The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a literal journey into darkness with one of the most unique and insanely entertaining horror novels of 2021, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.

Jeremy Robinson is a bestselling author of science fiction and horror who has been producing some amazing novels of the last few years.  Since his debut in the early 2000s, Robinson has written a massive number of novels, including several fantastic sounding series, such as his Nemesis Saga, as well as a big collection of compelling standalone novels.  I have been meaning to read some of Robinson’s books for a while, especially as one of his series, the Chess Team novels, are part of a somewhat shared universe with Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels.  After seeing several mentions of Chess Team in Maberry’s novels, I got curious and had to have a look at Robinson’s catalogue of work.  I really love the sound of some of Robinson’s books, especially his Chess Team novels, which follow a special forces team at work against mythical threats, and the Nemesis Saga, which presents a new look at the Kaiju genre.  Before diving into these series, I thought it might be good to get an idea of Robinson’s writing style, and so I decided to read his latest standalone novel, The Dark.  I am extremely glad that I decided to check this out, as The Dark ended up being an incredible horror read that I deeply enjoyed.

Miah Gray is a messed up former army soldier, struggling with PTSD and other symptoms after his time in Afghanistan.  Now living with his mother, sister and stepfather in an upscale New Hampshire neighbourhood, Miah spends most of his time being the neighbourhood’s resident weirdo, avoiding his troubles with prescribed cannabis and holding out hopes that his crush, Jen, will notice him.  Managing to convince Jen to get high and watch a meteor shower on his roof one night, Miah thinks that his life is finally turning around.  However, nothing in his wildest dreams could prepare him for what is to come next.

Awakening the next morning, Miah and Jen are shocked to discover that the sun has been blotted out and the entire neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness.  With no communications, limited power, and no working artificial lights, Miah and his family attempt to adjust to the crazy events occurring around them.  All available evidence suggests that an obscure religious doomsday prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness is coming true, with the lore indicating that the only way to survive is to barricade yourself in your home and cover the windows.  Despite the blacked-out sun, Miah is dubious about this being a religious event, until a bright light from the heavens brands his forehead with an old Norse rune and an unholy army of demons invades.

Dark shapes are twisting their way through the neighbourhood, luring people outside and brutally dragging them away to an unknown fate, while even more terrifying figures lurk in the shadow.  Attempting to ride out the storm at home, Miah is forced into action when his parents are taken.  Leading a small group of survivors through the horrors outside, Miah attempts to save who he can while also trying to find a way to rescue those who were taken.  But as Miah and his friends flee through the surrounding demons and devils, a far more dangerous threat is waiting to assail them.  The rune on Miah’s head is starting to change him into something angry and inhuman.  Now forced to resist his own mind, Miah will need to dig deep than ever before if he wants to survive what is coming, even as it drags him straight to the gates of Hell.

Wow, now that was awesome.  When I started this novel, I strongly suspected I was going to love it, especially as it had a fantastic sounding plot, but I was unprepared for how much fun The Dark turned out to be.  Robinson has created an exceptional and dark horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your toes from the very start all the way to the finish.  I had an outstanding time listening to this book and there was no way I could give anything less than a five-star rating.

Robinson has come up with a pretty awesome story for The Dark, and I loved this unique horror tale.  The Dark has a great start to it, and the author manages to do a lot in a very short amount of time, thoroughly introducing the main character, Miah, while also setting up several of the other major supporting characters.  The novel’s big change from normal times to darkness occurs early in the novel, as soon as all groundwork has been established, so the protagonist can run right into the craziness.  It does not take long for events to go sideways, with danger and despair all around as everything goes to hell, literally.  The centre of the novel is extremely entertaining, as the protagonist meets a range of different people hunkering down through the apocalypse and slowly builds up a fun group of survivors.  At the same time, some of the characters, including Miah, are forced to face an inner evil that has been brought on by these dark events.  This internal battle for control and the elements that introduce it are very cleverly established, and it adds a fantastic new edge to the plot, especially as at times it seems like the only point-of-view protagonist is about to irrevocably snap.  All this leads up to an epic conclusion as the protagonist journeys to a very evil place and comes face to face with some startling revelations and immense horrors, as well as some interesting story threads for the future.

I felt that this was an exceptional story, and I deeply enjoyed the outstanding combination of action, horror and comedy that was expertly bundled throughout the novel.  It is rare to find a story that can alternately thrill, traumatise, and entertain in short succession, but The Dark does that in spades.  It was gloriously entertaining and there was honestly not a single moment in this book that failed to keep my attention.  The action sequences are crisp and fantastic, and you get a real sense of the intense violence happening all around the protagonist.  I also really loved the horror feel that this novel had, especially as Robinson is a master of building up tension and suspense.  Readers should be aware that there are a quite a few extremely gory scenes throughout the book, and Robinson does not hold back on the gruesome descriptions.  I liked how the author switched the tone of the novel around two-thirds of the way through, with the horror focus moving away from fear of the unknown to a more extreme and science fiction based narrative.  I did think that the sudden appearance of certain groups in the big finale were a bit coincidental and could have been telegraphed slightly better, but this really did not cut down on my enjoyment of the story, and I was still blown away with the cool action sequences that were featured in this part of the book.  This was a really good standalone horror story, and I was deeply impressed with the exceptional narrative that Robinson featured in this book.

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Dark were the cool monsters and horror elements that Robinson came up with.  The entire concept of the novel revolves around dangerous creatures who come out during an eclipse of the sun that covers the entire setting in darkness, while also wreaking havoc on human technology.  Not only are these monsters pretty freaky and deadly, but Robinson builds up an intriguing mythology around them.  Because the protagonists have no idea what they are facing, the entire phenomenon is attributed to a religious event, especially as there is a coincidental Christian prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness which will purge those who leave their house.  Once the monsters appear, the characters initially identify them as demons, due to their unique look, ability to replicate voices and their dark and disturbing laughter.  I found these attempts by the protagonists to understand what is happening to them to be really fascinating, and it involves some fun looks at mythology and ancient lore.  The character’s understanding of these creatures evolves and changes over time, as there are some new freaky bits of context, and I thought it was pretty cool the way that Robinson was able to adapt these horror elements.  I also must highlight the terrifying setting of Hell, where the protagonists eventually end up.  There are some pretty dark and excessively gruesome aspects to this location, and it was a very fitting location for the big finale.  Overall, I really liked the cool creatures and mythology that Robinson brings to The Dark and it was so much fun to see these monsters tear through a typical suburban neighbourhood.

Easily one of the best things about The Dark were the complex and impressive characters that the narrative was set around.  The most prominent of these was central protagonist and point-of-view character, Miah, a former soldier who returned from the war even more messed up then before.  Initially a bit of a weirdo loner, Miah soon evolves into a more heroic figure, especially as he takes the lead during the demonic invasion, saving several people he comes across and leading the survivors to either safety or battle.  Miah is a very deep protagonist, and I really enjoyed the impressive and powerful examination of his inner trauma and the mental burdens he carries after his time in the army.  Robinson really tries to make Miah as complex as possible, and he even works some of his own personal experiences with trauma into his protagonist’s psyche.  It was great to see him evolve throughout the course of the book, especially once he has the fate of several other people on his hands, and these events help him grow and overcome his previous experiences.  Miah is also an extremely entertaining protagonist to follow, especially as he has a great sense of humour, is constantly high and initially does not take anything seriously, even when all the lights go out.  This combination results in Miah doing some unusual things, including wearing one of his sister’s skirts for the first third of the novel (it’s weird, but it works).  Most of the book’s humour comes from his flippant narration of the weird events occurring around him, and even once stuff gets really serious, he still has plenty of fun jokes or odd observations about what he encounters.  I loved his outrageous outlook on the world, and I ended up really appreciating Robinson’s fantastic choice of protagonist.

