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.

To the Strongest by Robert Fabbri

To the Strongest Cover

Publisher: Corvus (Trade Paperback – 2 January 2020)

Series: Alexander’s Legacy – Book One

Length: 415 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

“I foresee great struggles at my funeral games.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Trek: The Unsettling Stars by Alan Dean Foster

The Unsettling Stars Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 14 April 2020)

Series: Star Trek: Kelvin Timeline – Book One

Length: 8 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My continued exploration of the fun and entertaining genre that is Star Trek fiction continues, as I check out the latest tie-in novel, Star Trek: The Unsettling Stars by Alan Dean Foster, an intriguing read which serves as a tie-in to the alternate Kelvin timeline, the spinoff timeline that occurred during the 2009 Star Trek film.

The Unsettling Stars is a rather interesting Star Trek read that is the first original novel set in the Kelvin timeline, except for official film novelisations and the Star Trek: Starfleet Academy young adult miniseries. This book was originally set for release back in 2010 under the title Refugees, but it was pulled from publication along with three other proposed novels that tied in to the most recent Star Trek movies. Another one of these books, More Beautiful Than Death by David Mack, is set for release later this year, and no doubt the other two proposed novels from 2010 will be published at some point as well. The Unsettling Stars is the third Star Trek novel released this year (behind The Last Best Hope and The High Frontier), and it is the first one in a series of Star Trek novels I identified in a recent Waiting on Wednesday article. As a result, I was rather pleased to get a copy of the audiobook format of this novel, especially as this book was written by the acclaimed author Alan Dean Foster.

Foster is a veteran science fiction and fantasy author who has been writing since the 1970s. He has written a multitude of novels over the years, including books set in his long-running Humanx Commonwealth Universe, The Damned trilogy, the Spellsinger series, The Taken trilogy, The Tipping Point trilogy and a huge range of standalone novels. Foster also has a large amount of experience writing tie-in novels to popular franchises, having written the official novelisations to several series, including the Alien movies, the Transformers movies, Terminator Salvation and The Chronicles of Riddick. Foster also has a deep connection with the Star Wars franchise, having ghost-written the official novelisation for the original Star Wars movie. He also wrote Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which was intended to be a low-budget spinoff from Star Wars if the first movie did badly in the box office. Seeing that Star Wars was a major success, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was released as the first official Star Wars novel, meaning that Foster started the Star Wars expanded universe (which has become a major staple for this blog). Foster has since gone on to write a second Star Wars novel, The Approaching Storm, and he recently wrote the official novelisation to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nearly 40 years after he first got involved with the franchise.

Foster also has some rather interesting connections to the Star Trek franchise. While The Unsettling Stars is the first original novel that he has written for Star Trek, he has produced some official novelisations of several shows and movies over his career. Back in the 1970s, he wrote the official novelisations for Star Trek: The Animated Series, contained in 10 separate books. He also wrote the official novelisations for the 2009 Star Trek film, as well as for its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. However, his most significant contribution to the Star Trek universe has to be the fact that he wrote the story for the original Star Trek film, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As a result, Foster is definitely an interesting author to check out, and while I have not had the pleasure of reading any of his stuff previously, I was rather intrigued to see how this novel would turn out.

Years ago, a time travelling Romulan ship attacked and destroyed the Federation starship the U.S.S. Kelvin, killing the father of James T. Kirk. The changes which occurred following the destruction of this ship resulted in a whole new timeline, similar to the main Star Trek universe in most ways, but with a number of key differences. In this new timeline, Kirk, with the help of his young crew aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, was eventually able to defeat this powerful Romulan ship, but not before it destroyed the Vulcan home planet. Now, after being promoted to captain of the Enterprise, Kirk and his crew embark on their first mission together.

With their ship repaired after the battle with the Romulan ship, the crew of the Enterprise take it out of spacedock in what is seen as a simple shakedown cruise. However, not long after they set out, they receive a distress signal from a ship just outside of Federation space. Arriving at the source of the signal, they find a single colony ship belonging to an alien race known as the Perenorean. Appearing to be peaceful refugees, the Perenorean request help as they have sustained damaged and are lacking the resources to travel to their original destination. But within moments of contact between the two ships, a second group of unknown alien ships arrive, determined to wipe out the Perenoreans. Despite not knowing the full history of this conflict, Kirk eventually comes to the aid of the Perenoreans, sending their attackers running, although not before they give the crew of the Enterprise a cryptic warning about the people they just saved.

Meeting with the Perenoreans, Kirk and his comrades discover that their new acquaintances are an extremely advanced group of beings whose capacity to learn and innovate seems limitless. Extremely grateful and determined to repay those who have helped them, the Perenoreans endear themselves to the Enterprise’s crew, who decide to help them relocate to a nearby planet. However, not everything is as it seems with the Perenoreans, whose desire to help and improve everything around them comes with its own unique set of issues. Can the crew of the Enterprise find a solution to the problems their new friends are causing or have they unwittingly unleased a terrible scourge on the Federation?

The Unsettling Stars proved to be a compelling and exciting Star Trek novel that I was able to get through quite quickly. Foster comes up with a rather clever and entertaining central story, set in the unique Kelvin alternate timeline, that revolves around a classic Star Trek first contact mission, with some interesting twists to it. The author crafts together a great story that spends a good amount of time with the key members of the Enterprise crew, with a particular focus on Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura and Scott, as well as introducing several other new members of the crew, who each have a couple of scenes. The Unsettling Stars comes across like a typical Star Trek adventure, featuring a good blend of action, adventure, diplomacy and scientific discussion, similar to an episode of one of the shows. No real prior knowledge about the greater Star Trek universe is needed to enjoy this book, although it is geared more towards those readers who have a greater appreciation for the franchise, and who have at least watched the 2009 Star Trek film. Overall, The Unsettling Stars is a gripping and enjoyable Star Trek novel with a great story that I had a fantastic time listening to.

One of my favourite elements of this book was Foster’s inclusion of the new alien race, the Perenoreans. The Perenoreans are a group of extremely friendly aliens that the Enterprise rescue and help relocate to a new colony planet. The Perenoreans are an interesting new alien species in the Star Trek canon, characterised by their great intelligence, ability to adapt and evolve to any situation, and their desire to help anyone they come across. While it is also intriguing to see a new fictional alien species, a large amount of this book’s narrative lies around the crew discovering the true intentions and motivations of this species. While they seem friendly, you just know that they are going to turn out to be sinister or problematic in some way or another. The way that they genuflect is way over the top, and there is no way a whole race of people is that friendly. Also, there would not be much of story if they did not turn out to be problematic in some way. Foster does an excellent job of slowly hinting at their true nature, and it helps build up a good amount of tension throughout the course of the book. The eventual reveal of their secrets is rather fascinating and makes for a great payoff after all the build-up. I also really liked the conclusion to their whole arc, especially as it made use of a fun, but seemingly unimportant story element to wrap the whole thing up. These aliens are an amazing part of this book’s story, and it was one that made me enjoy The Unsettling Stars a whole lot more.

I also think that Foster did a good job of writing this book like it was set in the Kelvin timeline. The Kelvin timeline is filled with all manner of intriguing differences to the main Star Trek timeline, and the author spent a bit of time incorporating these differences into The Unsettling Stars. While at times the book did a feel a little like a tie-in to The Original Series, Foster was always quick to showcase some key elements of the Kelvin universe. Kirk is a little more arrogant and eager for glory in this book, and there are several discussions about his rapid promotion to captain, which results in a bit more scrutiny from Starfleet. McCoy is a bit more of a grump in this novel, and he has a bit more of an antagonistic relationship with Spock. There is also a bit of time spent exploring the new relationship between Spock and Uhura, and there are several mentions about Spock’s new dynamic as a member of a refugee species. I liked seeing the return of Simon Pegg’s fun version of Scotty, whose inclusion makes for several entertaining and enjoyable scenes. I also have to highlight the excellent reference to Star Trek: The Motion Picture that occurred in this book, as the crew of this version of the Enterprise come across a key item from this film well before it becomes a problem. It’s not often that a writer gets to erase the entirety of a film they scripted over 40 years previously, and I quite liked how this event turned out as part of the larger story. I had a fantastic time exploring the Kelvin timeline in this book, and I look forward seeing more of it in the future novels set in this timeline.

As I mentioned above, I ended up checking out The Unsettling Stars in its audiobook format, which was narrated by Robert Petkoff. This is a rather short audiobook, which runs for just over eight hours. While it took me a few days to get through (mainly due to lack of listening time than anything else), most readers should be able to listen to the whole book rather quickly, especially once they get engrossed in the intriguing story. Like every other Star Trek book I have so far listened to, The Unsettling Stars audiobook featured the vocal talents of Robert Petkoff, who seems to be the primary narrator for Star Trek audiobooks. Petkoff is an amazingly talented narrator who has come up with some incredibly realistic voices for key members of the various Star Trek television shows. In particular, he has come up with some fantastic voices for the members of The Original Series, which he uses throughout The Unsettling Stars to great effect, bringing the main crew of the Enterprise to life, while also coming up with great voices for some of the additional members of the crew and the various aliens that they encounter. All of this is really cool, and hearing these similar voices helps bring the reader into the Star Trek zone. If I had one criticism, though, it would be that Petkoff uses the same voices here that he uses for all the other audiobooks based around The Original Series. While I appreciate that the characters in the Kelvin timeline are supposed to be versions of the cast from The Original Series, hearing the Kelvin timeline characters speak in the same voice as their counterparts was a tad disjointing, and it made me forgot at times that this book is supposed to be set in an alternate timeline. A little bit of variation from Petkoff could have potentially helped this, although I am uncertain about what exactly he could have done to set this apart. Despite this minor criticism, I still really enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of this book, and I would recommend this format to anyone who wanted to check out The Unsettling Stars.

The Unsettling Stars is an excellent and exciting new Star Trek novel from the legendary author Alan Dean Foster. I had a great time unwrapping the cool mystery around the new race of aliens that Foster came up with for this novel, and it was fun to see a story in the Kelvin universe. This was a fantastic addition to the Star Trek canon, and I would recommend this to any fans of the franchise who want a clever new read.

To Kill a Man by Sam Bourne

To Kill a Man Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 19 March 2020)

Series: Maggie Costello – Book Five

Length: 438 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday: Stars Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp

Lords of the Sith Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 28 April 2015)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 10 hours and 56 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

For my second Throwback Thursday article of this week (what can I say, I was in the zone for reviewing older content) I check out a fast-paced and addictive Star Wars novel that was released a couple of years ago, with Star Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp.

It is the early days of the Galactic Empire. Under the reign of Emperor Palpatine, few openly oppose imperial rule, and those that do are swiftly dealt with by Palpatine’s ruthless apprentice, Darth Vader. But as the power and influence of the Emperor and Vader grow, so does their desire to rule and oppress every planet in the galaxy, and with that comes the first sparks of rebellion.

The planet Ryloth knows all about oppression and invasion. Following a brutal occupation during the Clone Wars, Ryloth now finds itself under the control of the Empire, which strips the planet of its natural resources while using the people for slave labour. In opposition to this occupation, an aggressive resistance moment has arisen, led by idealistic leader Cham Syndulla and his comrade Isval, a vengeful former slave. Thanks to their excellently placed sources, Syndulla’s resistance has been able to launch some substantial attacks against the Empire, but their actions have gained the attention of the Emperor and Vader. In a bid to assert his dominance on Ryloth, the Emperor sets out on a rare mission to the planet, accompanied by Vader. However, this is the opportunity that Syndulla has been waiting for.

Upon the Imperial’s arrival above Ryloth, the resistance fighters are able to do the impossible and blow up their Star Destroyer. Forced to abandon ship, the two Sith lords find themselves trapped on the dangerous surface of Ryloth with no means to communicate with Imperial command and no reinforcements on the horizon. In a bid to liberate the galaxy from their dark rule, Syndulla and Isval gather all their forces and resources to hunt the Emperor and Vader down. Surrounded by enemies, inhospitable terrain and terrible native fauna, the two Sith Lords appear to be at their most vulnerable. However, what Syndulla and his team fail to realise is that their prey are two of most dangerous beings in the galaxy, and together they are a force of unnatural destruction. Can the resistance fighters take on Emperor and Vader, and what happens when the two Sith lords work out that their biggest threat is each other?

Now this is a rather fantastic and captivating Star Wars novel that I have been wanting to check out for a while now due to the book’s cool concept. This is the first book that I have read by Paul S. Kemp, a fantasy author who has been writing since the early 2000s. His first novel, Twilight Falling debuted in 2003, after the author released several pieces of short fiction. Kemp then went on to write several fantasy series and standalone novels, including The Erevis Cale trilogy, The Twilight War trilogy and the Egil and Nix books, most of which fell within the Forgotten Realms shared fantasy fiction universe. Kemp has also written a few Star Wars novels, including Crosscurrent, The Old Republic: Deceived and Riptide, which were part of the old Star Wars Legends canon. Lords of the Sith is Kemp’s first novel in the new Star Wars canon, and he presents the reader with a fun and fast-paced novel that has some intriguing elements to it.

Kemp pulls together an excellent Star Wars novel that has a great story, is full of breathtaking action scenes and features compelling dives into some iconic Star Wars characters and elements of the universe. While I came for all the fun action that was bound to feature in a story surrounding the Emperor and Vader fighting against overwhelming odds, I stayed for the intriguing story that is full of betrayal and manipulations. The author does a fantastic job of utilising multiple character perspectives to tell a fuller story, which showed the perspectives of not only Vader and Syndulla’s resistance but also two Imperial officers stationed on Ryloth: one who is loyal to the Emperor and one who has been working for the resistance. This helped produce a really clever narrative, and it was interesting to see where Kemp took the story throughout Lords of the Sith.

The story is set five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith and focuses on the Emperor and Vader encountering some of the earliest forms of rebellion against the Empire. There are some strong elements from the extended Star Wars universe in this book, most notably with the inclusion of Cham Syndulla, a character who appeared in two Star Wars animated series, The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and is the father of Hera Syndulla, one of the main characters from Rebels (who is featuring in a lot of other pieces of Star Wars fiction at the moment). However, this is definitely a novel that can be enjoyed by the more casual Star Wars fan, and no real knowledge of the extended universe is needed to follow the plot. As always, though, those readers who are fans of some of the extended universe fiction are probably going to enjoy this book a little more. I myself enjoyed seeing the exploration of the early days of the Empire, an examination of Cham Syndulla’s history between the two animated shows and some exploration of the planet of Ryloth.

Without a doubt, the highlight of this book has to be the amazing action sequences featuring Darth Vader and the Emperor. Kemp went out of his way to show off just how badass these two characters can be, and he did not hold back any punches. Vader and the Emperor get into some major scrapes throughout the book, as they hunt or are hunted by members of the Ryloth resistance or some of the deadly creatures that reside on the planet’s surface. Needless to say, these two characters use all of their deadly Force abilities to take down swathes of opponents, and they come across as pretty impressive characters, especially in the eyes of some of the other point-of-view characters. I loved the reactions from characters like Syndulla or Isval, especially as it becomes more and more apparent to them that their opponents are something too much for them. I have always loved comics and books that showed off how badass Vader and the Emperor can be, and this is one of the better examples of this. Kemp started this book off strong by having Vader crash his fighter onto a ship to board it, before systematically taking down the crew one by one, while Syndulla and Isval are forced to listen from another ship (accompanied by Vader breathing heavily into a comms unit to freak everyone out). This is then followed by a plethora of other cool sequences, which includes Vader and the Emperor decimating a massive swarm of Ryloth’s apex predators and a particularly cool sequence where Vader started force choking several characters aboard a separate spaceship while he was flying upside down above them. All of this was exceedingly cool, and I loved Kemp’s amazing imagination when it comes to these two characters.

I also quite liked the intriguing examination of the unique relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor that became an interesting central focus of the plot. While the story doesn’t show the Emperor’s point of view, you get Vader’s take on the situation, and through his eyes you see his perceptions of the Emperor, his thoughts on the partnership they have formed, and the knowledge that it will eventually end with Vader attempting to kill Palpatine to take his place. Palpatine, for his part, spends most of the story devising tests and challenges to get into Vader’s head and to ensure that his apprentice is loyal and has no thoughts of overthrowing him at the moment. I liked the compelling and clever examination of these two characters’ mindsets that Kemp pulled together, and I felt that he had a great handle on the personalities of these iconic Star Wars characters. I also rather enjoyed Kemp’s portrayal of the Emperor’s manipulative and purely evil nature, as it is revealed that everything that happens throughout the book is due to his design, and he threw away thousands of Imperial lives to achieve his goals. The revelation of this to some of key characters in this book makes for a great scene and I think that it really encapsulated just how evil the Emperor could be, which was pretty awesome.

Like with most Star Wars books that I read, I ended up checking out the audiobook format of Lords of the Sith, which was narrated by Jonathan Davis. This audiobook runs for just under 11 hours, and can be powered through quite quickly, especially once the listener hears the opening action sequence read out to them. I have to once again highlight that use of the cool music and sound effects that are included in all Star Wars audiobooks in order to enhance the story. Lords of the Sith had some great sound inclusions throughout its run time, and I felt that these definitely had a major impact on my enjoyment of this book. This audiobook features the audio talents of skilled narrator Jonathan Davis, whose work I have previously enjoyed in Star Wars books such as Master & Apprentice and Dooku: Jedi Lost. Davis does an incredible job narrating this book and he comes up with some impressive voices for the various characters featured throughout it. I particularly liked the great voices he came up for key characters like the Emperor and Darth Vader (with the help of some appropriate sound effects) and Cham Syndulla, and they sounded a lot like their appearances in the movies and animated shows. As a result, I really powered through this excellent audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check out Lords of the Sith.

Lords of the Sith is a fun and exceedingly entertainingly Star Wars novel that I had an outstanding time listening to. Kemp comes up with an exciting and action-packed story that not only explores some intriguing aspects of the expanded Star Wars universe, but which also contains some over-the-top action sequences that shows just how awesome a Star Wars novel can be. Lords of the Sith comes highly recommended to anyone looking for a fantastic and enjoyable read, and I hope that Kemp writes some more Star Wars novels in the future.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Hitler's Secret Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book Four

Length: 420 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of bestselling author Rory Clements comes another captivating historical spy thriller in Hitler’s Secret, the fourth book in Clements’s excellent Tom Wilde series.

In 1941, Hitler’s Germany is at the height of its power, with England under constant bombardment, Europe under German control and the powerful Nazi army smashing aside all resistance in Soviet Russia. At this point in history, Hitler seems unbeatable, and desperate measures are needed if the Allies are to succeed.

In Cambridge, American expat and history professor Tom Wilde attempts to do his bit for the war effort and becomes an intelligence officer. While America is still officially staying out of the war, an upcoming fight with Germany is inevitable. Wilde finds himself enlisted into a top-secret mission that could change the entire course of the war.

Smuggled into Germany under a false identity, Wilde is tasked with recovering a package and delivering it safely back to England. This package is the key to undermining Hitler’s image and influence, as it reveals a terrible secret about the Führer, one that even Hitler himself was unaware of. Trapped deep behind enemy lines, Wilde must use every trick at his disposal to complete his objective and escape the deadly forces closing in on him. However, the more he learns about his mission, the more he is convinced that this is a secret that needs to stay buried, no matter the cost, and he soon must contend not only with the Nazis but with members of his own intelligence agency.

Wow, now that was a really good historical spy thriller. Clements is a fantastic author, and I have been a fan of his for a while now. Clements started writing back in 2009 with Martyr, the first book in his John Shakespeare series of Elizabethan thrillers. I read a couple of the books in this series, and quite enjoyed the fun stories that they contained, but I really started getting into Clements’s work with the Tom Wilde series. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the first book in this series, Corpus, back in 2017, and I absolutely loved the fantastic story that it contained. I ended up sticking with the story in the following years and I managed to read and review the next two books, Nucleus and Nemesis, both of which were rather good reads. I was very happy when I received my copy of Hitler’s Secret, as I thought that the plot sounded pretty cool. It did not disappoint, as Clements has come up with a fantastic and thrilling new read that might be my favourite Tom Wilde book since Corpus.

At the heart of this book lies a truly great thriller storyline, which sees the protagonist journey into Nazi Germany in order to retrieve a special package while also contending with the interests and machinations of several different groups and nations. This turned out to be a fantastic central story element, and I loved all the action, intrigue and danger that results from this mission. Wilde and his allies end up getting hunted throughout the breadth of German occupied territory by some vile and unrepentant villains, including an insane English expat who is having a fun time living in Nazi Germany (which pretty much tells you just how evil he is). Even when Wilde reaches relative safety, he must contend with being hunted by Nazi agents while also trying to avoid supposedly friendly operatives with whom he has a moral disagreement. I loved the constant hunting and running that resulted from this awesome story concept, and the characters engage in a pretty impressive game of cat and mouse. Clements makes good use of multiple character perspectives to show the various sides of this battle of spies, and it was great to see the hunters and the hunted attempt to outwit each other. It was also interesting to see the perspective of the various antagonists, especially as Clements used these scenes to show how evil they are, ensuring that the reader is determined that they fall. All of this led to an impressive and compelling thriller story that made this book extremely hard to put down.

