Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

Into the Fire

Publisher: Michael Joseph/Brilliance Audio (Audiobook – 28 January 2020)

Series: Orphan X – Book Five

Length: 12 hours

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of bestselling thriller author Gregg Hurwitz comes an outstanding and captivating adventure novel, Into the Fire, the latest book in his amazing Orphan X series.

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, a former orphan child who was taken in by a secret covert government and trained from a young age to become the most skilled assassin and special operator in the world. Orphan X served his country for years before finally having enough and leaving, pursued by the people who ordered his creation. Resettling to Los Angeles, Evan forged a new identity for himself as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante dedicated to helping those in desperate need who have no one else to turn to.

After killing his greatest enemy, the United States President, Evan has had enough of violence and is determined to retire and live a quiet life. But before he leaves everything behind, Evan has decided to help one more person as The Nowhere Man, as one final act of redemption. Enter Max Merriweather, a poor construction worker in LA. Two months earlier his cousin Grant, a successful forensic accountant, entrusted Max with an envelope and instructions to take it to a reporter if anything happened to him. Now Grant is dead, an armed thug is ransacking Max’s apartment and the reporter he was told to contact has been murdered. With nowhere else left to turn, Max calls The Nowhere Man.

Taking on Max’s case, Evan dives into LA’s criminal underbelly in order to locate the people hunting Max. Easily finding the thugs responsible for Grant’s death, Evan manages to eliminate them quickly; however, it turns out that they are just the tip of an iceberg stretching throughout the entirety of LA. Grant was on the verge of uncovering a massive conspiracy, and his evidence could put away a lot of dangerous people who are now determined to kill Max to keep him quiet. Determined to keep Max safe, Evan soon finds himself embroiled in one of the most challenging and complicated missions of his life, as behind every corner a new adversary lies, each one more powerful and connected than the last. Can even this legendary assassin and vigilante win with the odds so severely stacked against him?

Gregg Hurwitz is a veteran thriller author who has been producing compelling and exciting novels since his 1999 debut, The Tower. Since then he has written over 20 novels, including his Tim Rackley series, The Rains Brothers books and several standalone novels. He has also contributed to several DC and Marvel comic book series, such as Batman: The Dark Knight and The Punisher, and he also does a bit of screenwriting, having written several episodes of the 2009 remake of V. Hurwitz’s main body of work at the moment is his Orphan X series, which started in 2016 with the novel Orphan X. Into the Fire is the fifth book in the Orphan X series and follows on shortly after the events of the fourth book, Out of the Dark. I actually got into Hurwitz’s works last year when I read Out of the Dark due its cool story premise of a former secret agent attempting to kill the President. After I enjoyed this fun action thriller last year, I was definitely keen to check out more of Hurwitz’s work and I have been looking forward to Into the Fire for a little while now.

Now, I have to admit that while I was interested in checking out Into the Fire, I was a little worried that Hurwitz was going to have a hard time topping his previous novel and its outrageous central plot point. However, Into the Fire turned out to be an outstanding read which I ended up enjoying more than Out of the Dark. Hurwitz has produced an incredible thriller that is filled with intense action, clever plot developments and an excellent character-driven central story. All of these amazing elements combine together perfectly into a novel which can easily be read as either a continuation of the series or as a compelling standalone novel.

One of the best parts of this novel is the well-written and captivating central thriller storyline which sees the protagonist attempt to take down a criminal conspiracy in the heart of LA. What starts out as a relatively simple mission to take down a small-time criminal organisation quickly morphs into a massive task, as each time Evan thinks he has succeeded, a larger and more dangerous adversary appears behind the people he has just taken out. There are so many twists and turns in this novel, you honestly don’t know when or where it is going to end, and the story goes in some very fun and clever directions. I really enjoyed how the author layered his story with seemingly innocuous comments and discussion that later morphed into major plot payoffs later down the line in the book, and I was actually surprised about a few of the reveals that occurred.

