Annex by Rich Larson

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Publication Date: Orbit

Australian Publication Date – 25 September 2018

World Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

From exciting new author Rich Larson comes an absorbing young adult science fiction debut that makes use of creepy alien elements, excellent characters and fantastic LGBT inclusions to create a powerful and creative read.

When a gigantic alien ship arrives above Earth and isolates an entire city, all the children that are trapped with the aliens are kidnapped and infested with parasitic life forms, while the adults are clamped and inserted with mechanical devices that turn them into mindless drones.

For the small group of children that escape captivity, the disappearance of all the adults offers them a life of fun and adventure.  Falling under the leadership of the charismatic Wyatt, this group of survivors, the Lost Boys, are living the high life, with their newly attached parasites giving them the ability to vanish objects for brief periods of time.  While life is fun, they must continue to avoid the mechanical whirlybirds, the pod-like spaceships and the terrifying Othermothers hunting them in the streets.

For Violet, this new world allows her the opportunity to live the life she’s always wanted and to be the person she’s always wanted to be.  But Violet’s new life on of the city streets changes dramatically when she finds a new escapee, Bo, and takes him under her wing.  Bo has the most powerful parasite the group has ever seen and is capable of permanently vanishing larger objects.  It also appears the alien invaders want him back and are deploying hordes of their creatures to capture him.

Sensing an opportunity, the Lost Boys use Bo to fight back against the aliens while trying to uncover what plans they have for the rest of the planet.  Breaking into the massive hovering mother ship, Violet and Bo team up with the mysterious Mr Gloom to end this alien threat once and for all.  But these two young people will quickly find that the biggest threat to them may be far closer to home than they realise.

Annex is the first novel from Rich Larson and is the first book in The Violet Wars series, with the second book of this intriguing series, Cypher, already on its way.  This is a wonderful debut from Larson, which contains a surprisingly intense and at times dark story that will prove to be enjoyable to a wide range of readers.

There are a number of great features of Annex that readers will enjoy; however, one of the most noticeable features is the creepy and well-written descriptions of the aliens and events that the book’s main characters encounter.  There are a lot of inventive and twisted creatures, technology and even body modifications that can be found throughout this book, and Larson’s skilled writing helps brings them to life in the reader’s imagination.  I was particularly impressed, and a little freaked out, by Larson’s unique creation the Othermothers.  The Othermothers are unsettling clones of the escaped children’s mothers, perched upon long skeletal metal legs, who chirp out random phrases in the mothers’ voices in an attempt to lure the escaped children to them and then capture them.  Because of Larson’s descriptive writing, these creatures are horrifying and really stood out for me among the other alien antagonists the heroes encountered.  Special mention should also be made of the shadowy Mr Gloom, a strange adult they encounter whose appearance is not quite human and who has a range of powerful abilities.  I am not going to reveal too much about Mr Gloom because he appears about two-thirds into the book and I do not want to spoil too much about him.  I did find him to be quite a fun character.  Larson’s descriptions of Mr Gloom are fantastic, especially when it comes to exploring his shadow based abilities, which are a treat to read about.

In addition to the alien creatures and characters that are encountered through the book, readers should also keep an eye on the leader of the Lost Boys, Wyatt.  Wyatt is at first presented as a talented leader who has managed to bring the Lost Boys together and keep them alive.  However, there is much more to this character than he initially presents, and his real personality begins to be revealed to the heroes and the readers as the book progresses.  This is some incredible character work from Larson, and the revelation of Wyatt’s true motivations and persona is done perfectly, resulting in some excellent dramatic scenes and some really dark twists.  The author’s use of two separate point-of-view characters, Violet and Bo, works really well when it comes to viewing Wyatt, as the reader is able to observe his different manipulations, his moods and the cracks that appear in his outer façade.  This is a very intriguing character that dramatically changes the narrative of Annex in a number of ways, and the scenes exploring Wyatt are some of the best written in the entire book.

