The New Achilles by Christian Cameron

The New Achilles Cover

Publisher: Orion (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: The Commander series – Book 1

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Christian Cameron once again returns to his favourite setting of ancient Greece with his latest novel, The New Achilles.

Greece, 223 BCE. War has come to Greece, as the various Mediterranean powers, including Egypt, Rome and Macedon, engage in a proxy battle on Greek soil. In a sacred sanctuary near the city of Epidauros, Alexanor, a former marine from Rhodes, has spent several years training to become a healer, seeking to escape his violent past. However, war will find Alexanor once again when the Spartans invade the nearby city of Megalopolis, forcing the surviving defenders to bring their wounded to Alexanor’s sanctuary.

Among the wounded is the leader of the men who attempted to fight against the Spartans at Megalopolis, a young man called Philopoemen. After saving his life, Alexanor finds his future tied into that of Philopoemen, who is destined to become one of ancient Greece’s greatest military leaders. Allied with the armies of Macedon against the Spartans and their Egyptian paymasters, Philopoemen proves to be a capable military commander. More importantly, his bravery and skill in battle earn the respect of his fellow Greeks, many of whom consider him to be Achilles reborn.

When prevailing political and military currents require Philopoemen to help with a civil war on Crete, Alexanor travels with him. There they will attempt to take on the powerful city-state of Knossos with an eclectic mix of troops and minimal support from Macedon and the Achaean League. Can Philopoemen and Alexanor succeed, or will the new Achilles fall short of his destiny?

Christian Cameron is a skilled author who has written a number of books throughout his career. While the author is probably best known for his historical fiction work, he has also branched off into fantasy under his pseudonym of Miles Cameron, including his Masters & Mages series, the first book of which, Cold Iron, I previously reviewed here. His latest book, The New Achilles, is the first book in his The Commander series, which will follow the life of the historical figure Philopoemen. This is the third of Cameron’s series which focuses on ancient Greece, with his Tyrant and Long War series both focusing on different periods of ancient Greek history. I have always found that Cameron has a very thorough writing style, and he tends to throw himself into the historical details of his books. This is continued with The New Achilles, as the reader is presented with a very complex tale that may prove a little harder to connect with. However, this book is well worth sticking with, as the author has created an outstanding historical tale that focuses on quite a remarkable character from history.

While The New Achilles does contain some other story elements, at its core it is an intriguing story about the life of Philopoemen. Philopoemen was a skilled general and political leader who was responsible for turning the Achaean League into a viable military power in Greece. He is sometimes known as “the last of the Greeks” (I believe that the next book in this series will be called The Last Greek) due to being one of the last great Greek generals before the Roman era. I have to admit that this was a historical character I had no real experience with, so I was extremely curious to see the author’s vision of his life and deeds. Cameron tackled the story with his usual highly detailed writing style, presenting a comprehensive novelisation of several key events of Philopoemen’s life, his earliest successes and his campaign on Crete. However, there is apparently a large amount of this man’s story left to tell, as he accomplished a great many deeds during his long life. I felt that the author did a fantastic job of capturing the personality of this larger-than-life figure, and I really enjoyed the well-paced story that showed his early rise to prominence.

The story is told from the perspective of the fictional character Alexanor, who, after healing Philopoemen, continues to encounter him and eventually becomes his friend and confidant, accompanying him on several adventures. I liked the use of an outside narrator to tell Philopoemen’s story, and Alexanor is an excellent character in his own right, as he constantly has to balance his duties as a medically trained priest with his desire to help Philopoemen win his battles and his wars. There are issues from his past that he has to deal with, including trauma from a previous war, a lost love and family strife, all of which make for an intriguing character. Another benefit of having a priest as a narrator is that it allows the author to spend time exploring ancient Greek medicine. This was a particularly fascinating element of the book’s story and it was extremely intriguing to see how ancient medicine compares to more modern techniques, and the differences and similarities in knowledge are quite interesting. It also results in some compelling ethical deliberations from the narrator about the dissection of human corpses, which, while strictly forbidden, could result in greater medical knowledge. Overall, I quite enjoyed the author’s use of Alexanor as a narrator, and his focus on his life was an intriguing and enjoyable addition to the story.

This book is set during quite a chaotic period of Mediterranean history, with a huge number of different ancient empires and city-states engaging in various wars and conflicts, many of which have an impact on The New Achilles’s story. Cameron makes sure to examine the various political implications of many of the conflicts occurring around the same time as the events Philopoemen was involved with, and it is quite fascinating to see what effect something like the war between Carthage and Rome could have on the inhabitants of Greece. In addition to the consequences of these distant wars or events, Cameron also looks at the political and national makeup of the various forces arrayed in the conflicts that Philopoemen and Alexanor are involved with. These could get quite complex at times, with a range of alliances, competing city-states and mercenary forces involved or attempting to intervene in a conflict. An example of how complex things could get could be seen in the protagonists extended conflict on Crete, where Philopoemen led a force of Achaean League troops to support one Cretan city state against the on the behest of Macedon. The opposing Cretan city-state was supported by the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, whose Spartan allies joined in and led the fight against Philopoemen. Various other mercenary groups of different nationalities such as the Thracians and the Illyrians were also employed in this conflict and had various roles in the battles and politics. While the sheer number of different historical groups can get a bit overwhelming at times, Cameron does a great job explaining their history and their allegiances, and it is quite fascinating to see the roles they played in various conflicts.

Like many of Cameron’s previous books, the author’s dedication to historical detail and accuracy in The New Achilles is extremely impressive. Each page is full of intriguing elements from history, and it is easy for the reader to find themselves transported to this classical historical landscape. The author not only looks at the military and political aspects of this historical setting; he also examines day-to-day life for the various Greek civilisations. Cameron also makes use of a whole glossary of historical Greek terms and names throughout The New Achilles, all of which gave his story a greater sense of authenticity.

The New Achilles features a huge number of battle scenes and sequences, as the author captures a number of the historical fights Philopoemen was involved with. These battle sequences were extremely exciting, as the author presents some gritty and blood battle scenes. These were quite spectacular, and I loved the realism contained within the story as even the victors find themselves covered in all manner of wounds, and rarely is there a battle where the main characters come out unscathed. This is particularly true for Philopoemen, who tends to suffer injuries in nearly every battle he gets involved with, due to throwing himself into the heart of the fight. I thought this was a clever inclusion from the author, as not only does this reflect some historical accounts of the relevant battles but it is incredibly refreshing to see a hero that does not emerge from a battle unscathed. I quite enjoyed the examination of Greek battle tactics and weaponry, and the battle sequences in this book are fairly spectacular and well worth checking out.

Christian Cameron’s latest book, The New Achilles is a detailed and compelling examination of a truly remarkable, if overlooked, historical figure. The story of Philopoemen’s life proves to be an amazing focus for the plot, and Cameron brings a number of intriguing aspects of the ancient Greek period to life with his trademark detail orientated writing style. This was an incredibly interesting and captivating read, and I am looking forward to seeing how Philopoemen’s life progresses from here in future instalments of The Commander series.

We are Blood and Thunder by Kesia Lupo

We are Blood and Thunder Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury YA (Trade Paperback – 4 April 2019)

Series: Standalone / Book 1

Length: 400 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From first-time author Kesia Lupo comes We are Blood and Thunder, a clever, inventive and at times dark young adult fantasy novel that represents a brilliant start to a bold new fantasy world.

In the nation of Valorian, a powerful magical curse has been laid upon the city of Duke’s Forest. The curse has wrapped the entire city in a mystical storm cloud filled with death, sickness and despair. Following a series of virulent pestilences brought on by the storm cloud, the city has been placed in quarantine, although passage in or out of the cloud is already extremely difficult. Now, six years after the curse first struck Duke’s Forest, the fate of the city and all who live within will lie upon the shoulders of two young women.

Lena is a cryptling, one of the deformed or marked offspring of Duke’s Forest’s inhabitants who live in the sprawling crypts underneath the city and watch over the Ancestors, the interred dead of the city, who are worshiped as gods. Lena, whose birthmark saw her abandoned as a baby, led a quiet life below the city until strange things started happening all around her. Accused of being a mage by the magic-hating Lord Justice, Lena just barely escapes execution when she encounters Constance in the mists outside the city. Constance is the daughter of Duke’s Forest’s ruler, the Duke, and has returned to the city to reclaim what is hers. Trained as a mage, Constance recognises the magic within Lena and sends her outside the mist while she continues back to Duke’s Forest. However, this fateful meeting will have huge consequences on the lives of both women.

Once outside the mists, Lena encounters the huntsman Emris, a magic user trained to locate untrained mages like Lena, known as Rogues, who has been pursuing Constance for magical crimes she has been accused of. Emris brings Lena back to the City of Kings, the capital of Valorian, where she attempts to learn how to control her magic. However, her unusual magical abilities and status as a Rogue bring her to the attention of some of the city’s worst inhabitants. Back in Duke’s Forest, Constance finds that her city and her father have fallen under the control of the tyrannical Lord Justice. Keeping her status as a mage hidden, Constance attempts to regain control of Duke’s Forest while also searching for the source of the curse surrounding the city. As both Lena and Constance attempt to survive in their respective cities, fate keeps bringing their destinies together. The future of Duke’s Forest rests in the hands of these young women. Can they save the city, or will they be the storm that destroys it?

We are Blood and Thunder is a clever and extremely captivating young adult fantasy novel that I read a little while ago but only just got a chance to review. I wish I had gotten a review of this book up a little earlier as it is a fantastic first book and I have been quite keen to sing the author’s praises for a while. We are Blood and Thunder is the debut novel of exciting new talent Kesia Lupo and presents a powerful story filled with magic, betrayal, personal growth and the hunt for power. At the moment, We are Blood and Thunder is a standalone novel, but the author has indicated on Goodreads that she may set future books within the same universe.

The story of We are Blood and Thunder is told from the perspectives of Lupo’s two main characters, Lena and Constance. Each character narrates about half the book and tells their separate narratives through alternating chapters. This allows Lupo to tell two separate stories that are not only very different in content but which help show a far wider area of the new fantasy world that Lupo has created. I found both of the storylines contained within this book to be extremely fascinating. The first storyline, which is narrated by Lena, follows the character as she journeys to the City of Kings to learn more about magic. While there, she learns more about her mysterious powers and finds herself embroiled in the conflict between the Temples that control magic and an influential mage outside the control of the Temples who has the ear of the King. The second storyline, which is narrated by Constance, is a darker story of political intrigue, murder and dark magic within the walls of Duke’s Forest, as Constance attempts to find the heart of the storm cloud before it is too late, while also attempting to neutralise the tyrannical Lord Justice.

While the magical learning, emotional growth and world building featured within Lena’s storyline are really good, I did prefer the Constance storyline a little more. All the dark political manoeuvring within the unique setting of the cursed Duke’s Forest and the battle between Constance and the Lord Justice were pretty darn compelling, and I had a very hard time putting down the book while I was reading the Constance chapters. While both of these storylines are really good, I was quite impressed by the way that Lupo was able to combine the two separate stories together into one amazing overarching narrative. I felt that the two storylines really complemented each other and helped make each respective storyline better. For example, the explanations of this fantasy universe’s magic in Lena’s chapters help the reader understand some of the magical elements occurring in Constance’s chapters. At the same time, many of the preparations and relationships Constance forged for her desperate return to Duke’s Forest impact Lena as she uncovers dark secrets within the City of Kings. There are also a number of excellent plot twists cleverly hidden throughout the book that are slowly revealed in both storylines. I thought some of these twists, especially a big reveal towards the end of the book, were just amazing and helped turn this into an epic and electrifying story. I felt that the author’s use of the two separate storylines was an incredible way to tell the story, and the overall narrative was quite outstanding.

In addition to her excellent twin storylines, Lupo also came up with two awesome fantasy cities: the City of Kings and Duke’s Forest. The City of Kings is your classic fantasy capital with massive temples and palaces, where everything appears to be perfect and harmonious on the surface. However, there are some dark secrets at the heart of this city, and the magical politics prove to be a major threat to one of the book’s main characters. While this is a great setting, I have to say that the city of Duke’s Forest is the far more impressive setting. Even before the city was cursed, Duke’s Forest would have been an amazing fantasy setting, with its massive crypts staffed by abandoned children and its rabid intolerance of magic. However, by turning it into a city on the brink of death, surrounded by dangerous magical mists and clouds, Duke’s Forest transformed into a much more intriguing and memorable fantasy setting. Lupo does an amazing job bringing this inventive location to life, and I was impressed by the sense of despair and hopelessness that seemed to hang in the air in each chapter set in this city. These two city settings were great, and I felt that they both enhanced the book’s narratives. Duke’s Forest in particular added a sense of urgency to Constance’s hunt for the heart of the storm cloud. I am very curious to see what other locations Lupo will create for the nation of Valorian in the future, and I look forward to exploring more of this clever fantasy world.

I also quite enjoyed the interesting magical elements that the author utilised in We are Blood and Thunder. Lupo has invented some great magical lore in this book, and I had a lot of fun exploring the various aspects of it. Not only is there a city-wide magical curse but there is also a whole new system of magic for the reader to enjoy. I quite liked the intriguing magical systems that Lupo came up with, and there are a number of great elements to them. These include the vision-filled practice of mages binding their magic to a god in order to control their power, which then influences their magical power and abilities, as well as mages who don’t bind their powers and then subsequently lose control and become a Radical, a destructive being controlled by the underlying darkness in magic. These magical elements are mostly explored by Lena. As a member of an ostracised minority who lived beneath a quarantined city where all knowledge of magic was punished, Lena is a perfect character to explore Lupo’s magical elements. Lena has the same lack of knowledge of this world’s mage as the reader, so the readers get a baseline explanation of magic that also makes sense to the plot. I quite enjoyed the various magical elements that the author came up with in this book, and I am sure that she will further expand upon them in later books in this universe.

We are Blood and Thunder is an outstanding debut from Kesia Lupo which combines some amazing and complex character-based storylines with inventive fantasy settings and cool magical fantasy elements to create an awesome overall book. Lupo has some considerable skill when it comes to a compelling young adult fantasy book, and We are Blood and Thunder is an excellent first outing for this talented author. I look forward to reading more of Lupo’s work in the future, especially if she returns to the excellent world she created in We are Blood and Thunder.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Emperor of Rome Cover

Publisher: Corvus (February 2019)

Series: Vespasian – Book 9

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After eight years of being one of my favourite yearly highlights of the Roman historical fiction scene, Robert Fabbri brings his bestselling Vespasian series to an end with the ninth and final book, Emperor of Rome.

Rome, 68 AD. Vespasian started his life as the second son of a rich but rural Roman family from the Sabine Hills. Looked down upon by the older Roman families for his family’s humble origins, Vespasian was never expected to obtain any major power in Rome. But after nearly 40 years of political intrigue, unusual adventures and a distinguished military career, Vespasian may actually be in a position to claim the ultimate prize: becoming Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Ever since he first arrived at the city of Rome at the young age of 16, Vespasian has lived under several unhinged or easily manipulated emperors of the Julio-Claudian line, each of whom was worse than the last. The latest of these emperors, the ruthless and insane Nero, has ordered Vespasian to put down a major rebellion in the Roman province of Judaea. However, this appointment is the ultimate no-win situation. If he fails in his task, his family’s prestige and political future are over. But if he succeeds in bringing the rebellion to an end with a successful military campaign, he will incur Nero’s lethal jealousy for obtaining glory that could make him more popular than the Emperor. As Vespasian debates what course of action to take, news from Rome will change everything.

The rebellion of several legions and their noble commanders has forced Nero to commit suicide, and his death results in a massive power vacuum. Vespasian, being in charge of two legions and having allies governing key provinces, is now a major contender for the throne, especially with his brother Sabinus lobbying for him back in Rome. Moreover, for years Vespasian has been gifted with signs and portents of his eventual rise to power, and he wants to claim his destiny. However, Vespasian is not the only person with dreams of imperial power, and several others are marching on Rome. The Year of the Four Emperors has begun, and only one man will be left standing.

Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series are fun and at times over-the-top novelisations of the life of one of Rome’s most important emperors. The main series is made up of nine books, but there is also a related standalone novel, Arminius: The Limits of Empire, as well as the ebook-only Crossroads series. I have been a huge fan of the series for some time and have read and reviewed several of the books in the series, as well as the Arminius novel, although only my review for the previous Vespasian novel, Rome’s Sacred Flame, is currently featured on my blog. This series really has been a favourite of mine for some time, and I have been looking forward to Emperor of Rome for a few months. Unfortunately, this book does mark the end of the series, as Fabbri brings his epic story to a close and finally brings his chosen Emperor to the throne.

Emperor of Rome is a fantastic new addition to this awesome series. It tackles the chaotic period following the death of Nero, known as the Year of the Four Emperors. I felt that Fabbri did a fantastic job finally showing the ascension of Vespasian to the throne and covering a number of other interesting historical events, many of which would have widespread implications in the future. The overall story is a great blend of action and politics, and it also ends the story of several important characters from the series, as well as the rise of some of the next generation of Roman politicians and rulers.

Emperor of Rome is primarily told from the point of view of its protagonist, Vespasian, as he campaigns in the east of the Roman Empire. This allows for Fabbri to tell a different story to some of the other historical fiction novels that feature the Year of the Four Emperors. Rather than get bogged down in the politics happening in Rome, the focus is instead completely on Vespasian and his companions as they observe the chaotic events occurring in Rome from afar while trying to decide the best time for Vespasian to make his move. I thought that this was a rather clever way to look at the story as it let Fabbri examine the potential political, military and personal implications of each of Vespasian’s actions during this period, especially as early moves on Vespasian’s part might have seen him be overthrown by some other potential candidate for the throne. Emperor of Rome also showcases the early reign of Vespasian to a degree, and it was great to finally see the character gain the throne after nine books.

In addition to the examination of Vespasian’s bid to become emperor, Fabbri also focussed on Vespasian’s campaign in Judea, which is a significant event in Middle Eastern history. For much of the book, the province of Judea (modern Israel/Palestine) and its Jewish population are in revolt against the Romans. Vespasian, and later his son Titus, lead a particularly vicious campaign against the population, killing or enslaving thousands. Fabbri spends quite a lot of time describing the events of this conflict, sometimes known as the First Jewish-Roman War, and mostly relies on the accounts of the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote several works on the subject and actually appears as a character in Emperor of Rome, as a basis for this story. Fabbri does an amazing job providing an account of this conflict. A number of key events of this war are covered in this book, including several ridiculous events that apparently actually occurred around the siege of Jotapata. I was greatly intrigued by the author’s novelisation of this conflict, as I had not read too much about it before in other works of historical fiction. The author brings a gritty realism to the conflict and does not hold back on the probable violence, cruelties and dehumanisation of the Jewish people that would have occurred during this war. This was a captivating but essential part of Vespasian’s story, and one that was necessary to explore in order to fully understand the actions required to become Emperor.

Several of the previous books in the Vespasian series have had an enjoyable supernatural edge to them, as the protagonist encountered ancient gods, prophets and sorcerers, as well as some biblical figures from early Christianity. This is continued in Emperor of Rome, mainly in the form of omens and prophecies that Vespasian has received in the previous books that show he is destined to be a great ruler, such as his viewing of a phoenix while on a mission in Africa. In this book, many of these signs come together, encouraging Vespasian to finally make his bid for Emperor. The look at the influence of such omens and prophecies added an intriguing element to the overall story. I also liked how some of the prophecies and predictions of the some of the characters were relevant to larger historical events in the future, such as the spread of Christianity or the current conflict in modern Israel/Palestine. These supernatural elements have always been one of the things that helped distinguish the Vespasian books from other Roman historical fiction series out there, and it was great to see so many of the events from the previous books finally come together here in the final chapter of the book.

Emperor of Rome is an amazing conclusion to this outstanding and entertaining historical fiction series. Fabbri has always had the fantastic ability to turn historical fact into wild and captivating tale filled with action, intrigue and historical excesses, and in this final book he once again takes several intriguing historical events and uses them to craft another excellent story. I will miss reading the Vespasian series each year, but at the same time I am also very excited, as Fabbri’s next series, The Alexander Legacies, is set to be released next year, and it sounds like it will look at some other exciting times in ancient history.

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston – Audiobook Review

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Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press and Listening Library (5 March 2019)

Series: Star Wars Extended Universe

Length: 8 hours 22 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The female protagonist of the Star Wars prequel movies, Padmé Amidala, gets a story mostly worthy of her, as young adult fiction author E. K. Johnston attempts to bridge the character gap between the first two Star Wars prequel movies in Queen’s Shadow, the first Star Wars novel of 2019.

While The Phantom Menace had its flaws, one of the things that the first Star Wars prequel film did right was the character of Queen Amidala, the young, fierce and strong democratically elected Queen of Naboo, who was able to lead her people to freedom.  Portrayed by a young Natalie Portman, the character appeared in the other two prequel movies, where her relationship with Anakin Skywalker became a key plot point of the entire series.  While I am not the biggest fan of how Padmé was portrayed in the second and third prequel films, I was quite excited to read a novel that explored the character in more detail, especially one written by Johnston, who did such a fantastic treatment on the popular character Ahsoka Tano in her one previous foray into Star Wars fiction.  After my previous awesome experiences with Star Wars audiobooks, such as Ahsoka, I chose to listen to this book’s audiobook format, which was narrated by Catherine Taber.

Four years after ensuring the defeat of the Trade Federation on Naboo, Queen Padmé Amidala has served the last elected terms of office and is no longer Queen.  Now free of the responsibilities of ruling, Padmé and her loyal handmaidens now have time to think about a new future.  However, before Padmé can put any plans in place the new Queen of Naboo presents her with a job she cannot refuse: become the new representative of Naboo in the Galactic Senate.

Accepting the role, Senator Amidala travels to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic, to take up her seat, accompanied by a completely new support staff.  She is quick to discover that her experiences as a ruler have not prepared her for the demanding and treacherous world of galactic politics.  The Senate is a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy, and Padmé is already considered by many to be a puppet of Chancellor Palpatine.  She also has number of powerful enemies throughout the galaxy who seek not only to discredit her but also to kill her.

However, Padmé Amidala is used to being underestimated, and with Sabé, her former decoy and shadow, watching her back, she begins to forge the political alliances she needs to finally bring some change the galaxy.

This was an interesting piece of Star Wars fiction that I quite enjoyed.  However, it is not without its flaws, and there were a few things that I disliked about the story that resulted in me dropping my overall rating slightly.  But before I talk about the parts of the story that I had issue with, I want to mention the elements of this book that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Queen’s Shadow is an amazing Padmé Amidala story that helps redeem the character after her less than stellar showings in the second and third Star Wars prequel movies.  This book helps make people forget about the helpless, pregnant damsel from Revenge of the Sith (although some deleted scenes from that movie do show some of the politics she was involved with), and instead focuses on her role as a canny political operator.  I was also quite happy that Anakin did not appear as a character in this book; I preferred to see Amidala stand on her own without being defined by her relationship with a Jedi.

Johnston did a spectacular job of creating a novel that bridges the gaps in Padmé’s story between the first and second prequel movies.  At the end of The Phantom Menace Padmé is still queen of Naboo, but by the start of Attack of the Clones she has become a senator, with very little discussion in the movies concerning how this came about.  While I am sure that some of the books and comics in the old Star Wars extended universe would have covered this period of Padmé’s life, Queen’s Shadow is one of the first stories to explore this in the new Disney owned and operated Star Wars extended universe.

The author spends a significant amount of time focusing on Padmé’s early days in the Galactic Senate, including how she formed some of her early alliances, such as with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, and how she became such a significant force in the Senate.  In addition to this, we get to see how and why several of the minor Naboo characters from The Phantom Menace left Padmé’s side, and how several new characters, such as her new handmaidens and her security guard, Gregar Typho, came into her service.  In addition to serving as a bridge between the two prequel movies, Queen’s Shadow also ties into The Clone Wars animated television show, showing Padmé’s first contact and initial relationships with some of the characters who originated in the animated show, such as Senators Rush Clovis and Mina Bonteri.  While the book does spend time setting up events for Attack of the Clones, Johnston ensures that Padmé and the other main characters reflect on the events that occurred during The Phantom Menace, and the people that helped them during these adventures, such as Qui-Gon Jinn and little Anakin Skywalker.  Overall, I felt that this really helped tie in the events between the two books and is an excellent new piece of Star Wars cannon.

In my opinion, one of the cleverest parts of The Phantom Menace was the revelation towards the end of the film that Queen Amidala was actually being played by two separate actresses: Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.  In the context of the film, Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé, was the real queen of Naboo, while Keira Knightley’s character, Sabé, was a decoy used for security purposes.  While Padmé portrayed the Queen at the start of the movie, when the Trade Federation invaded there was a subtle switch and Sabé took on the role while Padme could be seen disguised as a nondescript handmaiden in the background.  The two characters would then switch between portraying Queen Amidala throughout the film, with Sabé taking on the role whenever there was a chance the Queen could be captured or killed, while Padmé took on the role herself when official discussions or speeches needed to be made.  Handmaiden Padmé also got her own scenes when Sabé was taking on the role as Queen, allowing the viewers to see this side of the character.  This was and still is an amazing and ingenious part of the movie, which worked due to the similarity in appearances between the two then relatively unknown actresses, a downplaying of Knightley’s role in the film, as well as because of the elaborate makeup, hairstyles and dresses that Queen Amidala wore.  As a result, the general audience were quite surprised at the time, especially as cast lists were not as easily available on the internet at the time.

As a result, I was extremely happy that Johnston chose to explore the utilisation of the queen’s decoy in some detail throughout this book.  Quite a lot of time is spent discussing the techniques behind the Amidala persona, from the distracting makeup and costumes, to the quick-change techniques that Padmé and her handmaidens utilise, and even several discussions about the ‘Amidala voice’, the imperious tone that Portman and Knightly both performed in The Phantom Menace.  I found this entire exploration of this decoy angle incredibly fascinating, and it gave me a completely new appreciation for how the decoys were utilised in the first prequel film.  The decoys were also a key part of Queen’s Shadow, as Padmé still continues to utilise them as a senator, allowing her to avoid danger and slip away at social gatherings so she can undertake other covert tasks.  The scenes where they utilise them are quite intriguing, and I liked the author’s thoughts on the psychology behind the effectiveness of the decoys and how they are still an effective technique in an advanced science fiction society.  It was interesting to note that both of Padmé’s decoys who appear the films, Sabé and Cordé (who was blown up at the start of Attack of the Clones), have major roles in this book, with both taking on the Amidala persona at some point in the story.

While it was intriguing to see Cordé learn to take on the role of Amidala in this book, the original decoy, Sabé, was a much bigger part of the plot.  Sabé has a significant role within the book and is actually Queen’s Shadow’s secondary protagonist, performing undercover work on Padmé’s behalf.  The relationship between Padmé and Sabé was a really interesting and emotional subplot to explore, as Sabé is quite loyal to the former queen.  How Sabé defines herself as Padmé’s friend and confidant is a significant part of Sabé’s story, and Johnston spends time attempting unravel this complicated relationship.  The overall result is a fascinating inclusion to this story, and one that adds some real emotional depth to the story.

In addition to the focus on the decoy characters, Johnston also spends time looking at the role of Padmé’s royal handmaidens, the young hooded women who followed Padmé around in the first film.  I had never really given the handmaidens much thought before this book, apart from how Padmé was able to hide her identity by taking up a handmaiden’s garb for several parts of the film.  However, Johnston does a fantastic job of explaining the actual role of these characters as Padmé’s confidants, covert operatives, undercover bodyguards and potential body doubles.  I really liked how Johnston was able to turn these minor characters from the films into a significant part of her book, and it was quite interesting to see them be deployed to help with Padmé’s political moves.  Each of the handmaidens, both those who only appeared in The Phantom Menace and those who only appeared in Attack of the Clones, are explored in some detail throughout the book.  The reader gets a real sense of each of the characters personalities, what skills they bring to Padmé’s table and the fates of those handmaidens who served Padmé during the invasion of Naboo are also explained by this book.  This look at the handmaidens is an excellent part of the book, and one that I actually found quite fascinating.

Aside from the look at Padmé and her associates, Queen’s Shadow also examines a number of other aspects of the Star Wars universe during this time period.  For example, there is quite a large focus on politics, both on Naboo, and within the Galactic Senate.  The galactic politics in particular is quite intriguing, and I liked seeing Padmé’s initial impression of Senate procedure and its many shortcomings.  Johnston has also included some fun media articles throughout the book, showing how negative news coverage is being used to disadvantage or advantage Padmé’s political ambitions, which I found to be quite amusing.  There are also some hints at the coming Separatist movement, as several planets are showing discontent with the Republic and certain actions are taking place to undermine security throughout the galaxy.  All of the features are pretty interesting, and I had fun reading about them throughout this book.

Now, while I obviously quite enjoyed many of the elements that Johnston explored in this book (having gone on about them for over two pages), I have to admit that the overall story is actually a bit boring in places and the story really does not go anywhere.  There are some big points, including a quick assassination attempt, piracy, large-scale disasters and potential political crisis, but many of these events has any real significance, follow through or any sort of actual conclusion.  This could potentially be alright if Queen’s Shadow is the start of a larger storyline or a new book series, but I am not too sure how likely that is.  Not only is there no real indication that Johnston will be continuing this story, but the epilogue of the book kind of puts a damper on that, which I will discuss below.

 

BEWARE SPOILERS BELOW:

The epilogue of the book shows Padmé’s funeral, as shown at the end of Revenge of the Sith.  While I did like how Johnston alluded to the funeral at the start of Queen’s Shadow’s by using the same descriptions of Padmé’s floating flower-covered body, and the funeral does put a final end to the story.  The epilogue did show Sabé talking with Senator Organa, so this book could potentially set up a follow-up book focusing on the former decoy either joining the Rebel Alliance or investigating Padmé’s death.  However, this does not really fit with some of the open story points from this book, as the Trade Federation are the most likely people behind the assassination attempts and the piracy, and who cares about the Trade Federation after Revenge of the Sith?  In addition, this book only really explored around a year of Padmé’s life as a senator, and I think it would make more sense to follow more of Padmé’s early political career, especially as there is still around five more years until Attack of the Clones begins.  I suppose you could maybe do a split-timeline story that follows Padmé and Sabé before and after Revenge of the Sith, with the two storylines coming together, although I am not sure how well that would work.  I would like to see Johnston explore this more and give her overall story more shape, I just do not know how likely that is at this point.

END OF SPOILERS

 

While the somewhat pointless story does bring Queen’s Shadow rating down a bit, its audiobook features really help raise it up again, especially with its excellent narrator Catherine Taber.  The audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow runs for around eight hours and 20 minutes, so it is an easy book to get through quickly.  Catherine Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clone Wars animated show and is also the most recent person to portray the character on screen.  As a result, she is the perfect narrator for this book, as she already perfected a great Natalie Portman imitation voice for the show.  Taber did a fantastic job narrating this book, as she not only is the perfect voice for Padmé but also has an amazing range for the other characters featured in the book.  I appreciated how she was able to craft similar voices for the handmaiden characters, many of whom were chosen to be handmaidens because they were physical and audible matches to Padmé.  This is particularly true of Sabé, and as a result Taber ensures she has pretty much the same voice that Padmé does.  Other high points of Taber’s narration include her rendition of the Amidala voice, as well as the creepy tones she utilises for Chancellor Palpatine, especially when he kept saying “my dear”.  As always, the producers of this Star Wars audiobook load up this version with all sorts of sound effects and classic Star Wars music.  I felt that these sound effects and music really helped enhance the story, and gave it some real atmosphere, and I liked the way that certain things, such as holo-messages between the characters, were altered to make them sound more realistic.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Queen’s Shadow as the best way to enjoy this story, and I thought it was just wonderful.

Queen’s Shadow is marketed as a young adult novel, and it is quite a good novel for a younger audience to enjoy, with only minor sexual references, coarse language, drug use and violence throughout the book.  However, there really is not any upper age limit on enjoying this book, and older readers can just as easily explore Johnston’s story.  While there is no age limit, readers should ideally be a Star Wars fan to fully enjoy Queen’s Shadow.  At the very least, readers should have watched all of the prequel films first to get a full handle on what is happening.  While I imagine someone with no prior knowledge of Star Wars might be able to enjoy reading this, it is probably not the best young adult science fiction book to pick out.  As a result, this book is recommended more for established fans of the franchise, and as a pretty hard-core Star Wars fan myself, I know I enjoyed all of the references and character exploration that Johnston did a lot more.

In the end, I decided to award Queen’s Shadow four stars out of five.  While I really loved all the intriguing elements that Johnston explored in this book, the lagging story did make it a little harder to enjoy.  That being said, I would not hesitate to grab another Star Wars book from Johnston, as she has an outstanding understanding and appreciation of the Star Wars universe.  I do hope that this story is continued in some way, and if it does, I will definitely check out the audiobook version of it, especially if it is narrated once again by Catherine Taber.  Interesting reading, Queen’s Shadow is worth checking out, especially if you are an established fan of the Star Wars franchise.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

Lady Smoke Cover.png

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday – Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

Promise of Blood Cover.jpg

Publishers: Orbit

                        Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 16 April 2013

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

One of the saddest realities of being a bibliophile is that no matter how hard you try or how much spare time you have, no one can read every great book that comes out every year.  I am no exception to this rule, as for years I was mainly focused on the historical fiction genre.  While this is a fantastic genre to focus on, it did mean that I missed out on many of the biggest science fiction and fantasy releases for the last several years.  Ever since I expanded my attention to a range of other genres, I have been seeking out and reading a number of different fantasy or science fiction books and series, many of which I have or will review on my blog and on Goodreads.  One of the series that I have heard constantly praised by friends, fantasy fans and other book reviewers is The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan.  Nearly every fantasy reviewer and their dog has read and said good things about these books and, as a result, The Powder Mage trilogy has long been at the top of my to-read list.  So when I was recently able to fit the first book in the trilogy, Promise of Blood, into my reading schedule, I thought I would try it out and see if it lived up to everyone’s hype.

The Powder Mage trilogy are the debut novels of fantasy author Brian McClellan, and are a flintlock fantasy series, which is a modern fantasy sub-genre that features pre-industrialisation civilisations who utilise flintlock firearms with fantasy elements.  The Powder Mage trilogy started in 2013 with Promise of Blood, which the author followed up with a new book in 2014 and 2015.  Following the success of his initial trilogy, McClellan introduced a second trilogy, the Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, which is set 10 years after the events of The Powder Mage trilogy.  This second trilogy is still ongoing, with the third and final book set to be released in November of this year.  In addition to these two main trilogies, McClellan has also written a number of novellas and short stories set in the same universe as his main books, which expand on his fantasy world.

McClellan has created a new and captivating fantasy world in order to contain the stories in his two main trilogies.  The Powder Mage trilogy is primarily set in the nation of Adro, one of nine nations that were founded thousands of years ago by the god Kresimir, which are together known as The Nine.  By the start of the first novel, Promise of Blood, the nations of The Nine have reached a level of technology equivalent to Europe’s pre-industrial revolution period, with flintlock firearms in heavy use.  Magic is also common in this world, with the nations of The Nine containing three separate levels of magical ability.  These include the privileged, extremely powerful sorcerers who can wield a range of devastating elemental abilities; the marked, lesser mages with more specific gifts; and the knacked, who have one specific magical talent, like a perfect memory or not needing to sleep.  The privileged of The Nine are generally organised into sorcery cabals, with the most powerful organised into a Royal Cabal loyal to the King of their nation.

Promise of Blood starts with Field Marshal Tamas, the highest-ranked military officer of Adro, leading a bloody coup against his country’s corrupt king and nobility.  During the coup, Tamas and his powder mages, marked whose abilities are powered by gunpowder, assassinate every member of Adro’s Royal Cabal.  However, every member of the Royal Cabal said one thing before they died, “You can’t break Kresimir’s Promise”.  In order to find out the meaning of these mysterious words, Tamas hires former police inspector Adamat to investigate.  While Adamat sets out to uncover meaning behind these mysterious final words, Tamas begins the difficult process bringing order to his country.  However, it soon becomes apparent that staging the coup was the easiest part of his endeavour.

Tamas’s coup provokes a war with the Kez, one of Adro’s rival nations in The Nine, whose previous attempts to control Adro’s king, led to Tamas overthrowing him.  As Tamas deals with assassins, Royalists, deposed nobles and Kez magicians, it soon becomes apparent that someone on Tama’s council has betrayed him.  Brought in by Tamas to investigate who betrayed him, Adamat finds his loyalties tested when mysterious figures target him and his family.  At the same time, Tama’s estranged son, Taniel Two-Shot, embarks on a hunt for a surprisingly powerful member of the Royal Cabal who escaped Tamas’s powder mages.

Both Adamat and Taniel’s missions reveal dark secrets about the formation of their country.  With dark omens in the sky and ancient legends come to life, can Tamas and his forces stop the destruction of Adro, or will the mysterious forces arrayed against them succeed in their mission to summon forth an ancient power?

To be honest, even before I heard about this trilogy from other book lovers and reviewers, I thought the synopsis was pretty cool and the idea of gunpowder-wielding mages was an interesting concept.  I listened to the audiobook format of Promise of Blood, narrated by Christian Rodska, which goes for a lengthy 19 hours.  Now the question is; did this book live up to the hype?  The answer is yes.  I loved this book, I thought it was massively creative, filled with incredible action, had some complex, if mostly male, characters and made use of some excellent fantasy elements.

I really enjoyed the story within this book and I thought it was an amazing combination of intrigue, action and fantasy storytelling.  I liked the idea of starting the book just as a successful coup had taken place and the focus on the immediate aftermath of such a significant event.  The story is essentially broken into three main parts.  About a third of the book is told from Adamat’s point of view and really focuses on the intrigue elements of the story.  Adamat at first investigates “Kresimir’s Promise”, which is a fairly interesting part of the book, as it dives into the history of the country, and quickly reveals that shadowy forces are at play behind the scenes.  This initial investigation only lasts for a short part of the book, before Adamat is drawn into the larger investigation about the traitor in Tamas’s council.  This is a very well done investigation part of the book as the reader is presented with five suspects, each of whom is hiding several secrets and many of which have suspicious employees.  In addition, Adamat has to deal with a mysterious figure who is blackmailing him, and who keeps the identity of his employer secret.  These multiple layers of intrigue and lies ensures that the reader is looking in several different directions and have a much harder time guessing who these antagonists are.

Another third of the book is told from Taniel’s point of view, and follows him as he first hunts down a powerful privileged, and then finds himself stuck in the middle of a large battle for the survival of Adro.  While there are quite a lot of reveals about some of the book’s underlying fantasy elements in this part of the book, the main focus is on the action, as Taniel and his allies fight a number of opponents, and Taniel reveals while he is known as Two-Shot.  There is some interesting character work in this section as Taniel works through his feelings for his father, finds himself having to choose between obeying orders and the life of his best friend, and him coming to terms with his weird relationship with the powerful female character, Ka-poel.

The final main part of the book is told from the point-of-view of Tamas himself, and deals with the fallout from his coup and the multitude of issues he has to deal with in the aftermath.  The parts of the book focusing on Tamas are the most important chapters within Promise of Blood, as they bridge the other two sections of the book due to Taniel and Adamat not really interacting too much during the book.  The Tamas chapters have the best balance of Promise of Bloods’ excellent combination of fantasy elements, intrigue and action.  Throughout these chapters, Tamas is constantly forced to deal with the political infighting and betrayals occurring all around him, while also being targeted by assassination or capture by his various enemies.  Tamas also encounters a number of hints about the true nature of the fantasy events impacting Adro, including from a bizarre chef, and I loved the layers of intrigue that surrounded something most of the characters believed was a myth.  I really liked Tamas as a character, and I found him to be an intriguing combination of a calm, tactical genius and an absolute rage monster.  Despite alienating most of the people around him, especially Taniel, deep down Tamas is a good man who has been forced to make the hard decisions no-one else will.  However, when enraged he is an absolute terror to behold, especially to someone who has crossed his friends or family, and during these scenes of anger he gives several of the best lines, such as the one that appears on the cover:  “The age of kings is dead, and I have killed it”.  He is an absolutely great character and a fantastic focus for this trilogy.

In addition to these three main characters, a small portion of the book is narrated by female character Nila.  Nila’s character really is not explored too much in Promise of Blood, although she is given a good introduction, and I understand she will become a much bigger character in the next books in the trilogy.  On top of the main characters, there are several excellent side characters who really make this book extra awesome.  This includes Tamas’s bodyguard, Olem, a sarcastic and funny man who acts as Tamas’s moral compass for much of the book, and who also has certain ideas about people shooting his dog.  There is also Sousmith, Adamat’s bodyguard, a former boxer who acts as a fun foil to Adamat’s detective character.  While several characters at the Mountain Watch are also enjoyable, you have to love Ka-poel, the mute, witch who serves as Taniel’s spotter.  She has some crazy magic to her, and I have a vague feeling (without knowing anything about the plot of the future books) that she is some sort of young god or something.  I liked the way that Ka-poel was able to express everything, despite being a completely non-verbal character, although the implied romance between her and Taniel was a tad weird, especially as it started the moment he realised she was older than she looked.

The world building in this book is extremely impressive and it serves as an outstanding introduction to the key elements of the series’s universe.  While the other magical and fantasy elements of this book are pretty awesome, I especially loved the powder mages, and their magic is easily the best part of the book.  The powder mages have a unique blend of abilities, all of which are powered by eating or snorting gunpowder.  Consuming the powder gives them focus, enhanced perception, great strength and stamina.  In addition, they have control over gunpowder, igniting at will, and using their abilities to manipulate bullets in flight.  Each of the characters have different abilities on top of that.  Tamas can ricochet bullets around a room; Taniel can fire bullets further than anyone else, as well as firing two bullets at once; while another powder mage, Vlora, can ignite powder from a distance.  These characters in battle are absolutely fantastic, and I love it when these characters, especially Tamas, fully unleash their abilities.  The fight scenes between the powder mages and the privileged were exceptionally amazing, and I loved the contrast between the more traditional fantasy magic of the privileged and McClellan’s more unique powder magic.  That being said, when the privileged unleash their abilities they can be much more destructive, and some of their fights are pretty impressive.

I had a wonderful time listening to the audiobook format of Promise of Blood, and I thought that it was a spectacular way to enjoy this amazing story.  The action sequences, especially when the magic and bullets are flying, really come to life when narrated, and audiobooks always help me absorb complex new fantasy worlds such as the one in this series.  Rodska’s narration is really well done, and I found that he really captured the essence of the characters.  I especially thought he got the gruff and powerful voice of Tamas down perfectly, and it was an extremely realistic personification of the character’s voice.  I really hope that Rodska does the narration for the other books in McClellan’s series, and I would easily recommend the audiobook format of Promise of Blood to anyone interested in this series.

Overall, I really loved Promise of Blood and I found that it lived up to its substantial hype.  It’s easily a five-star novel in my eyes.  I loved this book so much that I am planning to listen to the remaining books in The Powder Mage trilogy as soon as I can, and I will probably also try and listen to the first two books in the Gods of Blood and Powder before the final book comes out in November.  McClellan is a fantasy genius, and anybody who loves action and explosions should invest the time to read this book.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Magefall by Stephen Aryan

Magefall Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 4 September 2018

 

In the aftermath of the devastating battlemage war, magic became mistrusted and feared by the common population of all the lands.  However, the mysterious Akosh managed to turn this mistrust into outright hatred, and her manipulations and minions led the populace to attack and destroy the Red Tower, the seat of all magical learning.  While the tower was destroyed, many of its students and teachers managed to escape and the outcast mages must now find a new path for their magic and abilities.

While the powerful and disturbed former instructor of the Red Tower, Garvey, leads several of his former students on a murderous rampage through the countryside, three other refugees from the Red Tower attempt to change the public perception of magic.  Wren and Danoph have started their own community of mages in the abandoned fringes of Shael, and attempt to protect the local villages from a murderous band of bandits.  At the same time, their friend Tianne returns home to Zecorria in order to take advantage of the regent’s amnesty for mages.  But as she begins to work in an official capacity for the regent, she is forced to become more involved in his despotic policies.

Elsewhere, Akosh continues to manipulate events across the lands, attempting to gain even more influence and control.  However, her actions have not gone unnoticed, and several individuals are rallying to counter her bid for power.  The new head of the Guardians, Tammy, moves to shatter Akosh’s influence in the country of Shael, but how far will she go to win this fight, and what will the consequences be?  Old friends Balfruss and Vargus attempt to counter both Garvey and Akosh, while Munroe, the most powerful mage in existence, embarks on deadly rampage to find Akosh and get her revenge.  But Akosh is far more powerful than anyone believes possible, and what will happen when a mage goes up against a god?

Magefall is an intriguing and enjoyable book from talented fantasy author Stephen Aryan and one that I had a lot of fun reading.  Magefall is the second book in Aryan’s Age of Dread trilogy, which followed on from his initial The Age of Darkness trilogy.  I have to admit that I have not had a chance to read any of Aryan’s previous books before, and as a result, I had a bit of a harder time getting into this story initially, due to the author’s assumption of his readers’ knowledge of the four previous books’ established plot and lore.  While I was eventually given a clearer picture of some of the previous events, the initial confusion and uncertainty when it came to certain plot points did slightly colour my assessment of this book.  As a result, I have knocked my rating down to four stars, rather than the four and a half stars I probably would have given to it if I were more familiar with the previous books in this universe.  That being said, Magefall is still an amazing piece of fantasy fiction that I really enjoyed, and I am intending to check out some of Aryan’s previous novels at a later date.

The book is made up of a series of semi-separated storylines that take place across various locations in Aryan’s fantasy landscape.  Each of the storylines is very exciting and incredibly captivating, resulting in some great moments of action and intrigue.  I rather enjoyed the story that focused on the former student Wren as she starts her own community of mages out in the wilderness, as it contained a great examination of a responsible group of mages who actually wanted to protect and help the people around them.  Their battles against a merciless group of bandits are particularly intriguing, especially as the bandits are actually able to cause the very powerful young mages significant issues and problems.  The various intrigue based storylines that highlighted the manipulative and wide-reaching schemes of the villainess Akosh are also done really well, and some of the best parts of the book showcase the various moves and countermoves as the protagonists seek to thwart Akosh and her goals.  There is not a single dull moment during this entire book as every single one of these fantastic stories come together in an amazing overall narrative.

One of the other things that I also really enjoyed about Aryan’s latest book is the devastating magical sequences that take place throughout the various storylines.  The magical characters engage in a number of high-octane battles in a variety of creative scenarios throughout the book.  Not only do these characters engage in battles with normal non-magical people but several mages fight each other in sequences that see buildings and scenery blown apart around them.  It is great to see the tactics of some of the non-magic characters, as well as the difference in power levels between the former students and the really powerful mages who previously taught them.  The highlight of the book has to be the fight between the uber-powerful mage Munroe and Akosh, as the two engage in an all-out power brawl.  This is magical action at its very best, and readers will have a terrific time enjoying all the carnage.

Magefall is an excellent piece of fantasy fiction from a rising star in the genre.  Making full use of his multiple-storyline format, Aryan has combined a series of enjoyable, fast-paced and electrifying adventures with some outstanding uses of magic.  While I would strongly advise reading some of the previous books in this universe before attempting to dive into Magefall, this is still a fun book to read and it serves as a mostly great introduction to this intriguing series.

My Rating:

Four stars