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 – Assassin’s Code by Jonathan Maberry

Assassin's Code Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 10 April 2012)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book 4

Length: 15 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, get ready for the fourth high-stakes, action-packed instalment of Jonathan Maberry’s excellent Joe Ledger series, Assassin’s Code, which sets the titular character up against a fantastic new set of antagonists.

Joe Ledger, top field agent for the elite Department of Military Sciences (DMS), is about to have a very unusual day. On assignment in Iran, Ledger and Echo Team have been tasked with rescuing American college kids held hostage by the Iranians. After successfully rescuing the hostages, Ledger is forced at gunpoint into a meeting with a high-ranking Iranian security officer. However, instead of being arrested, Ledger is given information about an impending terrorist attack that could shake the very foundations of the world.

An unknown player apparently has several nuclear weapons in play and is planning to unleash them against a number of targets around the world. As Ledger relays this information to his superiors, he is attacked by a mysterious assailant who is faster, stronger and more deadly than anything he has faced before. Barely escaping from his attacker, Ledger finds himself being pursued through the streets of Tehran by the Red Order, an ancient group of killers whose operatives appear to intimidate even Ledger’s boss, the legendary Mr Church.

As Ledger attempts to come to terms with what exactly is hunting him, he finds himself in the crosshairs of several other secret organisations, each of which has their own agendas. As Ledger gets closer to the truth, he discovers that events are being manipulated by an old enemy. An ancient conspiracy has been revealed and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Can Ledger defeat the monsters unleashed against him or will a new world order arise?

Assassin’s Code in the fourth book in Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, which sees an elite special forces agency go up against the worst horrors that modern science and science fiction can unleash. I have already read and reviewed several books in this series so far, including the previous three novels, Patient Zero, The Dragon Factory and The King of Plagues, as well as the 10th and latest book in the series, Deep Silence. Each of these books has proven to be fantastic dark science fiction thrillers that I have had an amazing time reading, and all four of them have received a full five-star rating from me. Assassin’s Code is another incredible addition to the series, as Maberry has once again produced an intense and clever story, with some great antagonists, a complex protagonist and a heck of a lot of high-grade action.

In his fourth Joe Ledger book, Maberry has continued to utilise the same writing format that made all the other books in the series such an awesome read. While a large amount of the storyline follows Ledger and the other members of the DMS as they attempt to investigate and then counter the threats they are up against, a large amount of the book revolves around showcasing the history that led up to the book’s current events, as well as exploring the antagonists side of the story. There are several chapters that solely focus on the antagonists, showing what they are planning and the full range of their various motivations. I always love these explorations of the antagonists as I feel it creates a much more complete and interesting overall storyline, and these alternate points of view are often used to really ramp up the book’s tension and hint at events that are going to hit the protagonists.

While he continues to successfully utilises a number of these familiar writing styles, I felt that Maberry also made sure that Assassin’s Code stood out from the other books in the series. Not only does this fourth book have a lot more of a horror vibe to it than the previous two books in the series (somewhat reminiscent of the first novel, Patient Zero) but it is also told as a rush of events over a 24-hour period. Ledger is barely given an opportunity to rest as he is attacked again and again by a series of different opponents in the hostile territory of Tehran. The author has also woven together a number of interconnected conspiracies and features appearances from several individuals and organisations, each of whom has their unique agendas throughout the plot of the book, all of which need to picked through by the reader. All these various players and motivations make for a very full story, but I quite enjoyed seeing all the various revelations come to light. Assassin’s Code is also an intriguing central piece to the whole Joe Ledger series. Not only does it introduce several key characters who become major fixtures of the series but it also introduces a number of key events in the lives of characters who were introduced in the previous books. As a result, it is a must read for those people trying to get a grip on the series as a whole and is a fantastic overall read.

In my mind, one of the best things about the Joe Ledger books are the distinctive antagonists, each of whom come across as major threats not only to the protagonists, but to the entire world. So far in the series, Ledger has had to face zombies, genetically enhanced Nazis and a powerful cabal of terrorists (whose members included Osama Bin Laden) whose attacks are used to manipulate the world for profit. In Assassin’s Code, Maberry has done a fantastic job converting an old legend into a terrifying modern threat, as the major villains of this book, the mysterious Red Order and their infamous Red Knights, are essentially vampires. Maberry already has significant experience writing vampires into the modern world, thanks to his V-Wars book series (an adaption of which is coming out on Netflix in a couple of months), and he does a great job coming up with a new and somewhat plausible explanation for their existence (well, slightly more plausible than a supernatural origin), as well as a creative historical explanation for their organisation. These vampires are written as major threats for most of the book, and the fear and concern that they cause in a number of characters whose badass credentials have been firmly established in previous books is pretty impressive. The use of vampires in modern thriller was a real highlight of this book, and I really loved seeing them go up against a modern special forces unit. Maberry spends a lot of time exploring their history, as the book features a number of interludes that go back to the time of the Crusades, when they were first recruited for their mission. All of this exploration does a fantastic job of showing what true monsters these types of vampires are, which helps the reader really root for the reader. I also really liked some of the other groups featured in this book that were formed as a direct result of the existence of vampires, including a group of modern Inquisitors and the mysterious Arklight. If I had one complaint about these antagonists, it would be that they were taken down a bit too easily in the final act, and I would have preferred a more protracted or vicious fight.