Aside from Miah, Robinson also comes up with some other fantastic characters who go through these apocalyptic events with him.  All these characters are set up extremely well when they are introduced, and Robinson does a great job quickly examining their personalities and expanding on them throughout the course of the book.  There are several fun characters featured throughout The Dark, although my favourite two are probably Bree and Emma, two younger girls who end up part of Miah’s group.  Despite their youth, these two characters are extremely capable and quickly adapt to the weird new world that they live in.  This is in part due to them being branded like Miah, which slowly changes their personalities, turning them into something different.  Both characters react to their branding in different ways, with the eight-year-old Bree more swiftly losing her humanity.  It was pretty fun to see this young kid become more and more bloodthirsty as the novel progresses, and there are some great moments where Miah tries to control her.  It looks likes Robinson has some plans for both Miah and Bree in the future (Demon Dog and Laser Chicken for the win), and I look forward to them turning up again.

While I was checking out some of Robinson’s novels, one of the things that stood out to me was that all his novels have been converted to my favourite format, the audiobook, and that a good proportion of these were narrated by R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very talented and entertaining narrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed in some of Michael Mammay’s science fiction novels, Planetside and Colonyside (the latter being one of the better audiobooks I have listened to so far this year).  After seeing Bray’s name attached to The Dark, there was no way that I was not going to grab it on audiobook, which proved to be a very, very smart decision.

The Dark audiobook has a runtime of just under ten and a half hours, although I found myself absolutely powering through it, especially once I got into the story.  I felt that the audiobook format worked extremely well with The Dark’s first-person perspective, and the audiobook was able to progress at a really quick pace.  Bray really shined as a narrator in The Dark, and I loved the way that he presented the horrifying and intense events occurring around the characters.  Bray does an excellent job voicing the various characters in The Dark, and I particularly liked the way that he dove into voicing central protagonist Miah.  While I was initially a little dubious that Bray, who I have only previously heard voicing tough military characters, would manage with a more immature character like Miah, it ended up working really well.  Bray expertly gets inside the head of the main character voicing, and he quickly portrays Miah in all his doped-up, entertaining glory.  I think that Bray had a lot of fun voicing Miah (despite certain comments that the character makes about fancy audiobook narrators), and he did a great job presenting both the goofy side of the character and his more serious nature.  This ability to dive into Miah’s personality really enhanced the character and the overall story and I really enjoyed all the emotion that Bray threw into him.  I also liked some of the other voices that he did for The Dark, with all the characters ending up with some distinctive and fitting voices, even the younger ones.  This excellent voice work really helps to turn The Dark into an outstanding audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Dark.  Also, it has bloopers at the end, which were pretty damn fun.

While The Dark is a standalone novel that can be read with no prior knowledge of Robinson’s other works, it does have interesting connections that I need to mention.  There is a big reveal at the end of the book which ties The Dark together with a previous standalone novel that was a released a couple of years ago.  While I have not read this previous novel, it was a fun connection, and, after deeply enjoying The Dark, it got me in the mood to check out some of Robinson’s other books.  I also looked at Robinson’s website after finishing The Dark and there was a very interesting post about this that has made me appreciate this novel a little more.  Apparently The Dark is an entry in a wider joint universe, known as the Infinite Timeline, which already features several novels that Robinson has released in recent years.  The Dark is part of a sub-series within this universe, and it is linked together with the above-mentioned previous novel and an upcoming novel, Mind Bullet.  This sub-series will continue to become even more linked, eventually leading to another novel, Khaos, before it, and two other sub-series, made up of 11 novels in total, will have a big crossover in the 2023 novel, Singularity.  While this does not impact who can check out The Dark, I think it is pretty awesome that Robinson is attempting to create this massive joint universe, and it has really got me intrigued.  I am now extremely tempted to try and check out the rest of the entries in this joint universe before Singularity is released, and it should be a very interesting couple of years if I do.

Overall, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson was an epic and relentlessly exciting horror novel that I had an incredible time reading.  Thanks to its captivating story, complex characters and unique horror elements, The Dark was an outstanding book and it ended up being one of the most entertaining and compelling audiobooks I have enjoyed all year.  A definite must-read for anyone in the mood for a fun and intense horror novel, The Dark comes highly recommended and gets a full five stars from me.  I think I will end up trying some more of Robinson’s novels in the future, especially in their audiobook format, and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures and outrageous events he features in his books.

Throwback Thursday – Heroes in Crisis by Tom King and Clay Mann

Heroes in Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2019)

Writer: Tom King

Artists: Clay Mann, Travis Moore, Lee Weeks, Mitch Gerads, Jorge Fornes

Colourists: Tomeu Morey, Arif Prianto, Mitch Gerads

Letterer: Clayton Cowles

Length: 234 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday article, I look at an interesting DC Comics crossover event from a couple of years ago, the deep and compelling Heroes in Crisis.

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Now I have to admit that I have been somewhat avoiding a lot of the recent DC crossover events, mainly because I think the universe is getting a bit too complicated, what with the multiple versions of characters and timelines.  However, I recently grabbed the Heroes in Crisis collected edition (containing all nine issues of the limited series), mostly because I had heard some conflicting reports about whether it was any good, and I thought that it would be worth seeing just what sort of comic it really was.  I was also drawn to this comic as I am major fan of Tom King and Clay Mann after the work they recently did on Batman, which featured some really cool and compelling storylines.  Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a rather fun and intriguing comic, especially as King came up with another fascinating narrative.

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After years of fighting and surviving against the very worst evils in the universe, even the greatest heroes will start to crack under the unreal pressures of their chosen lives.  Realising this and determined to help their fellow superheroes, the trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman designed Sanctuary.  Sanctuary is a hidden facility containing a cutting-edge artificial intelligence programmed to provide advanced therapy, support and counselling to any hero that needs it after harsh battles and traumatic events.  However, no sanctuary lasts forever, and after losing contact with the facility, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman arrive to find Sanctuary in shambles and several patients brutally killed.  As the world’s superheroes reel from the deaths of friends and colleagues such as Roy Harper, Red Devil, Commander Steel, Poison Ivy and Wally West, their thoughts swiftly turn to justice.  But who is responsible for the killings, and could the culprit be one of their own?

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The answer may lie with the only two survivors of the Sanctuary massacre, the greatest hero you have never heard of, Booster Gold, and the mad clown princess, Harley Quinn.  However, Booster and Harley are both convinced that they saw the other commit the crime, and are now out to stop the other survivor by any means necessary.  As the heroes attempt to uncover the killer lurking amongst them, their world will be further turned upside down when the confessions and therapy sessions recorded at Sanctuary are leaked to the media, casting a new light on them.  Can the killer be caught before they strike again, or will this case irreparably damage the world’s greatest superheroes?  Whatever happens, the DC universe will never be the same again.

This was a very unique and fascinating crossover comic which contains some notable flaws, but is something that I quite enjoyed.  King, Mann, and their artistic team produced a clever comic that really dives into the minds of the collected heroes of the DC universe.  Featuring a great story, some powerful character moments and some impressive artwork, Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a fun and heartfelt comic that I had a wonderful time reading and which has really stuck in my mind.

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Heroes in Crisis has an intense and powerful character driven narrative that presents the reader with an interesting mystery, while also attempting to dive into the minds of some of the most iconic comic book characters out there.  I very much enjoyed the excellent premise that King came up with for this comic, especially as he starts the narrative off by showing several iconic heroes brutally killed around the Sanctuary within the first several pages.  At the same time, two of DC’s most unique and complex characters, Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, are fighting to the death, with both claiming that the other is responsible for the crimes.  This proves to be an excellent start to the comic which really drew me into the book, and which quickly leads into a compelling investigation angle with Booster, Harley and the DC Big Three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) all working towards the same goal while also fighting amongst themselves.  At the same time, a mysterious opponent is manipulating events from the shadows, ensuring that the protagonists are distracted by the public revelations about their mental fragility.  All of this leads up to an interesting and heartfelt conclusion where the killer is finally revealed in an emotional confrontation.

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This was a rather intense and fast-paced narrative and it was clear that King was drawing a lot of inspiration from the iconic Identity Crisis crossover comic (another controversial comic that split the fan base, although I personally consider it a masterpiece).  However, unlike Identity Crisis, I think that Heroes in Crisis fell a little flat and I can see where a lot of the criticism surrounding it came from.  While this comic has a great start and the author sets up the whole mystery and characters perfectly, I felt that the ending had some major flaws to it.  The reveal of the killer, despite some hints throughout the story, is a bit of a letdown (admittedly, due to internet spoilers, I did know who it was in advance of reading this comic, but this didn’t massively impact my overall reaction).  While I could appreciate some of the motives surrounding the killer’s choices, especially as it ties into the psyche aspects of the comic, it was a bit of a weak choice that undermined an amazing and well-established character.  In addition, many aspects of the conclusion, such as the reveal, the killer’s motivations, and the eventual solution to some established problems, were unnecessarily complicated and required some major logic leaps.  I also did not quite get why King included a certain “bros before heroes” scene, as it proved to be a very odd inclusion for such a serious story.  While I did greatly enjoy the set-up, as well the impressive inclusion of flashbacks and character centric panels throughout the entire comic, this ending was a bit of a letdown that substantially affected how much I enjoyed Heroes in Crisis.

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While the flaws in the story were a little disappointing, I think that King’s excellent character work more than makes up for it.  As he has previously done with his recent run on Batman, King attempts to really dive into the heart of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis, highlighting their complex psyches and personalities to help to draw the reader in.  I also quite liked how this comic focuses on a very unique selection of characters, including several of my personal favourites.  While much of the story follows the Big Three, with some additional inclusions from the Barry Allen Flash, the major focus of the comic is on the fun duo of Booster Gold and Harley Quinn.

Booster Gold, unconventional time traveller and the greatest hero you have never heard of, is a character I have a lot of love for, especially as he is usually shown to be a bungling hero trying to do the right thing.  Booster ends up being an excellent character in Heroes in Crisis as he desperately tries to understand who is responsible for the deaths at Sanctuary, especially as he is a suspect himself.  While much of Booster’s appearance is comical, there is a deeper sadness to him, both before the killings and after them.  King does a masterful job showing off Booster’s inner thoughts in some of his therapy sessions while also presenting him as a damaged person potentially capable of committing the murders.  I loved seeing Booster used so prominently in the comic and I hope we see more of him in the future.  The appearance of Booster also ensures that we get to see some of his robot companion, Skeets, who has a fun relationship with Booster, often pointing out the stupidity of several of his plans, such as telling the Flash that he may be responsible for Wally West’s death and not realising it would get him punched in the face.

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Heroes in Crisis also strongly features Harley Quinn, who DC have been heavily promoting recently.  Harley is her usual fun, chaotic self throughout Heroes in Crisis, although like Booster, deep down she is hurting.  King makes sure to explore the various damages that she still bears from her abusive relationship with the Joker, while also focusing on her current, relatively healthier relationship with Poison Ivy (who has a very lethal idea about therapy).  However, when Ivy is killed, Harley snaps a little and is determined to hunt down the person she thinks is responsible.  King does a great job showing off Harley’s unpredictability, humour and inner turmoil, and I liked how he presents her as a real threat, even to the likes of Superman and Batman.  Harley has a number of great moments throughout this comic, including a dangerous standoff, some great character development and some fantastic lines.  Harley also serves as a great foil to Booster, and when they are not trying to kill each other their conversations highlight their similarities, as both consider themselves failures in one way or another.  I deeply appreciated the use of Booster and Harley as key characters, and they were an outstanding focus of this comic.

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Heroes in Crisis also features a fantastic array of supporting characters, and the creative team takes full advantage of their story to bring back some great underutilised heroes.  I loved how King spent time exploring all the various characters who were massacred at the start of the novel, especially as he examines why they were there seeking help.  While there is an obvious focus on the more prominent heroes like Wally West and Poison Ivy, I had a lot of fun seeing characters like Lagoon Boy, Commander Steel and Gnarrk the Last Cro-Magnon.  King did a lot with these very minor DC characters, using a few short sequences to build them up as sympathetic and likeable characters, ensuring that the impact of their death was a little more significant to the reader.  The inclusion of Wally West was also mostly well done and I appreciated the exploration of all the trauma and pain he has gone through in the last few years (being written out of existence for a few years is a painful experience).  Batgirl and Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) also show up as supporting characters for Harley and Booster respectfully, and I quite enjoyed the examination of the unique relationships between these friends.  All of these characters really add a lot to the story and I very glad that King took the opportunity to explore and highlight how complex some of these DC heroes can be.

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While Heroes in Crisis has many good and bad qualities, without a doubt the best thing about it is the examination of traumatised heroes.  A large part of this comic’s narrative revolves around the fact that all the superheros in the DC universe are deeply traumatised or emotionally damaged because of their heroic careers, requiring them to seek treatment at Sanctuary.  While I know that some readers really disliked this portrayal of superheroes being emotionally and psychologically damaged, I personally felt that it was a clever inclusion from King that added a lot of realism to the DC universe.  Of course these heroes are going to be traumatised!  Most of them have been fighting crime or dealing with crazy people for most of their lives, experiencing innumerable tragedies and losses along the way, including dying and coming back to life multiple times.  It is honestly rather refreshing to see this acknowledged within the comics, and I deeply appreciated that King decided to feature it so prominently in Heroes in Crisis.

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One of the reasons that this psychological plotline works so well is because Heroes in Crisis features a ton of panels and scenes highlighting the heroes as they discuss their trauma.  Not only do you get glimpses at several AI assisted therapy sessions, some of which are quite intense (Lagoon Boy’s one hurts to read at times), but there are a ton of “confession” panels, which show the various heroes sitting in a special room discussing their pain to a camera.  These confession scenes are cleverly scattered throughout the comic and are worked into the story extremely well, showing the raw psyche of some of the comic’s major characters or murder suspects and providing possible motivations for their actions.  At the same time, they work to show the reader just how damaged some of your favourite heroes can be.  While there is a focus on characters who were part of the Sanctuary massacre, nearly every DC superhero makes an appearance at some point in Heroes in Crisis, talking about their pain and their sorrow.  King ensures that each of these confessions, even the single-panel ones, are really emotionally rich and moving, and you get some amazing feelings out of all of them.  Highlights for me include a great sequence with Batman lamenting the death of his sidekicks, and another one with Commander Steel, who is pretty damn traumatised by his experiences of dying, being reborn as a zombie, having his corpse mutilated, and then coming back again.  Booster, Harley and Wally West also have some very intense, story driven confessions which both moved the story along and helped to get to the roots of their issues.  I found these scenes of trauma, healing and emotions to be particularly well written and very powerful, and they are one of the main reasons I enjoyed this comic as much as I did.

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Another major highlight of Heroes in Crisis is the exceptional artwork by a massive collection of artists who banded together to produce some iconic and powerful pieces of art.  All of the scenes within this comic are very well drawn, and there is a real sense of movement, purpose and intensity in every panel.  I loved all the cool action sequences, and the artists really did not pull any punches when it came to highlighting the tragic deaths of so many different heroes.  Some of the best artwork, however, lies around the amazing and wonderful background and landscape shots throughout the comic.  There are so many fantastic shots that superimpose the characters in front of some beautiful settings, whether they be fields, sunsets or other pieces of nature.  These shots are not only visually impressive but they really add to the dramatic feel of the entire comic, especially as they remind you of the hope that so many of the damaged characters want to feel, but cannot, either because of the events of this comic or some pre-existing trauma.  The artistic team also has a lot of fun bringing to life a host of heroes from various periods of DC’s history, including some obscure characters we have not seen for a very long time.  While some of them were brought back only to die a painful death, it was great to see them again and the artwork surrounding them turned out to be superb.  I also deeply appreciated the artists’ ability to portray emotion and sorrow on the faces of each of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis.  You get a real sense of the darkness and pain lying behind some of the characters’ eyes, especially in some unguarded moments, and it helps to enhance the emotion of the pages.  Overall, this was some impressive and memorable artwork that did a great job enhancing King’s intriguing tale.

