living as a man for hire in the former magical industrial hub known as Sunder City, which has been suffering ever since its magical fires went out. For a small fee Fetch will help you with whatever problem you have, although his sobriety will cost you extra. He only has only one condition: he won’t work for humans; his only clients are those former magical beings who need his help, because it’s Fetch’s fault that their magic is gone and never coming back.

Fetch’s latest case sees him hired by a school that specialises in teaching the children of former magical creatures. One of their professors, an ancient vampire who is slowly turning to dust, has gone missing, and the school is desperate to find him. Diving into the shady underbelly of the city, Fetch attempts to find some trace of the vampire or anyone who wanted to hurt him. But when one of the vampire’s students, a young siren, also disappears, Fetch needs to step up his game to find them. However, even without magic there are still monsters in Sunder City, and Fetch may not be able to survive his encounter with them.

This was a really impressive piece of fantasy fiction. With The Last Smile in Sunder City, Arnold has absolutely nailed his debut, presenting a clever and captivating fantasy mystery which makes full use of its inventive setting and excellent central protagonist to create an impressive and memorable book. This is a truly enjoyable story that contains a fascinating central mystery that blends extremely well with the book’s fantasy elements. I had a great time unravelling the full extent of this intriguing story, and Arnold takes the plot in some very interesting directions, producing some excellent twists and clever false leads. This is less of an action-based novel and more of an exploratory story which sets out the world and features a man of the city running through his contacts to investigate a curious disappearance. I think this worked out extremely well for this book, as it fitted into the book’s classic PI vibe while serving as a great introduction to the city which is no doubt going to be the main setting for any future books in this series. Arnold has also created a couple of fantastic subplots which not only help to explore the world but also help to expand on the compelling darker tone that has been injected into this book.

Without a doubt, the major highlight of this book is the deeply inventive and fascinating new world that Arnold has produced. When I first read The Last Smile in Sunder City’s plot synopsis about a world where magic no longer existed, I was intrigued and thought that it sounded like an interesting idea. However, I was not prepared for just how impressive and creative this turned out to be. In order to tell his story, the author first created a detailed fantasy world that was filled with a huge variety of classic magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, where magic was the ultimate power and in which humans, who have no access to magic, are second-class citizens. While this would have been an interesting place to set a fantasy mystery, the author immediately flips this setting on its head by showing how humans attempted to steal the magic from its source (via an animation intended for children that was cut across by the protagonist’s memories, which was a fantastic way to introduce this plot point), and how their intrusion resulted in the complete destruction of magic.

This of course leads to a very interesting world, as now all the creatures and beings who previously survived on magic have had their lives irreversibly altered. Arnold spends a good part of the book exploring the impact of this loss of magic, examining the impacts on the previously immortal elves who all suddenly died from old age, the werewolves and other shapeshifters who found themselves deformed and stuck at the halfway point between human and animal, the vampires who all lost their fangs and are slowly crumbling to dust, sirens whose human husbands all simultaneously left them, and so much more. There are also some cool examinations of the change in status quo, with humans now becoming the dominant species on the continent thanks to their superior numbers (humans were not affected by the Coda) and their ability to use technology as a substitute for the magic that used to run everything. Of course, humans being humans, there are a couple of examples of humanity taking revenge against the magical creatures that previously dominated the continent, which the author does a good job of working into the plot. All of this proves to be an extremely fascinating and enjoyable overarching backdrop to the story of The Last Smile in Sunder City, and I really have to congratulate Arnold on his amazing imagination. Every detail about this creative world was really cool, and I loved seeing how his vision of a fantasy realm bereft of magic come to life.

The main location of this book is the titular Sunder City. Sunder City is a former magical metropolis which has suffered in the post-Coda period. Once a place of marvels and magically-powered industry, the city is now a shell of its former self, with most magical beings now living in slums and struggling to get by without their abilities. There is a bit of a Depression-era vibe to Sunder City, especially as Arnold does an excellent job of imbuing much of the city with a sense of despair, resentment and hopelessness. This really turned out to be a fantastic city to serve as the book’s primary setting, and I really enjoyed the protagonist’s exploration of it as he attempts to find the missing people. There are some really intriguing elements to this city which are worked into the overarching mystery plot extremely well, such as a hostile police force, businesses catering to former magical creatures and gangs of humans trying to cause trouble. All of this is pretty amazing, and I look forward to seeing more adventures and mysteries take place in Sunder City, especially if the author spends time looking at new types of former magical creatures that weren’t featured in this first book.

In addition to the compelling story and outstanding settings, Arnolds rounds out this awesome book with an intriguing central protagonist, Fetch Phillips. Fetch, who also serves as the book’s narrator, is a drunk, depressed and broken man, who is essentially a classic noir PI in a fantasy world. While Fetch can at times be funny or entertaining, mostly due to his sarcastic and confrontational style, his defining characteristics are his overwhelming guilt and despair. This is due to the fact that he is largely responsible for the humans destroying magic, which resulted in so much death and suffering. The full story behind Fletch’s involvement in this atrocity is chronicled in the book through a series of flashbacks which show his origin, the friendships he formed and the events and emotions that led up to his darkest moment. Due to his role in the causing the Coda, and the fact that he betrayed the trust of several friends, Fletch is filled with all manner of self-loathing and must now deal with his complicated emotions towards other humans, who he detests, and the former magical creatures he is compelled to help, most of whom now hate him. Despite all this darkness, there is a little bit of light within Fletch as he struggles against his demons and his past to find redemption and live up to a promise he made. I thought that this portrayal of Fletch was a great part of the book, and I loved the complexity that Arnold has imparted on his protagonist. I also really enjoyed the way that the author showed off the character’s past, centring the flashbacks on the four tattoos he has on his arm, and exploring the meaning behind them. This mixture of the mystery in the present and the look at the events in the character’s past worked really well together, and they help show off an amazing central protagonist who is going to be a fantastic centrepiece for this series going forward.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold is a superb and highly addictive fantasy mystery that presents the reader with a fantastic and thrilling story. While the book is mostly a clever and enjoyable mystery, its true strengths are the unique and captivating settings and the complicated, well-written protagonist, both of which help to transform this amazing novel into a first-rate read. Thanks to this excellent debut, Arnold has proven that he is a talent to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre, and I am looking forward to seeing what he produces next. The Last Smile in Sunder City comes highly recommended, and I think many people are going to enjoy this exciting new Australian author.