I have to say that I liked Clements’s choice of MacGuffin for this book, which in this case was the titular secret of Hitler. I won’t go into too much detail about what this is, although the secret is revealed rather early in the story, but I did think that it proved to be a fantastic story element. Not only does Clement use this MacGuffin as an excellent centre to his story, but it was also rather interesting to see what secret the author envisions that could have potentially taken down Hitler. Clements made a unique choice regarding that, coming up with something that could have impacted Hitler’s most fanatical base of support. I thought it was quite a clever story element, and I liked how it allowed the author to come up with a couple of exciting conspiracies with multiple sides involved. I also appreciated the moral implications that the MacGuffin inspired, and it made for some great scenes where Wilde was left to choose between the war effort and what he thought was right.

I also really enjoyed Clements’s choice of setting for this book, as most of the story takes place within Nazi Germany in 1941. Clements has come up with some excellent historical settings for the Tom Wilde series in the past, and I have always liked his central setting of Cambridge in the pre-war period, as it serves as an amazing location for the series’s espionage elements. However, I think that Clements outdid himself by setting Hitler’s Secret in Nazi Germany. This proved to be an incredible and thrilling backdrop to the story, especially as Wilde is forced to navigate vast swathes of the country to get to freedom, contending with patrols, enemy agents who are actively hunting him and even a troop of Hitler Youths. Clements does an amazing job exploring what life would have been like in Germany during this period, showing off the fear and resentment of some of the citizens, the control and surveillance that the Nazis and the Gestapo had over everyone, the brainwashing of German children at school, how the country was locked down and the growing cracks as the invasion of the Soviet Union started to stall and America began entering the war. I also really liked that Clements dived into the complex relationships and rivalries amongst the Nazi high command, especially as part of that rivalry played into the overall story. I particularly appreciated the extensive look at the role of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, who achieved great power in the Nazi regime. Bormann is a little underutilised in historical fiction, so it was fascinating to see him used in this book, and he proved to be a despicable overarching villain for the story. Clements use of Nazi Germany as a setting for Hitler’s Secret was a brilliant move, and I felt that it helped take this story to the next level.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements was an outstanding fourth entry in the author’s thrilling Tom Wilde series. I loved the complex and captivating story that Clements came up with for this book, and he managed to produce an impressive historical thriller. Hitler’s Secret is a highly recommended book, and I had a wonderful and electrifying time reading it.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – September 1991)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Four

Length: 179 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this slightly belated Throwback Thursday, I continue my trend of the last couple of weeks by checking out another volume of Stan Sakai’s ground-breaking and utterly addictive Usagi Yojimbo series with the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. Reviewing all these Usagi Yojimbo books has proven to be a lot of fun, and I am really glad that I have been able to show off my love for this series (make sure to check out my reviews for volumes One, Two and Three). The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is another excellent early volume in this long-running series, which features a fantastic full-volume-length story.

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A storm is brewing throughout feudal Japan, as war and revolution against the Shogun lie just beyond the horizon. In his fortress, the ambitious and dastardly Lord Tamakuro has been plotting. Despite appearing to be a loyal supporter of the powerful Lord Hikiji, Tamakuro has his own plans to take control of the country and rule as Shogun, utilising an army of ronin armed with teppo, black powder guns imported from the barbarian lands outside of Japan.

However, despite his best attempts at discretion, Lord Tamakuro’s actions have not gone unnoticed. His neighbour, Lord Noriyuki, has sent his trusted advisor and bodyguard, Tomoe, to investigate Tamakuro’s castle, where she discovers the hidden armaments he is planning to use in his upcoming revolution. At the same time, Lord Hikiji, suspicious of Tamakuro’s true loyalties, has sent the notorious Neko Ninja clan to infiltrate his castle. When both Tomoe and the Neko Ninja are discovered, Tamakuro makes ready for war against all his opponents.

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Into this vast conspiracy walks the wandering ronin Miyamoto Usagi. A friend to Lord Noriyuki and Tomoe, Usagi witnesses Tomoe being captured and rushes to Tamakuro’s castle to save her. Despite his best efforts, Usagi finds himself outmatched by the powerful forces Tamakuro has pulled together. His only chance at saving his friend and averting a civil war is to team up with the Neko Ninja, a group he his fought many times in the past. Can Usagi and his new allies succeed, or will Tamakuro’s greed engulf the entire country? And what role will blind swordspig Zato-Ino and the bounty hunter Gennosuke play in the final battle?

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an outstanding and highly enjoyable comic that I have a huge amount of love for. Containing issues #13-18 of the Fantagraphics Books run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, this fourth volume is broken down into seven separate chapters. It is a major early edition in the series, as it contains a massive and wide-reaching story. This is the first storyline that takes up an entire volume (several notable stories do this later, such as the two Grasscutter volumes and the 33rd volume, The Hidden), and it presents the reader with an epic tale of war, friendship, honour, loyalty and uneasy alliances, while featuring a number of the best Usagi Yojimbo characters.

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The entire story contained within this fourth volume is quite spectacular and comes with minimal build-up from the Usagi Yojimbo issues that preceded this volume. Sakai does an amazing job introducing the relevant plot and new key players surrounding this storyline, and then telling a complex and detailed narrative within the confines of this one volume. In addition to the main conspiracy storyline, the story follows several different character-based storylines, all of which come together for one big epic confrontation. I really enjoyed where Sakai took the plot of this volume, and I liked how the story was broken up into several distinctive chunks defined by the respective chapter (the chapter names, which refer to parts of a storm, identify the intensity and importance of each chapter). The entire story is rather self-contained, and I think that the author did a great job wrapping it up and giving it several satisfying conclusions.

Like many of the Usagi Yojimbo issues out there, the true heart of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy’s story is the outstanding characters, many of whom have appeared in prior issues in the series. Usagi once again accidently finds himself in the midst of a vast conspiracy and must risk everything to save his friend and stop a war. If I am going to be honest, Usagi has one of the weaker arcs in this volume, with several of the side characters getting much more interesting storylines and more development. That being said, parts of Usagi’s story are fairly intriguing, such as when he manages to infiltrate Lord Tamakuro’s castle as a new retainer in order to rescue Tomoe, or his guilt-ridden dream sequence where his regret over his perceived failure manifests itself as a series of ghosts and monsters. Usagi also has the fun job of recruiting reluctant and unusual allies to his cause, such as the Neko Ninja or his old foe Zato-Ino. Indeed, his whole storyline is similar to classic Japanese films such as The Seven Samurai (the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven) or The Hidden Fortress (which served as an inspiration for the first Star Wars movie), as he recruits or forms alliances with various people in order to take down an evil opponent (in a castle, no less, for The Hidden Fortress fans). He also has some rather fantastic interactions with several different characters throughout the volume, and it results in some major developments in his relationships with them.

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While Usagi’s storyline is quite enjoyable, several returning supporting characters also have some substantial and impressive arcs throughout this book, and I really loved the way in which Sakai brings back a number of key characters from earlier issues in the series. The best character in this entire volume is the blind swordspig, Zato-Ino. Both of Ino’s previous storylines have been extremely impressive, so it was great to see him return again for another volume. Ino, who had already found some measure of peace thanks to his new companion, the tokage lizard Spot, finds some major redemption in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and he easily has the most character development. An entire chapter of this volume is dedicated to the eventual fate of Ino, and it was fantastic to see him finally find what he has been desperately searching for, even if he has to lose his only friend along the way. The rhino bounty hunter, Gennosuke, once again proves himself to be a fun and endearing character throughout this volume. Initially involved in a rather humorous hunt for Ino’s bounty, he finds himself working with him to fight Lord Tamakuro’s forces, although he always intends to betray him. However, Ino’s heroic actions end up changing his mind, and he once again reveals his hidden good nature by secretly assisting Ino and selflessly helping him. This is also the volume where Gen loses his horn, with all future versions of him appearing with just a small stump on his nose. His cut-off horn is quite an iconic look for the character, and after seeing him without out for all these years in later volumes, his earlier horned appearance just looks odd.

Recurring female samurai, Tomoe, also has an extremely strong appearance in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, as she finds herself captured within Lord Tamakuro’s castle quite early in the volume and is forced to resist his abuses. Tomoe has some great dialogue with Usagi about how her mission and her loyalty to Lord Noriyuki are more important than her own life, and she has to talk Usagi into abandoning her for the greater good. She also has a rather fantastic sequence where she manages to remain hidden in the fortress, right after she rides through various parts of the interior on a horse. I also really liked Shingen, the Neko Ninja chief who Usagi teams up within this volume. Shingen previously appeared in the Volume 3 story, The Shogun’s Gift, where he formed a great rivalry with Usagi. While the two clash in this volume, they eventually reach a level of mutual respect and work together for the greater good. Shingen gains multiple dimensions as a character in this volume, and it was interesting to see his discussion with Usagi about honour, and how even ninja have a code of duty. His story comes to a fantastic close towards the end of the volume, but Sakai really made him one of the standout characters of the volume: “A ninja’s duty in life is death!”