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Heroes in Crisis was a very interesting and memorable comic which I had a great time reading.  While it does have some flaws, I think that the creative team behind it managed to create a very touching character driven narrative that succeeded in highlighting the vulnerabilities of several iconic DC superheroes.  I had an amazing time reading this comic and it is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are interested in exploring the damaged minds of some of your favourite heroes.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 March 2021)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Three

Length: 16 hours and 19 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best Star Wars tie-in series comes to an epic and impressive end, as Alexander Freed presents Star Wars: Victory’s Price, the amazing third and final entry in the awesome Alphabet Squadron trilogy.

Since its inception in 2014, the current Star Wars extended universe has featured an amazing range of novels that tie into the various movies and television series.  One of the best has been the Alphabet Squadron trilogy from acclaimed author Alexander Freed.  Alphabet Squadron is a particularly compelling trilogy that follows a fantastic group of mismatched Rebel and Imperial pilots who continue to fight in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi.  This series has so far featured two excellent entries: the great introductory novel Alphabet Squadron, and the outstanding second entry, Shadow Fall, both of which I have deeply enjoyed.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the series ends and I think that Freed has left the best to last with this epic and powerful read.

The Emperor and Darth Vader may be dead, and the second Death Star destroyed, but the war is far from over.  Nearly a year after the battle of Endor, conflict still reigns in the galaxy between the forces of the New Republic and the remnants of the Empire.  In nearly every battlefield, the Empire’s forces are in retreat and disarray, apart from the notorious pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, better known as Shadow Wing.  Led by the dangerous Imperial TIE Fighter ace, Colonel Soran Keize, Shadow Wing continue to bring death and destruction to the Empire’s enemies, slipping away when their vile deeds are done.

However, despite their skills and strategies, Shadow Wing is in constant danger as New Republic forces, under the command of General Hera Syndulla, are pursuing them.  Syndulla is determined to end the threat of Shadow Wing utilising the ragtag pilots of the unique unit known as Alphabet Squadron, each of whom has a score to settle with Shadow Wing, to lead the fight against them.  However, the members of Alphabet Squadron, Wyl Lark, Chass na Chadic, Nath Tensent and Kairos, are still recovering from their last traumatic encounter with Shadow Wing on Cerberon, as well as the revelation that their former leader, Yrica Quell, was an active participant of Operation Cinder, the Emperor’s genocidal last order to destroy multiple disloyal planets.

As Hera and Alphabet Squadron attempt to find their prey, they begin to discover just how dangerous the cornered Shadow Wing has become, as their opponents begin to enact a new version of Operation Cinder.  Worse, Alphabet Squadron are shocked to discover that Yrica Quell is still alive and has re-joined her old comrades in Shadow Wing.  As the two forces engage in battle again, the loyalties of Alphabet Squadron will be tested like never before while Quell attempts to determine just whose side she is truly on.  The conflict will finally end above the skies of Jakku, as the Imperial and New Republic fleets engage in their final battle.  Can Alphabet Squadron finally put an end to the evils of Shadow Wing, or will Soran Keize’s master plan change the entire galaxy forever?

Now this is what all pieces of Star Wars fiction should be like.  Victory’s Price is an exceptional and impressive novel that had me hooked from the very beginning.  Not only does Freed do an amazing job of wrapping up the Alphabet Squadron trilogy but he also provides the reader with fantastic action sequences and some outstanding characters.  This is easily one of the best Star Wars novels I have read in ages and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

For this final book, Freed has come up with a powerful story set within the iconic Star Wars universe.  Starting right after the events of Shadow Fall, Victory’s Price sees the members of Alphabet Squadron separated and traumatised as their protracted and personal conflict with Shadow Wing begins.  This leads into a series of exciting encounters and battles in space as Alphabet Squadron pursues Shadow Wing during their latest mission, while the leader of Shadow Wing hatches a plan to end the war on his terms.  At the same time, each of the characters attempts to deal with issues or distress raised in the previous novels, whether it be Quell’s conflicted loyalties or Chass’s post-fight trauma.  All of this leads to some epic and impressive final confrontations as the two sides meet for the very last time.  This was an extremely good character-driven read, and I loved the very cool way that Freed finished off this amazing series. 

While it is an amazing Star Wars novel, Freed focuses more on the war part of the book, turning this into a gritty story of survival, loyalty and conflict, which makes for a powerful piece of fiction.  While obviously best enjoyed by those readers familiar with the rest of the series, Victory’s Price is a very accessible novel which new readers can follow without any trouble.  Thanks to the awesome use of multiple character perspectives, Victory’s Price has an excellent flow to it, and the readers are supplied with clever twists, cool action sequences and impressive character moments as the protagonists come to terms with their place in the universe and the constant fighting.  This ended up being quite an intense tale of war and life, which not only perfectly wrapped up the Alphabet Squadron series but which also had me engrossed from the very minute I started reading it.

One of the major things that I liked about this book was the way in which it added to the Star Wars expanded universe.  This series has always done a cool job of exploring what happened after Return of the Jedi, and it is always interesting and somewhat more realistic to see that the war did not end as soon as the Emperor died.  However Freed has painted this period as a particularly dark and deadly part of the war, and I love seeing how he envisioned what happened to members of the New Republic and Empire after Endor.  Victory’s Price focuses on the very end of the civil war, showing another side of the events that lead up to the battle of Jakku and fitting its original characters into this conflict.  This is a cool part of the book, and I loved seeing another version of the epic battle of Jakku, a major conflict that has been featured in several other novels and pieces of fiction.  Freed also takes the time to explore and answer several other intriguing questions, such as the mystery behind the Emperor’s messengers, the creepy red-clad droids who project holograms of the Emperor’s face, which sought out various Imperial commanders after Endor and ordered the various genocides of Operation Cinder.  The solution surrounding the messengers ends up being rather intriguing, and there are even some clever parallels to World War II in there.  Due to the intriguing elements of Star Wars lore featured within, Victory’s Price, like the rest of the Alphabet Squadron series, will probably be enjoyed most by major fans of the franchise, but there are a lot of compelling elements that readers of all knowledge bases will appreciate.  This was truly an exceptional piece of Star Wars fiction and I cannot wait to see what Freed adds to the canon next time.

I really must highlight the outstanding action scenes that Freed came up with for this book.  I am a man who likes his Star War’s action, and I have to say that Victory’s Price has some of the best sequences that I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying.  Due to the novel’s focus on fighter pilots, there are naturally a huge number of amazing combat scenes as the rival pilots engage in complex battles in space.  Freed has saved the best for last in this final Alphabet Squadron novel, as the opposing pilots find themselves fighting in a range of unique situations.  The battle scenes are extremely well crafted, filled with elaborate details and fantastic depictions of complex manoeuvres and clever tactics that are guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat with their intense action.  They are also quite emotionally rich, as you witness your favourite characters constantly face near-death experiences in this final entry in the series.  Highlights of these great battle sequences included two fantastic duels between the protagonists and the leader of Shadow Wing, which sees some fancy flying between some of the most skilled pilots in the series in some very distinctive landscapes.  I also really loved the final, elaborate battle set above Jakku, which proved to be a major part of the second half of the book.  Not only do you get the desperate and packed main conflict between the entire New Republic and Imperial fleets, which features destruction and death in every direction, but you also get a more private and quiet final battle between a group of Alphabet Squadron led New Republic fighters and Shadow Wing.  This smaller pitched battle between the two sides fits perfectly into the midst of the wider conflict and is filled with personal turmoil and antagonism as these two rival squadrons meet for a final time.  All these battles come out as being extremely epic and powerful, and I loved every second of the gritty and deadly fights they contained.

While I have a lot of love for Victory’s Price’s epic story, intense action, and clever Star Wars connections, easily the best thing about this book are the complex and well-written characters.  Each of the major characters featured in Victory’s Price have been introduced in the previous Alphabet Squadron novels with some complex and powerful storylines.  In Victory’s Price, all these great arcs reach a climax as the characters meet their final destiny and their stories comes to an end.  I really enjoyed the satisfying conclusions that Freed came up with for his outstanding characters, although in many ways it was sad to see their stories finish.  Still, I really appreciated all the great character arcs contained in this final novel, and Freed ensures they go through the emotional wringer before they go.

At the forefront of these outstanding characters are the five members of Alphabet Squadron who have served as the focal point for the entire series.  The pilots in Alphabet Squadron, so named for their use of a different Rebel Alliance fighter (A-Wing, X-Wing, B-Wing, U-Wing and Y-Wing), are layered and complex individuals, each of whom has experienced their own trauma or betrayal throughout the course of the lengthy war.  All five of these original characters have gone through significant development throughout the course of the previous two novels, and Freed does an exceptional job continuing their journeys in this final book.

The main protagonist of this series is Yrica Quell, a former member of Shadow Wing, who joined Alphabet Squadron in the first novel to help neutralise her former Imperial comrades.  However, it was eventually revealed that Quell, despite claiming she defected from the Empire after refusing to participate in Operation Cinder, aided in the destruction of a planet.  This revelation caused a massive rift in her relationship with the rest of Alphabet Squadron, and she ended up reuniting with Shadow Wing at the end of the second novel.  In this final book, it is revealed that Quell has infiltrated Shadow Wing to bring them down from the inside.  However, upon spending time with her Imperial comrades, she begins to experience doubts about her plan, especially as she sees that the Imperials are just as damaged by the war as she and the New Republic pilots are.  Her plans are further complicated due to her relationship with the leader of Shadow Wing, Soran Keize, her former mentor and the person who initially convinced her to defect to the New Republic.  Quell still has an immense amount of respect for Keize, and strongly believes in several of his plans.  This re-remembered loyalty to Shadow Wing strongly conflicts with her friendships with Alphabet Squadron and the guilt she feels for her role in Operation Cinder, placing Quell in a major quandary for most of the book.  This uncertainty and inner conflict is a really clever part of Quell’s story, and the reader is deeply impacted by her struggle and conflicted loyalties.  This was easily one of the best and most powerful character arcs in Victory’s Price and I really appreciated the outstanding character story that Freed set around Quell.

Victory’s Price also spends a significant amount of time following Quell’s fellow Alphabet Squadron members, Wyl Lark and Chass na Chadic, both of whom have compelling arcs that highlight different aspects of warring soldiers.  Wyl Lark is the young, optimistic member of the squadron who took over leadership at the end of the second novel.  Lark has developed a significant amount throughout the course of this series, and it is great to see him come into his own as a leader and pilot.  However, despite his apparent ease at the role, Lark is plagued by doubts and concerns about the morality of this fight, especially as it conflicts with some of the teachings of his race.  He spends a great deal of this final book coming to terms with his morals, and even attempts to once again contact the members of Shadow Wing to try and find some common ground or a way to end the conflict.  His actions go a long way to humanising the antagonists of the novel and his hope is a refreshing beacon of light in this darker Star Wars book.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the way in which Lark attempts to change the outcome of the war his way, and it was a fascinating addition to the story. 

Chass, on the other hand, is easily the most damaged character in the entire series.  A music-loving veteran pilot who is more afraid of the end of the war and her inevitable slide into irrelevance and despair than her own death, Chass has always been on edge throughout the series.  However, in Victory’s Price, Chass is even more traumatised, especially after learning of the betrayal of her love interest, Quell (which is an intriguing LGBT+ relationship for a Star Wars novel) and has since turned to the teachings of a cult to gain some clarity.  Despite this, Chass is still driven by her anger and her rage and is constantly lashing out at everyone around her, with her death wish a constant anchor around her neck.  Freed has written a complex and moving story around Chass and her suffering, and I deeply appreciate the portrayal of her as a troubled veteran.  I think that Chass’s story comes to a fantastic end in this final novel, especially as she gets closure with several important people in her life.  Both characters are incredibly well written and are fantastic examples of Freed’s exceptional writing ability.

Next up are the final two Alphabet Squadron pilots, Nath Tensent and Kairos.  While both characters have been somewhat overshadowed throughout the series, Freed has developed some intriguing storylines around them which come full circle perfectly in this final novel.  Nath Tensent, a pilot who served both the Empire and the Rebels during the war, has an enjoyable and likeable personality and is the sort of guy who quickly becomes everyone’s best friend.  However, despite the easygoing façade he projects to the world, even Nath is feeling the effects of the war and the constant worry and responsibility is getting to him.  This is particularly exacerbated in Victory’s Price when he becomes a decorated military hero with greater responsibilities and is forced to balance his own selfish goals with the lives of people who look up to him, as well as his very strong concerns for Wyl Lark.  This results in a particularly clever and enjoyable arc, and it was great to see him finally take some responsibility in this war.  I liked the way in which Freed ended Nath’s storyline, especially as it potentially opens another series in the future. 

The final member of the squadron is the mysterious Kairos, an alien of unknown origin with a strong hatred for the Empire and terrifying combat skills.  Despite her intriguing introduction in Alphabet Squadron, Kairos was somewhat left out of the second book after receiving an injury.  However, this is more than rectified in Victory’s Price, as Kairos is featured more prominently and we finally get to see some of her backstory.  Freed comes up with quite the intriguing, if tragic, story for Kairos, and it was fascinating to see her unique alien beliefs and culture, as well as a powerful story of renewal and redemption that accompanies her.  Kairos becomes quite close to two characters in this book, especially after the closest people in her life died in the previous novel, and it was great to see her finally connect, even if only for a short while.  Freed did a fantastic job setting up Kairos’ story in the previous two novels, and I personally loved finally getting some answers regarding this curious character’s identity.

Aside from the members of Alphabet Squadron, several other characters are also shown in great prominence throughout this book.  The one I liked the most was Hera Syndulla, the New Republic general commanding Alphabet Squadron.  Hera is one of the few characters in this novel who Freed did not come up with, as Hera originated in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series and serves as a bridging character to the larger franchise.  Due to how much I love Star Wars: Rebels, I have really enjoyed seeing more of Hera in this series, not only because I am very curious about her post-Rebels life but because she also serves as a great mentor character to the members of Alphabet Squadron.  Hera features a lot more prominently in this final novel and her perspectives are shown nearly as much as the members of Alphabet Squadron.  This extra perspective really added a lot to the story as a whole and I personally really enjoyed seeing Hera take charge and attempt to hunt down Shadow Wing, while also attempting to determine the course of the entire war.  I also really enjoyed the fact that this book shows Hera’s role in the battle of Jakku, which as the largest space battle in the entire civil war, you had to assume she would be a part of.  Hera is naturally a bit of a badass in this battle, as you would expect, and I appreciated that Freed featured more of her in this novel.

The other major character featured within Victory’s Price is Colonel Soran Keize.  Keize is a fantastically complex character who serves as the leader of Shadow Wing and Quell’s Imperial mentor.  Despite nominally being the antagonist of this book, Keize is portrayed as a more of a tragic and misunderstood figure, one who is sick of war and who only has the best concerns of his men at heart.  As a result, Keize is running his own game throughout Victory’s Price and works to get the best result for the members of Shadow Wing.  His convictions, sense of honour and understandable motivations make him a hard character to dislike, and his role in mentoring Quell ensures that she is extremely conflicted when it comes to betraying him.  Keize is also probably the best pilot in this entire series, as he is regarded as the Empire’s ace of aces, and Victory’s Price is where you get to see him soar as he engages in several great battles and duels.  Thanks to this, and his curious character development, Keize is a great character to follow, and I really enjoyed the unique tale Freed told through him. 

Freed also focuses on some of the other pilots on both the New Republic and Imperial sides.  This results in a great combination of complex side or minor characters, each of whom have their own reasons for fighting in the war.  Freed attempts to show that, despite fighting on different sides of the war, these characters really are not that different.  Instead, all of them are soldiers, with several similarities, including their own trauma, PTSD and issues with the war that they are fighting in.  I think it is a testament to Freed’s writing ability that he was able to get me to care about members of the Imperial navy, and it was pretty spectacular the way in which he attempted to show the humanity buried deep within them.  It does mean that the action sequences more emotionally loaded and potentially devastating as you end up not wanting to see some of the pilots dying, but I really appreciated the way in which Freed took the time to explore these compelling side characters.

While I have previously enjoyed the first two Alphabet Squadron novels in their paperback format, circumstances required me to check out Victory’s Price as an audiobook instead, which was pretty damn awesome.  Not only did Victory’s Price feature the usual blend of iconic sound effects and music that makes all Star Wars audiobooks such a treat to enjoy, but I found that the story flowed incredibly well in this format.  With a lengthy runtime of 16 hours and 19 minutes, I absolutely blasted through this book as I became so engrossed in the awesome story and the way in which it was performed as an audiobook.  I also thought that the use of the iconic Star Wars music in the Victory’s Price was particularly impressive, and not only did the music make several of the extended space battle sequences even more epic, but they also really highlighted some of the most emotional scenes in the book and made them strike my soul even more emphatically.  I also really enjoyed the amazing narration from January LaVoy, who has previously provided her voice to the other Alphabet Squadron books.  LaVoy is a particularly skilled narrator whose work on the Star Trek: Discovery tie-in novel, Die Standing, I really enjoyed.  Not only does LaVoy present the awesome details of Victory’s Price in a quick and exciting manner, making each of the action scenes sound particularly cool, but she also provides some great voices for the various characters.  Each of the main characters gets a unique voice which fits them perfectly and which really helps the listener get to grips with their personalities and inner thoughts.  While all of the character’s voices were done extremely well, the best voice that LaVoy did was probably Hera Syndulla’s, which sounded extremely close to the character’s voice in the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  All of this helps to make Victory’s Price’s audiobook an immensely enjoyable experience and I would highly recommend this format to anyone and everyone.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price is an exceptional and powerful novel from Alexander Freed that is one of the best books I have so far read in 2021.  Featuring a dark and gritty war story set during a fascinating period of Star Wars history, Victory’s Price perfectly wraps up the impressive Alphabet Squadron trilogy while also providing some cathartic conclusions to outstanding character arcs that Freed has built up during the previous book.  I absolutely loved this final novel (hence the massive review), and I think that this was probably the best entry in the entire series.  A highly recommended read, especially if you have already enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, this was a truly epic Star Wars novel.

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

Publisher: Audible (Audiobook – 18 November 2020)

Series: Altered Realms – Book One

Length: 21 hours and 26 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a really cool LitRPG novel?  Look no further than one of my favourite debuts of 2020, the impressive first book in the Altered Realms series, Ascension by B. F. Rockriver.

Welcome to the magical land of Entarra, an elaborate world filled with all manner of complicated people, creatures and war, where death lies just around the corner.  For simple hunter Eli Miller, his life consists of protecting his family and his small grove from outside forces, the most dangerous of which are the Adventurers.  The Adventurers are a dangerous group of seemingly immortal beings from another dimension who treat his world like their own personal playground, killing and destroying all they encounter with little concern for consequences and the lives of the citizens of Enterra.

When a group of Adventurers attack his home, killing him and his family, Eli finds his worst nightmare coming true when, after being stabbed by a mysterious blade, instead of dying he becomes an Adventurer.  Forced to become a whole new person, Eli returns to his hometown, only to discover that no-one recognises him and that he is now bound to the rules of Enterra, with quests, character sheets and a bodiless guide voicing advice in his head.

As Eli begins to explore the limitations of his new life, he soon begins to realise that his world was not what he thought it was.  Enterra Online is a vast and futuristic video game, of which he and his family were NPCs, or non-player characters.  Determined to find out if his family also somehow survived and get revenge on the people who attacked and killed him, Eli begins to play the game and soon becomes involved in a quest to save the land from the mysterious Blight.  Teaming up with fellow Adventurer Don Nutello, Eli begins to master his new character and level up.  But as the two progress even further, the finds that something is very wrong with Enterra Online.  Forced to contend with mindlessly controlled Blighted creatures, dangerous magic users and corrupted Adventurers, Eli will need to use every bit of his resolve and courage to face his destiny.  If he fails, it could mean the destruction of Enterra and every person and NPC trapped within.

This was an interesting and compelling read from a brand-new author who has created an excellent LitRPG novel.  I have to admit that the Literary Role Playing Game genre, which features fantasy or science fiction adventures set within the environments of a game (rather than a tie-in novel, like a World of Warcraft book for example), is one that I am not massively familiar with.  I have only really read one or two of these sorts of books in the past (the first two novels in Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s Last Reality series, Otherworld and OtherEarth are the only ones coming to mind at the moment), but it is a genre that I have always been interested in as there are some fantastic-sounding LitRPG novels out there.  A couple of weeks ago I was in the mood to try something new and thought that this would be a good place to start, especially after I came across the synopsis for Altered Realms: AscensionAscension is the debut novel of exciting new author B. F. Rockriver, which I believe was previously released in parts online, and it ended up being a particularly fun and exciting read.  This was an outstanding debut and a particularly good introduction to the LitRPG genre for me.

I thought that this was a pretty impressive first effort from Rockriver, who tells a rather intriguing tale in Ascension that felt to me like a fun combination of Sword Art Online and the upcoming Ryan Reynolds film, Free Guy, as an NPC starts to play the game he is trapped within.  Told primarily from the point of view of Eli, Ascension contains a vast and compelling narrative filled with adventure, action and substantial world-building, as Eli turns from a hapless, yet sentient, NPC into an Adventurer, and is forced to play Enterra Online the same way the human players do.  The story takes a little while to get going, with the author building up some key elements in the beginning, but once the main character gets killed and then respawned as an Adventurer, allowing for the intriguing RPG elements to work their way into the plot, the book really picks up.  The reader is than treated to an intriguing bit of world-building as the gameplay of Enterra Online is explained, before the confused protagonist is dropped back into the world, understandably freaking out.  After some false starts and the introduction of the book’s other main character, Don, Eli starts getting into the game, as he needs to gain levels and equipment to get revenge for his family.  This leads the two characters to get involved in a series of interesting quests that may directly impact the survival of the entire game, forcing them to venture towards an ancient temple to cure themselves, and the world, of a magical, sentient disease known as the Blight.  Along the way they’ll contend with dangerous creatures, friendly and malicious NPCs, hostile Adventurers with conflicting motivations and world-changing events that are impacting both the game and the humans trapped within.  All of this leads up to an epic and exciting confrontation as Eli and his friends come face to face with the corrupted Adventurers who killed his family.

This narrative proved to be extremely exciting and captivating, and I found myself getting really caught up in the adventures of this excellent and conflicted protagonist.  There are a number of amazing elements to this book, and I very much enjoyed seeing the author combine the LitRPG elements with a classic fantasy adventure tale and some cool advanced science fiction elements as well.  The author does an excellent job setting up his game world throughout Ascension and the reader quickly becomes deeply concerned with the fate of Enterra Online and all its players and NPCs.  I also loved all the very cool action sequences featured throughout the story, and there are a number of intense and deadly scenes that really stood out to me. 

I did find the writing to be a little rough in places, and there is room for Rockriver to grow as an author.  For example, there was a bit of repetition throughout the novel, as a number of key plot points kept getting brought up again and again.  While some of this repetition was done to replicate how an online game talks to its players, a lot of it was the author providing unnecessary re-examinations of certain story elements, character back story and emotional responses, which I felt interrupted the flow of the novel.  I also felt that Rockriver should have ended Ascension a lot sooner for a more climactic finish, as the novel continues for a number of chapters after the book’s big showdown.  While this later section of the novel contained a lot of interesting and enjoyable moments, I do think that perhaps the author could have saved most of them for the next entry in the series.  Still, overall this was an excellent read, especially with the inventive and exciting story, and it does set up the rest of the series quite nicely.

As I mentioned above, Ascension proved to be quite an outstanding introduction to LitRPG novels, a genre that Rockriver is clearly very passionate about.  Ascension contains a huge amount of RPG elements which are seamlessly woven into the story.  Once the protagonist wakes up as an Adventurer, every element of a classic MMORPG comes into effect, with Eli choosing a race, gaining experience, being forced to complete quests, obtaining skill points, distributing attribute points, deciding his class and a huge range of other game features a player in his situation would have to consider.  I felt that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of what an avatar in a game would experience, and the author covers this in exceptional detail, down to the pun-ridden quest titles and the funny names of the other Adventurers Eli and Don encounter.  Rockriver has also created an impressive and vast MMORPG to serve as the setting for his novel, and it actually sounds like it would be a really cool game to play (you know, minus the ethical implications of the AI and the deadly disease which tries to turn you evil).  I have to admit that I did not quite know how all the various skill and quest updates would play throughout the book, but Rockriver did an excellent job working them into the story and it felt very natural to see Eli get an update, new skill or experience.  All the LitRPG elements also work incredibly well in some of the action sequences, and seeing the protagonist get debuffs or watch him lose health, mana and energy during a fight actually added to the intensity of the scenes.  The author also works in some intriguing twists to the gaming world, with the protagonists set to face off against a major antagonist threatening people both in the game and outside of it, and I quite enjoyed how this raised the stakes of the narrative.  Overall, I really fell in love with Ascension’s LitRPG elements, and this is definitely a genre I can see myself getting into.

I really enjoyed some of the characters featured within Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with some amazing complex figures for this clever LitRPG story.  The main character is Eli, a former NPC who is turned into an Adventurer and swiftly becomes a key figure in saving Enterra Online.  Eli proved to be a really intriguing character to follow, as he is forced to adventure whilst facing a major existential crisis.  Due to the situation surrounding his death and rebirth, Eli is an emotional mess, grieving for the loss of his family, while simultaneously finding out that they never truly existed.  This makes him a particularly deep and intriguing character to follow, as his new experiences changes his perspective completely.  Thanks to his complete lack of knowledge about anything related to online gaming, Eli proves to be the perfect protagonist for this book as every element of this game is explained to him in great detail.  I also quite enjoyed the fantastic handicap that Rockriver installed to his main character halfway through the book, as Eli learns a Berserk Rage move that forces him to lose control when he is close to death or encounters one of the players who killed him and his family.  This causes a number intense scenes throughout the book, and I really appreciated the incredible scenes that the author wrote around the first time Eli lost control, which got pretty dark and bloody.  While Eli was not the most consistent character at times, as he occasionally experiences some random personality changes, it was still really interesting to see him develop, especially as a number of intriguing elements about his past become quite essential to the plot.

Aside from Eli, the other main character in the novel is Don Nutello, a player who befriends Eli when he spawns as an Adventurer and follows him throughout the game.  Don plays a humanoid turtle race, known as a Turta, and has chosen to play him as a monk class, dressed in purple and fighting with martial arts and occasionally a staff (I wonder who his favourite ninja turtle is?).  Rockriver gives Don a particularly intriguing background as a former soldier playing Enterra Online long-term as a treatment for his PTSD, flashes of which come through into the game at times, and his role as a healer in the team is related to his former profession as a medic.  Don proves to be a particularly great supporting character to Eli, not only helping him to understand the game but giving him a different perspective on the other people playing as Adventurers.  Don also has a very appealing pacifistic edge to him, choosing not to attack people or sentient AI if he can help it, which does get the characters in trouble but helps to distinguish them from the antagonists.  Don ended up being my favourite character in the end, and I really enjoyed his unique partnership with Eli as they formed a fantastic and deep friendship over the course of the novel. 

In addition to Eli and Don, Rockriver has also loaded this book up with a series of intriguing side characters, most of whom are NPCs in Enterra Online.  I liked the contrast in how the NPCs are blissfully unaware that they are in a game, while most Adventurers are portrayed as selfish and murderous.  This is mainly because the Adventurers are unaware that the NPCs are sentient, and are playing the game the way they typically would for an MMORPG. Indeed, I routinely do all the same bad things when I play games, everyone does (or so I tell myself so I can sleep at night).  This interesting dichotomy in the perceptions of the world between these two unique groups was pretty interesting to see, and I very much enjoyed seeing a game where every NPC is fed up with the invading human players. 

I also have to highlight some of the fun Adventurer characters in the novel, most of whom are fairly typical of the sort of people you would encounter in the game.  For example, the third person to join Eli and Don’s party is Michelle, a sexy female troll with an attitude, who serves as their tank.  Michelle is one of those players who flaunts their avatar’s sexuality, even though you are a little uncertain whether they are a guy or a girl in real life. Michelle was a rather sassy and fun character to follow, and she definitely evened out the serious personalities on the team.  I also quite liked some of the selfishly antagonistic Adventurers who the heroes eventually go up against, and game players will easily see parallels between them and the worst sort of people you’ve played against online, even if some may be influenced by things outside of their control.  Each of these excellent characters adds a lot to this great book, and I look forward to seeing how they develop in the future instalments of this series, especially with some major changes impacting the Adventurers long term.

In order to enjoy Ascension I ended up grabbing the audiobook, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience the fun story.  Ascension has a pretty hefty run-time of 21 hours and 26 minutes, which is almost one of the longest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Naturally, this took me a little while to listen to, although once I got really caught up in the story I found myself getting through it even quicker, especially with some of the epic combat sequences, which I never wanted to interrupt.  I always find that the audiobook format is a great way to fully absorb all the details contained within a novel, and this was particularly true with Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with an amazing amount of inclusions that are really great to absorb in this format.  This audiobook also featured the excellent narration of Maximillian Breed, a relatively new audiobook narrator, who has so far vocalised an interesting collection of fantasy and science fiction novels.  I felt that Breed was a great choice for this epic audiobook and I enjoyed listening to his narration of Ascension for the full 21 plus hours.  While it took me a little while to get used to his voice, I felt that it fit into the story really well, and I especially liked the somewhat robotic/computer generated tone he used whenever the system talks to the protagonist, such as during a quest update, or when it provides details about equipment or skills.  All of this makes for a great listen, and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of Ascension to anyone interested in checking out this fun book.

Ascension by B. F. Rockriver is a fantastic and impressive debut novel that serves as an outstanding first entry in the Altered Realms LitRPG series.  Rockriver has come up with a clever and captivating tale that masterfully utilises video game elements, cool characters and some awesome action sequences to create a first-rate read.  I had an absolutely incredible time listening to this book and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.  Rockriver is currently working on two separate novels at the moment, the second entry in the Altered Realms series, Uprising, and a companion novel, Origins, which examines the backstory of several key Altered Realms side characters.  Both sound like a lot of fun, with some superb covers (BTW how epic are the covers that Ascension had!), and I look forward to reading them.  Until then, Ascension is a guaranteed exciting read for LitRPG fans.

Altered Realms Cover 2

Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas

Catwoman Soulstealer Cover.jpg

Publishers: Penguin Random House

                        Penguin Random House Audio

Publication Date – 7 August 2018

 

One of DC Comics’ most iconic and badass female antiheroes is re-imagined in this bold new novel from young adult fiction bestseller Sarah J. Maas.

Selina Kyle is a rough street kid growing up in the slums of Gotham City.  She looks after her sister while scraping a living as a gang member and pit fighter.  When her luck finally runs out, her potential is seen by the mysterious Talia al Ghul who saves her and recruited into the League of Assassins.

Two years later, Selina has returned to Gotham City with a plan to turn the city on its head as Catwoman, the master thief and criminal mastermind.  Using the alias of the spoiled socialite Holly Vanderhees, Selina has returned at an ideal time; Batman is not in the city, away on a vital mission, and he has left his protégé Batwing behind to safeguard the city.  Initiating a series of high-profile thefts, Selina soon has the attention of Batwing and GCPD, especially when she starts teaming up with her new BFFs Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn to wreak havoc around the city.

While Batwing searches the city for this mysterious new villain, his alter ego, Luke Fox, encounters his mysterious new neighbour, Holly, and the two find themselves drawn to each other as their alter-egos battle in the night.  While Selina is able to outfox Batwing, a far more destructive force is about to be unleased upon Gotham.  Catwoman stole something from the League of Assassins and now a cadre of their most lethal assassins are descending on the city.  Will Selina be able to survive their deadly attentions, what is Catwoman’s plan, and who will be left standing in the aftermath?

This is the third book in the DC Icons series, a series of young adult books that provide re-imagined origin stories for younger versions of DC’s most iconic characters outside of the other established DC universes.  Featuring a range of different authors, the first book in the series, Wonder Woman: Warbringer, focused on Wonder Woman before she left Themyscira to become a hero, while the second book, Batman: Nightwalker, followed a teenage Bruce Wayne as he attempts to stop a series of murders in Gotham City.  A fourth book in the DC Icons series, Superman: Dawnbreaker, is currently set to be released in March 2019 and will follow a young Clark Kent as he investigates strange happenings in Smallville.

Soulstealer is the first of these DC Icons books that I have read, and I was quite impressed with the new and unique Catwoman story that it contained, as well as the cool new versions of several DC characters, including Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Batwing.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, read by Julia Whelan.  I quite enjoyed having the story narrated to me, especially as it only took around 10 hours to get through.  While I initially had misgivings about whether I would like this series, after reading and loving Soulstealer I will definitely be getting a copy of Dawnbreaker when it is released next year, and Warbringer and Nightwalker will both be appearing future versions of my Throwback Thursdays reviews.

The author of Soulstealer, Sarah J. Maas, is one of the biggest names in modern young adult fiction, having written two best-selling young adult series in the last six years.  Her long-running Throne of Glass series finished earlier this year, and she has also created the A Court of Thorns and Roses series.  Soulstealer is the first Sarah J. Maas book that I have had the pleasure of reading, but after really enjoying the intricate story and fantastic characters within the novel I am keen to see what her fantasy books are like.  As a result, her Throne of Glass series is high on my list of books to check out in the future, especially after seeing just how awesome the artwork is on some of those covers and collected box sets.

Maas has installed a fantastic and clever story into her debut DC novel, and I really enjoyed how she re-imagined the origins of prominent comic book character.  Soulstealer contains a younger version of Catwoman, introducing her as a teenager gang member and focusing on her initial life of crime.  After the introductory paragraph, the story jumps ahead two years to Selina’s return to Gotham and her initial adventures as Catwoman, while also featuring several flashbacks to her training with the League of Assassins.  This main story is then told from two separate point-of-view characters, Selena and Batwing, and shows the characters in both their costumed adventures and as the people behind the masks in their civilian identities.  Soulstealer has a tight and intricate storyline that contains the perfect balance of comic book action, relationships, backstory, references and variations to comic lore, as well as a number of heists and intricate plots.  I loved Catwoman’s overall plan, as she engages in a play to take over Gotham while really nursing an ulterior motive that pits her against the League of Assassins.  I loved the slow reveal of this complex and insane plan, as well as the lengths she goes to bring her plan to pass, including making some dangerous partnerships.

One of the most interesting and significant changes that Maas makes to Catwoman’s origin story in this novel is the fact that she never meets or associates with Batman.  In nearly every previous iteration of Catwoman, her story has always been intertwined with Batman’s, as the two were usually each other’s main love interest, either as Batman and Catwoman or Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.  However, in Soulstealer, Catwoman is substantially younger than Batman, who starts his crusade years before she is trained by the League of Assassins.  In addition, Batman is not present in Gotham when she returns to the city and throughout the book the two characters have no interactions at all.  Instead, Catwoman’s main love interest is the Luke Fox version of Batwing, who has been defending Gotham in Batman’s absence.  This results in a similar romance plot to some of the classic Batman and Catwoman storylines, where the two characters meet and start to fall in love with each other in both of their personas, despite their apparently different personalities.  This is a fun little romance that does get serious at times, as the two characters are mirrored by their personal traumas and backstories, such as a Selina’s life on the streets and with the League, versus Luke’s PTSD as a result of his time as a marine.  There are also some great moments when the two characters face off against each other, and some of the book’s best laugh-out-loud moments came when Catwoman messes with either Batwing or Luke, sometimes at the same time.  To my mind, the funniest scene in the book had to be when Batwing, after getting injured and rescued by Catwoman, awakens half-naked in a darkened room, only to find out that he is actually in Commissioner Gordon’s spare bedroom.  The moment Luke walks out to find Gordon and his family staring at them was pretty darn funny, especially when Batwing attempted to play it off nonchalantly while silently cursing Catwoman.

One of the elements of Soulstealer that I really appreciated was the references and re-imagined versions of several DC comics characters that appeared throughout the novel.  A huge range of DC characters, many tied into the Batman comics, appear throughout the book in a number of different capacities.  The characters that appear range from the iconic to the obscure and are enough to delight both hardcore comic fans and those with a more casual knowledge of these comics.  Several major Batman characters appear throughout the story; I will refrain from mentioning the full roster of characters to cut down on spoilers, although there is one appearance that was particularly awesome.  While a number of these characters have key or interesting differences between their mainstream comic book counterparts, it is clear that Maas has a real understanding and appreciation for the lore behind these characters.  It is also incredibly fascinating to see how Maas changes these characters for the purposes of her story, and the subtle tweaks that are made to accommodate this different universe.

Of all these additional characters, two of the best and significant inclusions are fellow supervillains Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, who team up with Catwoman to bring a little chaos to Gotham.  In the comic universe, these three supervillains occasionally form a team known as the Gotham City Sirens, and it was great to see them together in this book.  Like Catwoman, both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are quite young and have slightly altered origin stories which somewhat mirror the new origin story of Catwoman.  However, some of the key elements that made these characters so great in their comic book origins remain alive in these book adaptations of the characters and which work extremely well with Maas’s fantastic Soulstealer storyline.  For example, in this story, Harley is still obsessed with the Joker, no matter how much it impacts her relationship with the others, and there are a lot of discussions between Catwoman and Ivy about the roots of her obsession and insanity.  There is also a very clear and acknowledged romantic connection between Ivy and Harley that adds a really interesting element to the story, especially as Harley’s insanity stands in the way of the more serious relationship Ivy desires.  The inclusion of these characters adds in a defining friendship for a main character who has never had the option of friends before, and it’s also a lot of fun seeing these three characters work together, especially as they have such diverse skill sets and range of attitudes.  Overall, I really loved the fact that Maas included Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn as key characters in her novel, and it was a lot of fun to see her version of these young villains banding together for the first time and forming an outstanding partnership.

Rather than read a physical copy of this book, I grabbed the audiobook copy of Soulstealer and listened to that instead.  The audiobook is narrated by Julia Whelan, who does an amazing job capturing the essence of the book’s main character, Catwoman/Selina Kyle.  When focused on Catwoman’s point of view, the listener gets a real sense of the character’s emotions and attitude, and the voices that Whelan assigns to the other main female characters, Ivy, Harley and Talia, are fairly distinctive and fit well with the character.  I thought that the voice that the narrator used for the book’s other point-of-view character, Batwing/Luke Fox, was very serviceable and conveyed the character well enough.  However, I was a tad disappointed that the narrator did not do too much with several of the other iconic Batman characters in the story, such as Alfred, Batman or Commissioner Gordon, especially as these major characters have all been portrayed by amazing actors or voice actors in the past.  Still, the audiobook version is a great way to enjoy this story and it certainly helped me power through this novel quickly without forcing me to skip over any of its important elements.

Catwoman: Soulstealer is an excellent young adult superhero novel from acclaimed author Sarah J. Maas.  This book is a fantastic standalone novel that re-imagines an iconic DC comic book character.  No great previous insight into Catwoman or the DC universe is required, and those with even a glancing knowledge of the comic book characters will be able to enjoy this novel to its full potential.  This serves as a very good young adult novel that will hopefully draw in a younger generation of readers into this established universe, and I appreciated Maas’s casual inclusions of a number of LGBT+ elements.  Soulstealer comes highly recommended and it has certainly sparked my interest in checking out all the other books in the DC Icons range.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars