How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 18 August 2020)

Series: The Siege – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to laugh like crazy with How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker, an intensely funny and clever fantasy read that was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

Several years after their home fell under a brutal and prolonged siege, the inhabitants of the City have settled into a new way of life.  There may be a vast army camped on the plains outside and the occasional catapult shot may demolish a house or two, but that does not mean that people cannot make some money and get on with their lives.  This includes Notker, an acclaimed actor, skilled lookalike and mediocre playwright, who scrapes a living by impersonating the rich and powerful of the City at parties while trying to get someone to pay him money for his latest play.  However, what Notker does not know is that fame, opportunity, and a rather large boulder are about to land in his lap.

When the City’s greatest hero and nominal leader, Lysimachus, secretly dies, his followers/handlers, desperate to stay in power, recruit Notker to play the role of a lifetime.  Impersonating Lysimachus, Notker continues to act as the city’s figurehead, allowing life to go on, and he even begins to think he has a handle on this simple job, until someone tries to murder him.  Now he finds himself in the midst of a brutal and ongoing power struggle as the various power players in the city attempt to manipulate him for their own ends resulting in him being crowned as Emperor of the entire Robur Empire (or what is left of it).

As Notker attempts to find some sanity within his home, he begins to understand what a fragile position the City is in.  With enemies surrounding them and the besiegers slowly overcoming the City’s defences, Notker needs to choose between making a run for it or trying to save the City.  But what difference can one very good actor make in a war?  If Notker has anything to do with it, everything!

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is another spectacular and extremely entertaining fantasy novel from legendary fantasy writer, K. J. Parker.  Parker, a pseudonym of bestselling author Tom Holt, has written a vast catalogue of books over the years, including a substantial collection of humorous and satirical fantasy novels.  I first really got into Parker’s work last year when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the awesome Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, a very funny novel that focused on a conniving engineer as he thwarted a massive army through guile, tricky and a substantial amount of BS.  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was an amazing read and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2019.  As a result, I have been eagerly keeping an eye out for any additional releases from Parker and was very excited when I saw that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It was coming out.  I was especially intrigued when I learnt that this latest Parker novel was some form of sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, and I was very, very happy when I got my copy of this latest book.

This new novel from Parker proved to be an extraordinary read and it was easily one of the funniest novels of 2020.  The author writes a clever, fast-paced and addictive story that utilises the author’s unique sense of humour to create a very entertaining piece of literature.  This is a very enjoyable read, and fans of Parker’s work will love that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, continuing some of the great storylines from the prior book.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star review from me.

Parker presents another brilliant and witty story for How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It that follows the adventures of another unlucky and jaded protagonist as he tries to survive the chaotic events unfolding around him.  Just like with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, this novel is written purely from the perspective of the protagonist as he chronicles his actions and personal history into a historical text.  This results in a very fast-paced and hilarious story, as the main character bounces from one bad situation to another, encountering plotters, ambitious politicians, angry crime bosses, dangerous invaders and one particular fierce actress who serves as Notker’s leading lady.  I absolutely loved the various outrageous and challenging situations that the protagonist finds himself in, and Parker does a fantastic job presenting them in a humorous way, showing how silly everything is and the various, clever and well-written solutions to these problems.  The entire story goes in some very fun and compelling directions and this ends up being an overall excellent narrative that is extremely well written.  I was able to predict the overall conclusion of the story somewhat in advance, but Parker did an amazing job setting it up and it resulted in a very entertaining and satisfying conclusion.  This was such an amazing story and I had an absolute blast getting through it, laughing my head off the entire time.

As part of this awesome and entertaining story, Parker sets up a whole new protagonist for this novel, Notker the liar.  Notker is another fun protagonist in a similar vein to the main character of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, in that he is a self-serving and opportunistic individual who is mostly looking out for his own wellbeing.  This changes once he takes on the assignment of impersonating the dim-witted but charismatic Lysimachus and soon finds himself responsible for the safety of the city.  While at first he is mostly trying to survive and find a way to escape from all the insanity and backstabbing that is his life, once he becomes more aware of the situation facing the City and the danger it is really in he begins to take on more responsibility, manipulating everyone so that they can start fighting a more effective war.  I really liked seeing this protagonist attempt to take control of the situation surrounding the City, especially as he appears to be one of the only sane people around.  Watching his various incredulous reactions to the problems presented to him and his various solutions, which are a combination of common-sense responses and brilliant but out-there tactics, is really entertaining.  I especially loved how Parker played up the actor/screenwriter aspect of the character as many of his greatest tricks are derived from theatre techniques, such as selling something to a crowd, misdirection or the value of good lighting.  There is also a great underlying aspect to the character as he pretends to be Lysimachus and he needs to strike a balance between responses that Lysimachus would have done and his own common sense and craftiness.  This compulsion to act like Lysimachus actually becomes a major problem for Notker as he enjoys being the heroic former gladiator and soon begins emulating him instead of acting in his usual manner of self-preservation.  All of this results in another complex and likeable central character who the reader cannot help but root for as he attempts to survive.  I really liked how Notker’s story progressed and it was a real joy to read about him from start to finish.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the way in which it acts as a fantastic and humorous follow-up to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled CityHow to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is set in the same city as the author’s 2019 release, and the story begins a few years after the events of this proceeding novel.  This new novel mostly presents a new story, told from the perspective of a different protagonist, but it does have a lot of connections to the previous novel.  The individual Notker is impersonating, Lysimachus, was a side character in the first novel, serving as a bodyguard to the original protagonist.  In this book it is revealed that following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Lysimachus, a champion gladiator and a revered public figure, was given all the credit for the original protagonist’s efforts following his death.  Parker does a fantastic job revealing this to the reader, and it is extremely fitting in the scope of the first novel as this original protagonist was always getting overshadowed and overestimated.  The author makes sure to really drive this point home by completely excluding the name of the previous protagonist throughout How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, just to emphasise how no one in the city truly remembers who he was or what he did, which is pretty darn hilarious.  The novel contains a number of fantastic references to the events that occurred with the previous book, including giving Notker a copy of the previous protagonist’s memoirs (which formed the basis of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City).  Notker of course then provides his own witty two cents to this memoir, providing a writer’s critical analysis, including doubting some of the events that occurred, such as the coincidence around the protagonist being the childhood friend of the mastermind of the siege.  All of this definitely adds a lot to the book’s overall humour, and it is always entertaining to see an author make fun of his own work.

Despite these fun references and the continuation of some story elements from Parker’s previous book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is very much its own novel, taking the reader on a whole new fun adventure.  As a result, you really do not need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first, although it is a lot of fun to see the previous book’s events lampooned in this novel.  Indeed, due to the fact that the protagonist and point-of-view character has no idea of the full events of the previous book, you get a good overview as everything is explained to him, which is fun.  Overall, this serves as a very entertaining sequel to this amazing previous book and I will be interested to see if Parker decides to continue the story in some way, which I have no doubt will be another incredible read.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a truly awesome and enjoyable read, and author K. J. Parker lived up to all my expectations with this book.  Not only does it contain a captivating and addictive narrative anchored by a likeable and complex main character, but it is also intensely funny.  I loved every second that I spent reading How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, and this was without a doubt one of the best books that I have read this year.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

The Bear Pit by S. G. MacLean

The Bear Pit Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 11 July 2019)

Series: Damien Seeker – Book Four

Length: 410 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Back in 2018 I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Destroying Angel, the third book in S. G. MacLean’s Damien Seeker series of historical murder mysteries.  I had an amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I ended up giving a full five-star rating, and I was excited when I heard that a sequel was coming out in 2019.  This sequel, The Bear Pit, had an intriguing premise and sounded like it was going to be quite an awesome read.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read it last year when it first came out, which I have been regretting for some time now.  Luckily, I recently found myself with a little bit of spare reading time, so I finally managed to check this book out.  I am really glad that I did, as The Bear Pit contained a captivating and clever story that sets MacLean’s intense protagonist on the trial of some dedicated killers.