One of the key aspects of Annex that will prove to be an interesting addition for the reader is one of the main protagonists, Violet.  Violet is a tough–as-nails kicker of alien ass who is also a young transgender girl who has used the lack of adults following the invasion to finally live her life the way she always wanted to.  This is an amazing portrayal of a transgender character, as the author creates a stimulating backstory for Violet that examines her past and explores how she became her current self while also exploring the fears and people that stopped her from fully expressing her identity.  The book also explores how intrinsic this identity can be and how devastating attacks about identity can be, even during an alien apocalypse.  Violet is a well-rounded character, and Larson skilfully displays her other fears, her independence, her new friendship with Bo and her relationships with the other Lost Boys.  Violet helps to elevate this book to the next level and make it into a terrific piece of young adult fiction.

This book is an interesting addition to the young adult genre that definitely highlights the empowerment of young people.  The human characters of this book are all quite youthful and yet manage to thrive in a hostile alien landscape that has incapacitated all of the adults.  Watching these young people come together as a tight-knit group is an intriguing part of this book, and it is interesting to see the subtle techniques Wyatt uses to turn them into his own little army, such as with initiation rites, slogans and other forms of manipulation.  Overall, watching this group overcome without adult help the obstacles of being among the aliens oppressing them is a great part of the book.  This makes it an interesting read for the young adult audience, especially for those who love to see transgender characters in fiction.

Annex by Rich Larson is an excellent debut and is recommended for those younger readers looking for a science fiction adventure that they can relate to.  With some creepy aliens, intriguing characters and a deep look at transgender issues among today’s youth, this is an exhilarating read from a promising new author.

My Rating:

Four stars

Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

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Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

Sensational fantasy author Nicholas Eames follows up his exceptional debut with the five-star novel Bloody Rose, featuring an epic quest storyline which takes its protagonists through a series of wild adventures in a spectacular and large-scale fantasy landscape.

In the human lands of Grandual, mercenary bands hold a celebrity status among the people.  Originally formed to help protect against the horrors of the world, most bands now spend their days touring from city to city, fighting monsters in arenas in order to gain fame, glory and money.  The most famous of these bands is Fable, led by the notorious Bloody Rose, daughter of the land’s greatest hero, Golden Gabe.  Years after her father led a mercenary army to rescue her from a horde of monsters, Rose has reformed Fable with the druin Freecloud, the shaman Brune, the Inkwitch Cura and their booker, the waggish satyr Roderick.  With a massive chip on her shoulder, Rose is determined to take on the toughest jobs and challenges that she can find.

In the city of Ardburg, Tam Hasford is sick of her job slinging drinks at the local pub to the famous mercenaries passing through.  As the daughter of two mercenaries herself, Tam craves adventure, and when Fable rolls into town looking for a new bard, Tam jumps at the opportunity to travel with Bloody Rose and her band.  Gaining a well-deserved reputation for her singing and an accidental reputation as a fighter, Tam receives the moniker ‘The Bard’ and a crash course in the mercenary lifestyle of drinking, gambling, fighting and good times.

But while Tam is having fun in her new role, there is still work to be done.  A massive monster horde has once again left the wilds and is threatening several human cities.  All of Grandual’s mercenary bands are gathering to meet them, all except Fable.  Rose is leading her band in the opposite direction and appears unconcerned with the potential devastation the monsters could cause.  Has Bloody Rose lost her nerve or does she have a far more dangerous quest in mind?  While Fable’s plan to become legends may prove to be successful, they will have far more destructive consequences than anyone could ever predict.

Bloody Rose is the incredible sequel to Eames’s 2017 debut, Kings of the Wyld, and forms the second book in Eames’s The Band series.  Set several years after the events of the first book, Eames switches up the story, focusing on the adventures of Rose and her band of mercenaries, while telling the narrative through the eyes of new point-of-view character Tam.  While there are many tie-ins with the first book, including several of the main characters, Eames has mostly shifted the focus onto a new generation of characters.