I really liked the overarching plot idea of an elite secret agent going after everyday criminals with his full range of tradecraft, advanced weapons and training, especially as it resulted in some amazing sequences throughout the book. The protagonist comes up with some truly unique, clever and at times brutal ways to take down some of his opponents, which were fun to check out. I know I will never look at a plastic drinking straw the same way again. My personal favourite part of the book are several chapters where the protagonist breaks into a prison to deal with one of his targets. The various ways that he infiltrated the prison, pulled off his mission and then escaped was not only clever but also very entertaining, and I loved every single second of it. I also really liked how Hurwitz introduced a handicap for his protagonist throughout this book in the form of a severe concussion obtained early on in the story. The author did an excellent job portraying the symptoms of a concussion, and it was interesting to watch the protagonist struggle to complete his tasks with blurred vision or a massive headache. The concussion angle was a great way to amp the risk surrounding the protagonist’s actions, as it actually put many of his opponents on an equal footing with this former elite special agent and was a fantastic inclusion to the story. Overall, this turned out to be an extremely well-written and deeply exciting thriller storyline, which proves to be quite addictive and captivating.

I was also quite impressed by the way that Hurwitz spent time examining and developing the central characters of this book. In particular, there is a fascinating focus on the complex character of Evan Smoak, who is the main protagonist of this series. Hurwitz has always done an amazing job of portraying Evan as a man very much haunted by his past lives, both as an abandoned child and as an assassin who was trained to kill since the age of 12. Both of these parts of his life still drive him, and his whole persona as The Nowhere Man is a form of redemption for him, as he attempts to not only atone for the lives he took as Orphan X but to also help those who feel as powerless as he did when he was a young child. Hurwitz continues to utilise this characterisation in Into the Fire, although this time it is further complicated by his plans to retire after this one final mission. This whole retirement angle is a major concern for Evan, as he spends a good part of the book weighing up the good he does as The Nowhere Man against all the personal benefits of attempting to live a normal life. This makes for a lot of internal conflict, which forces the author to once again dive into Evan’s motivations for being a vigilante, which adds a great dramatic edge to the entire story.

This consideration about having a more normal life is also explored in the way that the trained loner Evan starting to learn more about human interaction and relationships in this book. Part of this takes place in the way that he interacts with Joey, the teenage hacker and former Orphan trainee he saved and took under his wing. Evan has inadvertently taken on the role of a father figure to Joey, and it was great to see him continue to act protective towards her and see their unique relationship grow. There is also the rather amusing and awkward interactions that he has with the residence of his building. Despite not wanting to have much to do with them, he actually goes out of his way to protect them, and he is actually shown to care quite deeply when one of them is hurt. Finally, there is the complex relationship he has with Mia, the single mother and ADA in his building who he has feelings for but has driven away with his acts of vigilantism. All of these interactions help Evan develop more as a character and recover a little more of his lost humanity, and I really enjoyed the way that Hurwitz explored such a complex and damaged protagonist.

While most of the book’s focus is on Evan, Hurwitz also dives into the life of Evan’s latest client, Max Merriweather. Max, who serves as a significant point-of-view character, is a down-on-his-luck individual who is dragged into the events of this book by his more successful cousin. Throughout the course of Into the Fire, you get to learn about the past of Max, showing how, due to events outside of his control, he has always been seen as the family screw-up, something he has struggled to escape due to his corresponding low self-confidence. You also get to see the history of his tragic marriage, and how doing the right thing cost him everything. I really liked the way that Hurwitz took the time to explore the life of this new client, especially as it develops him into a much more sympathetic character that reader becomes invested in over the course of the book. I also liked the relationship he slowly built up with Evan, as each of them were able to provide some help in solving the deeper emotional or personal issues that were affecting the other. This excellent character was an outstanding and distinctive part of the book, and I am definitely keen to see what excellent characters are introduced in the next Orphan X book, especially after the intriguing reveal at the end of Into the Fire.

I ended up enjoying the audiobook format of Into the Fire, which was narrated by Scott Brick. This audiobook runs for a substantial 12 hours in length, but I got through it rather quickly, as I got really drawn in by the cool and compelling story. I personally found that this was an excellent way to consume this fantastic book, and I had a great time listening to the story. Brick is an excellent audiobook narrator who has a lot of experience bringing thriller novels to life. I previously enjoyed his narration of The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry, and I am currently listening to his narration of the sequel, The Warsaw Protocol. Brick did a wonderful job bringing the characters in Into the Fire to life, and I felt that he utilised perfect voices for each of them. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Into the Fire, as it is an amazing way to enjoy this book.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz is an incredible read that comes highly recommended. This latest book in the fantastic Orphan X series is an outstanding piece of thriller fiction, which sets its complex characters down an action-packed road of intrigue and twists to produce a five-star read. Hurwitz has really outdone himself with Into the Fire, which turned out to be one hell of a book. I cannot wait to see where Hurwitz takes the Orphan X series next, but I will definitely be grabbing a copy of his next book when it comes out.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

the ember blade cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber

Death Troopers Cover.jpg

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook Edition 13 October 2009)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 6 hours 42 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

 

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

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I look at an entertaining blend of horror and Star Wars with Death Troopers, a book from the Star Wars Legends collection which I listened to in its audiobook format.

Death Troopers is set a short time before the events of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.  The Imperial prison barge Purge is the temporary home of the galaxy’s worst criminals, rebels and murderers.  Carrying over 500 prisoners, as well as guards, stormtroopers and other personnel, the ship is a floating hive of scum and villainy, where the guards are just as bad as the inmates.  En route to a permanent prison facility, the engines fail, stranding the Purge in an uninhabited area of space.  Rescue appears to be weeks away, unless the crew can fix the engines.  The discovery of an apparently deserted Star Destroyer offers hope to the Purge’s crew, but the ghost ship contains a dark secret.

A boarding party sent to scavenge parts for the Purge inadvertently brings back something lethal: a virus that spreads incredibly fast and soon infects everyone aboard the ship.  Within hours, only a few survivors are left alive: the ship’s compassionate doctor, the sadistic captain of the guards, two young teenage brothers and a certain pair of smugglers.  However, these survivors soon discover that the sudden and bloody death of everyone on the ship is the least of their problems.  Shortly after dying the bodies of the Purge’s crew and passengers violently reanimate.  These creatures are driven, unstoppable and have a hunger for the flesh of the living.  As the survivors attempt to flee the Purge, they soon find that the Star Destroyer above is not as abandoned as they had believed.  The dead have risen, and their greatest desire is to infect the entire Star Wars universe.

Zombies!  In a Star Wars book!  How can I possibly resist that?  No seriously, tell me how it is even possible not to check out a book with that sort of premise.

Death Troopers is a 2009 release from horror, thriller and tie-in novel author Joe Schreiber, who wrote several fun-sounding books between 2006 and 2015.  These novels include two additional Star Wars novels, all of which fall in the Star Wars Legends line of novels.  Indeed, his third Star Wars novel, 2014’s Maul: Lockdown, was actually the last novel released in the Star Wars Legends series of books.  His other Star Wars novel, 2011’s Red Harvest, is a prequel to Death Trooper, and is set in the Old Republic, thousands of years before the events of Death Troopers.

The Star Wars Legends series of books is the current incarnation of the old Star Wars expanded universe, which, in addition to the six Star Wars movies that George Lucas produced, included all the books, comics, video games and television series that were endorsed by Lucasfilm.  All of these entries were considered canon, so at one point there were actually proper zombies in the Star Wars canon.  While the original expanded universe did have a dedicated fan base, it did not survive the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm intact.  In order to allow for the new movies, Disney declared that, with the exception of the films and The Clone Wars television show, everything created before 25 April 2014 would no longer be considered canon.  However, rather than disavow all of these previous Star Wars media items, Disney rebranded this original expanded universe as the Star Wars Legends collection and kept it as a deep pool of ideas and characters for any future writers of the franchise.

It’s no secret that I am a bit of a Star Wars fan, having reviewed several tie-in books and comics in the last year.  While my current interest mostly lies within Disney’s expanded universe, I did grow up with a number of books and games in what is now the Star Wars Legends range.  Star Wars books and comics are going to form a significant part of my upcoming Throwback Thursday entries, but I had not intended to dive back into the Star Wars Legends range until I had gotten through all the books in the Disney expanded universe, as I wanted to stick with what is currently canon.  However, I happened to come across the cover and plot synopsis for Death Troopers the other day, and the moment I saw it I knew that I had to read it.  I immediately grabbed an audiobook copy, narrated by Sean Kenin, and started listening to it.

While I loved the plot synopsis, I was worried that Death Troopers was going to be a Star Wars novel first that featured some light zombie elements and minimal gore.  However, what I was not expecting was an extremely terrifying and well-written zombie novel that makes full use of its Star Wars setting to create a dark, gruesome and somewhat scary story.  I was very impressed with Schrieber’s ability to craft an amazing zombie novel.  His creations are pretty darn terrifying, especially as the author paints some detailed and horrifying descriptions to go along with his story.  The introduction of the zombies is done perfectly, in my opinion, as Schreiber goes for a slow burn approach.  Following the introduction of the virus, the book’s survivors slowly explore the ship, searching for a way to escape.  The author slowly builds up the tension by having things move around out of the characters’ sight, the bodies slowly disappear, bloody handprints appear in places and the characters hear all sorts of noises.  The characters of course have no idea what is happening, and blame their imagination or paranoia, but the reader knows full well what is happening.  Even when the first zombie is actually seen, panic and realisation still does not immediately set in for the rest of the characters, much to the reader’s frustration.  It is not until well after halfway through Death Troopers that the zombies are revealed in all their horror, and from there the pace of the book picks up, as the characters must find a way to quickly get away from the creatures hunting them.  This slow introduction of the zombies was a fantastic part of the book and represents some outstanding horror writing from Schreiber.

Despite this being a Star Wars novel, Schreiber does not dial back on the blood, gore or horror, and there are quite a few dark scenes throughout the book.  I was on the edge of my seat for quite a lot of it and felt that this was a great piece of horror fiction.  There are quite a few dark scenes, such as cannibalism, jaunts in rooms full of body parts and some fairly gross surgical scenes, all of which Schreiber describes in shocking detail.  I did find the story to be a bit predictable in places, and it was pretty easy to predict which of the characters would live or die.  There were also quite a few unanswered questions (what the hell was the lung room for?), although they may be answered in the prequel book Schreiber wrote a couple of years later.  I also thought that the way Schreiber ended the plot line about the zombies attempting to escape the Star Destroyer and infect the rest of the universe was a bit of an anti-climax, but overall this was a pretty fun story that I quite enjoyed.

I felt that Schreiber was quite clever in his use of the Star Wars elements throughout Death Troopers.  It is quite obvious that Schreiber is a fan of the franchise and he has a wonderful understanding of the history, technology and characters that have appeared in other Star Wars works.  As a result, he is able to craft an excellent Star Wars setting for this story that presents the reader a good idea of how this book appears in relation to the rest of the franchise.  However, what I really liked was how Schreiber did not overuse the Star Wars elements, and the reader’s focus was never taken away from the zombie part of the book.  I also felt that several of the Star Wars elements really helped to enhance the horror aspects of the book.  Having the familiar turn into something different can often be quite scary for people, and to see the often-ridiculed Imperial Stormtrooper turned into a ravenous, mutilated zombie was quite something.  The inclusion of fan favourite characters Han Solo and Chewbacca was also a nice touch.  Not only do you have some familiar characters for the readers to enjoy but you also raise the stakes of the story when both of these beloved characters come close to being eaten by zombies.

Another benefit of combining Star Wars and zombie fiction is that for once characters are completely justified in not knowing what a zombie is.  There are quite a few other major zombie movies or television shows set in fictional worlds that are supposed to mirror ours, and yet the protagonists have no idea what zombies are, despite how much they are used in fiction.  This always frustrates me, and while it was a minor thing, I was very happy to read a book where the character’s lack of understanding about zombies is completely understandable.  Overall, I really liked how the author presented the Star Wars elements within the book, and I was impressed by the way he used it to make the zombie elements even scarier.

If you are tempted to check this book out, I would highly recommend that you listen to the book in its audiobook format.  At just over six and a half hours, this did not take me a long time to get through, but I was absolutely amazed at how much the audiobook format enhanced the story.  This is mainly down to the fantastic sound effects that were scattered throughout the story.  The producers of this book did a superb job inserting a range of zombie sound effects throughout the background of the book’s narration.  This includes sounds such as screams, disturbing eating sounds, moans and other assorted sounds of horror, with the continued screams being particularly off-putting.  None of these sounds overwhelm or totally distract from the narration, but I found hearing them when the narrator describes a horror scene really enhanced the tension and dread I experienced.  I also thought that the disconnected, whispered and screamed echoes of the chapter names was a very nice touch and it really added to the overall atmosphere of the book. In addition to these horror based sound effects, there are quite a few classic Star Wars sound effects for the reader to enjoy and get nostalgic about, including some of the classic music from the movies.

Sean Kenin’s narration was also extremely well done, as the narrator was able to create a series of fun and distinctive voices.  I thought that Kenin’s Han Solo was very convincing, and it sounded a lot like the movie version of the character.  I also found that having this horror story narrated to me helped bring me into the centre of the action and really experience the horror and dread that was present there.  The narration of the descriptions can be a bit disturbing at times, and I would recommend not eating during one or two scenes; trust me on that.  As a result, I would highly recommend that people wanting to check out Death Troopers should definitely use the audiobook version of it, as in my opinion it does an amazing job enhancing this already fun story.

I am happy to say that I was not disappointed by this entertaining combination of zombie literature and the iconic Star Wars universe.  This was a pretty dark story, which also includes some familiar elements from a franchise that I truly love.  Because of this I had an outstanding time reading Death Troopers and felt that it was a great example of both a zombie novel and a piece of Star Wars fiction.  In my mind the book itself is four stars out of five, but I had so much fun with its audiobook format that I am raising it up to four and a quarter stars.  An overall fantastic and unique read, Death Troopers is really worth checking out for fans of either zombies or Star Wars and is perfect for those who love both.  I am very curious to check out Schreiber’s other Star Wars books in the future, as both of them sound like a lot of fun.

#MurderTrending by Gretchen McNeil

#MurderTrending Cover.jpg

Publisher: Freeform Books

Australian Publication Date – 25 September 2018

World Publication Date – 7 August 2018

 

From one of young adult fiction’s most thrilling authors comes a dark and captivating story of death and madness that is really going to trend online.

When seventeen-year-old Dee Guerrera awakens in a strange room dressed in a princess outfit, she knows she is about to be executed on live TV.  Falsely convicted of the murder of her stepsister, Dee has been sentenced to die on Alcatraz 2.0, America’s most popular reality television show.  Created by a mysterious television producer known only as The Postman, Alcatraz 2.0 is an island prison where America’s most notorious inmates are hunted down by a series of flamboyant and beloved executioners.

So when Dee comes face to face with one of these killers, she’s supposed to run into his murder room and suffer a terrible death for the entertainment of the masses.  However, Dee has other plans, and goes off script in a major way.  Her actions will make her the most notorious girl in the world and move her to the top of every executioner’s kill list.  Teaming up with a posse of other teenage inmates, Dee needs to quickly learn the rules of this island and figure out a way to avoid being picked off by the psychopaths stalking her.  Can Dee and her new friends, the Death Row Breakfast Club, stay alive long enough to prove Dee’s innocence?  A ghost from her past is haunting her, and Dee doesn’t have much time before her execution goes viral.

Gretchen McNeil is an experienced young adult fiction writer, whose previous work includes several books aimed at the older teen audience.  These include the horror suspense book Ten, the supernatural thriller Possess and teen murder mystery series Don’t Get Mad.  #MurderTrending is the seventh book from McNeil, and it follows in a similar vein to her previous books, with teenage protagonists fighting against a dark, murderous force.  #MurderTrending is an extremely fast-paced and crazy read that proves to be very entertaining, and is the first part of McNeil’s MurderTrending series.  A second book in this series has already been announced and #MurderFunding will be released next August, with an interesting-sounding connection to the first book.

The concept of a group of people being hunted or pitted against each other in an isolated area with the whole world watching is an idea that has been utilised many times before.  Movies and shows such as The Condemned, Death Race, Battle Royale, Dead Man Wonderland and The Hunger Games have all used this concept in one way or another.  I personally think that the plot of #MurderTrending is very similar to The Running Man, with eccentrically dressed hunters chasing after criminals, although it is easy to build a connection between this book and The Hunger Games due to the focus on teenagers.  I think that the author is very aware of these previous movies, as not only does the main character mention The Hunger Games within the book, but one of the other protagonists continually quotes old action movies, including several Arnold Schwarzenegger classics.  While this plot device has been used before, McNeil introduces some new elements, while also doubling down on the concept by making his killers and their executions as crazy and over the top as possible.  The killers in particular are extremely eccentric and include among others, an explosive orientated hipster, two murderous twins, a fashionista with some deadly accessories and a Prince Charming stand-in who hunts girls dressed as princesses through a trap-filled maze while brandishing an oversized cake knife.  As a result, this version of the prison reality television show is particularly amusing, and the over-the-top kills sometimes come across as more humorous than sinister.

While the overarching plot premise of an island prison has been used before, McNeil cleverly enhances this story with some great imitation of the current social media and internet communities.  The entire adventure is being livestreamed to the outside world, and is considered to be the most popular form of entertainment in America.  As a result, the world is constantly talking about the murders on social media, and the author has included sections of a number of fictional forums at the end of several chapters, where various online personalities talk about the events in a number of ways.  This includes praise for the inventive kills, requests, opinions on the various inmates, conspiracy theories and competitions to make the most viral #.  These are particularly intriguing and compelling inclusions that also add a bit of realism to the story, as the reader can easily imagine that social media activity like this would totally happen in a dystopian world where executions are streamed as a form of entertainment.  In addition to all the discussion and use of social media in the story, the protagonist also talks about the various internet fandoms, fan clubs, gambling, merchandise, shipping, fan theories, fan fiction and message boards that have formed up around Alcatraz 2.0.  This is again a fascinating inclusion, with a smack of predictive realism to it, and I utterly loved McNeil’s inventive and modern inclusions around the classic murder prison/reality show concept.  It also sounds like this concept will become a major part of the next book in the series, and I am very keen to see how that turns out.

I thought that the overall story for this book was very well done and created an intriguing and entertaining narrative that was really easy to enjoy.  In addition to her ingenious use of the overarching plot device and setting, McNeil has also created a compelling and thrilling story that is filled with a number of great twists and intense scenes where the book’s fun characters are put into real peril.  While the reveal of the final boss is strongly tied into the character’s past, and isn’t too shocking, how that character gets there is fairly clever, and the twist about the mastermind of the island was pretty surprising.  While the ease with which the protagonist was able to defeat some of the infamous murderers who served as secondary antagonists at the end of the book is a bit unbelievable, I did find myself really hooked on this great story, and I powered through the book to find out how it was going to end.

#MurderTrending is marketed towards a young adult audience, and it’s the sort of amusing and crazy book I would have enjoyed when I was younger.  Due to the large amount of violence and pretty graphic killings, I would suggest that this book is probably more appropriate for an older teenage audience, but based on today’s standards it’s really not too bad.  Out of all the potential readers, the older teenage audience will probably enjoy McNeil’s use of social media and internet cultures the most, as they will be able to relate to the characters and fandom subculture of the people posting on social media within the book.  This is one of those young adult books that would really appeal to older readers, and I would really recommend this to anyone who is looking for an enjoyable and over-the-top read.

Gretchen McNeil is once again at top form as she presents a bloody and action-packed young adult adventure.  Featuring a fun and unrestrained take on a classic fictional plot device and some very ingenious use of current social media and internet trends, this extremely entertaining story is a fantastic read for both teenagers and older readers alike.  #MurderTrending is one of the craziest reads of 2018, and I cannot wait to see what insanity McNeil brings to her next adventure.

My Rating:

Four stars