London, 1656.  Oliver Cromwell rules England as the Lord Protector, but not everyone is happy with his reign.  Many believe that his death will end the Puritan state and lead to a return of the monarchy in exile.  In order to bring this about, three men loyal to the crown are currently plotting to kill him.  However, Cromwell is not without his protectors, and his most ardent investigator, the legendary Captain Damien Seeker, is on the case.

Seeker has only recently returned to London after a harrowing investigation in Yorkshire and he is determined to catch the potential assassins before it is too late.  However, Seeker soon finds himself on another case when he discovers the mutilated body of man while conducting a raid on a gaming house.  The victim appears to have been brutally savaged by a bear, yet all the bears in London were shot after bear baiting was declared illegal by Cromwell.  Where did the bear come from and why was it used to commit a murder?

While he continues his hunt for the assassins, Seeker employs his reluctant agent, Thomas Faithly, a former Royalist turned informer, to infiltrate the underground fighting pits in an attempt to find out if any bears remain in the city.  However, as both investigations progress it soon becomes clear that they are connected and that the murder is tied into the assassins hunting Cromwell.  As Seeker attempts to stop them before it is too late, he finds himself facing off against a talented and intelligent foe with great reason to hate Cromwell and everything Seeker stands for.  Can Seeker stop the assassins before it is too late, or has he finally come up against someone even he cannot outthink?

MacLean has come up with another fantastic and compelling historical murder mystery with The Bear Pit.  This book contains an amazing multi-character narrative that combines an intriguing murder mystery storyline with real-life political intrigue and plots, enjoyable characters and a fascinating historical backdrop, all of which comes together into an impressive overall narrative.  Despite being the fourth Damien Seeker book, The Bear Pit is very accessible to readers unfamiliar with the series, and people who are interested in a good historical murder mystery can easy dive into this book without any issues.

At the heart of this novel is an enthralling mystery and intrigue laden storyline that sees Seeker and his companions not only investigating a murder apparently done by a bear, but also trying to unravel a plot to assassinate Cromwell.  This turned into quite an enjoyable and exciting tale that was filled with all manner of twists, surprises, reveals, action-packed fights, disguised antagonists and confused loyalties.  Naturally, the murder and the assassination plot are connected, and the investigations of the protagonist and his compatriots combine together as they attempt to find out who is behind the various crimes and why they were committed.  This proved to be a very captivating storyline, and I really loved the way in which MacLean blended an inventive murder mystery with realistic political intrigue and plots.  There are several clever clues and plenty of foreshadowing throughout the book, and the end result of the mystery was rather clever and somewhat hard to predict.  I really liked how these intriguing storylines turned out, and they helped to make this story particularly addictive and hard to put down.

Another distinctive and enjoyable part of this book is the great characters contained within it.  The main character of The Bear Pit is the series’ titular protagonist Damien Seeker, the moody and serious investigator and loyal solider of Oliver Cromwell.  Seeker is a particularly hardnosed protagonist who inspires all manner of fear and worry in the various people he meets, and it proves to be rather enjoyable to watch him go about his business.  While Seeker is the main character, this novel also follows a substantial cast of characters who end up narrating substantial parts of this book.  Most of these additional point-of-view characters have appeared in previous entries in the series, and it was great to see MacLean reuse them so effectively while also successfully reintroducing them in the context of this book.  Two of the main characters who assist Seeker with his investigation are Thomas Faithly and Lawrence Ingolby, both of whom were introduced in the previous novel, Destroying Angel.  Both characters are rather interesting additions to the novel’s investigative plot, and they serve as a great counterpoint to Seeker due to their youth, their inexperience, and their own way of investigating the crimes.  While Ingolby was a great younger character who looks set to be a major protagonist in the next book in the series, a large amount of the plot revolves around Faithly and his conflicted loyalties.  Faithly is a former exile with strong ties to the royal family, but his desire to return to England sees him make a deal with Seeker to serve Cromwell as a spy.  Despite his desire to remain in England, Faithly finds himself torn between his existing friendships and his new loyalty to Seeker, and this ends up becoming a rather dramatic and compelling part of the book.  Extra drama is introduced thanks to the reappearance of Maria Ellingworth, Seeker’s former love interest.  Both Seeker and Ellingworth have a lot of unresolved feelings with each other, which only become even more confused throughout the course of The Bear Pit when they find themselves in a love triangle with another major character.  This romantic angle, as well as the continued use of his secret daughter, really helps to humanise Seeker, and I enjoyed getting a closer look under Seeker’s usual tough mask.

In addition to the fantastic mystery and intriguing characters, one of the best aspects of The Bear Pit, and indeed the entire Damien Seeker series, is the author’s fascinating look at life in Cromwell’s England.  This is particularly interesting part of England’s history, which saw the implementation of Puritan law across the country, while secret Royalists lay hidden across the country.  This book in particular took a look at what was going on within London, and it was fascinating to see the various aspects of life during the period, from the politics, the hidden loyalties, the impact of day-to-day activities and the removal of previously iconic parts of London life, such as the bear baiting and other blood sports.  MacLean does a really good job of examining these various aspects of life during the Cromwell era and working them into her novels, making them a vital part of the plot as well as a fascinating setting.

One of the most fascinating and impressive historical aspects that MacLean includes in The Bear Pit was the focus on the 1656 plot to kill Oliver Cromwell.  This was a real historical conspiracy that took place throughout London, as three conspirators attempted to kill Cromwell through various means.  The author really dives into the details of the plot throughout this book, and the reader gets a glimpse into the various attempts that were made on Cromwell during this period, as well as the identity and motivations of the three killers.  MacLean even shows several chapters from these killers’ viewpoints, showing all the various preparations they put into each attempt, and then presenting how and why they failed.  I really liked how the author worked these assassination attempts into the main plot of the book, utilising Seeker as a major reason why several of the attempts failed and ensuring that the antagonists were aware of him and considered him the mostly likely person to stop them.  This was a very clever story aspect as a result, and I liked the blend of creative storytelling with historical fact to create an epic and impressive storyline that really stood out.  I also liked MacLean’s compelling inclusion of a major historical Royalist figure as the mastermind of the plot and the main antagonist of the book.  This character has such a distinctive and infamous reputation, and I liked how the author hinted at their arrival and then sprung the surprise towards the end of the book.  This was such a great part of the plot and I look forward to seeing what major historical events MacLean features in the next book in the series.

Overall, The Bear Pit was an outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery that really highlighted S. G. MacLean’s writing ability and creativity.  I really enjoyed the excellent blend of murder and intrigue, set during a fascinating period of England’s history, and the author’s use of great characters and the inclusion of a particularly notable historical occurrence proved to be extremely impressive and resulted in an outstanding read.  As a result, The Bear Pit comes highly recommended by me and I really do regret taking this long to read it.  Luckily, this should ensure that the overall plot of the series is fresh in my mind when I get my hands on the next and final book in the Damien Seeker series, The House of Lamentations, which is out in a couple of weeks.  I have already put in my order for a copy of this upcoming book and I am looking forward to seeing how MacLean finishes off this series, especially after I had such an awesome time reading The Bear Pit.

Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

Demon in White Cover 1

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2020)

Series: Sun Eater Sequence – Book Three

Length: 776 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most impressive new science fiction authors on the block, Christopher Ruocchio, returns with the third incredible novel in his epic Sun Eater series, Demon in White.