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In addition to the excellent inclusion of several amazing returning characters, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy also featured a couple of terrific new characters, who really helped bring this story together. The evil Lord Tamakuro was a really good villain for this volume, and Sakai did a fantastic job of showing of his greed, brutality and utter disregard for anything except his own power. Needless to say, he was a rather vile character who the reader cannot help but dislike, making his eventual comeuppance all the sweeter. The best new character in this volume has to be the leader of Tamakuro’s samurai army, Captain Torame. Torame is a loyal and capable warrior, who is forced to serve an evil lord who takes him for granted. He forms a bond with Usagi when the protagonist infiltrates the fortress under the guise of a mercenary ronin, and they have several discussions about bushido, loyalty and the ways in which a samurai must serve his lord. Usagi’s subsequent betrayal in order to rescue Tomoe enrages Torame, who takes it as a personal afront. This leads to a fantastic duel later in the volume, although not before Usagi and Torame have one final discussion, in which Usagi attempts to talk Torame into abandoning Tamakuro. Torame however refuses, as his strict adherence to the samurai code forbids him betraying his lord, even if it is clear he disagrees with Tamakuro’s plans:

“is samurai honour so important?”

“Yes”.

The result of the quick and brutal duel that follows visibly saddens Usagi, who was once again forced to fight a man he respected. This volume also sees the brief introduction of the Neko Ninja Chizu, a major recurring character in later volumes of the series, whose one scene in this book was rather fun.

The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an extremely action-packed volume that actually features some of the best action scenes in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series. I absolutely loved all the action sequences in this book, as Sakai did an incredible job illustrating them and bringing the fights to life. The main action set piece of this volume has to be the assault on Lord Tamakuro’s fortress by Usagi, Ino, Gen, Shingen and a force of Neko Ninja armed with explosives, as they attempt to rescue Tomoe and put an end to Tamakuro’s ambitions. This entire extended action sequence is exceedingly impressive, and it was really cool to see all the characters engage in a massive battle throughout a castle complex. I also have to say how incredibly awesome it was to see a force of ninja face off against an army of samurai, predominately armed with European muskets. This made for some incredible fight scenes, all of which I really and truly loved. I also have to highlight a couple of duel sequences that occurred earlier in the volume. The first of this was a great fight between Usagi and Shingen, as the two face off against each other in a quick fight to the death. This duel focuses on the extreme clash of styles between the two, as Usagi had to contend with all manner of traps and ambushes before he got anywhere near this foe. However, this duel pales in comparison to the awesome fight between Ino and Gen that occurred towards the middle of the volume. This two engage in an incredible and beautifully drawn fight that lasted several pages. This fight did a fantastic job showing of their respective skills with the sword, and this fight helps feed into Sakai’s love for classic Japanese films, as this duel was essentially Zatoichi vs Yojimbo. This volume featured some first-rate action, which is really worth checking out.

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In addition to the extremely well-drawn action sequences, Sakai has filled this volume with some truly incredibly examples of his artistic style. This volume features so many impressive and iconic Japanese buildings, landscapes, traditional outfits and other aspects of the country, that the reader can’t help but feel they have been transported back to feudal Japan. I particularly loved the way he included a number of stormy backgrounds throughout this volume. The continued artistic rendering of rain, clouds, mud, wind and storms throughout the entirety of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy really helped to set the mood of the entire volume, and I loved how the intensity of the storm seemed to match the volume’s story. I really enjoyed how a number of pages were streaked with massive bolts of lightning across cloudy or darkened skies, and several scenes, particularly the duel between Ino and Gen, were majorly enhanced by this artistic inclusion. As usual, this art does an amazing job backing up the volume’s fantastic stories, and I was once again left stunned by Sakai’s obvious and incredible artistic talent.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, is another exceptional and captivating comic which I am awarding a full five-star rating. Sakai is a truly incredible writer and artist, and this fourth volume did a fantastic job highlighting his talents for both. Not only does this volume feature some amazing and distinctive drawings, but it also contains an outstanding and enjoyable story backed up by some awesome characters. Sakai did an awesome job bringing together several key recurring characters into a compelling and well-written narrative, which I once again fell in love with. The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is really worth checking out, and is a must read for fans of the masterpiece that is the Usagi Yojimbo series.

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