Against All Gods by Miles Cameron

Against all Gods Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (E-book – 23 June 2022)

Series: The Age of Bronze – Book One

Length: 465 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The always impressive and inventive Miles Cameron returns with another awesome novel, Against All Gods, a compelling epic with a truly divine story.

There are few authors with more of a diverse catalogue of books than the talented Miles Cameron.  The pseudonym of historical fiction author Christian Cameron (who has also released novels with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym Gordon Kent), Cameron has been on a real roll with his fantasy and science fiction novels lately.  Not only did he have great success with his incredible Master and Mages series, which included Cold Iron and Dark Forge (one of my favourite novels and audiobooks of 2019), but he also successful released his first foray into science fiction last year with Artifact Space (one of my favourite books of 2021).  As such, I have been keenly anticipating Cameron’s latest read and I was extremely excited to receive an early copy of his latest fantasy novel, Against All GodsAgainst All Gods is the awesome first entry in his new The Age of Bronze series, which follows a group of desperate mortals as they attempt to overthrow an entire deadly pantheon of gods.

In a damaged world filled with death, despair and injustice, the gods rule with an iron fist.  Secure in their power and glory after destroying or banishing the previous pantheon, the current gods make games of the lives of mortals, controlling them for their own gain and punishing them on a whim.  However, the gods are not as secure as they would hope, and all it will take is one spark to ignite a deadly rebellion against them.

When the daughter of powerful magos and aristocrat, Gamash of Weshwesh, is killed by a malicious god, it sets off a chain of events that will change everything.  Determined to get revenge, Gamash finds himself a willing tool of an older god who exists to stir up chaos and challenge her new masters.  Following the signs laid out before him, Gamash receives weapons that can hurt the corrupt divine beings and embarks on a quest to challenge the gods once and for all.

As Gamash’s quest continues, he is soon joined by an eclectic mixture of mortals, all of whom have their own issues with the current deities and who have been manipulated to fight against them.  Faced with dangers at every turn and soon caught up amid multiple divine conspiracies, these reluctant rebels soon begin to understand the full extent of the danger they find themselves in.  Determined not to be mere pawns in a cosmic game of immortal gods, the rebels will decide to do the impossible: go up against all the gods and win!

Wow, Cameron continues to impress me with his unique and incredible story writing.  Against All Gods is a distinctive and powerful read that takes multiple fantastic characters on an epic adventure through a great new fantasy landscape.  I loved the powerful narrative that Against All Gods contained, and it really did not take me long to become incredible addicted to its twisty and compelling tale.  Complex, utterly enthralling and very fun, Against All Gods was an excellent read and I honestly have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

Against All Gods has an outstanding story that I had a wonderfully entertaining time reading.  Essentially a Bronze Age inspired fantasy that sees multiple mortal characters caught up in the multiple machinations of the gods, this is a particularly fun and over-the-top narrative that you cannot help but fall in love with.  Against All Gods’ narrative has an excellent flow to it that individually introduces the substantial main cast and showcases their various pasts and issues they have with the ruling pantheon.  These initially separate storylines come together towards the centre of the book, once all the protagonists are thrust together by their unseen benefactor, and it swiftly evolves into a powerful plot, with the same events beautifully showcased from multiple different narrators.  At the same time, much of the story follows the machinations of the gods as they plot and backstab against each other, while also attempting to counter the actions of the mortal characters.  These scenes set in Heaven are often the most entertaining parts of the book, especially as Cameron produces a ton of twists and facilitates the multiple scheming deities, each of whom has their own plans.  These multiple storylines combine for a massive and awesome conclusion, as the protagonists come face-to-face against the gods in their opening salvo.  There are some truly epic scenes in this final part of the novel, and Cameron ends the book with some fun surprises and reveals that indicate how awesome the rest of The Age of Bronze series is going to be.

I really liked the style of Against All Gods, which is a slight departure from some of Cameron’s previous novels.  Despite the Bronze Age setting, the characters, attitudes and personalities are a bit more modern than some of Cameron’s existing fantasy books, and I think this really fit Against All Gods’ over-the-top narrative extremely well.  This is easily one of Cameron’s more elaborate narratives, and I loved how he started utilising a large range of character perspectives, rather than focusing on a single central protagonist.  Again, this works extremely well for this novel’s plot, and it helps to introduce the various outrageous characters and highlight the completely insane pantheon of gods who are fighting behind the scenes of the main story.  Cameron’s proven ability to craft a complex and highly detailed story is once again on display here, and every scene comes across in a powerful and expansive way, painting a powerful picture.  This works particularly well during the many impressive action sequences, and the reader is really drawn into the intense battles and fights that occur.  The narrative itself has an excellent blend of world building, character development and classic adventure, all of which is bound together by a healthy and entertaining dose of intrigue and deceit.  I was very quickly drawn into the unique story that Cameron was telling here, and I found it very hard to put this book down in places, as I really wanted to see what happened next.

You can’t discuss Against All Gods without mentioning the impressive and highly complex new world that Cameron has come up with.  Cameron has clearly combined two of his literary loves here, producing an intense and dangerous Bronze Age fantasy world clearly inspired by ancient Greece, especially its mythology.  As such, you get some glorious scenes of bronze covered soldiers facing off against each other, elaborate Mediterranean inspired cities, and a ton of awesome depictions of ancient seafaring ships.  However, there are some noticeable differences as this version of the world is ruled over by a corrupt and dangerous pantheon of new gods.  Centuries ago, this pantheon arrived in this world, mostly destroying the previous pantheon, and completely taking over the lands.  Their rule has become an insanely despotic one, where only they and their minions profit, while the people are now forced to worship them and ignore their old gods while powering the petty choices of their new masters.  The subsequent world is a dark and brutal place which serves as an excellent background to the powerful and exciting narrative Cameron has come up with for Against All Gods.  The idea of a Bronze Age society totally dominated by an evil pantheon of invading gods is exceedingly inventive, and Cameron really makes it work, showcasing all the ways that the gods screw over humanity and control them.  There are so many fun details here, with the new hierarchy, the multiple magical eyes that turn the lands into a divine surveillance state, and even the enforced reliance on bronze, as the gods have removed all iron from the world.  Throw in several awesome cultures, some unique creatures (the Dry Ones are pretty awesome), and even a marauding army of murderous savages, and you have a brilliant backdrop to this story that I found to be extremely cool.  I look forward to seeing how this setting evolves in the future and I am sure that Cameron has some more bonkers ideas for it.

One of the other great things about Against All Gods was the impressive and compelling collection of characters that Cameron focuses the story on.  There is a great group of point-of-view figures throughout this novel, and the author generally breaks these up into mortal and divine characters.  Most of the novel focuses on a small band of mortals who are framed as the protagonists of the series, each of whom has their own grudges and reasons to dislike the gods.  I felt that Cameron did an awesome job of presenting all these main characters at the start of Against All Gods, and their extended introductory chapters really allow the reader to get to know them and understand their unique stories and histories.  These characters include Gamash, a powerful magos seeking revenge against the gods after they kill his daughter, and who serves as a tragic figurehead for most of the plot.  He is joined by other impressive characters, like Era, a singer and dancer, whose extreme confidence, impressive sarcasm and tough exterior are at great odds with her warm interior.  Era, who is also an excellently represented lesbian character, serves as a great foil to the rest of the cast.  She really plays off Zos, a Godborn warrior, whose martial prowess and cynical worldview brings him into conflict with the gods, especially after he incurs their wrath.  The major protagonists are well rounded out by Pollon, a former highborn scribe and intellectual, whose cushy life is crushed in a matter of days, which convinces him to go up against the gods.

These four protagonists are backed up by an intriguing and eclectic mixture of supporting characters, each of whom bring something special and fun to the mix.  This includes the crew of the Hakran ship, Untroubled Swan, led by Aanat, another substantial point-of-view figure.  The Hakran are a curious group of characters, serving as one big polygamist family, which makes for some very interesting dynamics in the book.  They are also major pacifists who are manipulated into helping the heroes and who constantly find their wishes and way of life threatened by the actions of their new comrades.  I also had a lot of fun with Daos, a mysterious child adopted by Era, who bears an odd gift that allows him to see the world in different ways, and who helps to guide the protagonists to some interesting directions.  These characters and more (there is a fantastic stuffed bear and donkey combination that works surprisingly well) are a lot of fun to watch, and the constant interactions and intriguing developments help to enhance the plot.  While the plot was a bit bogged down in places with too many characters at once, this was an overall good collection of supporting figures who had some fun storylines between them.

I also really must highlight the fantastic god characters in Against All Gods.  Cameron has gone out of his way to create a truly vicious, conceited and manipulative troop of deities, each of whom is in it for their own benefit or power.  This pantheon is led by the bull-headed thunder god, Enkul-Anu (essentially Zeus), a powerful and stubborn being who conquered the previous gods and installed his kin as the new rulers of this world.  Forced to control a group of idiotic, rebellious or half-insane gods, as well as the always troublesome mortals, Enkul-Anu is an angry and exasperated figure in this novel, constantly at his wits ends with the stupidity and self-serving nature of the other gods.  Even though he’s the brutal main villain, you can’t help but feel a little for Enkul-Anu at times as he must deal with all the issues his followers have created.  He is well matched by an excellent group of other gods, including a fantastically depraved and eternally underestimated god of drunkenness and orgies, Druku; his beauty-obsessed consort, Sypa; his ambitious son and herald, Nisroch; and two troublesome sisters, the Huntress and the Blue Goddess, who constantly seek to destroy him.  All these excellent characters, plus several insane greater gods and their ultra-keen offspring, serve as a brilliant pantheon of villains, and I had so much fun with their manipulative and selfish actions.  The intriguing interactions between these characters are extremely entertaining, and you won’t believe who comes out on top at times.  I can’t wait to see how these gods continue their battles in the future, especially after the results of this book’s crazy conclusion.

With Against All Gods, the first book in his brilliant new fantasy series, Miles Cameron continues to shine as one of the most inventive authors out there.  Featuring an extremely compelling narrative that pits likeable mortal characters against selfish, all-powerful gods in a Bronze Age setting, Against All Gods is a layered and deeply entertaining book that comes highly recommended.  This was a truly awesome read and I look forward to seeing how Cameron continues The Age of Bronze series in the future.  The next book in this series, currently titled Storming Heaven, is set for release in a year’s time, and I personally can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Broken Honour by Robert Earl

Warhammer - Broken Honour Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 22 February 2011)

Series: Warhammer Fantasy

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I look at a cool standalone entry in the Warhammer Fantasy canon with the 2011 novel, Broken Honour by Robert Earl.

Damn it has been fun getting back into Warhammer fiction over the last couple of years, especially as there have been so many amazing and epic recent additions to the franchise.  I have really been having fun with the huge variety of stories associated with these iconic tabletop games, and while I have been mostly focused on the science-fiction based Warhammer 40,000 novels, I have also been dabbling with the Warhammer Fantasy subgenre.  Set in a chaotic and war-ridden world filled with all manner of creatures from classic fantasy, the Warhammer Fantasy novels contain fun and dark adventures, such as the Gotrek and Felix novels (check out my reviews for Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  I was lucky to recently find several cool Warhammer books in a second-hand shop, and I immediately dived into a particularly fun fantasy novel, Broken Honour, written by a new-to-me author, Robert Earl, who had written various other interesting Warhammer novels.  Set before the 2015 destruction of this setting and the start of the Age of Sigma, Broken Honour was a fantastic and entertaining read with a great story to it.

Chaos has once again invaded the realms of man, this time in the Imperial state of Hochland.  The ravenous beastman hordes are emerging from their deep forest lairs to begin their annual raids of the human settlements to destroy, despoil and feast on the people within.  As the armies of Hochland gather to repel them, they find themselves outmatched and outsmarted at every turn.  A powerful and dangerously intelligent beastman lord has risen to command the herd, and his unusual tactics may spell the end for every human living in Hochland.

As the Hochland baron and his advisors attempt to withstand the new threat advancing towards them, they desperately seek out any fighting men they can find.  Sensing opportunity, mercenary Captain Eriksson, a veteran fighter for sale currently only missing a regiment to command, arrives at the capital.  Keen to take advantage of the current chaos, Eriksson buys the freedom of a large group of prisoners to form a new free company.  Promised freedom and pardons for their crimes if they fight, the prisoners form a reluctant and ill-trained regiment, the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who hope to avoid the brunt of the battle in the back.

However, Eriksson and his troops soon find themselves in the very thick of the fighting, as those above them seek to use his unit to in the very worst ways.  Forced to contend with ravenous monsters, political intrigue, and a villainous lord with everything to lose, Eriksson and the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig will need to come together and hone their skills if they are to survive.  Can this band of rogues, thieves and criminals regain their lost honour and find redemption on the battlefield, or will they find only death and destruction as humanities most bestial enemies come to claim them?

Broken Honour was an awesome addition to the Warhammer Fantasy canon that I had an amazing time getting through.  Earl produced an exceedingly exciting and action-packed read that is essentially The Dirty Dozen in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (it is also comparable to the Last Chancers series from Warhammer 40,000).  Obviously, with a plot like that, I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun with this book, and Earl really did not disappoint.  While the narrative is a tad by the numbers, it is a pretty cool military fantasy narrative that is worked well into the Warhammer Fantasy setting.  The entire story flows really well, with the antagonists introduced up front and the protagonist, Eriksson, and his unwilling soldiers brought in quickly after that.  From there you follow the paroled Free Company as they are dragged from one conflict to the next and forced to contend with overwhelming odds.  As such, the book is loaded with a ton of outstanding action and brutal fight sequences that are guaranteed to keep you entertained.  Earl makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a deep and wide-ranging narrative, and you soon get dragged into several different character arcs, including several surrounding the antagonists.  Not only do you get to see into the heart of the beastman camp, but there are several brilliant sequences told from the perspective of a villainous Hochland noble who is trying to kill the protagonists.  This all ends up being a pretty exciting and fantastic story, and I found myself getting really caught up in the novel, powering through it very quickly.  Everything comes together really well into a great self-contained adventure, although a couple of character arcs didn’t get the conclusions that they deserved, and some storylines are never revisited, despite Earl leaving the story open for a sequel.  Despite that, Broken Honour was an excellent, easy novel to check out, and you are guaranteed to have a great time reading it.

I really liked how well Broken Honour slotted into the established Warhammer Fantasy setting, and this was a great addition to the overall canon.  Earl focuses his narrative around two particularly intriguing factions from the game here, the villainous beastmen and the human armies of the Empire, specifically from the state of Hochland.  I loved the insight into both, especially the beastmen, and the author really brings them to life in exquisite detail.  You can really feel the monstrous power, the Chaos infused evil and the beast-like mentalities contained within these creatures, and they prove to be excellent and brutal antagonists for the entire novel.  At the same time, there are some awesome insights into the soldiers of the Empire, and I loved the various depictions of their battle tactics and the various regiments.  While Earl does dive into these various Warhammer factions throughout Broken Honour, readers don’t need to know too much about them to enjoy the series, as the author does an amazing job introducing them and explaining what they are, and any fan of fantasy or dark fantasy would have a great time with this book.  Indeed, Broken Honour would serve as an excellent introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy canon for those readers unfamiliar with its details, as the story encapsulates the constant struggles and battles that occur within it, as well as the fun and larger-than-life characters it focuses on.  As such, this is a really good and entertaining Warhammer novel that will really appeal to both established fans and potential newcomers.

I really must highlight some of the great characters featured within Broken Honour, as Earl has come up with a wonderful and compelling group of figures to set the story around.  Most of the plot naturally revolves around the members of the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who are formed to face the threat within it.  Made up of over 120 former criminals, you don’t get to know all the members, but most of the ones who are featured are extremely fun and very memorable.  The leader, Captain Eriksson, proves to be a canny veteran who can manipulate events and his superiors in his favour to field a force in the war and get a lot of money.  Despite his mercenary attitude, Eriksson proves to have a conscious and builds up a fair bit of loyalty to his men, and this character growth really helps endear him to the reader.  Most of the other named Free Company members are a rather interesting and cool.  The drummer boy, Dolf, for example, proves to be an excellent human MacGuffin in the narrative as political plots revolve around his survival.  Other members of the Free Company that stood out to me include the tired veteran Sergeant Alter, the possibly mad former warrior priest Gunter, and the wily quartermaster Porter, whose moneymaking schemes and remarkable survival ability rounds out the character dynamics extremely well.

While I had fun with these protagonists, the best characters within Broken Honour are easily the baddies, with several great antagonist figures really coming together perfectly throughout the book.  The most prominent of these is Beastlord Gulkroth, who leads the beastman armies in the book.  Empowered by dark magics which have enhanced him even further than the rest of his kind, Gulkroth proves to be an intimidating and compelling figure in the novel, especially as his grasp of strategy, tactics and patience are highly unusual amongst his race.  Gulkroth spends the bulk of the novel balancing this newfound intelligence against his bestial nature, and it proves extremely interesting to see both sides of his personality come into conflict, especially as it impacts how his army attacks.  While Gulkroth is a fascinating figure, the best antagonist is Viksberg, a cowardly noble who was the sole human survivor of the first battle in the book thanks to his spinelessness behaviour.  Despite this, he manipulates the situation to make him appear as a hero and gets promoted as a result, killing anyone who knows the truth of his actions.  This eventually forces him to contend with Eriksson’s regiment, as one of them is a witness to his crimes, and he tries to get all of them killed on multiple occasions.  Viksberg’s continued attempts to kill the protagonists through indirect means really adds to the intrigue and enjoyment of the entire novel, and it was exceedingly entertaining to watch his various plots unfold.  Earl really goes out of his way to make Viksberg as despicable as possible, and you end up really disliking the entitled bugger, especially as he gets better characters killed.  You end up rooting against Viksberg in the hope that he’ll get his just deserts, only to be disappointed when he manages to survive to fight another day, which is both frustrating and extremely fun.  These brilliant antagonists, and all the other characters, add so much to the overall plot of Broken Honour, and I really appreciated the work that Earl put into his various characters.

Overall, Broken Honour by Robert Earl was an awesome and deeply entertaining Warhammer novel that I had a delightful time with.  The straightforward story is very exciting and contains some impressive character arcs that unfold to produce a riveting tale, while also providing all the action and bloodshed I could ever want in the iconic Warhammer Fantasy setting.  While I am a little disappointed that Earl didn’t write any additional novels featuring the characters in Broken Honour, I still had an awesome time with this book and it’s a great read for both Warhammer fans and those general fantasy readers.  Highly recommended!

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 10 January 2012)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 14 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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.  In my latest Throwback Thursday I look at one of the more interesting novels from the Star Wars Legends universe, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno.

With Star Wars day on the horizon, I have decided to go back and check out some of the key books in the now defunct Star Wars Legends universe.  While no longer canon, there are still some amazing books in the Legends range, including some that will no doubt serve as an inspiration for some future shows or movies.  I have already enjoyed several Legends books, such as Maul: Lockdown, Scoundrels and Death Troopers, but there are still more epic reads that I really want to check out.  Probably the one I was most interested in reading was the epic Darth Plagueis by James Luceno.  Luceno, who also wrote the fantastic novel Tarkin in the current Disney canon, is a very talented author, and I was very excited in checking out his take on the elusive and mysterious Darth Plagueis.

“Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?”

Throughout the long and bloody history of the Republic, many Sith lords have risen to threaten the peace and order maintained by their hated rivals, the Jedi.  While some have put complex and deadly plans into effect, few have reached the pinnacle of power, influence or mastery of the Dark Side of the Force as the mysterious Darth Plagueis, whose malign guidance shaped the galaxy in terrible ways and introduced a great darkness.

Upon killing his master and obtaining all the power he ever desired, Darth Plagueis set out to continue his order’s greatest goal: destroying the Jedi and claiming the Republic as his own.  Using his position as a powerful member of the Banking Clan, Darth Plagueis worked to manipulate the Republic into chaos and slowly lead the Jedi to a war they had no hope of winning.  However, even a Sith as powerful as Darth Plagueis is unable to do everything on his own, and he soon seeks out a powerful Force user to take on as his apprentice, a talented politician from Naboo known only as Palpatine.

Renaming Palpatine Darth Sidious, Plagueis begins manipulating events to ensure that his apprentice becomes a major power in the Senate, planning to elevate him to the role of Supreme Chancellor while also destroying those opponents who threaten their plans.  However, despite the importance of their plan, Plagueis’s main desire is not the defeat of the Jedi but of a far older enemy, death itself.  Diving into the mysteries of the Force, Plagueis will explore avenues of power not seen for millennia as he attempts to become the immortal master of the galaxy.  But his obsession with endless life could yet be his greatest undoing.

Wow, Luceno did not disappoint with this fantastic Star Wars novel.  Darth Plagueis is an impressive and captivating read that perfectly tells the story of a particularly elusive figure.  Bringing in some heavy Star Wars elements from the extended lore, Luceno has crafted a brilliant character-driven story that I had an extraordinary time listening to.

Luceno has come up with an interesting story for the Darth Plagueis novel that achieves several goals at once.  Not only does it tell the complete story of this legendary Sith Lord but it provides some interesting context for other pieces of Star Wars fiction, while also containing a powerful story of intrigue, betrayal and darkness.  Set over a period of roughly 35 years and told from the perspectives of Darth Plagueis and Darth Sidious (with a few scenes seen from other characters, like Darth Maul), this brilliant novel does an excellent job of exploring the primary characters while also showing their malicious actions across various theatres of the Star Wars universe.  While the novel starts off a little slow, you soon become engrossed in the story as you encounter multiple layers of manipulation and politics as Plagueis attempts to control the galaxy and make his major plans.  The story is broken into three distinct periods, the first showing some of Plagueis’s early movements as a Sith Master and his initial meeting and recruitment of Sidious.  The second part of the book, set 20 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, showcases Sidious as he becomes established as a Senator as Plagueis contends with some dangerous opponents and plots as he sets up the earliest stages of his master plan.  The final third of the novel is set in the lead-up/during the events of The Phantom Menace, where you see many of the storylines come together, as well as the final chapters of the relationship between Plagueis and Sidious.

I had a really great time with this compelling story, and it is one that I feel will appeal to a lot of Star Wars fans.  While I was a little surprised at the suddenness of some of the time skips, I felt that all three major parts of the novel were really good, and I loved how well they flowed together to create one coherent and fantastic read.  The three separate time periods allow for a massive story, while also featuring some of the key moments of the main character’s lives.  Featuring a ton of intriguing and heavy bits of Star Wars lore, parts of the story do drag a little in places, especially as there is a little less action than your typical Star Wars novel.  However, I found all the politics, machinations and expansions of the Star Wars lore to be extremely fascinating, and there is a brilliant story hidden in there.  The story is also not completely bereft of action, and there are some pretty cool fight sequences scattered throughout the book, including some that show off Plagueis’s full, terrifying abilities.  This story had an excellent tone and pace to it, and I feel that everything came together extremely well and I was pretty enraptured by every damn moment of it.

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover 2

This was a really good Star Wars novel, and it is one that will appeal to a wide range of fans, especially those who enjoyed the Legends range.  While Darth Plagueis is technically no longer canon, Luceno really went out of his way to connect it to the wider Star Wars canon, which is something I really appreciated about this book.  In many ways, Darth Plagueis serves as the ultimate companion to the prequel films as Luceno attempted to fill in some plot holes and unexplained bits of the movies, by exploring the entirety of the Sith’s rise to power.  Bringing in a ton of obscure lore, you get an unparalleled view of how Plagueis and Sidious manipulated events in the Legends canon to lead to the events of the films, and this really helps to fill in some gaps.  Luceno also includes multiple moments from The Phantom Menace film throughout the story, and it was pretty fascinating to see why parts of the antagonist’s plot came together like they did, as well as some excellent alternate views of certain key scenes.  I also deeply enjoyed how Darth Plagueis tied into a ton of other pieces of Star Wars Legends fiction, including books, comics and games.  Multiple prior novels are mentioned or connected to this novel in some way, and I felt that Luceno did a really good job of inserting elements from the already massive extended universe into his book and connecting the stories together and giving all of them more context and interest.  All these connections helped to create a novel that is particularly compelling and intriguing to dedicated Star Wars fans, who will love seeing the events of this book unfold.  While those fans who have only seen the movies will probably be able to enjoy this book easily enough (with only some minor confusion to some of the more obscure parts of the lore), this is a novel best enjoyed by readers who have checked out some other Star Wars Legends books and will appreciate how it fits into that wider version of the canon.

I did like a lot of the universe-building that Luceno did in this novel, as the author explored some fascinating parts of the Legends universe.  Not only does the reader get to experience a lot of obscure elements of Star Wars lore, including aliens, technology, locations and other cool things, but this also serves as one of the most impressive looks at the Sith and the Dark Side of the Force.  Due to the deep examinations of the Sith and its history by Plagueis, as well as other elements contained in the training of Palpatine, the reader is flooded with knowledge about these Dark Side users and their ways, which proves to be quite intriguing.  I had a brilliant time learning more about these deep elements of lore, especially as the characters talk about practicalities as well as history.  The difference between various forms of the Dark Side are very cool, as you see some comparisons between Plagueis’s more scientific based usage of the Force and the Dark Side sorcery preferred by Sidious.  I also found the characters’ own description and assessment of the Sith and the Force to be surprisingly deep, as the characters see themselves as more of a necessary force there to save the galaxy and the Republic from the Jedi.  Darth Plagueis also contains some fantastic detail about the history of the planet Naboo, which I also found really fascinating.  Darth Plagueis goes out of its way to explore the history of the planet and the reasons why it became a political and economic factor in the Republic in the lead-up to The Phantom Menace, and I loved seeing the political strife and manipulation that led to this initial war, as well as the rise of characters like Palpatine and Amidala.  These brilliant pieces of lore are so much fun to learn about, and I had an incredible time finding out more about the Sith in this canon.

Of course, one of the best bits of the lore that Luceno examines in this novel is the role that Darth Plagueis had in the Star Wars universe.  First mentioned in that iconic monologue in Revenge of the Sith, Plagueis remained a mostly shadowy and unknown figure until the release of this book, which serves as the ultimate guide to the character and his history.  Luceno, who at this point had been planning a Darth Plagueis story for years, does a brilliant job of telling the full story of this great character, and you get an outstanding focus on his entire life, especially his time as a Sith Master.  Plagueis, a Muun also known as Hego Damask, is portrayed as a thoughtful, powerful and manipulative being with a surprising nobility and dignity to him.  Fitted with an intriguing backstory and motivations, you see him grow into an extremely powerful Sith Lord throughout the course of the book, and it was fascinating to see all his plans and machinations.   The most significant part of the character’s motivations is his hunt for immortality through the force.  As such, you get a fantastic look at his obsessive experiments and research, as he tries to uncover this ultimate secret.  I felt that Luceno did an incredible job of working this mysterious character into the wider Star Wars canon.  There are some great moments throughout this book that show this shadowy figure manipulating key events from the shadows to bring about the events of the prequel films.  I particularly loved how Luceno fit Plagueis into some scenes from The Phantom Menace, and it is very fun to imagine him watching these moments from just outside camera shot.  This really was an incredible examination and exploration of this character, and I had so much fun finally finding out who Darth Plagueis was and how he was connected to the wider story.  Despite this story no longer being canon, this novel is really the only guide to Darth Plagueis, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is used as the primary source material for anyone wanting to introduce him in a future film or television series.

While this book does tell the story of Darth Plagueis, in many ways it is just as much about Palpatine as it provides readers with an outstanding look at his early history.  Essentially set during the time he was Darth Plagueis’s apprentice, you get some amazing insights into who Palpatine is and how he turned to the Dark Side of the Force.  Portrayed as manipulative and insidious since birth, you get to see Palpatine at his most evil and dangerous as he learns about the Force and the Sith.  I loved how you get to see various stages of Palpatine’s early life, from his teenage years where he first learns about his powers, to his middle age where he becomes a young ambitious senator and apprentice, to his time as an experienced manipulator and Force user just before coming Supreme Chancellor.  I had a brilliant time seeing Palpatine grow as both a Sith and a politician throughout this book, and you get some fantastic views of his early interactions with key players in the Star Wars canon.  I also deeply enjoyed seeing his intriguing dynamic with Darth Plagueis.  In pretty much all his other appearances, Star Wars fans only ever see the confident and controlling Palpatine who has no-one above him.  However, in Darth Plagueis, you see a somewhat more subservient Palpatine who is forced to bow to the will of one more powerful.  Watching working under another is an interesting change of pace, although some reveals towards the end of the book (and in some other novels, such as Maul: Lockdown), show that he is never as loyal as Plagueis believes.  This truly was an outstanding depiction of Palpatine and it was so awesome to see more about our favourite soon-to-be emperor.

Aside from Plagueis and Palpatine, the Darth Plagueis novel is loaded with a ton of interesting supporting characters, many of whom had roles in the films, animated series or other pieces of Legends fiction.  These intriguing characters help to create the novel’s rich tapestry of politics, intrigue and betrayals, and all of them served some fantastic roles in the book.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the inclusion of other Sith characters like Count Dooku and Darth Maul, especially as this novel serves as a bit of an origin story for both, as you see Palpatine obtaining and training Maul as well as Plagueis and Palpatine manipulating Dooku to leave the Jedi.  I also enjoyed the intriguing look at Plagueis’s own master, Darth Tenebrous, whose brief role showed a whole other aspect to the Sith as he had his own distinctive style.  I did think that the crowd of supporting figures with their own story elements slowed the pace of the novel down a little in the middle of the book, but I ended up having a brilliant time enjoying the story set around the awesome main characters.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to listen to Darth Plagueis on audiobook rather than seeking out a physical copy of this excellent novel.  I naturally had a very fun time listening to this version of the book, which not only featured a brilliant narrator but also made excellent use of the typical Star Wars audiobook production elements.  Darth Plagueis is loaded with cool sound effects and awesome Star Wars music, all of which add to the ambiance of the story in various ways.  I particularly liked the use of John Williams’s iconic scores throughout this audiobook, which did a great job of enhancing several scenes and increasing their emotional impact.  This was particularly true for some of the darker moments in the book, as some of the music associated with the Sith, the Dark Side and death/destruction, are blasted at full volume during some key moments, such as Palpatine discovering his destructive abilities for the first time, or during a couple of massacres.  This awesome music was so cool to hear during these scenes, and you really got an increased sense of the powerful emotions and dark deeds that were going on.

I also deeply enjoyed the epic narration, as this fantastic audiobook features the vocal talents of actor Daniel Davis (whom audiences of taste will recognise as Niles from The Nanny).  Davis gives a powerful and commanding performance here, bringing some major gravitas to the role and the characters.  His voice work for the titular character, Darth Plagueis, is really good, and you get a fantastic sense of the character’s power and wisdom as the novel continues.  Davis also does a brilliant job of voicing multiple characters and species from the Star Wars films, sounding quite close to their original actors.  I loved the voice work for Palpatine, capturing much of the villain’s iconic voice, while also giving it a youthful tilt for the earlier parts of the book.  Other characters, such as Count Dooku and Darth Maul, are also expertly portrayed here, and I particularly liked Davis’s take on Christopher Lee’s amazing voice.  This outstanding voice work, combined with the sound effects and music, helped to turn this into an exceptional listen that I deeply enjoyed.  With a run time just under 15 hours, this is a descent sized Star Wars audiobook, but listeners can power through it in no time at all.  This format comes highly recommended and you will have an outstanding time listening to the Darth Plagueis audiobook.

Overall, Darth Plagueis is an impressive and addictive Star Wars Legends novel that I had an incredible time reading.  James Luceno really excels at telling complex narratives that examine character origins, and Darth Plagueis did a wonderful and comprehensive job of expanding on a mostly unknown figure.  I loved learning everything about this awesome Star Wars figure, and Luceno wove an outstanding tale of intrigue and power around him and his apprentice.  An absolute must read for all fans of the Star Wars extended universe, I cannot wait until they finally introduce this complex figure into the current canon.

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover 3

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

Black Drop Cover

Publisher: Viper (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Laurence Jago – Book One

Length: 343 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Intriguing and talented new author Leonora Nattrass presents a compelling historical thriller debut with Black Drop, a fantastic novel that drags readers into the conspiracies and issues of late 18th century London.

In July of 1794, as the terror of the French Revolution reaches its height and the war on the continent goes poorly for the British army, uncertainty and fear of violent change infect the people of London.  For Laurence Jago, clerk to the Foreign Office, his position is even more uncertain that those around him.  A young man with hidden French heritage, Jago fears the day that his connections to his mother’s nation will be discovered, especially after spending years serving as a spy for sinister French agent Aglantine.

Now believing himself to be free from Aglantine’s employment, Jago is thrust into an untenable situation when vital confidential information about the British army is leaked from his office to the press.  Suspected by his peers of leaking the information and under investigation, Jago fears that all his secrets and former dealings are about to come out.  His problems are only further compounded when he discovers the body of a fellow clerk in his rooms, supposedly dead by suicide.

When the blame for the leak is shifted onto the dead man, Jago is freed of the suspicion against him.  However, Jago knows that the dead clerk was incapable of stealing the letter and believes that he was murdered.  Determined to find out the truth behind the death, Jago finds himself investigating the highest level of the British civil service and their political masters.  Out of his depth and thwarted at every turn, Jago will risk everything to root out the culprit before they strike to disrupt England again.  However, can he succeed without revealing his own dark secrets, or will Jago hang as a traitor instead of the murderer?

Black Drop is an excellent and clever novel that I had a great time reading as Nattrass perfectly combines a compelling spy thriller/murder mystery storyline with intriguing and detailed historical fiction elements.  This resulted in one of the more unique and fantastic debuts of 2022 and I really enjoyed Black Drop’s impressive story.

This awesome debut novel has an excellent story that expertly combines intriguing spy thriller and murder mystery elements with a character driven historical narrative to create a compelling and impressive read.  Set throughout key events of 1794 and told as a chronicle from the perspective of central character, Laurence Jago, Black Drop presents the reader with an intriguing tale of murder, political machinations and the threat of revolution at the heart of the period’s government.  Nattrass sets the scene perfectly at the start, introducing the key characters while also highlighting the feelings of unrest and dissent as the fear and inspiration from the French revolution hits London.  From there, the story starts to unfold in some interesting directions as the protagonist finds himself involved in political and espionage adventures while also investigating the murder of a fellow clerk, which appears to be connected.  At the same time, the slow-paced story utilises some intriguing aspects from the protagonist’s life as he struggles with dark secrets from his past that have potential implications on the current events.

Following this introduction and the initial parts of the narrative, the middle of Black Drop starts to bring in certain key historical events and figures, which results in some fantastic moments and character interactions, especially once an antagonistic figure becomes more prominent.  While the middle of this novel did drag in places, I felt that Nattrass was providing the reader with the right blend of intrigue, mystery, historical detail and character growth to produce a great overall story.  You really get to grips with the protagonist and the key aspects of the setting during this part of the book, especially when Jago hits a major personal downturn earlier than expected, and interesting reveals enhance the reader’s attachment to the mystery.  The story really starts to pick up once it gets to Nattrass’s recreation of the infamous trial surrounding supposed radical and revolutionary Thomas Hardy.  The ridiculous, and mostly accurate depiction of the trial (with certain elements from other trials thrown in for greater effect), proves to be a great high point for the novel, especially as other key parts of the plot are slotted in perfectly around it.  I did feel that the novel started to come undone around the conclusion a little, especially when it came to the big reveal.  While there were a couple of good twists around certain characters, the solution to the main mystery and the intrigue seemed a little weak to me, and I was a little disappointed with how it turned out, especially as you barely get to see anything about the final confrontation.  Still, this did not affect the overall quality of the story too much, especially as the author throws in an excellent wrap-up for the protagonist’s storyline in this novel which has a lot of potential for a sequel.  While much of the story can be a little sluggish and lacking a lot of action, I had a great time getting through Black Drop, and I loved how the excellent interplay of elements came together so well.

One of the most distinctive parts of Black Drop is the sheer amount of fascinating historical detail that was fit into the story.  Nattrass has clearly done her research on the period and the reader is presented with a fantastic and powerful view of London in the late 18th century.  Not only are there some brilliant and vibrant depictions of historical London but the reader gets some fascinating views into the inner workings of the government at the time.  Substantial parts of the book are dedicated to examining the civil service and the political hierarchy of the day, with multiple influential figures featured as supporting characters.  This proves to be a deeply fascinating part of the book, and I loved how Nattrass was able to weave these intriguing details into the thriller plot, becoming a key part of Black Drop’s story.  I also deeply appreciated the way in which Nattrass explores the social and political issues of the day, especially where it relates to the concerns in London about an uprising similar to what happened in France.  As such, you get a full spectrum of personalities from across London, as royalists and loyalists clash with potential radicals who are targeted by the worried government.  This all cumulates in the fantastic court case of Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker accused of radical actions and attempted rebellion.  This historical trial is expertly recreated by Nattrass to include all of its most interesting parts, including several extremely ridiculous elements from history (a blowgun murder conspiracy).  Nattrass also cleverly combines in some elements from related trials that occurred around the same time as the Hardy case for some amusing dramatic effect, and this extended sequence ended up being one of my favourite parts of the novel.  The overall hint of discontent by many members of London’s society, as well as the innate fear of the established institutions, is portrayed beautifully, and you get a great sense of the public issues during this period.  All these impressive historical elements are handled extremely well by Nattrass, and while it did get a tad tedious in places, it was an excellent part of the book that I deeply enjoyed.

To back up her unique historical tale, Nattrass has furnished Black Drop with a compelling array of characters with some complex and compelling character arcs.  This book actually contains a great combination of original characters and historical figures, with many major figures in 18th century British politics and the civil service featured in substantial roles throughout the book.  Not only does this brilliantly enhance the already substantial historical details of Black Drop, but it also results in some fascinating interactions and depictions as the fictional characters, including the point-of-view character, observe them.  Due to the complexity of the story, Black Drop makes use of a pretty large cast of characters, and while a few of them blend together, most come across as pretty distinctive with some interesting and fun character traits.

The best character of Black Drop is the protagonist Laurence Jago, who also serves as the book’s sole point-of-view character.  Jago turns out to be a particularly complex and damaged individual whose emotional attachment to the case and the state of London society provides some intriguing drama and insight into the events of the book.  Already made quite distinctive by his unique green-glass spectacles, Jago proves to be an impressive and captivating figure, especially as he has some major issues.  Secretly half-French, Jago lives a conflicted and fear-filled life, especially with the intense anti-French attitudes sprinkling the city.  This, combined with his foolish youthful dalliance of being a spy for France, ensures that he has a powerful sense of guilt, and is constantly worried about being discovered, especially once other accusations are made against him.  The discovery of a dead friend, combined with his guilt, the pressures of work, and the constant fear of discovery really strain his mind, and while he doggedly tries to find out the truth behind the murder, he starts to crack and nearly blows his cover.  Watching him trying to hide his own secrets while uncovering the lies and machinations of those around him becomes pretty intense, especially as you grow quite attached to this damaged soul.  His mental state further deteriorates once he becomes addicted to Black Drop (an opium concoction), which dulls his worried and troubled mind, while also leaving him lethargic and susceptible to danger.  This proves to be a serious handicap to his abilities, and it is fascinating to see him try to balance all his issues with the hunt for the truth.  All these issues and concerns result in a very conflicted and emotionally drained character, who Nattrass portrays perfectly, and it was very powerful to see Jago’s entire story unfold.

Aside from Jago there is a rich cast of supporting characters, each of whom add to the story in their own distinct way.  I particularly want to focus on two who ended up being the best supporting figures in different ways.  The first of these is William Philpott, a fiction British reporter character, who arrives in England from and extended stay in America and sets up his paper and family residence next to Jago’s lodgings.  An eccentric, rambunctious and slightly uncouth fellow, Philpott stands in stark contrast to the various stuffy characters that make up the majority of the cast, which ensures that the reader is quickly drawn to him.  Not only does he serve as a lighter character in the novel and a firm confidant for the protagonist, but you also get an interesting viewpoint into his changing feelings about the events occurring throughout London.  Philpott starts the novel as a strong, patriotic figure who fully intends to support the government in his paper when it comes to the court cases against the supposed radicals.  However, upon viewing some of the injustices they are committing, such as their harassment of and unfair case against Thomas Hardy, Philpott becomes more sympathetic, supporting the dissenting voices and writing fair accounts of the proceedings.  This interesting middle ground perspective on the historical events of the book proves to be extremely interesting, and I loved how Philpott’s unique storyline unfolded, especially as it results in him throwing some valuable lifelines to the troubled Jago.

The other character of note is real-life historical figure and future British Prime Minister George Canning, who serves a much more antagonistic role in this novel.  Canning, who at this point in the time period was a young MP with connections to the sitting PM, William Pitt, gets embroiled in the case quite early in the novel, thanks to his connection to the dead man and the suspicions surrounding Jago.  Portrayed in Black Drop as an uncaring and malicious man, Canning is a menacing antagonist for much of the novel, constantly butting heads with Jago and complicating his investigation.  I loved the use of this intriguing historical character, especially as Nattrass turns him into a very unlikable figure, who you cannot help but hate.  Not only does Nattrass do a great job of examining some of the historical elements surrounding him at this period of time but she also layers in some fantastic references to future events in his life, such as the infamous duel that he would eventually take part in.  However, his real benefit is the impact he has on the story and the deep rivalry he forms with the protagonist.  Watching these two battle it out in different arenas is very amusing, especially as Jago is constantly outmatched by this influential politician, and I do hope that we see more of Canning in future books in this series.  These great characters, and more, all add a great deal to this intriguing novel, and I really appreciated how fantastic and compelling they turned out to be.

Overall, Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass is an impressive and captivating piece of historical crime fiction that I am really glad I decided to check out.  Making excellent use of some fascinating historical elements, Nattrass did an amazing job of producing a clever and enjoyable spy thriller/murder mystery storyline in 18th century London, which came together very well.  Filled with great historical events and compelling characters, Black Drop was an absolute treat to read, and I look forward to seeing how Nattrass’s next book will turn out, especially as the sequel, Blue Water, is apparently set for release in October this year.

Quick Review – A Great Hope by Jessica Stanley

A Great Hope Cover

Publisher: Picador (Trade Paperback – 22 February 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author Jessica Stanley produces a compelling Australian political drama, A Great Hope, an intense read that looks at the impact of the mysterious death of a politician on his family, set to the backdrop of a turbulent time in Australian politics.

Plot Synopsis:

John Clare was a titan in Australian politics. The head of a powerful union and a key player in the election of Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2007, he had long been tipped as a future leader himself. Supporting him in his push for power were his elegant wife Grace, his troubled children Sophie and Toby, and Tessa, the mistress he thought would stay secret.

But now John has fallen, brutally, to his death. A terrible accident – or was it?

In the wake of losing John, his inner circle mourn and rage, remembering and trying to forget the many ways he’d loved and disappointed them. An adoring and unreliable father; a grateful and selfish husband; a besotted and absent lover; an authoritative and compassionate leader; a failed politician in an era when party politics failed a nation. As those around him reassess everything they knew of and felt for John, a new idea of what love and power really mean begins to emerge – as does the true cause of his death.

Gripping, propulsive and ambitious, A Great Hope untangles the mystery of John’s fall through the eyes of those who knew him best – or thought they did. Deftly displaying the clash of the political and the personal, this is a novel for our times, from a brilliant and forceful new Australian writer.

This was an excellent novel which I think did a great job telling a unique story by exploring some of the more controversial elements of recent Australian politics.  A Great Hope’s story is a great blend of personal drama, political intrigue and contemporary historical fiction, with a little bit of mystery thrown in as various characters attempt to understand the death of John Clare and the impact he had on the world.

Telling the story from a variety of different perspectives, including those of his family, his mistress, and other related figures, Stanley presents a complex and winding narrative that proves to be very compelling at times.  Initially set one year after the death of John Clare, the story jumps around the various point-of-view characters, and the readers are shown not only their present situations and opinions but also the origins of the characters as well as the full events that led up to the night John Clare died.  While this does produce a cluttered story with a few odd moments (such as the unnecessary and graphic sex scenes), the reader is soon treated to a unique story that cleverly builds up to the finale while also exploring the various key characters.  You get a real sense of everyone featured in the novel, especially those closest to John Clare, and their complex lives and relationships with the political heavyweights.  Unfortunately, most of these characters are pretty terrible people who are fairly insufferable and hard to enjoy.  While this was no doubt the intent, to show the strain and ugliness a political life brings out, there are barely any relatable or redeemable figures here (honestly the only character I particularly liked was the mistress, Tessa, which is a bit odd when you think about it).

While this lack of likeable characters did slow the flow and my enjoyment of the story a little, I managed to power through the last 200 pages in a single sitting.  There are some interesting resolutions and revelations towards the end, and I enjoyed seeing some of the storylines come full circle, especially those that are set up in the present and then expanded on in the flashbacks.  The resolution of who or what caused the death of John Clare was pretty interesting and a little surprising, but it fit nicely into the unique feel and storytelling of A Great Hope.

One of the most distinctive elements of A Great Hope was the author’s intense and in-depth examination of Australian politics in the early 21st century, particularly around the 2007 and 2010 elections.  This is mainly because the author, Jessica Stanley, was herself involved in some of these campaigns, particularly in 2007, when she served as one of the party’s social media consultants (similar to main character Tessa).  As such, this book contains some compelling and fascinating insights into the election campaign, candidates, and voters, particularly those associated with Australia’s major left-wing party (the Labor party), which really added to my enjoyment of the book.  Some of the more intriguing and compelling political moments of this period are scattered throughout A Great Hope, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the author’s take on what happened and why.  The author also examines the growing impact of social media during this time, as well as other intriguing elements about campaigns and party politics.  However, readers should be warned that these political elements do start to get very upsetting as the book continues, especially as Stanley dives into the failures of government, the increased political hostility, the rejection of climate change by the opposition, and the inherent sexism that defined the era between 2007 and 2010.  This stirred up some unpleasant memories of the political landscape of the time, but I did find this to be an interesting and captivating part of the novel, and I really appreciated how much these unique and realistic inclusions added to the story.

Fantastic new author Jessica Stanley got off to a great start here with A Great Hope, producing an intriguing and distinctive novel that makes excellent use of the author’s political insights.  While I had some issues with the story and characters, A Great Hope ended up being quite an entertaining book, and I was very interested in seeing how everything came together, as well as all the clever political inclusions.  I look forward to seeing what Stanley writes in the future, especially as there are so many memorable moments in Australian politics to set a story around.

Engines of Empire by R. S. Ford

Engines of Empire Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: The Age of Uprising – Book One

Length: 22 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling fantasy author R. S. Ford starts off an intriguing and compelling new epic fantasy series with the powerful Engines of Empire, a great read that I had a wonderful time reading.

Ford is an author who has been writing some interesting books in the last few years.  His big works include the Steelhaven and War of the Archons series, both of which have some very intriguing plots.  While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of his previous work, I have heard some great things about his War of the Archons books, and I might have to go back and check it out at some point.  After reading some early positive reviews of Ford’s latest novel, Engines of Empire, I decided to check it out, grabbing an audiobook version, which proved to be extremely good.  This cool book serves as the first entry in Ford’s new The Age of Uprising series and sets the scene for a captivating and exciting new trilogy.

For generations, the nation of Torwyn has been ruled by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who provide the nation its food, weapons, transportation and invaluable devices that fuse magic with technology.  One of the most prominent Guilds is the Hawkspurs, an ancient and powerful family who have long held the empire together and ensured its position in the world.  However, the current generation of Hawkspurs are about to find that everything they thought they knew is about to change.

As the matriarch of the family, Rosomon Hawkspur, attempts to maintain her family’s status and standing in Torwyn’s capital, the Anvil, her children each head off to find their own destinies.  The oldest son, Conall, departs to the empire’s distant frontier to prove his worth as a military commander.  The rebellious and magical Hawkspur daughter, Tyreta, is sent to an important imperial holding to facilitate her training as the future head of the family business.  The youngest son, Fulren, a talented artificer, finds himself involved in foreign politics when he is tasked with guiding an emissary from a powerful rival nation.

However, forces of chaos, fanaticism and destruction are all around them, and soon all the Hawkspurs are placed in mortal danger.  At the frontier, Conall attempts to prove himself, but only finds rejection and hints at a rising evil.  Tyreta’s reckless actions place her in mortal danger, and her only path to salvation lies in understanding the people her nation has hurt the most.  Back in the Anvil, Fulren is framed for murder and is soon banished to a hostile foreign nation ruled by dark gods.  Rosomon, desperate to save her fractured family, finds herself thrust into the middle treachery and dark revolution, as unseen hands plot against the guilds.  As the entirety of the world changes all around them and dangerous forces reveal themselves, can the Hawkspurs endure, or will they, and the entirety of Torwyn, come to utter ruin?

Engines of Empire was a captivating and entertaining fantasy epic that transports the reader to intricate new world, filled with interesting characters, political intrigue, and intense action, and makes for an excellent and exciting read.

At the centre of Engines of Empire is a massive and complex narrative that fully explores the various main characters while also plunging the intriguing new setting into chaos and anarchy.  Ford utilises a great multiple perspective storytelling device that splits the overall book into some compelling, separate chunks.  The story initially has four distinctive storylines that follow the Hawkspur family members as they go off on their own separate adventures.  This results in an interesting blend of plotlines as you have a more military story with Conall, a survival/adventure storyline with Tyreta, Rosomon’s political intrigue narrative, and Fulren’s life-or-death struggle in a foreign land.  These storylines are mostly unconnected to each other and not only allow the point of view protagonists to grow and develop independently with their own group of supporting characters, but it also ensures that the reader gets to explore various aspects of the new fantasy realm and see the range of different problems affecting it.  These four storylines develop at a reasonable and compelling pace, and the reader soon is drawn into their individual storylines, as well as some of the overlapping conspiracies that are featured throughout.  A fifth point-of-view character is introduced about halfway through the novel, which mainly acts to bolster one of the existing storylines and proves to be an excellent feature filled with action and espionage.  This leads to the final stretch of the novel, where several big events and twists occur that shake the foundation of the novel and take it in an excellent new direction.  Several of the separate plot lines start to come together more closely towards the end, and there are some excellent moments as the characters reunite to face a common foe.  This leads to an exciting and intense conclusion that takes several of the character storylines in interesting direction and sets up the rest of the trilogy extremely well.

I really liked how Engines of Empire came together as Ford wrote an excellent fantasy tale that made sure to cover a vast range of people and places.  The entirety of Engines of Empire has a great combination of story elements that ensures there is something for all sorts of readers here, including massive world building, great action, clever political intrigue, dangerous adventures or interesting characters.  I particularly enjoyed the great use of five character driven storylines centred on different point-of-view protagonists.  Not only did they come together well to produce a great overall narrative but they also provided the reader with several unique adventures with their own appeal.  I particularly enjoyed Fulren’s story, as it featured an excellent blend of interesting world building in a rival nation ruled by dark magic and impressive character moments.  Tyreta’s jungle-based survival mission was also really cool, especially with the intriguing side characters and brutal combat, while the fifth storyline introduced halfway through the book was filled with some amazing sequences and intriguing international espionage.  Unfortunately, the remaining two storylines surrounding Rosomon and Conall were a little slower and I didn’t have as much fun reading them, even with their respective political intrigue and desert action elements.  I struggled a little to get through these specific storylines at times, especially towards the centre of the novel, and it slowed down my overall reading of Engines of Empire.  Still, both storylines end on interesting notes, and I think they might have more potential in the sequel.

Due to the narrative being focused on five specific central characters, Ford spends a lot of time in Engines of Empire exploring and building up some of the characters.  The main protagonists are the four members of the Hawkspur family, Rosomon, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, each of whom have their own skill.  Due to certain tragedies in their past, the family is a bit dysfunctional, and there is a noticeable distance between them.  I liked seeing each of them go on their own distinctive journey throughout the book, and each of them does develop to a degree, especially Fulren and Tyreta.  However, I did find myself getting rather frustrated with some of the protagonists as the book continued, especially as there is a lot of narrative stupidity and inconsistent character work.  This is particularly true for Conall, who comes across as a whiney idiot for most of the novel, while Rosomon, who is supposed to be a brilliant leader and tactician, is soundly outsmarted at every turn and can’t even see the most obvious of traps.  I felt these negative character traits deeply impacted their individual storylines, and it made them harder to care for.  On the other hand, I felt the fifth point-of-view character, Lancelin Jagdor, rounded out the main cast extremely well.  Lancelin is a master swordsman who has a very complicated relationship with the Hawkspurs.  He finds himself getting dragged into their issues about halfway through the book, and I think his interesting outlook and unique experiences help to balance out the less enjoyable protagonists and produce a better story.

Aside from these five main protagonists, Ford has also included a great collection of supporting characters.  These supporting characters are usually unique to one of the main protagonists’ storylines and are primarily shown through their eyes.  Many of these characters prove to be allies or friends of the protagonist, although there are a few good antagonists thrown in there as well.  Some of my favourites include Sted, Conall’s hard-drinking second in command, whose fun, no nonsense personality helps to enhance Conall’s storyline to a degree.  I also had fun with Kosma Khonos, a ruthless Torwyn spy in the kingdom of Nyrakkis, Saranor the Bleeder, an over-the-top barbarian war chief, and Wenis, a foreign witch who becomes both a jailor and love interest to Fulren, which ends up being one of the more interesting relationships in the entire novel.  This huge web of supporting characters really helps to enhance the overall story and I look forward to seeing some of these elaborate and distinctive figures again in the future.

I was deeply impressed with the amazing new fantasy world featured in Engines of Empire, and it appears that Ford spent a significant amount of time developing it.  The main setting for the novel is the fascinating nation of Torwyn, a former religious nation that has been taken over by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who now hold sway over the various industries.  Torwyn is built up beautifully by Ford, and you soon get the full sense of it, including its intriguing industrial aspects, magic-powered technology, dragon-based religion, and ruthless politics.  The arrangement of Torwyn leads to an intense civil war that looks set to shape the future of much of the novel and serves as a brutal and fantastic central setting for several storylines.  While Torwyn proves to be an exceptional area to explore, Ford goes above and beyond and takes the reader to several other intriguing locations within and without it.  Thanks to the adventurous characters, you see some of the more desolate and dangerous locations in the lands, such as the jungle-covered Sundered Isles, the war riven frontier, the snow-covered, barbarian-infested Huntan Reach, and the magical controlled nation of Nyrakkis.  While all these locations were pretty cool, I particularly loved the dive into Nyrakkis, which proved to be a very intricate location filled with intrigue and demonic magic.  The jungles of the Sundered Isles were also extremely awesome, and Ford provides an interesting examination of the tribes who were displaced by the Torwyn settlers, especially as Tyreta spends time amongst them and getting to know their culture.  Throw in an interesting blend of different magical practices and technologies, as well as a few fun creatures (giant war eagles and beast men for the win), and you have an extremely awesome world that I can’t wait to return to in the future books.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Engines of Empire, which ended up being a very enjoyable experience.  With a run time of just over 22 hours, this is a pretty substantial audiobook (it would have come in at number 18 on my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks list), and it did take a fair bit of effort to get through, especially in some of the slower parts of the story.  Despite its length, I think that it is worth the time to get through this audiobook, especially as it proves to be an excellent way to absorb Engines of Empire’s story.  I always find myself really connecting more to new fantasy settings and characters in this format, and this happened again with Engines of Empire, as I really found myself absorbing all the interesting details about this world.  I also loved how the Engines of Empire audiobook had several different narrators including Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve and Stephen Perry.  These narrators provide a rich and powerful audible tapestry, with one narrator assigned to voice all the chapters told from the perspective of a specific point-of-view character.  Not only do the narrators do a good job capturing the personalities of the main characters they are portraying but they also provide some fun voices for the various supporting figures and antagonists.  While it is occasionally odd to hear a narrator start voicing a character who had appeared in other chapters, this ended being a great collection of voices and I loved how well they all brought the characters to life.  An overall excellent audiobook, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check out Engines of Empire and I had a brilliant time listening to it.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with my first book from R. S. Ford.  Engines of Empire was an excellent read that takes the reader on an epic fantasy adventure.  Making awesome use of a big cast of characters, Ford transports his audience to a brilliant and elaborate fantasy realm filled with adventure, intrigue and betrayal.  I had an amazing time getting throughout Ford’s captivating narrative, and I loved the exception world building that he did.  While I didn’t enjoy all of the characters, Engines of Empire ended up being an outstanding read that does a wonderful job setting up his next The Age of Uprising novel.  A great fantasy novel that is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Lesser Evil Cover

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 16 November 2021)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book Three

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The undisputed master of Star Wars extended fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with final book in the Thrawn Ascendancy series, Lesser Evil, which brings this excellent prequel trilogy to a fantastic and dramatic end.

Out of all the awesome authors who have contributed to the Star Wars extended universe over the years, few are more talented or highly regarded than Timothy Zahn.  Zahn, who is one of the key architects of the original extended universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends), is probably best known for his original trilogy of Star Wars novels, which started with Heir to the EmpireHeir to the Empire served as the introduction of several major extended universe characters, such as Mara Jade; however, his most iconic creation is probably the legendary character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is an intriguing and complex figure considered the greatest tactician in the entire Star Wars canon.  Serving as a major figure in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn was the brilliant antagonist of Heir to the Empire and other major Star Wars Legends novels.  The subsequent popularity of Thrawn saw him eventually introduced into the Disney canon in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, as well as a future live-action appearance.  This also resulted in Zahn being contracted to write six new Thrawn-centric novels.  The Thrawn trilogy (made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason), detailed Thrawn’s introduction, rise and career in Imperial Navy and filled in some of the gaps of the show.  Zahn followed this up with the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, which served as a prequel to the original trilogy.

The Thrawn Ascendancy series is set during the Clone Wars period and takes place in the Chaos, the unexplored area of space outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars series, and focuses on Thrawn’s species, the Chiss.  As such, the series is primarily set in and around the Chiss Ascendancy and focuses on several threats to the Ascendancy that Thrawn attempts to overcome.  This series has so far consisted of Chaos Rising and Greater Good, both of which were extremely cool, filled with detailed battles, fun new characters, and some intense political machinations.  Now this brilliant trilogy comes to an end, with a final chapter telling the full story of Thrawn’s greatest victory and lowest moment.

For thousands of years, the legendary Chiss Ascendancy has been one of the greatest powers within the Chaos, keeping its people safe from the alien races who seek to conquer or destroy them.  Confident in its own power and determined not to interfere in the lives of its neighbours, the Chiss maintain their borders through the Expansionary Defence Fleet.  However, in recent months, the Ascendancy has found itself under attack from a dangerous and manipulative force that seeks to utterly destroy the Chiss.  After defeating a potential external invader and weathering an attempt to drag some of the Ascendancy’s powerful families into conflict, the threat to the Chiss appears to be over.  However, these were merely a precursor to a much more sophisticated and dangerous attack by a new alien race, known as the Grysk.  Led by the dangerous and manipulative Jixtus, the Grysk seek to unleash a deadly, multi-pronged assault against the Chiss to rip the ascendancy apart inside and out.

As Jixtus traverses the planets of the Ascendancy, manipulating the great Chiss families towards civil war, his powerful fleet lies just outside its borders, waiting to attack.  With the Chiss getting closer and closer to a devastating internal and external conflict, the fate of the Ascendancy lies in the hands of Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo (Thrawn), the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet’s most brilliant and unconventional commander.  Having defeated the previous attacks on the Ascendancy, Thrawn is the only person that fully understands the oncoming danger and he is determined to stop Jixtus and permanently end the threat he represents.  However, Thrawn has long worn out the patience of the ruling families, and he now finds himself hamstrung by politics and personal grievances.  To save his people, Thrawn will be forced to break all the rules he has sworn to uphold.  But just how far will Thrawn go to defeat his enemy, and what consequences will his actions have on himself and the future of the Chiss Ascendancy?

Lesser Evil was another brilliant and exceptional read from Zahn that did an amazing job of wrapping the complex Thrawn Ascendancy series to an end.  Containing some awesome and unique Star Wars elements, Lesser Evil fills in all the gaps between this trilogy and the sequel Thrawn trilogy, and I think it ended up being one of Zahn’s strongest recent novels.

This novel contains an amazing narrative that brings together all the elaborate and compelling storylines from the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels and provides a satisfying and fantastic conclusion to the trilogy.  The novel starts off right after the events of Greater Good, with several characters dealing with the aftermath of the near civil war and Thrawn’s latest unofficial mission.  The story quickly introduces the book’s antagonist, the master manipulator Jixtus, as he starts his grand plan to destroy the entire Chiss Ascendancy.  This brings out an impressive amount of intrigue, infighting and dissent, which forces many of the protagonists to attempt to slow it down.  At the same time, Thrawn engages in his own mission to try and identify the enemy’s master plan, which reintroduces several key storylines and settings from the previous novels and helps tie them into the plot of this book.  Zahn also throws in a series of flashback interludes that dive into key parts of Thrawn’s past and give some context to his current mindset and plans.  This all leads up to the big conclusion in which the great adversaries, Thrawn and Jixtus, finally meet in battle.  Lesser Evil proves to be a particularly exciting and intriguing read, and I loved the brilliant combination of world building, political intrigue, character development and fantastic battle sequences.  I had a lot of fun with this story, and it was one of the strongest in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.

I really enjoyed how Zahn told this final entry in the series.  The great use of multiple character perspectives not only allows for a richer story that examines all angles of the conflict but it also presents several impressive character driven storylines that were wonderful to follow.  In addition, Zahn once again lays onto the universe building by expanding the reader’s knowledge of the alien Chiss Ascendancy and their domain outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars universe.  This universe building excellently comes into play as the novel progresses, especially as the antagonist’s plan relies on manipulating the politics and history of the various ruling families.  I really appreciated this cool extended look into this intriguing setting, especially as it ties into some of Zahn’s prior work.  Due to the extensive and elaborate Star Wars lore contained within Lesser Evil, this book is probably best read by experienced fans of the franchise who will appreciate all the inclusions.  It is also highly recommended that readers check out the first two novels in this trilogy first, as the storylines of Lesser Evil are very strongly tied into them.

Lesser Evil contains some intriguing connections to the wider Star Wars universe and canon that long-term fans of the franchise will deeply appreciate.  These connections mainly revolve around Thrawn’s prior appearances and fills in many gaps that were left open from the Thrawn trilogy.  This includes the full reason why the original series began with Thrawn banished from his people and left stranded on an alien planet.  It has been pretty clear since the first Thrawn Ascendancy novel that this entire trilogy has been leading up to this moment, and Zahn did not disappoint, including a moving and complex reason for the banishment that played perfectly into the character’s personality and the events of the previous novels.  Zahn also layers in a ton of intriguing connections to his Star Wars Legends novels that fans will deeply enjoy.  For example, parts of Lesser Evil are deeply connected to Zhan’s previous novel, the now non-canon Outbound Flight, which also focused on a younger Thrawn.  Parts of Outbound Flight’s story and setting have been adapted into the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, such as some elements of Chiss culture and some supporting characters, and it was interesting to see Zahn retrofit his previous works for the new canon.  In addition, key flashbacks within Lesser Evil take place in a version of Outbound Flight’s narrative, and while I did think this was cool, Zahn did not include a lot of context, so readers unfamiliar with his prior book may be left a little confused.  Still, this was a clever homage to the author’s prior works, and I appreciated Zahn’s fascinating references to his now defunct novels.

One of the strongest things about Lesser Evil was the great array of characters featured throughout.  There is a very strong cast in this final book, with most of the key characters having been established in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels or re-introduced from some of Zahn’s Star Wars Legends novels.  All the major characters featured in Lesser Evil have some amazing story arcs and Zahn spends a lot of time fleshing out their personalities, motivations, and histories, which deeply enhances this brilliant narrative.

The most prominent of these characters is Thrawn himself, who has an epic showing in Lesser Evil after being somewhat underutilised in Greater Good. Lesser Evil proves to be a defining novel for Thrawn, especially as he encounters his true enemy, the Grysk, for the first time.  The reader is also given insights into certain previously unseen relationships that Thrawn had, namely with his adopted brother, Thrass.  It also finally reveals the reasons why he was banished from the Chiss and marooned on the deserted alien planet by the start of Thrawn.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character arc surrounding Thrawn in this book, and Zahn does a great job once again highlighting his unique personality and motivations.  Despite being a little less sinister in literary form than in Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn has a harsh edge here, and the reader gets some great insights into his constant motivation of protecting the Chiss Ascendancy.  Throughout the course of the book, it becomes deeply apparent that Thrawn will risk everything to achieve his goal, and I loved how heartless Thrawn can become when dealing with his enemies.  This motivation and background go a long way to exploring Thrawn’s actions while serving the Empire, and fans of this fantastic character will deeply appreciate this compelling story arc.  Zahn also answers several intriguing questions about Thrawn’s past in this book, and it proved incredibly fascinating to see this great character expanded even further.

I must once again highlight the great way in which Zahn displays his central protagonist.  As with his previous appearances in Zahn’s novels, Thrawn is one of the few characters whose perspective is not shown; instead all his actions and interactions are viewed through the eyes of his friends, allies, and even a couple of enemies.  I have always felt that this was a very clever technique from Zahn as it helps to highlight just how mysterious and distinctly complex his protagonist is.  Readers are only given glimpses into his brilliance, and it allows for increased suspense and surprise throughout the novel as the reader often has no idea what Thrawn is thinking or how he plans to get out of a certain situation.  The use of other observers also really helps to highlight the tactical ploys Thrawn employs, especially as he usually is forced to explain his insights, strategies, and the entire scope of his plans to the less tactically gifted people he is working with.  These elaborate explanations, coupled with the observations of the relevant side character, ensures that the readers get a much more detailed picture of Thrawn’s observations and subsequent tactics.  I have often compared this to how Watson amps up the deductive ability of Sherlock Holmes by having Sherlock explain everything to him, and the result is pretty much the same here.  I deeply enjoyed this fantastic use of perspective and I love everything that Zahn did with his iconic protagonist throughout Lesser Evil, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series.

If Thrawn was Sherlock Holmes, then I would say that antagonist Jixtus was the Professor Moriarty of the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  A member of the mysterious Grysk species, Jixtus has been a shadowy figure throughout the proceeding novels, influencing events from the shadows and sending out proxies to fight Thrawn and the Chiss.  This comes to an end in Lesser Evil as Jixtus takes a personal hand in attacking the Chiss Ascendancy.  Jixtus proves to be an excellent and brilliant counterpoint to Thrawn and it is fascinating to see the battle of minds between them, especially as both have alternate strengths.  While Thrawn is tactically brilliant, Jixtus is better at personal manipulation and politics, something Thrawn struggles with.  As such, there is a real battle of styles here in Lesser Evil and the result is pretty brilliant.  I also really appreciated how you also never see any part of the book told from Jixtus’ perspective, ensuring that he is just as mysterious and ethereal as Thrawn.  I loved how Zahn portrays Jixtus in this novel; he comes across as an incredibly dangerous and malevolent being, even though you never see his face.

The other new character I wanted to focus on in this book was Thrass (Mitth’ras’safis), Thrawn’s friend and fellow member of the Mitth family.  Thrass is an interesting character, initially introduced in the previous canon as Thrawn’s brother.  There have only been hints of him in the Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and this final book finally features in him to a degree, showing him in a series of flashback interludes set in Thrawn’s past.  Thrass is shown to be a Mitth politician who finds himself befriending and then partnering with Thrawn through a series of adventures.  The two complement each other extremely well, with Thrass serving as a bridge for the more unconventional Thrawn, while also supporting him with his political knowledge.  Thrass’s scenes proved to be a great inclusion to the novel and I felt the author did a great job re-introducing the character, even if only for flashback sequences.  I really appreciated the author’s examination about how this friendship, and later brotherhood, was vital to Thrawn’s growth and current abilities, and I particularly enjoyed the examination about how Thrass helped develop Thrawn’s flair for the dramatic.  Fans of Zahn’s Legend’s work will deeply enjoy the new appearance of this established character in Lesser Evil, and I think it was an interesting and fun choice from the author, that ended up working incredibly well.

I must also highlight how Zahn featured the other recurring characters from the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  Pretty much all the major characters from the previous two novels are featured strongly in Lesser Evil, and there are some remarkably good storylines set around them.  Thrawn’s crew aboard the Springhawk get a decent amount of focus throughout this book, particularly Samakro, Thalias and Che’ri, and each of their storylines are nicely concluded.  In addition, I loved the continued use of Ziinda, another Senior Captain, who, after barely averting a civil war in the previous book, finds herself subsequently vilified and forced into a new family.  Ziinda proves to be a vital part of the plot, and it was great to see how much she had developed since the previous novel, especially as Zahn starts her on the path to becoming as determined as Thrawn.  Zahn also makes great use of Roscu, a former member of the Expansionary Defence Fleet who had issues with Thrawn in Chaos Rising. Roscu is initially set up as a secondary antagonist, especially as her mistrust of Thrawn, his friends, and all the rival families, drives her to do some stupid things.  However, Zahn slowly turns her into a surprisingly sympathetic character as the novel progresses and you end up really rooting for her.  I also loved Qilori, a supposedly neutral Pathfinder with a grudge against Thrawn; and Thurfian, the Mitth Patriarch who views Thrawn and his actions as a threat to his family and the Chiss as a whole.  These two serve as interesting secondary antagonists to the story, and it was great to see their outraged reaction to Thrawn’s actions, as well as their own attempts to end him.  These characters, and many more, added so much to this book, and I loved seeing all their arcs conclude with the trilogy.

I cannot talk about a Zahn Star Wars novel without highlighting the amazing and exciting space battles featured within.  No one does a space battle in Star Wars fiction better than Zahn, who devotes an impressive amount of time and detail into making them as impressive, thrilling, and tactically awesome as possible.  The reader gets a detailed mental impression of the space engagements that occur, and you can practically feel every shot, roll, or manoeuvre.  Lesser Evil was a particularly good example of this, featuring several great battle scenes, including one massive and action-packed confrontation towards the end.  Each sequence was beautifully rendered and perfectly portrayed, with the reader getting the full sense of everything that happened.  Throw in the distinctive technology of the Chiss, as well as the tactical abilities of Thrawn, and you have some of the most unique and brilliant battles in all of Star Wars fiction, especially as there is a great focus on larger cruisers and battleships, rather than smaller fighter craft.  I deeply enjoyed every battle sequence in this book, and fans of fights in space are in for a real treat here.

Unsurprisingly, I ended up checking out the audiobook version of Lesser Evil, rather than reading a psychical copy.  I cannot overemphasise just how amazing the Star Wars audiobooks are, thanks to their usual amazing combinations of impressive voice acting, clever sound effects and moving Star Wars music.  Lesser Evil is a great example of this, and I had a wonderful time getting through this brilliant audiobook, even with its extensive 23+ hours run time (it would rank 17th on the current version of My Longest Audiobook I Have Ever Listened To list).  I must once again highlight the cool sound effects that were utilised throughout the audiobook to great effect.  These effects, most of which have been taken from Star Wars films and animated shows, add so much depth and power to the audiobook’s scenes, building up a strong atmosphere around the words.  Sounds like blaster fire or roaring engines really help to bring the listeners into the centre of the book’s climatic scenes, while even smaller scenes get a boost thanks to having crowd noises or computer sounds lightly running in the background.  The audiobook also makes good use of the iconic Star Wars score in various parts.  While not featured as heavily as other Star Wars audiobooks, in several places the amazing orchestral music from the films is utilised to give some major scenes a dramatic punch.  This is particularly true in some of the battle sequences, and the listeners are treated to some of the more exciting or moving tunes, which makes the battles or major moments feel bigger and more important.

In addition to this great use of sound effects and epic Star Wars music, Lesser Evil’s audiobook also benefited immensely from the narration of Marc Thompson.  Thompson is an amazing narrator (one of my personal favourites), who has contributed his voice to a huge range of Star Wars novels, including all of Zahn’s previous Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and other audiobooks such as Scoundrels, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, Dark Disciple and more.  Thompson has such a great range for Star Wars fiction, and he can produce some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters featured within.  Most of these voices are continuations of the ones used in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and I enjoyed the consistency from the previous two books.  I must also really highlight Thompson’s epic Thrawn voice, that perfectly captures the character’s essence, and which is incredibly close to Lars Mikkelsen’s voice from Star Wars: Rebels.  I also loved the voice that Thompson assigned to Jixtus, and the dark and sinister tones perfectly fit this awesome villain.  Thompson also cleverly modulated his voice for certain alien races to capture the unique characteristics Zahn assigned to them in his writing.  You really get a sense about how alien and strange these creatures are, which helped bring me into the zone.  This was another exceptional Star Wars audiobook, and this is easily the best way to enjoy this clever and impressive novel.

With the brilliant and captivating Lesser Evil, the legendary Timothy Zahn brings his awesome Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy to an end in a big way.  Loaded up with excellent universe building, an outstanding story, some excellent characters and some truly impressive space battles, Lesser Evil is probably the best entries in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.  I loved how Zahn brought the trilogy’s various storylines together in this final novel, providing an exciting and captivating conclusion that perfectly leads into the original Thrawn trilogy.  Thanks to all of this and more, Lesser Evil gets a full five stars from me and comes extremely highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  I have had an incredible time reading the various Thrawn novels over the last few years and I really hope that Timothy Zahn continues to explore his iconic protagonist in the future, especially once Thrawn gets his long overdue live action debut.

It Ends in Fire by Andrew Shvarts

It Ends in Fire Cover 2

Publisher: Jimmy Patterson Books (Hardcover – 9 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After wowing the world with his debut trilogy, impressive young adult fantasy author Andrew Shvarts return with a fantastic and entertaining read that cleverly parodies the classic magical school fantasy setting with It Ends in Fire.

Shvarts is a great author whose work I have been rather enjoying over the last couple of years.  Shvarts debuted back in 2017 with his Royal Bastards trilogy, which followed a group of illegitimate children as they found themselves caught up in the conspiracies and plots of their dangerous parents.  Made up of Royal Bastards, City of Bastards (which has an extremely explosive ending), and War of the Bastards (one of my favourite books of 2019), this was an awesome trilogy, and it has made me very keen to read more of Shvarts’s books.  As a result, when I heard that Shvarts had a new novel coming out, one set in one of my favourite settings, a magical school, I knew I had to grab it.  I have been waiting for It Ends in Fire for a while, and I was quite excited when I received a copy the other day.

Prepare to visit the Republic, a land of magic, deceit and corrupted power, where the Wizards rule and the non-magical people, the Humbles, are brutally oppressed.  At the heart of the Republic is Blackwater Academy, the most prestigious school of magic in the land, where the elite Wizards are trained and forged into scheming, power-hungry sadists.  Blackwell Academy has survived for centuries and remains a great power in the Republic, but nobody is prepared for the arrival of its latest student.

As a child, Alka Chelrazi watched as her parents were brutally murdered by a powerful Wizard, and she has since sworn vengeance.  Taken in by a rebel group, Alka has grown into their most lethal weapon thanks to her own magical abilities and has spent her life training to do the impossible: infiltrate Blackwell.  Taking the identity of a dead Wizard unknown to anyone, Alka is tasked with entering the school, learning all its secrets, and burning it to the ground from the inside.

Determined to carry out her duty to the very end, Alka attempts to find her bearings and learn everything she can.  However, Blackwell is unlike any other school in the Republic, its lessons are lethal, the rivalries are fierce, and some students will do anything to succeed, even kill their classmates.  To complete her mission, Alka will need to use every skill and trick at her disposal to recruit allies, take out her rivals and help a motley crew of outcasts to win the Academy’s Great Game.  However, with dangerous politics, power-hungry rivals, suspicious professors, and an evil headmaster all arrayed against it, can Alka succeed in bringing down the Academy, or will the fires of her revolution be snuffed out before it can begin?

This was an awesome and compelling new book from Shvarts, who has produced another deeply entertaining and intense read.  It Ends in Fire has a powerful and captivating narrative that not only contains a great story about revenge and finding oneself, but which also parodies certain magical school stories.  I had a great time reading this novel, and I became quite addicted to it as it went along.

It Ends in Fire has a brilliant and exciting narrative that moves at a fast pace and ensures that the reader is never bored.  Shvarts starts the story off with a bang, introducing the protagonists and point-of-view narrator, Alka, and showing her initial steps in infiltrating the academy.  The start quickly showcases some of the lead characters, the stakes of her mission, and the new and somewhat familiar setting of Blackwell Academy, as well as the surrounding Republic.  At the same time, Shvarts includes a series of framing chapters that are set in the protagonist’s past, showcasing her motivations, her many personal tragedies and the training she undertook for her infiltration.  From there the story quickly progresses into a compelling arc around the character’s darker magical school experience, while also building up her personal history.  There are some fun magical lessons, budding rivalries and caste systems woven into the narrative, and it was intriguing to see this ultimate outsider attempt to get into the flow of this elite school.  The crux of the narrative revolves around three magical contents that the various school houses compete in for glory and reputation (as well access to the Republic Senate, which interests Alka).  These competitions are pretty awesome, and serve as the major story highlights, much in the same way as the Quidditch matches and the Triwizard Tournament in the Harry Potter novels.  I particularly enjoyed the first and third one, and it was pretty fun to see the protagonist engage in some heavy cheating to pull it off.

This all leads up to a big and brutal finale, where the protagonist finally gets to unleash her true personality on her foes, and which potentially sets up some interesting directions for any resultant series in the future.  There is a great blend of character development, world building, magical adventure, intrigue and personal betrayal throughout this story, and I ended up getting really stuck into this brilliant narrative.  I pretty much read the last 200 pages in a single day, especially as it contained two of the competitions and a fantastic duel, and I really loved how everything came together.  It Ends in Fire turned out to be fairly self-contained and feels a lot like a standalone read.  That being said, it has some potential to be a larger series, and I would be interested to see where it goes, especially as there are some outstanding storylines to explore.  Like Shvarts’s previous novels, It Ends in Fire is aimed towards a young adult audience with its teenage protagonist and supporting characters.  Due to some more mature elements, this novel is probably best suited towards an older teenage audience, who will no doubt appreciate the author’s realistic take on teenage education.  This novel will also hold a lot of appeal to adult fantasy fans, especially those who grew up on Harry Potter, as this novel acts in many ways like a clever and fun parody of these classic novels.  An overall excellent story with some fun twists and major memorable moments.

I must say that I was also incredibly impressed with the new fantasy setting that Shvarts came up with for It Ends in Fire.  This new fantasy world is a brilliant and complex collection of nations brought together by an oppressive magical regime ruled by powerful Wizards who control the non-magical people, the Humbles.  The author does a great job setting up this cool new world, and I loved the examination of a magical regime and the unique cultural and social circumstances that would evolve in such a regime.  I particularly enjoyed the fun examination of the Republic’s politics, especially when it came to the impacts of the protagonist’s actions within Blackwater Academy.  It was also very compelling to see the clever hierarchies that see even some Wizards oppressed or disenfranchised, ensuring that the situation is even more complex than the protagonist, who was raised by rebellious Humbles who hate all Wizards, initially believed.  This proves fertile ground for the main narrative that follows Alka attempting to take the system down from the inside, and it was a solid background to the narrative.  I also really appreciated the cool new magical system that Shvarts came up with for his new novel.  In It Ends in Fire, Wizards cast spells by entering a time-dilated field known as the Null, where they carve glyphs into the air with Loci (magical wands) to unleash elemental spells.  This is an awesome magical system, which allows for some amazing and complex duals and battles.  The slow-motion aspect of the Null ensures that there is some clever strategy involved, as well as some intense explanation from the protagonist, and I deeply enjoyed some of the fun an epic clashes that occurred.

In addition to the cool magic and fun overarching setting, I also must highlight Blackwater Academy, which serves as a dark mirror to other magical schools that have been featured in fantasy novels and media.  In many ways, Blackwater Academy is a twisted version of Hogwarts; an elite magic school, with houses, elaborate classes and competitions.  Shvarts does an amazing job of working altered versions of these classic magic school elements into his own setting, and pretty much every scene has something reminiscent of these established school settings.  However, all these elements are twisted and converted into something far darker and more adult.  The teachers are crueller, the rich rival kills with impunity, the lessons are more deadly, and the headmaster is essentially Dumbledore (a highly respected wizard who turned down political leadership to be a teacher), except evil and self-serving.  I really liked how Shvarts included these elements in his novels, and it was a lot of fun to not only spot the similarities but also see how the author had twisted them into something different (for example, the protagonist is chucked into the universe’s version of Hufflepuff, and then turns them into a strong team).  This resulted in a fantastic and compelling setting that is both familiar and rather distinct at the same time.

While there are a lot of similarities to Hogwarts and other classic magical schools, Blackwater Academy also has some truly unique features, which also enhance how awesome it is as a primary setting.  The near murderous rivalries between the houses added some excellent conflict to the narrative, and I found the Humble village located next to the school to be a great inclusion, especially as all the inhabitants are absolutely terrified of their Wizard clientele.  I also really loved the unique challenges that the students had to compete in throughout the year into order to win the Great Game.  While the inclusion of a three-event competition is somewhat familiar, the challenges themselves are special, and Shvarts obviously had a lot of fun coming up with something new for the young Wizards to compete in.  This entire clever setting and compelling magical system help to transform It Ends in Fire into an incredible read, and I hope that Shvarts will explore it more in the future.

I also need to quickly highlight the great characters within this novel.  It Ends in Fire features a fantastic and entertaining cast whose unique stories add a lot of depth and drama to this brilliant tale.  The most prominent of these is protagonist and narrator Alka, a rebel and wizard who infiltrates the Blackwater Academy with dreams of destroying it and everyone in it.  Alka is a complex and intriguing figure who must overcome a lot of emotional turmoil in this novel while also encountering conflicts, revelations and disturbing truths about the nature of evil.  Shvarts did an awesome job setting Alka up throughout this novel, and I appreciated the way in which elements of her past life are blended into the primary story.  Alka’s unique history and experience with Wizard culture ensures that she is the perfect narrator, ensuring that the reader learns about many parts of the world’s unique aspects through her constant questioning and research.  I also appreciated the complex romantic relationships that form between her and two other characters, especially as both are sweet and moving in their own ways, while also naturalising Alka’s bisexuality.  The rest of the characters in It Ends in Fire are also set up pretty well, and I liked the cool blend of arrogant rich wizards, bitter Humbles and lower-tiered Wizards who struggle in life nearly as much as the Humbles.  Shvarts utilised a wonderfully eclectic group of supporting characters throughout this novel, and I enjoyed some of the friendships and rivalries that formed, as well as the similarities that some characters have to notable Harry Potter characters.  The author introduces some interesting storylines and character development arcs around them, and you end up getting attached to their survival alongside Alka.  It will be interesting to see if Shvarts will continue to explore them in the future, and I hope he does, as I would love to see what happens to them next.

With his latest novel, It Ends in Fire, Andrew Shvarts continues to dominate the young adult fantasy genre with a complex and powerful read.  It Ends in Fire has a brilliant and entertaining narrative that takes a rebellious soul into the heart of enemy territory, an evil and twisted magical school.  I loved how Shvarts cleverly subverted a classic fantasy setting with his fantastic narrative and world building, and the resulting story is loaded with magical action, amazing character develop, and multiple fun, high-concept sequences.  It Ends in Fire is a highly recommended young adult fantasy novel and you will have a wonderful and amazing time reading it.

Enemy at the Gates by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Enemy at the Gates Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 20

Length: 8 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Ready for another down-and-dirty spy thriller with America’s most violent secret agent, then make sure to grab a copy of the 20th book in the bestselling Mitch Rapp series, Enemy at the Gates, by the series’ current author Kyle Mills.

One of the most consistently entertaining thriller series of the last few years has been the long-running Mitch Rapp series.  The Mitch Rapp series is an iconic collection of thriller novels originally written by author Vince Flynn, and more recently by Kyle Mills, who took over the series after Flynn’s death.  Mills has been doing an outstanding job with this series, and I have had an incredible time with some of his recent books, including Red War, Lethal Agent and Total Power.  Now, 22 years after Mitch Rapp’s first appearance in Transfer of Power, the 20th book in the series, Enemy at the Gates, has been released, and it was another dark and compelling novel with an awesome story.

Following the resolution of a coordinated terrorist attack aimed at taking down America’s entire power infrastructure, the lights are finally back on across America, and the country seems ready to return to its usual problems.  A new president, Anthony Cook, has been installed in the White House, and many believe that he has the potential to turn the country around.  However, the old guard of American intelligence, CIA Director Irene Kennedy and legendary agent Mitch Rapp, believe that there are dangerous ulterior motives behind many of Cook’s actions.

In Uganda, a high-tech research facility belonging to the world’s first trillionaire, Nick Ward, is attacked by a dangerous and deranged warlord, aiming to capture and ransom the lab’s brilliant head scientist.  Ward, the richest man on the planet, claims to want to make the world a better place, and the research being undertaken by his Ugandan team is rumoured to have the potential to save billions of lives.  Determined to save his people and against the wishes of President Cook, Ward hires Rapp and his friend Scott Coleman to recover his scientist before it is too late.  However, their desperate battle in the jungle soon turns out to be the least of their problems.

As Rapp and Coleman brave the skilled militia in the jungle, a mysterious mole has managed to infiltrate the CIA’s secure computer network, stealing data on Nick Ward and his current security arrangements.  To keep Ward safe and to flush out the source of the leak, Kennedy instructs Rapp to stay close to Ward, just in case.  However, following a vicious and coordinated attack, it soon becomes clear that some very powerful people are determined to kill Ward at any cost.  With all intelligence and communications with their usual sources in the CIA potentially compromised by the mole, Rapp and his team embark on an elaborate scheme to flush the true architects of the attacks out.  But what happens when their plan puts them right in the cross of the ambitious new president who is determined to shape the chaotic world no matter the cost?

This was a high-intensity, action-packed thriller from Mills, who has produced another awesome and fun read.  Enemy at the Gates contains a great narrative that sees its aging but deadly protagonist caught between the very powerful forces of the world’s richest man and the President of the United States.  This is a very fast-paced story, with Mills quickly introducing the new characters, mainly Nick Ward and President Chisholm, as well as some of their key allies, and showcases the first stages of the president’s proxy war against Ward.  From there, Mitch Rapp and his team are drawn into the conflict on Ward’s side, thanks to CIA director Irene Kennedy, resulting in a fun dust-up in the jungle.  The story quickly moves on from there, forcing Rapp to face off against a crazed Ugandan warlord while also trying to uncover the mole in the CIA.  This is an extremely fun story, with the story moving at a very quick and entertaining pace.  Mills writes a great espionage story, and I loved the usage of tradecraft, over-the-top action and general dislike of politicians throughout the story.  The author introduces a couple of great twists, especially around the identity of the mole, and it was excellent to see Rapp and his allies forced to deal with a crooked United States President.  There is a ton of intensely violent scenes throughout this novel, and readers should be prepared for a couple of torture sequences and somewhat disturbing methods of killing (let us just say there is a strategically placed explosive).  Just like all the previous Mitch Rapp novels, Enemy at the Gates is an easy book to enjoy, even for readers unfamiliar with the series.

One of the things I have enjoyed about Mills’s Mitch Rapp novels is the unique insights that the characters have about the world and the United States, and Enemy at the Gates is no exception.  Most of the characters in this novel have been engaged in the political or espionage game for a long time, and all of them share a similar, cynical view about the state of America and its potential future.  While you would mostly expect an ultra-positive American outlook from this sort of thriller novel, Mills apparently has a pretty grim view of the future, which is reiterated multiple times throughout the book.  Making references to a lot of recent events and political schisms, the characters in this novel envision a future filled with increased factionalism, chaos, and political uncertainty, with many of these characters subsequently wondering how they will fit into such a potentially destructive future.  This grim and surprisingly honest viewpoint from Mills sets the stage for the major conflict of this novel, with the president attempting to kill the richest man on the planet, who may be the best chance of saving America.  It was certainly very fascinating to see the author’s views on the role of the uber-rich and corporations will have on the power structure in the future, and the introduction of a trillionaire philanthropist, certainly changed the scales around.  All this political introspection gives Enemy at the Gates an extremely dark and brooding feeling to it, especially as most of the characters full accept this reality and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I personally found Mills’s views to be extremely fascinating and particularly realistic, and I think that he did a great job working them into the narrative and highlighting the impact these opinions could have on modern espionage and world events.

This was another interesting book for protagonist Mitch Rapp, the legendary spy feared throughout the world, especially by all rival intelligence operatives.  Rapp continues to show off his credentials as a genuine badass in this novel, and I liked the fun storylines around the spy getting older and being forced to reconsider his methods and techniques.  It was interesting to see Rapp more on the outs with the American intelligence community in this novel; with the new president in power, he is forced to use some alternative means to complete his missions.  The author also introduces a few interesting storylines in Enemy at the Gates that examine Rapp strongly considering retiring.  This allows the author to include a few emotionally rich scenes of Rapp attempting to settle into the quiet life with his family.  However, despite his best efforts, he is eventually dragged back into the game by a new employer and some old friends.  I liked these inclusions of the character’s personal life, and it was great to see him as a more conflicted figure.  Despite all that, nothing can really disguise the fact that Rapp is a raging psychopath, even for a spy thriller protagonist, whose complete disregard for human life results in some major violence and natural fear and hatred from his enemies.  While this does result in some entertaining moments, it is a bit hard to root for Rapp at times, which does slightly lessen the impact of some of the storylines.  Still, Rapp is a fun character to follow, and it will be intriguing to see what happens to him and his family in the future.

Just like I have with the last few Mitch Rapp novels, I chose to grab a copy of Enemy of the Gates in its audiobook format.  I must admit that the Mitch Rapp audiobooks, which are narrated by George Guidall, are not my absolute favourite audiobooks out there, but with a run time of just eight hours and 36 minutes, it was a quick way to enjoy Enemy at the Gates, which I managed to do in only a couple of days.  Guidall, who has narrated hundreds of audiobooks throughout his career, has his own unique voice for these novels, with a lot of gravitas and cynicism, which helps translate the story extremely well, although he does sound a bit tired as he narrates, and he really does not try to vary his voice too much to distinguish between the various characters featured in the book.  While I was never uncertain who was talking thanks to Mills’s writing, I do think that Guidall could make a little effort to make his narration a little more passionate and his voices a little more distinctive.  Still, this is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and I did have fun getting through Enemy at the Gates.  Despite some of my concerns about Guidall’s performance, I will probably enjoy the audiobook version of the next Mitch Rapp novel in 2022.

After 20 intense books, the Mitch Rapp continues to reign supreme as one of the most entertaining and captivating spy thriller series currently in print.  This latest novel, Enemy at the Gates by Kyle Mills, is a fantastic addition to the series which sets the violent, titular protagonist on another action-packed adventure, this time diving deep into the political and social spectrum of America.  I had an absolute blast listening to this awesome novel and Enemy at the Gates is a great book to check out if you are in the mood for a fun and exciting read.  An overall very fun story that does a great job of continuing this long running series, while also leaving behind a few interesting storylines for later books.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian author E. J. Beaton presents an excellent and compelling fantasy debut with The Councillor, an outstanding and impressive read.

Elira is a country still recovering from a fractious war a generation ago spurred on by the tyrannical magic-wielding White Queen.  The heroic Sarelin Brey, known as the Iron Queen, defeated the White Queen and led the subsequent hunt for the elementals, powerful magical users, who were forced into hiding.  Now, Elira once again stands on the brink of ruin when a mysterious assassin manages to kill the Iron Queen, an act that threatens to split and destroy the entire nation.

The queen’s last act before her death was to name her loyal companion, the palace scholar Lysande Prior, Councillor.  As Councillor, it is Lysande’s duty to choose the next ruler of Elira from the four city rulers and to ensure a peaceful transition of power.  As the city rulers arrive at the palace, Lysande is convinced that one of them may have orchestrated the Iron Queen’s murder.  Using her position as Councillor and the upcoming decisions around Elira’s future to her advantage, Lysande begins to investigate each of the city rulers to find who is responsible for her friend’s death.

As the investigation continues, Lysande soon learns much about the city rulers, including the secrets that they harbour.  Forced to balance her investigation with her responsibilities to the people, Lysande begins to revel in the power that she has been granted, even as her problematic addiction to a magical narcotic threatens her self-control.  However, the closer she gets to the truth, the more Lysande begins to understand that there is a dark threat rising, one that could overwhelm Elira for good.  The White Queen is returning, and this time there is no mighty Iron Queen to stop her, only a brilliant scholar with a bright vision for her nation.

The Councillor was an impressive debut fantasy novel from Beaton, who combines some intriguing characters with a powerful fantasy narrative laden with political intrigue, espionage and one character’s personal journey from scholar to ruler.

Beaton utilises a pretty awesome story in The Councillor, and it is one that I quickly became quite addicted to.  Told exclusively from the point-of-view of protagonist Lysande, the novel has a powerful start with one of the major characters killed off, leaving Lysande and the entire nation in chaos, especially as it appears that a notorious magical villain has returned years after her famous defeat.  From there the protagonist attempts to identify the agent responsible for her friend’s death, believing it to be one of the four arriving nobles vying for the throne.  This results in a compelling storyline where Lysande investigates the secrets of the city rulers, while also becoming increasingly involved in the politics of the realm after being unexpectedly placed in a position of power.  As The Councillor progresses, it evolves into a very captivating piece of political intrigue as Lysande and the city rulers tour the country, attempting to rule together, initiate plans to stop the growing influence of the White Queen, while also attempting to achieve their own goals.  There are some great misdirects and red herrings featured throughout this part of the book, as Beaton attempts to disguise who the antagonist is and what the agendas of the various other politicians are.  This all leads up to a big and explosive conclusion where the traitor is revealed and several great storylines come together, resulting in some awesome action and clever political storylines.  While I was able to guess who the traitor was in advance, Beaton did a great job setting them up, and I did find the methods of the antagonist very surprising, especially the fun super-weapon that was hinted at throughout the book.  The final scenes wrap up the entire narrative extremely well and do a great job setting up the next novel in the series.  I look forward to seeing where the narrative goes from here and I think that the series has some amazing potential.

I really enjoyed the cool and memorable fantasy world that Beaton introduced in her first novel, and it serves as a great setting for the awesome story.  The nation of Elira is broken up into several distinctive political and climate zones, based around a city state, resulting in fascinating group of different and proud people.  I loved the fun blend of cultures featured within this nation, especially as it results in some compelling and entertaining cultural and political clashes.  There is a great focus on the history of Elira, especially as it relates to the previous war against the White Queen, with the scholar protagonist attempts to uncover the full truth behind the past to determine the country’s future.  There are also a ton of LGBT+ elements associated with the setting, which I really appreciated and which helped to make the setting even richer.  Add to that several hostile nations surrounding Elira, a rampaging magical queen full of vengeance, and a covert network of independent magical users with their own agenda, and you have a fantastic combination of groups and political ideals, which helps to makes the compelling narrative even more exciting.  This all proves to be pretty damn awesome, especially as Beaton does a wonderful job describing the rich and vibrant countryside of her setting, allowing the reader to have an outstanding time exploring this new nation.  I really enjoyed this captivating setting and I look forward to seeing how the author expands it in her next novel.

Easily the best thing about The Councillor are the complex and intense characters featured throughout the story.  This includes main protagonist Lysande, who is forced to endure quite a lot of growth and betrayal during the story.  Beaton weaves a powerful and intense narrative around Lysande, an orphan who was chosen to become the Iron Queen’s companion and who grew into a brilliant scholar and thinker.  After the queen’s death, Lysande is forced to become both a ruler and politician, and she finds herself excelling in the role, especially as it allows her to use her skills as a scholar and researcher to her advantage.  Due to Lysande being the point-of-view protagonist, Beaton takes a lot of time exploring her personality, feelings, and history, and it does not take long for the reader to become attached to her, especially as she finds herself in a dangerous and complex personal and political situation.  It proved to be extremely compelling to see Lysade take the political stage for the first time, and I loved the way she adapted to the intrigue and deceit, especially once she started to revel in it.  It was pretty cool to see a scholar attempt to take the throne, resulting in a very different hero from what most fantasy fans would expect.  I also enjoyed the way that the author ensured that Lysande is a bit of a flawed protagonist, especially as she is controlled by her addiction to Chimera Scale, a magical narcotic that gives her energy and different insights to the world.  This growing reliance on Chimera Scale impacts her severely throughout the novel, especially as it covers up some deeper secrets about her, which come to fore later in the novel.  An overall exceptional main character, I am very intrigued about where this story will take Lysande next.

Aside from Lysande, The Councillor features a fantastic collection of supporting characters, each of whom add a lot the story.  The main four supporting characters are the city rulers who arrive in court to put their cases for being the next monarch.  Beaton spends a bit of time building up each character, and it proves quite enjoyable learning their flaws, personalities and secrets, especially as any of them could potentially be villainous.  The most prominent of these city rulers is the mysterious and manipulative Luca Fontaine, a dangerous bastard son who became city ruler after killing his family.  Presented as a dark figure with a love of intrigue, espionage and advanced politics, Fontaine has some outstanding back and forth with Lysande, which were extremely enthralling and compelling, and Fontaine swiftly becomes one of the more entertaining and likeable characters in the novel.  I did think that Beaton could have toned down Fontain’s manipulative side just a little, especially as it made him too obvious a suspect for being the traitor, however, I don’t think this had too much of a negative impact on the narrative.  Aside from the city rulers, the book has some interesting focus on Lysande’s advisors and guards, each of whom hep her in their own unique way.  I particularly enjoyed Lysande’s new maid, Litany, especially once her real purpose in the court is revealed.  This great supporting cast proves to be a lot of fun to follow, and I really appreciated the time and detail that the author put into setting them up.

Overall, I found The Councillor to be an outstanding and deeply entertaining fantasy read with a really addictive and compelling narrative.  Australian author E. J. Beaton did an excellent job with her first book, and this is a must read for anyone who loves a fantasy tale laden with clever political intrigue.  A highly recommend fantasy debut, I cannot wait to see where Beaton takes this series next.