Far in the future, most of humanity is part of the Sollan Empire, which controls vast systems of space and countless people within them.  The Sollan Empire has long reigned supreme and unopposed in the galaxy, but now it faces its greatest threat, a protracted war against the vicious alien race known as the Cielcin.  While the Cielcins typically engage in random raids and attacks at the leisure of their various chieftains, now a series of coordinated strikes are crippling the borders of the Empire.  The mastermind of these attacks is a powerful new Cielcin ruler, Syriani Dorayaica, who has managed to forge together a mighty alliance with one purpose, the complete destruction of the Empire and every human within it.

As the Empire struggles to combat this threat, all eyes turn to an unlikely hero, the rogue nobleman, adventurer and former gladiator, Hadrian Marlowe.  Following his infamous exploits across the galaxy, Hadrian has been made a knight in service of the Emperor and now finds himself stationed on the Empire’s capital, Forum.  Thanks to a series of successful campaigns against the Cielcin, Hadrian’s popularity and fame has spread across the Empire and many view him as the best hope to defeat the alien menace.  In addition, rumours of his unnatural survival of a lethal wound from a Cielcin prince and his prophetic visions of the future have created a cult-like following around him, heralding him as a divine saviour of humanity.

However, fame and popularity have a price, and Hadrian must now contend with threatened and jealous lords, politicians, and members of the royal family as they plot to undermine and disgrace him.  After several attempts on his life, Hadrian leaves to pursue his true agenda, research into the mysterious celestial being known as the Quiet, who has been manipulating Hadrian’s life while showing him terrifying glimpses of the future.  Hadrian’s mission will take him to some new and dangerous places throughout the universe, until finally he comes face to face with Syriani Dorayaica, who is determined to destroy Hadrian no matter the cost.  Hadrian’s road to the future seems set, but will he truly become the man who commits the greatest act of slaughter in the galaxy, or does a darker fate lie in store for him?

Now that was one heck of an awesome and expansive piece of science fiction.  Ruocchio has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years ever since he burst onto the scene in 2018 with his debut novel and the first book in his Sun Eater series, Empire of Silence.  I loved this incredible debut and I was especially impressed when he managed to follow it up with an amazing sequel, Howling Dark.  I have had a blast reading Ruocchio’s prior novels, and both of them have been amongst my favourite books of 2018 and 2019 respectfully.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to Demon in White, and Ruocchio certainly did not disappoint as he has produced an outstanding and intensely captivating third entry in this series.

Demon in White is the third act in an expansive and compelling space opera that chronicles the life of Hadrian Marlowe, a man destined to destroy a sun, which will make him both humanity’s greatest hero and its most reviled monster.  The story is told in chronicle form from the perspective of an older Hadrian as he writes the account of his life after the events of this book.  Just like with Howling Dark, the story within Demon in White is set many years after the events of the previous book and details the next major stage of Hadrian’s life.  Ruocchio does an amazing job of reintroducing the readers to his universe and also examining the events that occurred during the gap between the two books (some of which occurred during the 2019 novella, Demons of Arae).  Despite the year-long gap between reading the second and third novels and the substantial amount of detail and information that they contained, I was able to pick up and continue the story without too many issues, quickly remembering who the characters where and what events they had experienced with the protagonist.  I do think that reading the prior two novels in the series first is a must, as I could easily see readers unfamiliar with the Sun Eater books having hard time following the expansive plot of Demon in White at this late stage of the overall story.  Still, this book’s ambitious and exciting narrative might prove enough to keep them going, especially if they make use of the substantial index and character list contained in the rear of the novel.

I really can not speak highly enough of the intense and clever story of Demon in White, as Ruocchio produced an epic and addictive narrative that drew me in and refused to let go.  The author does a fantastic job of bringing together a ton of great elements, including the tale of a doomed protagonist, a galaxy-spanning war, a deep dive into the history of the universe and so much more, into one impressive narrative that I had an absolute blast reading.  One of the things I liked the most about the book was the fact that the first half of the novel is primarily set on the capital planet of the Sollan Empire, essentially a science fiction version of Rome, which results in the protagonist getting involved in all manner of plots and political intrigue.  Due to the protagonist’s popularity with the people, and the rumours that he is unkillable, Hadrian is targeted by politicians, lords, members of the Royal Family, military administrators and the Empires powerful religious organisation, and he has to deal with a number of tricky situations.  I really liked this more intrigue and politics laden part of the story, and it was an interesting change from some of the previous novels.  Ruocchio also dives into some more cosmic and action based inclusions as well and there are some explorations of the universe, examinations of the unknown and a several major and enjoyable battle sequences.  All of this comes together extremely well, and I found myself powering through this 700+ page book to find out how it ended.

Another fantastic part of Demon in White’s story that I really enjoyed was the continued examination of the fascinating and compelling protagonist, Hadrian.  Hadrian is a fantastic and intriguing protagonist for the series, since the reader knows far in advance his story is going to end in fire and death.  The chronicling of his life story that is contained within these novels is always quite enjoyable, especially as the older Hadrian compiling these tales adds in his own spin to the story, ensuring that the novel is filled with his regrets and revelations made in hindsight.  The protagonist also goes through some interesting character development throughout the course of the book.  Not only is he introduced to a number of key figures who will have substantial impacts on his future life but he also starts to come to grips with his eventual destiny.  The younger Hadrian is given some tantalising and terrifying glimpses into the future and he struggles to comprehend his potential fate as a result.

The Hadrian in this book is also a very different character than in the prior novels.  Rather than the idealistic dreamer who hopes to one day make peace with the alien Cielcin, Hadrian is far more mature and battle hardened, especially after the traumatic events at the end of Howling Dark.  This version of Hadrian is convinced that there is no hope of peace with his foe, and he has become more ruthless and determined as a result.  However, despite these revelations, there are still fragments of the old Hadrian scattered throughout the novel, which contrasted well with his newer persona.  The sense of wonder he got at seeing a group of alien auxiliaries was very reminiscent of the Hadrian we saw in the first book, especially as this wonder ended up getting him in trouble.  I also liked the scenes that showed Hadrian trying to come to terms with his own legend, as his deeds and adventures have given rise to a cult-like following, with many people convinced that he is some form of divine champion or immortal being.  This proved to be a fantastic aspect of Hadrian’s character throughout Demon in White, as he does not want this attention or praise, not only because it will result in conflict with the various factions in the Empire but also because he does not want to be anyone’s worshipped hero.  However, many of the events that are focus of this cults worship, such as surviving being beheaded or his visions of the future, are actually true (in a sense), and he ends up having to rely on these abilities to survive the events of this novel, which is going to result in some interesting consequences.

There are also some major and fantastic emotional moments for the protagonist scattered throughout the book, such as when a long-running side character leaves him, or when he encounters a major figure from his past again.  I also enjoyed seeing more of his relationship with his main love interest, Valka, and their unconventional romance has flourished over the centuries that this series has been set.  Valka serves as a fantastic grounding force for Hadrian, and it is quite nice seeing them together, although the reader’s joy at seeing them together is somewhat tempered by the narrator’s hints that something tragic is bound to happen between them.  All of this makes for a very intriguing protagonist, and I have enjoyed seeing him flourish and grow over the course of the first three books, moving towards his eventual destiny.  I look forward to seeing how his story continues in the next novel, especially after the major events that occurred at the end of Demon in White.

I have always been impressed with the detailed and massive science fiction universe in which Ruochhio has set his series, and each of the Sun Eater books have added some new depth and unique features to this overarching setting.  Unlike the prior book, Howling Dark, which was set out in the wilds of space and alien planets, Demon in White returns to the confines of the Sollan Empire, a repressive, technophobic and tradition bound galactic kingdom that is stylistically based on ancient Rome.  I really enjoyed this creative science fiction setting, as it is a very dark and gothic location which clashes well with the mostly good-natured protagonist and narrator.  Demon in White adds a huge amount of detail to this universe, especially as the first two thirds are primarily set on new Imperial worlds, including the capital planet Forum.  As a result, there are a ton of intriguing new details and discussions about the politics, history and administration of the Sollan Empire, as well as the introduction of many significant characters, including the Emperor who Hadrian is destined to kill.  The later part of the book also contains some terrific new detail, and we get a really intriguing view about how this dark Empire was founded, including more details about the war against the machines created by the precursor empire, the Mericannii (Americans).  I really liked some of these dives into the past, especially as Ruocchio does a fantastic job of portraying a historical timeline that has been altered or hidden by war, destruction and political or religious censorship.  As a result, the protagonists believe in a very different version of history, and wildly incorrect discussions about historical events are often quite amusing, especially their ideas about American history.  Ruocchio also provides the clearest view of the origins and nature of the cosmic entity, the Quiet, who has been an overarching influence over the prior two books.  This was a rather intriguing, and at times metaphysical, examination of this being, and some of the revelations in this book, including about the connection the Quiet has with Hadrian, the Sollan Empire and the Cieclin, are rather major, and will have significant impacts in the next few books.  All of this proves to be exceedingly fascinating and I cannot wait to see how the author will expand on this setting in his future novels.

I also really have to highlight some of the incredible action sequences that occurred throughout Demon in White.  While a substantial amount of the plot is dedicated to the political intrigue that the protagonist finds himself involved with, there are some great action sequences in this book, including a major war sequence against the Cieclin in the last quarter of the book.  Ruocchio has done an amazing job building the Cieclin up as a major threat and the various bloody battle sequences against them help to reinforce this.  I particularly enjoyed the great scenes where the protagonist faces off against his foe in tight and confined spaces, such as on a ship or in the depths of a city, and the author ensures that the reader gets to enjoy them in all their claustrophobic glory.  Ruocchio adds to the horror by introducing a new form of antagonists in the form of giant Cieclin warriors who are cyborg hybrids enhanced with Extrasolarian (rogue human scientist) technology.  These terrifying hybrids act as very dangerous opponents for Hadrian and his allies, resulting in some dramatic and high-stakes battles.  Hadrian also gets some new combat abilities in this book, which add some intriguing new elements to the fight scenes and are generally quite fun to check out.  Overall, those readers who are interested in seeing some intense science fiction action will not be disappointed with this book as Demon in White delivers some impressive and memorable fight sequences that really help to get the heart pumping.

In this latest novel, Christopher Ruocchio has delivered another extraordinary and captivating science fiction epic that does a terrific job expanding on his fantastic Sun Eater series.  Demon in White contains an incredible and exciting story that sends its complex protagonist on a series of intriguing adventures throughout this rich and unique science fiction universe.  I had an awesome time reading Demon in White and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  This outstanding book gets a full five-star rating from me and if you are not already reading the Sun Eater series you need to start now!

Demon in White Cover 2

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

The Constant Rabbit Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the insanely creative mind of one of fiction’s cleverest authors, Jasper Fforde, comes The Constant Rabbit, an incredible comedic satire featuring human-sized anthropomorphic rabbits in an alternate version of modern-day England.

Jasper Fforde is an awesome and fantastically inventive author who has a very distinctive and enjoyable writing style.  I have been a fan of Fforde’s work for years, and his Thursday Next books were a favourite series of mine when I was growing up (I should really go back and reread those).  I was also lucky enough to receive a copy of his 2018 standalone novel, Early Riser, which was certainly one of the more unique and entertaining books that I read that year.  While I do love Fforde’s writing, I have to admit that I was initially a little wary when I heard that his new book was going to be about rabbits as I assumed it was going to be a kids’ book.  However, once I realised that it was going to be another crazy adult standalone novel, I made sure to get a copy, especially once I found out it was a satire on UK politics.  I am extremely glad that I got a copy of this book as The Constant Rabbit turned out to be a truly remarkable novel with a complex and enjoyable story.

In the year 2020 there are over a million anthropomorphic rabbits living in the UK thanks to a mysterious event 55 years previously.  These rabbits can walk, talk, think and have developed their own unique culture and society.  While the rabbits on the whole are a polite and peaceful group, many in England, including the ruling United Kingdom Anti-Rabbit Party (UKARP), fear them and are planning to forcibly rehome them to a new Mega-Warren in Wales.  Before the planned rehoming occurs, one rabbit family moves into the quiet and cosy village of Much Hemlock, much to the concern of the villagers.  Convinced that this rabbit family will cost them their chance at the Best Kept Village award, the citizens of Much Hemlock attempt to force them out, but the family matriarch, Mrs Constance Rabbit, is having none of that and resolves to stay in the village.

Surprisingly, the rabbits soon find support from their neighbours, Peter Knox and his daughter, Pippa.  Peter, an employer at the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, the organisation tasked with policing and controlling the rabbit population, quickly becomes infatuated with Constance and begins to question everything that he thinks he knows about rabbits.  However, with plans for the upcoming rehoming accelerating, Peter soon finds himself in the midst of a complex battle for freedom and control, and his actions will have surprising impacts on the entire future of the country.

Wow!  Just wow!  Now this was one hell of a fun read.  Fforde has absolutely outdone himself with this latest book which proved to be an exceptional and amazingly clever piece of fiction.  The Constant Rabbit is a captivating and widely entertaining novel that drags the reader in with its creativity and humour until they become enthralled with the unique story that it contains.  I had an incredible time reading this book and I ended up laughing myself silly throughout it due to Fforde’s clever and distinctive style of humour.  This book gets a full five stars from me and it truly was a thumping good tale.

The Constant Rabbit is told from the first-person perspective of human Peter Knox as he recounts some of the historical events he witnessed.  This was a truly remarkable story that follows a mostly blameless and ordinary small-village inhabitant as he navigates a complex and controversial world of rabbits and rabbit-hating humans.  This turns into quite a compelling tale about a battle for freedom, recognition and human stupidity, as the protagonist witnesses both sides of the struggle.  There are some great moments of drama, excitement, action, and romance throughout the book, which come together extremely well in a compelling and entertaining manner.  Fforde features some unique story elements throughout this book and introduces the reader to a series of enjoyable characters who are caught up in these crazy events.  These memorable characters include Constance Rabbit, a resourceful and clever rabbit who serves as a major moving part of the plot and the protagonist’s main love interest.  There is also a Lugless, an outcast rabbit who, after having his ears cut off in a ceremonial fashion, has turned against his own kind and now works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, and Mr Ffoxe, an anthropomorphised fox, who serves as the book’s vicious main antagonist and the head of the taskforce.  However, most of the character development is reserved for main protagonist Peter Knox, who goes through some serious redemption throughout the course of the story following some troubling events in his past.  His association with his rabbit neighbours really changes him, especially once he starts to see how crooked and petty humans are in comparison, resulting in him making some surprising decisions.  This is a gripping narrative and I really enjoyed all the wonderful and weird directions that the author took it.

Another fantastic aspect of The Constant Rabbit is the distinctive and intelligent sense of humour that permeates every page of this book.  I personally found this novel to be deeply funny, and I ended up laughing myself silly at several awesome jokes.  Much of the humour revolves around the ridiculous situations, the outrageous personalities, and the clever parodies of life in modern day England, all of which are considered normal in this version by the characters.  Seeing these various events or people occur in the novel is itself entertaining, but when combined with the witty and dry observations of the protagonist, the rabbit characters or the narrator through his footnotes, it becomes an absolute riot of fun and comedy.  There are some amazingly funny jokes and sequences throughout this book, although the part I laughed the hardest at had to be a farcical murder trial in which a man’s innocence or guilt was determined by whether they had brought an owl with them to the murder scene.  Other great jokes included lines about the rabbits’ inability to tell humans apart (most rabbits apparently cannot tell the difference between Brian Blessed and a gorilla), fun observations about rabbits in popular culture (spoilers, the rabbits are unimpressed) and the inclusion of rabbit versions of films and books.  I also had to have a laugh at the author’s description of a potential anthropomorphic event occurring at the city of Goulbourn in Australia (which is quite near to me), and all I have to say about that is I very much doubt my government could organise a secret massacre of a group of drunken wombats, much less hunt down a whistleblowing sheep.  That being said, the Big Merino statue in Goulbourn does totally exist and it is the town’s defining feature (which tells you quite a lot about what life in Goulbourn must be like).

