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

QueensShadow Cover.jpg

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

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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

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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

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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

Deep Silence by Jonathan Maberry

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Publishers: St. Martins Griffin

                        Macmillan Audio

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From horror legend Jonathan Maberry comes the 10th book in his weird-science based horror, thriller, science fiction Joe Ledger series, which takes the reader on a wild joyride through a world gone mad in this five-star adventure.

I have to admit that Maberry is not an author that I have had much experience with before.  The only work of his I have previously read was a fun short story that was featured in a volume of zombie short stories he jointly edited with George A. Romero in 2017 that I previously reviewed here.  However, I am extremely happy that I decided to check out this latest book as it exposed me to this incredible series, which I enjoyed immensely.  I can think of no greater praise for this novel then to say that upon finishing it, I immediately dropped everything and started reading the first book in the series, Patient Zero, which I will be reviewing in the next few weeks as part of my Throwback Thursday series.

I chose to listen to Deep Silence on audiobook rather than read a physical copy.  The audiobook format of this book is just under 16½ hours long and is narrated by Ray Porter, who has worked on several other books in the series.

In this latest book, a Russian splinter group have developed a powerful weapon with pieces of alien crystal seeded throughout the planet.  This new weapon can cause devastating earthquakes on a level never before seen and has the potential to destroy the entirety of the United States.  The weapon also has a chilling side effect: it causes people around the epicentre of the quake to engage in violent acts of madness, from suicide to ferocious attacks on others.  The first attack targets Washington, with mass violence erupting around the Capitol building.

America’s only hope may be the top-secret rapid response organisation, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS).  For years, the DMS has been the only line of defence against the insane science America’s enemies are utilising and developing in this new age of wonders.  From deadly diseases, ancient forbidden technologies, extreme acts of genetic manipulation, the latest forms of cyber and electronic attack, and even weaponised zombies, the DMS, led in the field by Captain Joe Ledger, has managed to stop all these threats and more.  Utilising the latest military and espionage equipment and the best and brightest soldiers and scientists America has to offer, the DMS operates just outside the government and can go further than any other agency can.

However, while the DMS attempts to combat this latest threat, they find themselves hindered by a megalomaniac President whose stupidity and paranoia make him more afraid of the DMS than the group unleashing earthquakes across his country.  As Joe and his team attempt to hunt down the origins of this attack they must contend not only with a dangerous Russian force but also with agents of their own Government and devices that can drive even the most dedicated DMS agent insane.  But as the Russians attempt to force the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera, the greatest threat may come from the creatures the technology was stolen from.

Deep Silence is the 10th book in Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, which started in 2009 with Patient Zero.  Maberry has been writing since 2006, with his debut book Ghost Road Blues forming the first book in the Pine Deep Trilogy.  Since then, Maberry has written a huge number of books, most of which have a horror theme or focus.  Apart from his Joe Ledger series, Maberry is probably best known for his Rot & Ruin series, a young adult zombie apocalypse series.  Aside from his fictional novels, Maberry has also written several comics for Marvel as well of a number of non-fiction books, which tend to focus on Maberry’s passions for martial arts and the supernatural.

Deep Silence is an exceptional book that combines together a number of genres, including science fiction, thriller, horror, military fiction and spy thrillers into one very captivating narrative.  The end result is a non-stop thrill ride that perfectly utilises the series’s bizarre nature and advanced science to create a devastating threat and a larger-than-life protagonist to face it.  There are so many amazing elements to this book, from its continuation of an enjoyable series, to the very weird elements that come into play, to the excellent writing style and enjoyable characters.  Once I started reading this book I just could not stop, and it is easily one of my favourite books of this year.

From what I understand, the Joe Ledger series started off mostly focusing on the mad sciences that humans are able to create and use against each other.  However, in recent books, the series has taken on a more Lovecraftian vibe, with unknown aliens, space demons and incredibly insane technology.  Deep Silence in particular seems to relate back to several of these previous alien technology based novels, as the devices, technology and motives that the book’s antagonists utilise are closely related to the adventures that occurred in previous books.  That being said, there is still the continuous use of more advanced human technologies utilised by many of the book’s characters, especially those working for the DMS.  All the crazy gadgets that they use are pretty impressive, but none (with one or two major exceptions) are outside the realm of possibility and reflect technologies that could potentially exist.  Indeed, in the introduction to Patient Zero, Maberry actually confirms that most of the technology he describes in his books is currently used or could soon be used by intelligence organisations around the world today.

One of the challenges of coming into a series late is the reader’s lack of knowledge about the universe’s background information, lore and the development of its main characters and the extent of their relationships.  Maberry does an incredible job bridging this gap throughout Deep Silence, providing the reader with descriptions of previous events, recaps of character descriptions and history and making use of a number of references to previous missions and adventures captured in the other books in the Joe Ledger series.  There are also a number of scenes that appeared to be callbacks to previous books, although the author was able to describe the pertinent details of these events.  As a result, I was never lost at any point and really appreciated the recaps and detailed descriptions the book’s various point-of-view characters provided throughout the novel.  It also made me very curious about some of the previous books in the franchise, and I am now very interested in checking out some of these insane and fun-sounding adventures.  As a result, Deep Silence is an excellent book if you want to get an idea of what the Joe Ledger series is all about.  At the same time, established fans of this long-running series will be interested to see the significant changes that occur to the book’s main characters, as well as the scenes detailing where the series will potentially be going in the future.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about Deep Silence was the way that Maberry presents the book’s narrative from multiple perspectives and across a range of different time periods.  Because of this, the reader is given a far wider view of the overall narrative.  Not only do they get to see the protagonists attempting to investigate and stop what is going on, but they get to see the antagonists coming up with their plans, discovering and researching their doomsday device over a period of years and then implementing their mission.  This also allows the reader to get a far deeper understanding of the antagonist’s objectives and mindscapes in committing these acts and what it costs them mentally and emotionally.  Nearly all the fun and eccentric characters working in the DMS get a few scenes told from their point of view.  This provides the reader with some high level, but easy to follow, scientific discussions, hacking sequences and the utilisation of incredibly exciting-sounding advanced espionage technology.  There is also a focus within Deep Silence of the politics around and behind the DMS, and how the organisation’s leader, the mysterious Mr Church (who is totally an alien, right?), deals with these situations.

While all of the other point-of-view characters are entertaining and it is intriguing to view their sides of the story, the best character has to be the series’s main protagonist, Joe Ledger.  Ledger is the extremely dangerous and slightly disturbed leader of the DMS field team, and has been at the forefront of all the adventures in this series.  It is interesting to note that Ledger is the only character in this book whose story is told from the first person perspective, which is fortunate because Ledger is one of the biggest smartasses in fiction, especially within the privacy of his head.  Nearly every single piece of the book told from Ledger’s point of view is filled with jokes, wisecracks, and exaggerated or sarcastic thoughts.  Ledger has some incredibly humorous observations about the world around him, especially the eccentric characters he encounters, and his thoughts are just as likely to be self-deprecating as they are to be insulting about the people he has to deal with.  He is also an eccentric being who does some incredibly funny things, from having fun with his opponents to humming the Mission Impossible theme as he breaks into a safe.  However, beneath this humorous exterior there is a deeply damaged character who is severely impacted by events that have occurred before and during this series.  Maberry spends significant time diving into this character’s history and psyche, which quickly gives the reader, even readers previously unfamiliar with the series, a good understanding of his life and the events that define him.  His deep and fractured mind becomes a key part of this story, especially when it encounters mind-altering alien crystal and events beyond the realm of human comprehension.  All of this helps create an amazing and incredibly relatable central character whom the reader becomes incredibly drawn to, and as a result, Ledger is one of the best things about this book.  Special mention should also be given to Ledger’s combat dog Ghost, who appears in nearly all the same scenes as Ledger and is just as much of an enjoyable character as his owner.

While the mad science elements and characters are great, Maberry has also ensured that this is the perfect book for those action junkies looking for fast-paced thrills.  Ledger is an absolute beast throughout this book and engages in a number of fantastic fights in a variety of different scenarios.  Maberry channels his love of martial arts through this character and includes a number of detailed and very quick fight scenes as Ledger dismantles his opponents with efficient skill.  The other characters are no slouches and there are number of great action sequences I enjoyed.  Two of my favourites have to be two separate and extended sequences which see Ledger and DMS’s Echo Team engage in massive fire fights with a range of opponents.  These scenes are absolutely incredible and make the reader feel like they are really in the middle of a gun battle.  The author takes pains to try and highlight how methodical and calm professional teams can be during battles while also highlighting the various strategies and combat advantages used.  The multiple perspectives come into play here perfectly, as the different members of Echo Team engage in various encounters around the main battle, really highlighting what an effective special ops team can accomplish in the field.  Maberry enhances the fun and the action to a crazy degree by also utilising the advanced technology available to the DMS agents.  This not only includes some insane and deadly weaponry, which is very cool in action, but also other pieces of advanced technology such as drones, body armour, goggles, and enhancements for Ghost that help turn the battles into massive and enjoyable set pieces.

Nothing, however, can top the sheer insanity that unfolds when the book’s antagonists unleash their super weapon against the world.  Maberry’s descriptive and skilled writing really brings these scenes to life.  The sheer devastation of the earthquakes that he describes is just incredible and very disturbing.  But nothing is more crazy or electrifying then the scenes where the people who are affected by the strange energy given off by the weapon go insane and start participating in a violent rampage against themselves or against each other.  Maberry pulls no punches here and all the violence is on full display, from terrible acts of violence against anyone around them to disturbing suicides or episodes of self-harm.  In many of these scenes the author attempts to get into the head of these characters and watch them slowly unfold from within.  This mostly prevalent with his protagonist, Joe Ledger, but other characters’ thoughts are shown.  Let’s just say you’ll never look at the Beatles song Revolution 9 the same again.  The biggest example of this insanity happens around the Capitol building in Washington DC, and quite frankly it reminded me of the church scene in Kingsman: The Secret Service, with the protagonists stuck in the middle of a crazy mob.

One of the more intriguing parts of Deep Silence is the side character of the President of the United States of America.  While this character is never explicitly named in the book, he is clearly supposed to be a Trump analogue.  The character is an easily manipulated, short-tempered, Twitter-obsessed moron who puts his own needs far above those of the country he is governing.  The resemblance to Trump is uncanny, and Maberry does an incredible job mirroring his arrogance and personality throughout the book.  While this character is a great addition by itself, Maberry spends a lot of time exploring how a character like this would deal with the advanced technology and extreme catastrophes that are a major part of this series.  The results are frustrating for the reader as they are forced to sit there and watch this character make all the wrong decisions and serve his own agenda or self-interest.  It was also very intriguing watching this President go up against the DMS as he routinely targets the department out of fear and ignorance.  The new political reality of Washington becomes a major factor throughout Deep Silence, and Maberry is understandably critical about how things are being run and the insanity currently gripping Washington.  It was very interesting to see Maberry incorporate the current unpredictable political reality of America into his new book, and readers will be very intrigued to see how this might impact the future of his long-running series.

I listened to the audiobook version of Deep Silence, narrated by Ray Porter.  The audiobook version does go for over 16 hours, so it’s one of the longer ones I have listened to lately.  That being said, due to its exceptional content, I found myself making a variety of excuses just to keep listening to this audiobook, and got through it very quickly.  The audiobook is an incredible way to experience this book, and I would highly recommend it, mainly because of Ray Porter’s narration.  Porter absolutely nails all of the characters and provides a number of amazing voices to fully capture the diverse accents and attitudes of this eccentric group of characters.  I was particularly enthralled with the calm, cool voice he gifted to the DMS Director, Mr Church, which really reminded me of Tom Hanks’s voice.  Special mention should also be given to his narration of the President.  The narrator created a fantastic Trump-like voice that fully conveyed the character’s high opinion of himself, as well as his dismissive and arrogant nature.  I actually had a visceral reaction when I heard that voice the first time, it was that good.  Porter’s narration for Joe Ledger was also perfect, as he does an incredible job portraying Ledger’s high-energy musings and the full tone of his personality.  Porter’s voice peaks and rises to meet the full intent of any of Ledger’s sentences, and he is a master at conveying Ledger’s innate sarcasm.  At the same time, he is also able to make his voice more serious and subdued during the darker scenes in which Ledger is deep within his head or his memories.  This is sterling work from Porter, and one of the best audiobook narrations I have ever listened to.  As a result, I highly recommend that the audiobook version of Deep Silence as the best way to experience this novel.

Bestselling author Jonathan Maberry once again takes his audience on a captivating thrill ride in the Joe Ledger Series.  Deep Silence provides the reader with an extraordinary and very engrossing story that proves extremely hard to put down.  Equally enjoyable for established fans of this long-running series and new readers who have yet to experience Maberry’s work, readers can and will have an incredible amount of fun with this book.  Best enjoyed in audiobook format, Deep Silence is guaranteed to make you a dedicated fan of the author and easily gets a five-star rating from me.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

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Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

For those looking for some down and dirty fantasy crime, look no further than Priest of Bones, the new release from fantasy author Peter McLean, which provides the reader with a dark, violent and downright entertaining story.

After achieving victory in a devastating war, thousands of soldiers begin the long and weary journey back home through a countryside ravished by war, plague and famine.  Among those soldiers returning to the industrial city of Ellinburg is Thomas Piety, priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows and leader of a small and loyal band of killers.  Thomas has taken his duty as a soldier and a priest seriously, but now it is time for him to return to what he knows best: crime.

A successful crime lord before his conscription, Thomas believed he had left his territory in capable hands.  However, upon his return he discovers that his entire criminal empire has been taken over by a new gang that appears to have origins outside of Ellinburg.  With no choice but to reclaim what is his, Thomas and his soldiers, including his loyal sergeant, Bloody Anne, and his damaged brother, Jochan, do what they do best and go to war.

As Thomas and his gang, the Pious Men, reclaim territory and re-establish themselves in Ellinburg, they begin to realise that they are facing an opponent far more dangerous than the usual gangs and criminals of the city.  Their opponents are organised, have the best weapons money can buy and even have a couple of magic users.  To make matters worse, Thomas finds himself entrapped by one the deadly Queen’s Men, the feared order of spies and assassins loyal to queen, who have some special plans for the Pious Men.  Now, Thomas and his soldiers must embark on a dangerous and bloody crusade against the other gangs of Ellinburg.  Victory will mean control of the city’s crime, while defeat will spell doom for them all.

Priest of Bones is an excellent example of fantasy crime fiction done right as McLean has produced a story that is action-packed, incredibly intriguing and very enjoyable.  McLean has been writing fantasy for a few years and is probably best known for The Burned Man series, an urban fantasy crime series that focused on a magical hitman.  He also has a few short stories to his name, including some set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Priest of Bones is the first book in his new War for the Rose Throne series, which will continue next year with the highly anticipated Priest of Lies.

The story contained within this first book is an amazing fantasy crime narrative which sees the protagonist work to reclaim his criminal holdings from a powerful new gang that has moved into the city while he was gone.  This starts out exactly as you would expect from this sort of story as the protagonists attempt to regain territory, one business at a time, while their opponents launch counterattacks and raids of their own.  The protagonists come up with some effective plans for taking territory and show what happens when a bunch of soldiers engage in some brutal urban combat.  There is a large amount of action throughout this book, which McLean records in bloody and enthralling detail.  This action mostly takes the form of small skirmishes and battles, although there are some magical battles which do result in some more gory and spectacular deaths.  All of this is incredibly fun, and it works very well with the intriguing side stories and character exploration to create a compelling overall narrative.  As the book progresses, an element of political intrigue takes hold as new players enter the game.  This represents an interesting but subtle change to the pace of the book and doesn’t result in any loss of action or excitement.  In many ways, it appears to be a setup for the next book in the series, which sounds like it’s going to have a much more political focus to it.  McLean wraps this all up with a memorable conclusion that I won’t elaborate on, but is the perfect ending for this outstanding and extremely enjoyable piece of fantasy crime.

The central gang that McLean looked at in the plot, the Pious Men, are a strong bunch of characters who serve as a fantastic focal point for this series.  All of the Pious Men are former soldiers who have recently survived the war and are still haunted by the horrors they experienced, especially at the devastating siege of Abingon.  Quite a few of the characters from this small band of soldiers are explored throughout the book, and while some of these characters only get minor mentions, a number do get expanded roles throughout the book and are shown to have some form of development or are slotted into a role that they make their own.  One of the most interesting features of this book is the way that McLean has focused on just how badly the war has messed up these characters, as pretty much all of them are suffering from PTSD in some way or another, referred to by the characters in the book as battle shock.  This is handled very well and allows for some fantastic scenes, as characters who initially come across as quite amiable for most of the book go berserk when attacked, while other characters who appear quite strong find themselves crippled by these memories.

The leader of this group of former soldiers turned criminals is Thomas Piety, who serves as the book’s main protagonist and only point-of-view character.  Thomas is a good central character to anchor this story, who for the most part comes across as a cold and calculating person who knows how to get what he wants.  As Priest of Bones continues, it is slowly revealed that there is a lot more to Thomas’s character than what is originally believed, as he is trying to hide not only the emotional damage from Abingon but the dark memories from his childhood that are still driving him to this day.  It is interesting to see Thomas try and reconcile his new role as a priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows with his role as a soldier and crime lord.  It is also intriguing to see that one of his deeper motivations is based on his belief that his criminal enterprises not only will make his city a better place but may also save it from a similar fate to Abingon, something he is desperate to never see again.  As the story is completely shown through Thomas’s viewpoint, the reader gets the benefit of his cynical attitude as well as his humorous and accurate insights throughout the book.  This is a great focal character for this book, and I had fun exploring his full depths.

Quite a lot of time is also spent exploring the other members of the Pious Men that follow Thomas back from the war.  The best of these characters is easily Bloody Anne, the hard-as-nails sergeant who is Thomas’s most loyal soldier and friend.  There is detailed examination of Anne’s past which reveals a lot about her current character, including her distrust of magic users.  This turns into quite a nice side story, as Anne finally starts to overcome her past enough to start exploring a relationship with the prostitute Rosie.  Thomas’s brother, Jochan, is also an intriguing character who fits in well with this darker story.  Jochan is your standard unhinged killer, who has some of the funniest lines and can be found in the middle of all the big fight scenes.  His presence results in a lot of the book’s tension, as he and Thomas clash about everything.  McLean has also created a very traumatic backstory for Jochan that not only helps to humanise the character as the reader gets further into the book but also explains a lot about Thomas’s deeper motivation and the guilt he feels whenever he thinks of his brother.  Other great characters that the reader should keep an eye out for are the fake knight Sir Eland, the mysterious barmaid Ailsa and Billy the Boy, the Pious Men’s good luck charm who is clearly going to be a very important character throughout the rest of the series.

In Priest of Bones, Peter McLean has delivered a fast-paced and captivating piece of fantasy crime that is filled with a ton of graphic violence, a number of exhilarating fight scenes and some excellent character driven story work.  This new book is a wonderful introduction to the new War for the Rose Throne series, and I’m already looking forward to the follow-up book in 2019.  Clever, bloody and all sorts of fun, readers will have a blast checking this book out.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars