Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst

Race the Sands Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 21 April 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 15 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Sarah Beth Durst returns with a pulse pounding and compelling new novel, Race the Sands, an excellent fantasy novel that has a really great story to it.

In the kingdom of Becar, the most important thing to a person is the state of their soul. Guided by the augurs, priests who can read people’s aura, the inhabitants of Becar do all they can to better themselves, as who you are in this life determines your future lives. The purest souls come back as humans or a great animal, while those more corrupt individuals come back as something lower, such as insects or vermin, a state that can only be redeemed after several lifetimes. However, for those truly evil beings, their punishment is to come back as a monster, as a kehok. Kehoks are chimera-like beasts who spawn out in the wilds and who live existences of pure anguish and pain. These monsters have no hope of redemption or salvation and each time they die they will come back as a different type of kehok. The only way that a kehok can break this hellish cycle of resurrection is to become grand champion of the Races, the favoured pastime of the Becaran people. The Races pit several kehoks and their riders against each other to find out not only who has the fastest kehok but which rider has the greatest mental control over their charge.

Tamra used to be an elite kehok rider, but now she scrapes a living as a professional trainer. After several setbacks, including a tragic accident at the previous year’s Races, Tamra is in need of a win, not only to get back on top but to get the prize money that will allow her to pay for her daughter’s expensive augur training. As none of the professional riders will trust her, Tamra is forced to take on and train an unknown street girl, Raia. Raia recently ran away from home to escape her terrible family and a potentially deadly arranged marriage, and she is desperate to find a way to make a living.

Together, Tamra and Raia make an unlikely pair, but with Tamra’s experience and Raia’s natural talent, they might stand a chance, especially as Tamra has managed to obtain a swift and unusual kehok. As Tamra, Raia and their new kehok all attempt to change their destinies, events from around Becar start to impact them. Chaos is engulfing the kingdom, as the former emperor’s reincarnated vessel has yet to be found. Without the vessel no new emperor can be crowned, and the kingdom is on the brink of collapse and invasion. Can this team succeed in the chaos, or will their success have unexpected consequences?

This was an extremely compelling and deeply enjoyable book from a very talented author, Sarah Beth Durst. Durst is a veteran author who has produced a number of young adult and adult fantasy fiction novels since her 2007 debut, Into the Wild. Durst is probably best known at the moment for her Queens of Renthia series, which started in 2016 with her highly acclaimed novel, The Queen of Blood. Durst is actually a new author to me, and I have not had the pleasure of reading any of her previous novels. I have to admit that checking out Race the Sands was a bit of an impulse choice for me; while I was aware that this interesting sounding book was coming out, it was not one that I was initially planning on reading. However, I heard some rather good things about it from a bunch of other reviewers and their glowing praise convinced me that it would be worth reading. I am extremely glad that I did read it, as it turned out to be an excellent read that I deeply enjoyed.

Race the Sands is a standalone fantasy novel that tells a complex and intriguing story completely separate from Durst’s previous works of fiction. Durst does an outstanding job coming up with a deeply compelling and exciting novel that combines a clever fantasy story about racing monsters with an inventive setting and a cast of great characters to create an overall fantastic read. Despite being a book primarily for the adult fantasy fiction crowd, Race the Sands reads a lot like a young adult fiction novel at times, and it has immense appeal for a huge group of different readers, no matter where your interest in fantasy fiction lies.

At the centre of Race the Sands lies an amazing story of action, intrigue and character growth, all based around the really cool concept of people racing monsters out in the desert for glory, money and redemption. This story starts off extremely strong, introducing the high-stakes world of kehok racing and the intriguing main characters, and I would have happily read a whole book based around the races. However, while all the race sequences are extremely exciting, the book ultimately morphs into a much larger narrative, that revolves around the fate of the entire kingdom of Becar. I really liked how the entire story unfolded, especially as all the political intrigue and overarching threats resulted in an epic and impressive conclusion, that was well presented and which showed the book’s protagonists in the most awesome light possible. This was a truly compelling and memorable story, and Durst does a fantastic job packing so much plot and action into a single, standalone novel.

In addition to the excellent story, I was also really impressed with the clever setting and background that Durst came up with for Race the Sands. Becar is an intriguing nation with ancient Egyptian overtones to it, and its two most distinctive features are its obsession with racing monsters and its complex system of reincarnation. I have already mentioned the kehok races above, and they are a really great highlight of Race the Sands. Durst expertly introduces the races and the key concepts behind them early on in the novel, and every single aspect about them is an extremely cool part of the story. However, I really want to emphasise the story element of the Becaran reincarnation system and soul reading that dictates how the populace acts and behaves during their lifetime. This whole system of good and bad souls, which are read by the benevolent augurs, is an important part of the narrative, and is routinely examined by all of the major character throughout the course of the book. In essence the reincarnation system sounds simple: lead a pure life and you come back in a better form in your next reincarnation; be a bad person and come back as something worse. However, it soon becomes clear that there is something rotten at the heart of the whole system, and quite a lot of the story is dedicated to exploring what is wrong and who is behind it. It leads to some real metaphysical discussions about choices, ethics and corruption, which proves to be an excellent and clever part of the book. All of this makes for a great backdrop to this story, and it was a truly fascinating to see how the author explores and utilises these elements throughout the book.

Durst also spends a good amount of time setting up several great characters, who are the heart and soul of the novel, and who each add their own unique elements to the story. There are around five main characters, each of whom serves as a point-of-view character for much of the book, as well as several significant side characters, with one or two of these also serving as lesser point-of-view characters, and each of them add their own unique perspective to the story. At the top of this list is Tamra, the tough as nails, no-nonsense kehok trainer who is haunted by her mistakes and who is eager to redeem herself by training a new racer, which will also allow her to hold onto her daughter. Despite her rough and powerful exterior, Tamra is really a caring and motherly character, who is willing to compromise her own soul and beliefs if it ensures that the people she cares about are safe and happy. Tamra is a fantastic central character, and I loved her raw determination and notable cynicism about the world she lives in. I also have to mention the awesome part she plays in the outstanding conclusion, where she comes across as an amazing badass, completely changing everything in one of my favourite parts of the entire book.

In addition to Tamra, the next major character is the racer Raia, whom Tamra takes under her wing. Raia is introduced as a flighty and scared creature, a failed augur student who is fleeing from her terrible parents and her murderous future fiancé. Despite having no experience, Raia’s only option to survive and make a living is to get involved in kehok racing, and her natural connection to the lion kehok that Tamra buys, ensures that she is taken on as a student. Due to plot circumstances, Raia is given a crash course in kehok racing, and it is through her eyes that we see a lot of details about the Races and what it takes to become a successful rider, which is an exciting part of the book. Raia is also the character who goes through the most growth throughout the course of the book, as she attempts to leave the shadow cast over her by her terrible parents, and quickly gains confidence thanks to her success as a racer, her mentorship under Tamra, some new friendships and the connection she has with her kehok. I really liked seeing Raia’s growth, and she is one of the more inspiration characters within the book.

Another great character is augur Yorbel, the friend and confidant to the heir to the throne, who sets out to find the late king’s reincarnated host in the most unlikely of places. Yorbel, who starts off as a rather naive and sheltered character due to his upbringing in the temple as an augur, finds himself involved in secrecy and intrigue as he attempts to undertake his mission. However, throughout the course of the book, Yorbel finds himself learning more and more about the dark side of humanity, and the difficulties involved with keeping a pure soul. Despite being one of the nicest and most innocent characters, Yorbel has quite a few ethical dilemmas during this book, and the conclusion of his arc was somewhat shocking and intense. I also have to mention Lady Evara, the rich, noble sponsor of Tamra and Raia. I went into Race the Sands knowing to look out for Lady Evara, as several other reviewers identified her as their favourite character. I can definitely see why, as she was easily the most entertaining character in the entire book. Coming across as a snobbish, self-serving master manipulator, it was a lot of fun to see her interact with characters like the serious Tamra or the passive Yorbel. However, Evara also has a lot of depth to her character as well as some interesting backstory, and the parts of the book that featured her were a real treat. I really enjoyed all the main characters in this book, and this great cast of protagonists helped to turn Race the Sands into a first-class read.

I chose to listen to Race the Sands’ audiobook format, and I found it to be a fantastic way to enjoy this excellent book. The audiobook has a run time of 15 hours and 45 minutes and it is narrated by the talented Emily Ellet. I absolutely blew through this audiobook in only a few days, and it became harder and harder to turn it off the more I got engrossed in the story. I thought that the audiobook format really brought all the intense race scenes to life in all their glory, and I especially loved hearing some of the epic moments from the book’s conclusion. I really liked the various voices that Ellet came up with for the books various characters, and I felt that her portrayals of characters like Tamra, Raia and Yorbel were pretty perfect and really reflected how they were written. I also enjoyed the voice that the narrator provides to all of the book’s highborn women, including Lady Evara and the female augurs, put me a bit in mind of Inara from Firefly, i.e. very posh, confident and in complete control of every situation. That being said, all the highborn women do sound very similar to each other, although I didn’t find that to be too distracting. Overall, I had an outstanding time listening to Race the Sands, and it is an amazing format for any potential readers to utilise.

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst is a deeply impressive and highly enjoyable fantasy read which comes highly recommended. This book contains an exciting and addictive narrative that makes great use of its complex characters and intriguing plot elements to tell a story full of action, adventure and brilliant character development. I had an awesome time reading this book, and it gets a full five stars from me. I am really glad that I decided to check this book out, and I will be definitely be checking out some of Durst’s other novels in the future.

Lionheart by Ben Kane

Lionheart Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 14 May 2020)

Series: Lionheart – Book One

Length: 381 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Honour, glory, loyalty and war! Bestselling historical fiction author Ben Kane takes the reader on a medieval adventure alongside a young King Richard the Lionheart, with his latest epic novel, Lionheart.

I have been on a real roll with some great historical fiction novels in the last couple of weeks, having absolutely loved The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis and The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat, so when I got a copy of Lionheart by Ben Kane I jumped at the chance to read it. Ben Kane is one of the top historical fiction authors at the moment, having produced a number of fantastic books set in ancient Rome, including The Forgotten Legion trilogy, the Hannibal series and the Eagles of Rome series. I have read several of Kane’s previous novels, and I have always found them to be exciting and compelling books with loads of historical detail. This latest release, Lionheart, is Kane’s first novel that does not involve Rome in any way whatsoever, and it acts as the start of a brand new series that will follow the life of one of England’s most iconic kings.

England, 1179. Henry II rules a vast empire, made up of England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine, controlling all with an iron fist, with his only blind spot being his four rebellious sons. Ferdia is minor Irish nobleman, taken as a hostage by the English to ensure his rebellious family’s cooperation and loyalty. Given the name Rufus by his captors, he spends years languishing in an English castle, before a chance encounter with Henry’s second oldest son, Richard, will change everything.

Managing to save Richard’s life, Rufus is taken in as his squire. Drawn to the prince’s natural charisma, bravery and dedication to his men, Rufus gladly swears his loyalty to Richard, and boldly follows him to war as he attempts to subdue the rebellious lords of Aquitaine. The battles and sieges that follow will make Richard’s reputation as a warrior and leader, and Rufus is able to prove his worth beside him, despite the actions of his bitter rival Robert FitzAldelm.

However, while Richard seeks honour and glory in Aquitaine, his ambitious brothers grow jealous of his success and begin to plot against him. Lending their support to the rebels, their actions lead to a crisis that could split the kingdom in two and deliver it to the King of France. As Richard finds himself surrounded by traitors and plotters, he makes his own bid for the throne. It is time for the Lionheart to rise?

Lionheart turned out to be an amazing and exhilarating book that combines intriguing moments from history with a compelling and action-packed tale of honour, loyalty and desire for power. Kane crafts together an impressive and exciting narrative that follows the early life of King Richard the Lionheart as he fights in some of his earliest battles and deals with the various members of his family. The story is primarily told from the point of view of the fictional character Rufus, as he follows Richard through his various adventures. Not only does this allow the reader to see some of the key events of Richard’s life, but it also provides an intriguing central narrative around Rufus, as he attempts to find his place in the world after being taken from his family, while also battling his ruthless opponent, Robert FitzAldelm, another fictional character, who serves as a wonderful foil to the protagonist. Lionheart’s story contained an excellent blend of action, intrigue, compelling historical elements and fantastic interactions between the various characters, which makes it extremely easy to get lost in this book.

The absolute highlight of this novel has to be the enjoyable historical backdrop of Richard’s life that the entire story is set to. Lionheart takes place between 1179 and 1189, which is a really intriguing period of history. The book does not examine Richard and his brothers’ joint rebellion against their father (although it is mentioned several times), but it does focus on the turbulent familiar battles between Richard and his family. During this period, Richard had to put down an extended rebellion in Aquitaine, fighting first against the plots of his brothers and later against the whims of his reluctant father as he attempts to win the throne. Kane does an outstanding job exploring all these chaotic historical events in great detail, and it was extremely fascinating to learn about all the battles and politics that occurred. It also ensures that the book’s plot, which was set all around these events, proved to be rather exciting, as the protagonist watches Richard weave through all the battles and political intrigue. I also have to say that I was impressed with the shear amount of historical detail that Kane installed into every aspect of the plot. Not only has the author made use of a vast cast of historical figures throughout the story (helpfully recorded in a character list at the front of the book), but every line of this book is filled with details about period culture, dress, day-to-day life, battle and the life of a squire and knight. Kane has clearly done an incredible amount of research for this book, and I really loved the authenticity that this added to the story, making for a story that is both captivating and enlightening, just like all great historical fiction novels should be.

Another great aspect of the story is the way that Kane also spent time exploring the life of William Marshal. Marshal, a real-life historical figure of some significance, serves as the book’s secondary point-of-view character, and a number of chapters are told from his perspective (in the third person, rather than the first-person perspective used for all of Rufus’s chapters). This proves to be a clever move on Kane’s part for a number of reasons; primarily because William Marshal is such an absolutely fascinating person. Marshal was a successful and well-known knight, famous for his loyalty, honour and martial prowess, and he was widely considered the pinnacle of knightly virtue in Europe at the time. Kane spends a lot of time exploring the character of Marshal and portrays him in a more ruthless and opportunistic light, which worked rather well for this realistic and compelling story. Marshal is also an incredible useful point-of-view character, as for the entirety of this book he was either in the service of one of Richard’s brothers or his father the king. This provided the reader with a viewpoint into the camp of Richard’s political opponents, which added to the tension of the story, as the reader became privy to information that the protagonists did not know. In addition, it also allowed for an intriguing contrast between Richard and the other members of his family, as Marshal considered the deficits of his lords against those of Richard, who he held a great respect for. Marshal also finds his loyalty tested several times, as his master’s plots threaten to weaken the kingdom, and he must decide whether it is more dishonourable to disobey his liege or to allow them to act unopposed in their own worst interests. I am extremely glad that Kane decided to use Marshal as a secondary protagonist, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future books.

I also have to mention all the awesome action sequences that Kane fits in throughout Lionheart. Due to the historical circumstances in which this book is set, there are a large number of battles, fights and sieges, which our protagonist often finds himself in the middle of. I really enjoyed seeing all the cool fight sequences that occurred throughout the plot and Kane has a real flair for historical action scenes, bringing them to live in exciting detail. Definitely a great book for those lovers of medieval battles and fights, this book is guaranteed to slake anyone’s desire for action and adventure.

Lionheart is an excellent new novel from Ben Kane, who thrives in a non-Roman history setting by bring together an impressive story about a young Richard the Lionheart. I had an amazing time reading this book, and I loved the exciting narrative and the fascinating historical elements. Lionheart serves as an awesome first book in a new series from Kane, and the second novel, tentatively titled Lionheart: Crusade, should prove to be a brilliant read for next year. Until then, Lionheart comes highly recommended, and is really worth checking out.

To the Strongest by Robert Fabbri

To the Strongest Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Trade Paperback – 2 January 2020)

Series: Alexander’s Legacy – Book One

Length: 415 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

War and chaos are about to be unleashed following the death of history’s greatest conqueror in the new epic historical fiction novel from amazing author Robert Fabbri, To the Strongest, the first book in his new Alexander’s Legacy series.

This is a clever and compelling new novel from Robert Fabbri, who has successfully moved away from historical Rome to ancient Greece and Macedonia. I am a massive fan of Fabbri’s writing, and he is probably one of my favourite historical fiction authors at the moment due to his work on the incredibly entertaining Vespasian series. His last several novels have all been rather top notch (check out my reviews for the eighth and ninth book in the series, Rome’s Sacred Flame and Emperor of Rome, as well as the associated short story collection, Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood), and I have been really looking forward to reading To the Strongest for a while now. I actually read this book a few months ago, but I am only just getting around to writing a review for it now. This is not because I didn’t enjoy the book; on the contrary, I absolutely loved it, I just got a little distracted after reading this book and kept forgetting to come back to it (to be fair, it’s been a rather hectic year). Now that I have a little time, I thought I would go back and review this great book, contains a clever and intriguing story concept.

“I foresee great struggles at my funeral games.”

Babylon, 323 BC. After bringing together one of the largest and most expansive empires the world has ever seen, Alexander the Great lies dying at a young age, and no one is truly prepared for his passing. With no legitimate heir yet born, and no obvious frontrunner to succeed Alexander as ruler of the conquered lands that make up the Macedonian empire, his loyal followers assemble at his death bed and beg him to reveal who he will leave the empire to. Alexander’s answer is simple: “To the strongest.”

Now the entire empire is up for grabs, and it does not take long for the prediction laden within Alexander’s final words to come to pass. As the news of the king’s death travel throughout the land, many seek to take advantage, either to take control themselves, or to better their own personal situation. The empire soon dissolves into a ruthless battle for the throne, as the various parties scramble for power, with shifting alliances, devious betrayals and far-ranging schemes becoming the new norm.

But in the end, only one will emerge victorious. Will it be Perdikkas, the loyal bodyguard who Alexander seeming left this ring to (the Half-Chosen); Roxanna, Alexander’s wife who bears his unborn heir (the wildcat); Antipatros, the man left behind to govern Macedonia (the Regent); his most capable warriors Krateros (the General) or Antigonos (the One-Eyed); the devious Olympias (the Mother); the clever Ptolemy (the Bastard); or the sneaky Greek advisor Eumenes (the Sly). Which man or woman has the cunning or ruthlessness to outlast the others and survive? Let the struggles begin!

What a fun and fascinating piece of historical fiction. Fabbri has crafted together an epic and clever novel that tells the outrageous true story of the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s life. Told from the perspective of a number of major figures who fought or schemed throughout this period of history, Fabbri turns all these events into an outstanding and enjoyable story that proves extremely hard to put down at times. Containing a compelling writing style, several excellent battle sequences and numerous betrayals, manipulations and shifting loyalties, this is an impressive first entry in the Alexander’s Legacy series, which does an excellent job setting up all the initial conflicts that were caused in the initial aftermath of Alexander’s death while also leaving a lot of room for the series to advance into the future.

To the Strongest is a fantastic and entertaining novelisation of some rather intriguing events from ancient history that do not get a lot of coverage in modern fiction. I think the thing that I liked the most about this book is the fact that most of the crazy events that Fabbri features within it actually happened in one shape or form, or are recorded as such in the historical record. The period of history post-Alexander the Great is not one that I am massively familiar with, and so I did a bit of reading into it after I finished To the Strongest, mainly because I was rather curious to see how much of this actually happened. It turns out that nearly all of the craziest events that occurred, such as the brutal murder of several of Alexander’s wives, the theft of his corpse by one of the characters, and a particularly disastrous river crossing with a troupe of war elephants, really did occur, and required very little literary embellishment on Fabbri’s part to make this any more exciting and compelling. I really loved learning about all these cool moments from history, and I think that Fabbri did an amazing job converting these myriad events into a cohesive and enjoyable narrative. From what I understand, there are plenty more battles and betrayals to go, and I am rather looking forward to seeing the full scope of these events unfold in future books.

In order to tell his story, Fabbri utilises a number of different character perspectives from a large roster of unique historical figures. There are 11 point-of-view characters featured within this novel, each of whom narrate multiple chapters within the book. Fabbri has provided each of these characters with their own nickname and symbol, both of which help to distinguish the character and to highlight certain character elements or parts of their history. The use of these multiple character perspectives makes for quite an interesting novel, as it allows the reader to see a much wider viewpoint of the conflicts occurring around the entire empire, as well as the multiple sides involved in it. This mixture of character-specific chapters also allows the reader to get something different out of each chapter, as chapters that follow a warrior will feature more battle sequences, while other chapters are geared more towards political fights or intrigue. This mixture works really well, and it helps to produce a diverse novel with various compelling story elements to it. The chapters are not evenly distributed between the characters, with some getting multiple chapters throughout the course of the book, while others only get a few chapters here in there. Two characters in particular only appear in one half of the book each, with one getting killed off about halfway through, while another only appears a while after. Most of this is due to the fact that some characters were not as prominent in history until a later date, and I imagine that some of these characters will be utilised more significantly in later books.

I liked Fabbri’s take on all the characters contained within the novel, and he came up with a great group of historical people to centre this story on. I thought that he did a fantastic job portraying the sort of vicious and manipulative sort of people who would have tried to take advantage of the situation, and these are the sort the sort of characters that Fabbri excelled at creating in his previous Vespasian series. There are some truly enjoyable characters amongst the main 11 point-of-view historical figures, although I personally enjoyed the parts of the book that featured the Greek advisor Eumenes (the Sly). Eumenes is an exceedingly clever individual who is generally looked down upon within Alexander’s Macedonian empire due to his Greek heritage. Despite this, Eumenes is able to gain quite a bit of power and influence in the post-Alexander era by advising and working with some of the other characters, and is generally the most politically capable out of all of them. As a result, you see quite a bit of him, as not only does he has a large number of his own chapters but he also appears in a number of other characters’ point-of-view chapters, attempting to negotiate or advise these characters to a beneficial course of action. Watching him try and deal with all the other characters is pretty entertaining, especially as they are all rather dismissive of him at times, while he is clearly exasperated by their behaviours and desires, especially with one particular character who he sides with but who completely ignores some of his better suggestions.

Aside from the 11 point-of-view characters, Fabbri has also included a huge group of interesting side characters, most of whom were real-life historical figures. These side characters do a good job of bolstering the story set around the point-of-view characters, and it was intriguing to see how their arcs played out through the course of the story. Fair warning, there are a quite a few side characters utilised throughout the story, which can get a little confusing at times. Fabbri did however include a useful character list in the back of the novel which I did find myself occasionally referencing to keep track of who was who, and which proved to be rather helpful. Overall, I thought that this turned out to be a great group of diverse characters, and I am looking forward to seeing how the surviving members of the cast progress in future books.

I did have a slight criticism with how the book was set out, particularly relating to the spacing between paragraphs. Now, I would usually say that complaining about how a paragraph is formatted is rather nit-picky, but in this case, it was a bit of a legitimate problem. In the version of To the Strongest that I had, there were no breaks between any of the paragraphs, and usually this was not too much of a problem (even if it did make the pages a tad blocky). However, there was also a complete lack of spacing between two paragraphs that are parts of two separate scenes within the same chapter. This means that there are no obvious breaks between certain scenes within the novel, as the next paragraph could be the same scene or a whole new scene altogether, and this had a bit of an impact of how the story flowed throughout. For example, there are a number of places where you have some of the characters talking about one thing, and the next paragraph could either be a continuation of that same scene, or a completely new sequence set several days or weeks in the future. Several times throughout his book, I would get completely lost about what is happening when I started reading the next paragraph without realising that it had jumped to a whole new scene in the future. While it was fine, and I was able to get back into the flow of things once I realised what had happened, it did lead to several moments of confusion, which I think could have been avoided by placing a line break to indicate when a certain scene had ended. While this is a rather minor issue, it did keep recurring throughout the book, and I felt that it should have been avoided. Still, the epic story more than made up for it, and this formatting only had a minor impact on my overall enjoyment of To The Strongest.

To the Strongest by Robert Fabbri is an amazing and exciting historical fiction novel that I had a fantastic time reading. Fabbri has chosen an extremely intriguing historical period to explore within this novel, and his excellent portrayal of the chaos that followed the death of Alexander the Great makes for an outstanding story. I loved how the author used his vast array of historical characters to showcase all the potential battles and manipulation that occurred during this time, and it helped to create a fun and unique read. This is a first-rate read from Fabbri, and I cannot wait to read all the future books in this cool historical fiction series.

To Kill a Man by Sam Bourne

To Kill a Man Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 19 March 2020)

Series: Maggie Costello – Book Five

Length: 438 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Acclaimed thriller writer Sam Bourne delivers another captivating and intriguing novel about the dark side of American politics in his latest clever and exhilarating release, To Kill a Man.

In Washington DC, a woman is brutally assaulted in her own home by a masked intruder. Defending herself, she manages to kill her assailant, leaving him dead on the floor. While it seems to be a simple case of self-defence, the victim is no ordinary woman; instead, she is Natasha Winthrop, a high-flying lawyer whose highly publicised work during a House intelligence committee has many people wanting her to run for President of the United States.

As the events of this case are torn apart by the media, politicians and the general public, certain inconsistencies in Winthrop’s story emerge, and the police start to investigate the possibility that Winthrop knew her attacker and that she arranged the entire situation. With a hostile press and her potential political opponents swarming all around her, Winthrop calls in Maggie Costello, Washington’s top political troubleshooter for help.

Maggie eagerly takes on the case and quickly finds herself helping a woman at the centre of one of America’s most controversial and divisive news stories. While the country divides over whether Winthrop is innocent or guilty, and several violent retaliatory attacks against sexual offenders occur around the globe, Maggie is determined to find something that will prove her client’s innocence and allow her to keep her political future intact. However, the further Maggie digs, the more inconsistencies and surprises she uncovers. Who is Natasha Winthrop really, and what connections did she have to the man who attacked her? As the political sharks circle and the deadline for Winthrop’s announcement as a potential candidate gets closer, Maggie attempts to uncover the truth before it is too late. But what will Maggie do when the entire shocking truth comes to the surface?

To Kill a Man is an impressive and captivating political thriller from Sam Bourne, the nom de plume of British journalist Jonathan Saul Freedman, who started writing thrillers back in 2006 with his debut novel, The Righteous Men. He has since gone on to write eight additional thrillers, five of which, including To Kill a Man, have featured Maggie Costello as their protagonist. I have been meaning to read some of Bourne’s novels for a couple of years now, ever since I saw the awesome-sounding synopsis for his 2018 release, To Kill the President. While I did not get a chance to read that book back then, I have been keeping an eye on Bourne’s recent releases, and when I received a copy of To Kill a Man I quickly jumped at the chance to read it. What I found was a cool and intriguing novel with a compelling and complex plot that I had an outstanding time reading.

Bourne has come up with a rather intriguing story for To Kill a Man that sends the reader through a twisted political thriller filled with all manner of surprises and revelations that totally keeps them guessing. I honestly had a hard time putting this book down as I quickly became engrossed in this fantastic story, and every new reveal kept me more and more hooked right up until the very end, where there was one final revelation that will keep a reader thinking and eager to check out the next Bourne book. The entire story is rather clever, and I really liked how Bourne showed the plot from a variety of different perspectives around the world, from Maggie Costello and Natasha Winthrop, to the media, the police, Winthrop’s political opponents and their team, as well as several other people who are affected by the events of the narrative. This use of multiple point-of-view characters, even if they have only short appearances, makes for a more complete story, and I quite liked seeing how fictional members of the public perceived the events going on. While connected to the events of the previous Maggie Costello books, To Kill a Man is essentially a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of any of Bourne’s other novels are required to enjoy this thrilling plot. I really enjoyed where Bourne took this great story, and this turned into a rather captivating thriller.

One part of the book that I particularly liked was the author’s exploration of America’s current political system, and how some of the events of this novel’s plot would play out in a modern effort to become president. As the main plot of To Kill a Man progresses, there are several scenes that feature both Maggie Costello and members of the election team of Winthrop’s main potential rival discussing the various pros and cons of someone in her position running and attempting to game plan how to defeat her if she did run. This was a rather intriguing aspect of the book, and Bourne really did not pull any punches when it comes to his portrayal of just how weird and depressing modern-day politics in America really is. The various political discussions show a real lack of decency and ethics around modern politicians, and there were multiple mentions of how a certain recent election changed all the rules of politics, making everything so much dirtier. The various news stories that followed such an event also had a rather depressing reality to them, especially as the various biases of certain networks and correspondents were made plain, and do not get me started on the various Twitter discussions that were also occurring. All of this works itself into the main story rather well, and some of the revelations that Maggie was able to uncover have some very real and significant real-world counterparts, some of which have not been solved as well in the real world as they were in this somewhat exaggerated thriller. I think all these political inclusions were a terrific part of the book and they really helped to enhance the potential reality of the story and make the story feel a bit more relatable to anyone who follows modern American politics.

To Kill a Man also featured an interesting and topical discussion about the scourge of sexual assaults and harassment that are occurring throughout the world. The main plot of this book follows in the aftermath of a sexual assault against a woman in which the victim fought back and killed her attacker. This results in a huge number of discussions from the characters featured in the novel, as they all try to work out the ethics of her actions in defending herself, and the perceptions of these actions from a variety of people makes for an intriguing aspect of the book, and feeds in well to the political aspects of the story. This also leads to some deep and powerful discussions about sexual assault in America (and the world), the impact that it has on people and the mostly muted response from the public and authorities. This sentiment is enforced by several scenes that show snapshots of women being assaulted and sexually harassed across the world that run throughout the course of the book. While the inclusion of these scenes does appear a little random at times, it ties in well with the main story and the overarching conspiracy that is being explored in the central part of the book. Bourne makes sure to show off the full and terrible effect of these actions, and many of these may prove to be a little distressing to some readers, although I appreciate that he was attempting to get across just how damaging such experiences can be for the victims. I also liked his subsequent inclusion of members of the extreme male right wing who were being used as weapons against some of the female characters in the book, which made for an interesting if exasperating (as in: why do people like this exist in the real world) addition to the story. This discussion about sexual crimes in the world today proved to be a rather powerful and visible part of the book’s plot that I felt worked well within the context of the thriller storyline.

To Kill a Man is an excellent new thriller from Sam Bourne, who produces a clever and layered narrative that really hooks the reader with its compelling twists, intriguing political elements and Bourne’s in-your-face examination of sexual crimes and how they are perceived in a modern society. To Kill a Man comes highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of Bourne’s fantastic thrillers in the future.

Throwback Thursday – Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Ronin Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1987)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book One

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

We are now less than two months until the next amazing volume of Stan Sakai’s long running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Bunraku and Other Stories, is released, and I am getting excited. This new volume is set to feature several brand new Usagi Yojimbo stories (including an extended story about a haunted puppet drama), but it is apparently also going to feature a look back at the very first Usagi story as part of an 35th anniversary special. For that reason, I thought that this would be an excellent time to go back and review volume one of the Usagi Yojmbo series, The Ronin, to serve as a good base for the upcoming review.

Usagi Yojimbo is a unique comic book series that Stan Sakai started back in 1984. It focuses on the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai who lives in a version of feudal Japan (early Edo period) completely populated with other anthropomorphic animals. Usagi is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage, helping those he encounters and occasionally working as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for hire. Throughout his journey he encounters all manner of friends and foes, including a number of creatures from Japanese folklore, and finds himself constantly drawn into the political plots of the land. This series is written and drawn in a more western comic/cartoon style rather than the Japanese magna style. However, the Usagi Yojimbo series is strongly inspired by Japanese history and culture, featuring a huge range of accurate depictions of historical events and cultural icons. This series is currently collected in 33 volumes from several different publishers, with each volume containing a number of different issues from the series. These issues are usually standalone adventures, although a number of longer storylines are continued through several issues or volumes.

I have been meaning to go back and review the first volume Usagi Yojimbo for a while now. The Usagi Yojimbo series is easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time, as Stan Sakai has created a truly epic and compelling series. While on paper a series following a rabbit samurai in a version of feudal Japan populated by other anthropomorphic animals does sound a bit ridiculous, these comics are anything but. Through a combination of outstanding storylines, complex characters, intense action, great uses of humour and an intriguing and compelling look at Japanese history and culture, Sakai has created a comic series that is extremely endearing and captivating. I have been a massive fan of this series for years, having started reading it when I was in high school (thank goodness for my surprisingly well-stocked public library) after I first saw the character in the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. I have previously reviewed the last two volumes of Usagi Yojimbo on my blog already (Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden), with Mysteries actually being the very first comic I ever reviewed. Both of these previous volumes received a five-star rating from me, which I have also awarded to this first volume.

Unlike the rest of the collected volumes, The Ronin doesn’t actually contain any issues from the Usagi Yojimbo series. Instead, it contains several earlier Usagi stories which were part of other publications, such as Albedo Anthropomorphics, Critters, Doomsday Squad and Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special. All of these were collected together for the first time in 1987 into this volume (I have the 2007 reprint), and appear in chronological order. The Ronin contains 10 separate chapters of various lengths, each with their own story. These include:

  • The Goblin of Adachigahara: the very first story to feature Usagi, and the one that the upcoming Bunraku and Other Stories is going to revisit. This initial story features Usagi returning to the area near the battlefield of Adachigahara, where he lost his lord, Mifune, in a battle, forcing him to become a ronin. Seeking shelter in the hut of an old lady, he recounts his story of the battle to his host, including the betrayal of one his lord’s generals which cost them the battle. Later, Usagi battles a flesh-eating goblin, revealed to be not only the treacherous general but also the husband of his elderly host, and manages to defeat him, sparing the old lady who was going to allow him to be eaten. This was an excellent introduction to Usagi, as you got some vital information about his history, his status and his skill as a warrior. You also got a great look at his moral character, as he chooses to spare a woman who would have let him be eaten, and instead instructs her to perform funeral rights on the man who cost him everything.
  • Lone Rabbit and Child: this second story involves Usagi getting involved in the politics of the nation, as he comes to the aid of a young lord, Noriyuki, and his retainer the swordswoman Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki and Tomoe are being hunted by the agents of the evil lord Hikiji, who was also responsible for the death of Usagi’s previous lord years ago (it is later revealed he also killed Usagi’s father). Usagi agrees to escort them to safety, and they must contend with mercenaries, assassins and ninja on their quest. This is an amazing second outing, which expands on the world the series is set in, continues to show off Usagi’s skill, and sets up Hikiji as the main antagonist of the series (even if you see very little of him later on).
  • The Confession: This story follows on directly from the events of Lone Rabbit and Child, and features Usagi in the possession of a vital letter implicating Lord Hikiji in the attempt to kill Noriyuki. Usagi is ambushed by the Neko Ninja, who seek to reclaim the letter, leading to a prolonged and desperate fight in the woods. This proved to be an awesome follow-up to the previous story, which continued to highlight Usagi’s skills in combat and Sakai’s ability to drawn excellent, high-stakes fight scenes. It also showed just how nefarious an opponent Hikiji and his advisor Counsellor Hebi (a big terrifying snake) can be.
  • Bounty Hunter: Usagi is hired as a Yojimbo by the bounty hunter Gennosuke as he attempts to claim his latest bounty, the leaders of a local gang. Engaging the gang in a fight at a temple, Usagi and Gen are an effective team, eventually getting their targets, although their partnership ends on an interesting note. This was an entertaining story that served as a perfect introduction to a great character. Usagi and Gen have amazing chemistry together and Gen is an awesome side character. This is also one of the first stories to feature some more humour in the story, especially in the end, which turns out to fit in well with the overall feel of the series.
  • Horse Thief: Sakai features a lot more humour when Usagi, after interfering in a robbery by a gang of bandits, takes one of the bandit’s horses. He attempts to sell the horse in town, only to discover that it was stolen from the local magistrate, who chases him into the woods. Usagi’s problems only escalate from there, when he and his pursuers run into the bandits, prompting a massive battle in which Usagi is everyone’s enemy. The story has a great ending, steeped in irony which leaves Usagi and the reader laughing hysterically. I loved the author’s use of coincidence and bad fortune in this story, and it was fantastic to watch Usagi go from one bad situation to the next.
  • Village of Fear: This is a bit more of a horror story, as Usagi comes across a village held captive by a fearsome monster. This horror is compounded when it is revealed that the monster is a shapeshifter who has taken the form of one of the villagers. This was a relatively brief story, but it is set up and executed very well, with several great character moments, and there is even time for a quick Gone with the Wind
  • A Quiet Meal: This is another of the more humorous stories in the volume, which features Usagi trying to have a quiet meal in an inn. Unfortunately, a gang of rough gamblers are causing trouble, throwing the other patrons out and trying their luck with Usagi. Usagi quickly shows them the error of the ways with some extremely fancy sword work, which causes them to flee in terror. The most noticeable feature of this entry is the fact that Usagi doesn’t speak once during the entire issue (he’s trying to have a quiet meal), and it’s up to his body language and the other characters to tell the story. This works extremely well and really helps to uplift the overall humour of the story. The way in which he sees off the ruffians is absolutely fantastic, and their absolute fear and disbelief at his skill, “this one’s been filleted”, is just great.
  • Blind Swords-Pig: This is a somewhat sadder and more dramatic story which features Usagi encountering and quickly befriending the blind pig, Zato Ino, who is seeking a peaceful place to settle down. Ino, however, is an extremely skilled warrior and wanted outlaw. Constantly hunted for his bounty, he relies on his sword skills and his ability to ‘see’ with his sense of smell. When Usagi finds out his true identity, the two engage is a fierce duel in which Ino loses his nose, truly becoming blind. This is one of the best stories in the whole of The Ronin, mainly because of the complex character that is Ino. He has a true desire for a peaceful life, but his past ensures that this can never happen, as even friendly characters like Usagi turn against him. This has turned him into a somewhat bitter creature, quick to hate those he meets “and what I hate, I kill!”, and the events of this first story help turn him into something even more angry, especially when it comes to Usagi.
  • Homecoming: This story sees Usagi return to the village of his childhood, but his return is not a peaceful one, as his village is under attack by the Mogura Ninja. Usagi must work with his childhood rival, Kenichi, to save the village; however, there is much enmity between Usagi and Kenichi, mainly because Kenichi married Mariko, the love of Usagi’s life. The two rivals must move past their differences, especially when Kenichi and Mariko’s son, Jotaro, is kidnapped by the Mogura Ninja. This was another exceptional entry in the volume, as it blends together tight action sequences with a deeper dive into Usagi’s past, including his complex and dramatic history with Kenichi and Mariko. The final pages of this issue are just heartbreaking, as it is revealed that Usagi and Mariko both kept the mementos they gave each other as young lovers, and they are both clearly in love with each other, even though they can never be together. I also really liked the Mogura Ninja in this book, especially as moles apparently make effective and deadly ninja.
  • Bounty Hunter II: This final story sees the return of Gen, who once again convinces Usagi to work with him to collect another bounty. Gen of course manages to complicate the job, and his actions backfire on Usagi, resulting in him getting into a major scrape. Despite Usagi’s understandable rage towards Gen, the two are able to part amicably, although Usage gets a small measure of appropriate revenge at the end of the story. I think that Sakai really hit his stride with the Usagi/Gen friendship in this second story, and the two of them play off each other extremely well. I really loved the end of this story, and it definitely got a big laugh out of me.

Overall, I felt that this volume contained a perfect blend of stories, and I really liked how Sakai jumped between action-based stories, to comedies and then to more dramatic tales, which helped produce a range of different emotional reactions. I did appreciate that the different issues also featured a range of different opponents and story basis, allowing the reader to understand that this series is going to focus on everything including banditry, ninja attacks, political intrigue and even the supernatural. I also think that the stories in The Ronin contained the right amount of character background for Usagi, providing enough for the reader to understand his motivations, while not being too overwhelming. This great blend of storylines and character arcs works extremely well together, and it makes for one heck of a complete volume.

The Ronin serves as an excellent introduction to this series, and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in Usagi Yojimbo start with this volume. The stories within do a wonderful job of setting up the alternate version of historical Japan that this entire series takes place in. I absolutely love the combination of vibrant animal characters with feudal Japanese settings, and it works really well as the backdrop for an action series, especially with the political uncertainty and mass of unemployed samurai that accompanied the early years of shogunate rule. That being said, it is never quite explained why certain animals (horses and small dogs) are non-sentient, or why there are packs of dinosaur-like lizards (tokage) roaming the wilderness, although I kind of like the mystery. This volume also contains fantastic introductions for so many characters who are vital to the series, such as Gen, Tomoe, Mariko and more, and you get great insights into their characters, which are built up with each appearance they make. A lot of key character arcs or storylines start in the stories featured within this volume, and as each volume of Usagi Yojimbo is sequential, readers of the series are best served starting with this first volume. Luckily, The Ronin is a really good first entry in the series, and it is definitely worth checking out.

One of the most charming things about the Usagi Yojimbo series is the way in which Sakai sneaks so many different historical and cultural references into his stories. Most of the characters are either inspired by a real-life historical figure or a fictional character from Japanese or western culture. For example, Usagi himself is based on one of the most famed samurai of all time, Miyamoto Musashi, who is often credited with creating the two-sword fighting technique that Usagi utilises in the series, while Tomoe Ame is based on famed female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Other characters however are based on Japanese movie characters, such as Zato Ino who is a clearly a pig version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman protagonist of a series of popular Japanese movies and televisions shows. Gen is based on the character that Toshiro Mifune portrayed in samurai films such as Yojimbo (which was later adapted into A Fistful of Dollars), and Usagi’s former lord Mifune gets his name from the actor. Other references include the title of the second story in this volume, Lone Rabbit and Kid which is a references to the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (Sakai later creates the characters of Lone Goat and Kid as another homage to this series) and the fact that this series is partially named after the Yojimbo film. Two separate stories in this volume also reference Sakai’s previous work on the Groo the Wanderer comic, with Groo even briefly appearing in Lone Rabbit and Kid, sharing a fun stare down with Usagi. I had a great time with all these references (although I admit I had to look up a couple), and some of them are really clever. They add a lot of fun to this series and they are a real treat for readers, especially those already familiar with Japanese history, film or culture.

I am a big fan of Sakai’s art style, and each issue of Usagi Yojimbo is an absolute joy to view. Not only does he produce some outstanding action sequences with his drawings, many of which do an awesome job of depicting the samurai battle style, but he also creates some fantastic characters and breathtaking landscape scenes. Nearly every issue shows some inspiring and beautiful depiction of the Japanese countryside or a historical town, and the sheer amount of detail that he throws into his various scenes is just incredible. It’s also fun to see the various animals that can be turned into samurai, as everything from bulls, rabbits, crocodiles, rhinos, monkeys, pandas, cats and dogs appear in this first volume alone. For this first volume, however, the artwork is understandably a little inconsistent, mainly because Sakai had only just started drawing these characters. The various character designs are a little rough in places, especially if you are familiar with his later work, as Sakai is clearly experimenting with how he wants to depict these characters. A few of the action sequences are also a tad different from the later entries in this series, which can be a little jarring in places, but still really cool. Overall, though, most of the art in this book is pretty incredible, and it is fun seeking Sakai get into his groove with each new story. Sakai does an amazing job conveying emotion, action and intent through his drawings in this volume, and it turns out wonderfully. If I had to pick my favourite bit of art in this entire volume, it would be a scene in A Quiet Meal, where Usagi swings his sword around the head of a ruffian who is bothering him. While it first it appears that Usagi had done nothing, you slowly realise that the flies that Sakai had been subtly drawing around this character’s head before that point, are gone. The facial reactions of the various thugs when they realise what happened to the flies are just hilarious, and I absolutely loved it.