One of the things that I most like about Fforde’s books is the way that he comes up with a whole new alternate universe for each of his works.  All his works are set in alternate versions of England that is specific to that series, all with a number of noticeable differences between the fictional and real worlds.  The version of England that The Constant Rabbit is set in was altered by an unexplained event 55 years earlier that turned a group of rabbits (as well as some other animals) into human-sized sentient beings who have gone on to create a large society of over one million rabbits which has its own culture and ideals.  This in turn has led to a much different version of the UK, with significant social and political differences as humanity tries to come up with new ways to adapt to the rabbits.  This is such a fantastic and out-there concept, but it works surprisingly well as a setting for this amazing and clever story.  There are so many intricate details associated with this new, rabbit inhabited England, and Fforde does an outstanding job welding together this new universe and showcasing all of its features.  While several key elements of this new world were introduced right at the start of the book, many were not identified until later, when they became relevant to the plot of the story.  I felt that this was a great way of presenting all the major aspects of this world, as it ensured that the reader was not overwhelmed right off the bat.  Fforde also includes a number of footnotes and short, out of narrative paragraphs at the start of each chapter, to provide intriguing and often hilarious anecdotes and descriptions of parts of rabbit culture or other inclusions from this world.  All the clever inclusions and distinctive variations from the real world prove to be a fascinating and entertaining part of the book and I had a wonderful time seeing what wacky and inventive things Fforde would come up with next.

Another thing that I really appreciated about this book was the way that Fforde used his overly ridiculous story and setting to successfully satirise racist politics in modern day England.  Anyone even vaguely familiar with some of the political and cultural issues in the UK will really appreciate what Fforde is trying to achieve with his story, and there are some great parables throughout it.  The whole ‘us vs them’ mentality surrounding the issues of rabbit rights is a clear send-up of racism and anti-immigration policies and mentalities that have infected the country.  Having peaceful, hardworking and tolerant rabbits and their supporters be targeted by bigoted idiots is very relevant and you cannot help but think of real-world examples of such behaviour.  The ruling UK political party, UKARP, is an obvious parody of the right-wing party UKIP, equipped with its own version of Nigel Farage.  Fforde really does not pull any punches and portrays them as an incompetent, intolerant, and power-hungry political party who are determined to forcibly rehome and contain all the rabbits as their main political ideal.  This book contains some terrifying, if probably accurate, depictions about how a ruling party like UKARP would act when it came to people it did not like, such as putting the ultimate anti-rabbit group (in this case anthropomorphised foxes) in charge of control and monitoring the rabbits.  There are some other great elements of satire throughout this book, and English readers in particular will probably get the most out of The Constant Rabbit as a result.  Overall, I thought it was a great piece of satirical fiction and I had a blast seeing the author highlight all these social issues in his own special way.

The Constant Rabbit is an outstanding and incredible novel that proves to be boundlessly entertaining and deeply funny.  Jasper Fforde did an incredible job writing this novel and readers are in for an awesome and memorable read that will have them laughing for hours.  This is such an impressive and inventive novel, and I am highly recommending it to anyone who is after a boundlessly entertaining read that contains a real sense of comedic fun and some excellent satirical observations.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

The Gates of Athens Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Athenian – Book One

Length: 443 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today, Conn Iggulden, returns with an exciting and deeply impressive novel that chronicles the chaotic formative years of the birthplace of democracy in The Gates of Athens.

In 490 BC, Darius, King of Persia, rules a vast and powerful empire of millions.  None dare oppose him except the city states of Greece who openly defy him and refuse his demands to bow to his authority.  Determined to conquer them, Darius leads a powerful fleet across the sea towards the city of Athens.  However, the people of Athens are unlike any opponent that Darius has faced before.  Having only recently overthrown their own tyrants, they will never again bow down to a single man, no matter the cost.

As Darius’s army lands near the city on the plains of Marathon he finds a host of Athenian hoplites waiting for him ready to defend their home.  This fierce battle will set of a series of events that will not only change the life of everyone in Greece but also serve as the defining moment for several citizens of Athens, including the charismatic and scheming Themistocles, the clever and honest Aristides and the mighty warrior Xanthippus, father of Pericles.

As these leaders of Athens battle for the future of their city the choices they make will have far reaching impacts as, years later, another king of Persia, Xerxes, will lead an immense invasion of Greece in order to satisfy his father’s honour.  However, despite his vast armies and navies, Xerxes will face surprising opposition as a small force of determined Greeks decides to hold against him on both land and at sea at a place called Thermopylae.  Will the bravery of few be enough to save many or will freedom and democracy be crushed before it can truly begin?

Well damn, now that was an epic book.  I have been saying for a while that I thought that The Gates of Athens was going to be one of the best historical fiction books of 2020.  Well, just like the oracle of Delphi when she prophesised the fate of Leonidas, it turns out that I was right, as this new novel turned out to be an exceptional historical tale that proved extremely hard to stop reading.  Mind you, the awesomeness of this prediction is rather tempered by the fact that this was a historical fiction book written by Conn Iggulden, so it was a bit of a given that it was going to be damn good novel.  I am a major fan of Iggulden, having read several of his prior books including entries in both his incredible Emperor and War of the Roses series, as well as his standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  This latest book from Iggulden serves as the first entry in his Athenian series, which is set to be a fantastic series over the next couple of years.

The Gates of Athens contains an extremely impressive and sprawling historical storyline that showcases and recreates some of the early defining moments of ancient Athens.  The story starts off with the battle of Marathon and then explores the aftermath of the war and its many consequences.  This results in a great multi-character narrative which shows how the various decisions of the protagonists impacted the events of the second half of the book, which is set several years later and examines the battle of Thermopylae.  Iggulden utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout the course of the plot, allowing the reader a larger view of the events occurring, while also providing some alternate viewpoints about the same events.  While there is an obvious focus on the major battles against the Persians, The Gates of Athens has a lot of different elements to it and at many points this awesome novel changes focus to examine political intrigue, social struggles, personal relationships and intense character development.  Iggulden does an outstanding job writing all of these different elements and it really comes together into an amazing overarching historical narrative.

In addition to The Gates of Athens’s fantastic story I also have to highlight the book’s detailed and intriguing historical setting.  As the title suggests, The Gates of Athens is primarily set within the ancient city of Athens, and Iggulden has done an incredible job bringing this iconic historical location to life.  The author spends significant time examining several different aspects of the city.  This includes an in-depth look at its history, its recently introduced democratic political structure, its military defences, its economic status and its layout, and an exploration of the day-to-day lives of its citizens.  Iggulden also attempts to dive into the mindset of the people of Athens, showing their collective feelings and opinions, including the immense pride that they had in being a unique and unprecedented society that extols the values of democracy and freedom (you know, except for all the slaves).  All of this comes together into a rich tapestry of culture and society that acts as a love letter to ancient Athens and everything it represented.  All of this proves to be an excellent setting for the story, and I really appreciated the lengths that Iggulden went to in order to show the reader what being an Athenian was all about.

Another fantastic part of this book was the compelling people that the author set the complex story around.  All the major characters in this novel are real-life historical figures who had a significant hand in the history of Athens, including Xanthippus, Aristides and Themistocles.  Each of these three people are extremely fascinating individuals who achieved many great things, and Iggulden does a fantastic job exploring some of the major events that occurred to them during the years that The Gates of Athens was set, including the roles they played in battles and political gambits, their impact on the city and their various rises and falls in fortunes.  I had an amazing time seeing each of their individual stories unfold.  I particularly enjoyed the way that Iggulden portrayed each of these characters, showing Themistocles (a person Iggulden praises very heavily in his Historical Notes sections) as a self-made political climber with limitless ambition, Aristides as a relentless honest person, and Xanthippus as a honourable but hot-headed individual.  Each of these main characters engage in various political battles against each other, adding significant drama and intrigue to the story, although it proved to be rather heartening to see them come together for the good of Athens and its people at various points in the book.

I also have to highlight the use of Xerxes, King of Persia, who acts as the book’s main antagonist.  Iggulden spends a good amount of time exploring this fascinating figure and examines his various motivations for invading Greece in the way that he did.  Xerxes serves as intriguing counterpoint view to the major Greek characters, and I liked this more grounded portrayal of him as a man who has inherited unlimited power and does not quite know what to do when he encounters Greeks who refuse to bow down before him.  Overall, Iggulden did an outstanding job with each of these characters, and I also really appreciated how he started setting up several other secondary characters, such as Pericles, who will probably be the protagonists of future books.

This book also has plenty for those readers who love some historical action as The Gates of Athens contains a number of major battle sequences, which showcases the fights between the Greeks and the Persians, including the battle at Marathon, and the conflicts that took place around Thermopylae.  These battle sequences are written extremely well and provide excellent and detailed reconstructions of how these battles are played out.  Iggulden has obviously done his research when it comes to these ancient battles, as each of them are chocked full of historical detail, providing the reader with immense amounts of information.  I really liked all the tactics, equipment, disposition and manoeuvres that featured and the actions of various participants during each of these fights, all of which really helps to paint a picture for the reader.  While the various land battles are very impressive, including great depiction of the Spartans’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (with a historically accurate number of combatants), I really have to highlight the fights that occur at sea.  As this is a book about Athens there is a major focus on the Athenian navy and their allies and the combat that they saw at Thermopylae.  Iggulden really dives into all the aspects around these naval battles, including showing all the preparation and training that the Greek sailors did before the invasion, as well as the various tactics and naval combat techniques that were developed.  The eventual fight against the Persian armada is really impressive with some amazing action sequences that show the rival fleets against each other.  These depictions of ancient combat and classic battles were extremely awesome, and they were a key part of why I had such a great time reading this book.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden is an impressive and expansive piece of historical fiction that proved to be a fantastic book to get lost in.  Iggulden once again shows why he is one of the most talented writers of historical fiction in the world today with this outstanding epic that combines masterful storytelling with compelling historical elements, great characters and some exciting action sequences.  This is easily one of the best historical fiction books of 2020 and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by E. K. Johnston

Queen's Peril Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 6 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into a galaxy far, far away, as bestselling young adult author E. K. Johnston presents the very first Star Wars novel of 2020, Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.

Padmé Naberrie has always wanted to serve the people of her home planet of Naboo, and she knows that the best way to do that is to become Queen. Entering the competitive election, the 14-year-old politician is elected as ruler of Naboo. Casting aside her real identity for the protection of herself and her family, Padmé takes on a new name, Amidala, and moves into the royal palace, determined to bring change to Naboo. However, even a ruler as brilliant and diplomatic as Padmé is unable to do everything by herself, and she finds out that she is going to need help.

In order to keep her safe and to assist her with her needs, Padmé is introduced to a group of talented young women who will serve as her handmaidens. Acting as her assistants, confidantes, bodyguards and decoys, each of her handmaidens brings something different to the group, and it is up to Padmé to turn them into an effective team. Together, Padmé and her new friends seem capable of dealing with any challenge that may impact them.

However, there is a dark plot at work within the Republic, and its mastermind has Naboo in their sights. Soon Naboo is invaded by the armies of the Trade Federation, who seek to capture Queen Amidala and force her to sign away the planet. Forced to flee in disguise, Padmé sets out to reclaim her home and will do anything to free her planet. While Jedi, soldiers and a young chosen one may rally to their cause, the fate of Naboo ultimately rests on the shoulders of a young queen and her loyal handmaidens.

Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and enjoyable new addition to the Star Wars canon from bestselling author E. K. Johnston. I have been rather enjoying some of Johnston’s recent Star Wars releases, and I had a fun time reading her 2016 novel, Ahsoka, as well as last year’s fantastic release, Queen’s Shadow. Queen’s Peril is the first of several Star Wars books being released in 2020 (although some have been delayed), and I have been looking forward to seeing how this book turns out. This new novel acts as a prequel to Queen’s Shadow and is set both before and during the events of the first Star Wars prequel film, The Phantom Menace. This ended up being a fun and interesting read that explores some unique parts of Star Wars lore.

This latest Star Wars novel contains an intriguing tale that starts from the moment that Padmé is elected queen and takes on the Amidala persona. The first two thirds of this book follow the early days of Amidala’s reign, introducing Padmé and her handmaidens and showing how they became such a tight-knit team. There are a number of great moments during this first part of the story, and it was interesting to see the origin of a number of elements of the Amidala character that are shown in The Phantom Menace, such as her voice, the establishment of the decoy system, and a huge range of other compelling features. There are also several scenes that are dedicated to exploring why the Trade Federation decided to target Naboo and what the origins of their conflict were. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, and I feel that the final third kind of let it down a little. The last part of the book focuses on the invasion of Naboo and follows the events of The Phantom Menace. While it was cool to see some different perspectives on the events of the film, this part of the book felt rather rushed, as the narrative jumped between a number of sequences from the movie in rather quick succession. Despite the problems with the ending, this was still a rather compelling story, and I did enjoy Johnston’s additions to the Star Wars universe.

While on the surface this book appears to be purely about Padmé, Queen’s Peril is actually about a number of different characters who made Padmé’s role as Queen Amidala possible. Padmé is naturally one of the main characters of the book, but all five of her handmaidens are just as important to the story. Johnston previously introduced each of these handmaidens in Queen’s Shadow, and briefly explored their unique skills and what they brought to the group. She does this again in Queen’s Peril, although this is done in greater detail, as this book shows each character’s history and how each of them became a handmaiden. Each of the handmaidens is given a distinctive personality, and all five get a number of scenes told from their point-of-view. I really enjoyed learning more about these characters, and it was great to see them come together as a group and work towards ensuring that Padmé was protected and an effective queen. While each of the characters are explored in some detailed, the biggest focus is on Sabé, Padmé’s first handmaiden and her main decoy (played by Keira Knightly in the film). The author spends time showing the unique relationship between Sabé and Padmé, and it was captivating to see the trust between them grow. Because she was so heavily focused on in the movie, Padmé does not get a lot of scenes in the last third of the book, so quite a bit this part of the story is told from the perspective of all the handmaidens. It was rather interesting to see how each of these characters went during the course of the film, and it was particularly cool to see some scenes with Sabé as she pretended to be the Queen.

In addition to Padmé and her handmaidens, Queen’s Peril also featured point-of-view chapters or scenes from pretty much all the key characters from The Phantom Menace film. The use of all these extra characters was an interesting choice from Johnston, and I liked how it expanded the story and showed some fresh perspectives and backstory for several major Star Wars protagonists. Most of these appearances are rather brief, with characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn only getting a few minor scenes. However, other characters do get some extended sequences, especially Captain Panaka, the head of Amidala’s palace guards. Several chapters are told from Panaka’s perspective, and he becomes quite a key character within the book, mainly because he is the person who finds and recruits all of the handmaidens. Panaka is a major driving force of the plot, and it was interesting to see his role expanded from the films, especially as you get more insight into why he is so dedicated to the Queen. I also really liked how the book features several sequences told from the perspective of Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious. These scenes were fun, as they showed a lot of Palpatine’s earliest manipulations, including how he was able to organise the invasion of Naboo. Overall, I rather appreciated how the author utilised all the characters within Queen’s Peril, and watching their development and interactions proved to be quite compelling.

Like the author’s other Star Wars novels, Queen’s Peril is intended for a young adult audience, and Johnston does a fantastic job tailoring it towards younger readers. This book has a lot of great young adult moments to it, especially as it focuses on a group of teen girls working together to outsmart a variety of adults and then eventually save their entire planet from an invasion. Queen’s Peril has some fantastic portrayals of these teen protagonists, and there are a number of sequences which show them stepping up or dealing with complicated issues that younger female readers will appreciate. While it is intended for younger readers, Queen’s Peril, like most young adult Star Wars novels, is also very accessible to all readers who are major fans of the franchise, and it is easy for older readers to get into and enjoy the plot of the book and its intriguing new additions to the Star Wars lore.

I did have a minor complaint about the release order of the books in Johnston’s series about Padmé. While I enjoyed both Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow, I really do think that it was an odd decision to release Queen’s Shadow first, and then release a prequel novel a year later. It would have been better to release Queen’s Peril first to introduce the various handmaidens and help build up the emotional connection between them and Padmé, making their use and inclusion in Queen’s Shadow a bit more impactful. It might also have made a bit more sense to have Queen’s Peril only focus on events before The Phantom Menace, have another book focus exclusively on what was happening with the handmaidens and Padmé during the course of the film (which would have ensured that Queen’s Peril did not feel as rushed as it did towards the end), and then release Queen’s Shadow. While I am sure that there is some reason why the order for these books was a bit off, probably at the publisher level, I think they could have planned this out a little better.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Queen’s Peril, and I had a great time listening to this book. Queen’s Peril has a short run time of just over six hours, so it is rather easy to get through this book quickly. Like all Star Wars audiobooks, this version of Queen’s Peril was a real auditory treat, due to the excellent use of the iconic Star Wars sound effects and scores from the movies, which are used to enhance each of the scenes. While it was great to once again hear all the fantastic music and intriguing background noises, Queen’s Peril’s greatest strength as an audiobook comes from its fantastic narrator, Catherine Taber. Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clones Wars animated television show, and, short of getting Natalie Portman in, is the perfect person to narrate a novel about the character. Taber also narrated the previous Johnston book about Padmé, Queen’s Shadow (indeed all of Johnston’s Star Wars books have featured the character’s voice actor as a narrator for their audiobook), and it was great to see her return. She naturally does a perfect voice for the character of Padmé, as well as for the handmaidens, who had similar speaking patterns due to their role as decoys. There are some great vocal scenes between these characters, especially when they are trying to perfect the Amidala voice, and they go through several variations throughout the book. In addition, because Queen’s Peril features nearly every major character from The Phantom Menace, Taber also had to voice several different people who were brought to life by some amazing actors in the original film. I felt that Taber did a fantastic job as imitating some of these voices, and it proved to be a real showcase for her skills as a voice actor. Overall, I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Queen’s Peril.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and exciting new young adult Star Wars release from E. K. Johnson that acts as a sequel to her previous awesome novel, Queen’s Shadow. Johnston comes up with another compelling story that explores the early life of Padmé/Queen Amidala and her loyal handmaidens. While it does have some flaws, it is a very good book, and it should prove to be a fun read for established fans of the franchise and younger readers who are interested in breaking into the expanded universe. I had an amazing time listening to this book and I look forward to seeing what sort of Star Wars story Johnston produces next.

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.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Cover

Publisher: Scholastic Audio (Audiobook – 19 May 2020)

Series: The Hunger Games – Book 0

Length: 16 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It is time to return to Panem as bestselling young adult fiction author Suzanne Collins presents the thrilling prequel to her acclaimed The Hunger Games series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

It has been 10 years since the third and final book in The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Since then the series has gone from strength the strength, thanks to the four films that converted these books into an ultra-popular franchise. Like many, I jumped onto The Hunger Games bandwagon after the first film was released, and I ended up listening to all three of the novels in quick succession. This of course turned me into a pretty major fan of the franchise, and I eagerly watched the next three films as they were released. As a result, I was extremely intrigued when I heard that Collins was writing a prequel novel, and I have been looking forward to it for some time. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes right after its release, and it proved to be an extremely interesting book that I rather enjoyed.

It has only been a decade since the Capitol won the war that ravished Panem, defeating the Districts and forcing them back under Capitol control. As punishment for their crimes, every year two children from each of the 12 surviving Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal fight to the death from which there is only one survivor. While many in both the Capitol and the Districts view the Games as distasteful, for one young man it represents an invaluable opportunity.

Coriolanus Snow is a young academy student whose family has fallen on hard times after the war. Coriolanus’s one chance to get into the Capitol university and have a chance at wealth and prestige is to successfully mentor one of the tributes in the annual Hunger Games and ensure that they win. The odds seem to be against him when he is given the female tribute from District 12, generally considered the lowest tribute with the worst odds of surviving. However, when his tribute, the wild and alluring Lucy Gray Baird, sings on stage at the reaping, Coriolanus’s hopes rise, as her antics capture the attention of everyone in the Capitol. Determined to succeed no matter the cost, Coriolanus soon finds his fate entwined with that of Lucy Gray. But as he gets closer and closer with his tribute, just how far is Coriolanus willing to go, and how will his decisions now affect the future of Panem forever?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a captivating and entertaining read that serves as a fascinating prequel to the original Hunger Games novels. Collins comes up with a fantastic, character-driven story that focuses on the main antagonist of the first trilogy, President Snow, while also diving back into the past of her unique dystopian future, showing the early days of the Hunger Games. I have to admit that I had rather high expectations going into this novel, and I ended up being a little disappointed at times with how it turned out. This was a rather less exciting read than the previous Hunger Games books, as Collins spends a lot of time exploring society, human nature and the psyche of the villainous protagonist. It was also way too long, and I think it could have been shortened down a little. Despite probably being my least favourite Hunger Games novel so far, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is still a really good book that I had an amazing time listening to it.

This book contains an intriguing plot that follows the protagonist as he becomes involved in the events of the 10th annual Hunger Games. The story is broken up into three distinctive parts, each of which takes up about a third of the book’s narrative. The first part deals with the lead-up to the Hunger Games, the second part follows the actual Hunger Games as Snow watches from the outside, while the last third of the book details the aftermath of the games, and features a new adventure for the protagonist. Each of these three parts proved to be enjoyable in their own right, and together they formed a rather compelling overall narrative. I was a little surprised that the actual Hunger Games ended about two-thirds of the way into the story. When the novel suddenly jumped to a post-Hunger Games storyline with third of the book still to go, I honestly thought that Collins had made a mistake, and would have been better off portraying an extended Hunger Games. However, this third part served as a rather good conclusion to the entire novel, and I actually really liked some of the major plot elements that occurred there, especially as they were the most transformative part of the novel for the main character. There are a lot of cool moments within this story, as well as a bevy of supporting characters, many of whom Collins is able to give a bit of depth to with a few short paragraphs. I actually really enjoyed where this story went, and while I did envision it going in a different direction, I think that Collins did a good job with it in the end.

One of the key things about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that it serves as an origin story for President Snow, the main antagonist of the original Hunger Games trilogy. It features an 18-year-old Snow as the main character and is told completely from his perspective. I understand that quite a few people were not exactly thrilled that President Snow was the focus of this novel, and many did not want to see a book that followed a young version of him. While I can understand their feelings about this, I personally enjoyed seeing something that focused on Snow and his early history. I have read and enjoyed many stories in the past that focus on a villain, or which features them as a major protagonist, and it can often be quite fun to see their perspectives and motivations. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a good example of this, and I found it fascinating to see a younger Snow and watch his involvement in his first Hunger Games.

Collins has an interesting take on the character of the young President Snow, and presents the reader with some key moments from his life, as well as some of the people who helped shape him into the villain we know in the later books. The author spends time exploring elements of his childhood, such as showing how he suffered during the war, not only losing both his parents, but also nearly dying from starvation as the Districts besieged the Capitol. There are also some intriguing examinations of his family, such as the grandmother who gifted him his love of roses, and the revelation that the character of Tigress, who appeared in the third book (fourth movie), is actually Snow’s cousin and closest living relative. However, despite these more humanising elements, Snow is shown to be a truly irredeemable person even before the transformative events of the novel. From the very start of the book, Collins portrays him as a manipulative and conceited individual, constantly sucking up to people in order to get what he wants, resentful of those around him who have more than he does and concerned most of all with status. While there are some intriguing nature versus nurture elements to his early behaviours, Snow is shown to be just an unpleasant person. This of course makes him a hard protagonist to get behind for this book, and for most of the story you really were not rooting for him to succeed. Despite this, I found his story to be rather compelling and I enjoyed seeing this mostly amoral teenager attempt to succeed, while presenting the reader with various, weak or selfish justifications for his actions in his mind.

While he is already a pretty despicable person, it is the events of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes that truly turn him into the cutthroat person that takes control of the Capitol in the future. Thanks to a combination of his experiences and some perceived betrayals (which are always worse from his point of view), as well as the mentorship of the Capitol’s sadistic head gamemaker, Doctor Gaul, Snow becomes much more ruthless and ambitious, and some of his actions towards the end of the book show just how evil he has become. It was also cool to see him embrace the philosophy around the Hunger Games, as well as developing a hatred of District 12 and certain other symbols and songs, all of which the character would carry with him to the main trilogy 60 years in the future. All of this analysis of Snow’s character formed a captivating heart to the story, and I liked the more villain-centric novel, even if this great antagonist did come across as a winy child at times. I will be intrigued to see more of the events that influenced Snow in the future, although I can appreciate that many others would prefer stories based around Collins’s protagonists.

The other major character that I have to discuss is Snow’s tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray is an entertaining and likeable character who steps off the page right at the moment of her introduction and sticks in the mind. Lucy Gray is a very different tribute to that of Katniss from the main trilogy, being a singer and rebellious entertainer who effortlessly makes everyone fall in love with her, and who relies on cunning and underhanded tactics to survive rather than martial prowess. She also serenades both the reader and the other characters with a variety of different songs, and I quite enjoyed seeing several of the musical numbers she came up with, especially as you find out the origins of one of the musical pieces that appear in the original trilogy. Lucy Gray is the character who the reader is most drawn to, and you find yourself even hoping that Snow succeeds, as this will ensure Lucy Gray’s survival. Snow and Lucy Gray end up having a bit of an awkward romance, which on the surface seems nice, although you only see it from Snow’s point of view, and he becomes rather possessive of her in his own mind. I would have been interested to see Lucy Gray’s thoughts on Snow, as it could have really changed the whole dynamic of their relationship. Overall, though, Lucy Gray is a great new character, and the way her arc in this book ends really helps drive home how terrible Snow can be.

The thing that I think most people, especially established fans of The Hunger Games novels, will enjoy about this prequel novel is the substantial world building that Collins does. The author does an outstanding job showing off an early version of Panem, which is still recovering from the impacts of the war, and where control over the Districts is not yet complete. This is a rather different Capitol to what you see in the other The Hunger Games books, as there are no elaborate costumes, outrageous styles, strange cosmetic surgery or excessive luxuries. Instead it is a far more subdued Capitol, with less food, traumatised people and rubble still in the streets. This made for a curious contrast to what we see in the future books, and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities. There are also some exciting flashbacks to the war itself from the memory of Snow, and it was cool to learn a little more about that. Naturally, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes contains a lot of foreshadowing to the events of the original Hunger Games trilogy, and fans will enjoy seeing historical views of certain key events, locations and people.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this world building is the author’s exploration of the early Hunger Games and how they took place. These Games are very different to the elaborate affairs shown in the original trilogy. Up until this point the Hunger Games are rather basic, with the tributes simply thrown into an abandoned sports arena with a bunch of weapons. There are some great comparisons between these more basic games and the games that we are more familiar with, such as the way that the tributes are treated, as rather than the luxurious train with all the fancy food that Katniss and Peeta travelled in, the tributes for these Hunger Games arrive starved and injured in a livestock train. This is also the games where they start to experiment with some of the elements that are recognisable from the main games, such as having a mentor, brief interviews with a Flickerman (in this case, Lucky Flickerman, the local news weatherman and amateur magician), gambling and sponsors. It was really cool to see the origins of these ideas, and why they were implemented, and it makes for a truly fascinating addition to the book. Collins also really dives into the philosophy behind the Games, and why the leaders of the Capitol were so eager for them to succeed and why they believed that they helped control the Districts. The origin of the Games is also revealed, as well as some of the key players, and I think it served as an invaluable piece of this universe’s lore. I quite liked learning more about the early days of the Hunger Games, and I imagine that a lot of readers will love to find out how such a terrible event came to pass.

The actual Hunger Games that took place in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a shorter and more barebones affair than what we have seen before. The tributes are fighting in an actual sporting arena, rather than a terraformed zone, and most of them spend the time hiding in the tunnels. Due to the fact that we are seeing it from Snow’s point of view, and because the arena only has a couple of cameras that only cover a fraction of the area, there are a lot of periods of inactivity and blank time, where the reader has no idea what is going on. This made for a much more disrupted experience, and while it was interesting to see the games unfold from the outside (something we saw a little bit of in the movie, but not in the books), it was nowhere as exciting as it could have been. That being said, there are still some really cool moments of child murder, and I did like seeing the mentor’s role in winning the games. The way in which the games came to an end was also rather clever, and it played into the events occurring outside with Snow. While it could have been longer, more exciting and perhaps more intense, this was still a fun part of the novel, and I look forward to seeing more fights to the death in any future Hunger Games novels Collins writes.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes rather than grab a physical copy, and I am rather glad that I did, as it proved to be a great way to enjoy this book. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes audiobook is narrated by Santino Fontana and has a run time of just over 16 hours. This was a rather extensive run time for a Hunger Games novel; it was around five hours longer than any of the previous audiobooks in the series. That being said, I was able to get through this audiobook in a rather short period of time, and I found myself really engaged by this format, as it helped explore all the elements of this earlier version of Panem. Santino Fontana proved to be a very good narrator for this novel and he does an excellent job bringing the book’s large host of characters to life. The various voices he does fit the characters rather well, and I thought that his narration helped to highlight how horrible Snow could be at times. I also liked how Fontana’s narration worked with the multiple songs that Collins featured throughout the novel, and his spoken version of them sounded rather cool. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes to people interested in checking this book out, as it was a wonderful format to enjoy this great story with.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a curious and unique new addition to The Hunger Games franchise, which I thought turned out to be a rather good read. Collins ended up writing an intriguing, character-based narrative that showed a new side to the main antagonist of her original trilogy. While this book is not without its flaws, I had a wonderful time reading it, and once I got into its plot I had a hard time putting it down. Ideal for those fans of the previous Hunger Games novel, this book should make for an interesting movie in the future, and I am planning to grab any future novels from Collins set in this universe.