In addition to the vampires, this book also features the reappearance of two key antagonists from the previous book in the series, The King of Plagues, who are major manipulators of events behind the scenes. These characters are the former King of Fear, Hugo Vox, and the mysterious priest Nicodemus, both of whom were major players in the previous book. I really liked how Maberry continued to explore both of these cool characters, and he did a fantastic job of tying their storylines into the unique events of this book. Their respective roles in the plot of this book is quite interesting, and I really enjoyed how both their storylines progressed or ended in this novel. The true reveal of who (or what) Nicodemus is has been left for a later book, and I am very curious to see what he turns out to be.

Maberry continues to do an outstanding job utilising his complex and multilayered protagonist, Joe Ledger. While on the surface, Ledger’s defining character traits are his abilities as a special forces operative and his relentless sense of humour, the character is actually extremely emotionally damaged. Thanks to the fact that Ledger is the only character whose chapters are shown from the first-person perspective (a nice distinctive touch for the central protagonist), the reader gets a much more in-depth look at his inner thoughts, and as a result you see how the events of his life, including the events of the previous three books, have impacted his psyche. It is quite refreshing to have a character who is actually emotionally affected by the events of his books, and you get the feeling that Ledger is only a short way away from truly snapping. However, in the meantime, the thick layer of humour he overlays these feelings with is great for a laugh, and it helps gives the chapters that the character is narrating a very unique and enjoyable feel. In addition to Ledger, I really liked some of the new protagonists introduced in Assassin’s Code and I look forward to exploring them more in the future. Special mention as always needs to go the awesome supporting characters of Mr Church and Ghost, Ledger’s attack dog. With his actions and woofs, Ghost honestly has more personality that some human characters in other books I have read, while Church continues to be the ultra-mysterious intelligence god who you cannot help but want to know more about. These two characters are one of the many reasons why I am excited to check out all the future books in the series.

It should come as no surprise to those who read the plot synopsis, but Assassin’s Code is filled with wall-to-wall action. Maberry has a well-established history of doing detailed research into various forms of combat, especially martial arts, which he has actually written several books on. Maberry is able to transfer all of this knowledge into his books, creating some truly amazing action sequences. There are a huge number of great and varied battle scenes throughout the course of the book, and readers are guaranteed a pulse pumping ride as a result. Also, if you have ever wondered how martial arts trained special forces soldiers would go against vampires, than this is the book for you.

Like all the other books in the Joe Ledger series, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Assassin’s Code, narrated by Ray Porter. Coming in at around 15 hours and 35 minutes, this is a substantial audiobook; however, due to how much I enjoyed the epic story, I powered through it in a couple of days. I would strongly recommend that readers always check out the audiobook format of this series, thanks mainly to Porter’s narration. Porter, who has so far narrated all of the Joe Ledger books, has an uncanny ability to bring this central protagonist to life. His great narration fully encapsulates Ledger’s full range of emotions, from light-hearted banter, to soul-crushing despair to powerful bursts of rage, and it is really worth checking out. In addition, Porter does some really good voices for the other characters in the book, especially Mr Church, and he is probably one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.

When I started reading Assassin’s Code, I knew I was going to love it, and it did not disappoint. Not only did Maberry up the ante with some incredible antagonists but he created another complex and utterly captivating story that had me hooked in an extremely short period of time. Assassin’s Code easily gets another five stars from me, and I whole-heartily recommend the audiobook format of this book. I am planning to try and read all the other Joe Ledger books in the next couple of months as I only just found out that the story is continuing in November of this year as part of a new spin-off series. Stay tuned to see what I think of the other books in this series (spoiler alert, I think I am going to love them).

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes

The Bone Fire Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardcover – 25 July 2019)

Series: Somershill Manor Mystery – Book Four

Length: 310 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a clever and captivating historical murder mystery? Look no further than the latest book from the brilliant S. D. Sykes, The Bone Fire, which continues the adventures of her reluctant 14th century murder-solving protagonist, Oswald de Lacy, who this time finds himself stuck in a unique situation.

After several years of respite, the Plague returns to England in 1361. As a survivor of the original outbreak in 1350, Oswald de Lacy, lord of Somershill in Kent, knows the devastation the sickness can bring. Desperate to save his family, he accepts an invitation from one of his friends, Godfrey, to shelter for the winter in his remote castle in the Romney Marsh with a select company of friends and allies. The rules are simple: once the de Lacy family enters the castle, the gates will be closed and no-one will be allowed to leave until the Plague has passed.

Arriving just ahead of the Plague with his wife, son, mother and valet, de Lacy finds that Godfrey’s castle is a grim refuge filled with a disagreeable group of fellow guests and servants. Despite this, the castle appears to be the safest place for them, especially with the Plague already ravishing the outside countryside. That is until their host is found murdered in his own library.

As the residents deal with the shock of losing the lord of the castle, other bodies are discovered within the castle walls. With nowhere to run except onto the plague-infested island outside the castle walls, de Lacy must once again rely on his talent for solving mysteries to save the day. However, it soon becomes apparent that de Lacy is up against a ruthless killer who delights in violence and is seemingly able to move about the castle undetected. Can de Lacy solve this crime before it is too late, or will he and his family face a fate worse than the sickness keeping them trapped within the castle?

The Bone Fire is the fourth book in Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series, which started back in 2014 with Plague Land. The Somershill Manor Mystery books are an intriguing historical mystery series which follows the investigations of its protagonist in the land devastated by the Black Death. I had not previously read any of Sykes’s books, although her preceding release, City of Masks, is probably one of the books I most regret not reading in 2017.

I was initially drawn to The Bone Fire by the beautiful cover and the really cool-sounding plot, and I thought that this novel had some real potential. I am extremely glad I decided to get a copy of this book, as I was blown away by the fantastic and clever story. Sykes does an excellent job of combining a complex and compelling murder mystery with a unique and fascinating historical setting. The entire story is extremely fast paced, and I found myself racing through the book in no time at all, especially as it proved to be pretty darn hard to disengage from the fantastic story.

Those readers who have not had the opportunity to read any of Sykes’s books can easily enjoy The Bone Fire without any foreknowledge of the previous entries in the Somershill Manor Mystery series. Each of the books in the series can be read as a standalone novel, although existing readers will note the continuation of character arcs from the earlier entries in the series. Some information from the previous books does play a role in the story, including how the protagonist survived the first outbreak of the Plague, however Sykes always does a careful job of reintroducing these elements in The Bone Fire well before they become relevant to the plot.

At the heart of this book lies an excellent murder mystery storyline, as the protagonist is forced to investigate a series of killings in a remote English castle. Sykes has come up with a thrilling murder mystery storyline that follows a twisting and intriguing investigation. The protagonist has a huge bevy of potential suspects, each of whom has their secrets and schemes, which de Lacy has to unravel in order to get to the bottom of the murders, and there are a variety of motives for the killings occurring in the castle. The case goes in some very interesting directions, and the end result was very satisfying, with some well-plotted-out twists and some truly unique motivations for a murder. I had a great time trying to figure out who the killer was, and this was a terrific storyline to centre the book upon.

While the murder mystery storyline is an excellent part of this book, readers will also be entranced by Sykes’s use of a fascinating historical setting. Like the first two books in this series, the author has set the story in the midst of plague-ravished England. However, unlike the previous books, which dealt with the first bout of the Black Death between 1348-51, this story is set in 1361, when a second plague hit the country. This time the populace, including all the characters in this book, were much more aware of how deadly the Plague could be and took steps to try and avoid it. Sykes does an amazing job capturing the subsequent sense of despair, fear and paranoia that emulates from people who previously experienced the Plague, and it makes for a fantastic emotional background to the story. The various theories and ideas of the cause of the Plague are pretty fascinating, as are the methods with which the protagonists attempt to protect themselves from its influence. It also results in some heartbreaking, if not cruel, decisions from the protagonist, who is still traumatised from his experiences during the first sickness, and results in some dramatic character moments.

I really enjoyed the way that Sykes utilised the Plague and other intriguing historical aspects, such as religion, to enhance the murder mystery storyline of this book. The restrictions of the Plague keeping the residence within the castle helped make the story feel like a classic whodunnit in places with a small group of suspects trapped in an enclosed location and only one investigator trying to sort out the entire case. The historical setting also resulted in a number of intriguing potential motives for the story, such as religious differences, complex inheritances, arranged marriages and even clocks, all of which adds a compelling edge to the story.

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes is an exciting and gripping historical murder mystery that is really worth checking out. The author did a fantastic job creating a clever mystery storyline that perfectly utilises its bleak and intriguing historical setting. The end result is a terrific fourth book from Sykes that was a lot of fun to read. It is safe to say that Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series is now firmly on my reading radar, and I will be keeping an eager eye out for the next book in the series.

Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

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The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

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This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

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While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

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The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

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Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

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Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.

The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry – Audiobook Review

The Malta Exchange Cover

Publishers: Hodder & Stoughton and MacMillan Audio (5 March 2019)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 14

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of international thriller sensation Steve Berry comes the 14th book in his acclaimed Cotton Malone series, The Malta Exchange.

When the pope unexpectedly dies, opportunity and chaos grips the Vatican.  As the world’s cardinals arrive in Rome in preparation for the conclave to elect a new pope, one cardinal, the controversial Kastor Gallo, suddenly leaves for an impromptu visit to Malta.  He has been summoned for a clandestine meeting, the results of which could hand him the papacy.  The only witness to this meeting is United States Justice Department operative Luke Daniels, whose covert observations of the meeting is quickly compromised, forcing him to fight for his life.

While Daniels attempts to uncover what is happening in Malta, his former colleague, Cotton Malone, is in Italy working for British intelligence.  An Italian collector claims to have letters between Churchill and Mussolini that could prove extremely damaging to Churchill’s legacy, and MI6 is eager to recover them.  What is meant to be a quick mission for Malone is complicated when armed men kill the collector and steal the letters.  Malone is able to trace his assailants to the legendary Knights of Malta, and his chase to recover the letters leads him into a hunt from a mysterious document from the reign of Emperor Constantine.

This document, revered by the Knights of Malta and feared by the church, has been lost for hundreds of years.  Hunted by some of history’s greatest tyrants, including Napoleon and Mussolini, this secret document not only has the potential to influence the current concave if revealed, but it could also tear the church down completely.  As a secret society within the modern incarnation of the Knights of Malta and elements of the Entity, the church’s intelligence organisation, both attempt to claim the document, Malone and Daniels once again team up to recover the document and destroy the conspiracy threatening to envelope them and the entire Catholic world.

Steve Berry is a veteran author of thrillers that focus on complex conspiracies, having written a number of exciting books since his 2003 debut.  While Berry has written four standalone novels, including The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy and The Third Secret, he is probably best known for his long-running Cotton Malone series of books.  The Cotton Malone series, which began in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, is made up of 14 books, each of which features the series titular character, retired U.S. Justice Department operative Cotton Malone as he is forced to investigate a series of elaborate conspiracies or secrets with origins in history.

The Malta Exchange features several characters from the previous books in the series.  While this is the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange can easily be read as a standalone book, as no prior knowledge of the Cotton Malone series is required to enjoy this story.  While there are some mentions of previous adventures in the series, none of these brief references are really relevant to this book’s story.  Likewise, the series’ recurring characters are re-introduced in some detail, and no pre-existing knowledge of them is needed.  Those readers who are already familiar with this series will enjoy another amazing thriller from Berry, although there may be some repetition, as the protagonists once again dive into another elaborate conspiracy centred with a secret order associated with the Catholic Church.  As one of my reviewer colleagues who is somewhat more familiar with this series than me stated, “How many conspiracies can one man wander into?”  Still, for those people who have enjoyed Berry’s stories before, The Malta Exchange is another exceptional read with a thrilling mystery that is a lot of fun to unravel.

While I received a physical copy of this book to read, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Malta Exchange narrated by Scott Brick.  This book was an absolutely fantastic piece of thriller fiction as the reader is thrown into an extremely intriguing and wide-reaching conspiracy involving hidden documents, major historical figures and deep dives into the history and background of several fictional and real-life organisations.

This is an excellent book for thriller fans, as The Malta Exchange contains a number of intense and complex conspiracies and plots overlayed across each other to create an addictive and enjoyable read.  The main plot focuses on the search for a long-lost document that originated during the reign of Emperor Constantine, which has the potential to damage or destroy the Catholic Church.  As a big fan of the historical fiction genre, I loved how this central mystery cleverly utilised a number of massive historical events and figures in its overall conspiracy.  For example, this central conspiracy has ties to Emperor Constantine, the founding of the Catholic Church, Napoleon, Mussolini, the Crusades and important events in World War II.  It even features a number of cool flashbacks to Mussolini and Napoleon’s life, showing how they were embroiled in this conspiracy.  This results in a treasure hunt so large, mysterious and potentially world-changing you cannot help but be intrigued and eager to see how it ends.  On top of that, a number of secret organisations with conflicting agendas and plots are duking it out around the hunt for this document and the reader is uncertain of their true motivations until later in the story.  All these story threads come together incredibly well at the end of the story, resulting in an intense, intelligent and entertaining thriller storyline that I could not wait to fully uncover.

Except for a couple of chapters featuring flashbacks to historical figures like Mussolini or Napoleon, The Malta Exchange is told from the point of view of four main characters: Cotton Malone, Luke Daniels, Cardinal Kastor Gallo and a mysterious ‘knight’ who remains unnamed for most of the book.  Malone and Daniels serve as good central protagonists, and I liked the contrast in their styles and personalities.  While Malone is the older, wiser and occasionally more careful protagonist who puts together the various clues around the hidden location of ancient document, Daniels is the younger, more action orientated character who does a number of crazy stunts throughout the book while also hiding his intelligence and cunning behind a convincing “good ol’ boy” routine.  The unnamed knight is The Malta Exchange’s main antagonist, whose identity remains hidden for much of the book.  This knight is an interesting character, and it is always fun to see the antagonist’s point of view as they attempt to outwit the protagonists.  While the reveal of this character’s secret identity is somewhat obvious due to there only being a few significant secondary characters, the antagonist’s overall plan was quite ingenious and devious.  Kastor Gallo is another interesting character; a self-serving Cardinal who wants to become Pope, he skirts the line between protagonist and villain in this story.  While the character considers himself an honest and pious priest, he is not particularly likeable due to his extremely conservative religious views and unbridled arrogance.  Still it was fun watching him try to manipulate the other characters, as well as his plot to try and gain the papacy.  There are several other fantastic side characters whom I will not discuss in any detail lest I hint at the identity of the unnamed knight above, but they really add a lot to this story.

One of the things that really impressed me about this book was the way that Berry dived into several organisations and locations in extreme and intriguing detail, particularly when it comes to two specific organisations.  The first of these organisations is the Knights of Malta, otherwise known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.  Throughout this book, Berry spends a significant amount of time exploring this order, from their origins as the Knights Hospitaller and the Crusades, to their current existence as a massive charitable organisation.  Berry examines a large amount of their history, how they are organised, where they are located, what they do, their political status and how they have evolved over the years, and this amazing examination is further extended out into the incredible history of the nation of Malta.  Even the order’s leadership crisis between 2016 and 2018 is somewhat represented in the book, as the author describes a similar crisis affecting the organisation featured within The Malta Exchange.  All of this is deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed the author’s examination of this organisation and how he was able to utilise the Knights of Malta’s actual history to the degree he did, with only a few alterations to fit his story.

The second organisation that Berry dives into is the Catholic Church, as a number of key aspects of the church and the Vatican come into play throughout the plot.  Like with his deep dive into the Knights of Malta, the author included a number of detailed examinations about church history, organisation and key events, like the selection of a new pope, that I quite enjoyed learning more about, and which fit incredibly well into the story.  The part of the examination into the church that I enjoyed the most was the look at the church’s supposed intelligence organisation, the Entity.  While the church has never confirmed they have an official intelligence organisation, several historical books have discussed its potential activities, and a number of thriller writers have utilised such an organisation, often known as the Entity, to great effect.  Perhaps because thrillers are not a genre that I read an awful lot of, this was the first book I have read that featured a church intelligence agency.  I really liked the idea of a secret intelligence organisation working for the Vatican, and Berry really utilises them well throughout his book, making them out as one of the most elite and effective intelligence organisations on the planet, who people really should not mess with.  I absolutely loved all the Catholic Church inclusions that the author featured and that, combined with the captivating examination of the Knights of Malta, helped turn this into an amazing overall story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, which was narrated by Scott Brick.  This was not a massively long audiobook, only clocking in at around 13 and a half hours, and I was able to power through this really quickly, especially as I become more and more enthralled with the book’s compelling story.  I was quite glad that I chose to listen to this book rather than read it.  While you do lose out on some of the book’s visual elements, like some of the diagrams of anagrams or secret codes that feature throughout the physical copy, I found that listening to The Malta Exchange really helped me absorb the massive conspiracy storyline, as well as the history and organisation examinations, a hell of a lot more.  Brick has an amazing voice for thrillers, and I quite enjoyed listening him narrate this fantastic novel.  The voices he creates for the various characters in this book are quite good, and I liked some of the accents that he came up with.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, although readers will still be able to get a huge amount out of the physical copy of the book.

The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry is an incredible and addictive ancient conspiracy thriller that I had an amazing time reading.  Once you get sucked into the book’s various conspiracies and mysteries it is hard to pull yourself out until each and every one of them is untangled.  What I enjoyed most about the main conspiracy was the author’s ability to explore fascinating history and famous organisations in outstanding detail, and then use these events to really enhance his story.  The end result is an awesome novel that comes highly recommend from me.  Appealing and accessible to established fans of the Cotton Malone series, as well as other fans of the thriller genre, I was really glad I decided to check this book out and I am curious to see what historical conspiracy Malone uncovers next.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

The Raven Tower Cover

Publishers: Orbit and Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 26 February 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 12 hours and 1 Minute

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 Stars

The bestselling author of the Imperial Radch series, Ann Leckie, presents her first foray into fantasy fiction with The Raven Tower, an intriguing fantasy read that I have been looking forward to for a while, and which attempts something new and different in its presentation.

The Raven Tower is set in a world filled with gods whose power and abilities can be gifted to humans in exchange for worship and offerings.  For centuries, a powerful god known as the Raven has ruled over the rich kingdom of Iraden, offering protection and prosperity from atop a tower in the city of Vastai.  The human ruler of all of Iraden is known as the Raven’s Lease and has been chosen by the Raven to bear his power and enact the god’s will.  However, this power comes at a price, as each Lease must sacrifice himself to the Raven in order to keep the god strong and Iraden safe.

When Eolo and his lord, Mawat, heir to the Raven’s Lease, return to Vastai, they find the city in chaos.  Mawat’s father, the former Lease, went missing just before he was required to pay the Raven’s price.  In his place, Mawat’s uncle, Hibal, has taken the throne and has been named the new Raven’s Lease.  Determined to find out what happened to the former Lease and reclaim the throne for his master, Eolo attempts to uncover the many secrets of Vastai.  But as Eolo investigates he discovers that something ancient and mysterious is concealed within the Raven’s Tower: a secret from Iraden’s past that the Raven has kept hidden for centuries.  It is clear there will be a reckoning, but is Eolo ready to pay the price?

To be honest, I found that The Raven Tower was a very challenging book to critically examine and assign an overall rating for.  Before I had even started reading it, I saw that a number of other reviewers had noted that had great difficulty with this book, mainly due to the author’s unique way of narrating the story.  As a result, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Raven Tower, narrated by Adjoa Andoh, in the hopes that this would make it easier for me to follow along.  The audiobook version of the book is around 12 hours long, and I managed to get through it in around a week.  While I did also experience some issues with the way the book was set out, I actually began to appreciate this unique format the more that I stuck with the story, and this turned out to be a really enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction.

For this book, Leckie chose to utilise a noticeably different second person limited narration format to tell her story.  The story is told by a god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who not only tells the main story in Vastai, specifically focusing on the character Eolo, but who also describes all the events of its own life that led up to this period of time.  This god has a very unique way of speaking that impacts how the Vastai story is told.  In particular, the god constantly describes what Eolo is doing, but, at the same time, it has no idea of what is going on inside Eolo’s head.  As a result, it makes very generic statements and guesses about Eolo’s memories, state of mind or thought process.  Take for example the following line, said as Eolo explores the docks near the tower: “I don’t think you grew up near the sea, and so you likely knew very little about boats or tides.”  Having this being make guesses about the protagonist’s thoughts or feelings is a little unusual, and I was very confused about why the author had written her book this way, and for a large portion of the book I really thought that it would have made more sense to have a more traditional narrator system.  However, as I read deeper into the story, it became a whole lot clearer why Leckie had set her story out in this way, and I was able to really appreciate it use.

As the book progresses, the two halves of the story start to come together.  Taken separately, both parts of the story are fairly interesting.  The storyline focusing on Eolo and the mystery surrounding the Raven’s Lease is fairly intriguing mystery filled with politics, murder, mystery and the fate of an entire nation.  The second storyline, which looks at the backstory of the Strength and Patience of the Hill, helps build up Leckie’s new world while also explaining much about the book’s primary fantasy element, the gods, as well as the Raven’s rise to power.  While both these storylines are quite fascinating in their own right, when they start coming together in the later part of the book, it creates a much more complete and intense story.  The author’s use of the Strength and Patience of the Hill as the book’s primary narrator becomes a lot clearer, and I actually really liked how this unconventional narration was utilised.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic twists that occurred at the end of the book, and the author’s excellent lead-up to these events was really quite clever and subtle.  Overall, this turned into quite an amazing story, and I was very glad that I stuck with it and got all the way through.

One of the main things that I enjoyed about The Raven Tower was the interesting fantasy elements that Leckie utilised throughout her story, mostly shown in the form of the gods that inhabit this world.  The gods in this book are quite an interesting creation from Leckie, who has come up with a number of rules surrounding them, all of which is explored by the narrator.  In this world, the gods have a finite amount of power, which they gain from worship and which they lose by altering the world, either for their own benefit or in order to answer prayers.  The gods’ power is tied to their speech; anything they say as a fact, their power will act to make it so.  For example, if they say that an object will turn, then their powers will act to make it turn.  However, if the action they want to accomplish takes more power than they have access to, then they will die or become extremely weak.  As a result, the gods are forced to speak extremely carefully, lest they inadvertently make a command that will take way too much energy.  The gods, therefore, try to avoid absolutes in their conversations and have to use words such as “I think” or “I heard” to get around this.  Leckie consequently has to have her narrator, the Strength and Patience of the Hill, utilise this language throughout the entire book, as to the god addresses the main character Eolo (even if Eolo does not hear them).  That is why there are so many unusual language choices throughout the book, such as the recurring “Here is a story that I have heard”.  While these language choices did throw me at first, once I understood why it was happening, I got used it and I thought it was extremely creative and commendable that the author stuck with this throughout the entire story.

In addition to this use of language, Leckie spends considerable time exploring the limitations and abilities of the gods throughout her book.  Leckie uses all sorts of different narrative devices to showcase this, from the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s personal memories and experiments, conversations they have with other gods, as well as telling stories about other gods and how they utilise their powers (there is one particularly amusing story about a god-powered spear I liked).  It is clear that the author put a lot of thought into her universe’s gods and the abilities that they have, and the exploration of these ideas were some of my favourite parts of the book.  I was also extremely impressed with how Leckie was able to utilise these fantasy ideas so effectively in her story, and I liked the bearing that they had on both the plot and the way the book was written.

Another interesting aspect of The Raven Tower is the characters that the author has used within the story.  The main protagonist is Eolo, whose attempts to get to the bottom of the mysterious events in Vastai are a large focus in the book.  Eolo is a pretty boss protagonist, able to disguise his intelligence and cunning behind an ignorant peasant facade, while quickly unravelling what has occurred in the city and then playing the politics to get the best result for her master.  Eolo is actually a transgender character, and I was really impressed with how well-written this part of the character’s identity was, and with how it was explored within the book.  In addition to Eolo, there are also several other intriguing characters used throughout the book.  Once you get the hang of its speech pattern, the Strength and Patience of the Hill is a pretty good narrator, and I found the god’s backstory and way of seeing the world to be incredibly intriguing.  I quite liked the character of Tikaz, who serves as one of the main female characters in the book, as well as Eolo’s potential love interest.  Tikaz is fleshed out incredibly well, and I loved the various interactions that she has with Eolo.  The book’s main villain, Hibal, is suitably evil and conniving, and he even has a pair of creepy twins serving as his henchmen.

I need to point out the fantastic job Leckie did coming up with one of the main characters in the book, Mawat.  Mawat is the heir to the Raven’s Lease, who finds his position usurped by his uncle.  However, rather than write him as a noble character we are supposed to feel sympathy for, Mawat immediately has a temper tantrum and spends the rest of the book acting as an unreasonable child, completely ignoring Eolo’s advice and even attacking his loyal servant whenever he hears something he does not like.  While a large amount of this is necessary for the story, I liked the reversal of the noble disenfranchised heir trope that is often utilised in fantasy, and instead we are left with a more complex character.

I quite liked the audiobook format of The Raven Tower and found it to be a really great way to enjoy this book.  I definitely think it helped me follow the plot and navigate the different narrative devices of this book, and I absorbed more information about Leckie’s fantasy elements.  I quite enjoyed Adjoa Andoh’s narration throughout the book and thought their voice was perfect for the mysterious and wise Strength and Patience of the Hill, who narrated most of the text.  I especially liked how Andoh was able convey the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s anger at certain key points of the book and to make the god’s voice quite menacing.  Apart from the Strength and Patience of the Hill, the other character voices throughout The Raven Tower were fairly distinctive and matched the personalities of the characters quite well.  I was especially fond of the fitting accents she assigned to some of the human characters, such as Tikaz or the god known as the Myriad.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers check out the audiobook format of The Raven Tower, as it may prove to be an easier way to enjoy this intricate story.

As I mentioned above, I had a hard time giving this book an overall rating.  When I first started reading it and I encountered the strange narration style for the first section of the book, I thought I might have to give it a low score.  However, once I started to get more into the story and the lore behind the gods of this world was explained in some detail, I ended up changing my score to something closer to 4 out of 5 stars.  This reflected my appreciation of Leckie’s inventiveness, but also had a few demerits due to the slow start and issues I had getting into the story.  However, I ended up changing this to a 4.25 out of 5 stars in the end, once I appreciated how the two separate storylines came together and that superb ending.  As a result, I would highly recommend The Raven Tower to fantasy readers, and I encourage people to see past the issues at the start of the book.  Leckie is an outstanding author, and her first foray into fantasy featured some unique elements that turned The Raven Tower into one of the most distinctive and clever reads of 2019.  The Raven Tower works incredibly well as a stand-alone book, but if the author decides to return to this world in the future I would be extremely curious to see where she takes the story next.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

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Publisher: Orbit (Paperback Edition – 17 January 2019)

Series: Black Iron Legacy (Book 1)

Length: 512 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

From debuting author Gareth Hanrahan comes the grimdark fantasy book that everyone has been talking about, The Gutter Prayer.  This debut novel has been getting some serious hype from a lot of fantasy reviewers, so I was very happy when I got my copy earlier in the week, as it will give me a chance to check it out for myself.

For thousands of years, the large, sprawling city of Guerdon has survived against all manner of attacks and calamity.  In recent years, the city’s alchemical industry has taken off, producing powerful weapons and twisted creations to sell to Guerdon’s warring neighbours, involved in the destructive Godswar.  But with the rival nation’s eyes on Guerdon, refugees flooding into the city and the city’s various factions fighting for power, the potential for chaos is great.

In the middle of all this, three mismatched young thieves – stranger to the city, Cari; the Stone Man, Spar; and Rat the ghoul – find their lives changed forever.  Hired by the leader of the city’s criminal element, these three thieves attempt to break into an important civic building, only to be nearly killed by a massive explosion and framed for the crime.  Pursued by the Alchemist Guild’s murderous enforcers, the Tallowmen, and the relentless thief-taker, Jere, the three friends attempt to escape their pursuers, but find themselves entangled in a terrible plot to bring destruction to the city.

Ancient creatures are rising from the city’s bloody past, and the city’s old gods are prepared to rise once again.  As Cari, Spar and Rat uncover the full extent of these gods’ power, they must contend with others who seek to use the chaos for their own ends.  With everything on the line, can the three friends find a way to stop the events unfolding, or will their failure result in the destruction of everything they hold dear?

This is Hanrahan’s first fictional book, although the author has written a number of gaming manuals and fantasy guides over the years.  However, with the evident popularity of The Gutter Prayer among the fantasy community, it seems extremely likely that this will not be Hanrahan’s only book.  Indeed, the author already has plans for a sequel, and The Gutter Prayer will form part of this planned Black Iron Legacy series.

I thought that The Gutter Prayer was an ambitious and intriguing new entry to the fantasy genre, and it is definitely worthy of the hype around it.  Hanrahan presents a wide-ranging and dark story of magic, religion and betrayal, and he sets it within an imaginative new fantasy landscape with a ton of unique fantasy elements and creatures.  The story is then based around several great characters, each of whom has their own compelling arc within the narrative.  The result is an excellent and memorable novel that showcases Hanrahan’s creativity and serves as an amazing introduction into a bold new fantasy universe.

This book contained a fantastic and intense story which focused on a variety of different characters and follows their attempts to investigate and forestall the strange events occurring around them.  I really enjoyed this story, although I had a little bit of a hard time getting into it at the start of the book due to mass of story and fantasy elements I was bombarded with.  However, I am extremely glad that I powered past this first part of the book because once I was able to place all the story elements together I appreciated the book’s wild and intricate plot.  One of the main things that I really loved about this book was the inclusion of a significant number of different characters and factions, each with their own motivations and hidden secrets.  As a result, you have no idea who is going to do what next and who is going to betray the protagonists to serve their own needs, creating an unpredictable story.  The narrative is also extremely dark, and readers should be prepared for characters dying or being altered in some way or another.  This is some fantastic storytelling from Hanrahan, and an overall clever narrative.

One of the most talked-about elements of this book is the author’s use of a huge range of unique fantasy elements.  Hanrahan has come up with and expertly utilised a ton of creative, inventive and at times just plain creepy new fantasy elements.  The best example of this has to be the Tallowmen, humans that have been turned into living candles, often as punishment for crimes.  These creatures are strong, lethal and fast, serving as the guards and law enforcers of the Alchemist Guild.  Their terrifying appearance, distinctive abilities and the glow of their candle flames as they hunt down the protagonists are extremely memorable.  Another terrifying inclusion is the Ravellers, servants of the city’s ancient gods who have the ability to unravel people out of existence and take on their appearance.  There are also the ghouls and Stone Men.  Stone Men are humans infected with a disease that slowly turns them into stone, although their condition can be held back by an alchemical compound.  The depictions of their condition are pretty horrific, and there is the interesting double-edged sword of the disease: they become stronger the more their condition progresses, but they also become less able to live normal lives.  The ghouls, humanoid creatures who feast of the dead flesh of humans, are an element that most fantasy fans will be familiar with, but Hanrahan has made some clever alterations to these creatures by expanding on their life cycle and making them a key part of the city’s history.  Another awesome creation is the Crawling Ones, a sentient hive of worms who take a human shape and are powerful magic users.

In addition to the above unique fantasy creatures, The Gutter Prayer also introduces the author’s great new twist on fantasy gods.  The world of the Dark Iron Legacy is filled with a vast pantheon of powerful gods, which forms a critical part of this universe.  Many of the deities outside of the city are engaged in a massive conflict known as the Godswar, where these gods and their followers are involved in battles against each other for supremacy.  While we get a brief look at this in The Gutter Prayer, most of the focus of this book is on the gods of Guerdon.  While a few other religions are mentioned within the city, the main two pantheons are the Kept Gods and the Black Iron Gods.  Both of these different gods are extremely intriguing, and I particularly loved the concept of the Kept Gods, who are chained and whose intake of prayer is controlled by their church to limit their power and control their actions.  The Black Iron Gods are a darker and more ancient pantheon with a great history, a horde of sinister followers and a captivating physical presence.  I also liked this universe’s concept of saints, those humans gifted power by their connection to the gods.  There are a couple of saints featured throughout the book who form an integral part of the plot, powering through the story with a range of different powers and abilities.  Quite frankly, all of these unique fantasy elements are deeply intriguing, and Hanrahan uses all of them perfectly to enhance his outstanding story.  I do hope that the Godswar will be explored in future books, as that sounded like a really fun concept that I would be deeply interested in.

Guerdon is a decent grimdark fantasy city, and it serves as the primary setting for most of the city.  The city’s range of interesting and unique residence allows for a fascinating overall story and makes this a fantastic setting.  I really like how the city is home to a range of competing factions, such as the Alchemists, the Church, the criminal organisation known as the Brotherhood, politicians and the city’s non-human races, each of whom have different plans for the future of the city.  This is a pretty typical dark, crime-ridden fantasy city, but it works really well as a setting for this story.  The author’s deep exploration of the history of his fantasy city served as a useful plot point, and I love how the city’s past came back to haunt it in a number of ways.

I have to say that I was really impressed with Hanrahan’s character work within this book.  The author introduces a number of amazing characters, most of whom get deep and satisfying story arcs.  The main three characters are particularly great.  I really liked Spar, who is not only the son of one of the city’s most famous criminals, but who is also a Stone Man.  It is through this character’s eyes that we get the best view of the living hell of life as a Stone Man, as Spar is forced to deal with all the unpleasant side effects that his condition brings.  At the same time he must deal with his family legacy as he fights to achieve his father’s dream of a more noble Brotherhood while forced to work for its current corrupt leader.  Rat the ghoul is another interesting character.  As a ghoul, he is generally supposed to live under the city, but he likes living above the streets with his friends.  Rat is constantly conflicted between loyalty to his friends and to his race’s ancient promises, as well as dislike for the traditional ghoul lifestyle.  Finally, there is the mysterious young thief, Cari, who holds a dark secret in her past.  Cari is a rebellious young female protagonist who is developing strange new powers.  The exploration of her past and her abilities is a key part of the book and a good basis for a large portion of this plot.  I liked the way that these three characters cared for each other and how their stories remain interconnected even as they have their own unique adventures within the story.

While these three main characters serve as an extremely powerful narrative base for The Gutter Prayer, the author also focuses on a couple of additional point-of-view characters, including the veteran thief-taker, Jere; Cari’s cousin, Eladora; and the saint of the Kept Gods, Arla.  These characters do not get as large a focus as the book’s three main characters, but their parts of the book are quite significant.  Each of them also has a full character arc within the book, and they all develop or change in substantial ways.  Jere is a grizzled private investigator obsessed with taking down the Brotherhood, and his investigations for the first two-thirds of the book provide the reader with some vital plot detail.  I really liked the end to Jere’s character arc, which was both dark and satisfying.  Eladora is a sheltered scholar who gets a rather rude awakening about life throughout the course of this book.  Eladora is not my favourite character, but I did like her gradual transformation from damsel in distress to something more useful.  Finally, there is Arla, who would have to be my favourite side character.  Arla is a saint of the Kept Gods blessed with fiery powers as a result.  Arla is a badass and entertaining character who spends most of the book fighting her opponents with her fiery sword and generally not acting in a way most people would consider saint-like.  I especially love when she utilises her god-empowered voice to command people, as she is usually swearing while doing this.  This comes up in the text in all caps, and you have to imagine it sounds pretty impressive in this book’s audiobook format.  There were a number of other entertaining side or minor characters throughout the book that the author put to good use, and I will enjoy seeing what role they will play in any future books in the series.

Overall, I truly enjoyed The Gutter Prayer and was impressed by Hanrahan’s magnificent debut.  This was an excellent piece of grimdark fantasy which expertly combined some very inventive fantasy elements together with a fantastic story and some excellent characters.  With this first book Hanrahan has shown some incredible talent as a fantasy storyteller whose outstanding imagination is his biggest asset.  This is a highly recommended book which lives up to the substantial hype surrounding it.  I am already extremely keen for any additional books in the Black Iron Legacy, especially as the interview at the end of the book implies that Hanrahan has some brilliant ideas for the rest of the series.