This first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, is an amazing and spectacular read, which I have a lot of love for. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to the Usagi Yojimbo series, but it contains some captivating storylines, impressive artwork and a heck of a lot of fun. Needless to say, The Ronin gets a full five stars from me, and I cannot recommend this volume and the Usagi Yojimbo series enough. Reading this first volume actually got me re-reading the entire series again, and I have already made it up to volume 17. In my book, all of them are five star reads, and you can probably expect some more reviews of them in some future instalments of Throwback Thursday. Stay tuned to see my review of the next volume of this epic series, which I already know I am going to love.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Darth Vader (2015): Volume 2 – Shadows and Secrets

Darth Vader - Shadows and Secrets

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Writer: Kieron Gillen

Artist: Salvador Larroca

Colourist: Edgar Delgado

Publication Date: 5 January 2016

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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For my latest Throwback Thursday, I take a look at the second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets. This is a superb and fantastic addition to a series which I honestly consider to be one the best overall pieces of Star Wars fiction out there, as it continues to explore the complex character that is Darth Vader.

Following the events of the first volume of this series, Vader, Darth Vader now knows that the mysterious Rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star is actually his son, Luke Skywalker, and that the Emperor has been lying to him for years. This revelation, combined with the fact that the Emperor is forcing him to compete for his favour with the scientific creations of the cybernetic genius Cylo, has crystallised Vader’s rage, and he is now determined to overthrow the Emperor and rule the Empire with his son. To that end, he has commanded his new agents, the rogue archaeologist Doctor Aphra and her two murderous droids, Triple Zero and BT-1, to gather the resources needed to pursue his agendas.

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Whilst Aphra and her criminal contacts do their work for him, Vader must appear to obey the commands of his new superior officer, Grand General Tagge. His latest mission from Tagge requires him to find out who stole a massive consignment of credits that the Empire recently seized from crime lords in the Outer Rim. There is just one problem: Aphra and a small group of bounty hunters stole the credits on his behalf. Vader attempts to cover up his involvement in the crime and lead the investigation away from Aphra. However, the arrival of his new aide, the brilliant Inspector Thanoth, may prove troublesome, as Thanoth’s investigation leads him in all the right directions.

However, despite the importance of Vader’s plans within the Empire, his main concern is the search for his son. Needing to locate and corrupt Luke before the Emperor finds out who he is, he tasks Aphra with not only finding his son’s location but to also find and silence the one person who knew that Luke was actually born. As Vader does all he can to keep Thanoth from finding Aphra and incriminating himself, he finds himself walking a fine line between victory and destruction. With new rivals and both the Empire and the Rebellions seemingly against him, can even Darth Vader get what he wants?

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Well this was another fantastic bit of Star Wars fiction! The first thing that I do have to admit is that Shadows and Secrets is probably my least favourite volume in the entire 2015 Darth Vader series. However, this is only because every other volume in this series is just so incredible that this one suffers a little in comparison. That being said, I absolutely loved this second volume as it contains an excellent story, some great moments, fantastic characters and some impressive artwork. Containing issues #7-12 of the Darth Vader series, Gillen and Larroca have done an incredible job with this second volume, and I still consider it to be a five-star read.

One of the best things about Shadows and Secrets is Gillen’s outstanding story, which continues some of the tantalising threads from the first volume while also introducing some great new elements. Gillen sets out a clever, well-paced story that is filled with all manner of action, adventure and intrigue, as Vader begins his duplicitous actions within the Empire, attempting to amass the resources he needs for his projects without drawing the suspicion of either his rivals in the Imperial hierarchy or his new superior. Most of the story contained within this volume is fairly self-contained, featuring a fantastic heist sequence and the subsequent fallout from this event. This fallout mostly revolves around Vader’s investigation into his own heist, which he attempts to cover up from his new aide, Inspector Thanoth. Thanoth is a genius detective of Sherlockian talents who was quickly able to get to the truth of the matter and find the culprit of the heist, despite Vader’s vest efforts. I really enjoyed this whole investigation element to the book, especially as it was fun watching Vader routinely sabotage his own investigation, often by killing any and all potential witnesses, only to have Thanoth easily breeze through these obstacles. Thanoth turned out to be an excellent new addition to this series, and I really enjoyed the intriguing partnership he formed with Vader, especially as he plays a dangerous game by continuously hinting that he knows Vader is behind the theft. This turned out to be quite an amazing and enjoyable storyline, and I really appreciated Gillen’s perfect blend of humour and serious storylines throughout the volume.

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I also loved the continued focus on Vader’s obsessive hunt for Luke Skywalker, which has taken on a new edge now that he knows he is his son. While he was already searching for him in the first volume, now that he realises who he really is, Vader decides to protect his identity and the find out the whole truth behind his birth. This is shown in the first part of Issue #7, in which Vader and Aphra visit both the Lars Homestead and Ben Kenobi’s hovel on Tatooine, where he tries to gleam some knowledge from both houses about his son, before setting off a molecular bomb to erase all useful forensic evidence. Shortly after this, Vader than sets Aphra a task of finding and interrogating a former mortician from Naboo who prepared Padme Amidala’s body for her funeral, including setting up a hologram to make it appear that she was still pregnant. This tuned out to be an outstanding sequence, as the mortician, who has a huge amount of personal loyalty towards Amidala, at first refuses to provide any information about his work, before being tortured and confirming the existence of a child. While this admission is a betrayal of his beloved Queen that clearly costs the former mortician a lot, he is able to do one last act of service for her by not revealing any details about the second child, Leia. I thought that this scene was amazing, and I liked how it helped explain how Vader was aware of Luke’s existence and status as his child, but not that he also had a daughter. I also appreciated Gillen’s focus on the loyalty the inhabitants of Naboo had to Amidala, even in death, which was even able to move the cynical Aphra. Her subsequent mention to Vader of how Amidala must have really been something was a nice touch, as Vader’s subdued and hidden reaction hints at his continuing deep feelings towards his long-dead wife. I really liked this focus on the search for Luke, as not only does it makes sense in the context of the movies, but it also showcases the lengths Vader was willing to go to find and protect his son, and it leads to the best sequence in the entire volume.

I personally really enjoyed how the creative team continued to show off Vader as a dangerous and vicious powerhouse in this volume. While it does not contain the same level of carnage that he unleashed in the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic book series, Shadows and Secrets contains several amazing scenes depicting his destructive abilities and personality. Whether he is stuffing a crime lord into the mouth of his own exotic beast and then easily killing the distracted monster, or whether he is taking down and entire squadron of Rebel space fighters one at a time by throwing his lightsaber at them, he is shown to be pretty impressive.

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Just like in the first volume, Doctor Aphra continues to shine as the series’s main supporting character, and her entire character arc within Shadows and Secrets is very intriguing. Throughout this volume, Aphra ends up undertaking several missions for Vader, such as trying to find the location of Luke Skywalker, and has become one of his main confidants. This puts her in a terrible position, as Vader is likely to kill her to protect his secrets, especially when Thanoth gets close to capturing her. Watching the various ways that this ultimate opportunist attempts to survive against the odds, including by brazenly withholding information from Vader in order to stop him killing her, is pretty impressive, and it makes for some great reading. Shadows and Secrets also contains one of the first deeper looks at Aphra’s internal character. During the sequence I mentioned above with the mortician, she gives a lengthy monologue about the death of her mother and how it has affected her. This was a heavy scene, and while she tries to play it off as not being very important, you can see that it has impacted her, turning her into a much more cynical and self-reliant person who has no room for idealism or blind belief. The significance of this scene is also quite crucial when you consider that much of what she said is later shown in the Doctor Aphra spinoff series and ends up becoming a defining part of her character. I also like how the noticeable changes that the creative team have inserted into Aphra’s personality when she deals with Vader. For most of the volume, Aphra comes across as an ultraconfident being who is able to manipulate and control bounty hunters, murderers and crime lords with ease. However, whenever Vader appears, there is a noticeable change in her bearing and personality, which isn’t too surprising as Aphra knows Vader is going to kill her one day.

I also have to point out how much fun the two murder droids Triple Zero and BT-1 continued to be in this novel. Essentially perverted versions of C-3PO and R2-D2, Triple Zero and BT-1 are remorseless killers who delight in murdering or torturing all organic life. These two add an insane element of humour to the entire series, and they have a number of great moments in Shadows and Secrets. Watching the two of them delight in all sorts of murder and mayhem is all sorts of fun, and you’ve got to love the weird and friendly relationship the two of them have formed with each other.

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One of the best highlights of this second volume is the amazing artwork. The artistic team, helmed by Salvador Larroca, did another fantastic job bringing the amazing story contained within Shadows and Secrets to life on the page. There are so many vibrant and imaginative panels in this volume, and the volume’s artistic team produce some amazing pieces of art that showcase the wider Star Wars universe. One of the things that continues to impressive me about this series is the way that the artistic team are able to convey so much emotion from the faceless main protagonist. Despite only ever seeing Vader’s expressionless and iconic mask, I found that I was constantly able to glean the true emotions that Vader was surely feeling at the time when I looked at him, ranging from cold menace, surprise, frustration to deeper emotions, such as sadness when Amidala is mentioned. There are some truly amazingly drawn scenes throughout this entire volume, although there are two that I would bring particular attention to. The first is the very first scene in Issue #7, which shows Vader standing out the front of the Lars Homestead, staring at Tatooine’s twin suns as they set. I absolutely loved how this drawing matched the iconic scene from A New Hope where Luke stared off in the same position, and I really appreciated the symmetry. The other piece of art that really stood out to me was a quick sequence that appeared a little later in the volume within Issue #8. In this scene, Aphra has just confidently dealt with one of the bounty hunters in her employ and is looking off in the distance speaking to someone. As she talks, Vader slowly materialises out the shadows behind her, responding to her comments. Despite the fact that Aphra’s expression does not change at all there is a notable shift in the tone of the panel when Vader appears, and you cannot help but feel the threat and menace that he exudes. This was some impressive artwork, which helped to really increase how much I loved this comic.

The second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets, is a first-rate comic book that once again shows off how impressive Star Wars comics can really be. Gillen and Larroca did an incredible job following up the first volume of this epic series and I really enjoyed the complex and fun story that this second volume contained, especially when it was backed up by great characters and exceptional artwork. This is a superb addition to the series that is really worth checking out.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood by Robert Fabbri

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Hardcover – 3 December 2019)

Series: Crossroads Brotherhood – Collected Edition

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

From the mind of one of the most entertaining authors of historical fiction, Robert Fabbri, comes Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood, a superb collection of fun and exciting short stories set in the same universe as Fabbri’s bestselling Vespasian series.

Over the last couple of years, Fabbri’s Vespasian series has been one of my absolute favourite historical fiction series out there, so much so that Fabbri is now one of those authors whose works I will automatically buy, no questions asked. The Vespasian books, which ran between 2011 and 2019, examined the life story of the titular character, Vespasian, and showed the events that eventually led to him becoming emperor of Rome. Fabbri utilised a mixture of historical facts and a number of fictionalised potential adventures to tell an entertaining story which also mixed in some of the wildest and most over-the-top recorded tales of ancient Rome and its Emperors. This series featured a huge cast of figures from Roman history and it also made use of several fictional characters of Fabbri’s own design to move the story along. While the books featured several great fictional characters, the most significant of these was Magnus.

Marcus Salvius Magnus, mostly referred to as Magnus in the series, was Vespasian’s best friend, confidant and fixer throughout the series and was at his side for most of the wild adventures Vespasian found himself on. Magnus was the leader of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood, one of the major criminal gangs in ancient Rome, but he also worked for his patron, Vespasian’s uncle, Gaius Vespasius Pollo, and helped him and his nephews rise politically. Magnus appeared in all nine Vespasian books and was a major part of the series. Fabbri evidently enjoyed featuring him in his stories as he was also used as the protagonist of the Crossroads Brotherhood series of novellas, which featured six separate novellas released between 2011 and 2018.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is the first full collection of the six Crossroads Brotherhood novellas, which follow the adventures of Magnus and his brethren as they navigate the dangerous criminal underbelly of ancient Rome. Set out in chronological order across several points in the Vespasian series (which was set over the course of 40-plus years), these various short stories each feature a different criminal enterprise, including fixing a chariot race, manipulating an arms dealer, and property speculation, all whilst trying to stay on top of the city’s rival criminal organisations and surviving the crazy whims of Rome’s rulers.

This was a fun and exciting book that I really enjoyed, and I am exceptionally glad that I was able to read all these great novellas inside a single book. Fabbri has produced some truly entertaining tales which not only tie in with and close up some gaps in the Vespasian series but also provide a much more in-depth look at one of the series’ more amusing characters and the criminal undertakings he was getting up to in ancient Rome.

The featured novellas were a lot of fun to read, and I really liked the clever and fast-paced stories contained within them. Fabbri did an exceptional job of using the short story format to introduce and conclude a compelling tale as this book features some absolute rippers, each of which is around 60 pages long. The author has come up with some very intriguing scenarios for each of these short stories, all of which follow Magnus as he embarks on a new scheme or implements elaborate and at times brutal plans to gain power and wealth and address some form of threat to his criminal organisation. The sheer variety of criminal enterprises that Fabbri came up with is very impressive, and I enjoyed seeing how the author imagined Roman politics and crime would have intersected. I also liked how some of the crimes that the protagonists engaged in had a more modern flair to them, such as engaging in the lucrative opium trade. Out of all of these short stories, I think my favourite was the second one featured in this book, The Racing Factions. The Racing Factions followed Magnus as he attempted to fix a chariot race, to not only make himself and his associates a lot of money but also get revenge on a crooked bookie who foolishly tried to cheat Magnus out of his winnings. This story was filled with all manner of double-crosses, plotting, manipulations and intrigue, as Magnus put all the pieces into place for his revenge, resulting in a chaotic and entertaining story that can be quickly read in a short period of time. While The Racing Factions was my favourite short story, there were honestly no weak links in this book, and I loved every novella that was included, especially as I was able to easily read their entire stories in a single session each.

While each of the novellas can easily be enjoyed as standalone stories, there are some real benefits to reading all of them within this collected edition. The main advantage is that the reader gets to see each of the stories progress in chronological order over the course of many years. This allows us to see how Magnus slowly evolves over the years, becoming more devious as he ages, and it is interesting to see what happens to the various side characters in the novellas. While some of Magnus’s companions age with their leader and seem ready to retire with him, you also get to see the rise of Magnus’s successor, Tigran. Tigran is introduced in the first novel as a street urchin, and he rises up the ranks each story, eventually becoming a viable contender for Magnus’s throne. The slowly building tension between Magnus and the ambitious Tigran is quite intriguing, and it makes for a really fun confrontation in the final book. I also liked how having all the novellas in one place allowed Fabbri to showcase the continued street war between the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood and their rivals the West Viminal Brethren. The West Viminal Brethren make several plays for Magnus’s interests throughout the course of the books, and many of the criminal plans featured where Magnus’s destructive retaliation, which caused some real trouble for the West Viminal Brethren and their leader.

While the character of Vespasian only briefly appears in a couple of stories within Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood, this book has some major connections to the Vespasian series. While each of these novellas has their own self-contained adventures, one of the main reasons they were written was to help fill in the gaps between the various Vespasian books. As a result, some of the novellas provide background on how Vespasian or his brother came to be in some key position of power or unique place at the start of certain books within the series. There were also some examinations of how Magnus was able to readily come up with key ideas that were later used in the main books, such as how he came up with a certain inventive murder technique that was necessary to eventually eliminate one of Vespasian’s opponents. These novellas also helped explain the reasons why Magnus was often away from Rome in the company of Vespasian rather than staying in the city running his criminal brotherhood. Through short introductions that appear in front of each novella featured in this book, Fabbri explains the context of each of these and details what gaps he was trying to fill. This of course means that Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is going to hold a lot more appeal to those readers who are already familiar with the Vespasian series, especially as they will have a much better appreciation for each of these novella’s backgrounds. That being said, no knowledge of any of the Vespasian books is really required to enjoy the fun stories contained within this collected edition, and Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood would actually be a fantastic introduction to Fabbri’s excellent historical fiction series.

I quite enjoyed the intriguing snapshots of ancient Rome that Fabbri included in each of the novellas. There are some truly fascinating aspects of Roman life explored in this book, from the popularity of the chariot races for all levels of society, the various forms of law enforcement patrolling the streets, the role criminal organisations may have played and many other cool historical elements. I personally really liked how most of the stories were centred on some form of ancient Roman festival or celebration. There are some obscure and weird festivals occurring here, from one celebration that sees organised mobs from the various neighbourhoods fight over the head of a sacrificed horse, to another festival where the Rome’s dogs are brutally punished for failing to stop an ancient invasion of the city. These prove to be distinctive and interesting backdrops for several of the stories, especially as the protagonist uses several elements of these celebrations in his schemes, in often entertaining ways. As a result, this is a great read for fans of ancient Roman fiction, and I guarantee you will find some intriguing and entertaining portrays of Roman culture and society in this book.

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood is a fantastic new addition from the amazing Robert Fabbri, which proved to be an exceedingly entertaining book. I really loved being able to read all of these excellent novellas in one place and I deeply enjoyed every one of their exciting and captivating stories. This is a perfect companion piece to Fabbri’s outstanding Vespasian series, and there is quite a lot to love about this collection of fun novellas. Compelling pieces of fiction like this is one of the main reasons why Fabbri is one of my favourite historical fiction authors at the moment, and I cannot wait to get my hands on his upcoming book, To the Strongest.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

Legacy of Ash Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: Legacy trilogy – Book 1

Length: 768 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive new author Matthew Ward comes Legacy of Ash, a massive and entertaining new fantasy adventure that was amongst one of my favourite debut novels of 2019.

Legacy of Ash is set within the Tressian Republic, a powerful nation controlled by a council of nobles. The Tressian Republic is beset by many dangers, including the constant threat of invasion from the massive Hadari Empire on its border; open rebellion from the nation’s southernmost lands, the Southshires, which have been seeking independence for years; and the machinations of the dark magic-wielding criminal organisation known as the Crowmarket.

When the Hadari Empire invades the Southshires, the political ambitions and old grudges of the Tressian Council results in a muted military response. It falls to Viktor Akadra, the champion of the Tressian Republic, to lead a small force to the Southshires in order to make a stand against the invaders. However, Viktor is the last person the inhabitants of the Southshires want defending them, as years before he brutally put down their last rebellion, which resulted in the death of their beloved Duchess Katya Trelan.

In order to defeat the Hadari Empire, Viktor needs to work with the children of Katya Trelan, Josiri and Calenne, both of whom hate and fear him, and who both have different plans to ensure their future freedom. However, as fate, self-interest and the future of the Southshires forces them together, these three must find a common ground if they are to survive. But even if they manage to face the forces of the Hadari Empire, far darker threats are assailing the Tressian Republic from within and they will stop at nothing to achieve their terrible goals.

Ward is an interesting new author who is probably best known for his work with Games Workshop, where he served as a principal architect for the company on many of their properties, including Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and their The Lord of the Rings range. However, in recent years he has turned his hand to fantasy writing, creating several novellas and short stories, as well as releasing two ebooks, Shadow of the Raven and Light of the Radiant. Legacy of Ash is Ward’s first printed novel, and it is actually set in the same universe as his previous ebooks. It is also the first book in his planned Legacy trilogy, with the second book in the trilogy, Legacy of Steel, set for release later this year.

Legacy of Ash is an excellent new read which contains an exciting and elaborate story, set in a large and creative new world and featuring a substantial group of point-of-view characters. I have actually been looking forward to Legacy of Ash for a while, as it sounded like one of the more exciting new fantasy books that were set for release in 2019, and I am very glad I got a chance to read and review it. However, readers should probably be aware in advance that this book is nearly 800 pages in length, making it a pretty substantial read, and requiring a significant investment of time in finishing it off. This took me a couple of weeks to read in full, mainly because Legacy of Ash would actually come in at number 12 on my recent Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list. That being said, Legacy of Ash is well worth the time, as this was an amazing and fascinating new fantasy adventure.

Ward has come up with a large and impressive story for his first book, and there is a lot going on within it. The story actually splits up into two separate locations within the Tressian Republic, with half of it set down in the Southshires and the other half set up in the capital of the Republic, Tressia (with small parts also set in a couple of locations in between or within the Hadari Empire). The parts of the book set down in the Southshires deal with the impending invasion of the Hadari, the repression of the Southshire inhabitants by the Tressian council and the attempts by Viktor to work with both of the Trelan siblings. At the same time, the parts of the book set up in Tressia contains a lot of political intrigue, criminal undertakings, dark magical plans and gambits for control of the nation. Both sets of storylines are a lot of fun, and it was really amazing to see all the various story elements occurring at the same time in the different locations. In addition, these two storylines are strongly related to each other, with events happening in one location impacting characters down in the other part of the Republic. All of these story elements and character arcs come together to form an extremely compelling overarching narrative and I quite enjoyed how Legacy of Ash contained such a wide range of different plot points.

Legacy of Ash is populated with a multiple point-of-view characters from whose eyes we see this whole massive story unfold. The use of all these characters allows for a much richer and expansive story, especially as you get to see every side of all various character’s plots and plans as everyone attempts to come out on top of the events unfolding around them. In addition, nearly all of the point-of-view characters have some incredibly captivating and enjoyable character arcs, many of which reach their full potential within this book. There are such an interesting range of different character based stories going on throughout Legacy of Ash, from the mysterious divine magic that starts to infect the honourable knight Roslava Orova, the machinations and manipulations of Ebigail Kiradin, the chaotic adventures of Crowmarket member Apara Rann and the fun friendship that forms between old opponents Kurkas and Halvor. However, the main elements of character development occur around the book’s three central characters, Viktor Akadra, Josiri Trelan and Calenne Trelan. Due to history, resentments and circumstances, these three characters start the book with fairly distant or hostile relationships to each other. However, these barriers are slowly broken down as the book progresses, and each of these main characters slowly works to come to terms with each other and their own individual issues, such as Viktor’s hidden dark magic, or the expectations or resentments that surround Trelan siblings thanks to their long-dead mother. Overall, this is some fairly impressive character work, and Ward did an excellent job creating a fantastic cast for this novel, each of whom add a whole lot to book’s story.

While I did enjoy how this novel progressed and all the interesting story points and character inclusions that were featured, I do feel it was a perhaps a little too long. In particular, I really think that Ward would have been better off not featuring the book’s final antagonist (a long-dead magical queen), who starts to appear around two thirds of the way through the book. Instead, the author could have perhaps only hinted at her return and shaved off most of the final 100 pages. Not only would this make Legacy of Ash a bit more of a manageable read, but it would have allowed the author to expand on this antagonist’s motivations and history a lot more in the subsequent book, rather than having her introduction be somewhat rushed, like it was in this book. Still, the inclusion of this final antagonist led to some rather intriguing and emotional moments, and it also sets up some potentially fantastic story arcs for one of the main characters in the next book in the series.

I also need to say how impressed with the massive and complex new fantasy landscape that Ward created for his debut series. Ward has come up with a number of unique and enjoyable elements for this fantasy world, which really add a lot to the story. The central location of the Tressian Republic was a lot of fun, as it is filled with all manner of perils, conflicting ideals, fermenting hatreds and a hidden death-worshipping criminal organisation, while also featuring a number of external or divine groups or threats at the same time. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all of these unique elements throughout the book, and I was never too lost or confused by any of the inclusions.

I also really enjoyed the huge number of battle sequences that took place throughout this harsh fantasy landscape, especially those which were enhanced by the series’ unique fantasy inclusions. For example, one massive sequence featured two armies, one with magical constructs and the other with armoured rhinos, facing off against each other as strange and divine magics rain down chaos all around them. Other scenes include a number of different characters attempting to combat the eldritch-enhanced assassins of the mysterious Crowmarket, often resulting in some really impressive battles. I also liked how Ward utilised the multiple point-of-view characters during some of these longer conflicts, ensuring that the reader got to see both sides of the battle, as well as the various thoughts and fears of the characters involved. All of this ensured that the book was chocked full of intense and exciting fantasy action, which is always a plus in my book.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward was an extremely well-written and addictive fantasy debut, which I am very glad I made the effort to read cover-to-cover. Full of some excellent characters, a multi-faceted story and an intriguing new fantasy landscape, the first book in the Legacy trilogy was a really great read, and I had a lot of fun getting through it. Ward has a lot of potential as a fantasy author, and I am quite excited to see where this series goes next.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno

Star Wars Tarkin Cover.jpg

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 November 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 9 hour and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

In this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out an amazing and compelling Star Wars tie-in novel that focuses on a fascinating character from the franchise, with Star Wars: Tarkin, written by veteran tie-in author James Luceno.

Since early 2014, Disney has done an excellent job installing a new and distinctive expanded universe for the Star Wars franchise. This new expanded universe, which supplanted the existing expanded universe (which is now known as Star Wars Legends), has featured some amazing books which I have been really getting into in the last couple of years. I have read a lot of Star Wars books in 2019 and not only have I tried to stay abreast of the latest releases (for example, the latest Star Wars novel, Resistance Reborn) but I have also been checking out some of the older novels in the franchise (such as Thrawn and Death Troopers).

Tarkin was released in late 2014 and was one of the first non-movie novelisations or young reader Star Wars novels that were released in this new canon. Tarkin was written by James Luceno, an author with a huge number of Star Wars tie-in novels from the Legends canon already under his belt, such as the intriguing-sounding Darth Plagueis. I had heard good things about this book, and I was curious to see how Luceno would alter the character of Grand Moff Tarkin.

To those familiar with the Galactic Empire, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin is a legendary figure. A former admiral, adjutant general, planetary governor and war hero of the Clone Wars, Tarkin was one of the Emperor’s most dedicated and capable servants. Determined to enforce the Empire’s authority throughout the galaxy by any means necessary, Tarkin was renowned for his merciless nature and his ability to out-think any opponent on the battlefield or in the political arena. But where did this nature come from: his past as a solider or as a politician, or are there powerful lessons in Tarkin’s upbringing that constantly drive him forward?

Five years after the end of the Clone Wars, Governor Tarkin holds the rank of Imperial Moff and is tasked with overseeing one of the Empire’s most sensitive and covert projects, the construction of a massive mobile battle station which the Emperor believes will become the ultimate symbol of Imperial power in the galaxy. Determined to bring order to the post Clone War chaos, Tarkin finds his plans for the construction of the station stalled when a mysterious ship launches an innovative attack against one of his bases. In the aftermath of this attack, Tarkin is ordered to work with Darth Vader to determine who orchestrated this incursion and deal with them.

Travelling to an isolated planet, Tarkin and Vader begin their investigation into the rebellious activity plaguing that area of the Empire. But when their opponents manage to out-manoeuvre them, Tarkin must call upon all of his experiences, including as a young hunter on his home planet of Eriadu, to stop them. However, even the lessons of his past may not be enough, as his new foes are as smart and determined as Tarkin and Vader and are willing to do anything to achieve their revenge on the Empire.

Tarkin was a smart and exciting Star Wars tie-in novel that did a fantastic job exploring the life of one of the franchise’s most complex characters. I had a great time listening to this book, and it is one of the better Star Wars novels that I have enjoyed this year. I really liked the deep dive into the history and mind of Tarkin, especially as the author wraps a compelling and multi-layered narrative around the character’s story. As a result, the novel gets four and a half stars from me and was a really good read.

This story is an interesting combination of an adventure that occurred five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith (roughly 14 years before the events of A New Hope), and a series of tales from various points in Tarkin’s earlier life. Grand Moff Tarkin has always been a fascinating Star Wars character to me; despite his lack of force abilities, he appeared to wield nearly as much power as the Emperor and was even able to command Darth Vader. This book does a wonderful job of not only showing how he was able to obtain so much power within the Empire but also exploring all of the formulative events of this character’s life that made him into the man capable of achieving so much. I personally think that this was a great combination of character narratives which come together extremely well, and I think that Luceno did a fantastic job getting to the root of Tarkin’s psyche and personality.

Despite it being the shorter part of the book, I personally enjoyed the various chapters that explore various moments of Tarkin’s past the most. In particular, I thought that the author’s examination of his training as a hunter to be a truly fascinating basis for the character’s tactical ability. The various scenes depicting him hunting the large beasts of his home planet are pretty cool, and it was really interesting to see the way that he utilised lessons from hunting creatures in his later careers. For example, he is trained to instil fear into all the beasts he encounters in order to establish dominance above them and to show them the consequences of acting in way he dislikes. A later scene in the book shows him using this training to successfully end a pirate menace in a very harsh and final manner, and it also explains why he considered blowing up a planet to be a viable fear tactic against rebels. In addition to its impact on future Star Wars stories, Tarkin’s early training and hunting background are utilised to great effect throughout the entirety of Tarkin, and it was great to see how it impacts on Tarkin’s thought process and planning. I also really liked how the focus on the hunt comes full circle, as the author works in a fun confrontation back at the Tarkin hunting grounds with the main antagonist of the book that I absolutely loved and which was a fantastic conclusion to the whole story. This hunting aspect was an exceptional addition to this canon’s depiction of Tarkin, and I like how other authors have expanded on it in other pieces of Star Wars expanded fiction. For example, the third volume of Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith features Tarkin using his hunting abilities against Vader in a contest of wills.

In addition to this new origin for Tarkin’s tactical ability and mental acuity, I also enjoyed the various flashbacks to his history before and during the events of the Clone War. Luceno comes up with some great storylines that show off, for example, when Tarkin first gained the attention of the Emperor, or his thoughts on the various events that occurred during the course of the prequel movies. It was fun getting his theories on the causes of the Clone Wars or the formation of the Empire, especially as he is pretty close to the mark every time. I also liked that Luceno worked a confrontation between Tarkin and Count Dooku into one of the flashbacks, which shows why Tarkin remained loyal to the Republic during the course of the Clone Wars. All of these examinations of the character’s past, especially in the context of several key events in Star Wars history, was really fascinating and proved to be a fantastic part of the book.

While I did enjoy the examination of the character’s past, the main story itself is also compelling, as it shows the events that led to Tarkin becoming the very first Grand Moff. These parts of the book are a lot of fun and feature a unique and personal hunt for the protagonist which ties in well with the journeys to his past. I also quite enjoyed the fun team-up between Tarkin and Darth Vader, who assists him to complete his mission. Tarkin and Vader form a very effective team in this book, and it was interesting to examine the relationship between them and the mutual respect that grew between them. It was also cool to find out that Tarkin was one of the few people in the whole Empire who guessed that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were the same person (the only other Imperial character who apparently guessed that was Grand Admiral Thrawn). This section of the book also features some intriguing looks at the early stages of the Empire, and I personally liked the examination of Imperial politics, the intelligence agencies and the ruling style of the Emperor. I also really liked the idealistic opponents that Tarkin faced off against, mainly because their leader becomes more and more aggressive the longer the fight against the Empire goes, until he starts to lack the moral high ground in this conflict.

While I really enjoyed the team-up between Tarkin and Vader, I do wonder if the author perhaps featured Vader and the Emperor a little more than he should have. Do not get me wrong, I absolutely love Darth Vader as a character and I have deeply enjoyed a number of extended universe comics or books that have featured him (such as the Darth Vader and Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, or the Dark Visions limited series). However, I think that a book called Tarkin should have focused a lot more on the exploits of the titular character and shown how he dealt with the unique problems presented in the plot on his own. Instead, he received a fair bit of help from Vader and the Emperor, which kind of undermined the book’s message that he was an unsurpassed strategist and hunter. The author might have been better off only featuring a small amount of the Emperor in this novel, and perhaps introducing Vader in a later Tarkin novel, much like Timothy Zahn did with Thrawn: Alliances. Still, it was a fantastic book, and I am never going to seriously complain about too much Darth Vader.

Tarkin proved to be a really interesting book in the current Star Wars canon, and one that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. That being said, I would say that no real knowledge of the Star Wars extended universe is required to understand the plot of the book. While it does reflect on some of the events of The Clone Wars animated series, particularly the handful of episodes that a young Tarkin appeared in, there is no urgent need to go out and watch these episodes first, as they are more passing references. It is also important to note that this book was released back in 2014, two years before the release of Rogue One. As a result, it lacks the inclusion of Director Krennic as a rival for Tarkin, which is something most of the tie-in media released after 2016 features.

Like many of the Star Wars novels I have enjoyed in the past, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Tarkin rather than read a physical copy. The Tarkin audiobook was narrated by Euan Morton and runs for roughly 9½ hours in length. I found myself absolutely breezing through the Tarkin audiobook, and I was able to listen to all of it in a few short days, as I become enthralled in the awesome story. Star Wars audiobooks are always a fun production to check out thanks to their use of the iconic music and sound effects from the movies. Tarkin also makes great use of a number of the classic scores from the movies to enhance the various scenes, most notably The Imperial March, which is used a number of times when members of the Empire are being particularly ruthless or authoritarian. I also really liked the use of the various Star Wars sound effects, such as the sound of blaster fire, spaceship engines and even the iconic sounds of Darth Vader breathing, all of which are used to help set the appropriate atmosphere for the scene. While some of the Star Wars audiobooks greatly overused these sound effects and music scores, I think that the Tarkin audiobook had the just the right amount of these elements. At no point did the music or sounds overwhelm the narration nor distract the reader from the plot; instead they did a wonderful job of helping the reader stay glued to the story.

In addition to the excellent use of Star Wars music and sound effects, Tarkin also featured a fantastic narrator in the form of Euan Morton. Morton does a commendable job of imitating the voice of the titular character and helps bring the stern, intelligent and ruthless character to life with his voice work. In addition, Morton was also able to do good imitations of several other notable Star Wars characters, including the Emperor and Darth Vader. I felt that Morton produced a good replication of their voices, and the listener is instantly able to figure out who is talking. I also liked some of the voices that Morton came up with for the various supporting characters that featured in the book, and I was impressed with the voices he attributed to some of the different alien species that were encountered. I particularly enjoyed his Mon Calamari voice, for example, and felt that he was able to add some distinguishing vocals to each of these different species. Based on this strong narration, as well as the great musical and sound inclusions, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of this Star Wars book, and I know that I intend to check out more of this franchise’s audiobooks.

Tarkin was an outstanding piece of Star Wars tie-in fiction that I personally really enjoyed. Not only did it contain a compelling and exciting story in the early days of the Empire but it also did a wonderful job exploring the background of one of the franchises most fascinating characters. I had an amazing time learning more about Grand Moff Tarkin, and I am slightly disappointed that there have not been any more Tarkin-centric novels released since 2014. As a result, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a good Star Wars tie-in novel, and I would also recommend the excellent audiobook format.

While the next Star Wars novel I read is going to be Force Collector, I am always considering what older Star Wars book to listen to in the future. I am currently weighing up between this canon’s Lords of the Sith (the Emperor and Darth Vader trapped on a planet being hunted by rebels) or the Star Wars Legends book Scoundrels (a heist novel written by Timothy Zahn). Both sound like a lot of fun, and I will probably end up listening to them both in the very near future.

Lethal Agent by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Lethal Agent Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 24 September 2019)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 18

Length: 9 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a thriller rife with action, political intrigue and a killer plot with the latest book in the long-running Mitch Rapp series, Lethal Agent.

Lethal Agent is the 18th book in the Mitch Rapp series, which started back in 1999 with Transfer of Power. Initially written by Vince Flynn, since 2015 the series has been written by thriller author Kyle Mills following Flynn’s passing in 2013. I started reading the Mitch Rapp series last year, when I picked up a copy of the 17th book in the series, Red War, mainly because it had a really fascinating plot featuring a dying president of Russia going to war with the rest of the world. I ended up really enjoying Red War and I have gone out of my way to check out more military thrillers since then (this year’s Red Metal and Treason for example). In Lethal Agent, Mills takes the series back to its anti-terrorist thriller roots, as the series’ titular character, Mitch Rapp, goes up against a deadly terrorist while also having to navigate the toxic minefield that is modern American politics.

For years, legendary CIA operative Mitch Rapp has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of America’s enemies, including numerous terrorists, fanatics, criminals and operatives of hostile foreign powers. Among those he believed he killed was the intelligent and dangerous leader of ISIS, Sayid Halabi. However, Halabi secretly managed to escape Rapp’s last attempt to kill him, and has been plotting in the shadows ever since, determined to find a way to strike back at Rapp and America.

Hiding out in Yemen, Halabi is able to capture a brilliant French microbiologist who has been working on a cure for a rare and deadly respiratory disease. Using the microbiologist to make anthrax, Halabi embarks on a campaign of terror, producing slick propaganda videos to create tension and panic within the United States. However, his real plan is to create a deadly bioweapon that will wipe out large swathes of the world’s population.

Rapp is determined to hunt Halabi down and end him once and for all, but he finds himself unable to act thanks to one enemy even he cannot defeat; politics. The upcoming battle for the presidency has become extremely ugly, and the leading candidate, Christine Barnett, is using Amercia’s fear of Halabi to make the current administration and the CIA look incompetent. She also has Rapp and his boss, Irene Kennedy, in her sights, and is determined to make them suffer for defying her. Hamstrung by the political atmosphere and no longer able to make an official move, Rapp is forced to go rogue and infiltrate a dangerous Mexican cartel who have been smuggling Halabi’s anthrax and operatives into the US. However, as Rapp moves closer to finding Halabi’s location and determining the nature of the bioweapon heading towards the states, he must deal with the fallout from Barnett’s political manoeuvring, which could end his life.

This latest book in the Mitch Rapp series is another fantastic and exhilarating read that I had a wonderful time listening to. Lethal Agent contains a thrilling, fast-paced story that goes in some fun directions, such as Rapp’s violent but effective infiltration of a Mexican drug cartel. The author does an excellent job of mixing this compelling story with fast-paced action and some clever and depressingly realistic political intrigue to create an enjoyable read that did a great job of keeping my attention until the very end. While there are some strong connections to a previous novel in this series, Lethal Agent can easily be read as a standalone novel, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an exciting read.

I have to say that I was impressed by Mills’s use of several point-of-view characters to tell the overall narrative of this story. While a large amount of the plot is told from the perspective of protagonist Mitch Rapp, a lot of it is also shown through the eyes of several other characters. Even though the viewpoints of Rapp, Rapp’s allies and some of the minor characters are quite fun or interesting, I personally loved the scenes shown from the perspective of the book’s various antagonists. This includes showcasing the twisted and self-serving political agenda of presidential hopeful Christine Barnett, whose attempts to take the Oval Office through fearmongering and attacks on the country’s intelligence agencies has some interesting impacts on the hunt for Rapp’s terrorist targets. I also enjoyed seeing a few scenes from the perspective of the Cartel boss Rapp is trying to get close to, and there are some great sequences where the usually confident gangster begins to realise how out of his depth he is with an operator like Rapp.

However, I thought that the chapters shown from the perspective of the book’s main antagonist, Sayid Halabi, were some of the best parts of the whole book. Halabi is an enemy of Rapp who was thought to have been killed in Enemy of the State, although the prologue of Lethal Agent shows how he managed to stay alive. Various chapters of this book are shown from Halabi’s point of view as he attempts to find a way to defeat Rapp and America, and they serve as a thrilling counterpart to the protagonist’s subsequent hunt for him. I thought it was fascinating to see the various ways that Halabi was plotting to attack America in these chapters, especially as at times he uses fear and propaganda to scare the country into immobility, rather than launch an actual attack. It was also a little disturbing to see this terrorist mastermind attempt to manipulate America’s political system by deliberately fuelling an incompetent politician’s fear mongering strategy. The use of this split perspective format really helped create a compelling novel, and Mills did a wonderful job coming up with some great antagonists for this book.

While all the espionage and spy thriller aspects of the book are extremely compelling and entertaining, the parts of the book that I found most intriguing were the various sections of political intrigue. Mills does an incredible job imitating the politics of modern-day America in his book and showing off how destructive and noxious the current political system is, especially for those people who want to become president. The focus on a politician being more concerned with their ambitions than the safety of the country, and who is willing to hamper or ignore the concerns of intelligence agencies for their own ends is something that many people can relate to at the moment. The inclusion of fearmongering as a politician’s central political tactic is also something that can be seen in the real world, and I felt that Mills had a really good depiction of it in this book, showcasing how effective it can be, and how it can impact people. While I am sure that readers from both sides of the political spectrum will be able to see politicians they despise in the character of Christine Barnett, I think that Mills was more taking aim at the rot that is infecting the entire political system rather than a particular individual. Palpable weariness seems to come out of the page whenever the book starts to talk about the modern politics in America, and a number of characters are obviously starting to become exhausted with the entire circus. The story also contains a lot of criticism towards the politics that is reducing the effectiveness of America’s intelligence community, and the story examines the potential damage that such politics could have on the country’s safety. All of this makes for an extremely intriguing inclusion into the book, which can be fascinating, aggravating and depressing all at the same time.

As you would expect from a Mitch Rapp thriller novel, Lethal Agent is chock full of enough violence and thrills to keep any action junkie sated. Rapp, a highly feared and skilled killer, tears through a ton of enemies in this book, mostly without receiving a single scratch in return. While the near-invincible action protagonist is a little played out, I did quite enjoy the various ways he showed off his skills and abilities in this book. The sequences where he systematically takes out the cartel forces are really entertaining, and I had a good laugh at a scene where he picks a lock on a cage with the fibula of one of his jailers. There is also a pretty awesome set-piece at the end of the book, which features a mass of vehicular carnage as Rapp tries to stop a terrorist attack. I did think that the sequence when he is forced to knock out coked-up facsimiles of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez was a little weird. I understand showing two exceedingly influential but dysfunctional celebrities go insane in the same scene where the old-school Rapp reflects on the current state of America, but it was still a somewhat odd inclusion. Overall, though, if you are a fan of action-packed thrillers, then you are going to enjoy Lethal Agent.

While I enjoyed reading a physical version of Red War last year, I chose to listen to Lethal Agent on audiobook instead. This format of Lethal Agent runs for around nine hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by legendary audiobook narrator George Guidall. Despite the fact that Guidall has narrated over a thousand audiobooks in his career, this was actually the first piece of his work that I have experienced. Guidall has a fantastic voice which works very well for a high-stakes thriller novel. He also does a great job capturing the emotion of the various politicians, and there is some appropriate weariness in his voice when he describes the American political situation. If I had one criticism, it would be that most of the characters sounded very similar to each other, and it was a little hard to distinguish one person from the next. Still, I had a lot of fun listening to this book, and thanks to the intense story and short run-time, it only took me a few days to get through this book.

Lethal Agent is an excellent new addition to the Mitch Rapp series, and I loved some of the cool and intriguing directions that the author took the story. Kyle Mills has been doing a sensational job with the series since he took up the mantle of author, and I am really excited to see what sort of story he comes up with next. This is an excellent book and I would strongly recommend it to any fan of the thriller genre.