Although Bloody Rose is the second instalment in this series, curious readers can easily start their adventure with this book.  This book’s point-of-view character, Tam, never directly experienced the battles of the first entry in the series, and she ends up having quite a few conversations that describe or dramatise the events of the previous novel.  As a result, new readers who start with Bloody Rose will not experience any confusion and will be able to enjoy this story right off the bat.  That being said, readers who start with this book will probably get a hankering to read Kings of the Wyld due to how amazing Bloody Rose is.

This is a substantial piece of fantasy literature with a powerful story that is guaranteed to draw the reader in from the first page.  The huge scope of this story is just remarkable, as what begins as a simple adventure story transforms into an epic battle for the survival of all life in the world.  Much of this scope is the result of the significant number of secondary characters and antagonists that are introduced throughout the book.  It is a testimony to Eames’s skill as a writer that all these characters don’t overwhelm the story, and the reader finds themselves interested in seeing how each these characters ends up.  The use of a brand new point-of-view character to tell this story is a clever move from Eames as it allows a fresh insight into this world of mercenary bands and monsters, moving on from the old veterans that were the focus of Kings of the Wyld.

The author has infused his narrative with a huge amount of humour, most of it quite adult and over the top in nature.  This humorous tone infects quite a lot of the way that the book is told and makes it a very fun read.  There are some extremely funny scenes through the book, from debates about fake cockatrices, to the antics of a drunken satyr, to discussions about the dietary requirements of minotaurs.  While this humour is a key and overwhelmingly fun part of the story, Eames does get deadly serious in several parts of the book when the protagonists encounter dark days.  These darker scenes are felt particularly hard by the reader, mainly due to the sudden shift away from the lighter tone of the rest of the book.  While there are several examples of this throughout the story, I found that the final scenes of this book were particularly intense and had me absolutely captivated.  This clever combination of the outstanding comedy overtones and the gripping dramatic moments works exceedingly well and turns Bloody Rose’s story into one of the best fantasy narratives I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

In addition to the great use of comedy, drama and story, Eames has also packed this book with a significant amount of action and adventure.  The protagonists of this story essentially fight everyone as they adventure across the land, and participate in all sorts of combat, including arena battles with monsters, fights with titanic creatures, large-scale battles and even a few tavern brawls.  All these action sequences work well with the book’s other elements.  Not only do these battles result in some devastating moments but Eames also includes some comedy in these fight scenes, which can prove to be very entertaining.  Readers should also keep an eye out for the fun and inventive combat tactics used throughout this book, which are not only destructive but creative.  Never has red hair been used in battle so effectively.  With as much conflict and combat as you’ll ever need in a book, this is a perfect read those looking for those looking for their next injection of thrilling action and adventure.

Eames has also created a vast world to be the setting for this story, filled with a huge number of fantasy creatures and massive amount of world building lore.  Having such a large and well-established world is essential for a story of this magnitude.  The protagonists do a substantial amount of travel from one end of Grandual to the other, exploring large cities, small towns, barren wastes, massive battlefields and dangerous forested areas.  The author has also filled this story with every classic fantasy and mythological creature one could think of, as well as a few unique creatures from his own imagination.  All these creatures are a great addition to the story, resulting in some very fun battle sequences throughout the book, especially when their a huge number of these creatures in action.  One of the more intriguing races is the druin, the rabbit-eared humanoids created by Eames which used to rule all the humans and monsters of this fantasy world.  There is some fascinating history around the druin which has some significant impacts on the story, as well as gifting these creatures with some cool abilities that come into play in a variety of great ways.

The author has also spent time developing a fantastic band of main characters for the reader to follow on their adventure.  Using his new narrator, Tam, to full effect, the reader is given an introduction to every member of Fable and learns their history and motivations in significant and interesting detail.  A decent amount of time is spent looking at all of the members of Fable and the reader is given a deep understanding of each of them.  Each member of the band is a fairly unique fighter and character in their own right, but together they form a fun team.  Eames really hammers home how close these band members become throughout the book, and the reader becomes attached to the characters as they grow closer together.  This makes any potential harm or trauma they experience particularly hard for the reader to experience, and really adds to the books emotional depth.

With the follow-up to his epic debut, Eames has once again demonstrated why he is one of the freshest and most exciting new voices in fantasy fiction.  This exceptional story is an action-packed bonanza that sees several compelling characters engage in a heroic quest across an impressive fantasy landscape.  With the perfect blend of comedic adventure, epic fantasy storytelling and some dramatic character moments, Bloody Rose is an exceptional and excellent read that is guaranteed to become your new favourite story.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

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Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

Those looking for an entertaining, intriguing and different take on the horror genre should investigate Dreadful Company, the latest book from author Vivian Shaw, which contains a thrilling story based around the doctor to your favourite fictional monsters.

Greta Helsing is London’s medical practitioner for the undead, providing specialised treatment to the city’s hidden community of ghouls, vampires, mummies and zombies.  After being called to Paris to attend a supernatural medical conference, Greta’s plans to enjoy a stimulating discourse and debate on monster medicine is ruined when she is suddenly kidnapped off the street.  Her abductors turn out to be a coven of young and murderous vampires led by the unhinged Corvin, who bears a particular grudge against Greta’s vampire friend Ruthven.  Even more concerning, a member of Corvin’s coven is using magic to summon small and friendly magical creatures.  While the creatures may be harmless, the ripples they are causing in reality are not, and represent a significant threat to our world.

While Greta is trapped in the tunnels and catacombs below Paris, her friends arrive in the city to save her.  Legendary elder vampire Ruthven and Greta’s vampyre boyfriend, Sir Francis Varney, team up with Paris’s guardian werewolf, two immortal paranormal investigators and the city’s resident demon to free Greta and put an end to the dimensional instability.  But Greta and her companions are about to find out that there are weirder and more dangerous things than a collection of bloodthirsty vampires in the tunnels underneath Paris.

Dreadful Company is Shaw’s follow-up to her 2017 debut novel, Strange Practice, and is the second book in her Dr Greta Helsing series.  Dreadful Company returns several of the protagonists from the first book while also adding in a healthy number of new and exciting characters.  A third book in the series is already planned; I will definitely be keeping an eye out for Grave Importance next year.

Shaw’s latest book contains a fun and electrifying adventure that pits several ancient beings and their doctor against a coven of vampires and the magical catastrophe they have created.  The author tells her story through a range of characters to show many different perspectives of the adventure taking place.  Not only is every single protagonist – including returning characters Greta, Ruthven and Varney, as well as new characters the werewolf St Germain, the remedial psychopomps Brightside and Dammerung and the demon Irazek – a point of view character, but so are several of the young vampires who serve as the book’s antagonists.  This allows Shaw to tell a much wider story.  Not only is the central adventure explored in greater detail from a several angles, but the motivations, shared histories and the underlying thought processes of the story’s key players are presented to the reader.

Shaw has made a smart decision to change the book’s main setting from London to Paris.  Many writers can get bogged down in one location during their series, but Shaw did a fantastic job adapting her story to a completely new and unique cityscape, a trend that she will apparently continue to follow in her 2019 addition to the series.  Shaw makes full use of several iconic Paris locations, particularly the catacombs and tunnels underneath the streets, which are the perfect setting for a horror story.  Overall, Dreadful Company contains a rather exciting adventure story that makes spectacular use of its horror and fantasy elements, while also making use of the humour and history of its many point-of-view characters to lighten the darker tone of the book and create a unique and entertaining read.

I was extremely happy that Shaw included more examples of monster medicine within Dreadful Company.  The examination of the medical techniques used on supernatural characters was one of the best features of Strange Practice, and was a very unique and compelling element of this first book.  There are a number of wonderful general monster medicine scenes throughout the book, including a supernatural medicine conference where topics include ‘An overview of the various treatment modalities for tissue degeneration in Class A revenants’ (how to stop bits falling off zombies).  Readers will really enjoy Dreadful Company’s interesting focus on the medicine of vampires.  Shaw did spend a little time exploring the biology and treatment of vampires in the first book, which is expanded upon in Dreadful Company.  There are several discussions about vampire anatomy and physiology, including some of the features of the different vampire subspecies.  There is also a detailed look at the effect of certain substances on vampiric characters, including drugs and garlic, as well as the surprisingly devastating absinthe.  The protagonist is also forced to treat a number of different vampire characters for a variety of different conditions, including an overdose, stab wounds and an infection caused by a ghoul bite.  Once again, Shaw’s inclusion of monster medicine was an amazing part of this book, and I am looking forward to the third novel in the series, Grave Importance, which will focus on the care of mummies.

Aside from the examination of vampire biology, Shaw has also included a fascinating look into the different vampire mentalities, particularly when it comes to the old school versus the young bloods.  The two elder vampire characters, Ruthven and Varney, are reformed from their violent past and are instead trying to live normal and peaceful lives alongside humans.  The younger vampires, on the other hand, are bloodthirsty creatures who don’t follow any rules, kill indiscriminately and indulge in drugs and wanton behaviour.  The differences between the behaviours of these two different types of vampires are quite noticeable, especially when the younger vampires try to live up to all of the vampire stereotypes, such as sleeping in coffins, wearing elaborate clothes and makeup, making up dumb names for themselves, developing a superiority complex and trying out various ways to make themselves glitter.  While these inclusions are extremely fun, the readers will really experience chills when they see how angry the usually calm characters Ruthven and Varney get when they encounter these younger vampires and realise what taboos they have broken.

In addition to the creative and captivating use of vampire characters throughout the book, Shaw has referenced several other classic horror creatures and villains.  There are several allusions to Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera, with the protagonists actually visiting the Phantom’s underground lair at one point.  There are also other creatures, such as magically summoned hair monsters, well monsters and a whistle-summoned spirit, all of which play an interesting role in the plot.  Some great humour also comes from the inclusion of several ghosts, many of whom can be found having a lively party in Paris’ iconic Père Lachaise cemetery.  Highlights of this scene include a snarky Oscar Wilde and a musical Jim Morrison, both of whom have some great interactions with the new characters, Brightside and Dammerung.

Dreadful Company sees new author Vivian Shaw return with another fun and thrilling horror novel that contains a fast-paced adventure and a light comedy enhance tone.  Shaw has invested in a range of new characters, a fresh setting and some appealing fantasy and horror elements.  The author’s clever and memorable inclusion of monster medicine once again shines through as the book’s best feature, as well as the detailed examination of the vampire psyche.  An absolutely amazing second outing from Shaw, Dreadful Company is a fantastic read that will prove to be both unique and captivating to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

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Publisher: Orbit

Australian Publication Date – 24 April 2018

World Publication Date – 19 April 2018

 

Melissa Caruso follows up her extraordinary debut with another unmissable magical adventure.

On the continent of Eruvia lies the Serene Empire of Raverra.  Ruled by the Doge and the Council of Nine, the Empire’s power comes from its mages, the legendary Falcon Army.  When a mage comes to power in the lands of Raverra, they are conscripted as a Falcon and bound to a Falconer, a non-mage who can choose to unleash or bind their Falcon’s power with a word.

However, the Serene Empire is not the only great power on Eruvia.  To the north lies the mysterious nation of Vaskandar, controlled by a dangerous group of mages known as the Witch Lords.  Each Witch Lord is a powerful vivomancer whose magic grants them control over all living beings, such as animals, plants and even humans.  After years of peace, several of the Witch Lords desire additional territory and are preparing for war against the Serene Empire.  Large forces of soldiers and the Vaskandar’s dreaded chimeras amass on the border while covert attacks are undertaken against the Serene Empire’s most powerful Falcons.  But before the Vaskandar can formally declare war, all seventeen Witch Lords must meet in a conclave to agree to a course of action.

Lady Amalia Cornaro is heir to one of the oldest and most powerful families in all of the Serene Empire.  Formerly a sheltered academic, her life dramatically changed when she was accidently bonded to the rebellious teenage runway Zaira, a rare and destructive fire warlock and the most powerful mage in the Empire.  Despite a turbulent and resentful start to their relationship, Amalia and Zaira have come to a mutual understanding following their adventures in the city of Ardence.

As the tension between the two nations increases, Amalia and Zaira are sent as a military deterrent to the border province of Callamourne, ruled by Amalia’s grandmother.  Despite their presence, it quickly becomes apparent that forces are conspiring to bring the war to pass, especially with spies and assassins targeting Amalia and Zaira directly.  Determined to maintain the peace, Amalia knows that the only way to prevent the war is to infiltrate Vaskandar and attend the conclave on behalf of the Serene Empire.

Entering Vaskandar is a dangerous proposition.  Each Witch Lord has their own territory which they rule absolutely thanks to a mysterious bond to the land that allows them to control all living creatures within their boundaries.  In addition, Amalia already has powerful enemies among the Witch Lords.  The deadly Lady of Thorns holds a grudge against her entire family, and Amalia and Zaiara have experience with the machinations of the Skinwitch Ruven, whose plot could cause great destruction.

Their only hope to influence the conclave may come from the mysterious Crow Lord, who has taken an interest in Amalia.  However, the Crow Lord is playing his own game, and Amalia and Zaira are the perfect pawns.

Melissa Caruso is a relatively new fantasy author whose first book in the Swords and Fire series, The Tethered Mage, was released in late 2017.  The Defiant Heir is a direct sequel to this, and is set a few months after.

The Tethered Mage was one of the surprising hits of last year.  What started out as an intriguing sounding fantasy novel turned into one of the most exciting and memorable debuts of 2017 and proved near impossible to put down.  Caruso maintains this trend of excellent writing in The Defiant Heir, which continues to the provide the same great characters, fantasy adventure, worldbuilding and amazing story writing that made her first book such an irresistible read.

Caruso has chosen to expand her fantasy world in The Defiant Heir by detailing the nation of Vaskandar and focusing on its rulers, the Witch Lords.  While Vaskandar was mentioned and one of nation’s vivomancers, Prince Ruven, was a secondary antagonist, this area of her world wasn’t really explored in the first book.  For this book, Vaskandar is a major location and the protagonists spend a large portion of the story within its boundaries.  As a result, Caruso has produced a significant amount of fascinating lore about this country, especially when it comes to the Witch Lords.  The focus on the Witch Lords is particularly interesting as Caruso has developed complex backstories, powers, plots and motivations for many of them, which adds immensely to the story.  In addition, despite the fact that they all study the same branch of the magic, each of the Witch Lords has their own speciality and their appearance and abilities are different as a result.  This is especially noticeable during the numerous magical duels that occur throughout the book, where these differences allow for a wider variety of magical action.  It is also quite fun when the various Witch Lords use their powers to show off with memorable entrances and appearances during the opening scenes of the conclave.

Readers should also keep an eye out for Caruso’s focus on character development within The Defiant Heir for the two main characters.  Amalia’s growth is the most significant, as circumstances force her to become a more savvy and decisive political player, very much like her mother.  As a result, she is forced to make a number of tough decisions and struggles to maintain her morality in a harsh world where her options are becoming more and more limited.  There is also the growing realisation that her position may not allow her to have the personal life she wants, and this greatly affects her relationship with the dashing Captain Marcello, the main love interest of the first book.  This is a well done bit of character development that will draw the reader in emotionally, especially when it comes to Amalia’s most significant decision in the book.

Zaira’s development is more subtle, as she is not the book’s narrator, and is mostly a continuation of the transformation from inverted loner to team player that started in The Tethered Mage.  However, it is more realistic to see that this growth is a slow process, and her stubbornness is not automatically fixed in the span of one book.  The same could be said about the satisfying but gradual development in the relationship between the main characters.

Melissa Caruso once again shows why she is one of the brightest new stars in the fantasy fiction.  The Defiant Heir is an outstanding continuation of her first series that introduces significant and exiting lore to her already intriguing universe while providing significant development to her main characters.  If you haven’t already discovered the magic of Caruso’s Swords and Fire series, you are in for a serious treat.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Blood of Assassins by R. J. Barker

Blood of Assassins Cover

Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 13 February 2018

 

War, murder and magic return with R. J. Barker’s assassins in the sequel to his impressive debut, Age of Assassins.

It has been five years since assassins Girton Club-Foot and his master, Merela Karn, started a bloody civil war in the nation of Maniyadoc.  Since then, they have been in hiding, fighting in the borderlands as soldiers for hire to avoid the price on their heads.  However, when Merela is gravely injured, they have no choice but to return to Maniyadoc and seek shelter there.  Girton finds a far different land to the one he visited five years before.  War has turned much of the kingdom into a brutal hellscape, ruled over by war crazed marauders known as Nonmen, while giant flesh-eating pigs roam the wilds.

Amongst this chaos, three kings fight for power, their armies controlling what small tracts of inhabitable land remain.  Girton knows all three of the opposing kings, having spent time among them five years ago.  Two of them hate Girton and his master, falsely blaming them for the deaths of their relatives, the events which started the war.  However, the other of the warring kings, Rufra, owes Girton his life, and may be the only friend the young assassin has.  Since their last meeting, Rufra has turned into a noble king, weighed down by the responsibility of his office and personal grief.

Pledging his loyalty to Rufra, Girton immediately sets about trying to find a spy hidden among the king’s closest followers, navigating camp politics and the fragile alliances that hold the army together.  At the same time, Girton must also solve the murder of a fanatical religious leader whose dangerous followers demand retribution.  Rufra is the fractured nation’s best option for peace, but far too many people want him dead.  Each day the spy is active hastens Rufra’s defeat, and Girton must use every bit of his wit and skill to save his friend.

But the greatest threat to Rufra’s reign may be Girton himself.  Like all assassins, Girton uses forbidden magic to grant himself subtle advantages to aid him in his kills.  However, Girton’s magic has become far too powerful, and he can no longer control the terrible energies within him.  In a world were all magic is outlawed and feared, any evidence of Girton’s abilities would condemn him and everyone he loves to a bloody end.  The last uncontrolled sorcerer turned the kingdom of Maniyadoc into a barren wasteland, and Girton’s power may soon compel him to do the same.

This is the second book in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom series and is the follow-up to last year’s successful and highly compelling debut, Age of AssassinsBlood of Assassins is a great addition to the series which builds up the anticipation for the upcoming King of Assassins, which is set to come out in Australia in August 2018.

The fantasy world that Barker has created is an interesting one with several unique features.  While most of the first book’s story was limited to the goings-on within one specific castle, Barker completely changes the script in this sequel by expanding the narrative to the whole realm of Maniyadoc and the fighting going on around it.  Readers of Age of Assassins will enjoy seeing how the devastation of the civil war has changed the kingdom.  The nation of Maniyadoc, which was already described as a fairly dismal place, is now haunted by a new range of monstrous creatures and humans created by neglect and the brutal fighting.  This noticeable change to the scenery of the story helps to affect the overall mood of the book and also acts as a mirror to Girton’s more depressed and hopeless mental viewpoint in the second book.

I often enjoy authors blending different genre types within fantasy books, and Blood of Assassins is a great example of this, as Barker has incorporated elements of political thrillers and murder mysteries.  The hunt for the murderers and traitors at the heart of Rufra’s camp is a well done and produces a compelling mystery that combines well with the book’s action, politics and magic.

Fans of action and battle will not be disappointed, as Barker makes full use of a range of fight scenes.  Action junkies will enjoy the numerous duels, clashes between assassins, larger pitched battles and one notable siege that sees that protagonist fighting to defend a village from a horde of crazed Nonmen while also attempting to hold his destructive magic at bay.  It is also interesting to see how Barker forgoes the enormous pitched battles that are a usual fantasy staple.  Instead this conflict is fought by small, desperate armies over limited amounts of land, which comes across as more realistic, considering the landscape.

Finally, Barker has also done a great job of showing how his main characters have developed since the last novel, particularly taking the time to illustrate how their relationships move and change throughout the book.  Girton has gone from a young and optimistic boy seeking the approval of his master to a taciturn and depressed man, actively resenting his master for the changes and problems in his life.  At the same time, Rufra has gone from a lowly squire seeking a friend and trying to avoid trouble to a man consumed by his responsibilities and personal grief.  These changes lie at the heart of the book and add emotional depth to the story.  It is also warming to see how the friendship between Girton and Rufra lightens both characters and helps heal their emotional wounds.

As a result, Blood of Assassins is a fantastic character-driven story that weaves together action and mystery in Baker’s excellent fantasy world to create a scintillating and addictive read.  This is a marvellous second outing from a bright new star in fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep Cover

Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 14 November 2017

From one of the brightest stars in horror and science fiction, comes a heart pounding and imaginative story about terrifying creatures in the deep.

Mermaids have always been the stuff of legends, whether they feature in sailors’ cautionary tales or children’s stories. Seven years ago, when Imagine Entertainment sent a mockumentary team out to the Mariana Trench about the Atargatis they found just how real mermaids were, but with no survivors and only unbelievable leaked video footage to tell their story, the incident is either considered a tragic accident at sea or derided as a hoax.

Now, Imagine Entertainment are planning a second expedition to the Mariana Trench to find incontrovertible proof of mermaids and show the world what happened to the crew of the Atargatis. Larger and better prepared, the second expedition sets out onboard the giant pleasure cruiser Melusine, hosting state-of-art research facilities and filled with the leading experts in a range of marine sciences.

Also onboard are Victoria Stewart, whose beloved sister died upon the Atargatis, and the world’s leading expert on mermaids, Dr Jillian Toth, who is still haunted by her decision not to accompany the original expedition.

Arriving at the Mariana Trench, it doesn’t take long for the mermaids to appear. But these mermaids are not the stuff of children’s stories. They are real, they are dangerous and they are very, very hungry.

Grant has impressive science fiction and horror credentials, including her zombie thriller series Newsflesh and her ‘science-gone-wrong’ inspired Parasitology series. Drowning in the Deep is another outstanding story of horror from Grant and is a worthy sequel to her exciting 2015 novella, Rolling in the Deep.

By far one of the best things about Drowning in the Deep is how Grant turns mermaids, long associated with fairy tales and Disney movies, into credible monsters for her book. Using a combination of suspenseful and descriptive writing, bestowing the creatures with several creepy abilities and loading the book with a range of scientific explanations to make them as plausible as possible, Grant has succeeded in creating scary mermaids.

An interesting feature of the book is the manner in which Grant introduces the mermaids to the story. Rather than taking the traditional path and gradually revealing the monsters over the course of the first half of the book, Grant discloses the mermaids in all their gory glory within the first few pages of the book. All the characters know what they will be up against well in advance; the thrills come in discovering whether that is enough to ensure their survival.

Grant also takes time to introduce all the key characters and explain their backgrounds and motivations. This adds to the story and creates a range of characters whose fates readers will be deeply concerned for. In addition, she makes good use of multiple viewpoints to tell the story. Chapters are presented from the perspectives of each of the main characters, some of the minor characters, the mermaids themselves and even a pod of dolphins. This results in an intricate tapestry of a story and allows for a wide variety of scenes and a deeper understanding of the mystery and horror that is the mermaid.

Grant adds several fun additions to the front of each chapter, such as biography extracts, descriptions of videos, blog posts, articles from a cryptozoology periodical and a number of sections of a lecture from one of the characters, Dr Toth. This is a great way to add a lot of additional background without disturbing the flow and suspense of the overall story. Grant also includes quotes from the characters at the front of the chapters. These quotes help set the tone for the overall book and for the individual chapters. An example of this can be seen in a quote set up at the beginning of the book: “Did you really think we were the apex predators of the world?” Attributed to the story’s mermaid expert, Dr Toth, this is a great way to draw in the reader’s initial interest while at the same time setting a tone of dread as the ship full of overconfident scientists drifts closer to the trench.

Overall, Into the Drowning Deep is an enthralling read and one of the standout books so far in 2018. It is guaranteed to make you think twice about swimming in the ocean.

My Rating:

Five Stars