Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

Black Drop Cover

Publisher: Viper (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Laurence Jago – Book One

Length: 343 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Intriguing and talented new author Leonora Nattrass presents a compelling historical thriller debut with Black Drop, a fantastic novel that drags readers into the conspiracies and issues of late 18th century London.

In July of 1794, as the terror of the French Revolution reaches its height and the war on the continent goes poorly for the British army, uncertainty and fear of violent change infect the people of London.  For Laurence Jago, clerk to the Foreign Office, his position is even more uncertain that those around him.  A young man with hidden French heritage, Jago fears the day that his connections to his mother’s nation will be discovered, especially after spending years serving as a spy for sinister French agent Aglantine.

Now believing himself to be free from Aglantine’s employment, Jago is thrust into an untenable situation when vital confidential information about the British army is leaked from his office to the press.  Suspected by his peers of leaking the information and under investigation, Jago fears that all his secrets and former dealings are about to come out.  His problems are only further compounded when he discovers the body of a fellow clerk in his rooms, supposedly dead by suicide.

When the blame for the leak is shifted onto the dead man, Jago is freed of the suspicion against him.  However, Jago knows that the dead clerk was incapable of stealing the letter and believes that he was murdered.  Determined to find out the truth behind the death, Jago finds himself investigating the highest level of the British civil service and their political masters.  Out of his depth and thwarted at every turn, Jago will risk everything to root out the culprit before they strike to disrupt England again.  However, can he succeed without revealing his own dark secrets, or will Jago hang as a traitor instead of the murderer?

Black Drop is an excellent and clever novel that I had a great time reading as Nattrass perfectly combines a compelling spy thriller/murder mystery storyline with intriguing and detailed historical fiction elements.  This resulted in one of the more unique and fantastic debuts of 2022 and I really enjoyed Black Drop’s impressive story.

This awesome debut novel has an excellent story that expertly combines intriguing spy thriller and murder mystery elements with a character driven historical narrative to create a compelling and impressive read.  Set throughout key events of 1794 and told as a chronicle from the perspective of central character, Laurence Jago, Black Drop presents the reader with an intriguing tale of murder, political machinations and the threat of revolution at the heart of the period’s government.  Nattrass sets the scene perfectly at the start, introducing the key characters while also highlighting the feelings of unrest and dissent as the fear and inspiration from the French revolution hits London.  From there, the story starts to unfold in some interesting directions as the protagonist finds himself involved in political and espionage adventures while also investigating the murder of a fellow clerk, which appears to be connected.  At the same time, the slow-paced story utilises some intriguing aspects from the protagonist’s life as he struggles with dark secrets from his past that have potential implications on the current events.

Following this introduction and the initial parts of the narrative, the middle of Black Drop starts to bring in certain key historical events and figures, which results in some fantastic moments and character interactions, especially once an antagonistic figure becomes more prominent.  While the middle of this novel did drag in places, I felt that Nattrass was providing the reader with the right blend of intrigue, mystery, historical detail and character growth to produce a great overall story.  You really get to grips with the protagonist and the key aspects of the setting during this part of the book, especially when Jago hits a major personal downturn earlier than expected, and interesting reveals enhance the reader’s attachment to the mystery.  The story really starts to pick up once it gets to Nattrass’s recreation of the infamous trial surrounding supposed radical and revolutionary Thomas Hardy.  The ridiculous, and mostly accurate depiction of the trial (with certain elements from other trials thrown in for greater effect), proves to be a great high point for the novel, especially as other key parts of the plot are slotted in perfectly around it.  I did feel that the novel started to come undone around the conclusion a little, especially when it came to the big reveal.  While there were a couple of good twists around certain characters, the solution to the main mystery and the intrigue seemed a little weak to me, and I was a little disappointed with how it turned out, especially as you barely get to see anything about the final confrontation.  Still, this did not affect the overall quality of the story too much, especially as the author throws in an excellent wrap-up for the protagonist’s storyline in this novel which has a lot of potential for a sequel.  While much of the story can be a little sluggish and lacking a lot of action, I had a great time getting through Black Drop, and I loved how the excellent interplay of elements came together so well.

One of the most distinctive parts of Black Drop is the sheer amount of fascinating historical detail that was fit into the story.  Nattrass has clearly done her research on the period and the reader is presented with a fantastic and powerful view of London in the late 18th century.  Not only are there some brilliant and vibrant depictions of historical London but the reader gets some fascinating views into the inner workings of the government at the time.  Substantial parts of the book are dedicated to examining the civil service and the political hierarchy of the day, with multiple influential figures featured as supporting characters.  This proves to be a deeply fascinating part of the book, and I loved how Nattrass was able to weave these intriguing details into the thriller plot, becoming a key part of Black Drop’s story.  I also deeply appreciated the way in which Nattrass explores the social and political issues of the day, especially where it relates to the concerns in London about an uprising similar to what happened in France.  As such, you get a full spectrum of personalities from across London, as royalists and loyalists clash with potential radicals who are targeted by the worried government.  This all cumulates in the fantastic court case of Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker accused of radical actions and attempted rebellion.  This historical trial is expertly recreated by Nattrass to include all of its most interesting parts, including several extremely ridiculous elements from history (a blowgun murder conspiracy).  Nattrass also cleverly combines in some elements from related trials that occurred around the same time as the Hardy case for some amusing dramatic effect, and this extended sequence ended up being one of my favourite parts of the novel.  The overall hint of discontent by many members of London’s society, as well as the innate fear of the established institutions, is portrayed beautifully, and you get a great sense of the public issues during this period.  All these impressive historical elements are handled extremely well by Nattrass, and while it did get a tad tedious in places, it was an excellent part of the book that I deeply enjoyed.

To back up her unique historical tale, Nattrass has furnished Black Drop with a compelling array of characters with some complex and compelling character arcs.  This book actually contains a great combination of original characters and historical figures, with many major figures in 18th century British politics and the civil service featured in substantial roles throughout the book.  Not only does this brilliantly enhance the already substantial historical details of Black Drop, but it also results in some fascinating interactions and depictions as the fictional characters, including the point-of-view character, observe them.  Due to the complexity of the story, Black Drop makes use of a pretty large cast of characters, and while a few of them blend together, most come across as pretty distinctive with some interesting and fun character traits.

The best character of Black Drop is the protagonist Laurence Jago, who also serves as the book’s sole point-of-view character.  Jago turns out to be a particularly complex and damaged individual whose emotional attachment to the case and the state of London society provides some intriguing drama and insight into the events of the book.  Already made quite distinctive by his unique green-glass spectacles, Jago proves to be an impressive and captivating figure, especially as he has some major issues.  Secretly half-French, Jago lives a conflicted and fear-filled life, especially with the intense anti-French attitudes sprinkling the city.  This, combined with his foolish youthful dalliance of being a spy for France, ensures that he has a powerful sense of guilt, and is constantly worried about being discovered, especially once other accusations are made against him.  The discovery of a dead friend, combined with his guilt, the pressures of work, and the constant fear of discovery really strain his mind, and while he doggedly tries to find out the truth behind the murder, he starts to crack and nearly blows his cover.  Watching him trying to hide his own secrets while uncovering the lies and machinations of those around him becomes pretty intense, especially as you grow quite attached to this damaged soul.  His mental state further deteriorates once he becomes addicted to Black Drop (an opium concoction), which dulls his worried and troubled mind, while also leaving him lethargic and susceptible to danger.  This proves to be a serious handicap to his abilities, and it is fascinating to see him try to balance all his issues with the hunt for the truth.  All these issues and concerns result in a very conflicted and emotionally drained character, who Nattrass portrays perfectly, and it was very powerful to see Jago’s entire story unfold.

Aside from Jago there is a rich cast of supporting characters, each of whom add to the story in their own distinct way.  I particularly want to focus on two who ended up being the best supporting figures in different ways.  The first of these is William Philpott, a fiction British reporter character, who arrives in England from and extended stay in America and sets up his paper and family residence next to Jago’s lodgings.  An eccentric, rambunctious and slightly uncouth fellow, Philpott stands in stark contrast to the various stuffy characters that make up the majority of the cast, which ensures that the reader is quickly drawn to him.  Not only does he serve as a lighter character in the novel and a firm confidant for the protagonist, but you also get an interesting viewpoint into his changing feelings about the events occurring throughout London.  Philpott starts the novel as a strong, patriotic figure who fully intends to support the government in his paper when it comes to the court cases against the supposed radicals.  However, upon viewing some of the injustices they are committing, such as their harassment of and unfair case against Thomas Hardy, Philpott becomes more sympathetic, supporting the dissenting voices and writing fair accounts of the proceedings.  This interesting middle ground perspective on the historical events of the book proves to be extremely interesting, and I loved how Philpott’s unique storyline unfolded, especially as it results in him throwing some valuable lifelines to the troubled Jago.

The other character of note is real-life historical figure and future British Prime Minister George Canning, who serves a much more antagonistic role in this novel.  Canning, who at this point in the time period was a young MP with connections to the sitting PM, William Pitt, gets embroiled in the case quite early in the novel, thanks to his connection to the dead man and the suspicions surrounding Jago.  Portrayed in Black Drop as an uncaring and malicious man, Canning is a menacing antagonist for much of the novel, constantly butting heads with Jago and complicating his investigation.  I loved the use of this intriguing historical character, especially as Nattrass turns him into a very unlikable figure, who you cannot help but hate.  Not only does Nattrass do a great job of examining some of the historical elements surrounding him at this period of time but she also layers in some fantastic references to future events in his life, such as the infamous duel that he would eventually take part in.  However, his real benefit is the impact he has on the story and the deep rivalry he forms with the protagonist.  Watching these two battle it out in different arenas is very amusing, especially as Jago is constantly outmatched by this influential politician, and I do hope that we see more of Canning in future books in this series.  These great characters, and more, all add a great deal to this intriguing novel, and I really appreciated how fantastic and compelling they turned out to be.

Overall, Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass is an impressive and captivating piece of historical crime fiction that I am really glad I decided to check out.  Making excellent use of some fascinating historical elements, Nattrass did an amazing job of producing a clever and enjoyable spy thriller/murder mystery storyline in 18th century London, which came together very well.  Filled with great historical events and compelling characters, Black Drop was an absolute treat to read, and I look forward to seeing how Nattrass’s next book will turn out, especially as the sequel, Blue Water, is apparently set for release in October this year.

Warhammer 40,000: Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Day of Ascension Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 5 hours and 38 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary science fiction and fantasy author Adrian Tchaikovsky has arrived in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with the awesome and clever novel, Day of Ascension, a deadly and wildly entertaining read that sets two brilliant factions against each other.

2022 has so far proven to be an amazing year for Warhammer fiction, with several impressive novels already released, including Steel Tread by Andy Clark and The Twice-Dead King: Reign by Nate Crowley.  However, the Warhammer 40,000 novel I have been most excited for is Day of Ascension, an awesome and unique read written by acclaimed author Adrian Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky has been wowing science fiction and fantasy audiences for years, producing several impressive novels across various genres.  Not only has he written some fantastic standalone novels but he also produced highly regarded series, such as the Shadows of the Apt and Children of Time books.  I have really liked the sound of his cool novels, but I had not had a chance to read any of them yet.  Once I saw that Tchaikovsky was contributing to the extended Warhammer 40,000 universe, I knew that this would be the year I finally read something from him.  Day of Ascension is Tchaikovsky first full novel in the Warhammer universe (he previously wrote the short story Raised in Darkness), and I was deeply impressed by the brilliant and captivating story he came up with.

On the forge world of Morod, the life and soul of every human belongs to the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Imperial machine cult who provide the armies of mankind with their weaponry and war machines.  However, while the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus live in comfort and prosperity, constantly delving into the secrets of the machine, the common people of Morod have been worn down by millennia of servitude, exploitation and conscription, doomed to either die young in the mines and foundries or be turned into mindless mechanical soldiers.  In their grief and anger, the civilians of Morod have turned to a new faith that offers salvation from the harsh rule of the Mechanicus, although that devotion comes with a dark price.

In the hierarchy of Morod’s Adeptus Mechanicus, Genetor Gammat Triskellian is considered a joke due to his focus on improving the flesh rather than replacing it with machinery.  Constantly overlooked by his superiors and given the most menial of tasks, Triskellian looks to find a way to advance his research and end the corruption he sees holding the order back.  When he uncovers a particularly interesting genetic strain in the populace of Morod, he thinks it could be the answer to all his prayers, one that could enhance his science and revolutionise the advancements of his order.

Digging further, he finds evidence of an unusual and twisted religious congregation operating throughout the planet, preaching rebellion and the destruction of the tech-priests, while awaiting the return of long-gone angels who will turn the planet into a paradise.  Seeking to use this congregation to his own advantage, Triskellian captures young, idealistic infiltrator Davien to find out more about her mutated family.  But as his plans begin to come into effect, Triskellian is about to discover that not everyone is meant to rule, and that the forces he seeks to control are far more dangerous and hungrier than he could possibly know.

What an epic and impressive read!  Tchaikovsky has dived into this franchise with great relish, producing an exceptional and powerful piece of Warhammer 40,000 fiction that is not only exciting and action packed, but also extremely thought provoking as the author examines some of this universe’s most complex and intriguing factions.

I had a lot of fun with the incredible story contained within Day of Ascension, as Tchaikovsky takes the reader on an intense and dark journey.  The main premise of this book is a fun one: what if an ambitious Imperial tech-priest attempts to utilise the deadly power of a Genestealer Cult for his own machinations?  The answer: absolute chaos as an entire world implodes in the fires of revolution, destruction and religious zeal.  This was a great story that Tchaikovsky sets up brilliantly in the early stages, quickly introducing the corrupt world of Morod, the choking hierarchy of the Adeptus Mechanicus, and the malignant underlying Genestealer Cult attempting to manipulate events from the shadows.  After this great introduction, the remaining story happens at a very fast pace, especially as this overall novel is fairly short (193 pages, or just over five and a half hours on audiobook).  The political and scientific intrigue of point-of-view character Triskellian runs straight into the revolutionary aspirations of the Genestealer Cult’s Davien with the expected destructive results.  I loved the brilliant clash of styles that occur between these two groups, and all the betrayal, manipulation and alien influences melds perfectly with the non-stop action and revolution.  This quickly leads up to a destructive and powerful conclusion that I deeply enjoyed and will leave you reeling in multiple ways.  There were some absolutely amazing twists towards the end, and I loved the resultant terrifying consequences to the wider universe which were really cool and deliciously ironic.  Tchaikovsky ends everything on a captivating and dark note which will leave readers extremely satisfied after getting engrossed in the impressive story.  This is an epic narrative that drags you right into the very heart of the worst parts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

I really must commend Tchaikovsky’s first dive into the Warhammer 40,000 universe as the author has a noticeable appreciation for this franchise and canon.  I loved how he expertly focused the story on two particularly sinister factions within this universe, while also making excellent use of an Imperial Forge World as the main setting of this book.  The two main factions of this novel are the tech-priest of the Adeptus Mechanicus and an undercover Genestealer Cult, the dangerous human/alien hybrids who act as infiltrators and forerunners of the Tyranids.  Tchaikovsky ensures that the reader gets an exceptional and detailed look at both factions, and you are soon immersed in their lore, politics, and motivations, which is just so fascinating.  There are so many cool things about this, from the unique interactions of the cybernetic tech-priests and the mechanical soldiers to the slow infiltration and incorporation of the Genestealers who spark revolution throughout the planet.  However, the best thing about this is the way in which Tchaikovsky’s expertly showcases one of the most inescapable facts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe: there are no actual good guys here; just self-serving fanatics with their own terrible agendas formed from a universe constantly at war.  This is so brilliantly highlighted in the fact that halfway through the book you find yourself on the side of the alien infiltrators, who are taking advantage of the terrible conditions on Morod to spark a revolution.  However, no matter how beneficial and beatific they may appear, preaching about angels and the better days ahead, there is still an amazing sinister edge to them, especially if you know what horrors they are actually referring to.  I loved how brilliantly these two unique and corrupt Warhammer factions are played off each other, and it proves to be an excellent background to this awesome novel.

Like most Warhammer tie-in novels, Day of Ascension is probably best enjoyed by those fans of the franchise, especially as Tchaikovsky looks at some obscure and unique parts of the canon.  While maybe a little too-lore heavy to serve as the best introduction to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, I felt that this is an easy enough book for new fans to get into, especially if they are established science fiction fans.  Tchaikovsky ensures that the various story elements feature the right amount of detail and I the various factions are introduced extremely well especially to new readers.  I do feel that readers who don’t quite understand what the Genestealers and their Tyranid masters are might not get the true horror of this book and its conclusion, and I personally enjoyed the novel more because I knew what the true nature of the Genestealer’s plans were.  However, new readers probably will get the full benefit of this as it is made pretty clear from the context.  As such, I would probably recommend this to both established Warhammer fans and general science fiction readers, especially if they have enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s writings in the past, and I know a lot of people with have a great deal of fun with this.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and over-the-top characters featured throughout Day of Ascension, especially the main two characters, Triskellian and Davien, who act as the point-of-view characters for the novel.  Both are fantastic figures who are fully enveloped in the massive machines of their organisations, whether they like it or not, and who spend much of the book trying to battle what they see as their oppressors.  As such they form a brilliant tandem of opposing views, which perfectly shapes the morally grey nature of the narrative and makes it very unclear which one of these inherently terrible people you should be rooting for.  I particularly liked the character of Triskellian as the author envisions him as a thoroughly underappreciated middle management figure who is ignored and ridiculed by his superiors who fail to understand his work.  This constant mistreatment causes Triskellian to snap in this novel and he starts doing some darker deeds to gain what he believes is rightfully his.  I loved seeing this brilliantly portrayed figure, who will be clearly understood by anyone whose worked under an idiot boss, slowly slip off the deep end and attempt to use an evil alien cult to fulfil his objectives.  This character has some amazing moments, and it was so much fun seeing him try to manipulate events around him, only to be surprised that nothing goes to plan.  I also found his focus on genetics and biology to be quite fascinating, especially for a tech-priest, and his obsession with alterations on the flesh ended up having some intriguing parallels with the objectives of the Genestealer cult.

Davien, on the other hand, is an oppressed member of Morod’s population who acts as an infiltrator and spy for the Genestealer Cult she is a part of.  Frustrated by the slow pace of the promised revolution and the eventual appearance of their “saviours”, Davien has some outstanding scenes throughout Day of Ascension as she tries to save her loved ones from the machinations of the tech-priests.  Her rise in status and closeness to the powers that guide her family occur at the exact same time that she starts to have doubts about her organisations purpose, and the subsequent internal battle is extremely powerful and captivating, especially if you know just how right she is to be worried about the future.  Davien goes through a lot of growth, and it is fascinating to see what happens during her character arc, especially when it comes to her interactions with Triskellian and the influences of the beings guiding the cult.  Day of Ascension also has several great supporting characters who get their moments to shine throughout the book.  While most of them are a bit over-the-top in their appearance and personality, they prove to be very entertaining and I loved the outrageous and mechanically deformed highly ranked tech-priests who so badly enrage the protagonists.  There is a particularly good twist surrounding one of the minor support characters that I thought was extremely brilliant, especially as there is some subtle set up for it earlier on, and it results in an outstanding ending for the entire book.  An overall excellent cast of characters make this shorter Warhammer novel really shine.

Just like most of the Warhammer novels I have had the pleasure of reading, I chose to check out Day of Ascension in its audiobook format, which was an impressive and enjoyable experience.  As I mentioned above, this audiobook has a very short runtime and you can quickly power through it, especially once you get stuck into the intriguing and clever story.  I deeply enjoyed how this format enhanced this great narrative, and it was a lot of fun to hear all the chaos and destruction being read to you.  I must commend the narrator of Day of Ascension, actor Harry Myers, who did an exceptional job here.  I loved Myers’ great voice, which at times strongly reminded me of Stephen Fry, which is a definite plus.  Myers really dives into the various characters here, and I loved the brilliant edges he gives to them, especially the main character Triskellian.  You can really sense Triskellian’s frustration, ambition and internal outrage as the events of the novel proceeds, and this helps you to get into the mind of this entertaining figure.  An extremely cool way to enjoy Day of Ascension, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interesting in checking out this great Warhammer 40,000 novel.

With this clever and exciting novel, Adrian Tchaikovsky has a brilliant debut in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Day of Ascension is an epic and intriguing novel that takes a fascinating look at two exceptional factions from the Warhammer canon and brings them together in a dark and entertaining battle of wills and manipulation.  Containing a tight, addictive story, some great characters, and a deep examination on some of the best parts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Day of Ascension is an outstanding read.  I really hope that Tchaikovsky writes more Warhammer fiction in the future as he absolutely killed it here.

The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

The Burning Road Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 5 January 2022)

Series: Standalone/Warrior of Rome

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite historical fiction authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another epic and intense historical adventure, The Burning Road, a fun-filled, action-packed thriller.

There are some amazing historical fiction authors out there now who focus on Roman history to create some excellent and compelling novels.  However, one of the best is the extremely talented Harry Sidebottom, a historian turned author who has been producing some awesome and unique reads.  I have been a major fan of Sidebottom ever since reading his debut novel, Fire in the East (an exceptional siege novel) back in 2008.  I really enjoyed his Warrior of Rome (which followed a Germanic Roman soldier, Ballista) and Throne of the Caesars series, both of which contained some exceptional historical elements.  Sidebottom has also had a lot of success recently with some standalone novels, especially his last three books, which cleverly combined his historical knowledge with elements from thriller subgenres.  This included his 2018 release, The Last Hour, which brought back Ballista and set him on a 24-esque romp through ancient Rome; The Lost Ten, which was reminiscent of special forces thrillers; and The Return, a dark and complex murder mystery that had interesting Scandi noir overtones.  I deeply enjoyed all these previous novels, and I was very excited when I received a copy of Sidebottom’s latest book, The Burning Road, a couple of weeks ago.

Sicily, 265 AD.  Throughout the strategic volcanic island, a call of freedom has been heard as a charismatic slave starts to rally his fellow enslaved workers.  The various estates and towns are in a state of uproar as vicious slaves and captured barbarian warriors rise up to kill their masters.  As the revolution gains strength and results in greater bloodshed, the fate of the island may rest in the hands of a legendary warrior, Marcus Clodius Ballista.

After years of fighting for corrupt emperors and battling deadly Roman politics, Ballista is finally free from his responsibilities, determined to enter retirement.  Whilst travelling with his eldest son, Marcus, to his estates on Sicily, their ship hits a terrible storm, forcing it aground on the west coast of the island.  Barely surviving the rough surf and destructive storm, Ballista and Marcus are soon thrust into even greater danger when a band of armed slaves mercilessly kills the other shipwrecked survivors.

Barely escaping the rampaging slaves, Ballista leads his son inland, hoping to discover what chaos has befallen Sicily.  They soon discover that the entire island is in revolution, with any non-slave at risk at being killed or brutalised.  Determined to keep his son alive and rescue his family on the other side of the island, Ballista and Marcus attempt to cross the entirety of Sicily on foot.  Constantly harassed by marauding bands of former slaves, the two Romans must find a way to survive and reach their family before it is too late.  But can the old veteran and rash youth work together to survive and save all of Sicily, or will one of Rome’s greatest warriors finally be finished off by rampaging slaves?

Wow, now this was a fun and intense novel from Sidebottom, who once again highlights his skill as a particularly inventive author of Roman historical fiction.  I deeply enjoyed The Burning Road, especially as Sidebottom once again combines compelling historical elements with an impressive and action-packed thriller storyline.

I had a lot of fun with the incredible and extremely fast-paced narrative that Sidebottom featured in The Burning Road.  While it took me a little while to get into this book (mainly because I couldn’t find any reading time), once I started, I honestly couldn’t stop, and I ended up powering through The Burning Road in less than a day.  The Burning Road has a brilliant story that pits Sidebottom’s best protagonist, Ballista, and his teenage son right in the middle of an intense slave revolt on Sicily.  Sidebottom sets this all up perfectly, with a quick prologue to establish that the slave revolt has occurred, before focusing entirely on Ballista and Marcus, who are shipwrecked off the coast of the island.  At first, the scenario reminded me of another historical fiction novel, The Gladiator by Simon Scarrow, which featured slaves revolting on Crete.  However, Sidebottom takes this in a very different direction, with a dark and non-stop story that sees the protagonist forced to navigate across the island, encountering all manner of odd characters and a ton of enemies.  The first two-thirds of the book see the protagonists on their own, walking a hellish volcanic landscape filled with murderous slaves, which was so damn cool.  Sidebottom was clearly trying to emulate some post-apocalyptic thrillers here, and there is even a scene that is a brilliant homage to The Road.  This makes for some intense and bloody sequences, and you will find yourself glued to the pages as you wait to see what danger they will encounter next.  The final third of the book sees Sidebottom return to his original writing element as Ballista is drafted into leading the defence of a besieged city.  This leads to an amazing and unique set of siege sequences, as Ballista and a small force of civilians attempt to hold back an overwhelming army of enraged slaves, which leads to a bloody and satisfying conclusion.  I loved this brilliant combination of story elements, especially the brutal walk across Sicily, and it makes for one heck of a story.

One of the best things about The Burning Road was the compelling central characters, especially as Sidebottom used it to tell a touching an enjoyable father-son story.  The first of these is Ballista, the protagonist of the Warrior of Rome series, who returns for another gruelling adventure.  As a former Germanic prince turned Roman soldier, siege expert and noble, Ballista is an old hand at danger and once again rises to the challenge even with his advancing age.  However, this time Ballista is forced to undertake his battled filled journey with his young teenage son, Marcus (also called Isangrim).  Setting Ballista and Marcus up as the main point of view characters, Sidebottom tells a fascinating tale that not only follows their desperate journey but which dives into their relationship and personality.  Due to Ballista’s military career, these two aren’t particularly close, with Marcus slightly resenting his barbarian father.  However, over the course of the book the two slowly grow closer as they face constant ordeal.  Sidebottom paces this growth in their relationship perfectly and you soon get really invested in seeing how much they begin to trust and rely on each other.  I enjoyed seeing this paternal side of Ballista, which enhanced his already complex character, and Marcus grows to become an enjoyable companion, especially as he begins to realise everything his father has done for him and how he has tried to prepare him.  This great father-son relationship becomes a major part of the book’s plot, and it put me in mind of some other similar adventures such as The Road, or even the recent God of War game (I may have imagined Ballista speaking in Christopher Judge’s voice).  This was a brilliant and powerful heart to the entire book, and it will be fascinating to see how much Marcus is featured in any of Sidebottom’s future novels.

I was also very impressed with the interesting historical detail that Sidebottom featured throughout The Burning Road.  The author has clearly done a ton of research on the various subjects contained within and there is a comprehensive reference section at the back, including a history book written by Sidebottom himself.  As such there is an amazing sense of authenticity to the setting and figures featured within The Burning Road which really helps to drag the reader into the story.  This period of Roman history has always been a rich ground for Sidebottom’s novels, and it was fascinating to see some more detail about the politics of the time.  I loved all the awesome detail about Sicily, which proves to be an exceptional and fascinating background setting for the story.  Sidebottom, who has visited Sicily many times, does a great job of filling in the historical blanks around the island and he portrays it as it would have appeared during Roman times.  All this impressive attention to environmental detail results in some cool romps through forests, mountains and ancient towns, and I think that the author really captured the historical soul of this island.  One of the big historical elements that Sidebottom invests a lot of time exploring is slavery during the Roman era.  The author includes a fascinating examination of how slaves are treated during this period, as well as some of the philosophical thought surrounding the entire process, both from the masters and the slaves.  The subsequent slave revolt really helps to highlight the Romans’ reliance on a large population of slaves to maintain their society and having the outsider Ballista explore this provided an interesting alternate perspective to the practice.  I also deeply appreciate the desperation and anger that the various slave characters had, which helped to turn them into a sympathetic enemy, even if you want the protagonists to survive more.  All this really added a lot to the overall story, and I look forward to seeing which area or historical period Sidebottom will explore next.

The Burning Road was another exceptional and epic read from Harry Sidebottom, who continues to flourish as one of the most inventive and exciting authors of historical fiction out there.  This latest novel features an intense and unique historical fiction tale chock full of action, character growth and some fascinating bits of period detail.  I had an absolute blast getting through this amazing novel, and The Burning Road comes very highly recommended as a result.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Radiant Emperor – Book One

Length: 414 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan presents one of the most unique debuts of 2021 with the awesome She Who Became the Sun, a powerful historical read with a compelling twist.

In 1345 AD China languishes under the rule of the Yuan dynasty, descendants of the Mongolian invaders who have taken control and punished the southern Chinese citizens.  As famine and banditry stalk the land, the fate of the country will be decided by the most unlikely of people.  In a small village in the south, a seer predicts the future for two siblings.  For the favoured son, the seer sees greatness and unlimited potential, while for the daughter he sees nothing in her future at all.

When a bandit raid wipes out the village, only the daughter is left alive as her brother succumbs to his grief and despair.  Determined not to die an insignificant death and prove the seer right, the daughter plans the impossible.  Stealing the identity of her dead brother, she attempts to cheat fate and take her brother’s destiny for herself.  But how far can the newly named Zhu Chongba truly go, even with a fake identity and a stolen fate?

Travelling to a nearby monastery, Zhu impresses the Abbot and is soon accepted as a novice.  Growing up amongst the monks, Zhu finds a purpose for the first time.  But when a rampaging general destroys the monastery, Zhu is forced to find a new path that sets her against the emperor and the entire Yuan dynasty.  Joining with the Red Turban rebellion, Zhu manages to prove herself and soon leads her forces to several crucial victories.  But the eye of an old rival is upon Zhu, and not even this brilliant monk will be able to emerge unscathed.  The path to China’s future begins here, and soon the fate of the entire country will fall on the poor second daughter, destined to become the nation’s first female emperor.

This was a really compelling debut from Shelley Parker-Chan, who produced an epic and unique historical tale of war, destiny, identity and fate.  Serving as the first book in Parker-Chan’s The Radiant Emperor series, She Who Became the Sun was one of the most anticipated new releases for 2021, and I had an incredible time reading it, especially once I got caught up in its fantastic story.

She Who Became the Sun has an awesome and powerful narrative that proves to be extremely addictive.  The book first shows the protagonist as an unnamed daughter, destined for nothing until she adopts the identity of her brother, Zhu, and grows into a confident and capable young adult at a nearby monastery.  The first quarter of the book is primarily told from the perspective of Zhu and serves as a rather good introduction to the character and the overarching setting.  However, the story shifts dramatically after the eunuch General Ouyang, who serves under a noble family of the Yuan dynasty, burns down the monastery and leaves Zhu a medicant monk.  Determined to gain the destiny her brother was promised, Zhu joins with the rebel movement known as the Red Turbans.  The story then focuses on several interesting storylines, including Zhu’s ascent to commander in the Red Turbans, the volatile internal politics of the rebels, as well as troubles facing the wider Yuan dynasty.  The story adds in two additional point-of-view characters a quarter of the way through, with a particular focus on General Ouyang.  Ouygang is engaging in his own plot against the Yuan, and his fate soon becomes intertwined with that of Zhu.  This results in a pretty epic tale, especially as the various story threads tie together perfectly and produce an interesting and addictive overall narrative.  This leads up to an intense and fantastic conclusion that shows how much the protagonist has changed and how determined they are to see their destiny.  It also does an excellent job setting up the future novels in this series, and I have to say that I am pretty excited to see where Parker-Chan takes this tale next.

I was deeply impressed by the cool setting of She Who Became the Sun, especially as Parker-Chan worked in some excellent and compelling historical elements.  The novel is set in 14th century China during the Yuan dynasty and features an interesting retelling of the life of famed emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty.  While there are a few major changes, like Zhu being a woman in disguise, She Who Became the Sun captures several key aspects of this figure’s early life, such as their peasant upbringing, their training as a monk, and their rise to power through the Red Turbans.  I really enjoyed the great examination of China during this period, and Parker-Chan does an excellent job of capturing the tyrannical rule of the Mongol invaders, the famines and crisis their ineffective rule caused, as well as the rebellion that rose to oppose them.  The author also makes sure to include several key historical figures, such as Zhu’s major supporters, and it proved to be a fun re-imagining of their relationship with the future emperor.  While this is primarily a historical fiction novel, Parker-Chan includes a lot of other interesting elements that alter the feel of She Who Became the Sun.  For example, there are several mystical features, such as some key individuals who can summon an aurora of visible light to show they have the divine right to rule.  Zhu also has the ability to see ghosts and finds herself haunted and at times damaged by malevolent spirits, angry at her decision to steal another person’s destiny.  These supernatural elements give She Who Became the Sun an intriguing and unique feel, and I really love it when authors subtly work in some subtle alternate genre inclusions into their work.

I also must mention the excellent inclusion of major LGBT+ elements into this book, especially around central character Zhu Chongba.  Zhu spends the entirety of the novel in the role of her late brother, pretending to be a man so she can rule and lead.  This was a really fascinating and distinctive choice by Parker-Chan, and one that makes She Who Became the Sun really stand out.  While there are some understandable comparisons to Disney’s Mulan, Parker-Chan instead frames it as a choice made from a desire to survive and to be more than what her sex would usually allow her to be in this period, especially under Yuan control.  Zhu spends most of the novel trying to hide her birth gender from everyone around her, allowing her to continue to achieve her.  While a few characters find out, Zhu is able to ensure their secrecy, which leads to some fascinating scenes.  I particularly love the interactions between Zhu and female characters who discover her secret, and the understanding that flows through these scenes is extremely powerful.  Other LGBT+ elements are later added to the story, especially around Zhu’s marriage to her wife Ma, and I really appreciated the clever and compelling way that it was worked into the plot.

Another impressive aspect of this outstanding book I want to highlight is the great use of characters.  This novel featured some amazing point-of-view characters whose journeys become the focus of She Who Became the Sun.  The main character is Zhu, the woman destined to become Emperor, who spends most of the book trying to live up to the legacy she believes she deserves.  I really liked the compelling character growth featured as her personality changes throughout the course of the book.  Initially meek and barely able to keep her secret, Zhu develops her cunning and her skills of manipulation to become a major figure in the monastery and the Red Turbans.  I loved the depiction of her rise to power, including that fun scene where she manages to win a battle with a prayer, and it was really entertaining to see her use the mild-mannered, humble monk routine to fool the people around her.  Having grown up with nothing, Zhu is more resilient against setbacks than some of the other characters and is able to overcome major hardships.  While Zhu spends most of the book as a good person, the desires for power and a great destiny eventually grows within her, encouraging her to do some evil things to win.  I really liked this subtle shift in personality as the novel continued, and the way that her character arc in this novel ends was really surprising and intense.

The other major character I really want to talk about is Ouyang, a general serving the powerful noble Lord Esen-Temur, son of the Prince of Henan.  Ouyang has a complex past, the son of a family declared traitor by the Emperor and the Prince of Henan, his entire family was killed, while Ouyang was made a eunuch.  Eventually able to work his way up from slave to general, Ouyang is initially portrayed as a petty, vicious, and vindictive figure, especially as he destroys the monastery that Zhu was living in.  However, as the novel progresses, you get to see how much Ouyang has suffered throughout his life, even though he is the best friend of Lord Esen-Temur.  Due to his status as a eunuch, there are some really interesting parallels between Ouyang and Zhu, especially as neither of these outsiders is comfortable in their body.  However, despite their similarities, they form a bitter rivalry, although occasionally working towards the same goals.  I really enjoyed Ouyang’s storyline, especially as it provided an intriguing alternative to the scenes focusing on the Red Turbans, providing the reader with a look at the politics of the Yuan dynasty and the fractious family dynamics surrounding Lord Esen-Temur.  It also leads to an excellent storyline where Ouyang slowly gets his long-awaited revenge and makes some moves to obtain even more power and control.  Ouyang served as an excellent antagonist for the novel, and his dark and brooding perspectives of life and the Yuan dynasty really enhanced She Who Became the Sun’s overall narrative.

Overall, I deeply enjoyed the unique and intricate book that was She Who Became the Sun, and it turned out to be an outstanding read.  Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan did an exceptional job with this impressive debut novel, and I loved the brilliant and epic historical tale she wove, especially as it contained some complex and intriguing characters.  This book comes highly recommended by me, and it is easily one of the best debuts I have so far read in 2021.

The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: The Age of Madness – Book Three

Length: 23 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of dark fantasy, Joe Abercrombie, returns with the final book in his brilliant Age of Madness trilogy, the thrilling and deeply captivating The Wisdom of Crowds.

Joe Abercrombie is a particularly impressive author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last few years ever since I dove into his iconic First Law trilogy.  This great dark fantasy trilogy followed a group of complex and damaged characters who are thrust into a series of dangerous adventures in a corrupt fantasy world.  The original trilogy was pretty damn perfect, and I loved the outstanding story and universe that Abercrombie came up with.

Following his original books, Abercrombie wrote three standalone novels that continued the universe’s overall story in different ways before introducing his Age of Madness trilogy in 2019.  The Age of Madness trilogy is set around 20 years after the events of the First Law books and follows the children of the original trilogy’s protagonists as they are engulfed in additional chaotic events, including war, revolution, and lots of betrayal.  This trilogy has already featured two outstanding five-star novels, A Little Hatred (one of the best books of 2019) and The Trouble With Peace (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020).  Due to how awesome the previous novels were, I was deeply excited for The Wisdom of Crowds, and it turned out to be another exceptional read with an impressive story to it.

Following King Orso’s decisive victory over the rebellious young hero Leo dan Brock and his wife, Savine dan Glokta, Orso believes that he has finally gained control of the Union.  However, he is unprepared for the chaos and destruction that is about to befall the kingdom.  The revolution, known as the Great Change, has finally descended upon the Union, with the people rising up and overthrowing the hated nobles.  Led by former Arch Lector Pike, known by the masses as the Weaver, the rebelling Breakers and Burners soon take the capital, Adua, bringing hope and destruction in equal measure.

Imprisoned by the mob, Orso soon discovers that there is nothing lower than a deposed king.  The freed Citizen Leo and Citizeness Savine must adapt and find new ways to manipulate a mob that both loves and hates them.  The newly raised up Chief Inspector Teufel must soon decide where her loyalties lie as she begins to see the insanity of the new rulers, while former soldier Gunnar Broad once again finds himself causing trouble as a key citizen of the new regime.  At the same time, the magically prescient Rikke has taken control of the North, capturing the former King Stour Nightfall.  However, taking the North and keeping it are two very different things, especially as the forces of her family’s old enemy, Black Calder, advance towards her, determined to free Stour.  With enemies around every corner and even her closest allies beginning to doubt her, Rikke must implement a drastic plan and make use of every tool at her disposal, even notorious turncoat Jonas Clover.

As the Great Change starts to devolve into anarchy, the death toll starts to rise and no one is safe, least of all those who have profited in the past.  Soon hard choices will need to be made and only the strongest and most cunning will survive.  The Age of Madness is well and truly here, but who will live and who will die as the fires of anger, resentment and despair burn throughout the land?  No matter who survives, the Union and the North will never be the same again, especially with unseen hands manipulating events from the shadows.

How the hell does Abercrombie do it?  I knew in advance that this was going to be an awesome book, but I was yet again blown away by the author’s clever blend of captivating storylines, outstanding characters, and outstanding dark fantasy settings.  The Wisdom of Crowds served as an excellent conclusion to the Age of Madness trilogy, and I found myself absolutely powering through this amazing novel in no time at all.  This gets another five-star review from me as I had such an incredible time reading it.

Abercrombie has come up with an exceptional narrative for his latest novel, and I deeply enjoyed the captivating and extremely dark story contained within The Wisdom of Crowds.  This novel has an impressive and memorable start to it with the aftermath of the previous novel immediately giving way to the Great Change.  This uprising quickly overcomes the existing government and changes everything, with Orso imprisoned, Savine and Leo freed from captivity and incorrectly hailed as heroes of the people, and characters like Gunnar Broad and Inquisitor Teufel pushed to the fore due to their suffering under the previous regime.  After a great extended revolution sequence, Abercrombie spends a good chunk of the first act of the novel showcasing all the severe changes to the setting of the Union, including the impacts to the protagonists, as well as the nation’s quick decline after the initial glorious revolution.  At the same time, you have the events in the North occurring at the same pace, with Rikke trying to solidify her power in the face of a rising opposition.  Most of the novel’s major storylines are either set up here or transported over from the previous novels, and it moves at a great pace with some fantastic moments.  The novel really heats up in the second act, when a group of extremists take over the Union and Rikke’s war in the North gathers speed.  The storyline set in the Union during this section of the novel is filled will all manner of insanity and terror, and this is probably one of the darkest parts of the entire book.  While there is a noticeable focus on the craziness of a Burner revolution, there is also a lot of character development occurring here, with most of the protagonists starting their last bit of major growth here, with their big plans set up.  This second act is capped off with a massive battle in the North that changes the entire fabric of that setting and provides a great deal of fantasy action and bloodshed to keep the reader satisfied, while also featuring a pretty fun story twist.

All this leads up to an impressive final act which takes up the last third of the novel.  Most of this is set in the Union and showcases the protagonists making their moves.  There are some very good scenes here, with a mixture of big character moments, destructive fights, and a cool trial sequence, which help this part of the book really stand out.  All of this leads to a major change in the plot that occurs with roughly a quarter of the novel left to go.  While there are some great scenes involved with this big shift, I must admit I was a little surprised that the book didn’t end right there, due to the resulting significant change of pace, and I wonder if Abercrombie might have been better off using this final quarter in another novel.  However, the story is still extremely cohesive, especially as it leads up to some major reveals and big character moments that had me gasping with surprise.  I really did not see some of the big twists coming, even though they were really well set up throughout the trilogy (although I really should have known who was behind everything).  The book concludes on an interesting note, with some noticeable tragedy and some outstanding character moments as the surviving protagonists settle into their new roles.  I did think that Abercrombie may have spent too much time setting up events for his next trilogy, with multiple scenes containing open-ended events that will clearly get picked up in later books.  However, to be fair it did get me excited for the next novel like it was supposed to, and I don’t think it took too much away from the overall narrative.  This was such an awesome story, and The Wisdom of Crowds’ character focus had me hooked the entire way through.

Abercrombie has a real talent for writing awesome and complex dark fantasy novels, and I really enjoyed his outstanding and compelling style.  I deeply appreciated his excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a rich and vibrant tale, as the story seamlessly flicks between seven major characters throughout the book.  The spread of character perspectives has been an outstanding feature of all the author’s First Law novels, and it is extremely cool to see this complex tale told from various points of view.  Not only does it ensure you get a brilliant, multifaceted exploration of the setting and the progress of the plot, but it really helps the reader get into the mind of the characters and see their personalities, emotions and opinions.  I also really appreciated the two great extended sequences that were told through the eyes of multiple supporting or one-off characters, especially as it captured the chaos and destruction of both revolution and a major battle.  The author has quite a vivid and adult writing style, which works with the realistic characters and complex storylines extremely well.  Not only does this result in some particularly graphic and powerful action sequences, including one amazing and massive pitched battle, but it also works in some distinctive and very adult dialogue.  While some of the language gets a tad over the top at times, it does give the book a very realistic feel and is a lot of fun.  Readers should be warned that this is a pretty dark tale including torture, ultra-violence and a lot of brutal deaths.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with the changes to the major setting of the Union in this novel.  While the other significant setting, the North, remains pretty much the same (its always snow, death and blood there), the Union is majorly impacted quite early on as part of the revolution known as the Great Change, which Abercrombie had been expertly setting up throughout the trilogy.  The Great Change, which was brought on by rioting workers and peasants disenfranchised by the industrial revolution that was such an amazing and distinctive feature of this trilogy, hits the city with most of the nobles, the wealthy, the ruling Closed Council, and the King all arrested.  This initial overthrowing was done pretty perfectly, with several chaotic sequences, and it eventually leads to a whole new era for the nation.  This part of the novel was very clearly inspired by the French Revolution, and I deeply appreciated the way in which the author evoked the iconic imagery of destructive historical events into his fantasy novel.  I loved the initial set-up of the new democratic government that replaced the monarchy, and I had a good chuckle at the character’s glorious ideas of a utopian society with a pompous constitution.  However, the real fun occurs when these high ideals fail miserably and are replaced by a general purge where no-one is safe.  Abercrombie did a really good job here of capturing the terror, uncertainty and horrible human nature that accompanies these sorts of purges, with a series of one-sided trials and brutal executions in front of a cheering crowd.  This chaotic setting serves as an outstanding backdrop to novel’s various storylines, and it was an amazing and dark part of The Wisdom of Crowds that made it really stand out.

As with the rest of Abercrombie’s books set in this connected universe, one of the absolute best things about The Wisdom of Crowds was the exceptional and complex characters.  Just like the previous two novels in the Age of Madness trilogy, the story is primarily shown from the perspective of seven unique and well-established point-of-view characters.  Each of these characters is extremely complex and layered as Abercrombie has been setting up some fantastic storylines around each of them throughout the course of the series.  These characters include:

  • Orso – the son of King Jezal, a point-of-view character from the original trilogy, and current High King of the Union, for whatever that title is worth. Orso is a very fun character who has probably grown the most out of all the characters featured in this series, going from a foppish, unmotivated prince, to a decisive, competent and victorious king in the second novel.  Despite his victory over his rival Leo and his secret half-sister (and former lover) Savine, Orso soon finds himself a prisoner when the Great Change leads to a people’s revolt.  Despite being imprisoned and constantly mocked by everyone, Orso keeps most of the confidence he built up in the previous novels and is a constant figure of comedy, especially with his great sarcastic observations of the events around him.  Abercrombie has done a masterful job with Orso over the last three books, and I really appreciated his growth and humour, making him one of my favourite characters in this trilogy.  Due to this it is pretty hard to see him get taken down and condemned by his people, especially as he is a much better ruler than everyone thinks he is.  I once again found myself really pulling for him in this novel, and I think he was the character I wanted to survive and win the most.
  • Savine dan Brock (formerly dan Glokta) – a formidable businesswoman and adoptive daughter of Arch Lector Glokta (the best character from the original series). Savine has been an awesome character in this trilogy, experiencing some massive highs and significant lows.  After marrying Leo and organising a revolt against her half-brother Orso in the previous novel, Savine starts this novel in chains.  However, once the Great Change occurs, she is quickly freed and must find her place amongst the revolutionaries.  Rightly terrified of being tried for her ruthless business practices, and changed by motherhood, Savine engages in charity works and tries to save herself through generosity.  I quite enjoyed Savine’s storyline in this latest novel and it had some awesome moments.  While I do think she was a bit underutilised in the middle of the book, she eventually emerges in full form and shows everyone why she is the most dangerous person in the Union.  There are some outstanding scenes surrounding her, especially that awesome court sequence, and I quite liked where her story ended up.
  • Leo dan Brock – the former governor of Angland and shining hero of the Union, before he had an arm and leg blown off during his big battle against Orso in the previous book. Leo starts this novel a shell of his former self, full of regret that his recklessness and arrogance caused his injuries and the death of his friends.  However, this regret soon turns to anger and ruthlessness as he uses his hero status to become a key part of the Great Change, attempting to manipulate it for his benefit.  I must admit that Leo was always my least-favourite character in this series, and I liked how the features I disliked about him led to his downfall in the previous book.  Abercrombie perfectly follows this up by making him a much more unlikable character in this novel, and I deeply appreciated the realistic way his personality was twisted and darkened by anger, jealousy and frustration, giving him a new ruthless edge.  Out of the characters in The Wisdom of Crowds, Leo probably goes through the most development in this novel, and it was pretty captivating to see where his new hate and frustrations led him.
  • Rikke – a Northern protagonist and the daughter of the Dogman, Rikke has had a very interesting story arc within this series due to her magical Long Eye, which allows her to see into the future. Rikke was able to outsmart all her opponents in the previous novel, taking the Northern capital and capturing her opponent, Stour Nightfall.  Now Rikke is forced to lead her people against Stour’s father, Black Calder, while also trying to balance the concerns and treachery of her allies.  I have been really impressed with Rikke’s storyline throughout The Age of Madness, and I liked the great transition from scared girl to effective leader.  This book continues to showcase her skills, even if she still appears a bit rash and too clever for her own good.  She ends up being forced to make some hard and heartless decisions, which really highlights just how far she has come.  There are some outstanding movements with Rikke in this novel, and I particularly loved the good twist around her that occurred at the big battle scene (I did see it coming, but it was still a lot of fun).  I also loved the fantastic scene where she confronts Bayaz, the First of the Magi, as it was one of the first times that you see the master manipulator of the series appearing rattled and impotent.  Rikke was a really well set up character and I really appreciated the epic and compelling storylines around her.
  • Vick dan Teufel – a Union inquisitor and protégé of Arch Lector Glokta, Vick is a master spy and investigator. Despite all her skills, Vick was taken by surprise by the revelation that Pike is the Weaver and is forced into supporting the Great Change against her will.  Falling back on her old survivalist mentality to support the winners, Vick is eventually shaken into action by the destruction caused by the Burners and finds herself supporting the losing side.  After being a little underused in the previous novel, Vick has a very strong outing in The Wisdom of Crowds and her character changers are quite essential to the plot.  Like Leo, Vick goes through a fair bit of development in this novel, although her development is a lot more positive as she tries to do what is right rather than what will keep her alive.  Vick also experiences some very crushing moments, and it was fascinating that out of all the characters, she maintained the moral high ground the best.
  • Gunnar Broad – a former Union soldier with a gift for extreme violence, who has been both a Breaker and a servant to Savine as an enforcer and bodyguard. Imprisoned after the last book, Gunnar is freed with Savine and Leo and once again finds himself drawn into the fight, despite his desire to stay out of trouble and get back to his family.  While he once again tries to be a good person at first, he is eventually seduced by the dark appeal of the Burners and truly loses himself, giving into his inner violence and anger.  While he does do some redemptive actions, Gunnar remains a bit of a lost cause, which is pretty tragic to see.  Gunnar proved to be a great character throughout this series, despite a lack of any real development, and I enjoyed his darker scenes and compelling personal insights.
  • Jonas Clover – the cunning and treacherous veteran Northern warrior who, after spending the last two books serving Stour Nightfall, betrayed him at the end of The Trouble with Peace and sided by Rikke. However, he soon finds his loyalty divided between Rikke and Black Calder, with both sides aware of his tendency to turn on the losing side, and he must finally decide who to support.  Due to his very entertaining personality and cynical viewpoint about the world, Clover was my favourite character in the series, and I love all the clever insights and subtle jokes that are characteristic of his scenes.  I really appreciated his mindset of patience, self-restraint and picking your moment, which is mostly unheard of amongst the other Northerners, and which usually sees him through most conflicts.  Despite this, Clover is finally forced to face the music in this novel after his various betrayals come back to bite him.  While he doesn’t always make the best decision, his entertaining and canny attitude ensures that the reader is constantly amused by his antics, and I am really glad that Abercrombie included him in this series.  It will be interesting to see how he is utilised in the future, especially as the author tried to evoke some similarities between his journey and that of original character Logan Ninefingers.

I deeply enjoyed each of these impressive characters, with each one bringing something very memorable and entertaining to the table.  While a couple of these characters were a bit underutilised in previous novels, I think that Abercrombie struck the right balance in The Wisdom of Crowds, with each of them shown in pretty much equal measure.  All seven character arcs are pretty awesome in their own right, but the real strength is the way that they come together to tell the overall story.  It was pretty cool to see multiple character perspectives of the same events, especially as each of these complex characters have very different views on what has happened.  I think that each of the arcs ended extremely well, with each of the characters going in some very interesting and surprising directions.  I was a bit surprised by who was left standing and in control at the end of the novel, and I must admit that I really did not foresee the fates of several of the characters.  Abercrombie sets up each of these events incredibly well, and there were some very fitting endings or transformations here.  It was interesting to see how some of these characters ended up mirroring the cast of the First Law trilogy, which seemed fitting as some were inspired by these prior characters, while others tried to escape becoming them.  I also really appreciated the way that barely any of the primary characters end up being portrayed as good people by the end of it.  While all of them initially tried to do the right thing, even the best of them is forced to make some terrible compromises which shatter their morality and impact their personality.  As a result, the reader is left with little sympathy for some of the surviving characters, and it was once again really amazing to have such morally ambiguous and naturally selfish characters.  It looks like Abercrombie might strongly feature the remaining characters again in his next trilogy, and I cannot wait to see how their various story arcs are continued.

Aside from the seven focal characters above, The Wisdom of Crowds also featured a vast collection of supporting and side characters, each of whom added a ton to the novel.  Most of the supporting characters where previously introduced in the first two novels of this trilogy, as well as a few holdouts from the original trilogy, and there weren’t too many new characters in this final novel.  The author ensures that the reader has a pretty good idea of these characters’ feelings and motivations, and it was fascinating to see the complex and powerful storylines told around several of them.  There are some really good twists around a few characters in particular, and I have to admit that I did not see most of them coming, with Abercrombie doing some masterful writing to set up these reveals throughout the entire trilogy.  Many of these side characters inspired some excellent and moving storylines, although readers should be aware that, as this is the final novel, quite a few of these characters did not survive, and I was particularly cut up by the death of one major supporting character near the end.  It will be very interesting to see what happens to the survivors in the future, and I am especially curious about a couple of key characters from the original trilogy who are set for some major events in Abercrombie’s next outing.

While I did get a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the audiobook instead, which proved to be an awesome decision.  The Wisdom of Crowds has a substantial runtime of 23 hours and 36 minutes (it would have placed 17th on my latest longest audiobooks list).  However, despite its length, I was able to power through it in about a week, especially after I got pretty damn hooked on the awesome story.  I found that this format moved the story along at a pretty fast pace, and it was a great way to absorb the fun and compelling details of this dark and epic tale.  It also works extremely well thanks to the outstanding voice work of the incredible Steven Pacey, who is one of my absolute favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.  Pacey, who has narrated all the other books in the First Law and Age of Madness trilogies, does another outstanding job with The Wisdom of Crowds.  Not only does he ensure that every aspect of the narrative comes across in a fun and compelling way; he also ensures that every character is perfectly brought to life.  Pacey brings back all the fun and fitting voices that were featured in Abercrombie’s previous novels, which proved to be a lot of fun, especially as he perfectly captures the unique personalities and characteristics of these fantastic figures.  Pacey makes a lot of effort to portray all the emotion and intensity of the characters, and you really get a sense of the heartbreak and darkness that surrounds all of them, especially by the end of the story.  This results in another incredible audiobook which I had an outstanding time listening to; at one point I managed to listen to it for over five hours straight and was not bored in the slightest.  As a result, I would strongly recommend The Wisdom of Crowds’ audiobook version, and it is easily one of the best audiobooks I have listened to in 2021.

With another incredible and powerful story, filled with outrageous and complex characters, impressive settings and clever twists, Joe Abercrombie brings his latest trilogy to end with the brilliant The Wisdom of Crowds.  This final book in the Age of Madness trilogy was an exceptional read, and I deeply enjoyed the dark and clever places this amazing book went.  An epic and captivating dark fantasy experience, readers are guaranteed to power through The Wisdom of Crowds in no time at all, especially as they become more and more engrossed with the excellent central protagonists.  A must-read for all Abercrombie fans, this was easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 so far and I cannot wait to see what madness and destruction are unleashed in the author’s next awesome series.

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover 2

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 8 September 2020)

Series: The Drowning Empire – Book One

Length: 439 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From outstanding new fantasy author Andrea Stewart comes The Bone Shard Daughter, the first entry in The Drowning Empire series and one of the best debuts of 2020.

For generations the Sukai Dynasty has ruled the floating islands of the sprawling Phoenix Empire, protecting it from a mysterious force from the past.  In exchange for the Sukai’s protection and governance, each citizen must provide the Emperor with a shard of bone from their head, which can be utilised by the royal family to bring life to magnificent and dangerous magical constructs of flesh and power.  However, as the Emperor’s influence fades, revolution and change is coming to the Phoenix Empire, and the fate of the land lies with a handful of exceptional people.

In the capital, Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, has lost her status as heir after a disease takes her childhood memories from her.  Desperate to gain her father’s respect and her rightful place on the throne, Lin embarks on a dangerous quest to unlock the secrets of her father’s palace and gain the knowledge to master her family’s dangerous bone shard magic.  However, ambition and fear will drive her to attempt the impossible: turning her father’s most powerful constructs against their creator.

Elsewhere, Jovis, a notorious smuggler, is chasing the ghosts of his past as he attempts to find a shadowy ship that took something precious from him.  As he scours the seas of the Empire, he becomes an unlikely hero to the people, saving children from the Emperor’s bone shard tithe and ensuring their safety.  His mission will take him to the island of Nephilanu, where rebels are massing, and the governor’s unruly daughter Phalue finds herself torn between love and duty.  At the same time, a mysterious woman awakens on an isolated island with no memories of her past and a desire to gain freedom.  Each of these people will find the fate of many thrust upon them, and their adventures will shake the Phoenix Empire to its foundation.  But are any of them truly prepared for the consequences of their actions?

The Bone Shard Daughter is a fantastic and clever novel from Andrea Stewart that was one of the most hyped-up fantasy releases of last year.  I have been meaning to read this excellent book for a while now and I finally got the chance to do so a couple of weeks ago.  I am extremely glad that I did as Stewart’s debut novel was an exciting and captivating book that transports the reader to a compelling and unique fantasy setting with all manner of conflicts, magic and terrible secrets.  This was an outstanding debut novel, and I had a great time reading it.

Stewart has come up with a captivating and complex character-driven narrative for her first novel, which sees several young protagonists from various walks of life attempt to survive in this brutal empire while also discovering its dangerous and earth-shattering secrets.  The Bone Shard Daughter contains four separate and distinctive storylines, each of which follows a separate protagonist (or in one case, two linked protagonists), on their own adventure of discovery.  Stewart does a fantastic job of introducing each of these storylines at the start of the novel, with some compelling opening chapters that hook the reader in different ways, whether with descriptions of complex magic, the start of an apparent kidnapping or a frantic attempt to escape from a sinking island.  Once these storylines have their hooks in the reader, Stewart starts to grow each of them throughout the course of the book, with all four of them maintaining a well-balanced pace.  While some of the storylines have a little more prominence than others, they are all really intriguing and exciting in their own right, especially as they have different focuses based on their respective protagonist’s abilities and history.  As the narrative progresses, the separate storylines start to come together as the various protagonists interact with each other, and the reader is gradually treated to a much more cohesive tale.  I felt that these unique storylines fitted together well, and Stewart ensured that they support and strengthen each other, forming a coherent and captivating narrative.  The end result is an excellent tale, filled with conflict, revenge, betrayal and magical chaos.

Stewart sets the narrative around five excellent point-of-view characters, each of whom narrates several chapters within The Bone Shard Daughter.  All five of these fantastic protagonists have their own enjoyable tale to tell, and their varied narratives helped to produce a comprehensive and rich overall narrative.  While each character has their own role to play in the novel, two of these characters in particular, Lin and Jovis, have more prominence then their fellows, especially as their chapters are told in the first person.  Lin is the young daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire, who has only recently recovered from a peculiar sickness that took away her childhood memories.  Now out of favour with her father, who instead focuses on training her rival, Bayan, Lin uses her skills for climbing, exploring and thievery to steal her father’s keys and gain access to the locked rooms of the palace.  With each key she gains, Lin obtains more information about her past and the secrets behind her family’s powerful bone shard magic.  However, the more information she uncovers, the more she becomes certain that something is wrong, and that her father is no longer fit to be emperor.  I really enjoyed the Lin storyline; not only does it give the reader the most information about this series’ distinctive bone shard magic but there is a substantial amount of intrigue and mystery surrounding Lin’s entire life which I found really fascinating to unravel.  There are some really good twists involved with Lin’s tale, and this was definitely a standout part of The Bone Shard Daughter’s overall story.

The other major character is Jovis, a skilled smuggler, sailor and navigator with a knack for getting into trouble.  Jovis is a fun and entertaining fellow with a heart of gold, who runs afoul of everyone while trying to find his lost love, Emahla, who was taken from him by an unknown ship with blue sails many years before.  While searching for the ship, Jovis finds himself caught up in the wider story when he survives the sinking of an island, managing to rescue a small child and a strange aquatic creature he names Mephi.  Returning the child to its parents, Jovis gains a reputation as a legendary hero, especially as he finds himself gaining unnatural strength and other abilities, and he soon becomes a key figure in the rebellion against the throne.  Due to his likeable personality, the adorable relationship he formed with Mephi, and his action-orientated chapters, Jovis quickly grew to become my favourite character within The Bone Shard Daughter and I deeply enjoyed seeing his adventures unfold.  Jovis proved to be the major bridging character of this novel, as he was the person who encountered many of the other protagonists, bringing their tales together and ensuring that they were all connected.  I also liked how Jovis’s story and points of reference were so different from Lin’s, due to his underprivileged start in life, as he has seen the worst that the Phoenix Empire and the Sukai Dynasty have to offer.  Jovis is also the most insightful and realistic protagonist of the bunch, able to spot the deeper and sinister motivations of some side characters that the other characters miss, and I appreciated how and why he developed these much-needed survival skills.  Overall, Jovis proved to be an exceptional and enjoyable character, and I looked forward to reading his chapters the most while getting through The Bone Shard Daughter.  There are a lot of questions left over when it comes to Jovis’s tale, especially with his relationship to Mephi, and it will be interesting to see how they unfold in future entries in this series.

In addition to the main characters of Lin and Jovis, there was the intriguing couple of Phalue, the Governor of Nephilanu’s daughter, and her girlfriend, Ranami.  Their joint storyline, which is told in the third person, follows the two as they become embroiled in a plot to overthrow Phalue’s corrupt father, with Ranami acting as the idealistic rebel while Phalue reluctantly goes along in the name of love.  This proved to be an excellent and enjoyable narrative that aims to highlight the inequality in the various classes featured throughout the empire and which seeks to explore the rebellion of the group known as the Shardless.  While neither character is featured as heavily as Lin or Jovis, Phalue and Ranami easily have the most interconnected storyline, and together they narrate nearly as many chapters as either of the main two protagonists.  While I quite enjoyed seeing Phalue and Ranami’s chapters unfold, I do have to admit that I wasn’t as invested in their storyline as I was with Lin’s or Jovis’s, as it just was not as interesting.  This was particularly true when Jovis arrives at Nephilanu, and becomes embroiled in their rebellions, as the charismatic smuggler immediately starts to steal focus from Phalue and Ranami.  I also really didn’t buy the relationship between these two as the book progressed, as there were way too many betrayals and lies by the seemingly highly moral Ranami to her girlfriend Phalue, and I am very surprised that they stayed together.  Still, there were some excellent moments in this chapter and it proved really intriguing to see.

The final point-of-view character in this novel is the mysterious Sand, who awakens on an island with no clear memories of who she is or how she arrived there.  Working with the similarly amnesiac inhabitants of her island, Sand attempts to find out something about her past, and swiftly determines that there is something very wrong with her life.  The chapters focusing on Sand and her compatriots, which are also told in the third person, are an intriguing and compelling addition to The Bone Shard Daughter but get the least amount of prominence throughout the book.  Due to the amnesiac nature of the protagonist, these chapters are shaded in mystery and uncertainty, and at first it is very unclear how they fit into the greater story, making them a little hard to get invested in.  However, as the novel progresses and more details are revealed about the island and its inhabitants, the reader swiftly begins to understand just how significant the character of Sand is and what has happened to her.  This was an interesting fourth storyline to this book, and while it was not featured as heavily or appeared to be as significant as the others, it is obviously going to be a major part of the series as a whole and was well set up.  Overall, I was deeply impressed with each of these fantastic characters and their captivating personal storylines, and it proved to be an exceptional and powerful centre to this entire novel.

In addition to the great story and excellent characters, I also really enjoyed the unique and inventive new fantasy world that Stewart created for The Drowning Empire series.  The Phoenix Empire, where the entirety of the series is set, is made up of a range of populated floating islands separated by sprawling oceans.  I quite enjoy novels that feature an oceanic or nautical theme to them, and Stewart features a number of fun sequences aboard or around boats, which here are powered by burning a magical substance to gain speed on the water ways.  I also liked the sequences set within the islands, as there is a particularly cool Asian influence to the people and settlements contained on them and I loved the unique and clever tale that they were able to inspire.  While there are some really cool elements to this setting, such as the vast and complex royal palace where Lin roams, the highlight of this world had to be the magical constructs that are powered by bone shard magic.  Each of these constructs contains a number of bone shards depending on their complexity, which give them intelligence and power, while simultaneously draining the life force out of the person from whom the shard was extracted.  Stewart, through the medium of her curious character Lin, provides a detailed and compelling examination of these constructs and the magical science behind them, and I really appreciated how the author set them up and utilised them throughout the novel.  These were a cool and distinctive part of The Bone Shard Daughter, and I look forward to seeing how Stewart expands on them in later books in her series.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is an amazing and incredible fantasy read that serves as the fantastic first entry in the cool new The Drowning Empire series and which really lived up to the hype I was hearing about it.  I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I really got lost in the inventive new fantasy world and the multiple compelling character perspectives.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to the see what happens in the series next.  The second entry in this series, The Bone Shard Emperor, is currently set for release in November this year, and I think it will end up being one of the top fantasy releases of 2021.

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

Usagi Yojimbo The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – September 1991)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Four

Length: 179 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“is samurai honour so important?”

“Yes”.

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

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

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

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

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A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

A Little Hatred Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 17 September 2019)

Series: Age of Madness Trilogy – Book One

Length: 20 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the very best authors of dark fantasy fiction, Joe Abercrombie, returns to his epic First Law series with A Little Hatred, an outstanding and deeply entertaining read that serves as an excellent start to a whole new trilogy.

28 years after the failed Gurkish invasion of the Union and Jezal dan Luthar’s sudden rise to the throne, the world is much changed. Industry has come to the Union, with vast factories, production lines and businesses now defining the Union’s various cities at the expense of the nation’s farmers, labourers and working classes. In this time of change, a whole new generation is ready to make its mark in the world, but the rivalries, hatreds, manipulations and disappointments of those who have come before are hard things to overcome.

In the North, war once again rocks the lands, as the forces of Stour Nightfall invade the Dogman’s Protectorate, forcing the armies of Angland to come to their aid. Young lord Leo dan Brock is desperate to seek honour and glory on the battlefield; however, his forces are too small to defeat the vast Northern hordes. Requiring help from the Union, Leo is hopeful that a relief force led by Crown Prince Orso may help to turn the tide of battle, but the Crown Prince is a man known to constantly disappoint all who pin their hopes on him. However, the arrival of the mysterious Rikke, daughter of the Dogman, may provide him with a all the help he needs, especially with her ability to see through the Long Eye. Back in the Union, Savine dan Glokta, daughter of the feared Arch Lector Glokta, is making a name for herself as a ruthless businesswoman. Dominating the world of business and industry, Savine believes that she is untouchable, but dissent amongst the working classes are about to show her how wrong she is.

As both the North and the Union find themselves on the dawn of a whole new era, chaos will absorb all before it. While this new generation attempts to find their place, they soon begin to realise what the previous generation found out the hard way that they are not the ones in charge of their destiny, and there is nothing a little hatred cannot ruin.

Joe Abercrombie is a highly acclaimed author who has produced some truly amazing pieces of dark fantasy fiction over the years. While he has written other books, such as the Shattered Sea trilogy, he is probably best known for his First Law series. The First Law series is currently made up of seven books (including A Little Hatred), which detail bloodshed, politics and manipulation in a dark fantasy world. This series started with The First Law trilogy, which debuted in 2006 with The Blade Itself and ended in 2008 with Last Argument of Kings. The First Law trilogy followed the adventures of several complex and amazing characters as they fought to not only stop the Gurkish invasion of The Union but also the end a war in the North. Abercrombie would eventually follow this original trilogy with three standalone novels, which were set after the events of The First Law trilogy. These three books, 2009’s Best Served Cold, 2011’s The Heroes and 2012’s Red Country, each had various degrees of connection to the original trilogy, and in many cases showed what happened to some of the major characters from the first three books. These standalone novels were eventually collected together into the loose Great Leveller trilogy. I absolutely loved the original First Law trilogy, and it remains amongst one of my favourite fantasy series of all times. I do need to check out all of the Great Leveller books at some point, although I have no doubt the will all prove to be first-rate reads.

A Little Hatred is Abercrombie’s first entry in the First Law series since 2012, and it is set 28 years after the events of the original trilogy and 15 years after the events of Red Country. A Little Hatred is also the first book in a new connected trilogy that Abercrombie is producing, The Age of Madness trilogy, with the next two books in this trilogy to be released in September 2020 and September 2021. I have been looking forward to reading A Little Hatred for a while now, mainly because of how much I enjoyed the original The First Law trilogy, and I was very happy to not be disappointed with this new book. A Little Hatred was an incredible and captivating read which I powered through in short order. Not only does this book get a full five stars from me, but I even listed it as one of my favourite novels from 2019 when I was only about halfway through it.

For his latest book, Abercrombie utilises the same writing style that proved to be so successful in the previous First Law books. Readers are once again in for a dark, gruesome and very adult story that follows seven main point-of-view characters as they experience the events unfolding throughout the book. While each of the seven main characters has their own unique arcs, their various stories combine throughout the course of the novel to produce a deeply compelling overall narrative. I really like all the places the story went in this book, and it turned into an excellent blend of war, political intrigue, violent social revolution and intense interaction between a number of amazing characters. Abercrombie does not hold back any punches in this story, and there are a number of intense and excessively violent fight and torture scenes in this book, and there is plenty to keep action fans satisfied. At the same time, the author also installs a fun sense of humour throughout the book, which usually relates to the personalities of the various characters who are telling the story. All of this adds up to an absolutely amazing story and you are guaranteed to get quickly get drawn into A Little Hatred’s plot.

I thought that the author’s use of multiple character perspectives was an extremely effective storytelling method, especially as the seven point-of-view characters followed in this book often find themselves on different sides in the various featured conflicts. This allows the reader to see all the relevant angles to the political, social and military conflicts that are shown in the story, whilst also advancing the book’s various character arcs. These multiple character perspectives also allow the reader to see multiple viewpoints of the same events. This is especially effective during a couple of the larger battle sequences or during a particular duel scene, where you get to see the thoughts, fears and plans of the various participants and spectators, allowing for richer and more elaborate scenes. There are also a bunch of brief scenes which are told from the perspective of several minor characters, which are used, for example, to show off the extreme chaos surrounding the takeover of a city by members of the working class. I also really liked how Abercrombie used these different character viewpoints to imbue the story with some intriguing symmetry, such as by having two separate characters spending time with their respective parents back to back in order to show the differences and similarities in their relationships. All of this produces an excellent flow to the novel, which I really appreciated, and which helped with the overall enjoyment of the book.

A Little Hatred is an excellent continuation of the previous First Law books, and Abercrombie has come up with a bold new direction for the series. This latest novel is strongly connected to the events of the previous entries in this overarching series and continues a bunch of the storylines established in the prior books. It also continues the adventures of several characters who have previously appeared in the series, showing what has happened to them in the intervening years and how their legacy is being continued. Despite this strong connection to the previous six books in the First Law series, I would say that it is not a major necessity to have read any of the prior books, as the author does a great job of rehashing all the relevant major events while also successfully reintroducing some of the main characters, allowing new readers to enjoy this book. That being said, those readers who are familiar with some of the prior books, especially The First Law trilogy, are going to have a much better understanding of the events and characters that are featured within A Little Hatred, which may also result in a change in how readers view certain characters and events. For example, one of the main characters from the original trilogy makes several appearances throughout the book, interacting with some of the point-of-view characters. As these new characters have no prior experiences dealing with him, they believe he is a fairly harmless and friendly old man, which is how he is then presented to new readers. However, those readers who are familiar with him from the original trilogy know just how dangerous he can be, and his harmless routine actually becomes a little sinister. Readers with knowledge of the events of the original trilogy are also in for a lot more cringe throughout this book, as you know all the shocking details of a certain inappropriate relationship well before it is revealed to one of the characters later in the book.

I thought it was interesting that Abercrombie included such a significant time skip between this book and the original trilogy, but I think that it really paid off and created an excellent new setting. While the North and the conflicts that defined it remained very similar to what was featured in the previous books, the main setting of the Union proved to be very different. Since the last time you saw it, the Union has started to evolve from a more medieval society to an industrial society, with factories and production lines, which in many ways were very reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution in places like England. Of course, these changes result in different types of conflicts, as the lack of traditional jobs combined with the rich ruthlessly taking the agricultural industry away from the peasants results in an interesting bout of extreme class warfare, led by the organisation called the Breakers. These Breakers bear a lot of similarities to the organised instigator of real-life industrial revolts that occurred throughout historical Europe, and it was interesting to see Abercrombie’s take on them, especially as he included an anarchist sub-group, the Burners. I really liked this intriguing focus on class revolution, and it looks like this is going to be one of the major story threads of this new trilogy. I am very curious to see how it all unwinds, and I imagine there is more anarchy, chaos and bloody revolution on the horizon.

While the above elements are all pretty outstanding, the true highlight of the First Law books has always been the complex and damaged protagonists through whose eyes the story is told. Abercrombie has a real knack for creating compelling and memorable characters, which he once again showcases within this book. There are some really enjoyable and complex characters here, and I really liked their various interactions and character arcs. These new point-of-view characters include:

  • Crown Prince Orso – son of King Jezal and notorious wastrel who, despite his outward appearance as a lazy, useless and apathetic drunk, is actually a surprisingly capable and deeply caring individual, who hides his abilities and real feelings, especially as his attempts to be a good person usually have disappointing results.
  • Savine dan Glokta – daughter of Arch Lector Glokta, Savine has capitalised on her business sense and the fear of her father to become a successful investor. As a woman in a man’s world, she is forced to be utterly ruthless like her father, and Savine mostly comes across as heartless until a traumatic experience and revelations about her past almost break her.
  • Rikke – a Northern girl who is the daughter of the Dogman. Rikke is a powerful seer with the ability to see both into both the past and the future, although she has limited control of these powers. Rikke starts the book out as quite an innocent woman, until Stour Nightfall’s invasion hardens her and makes her keener for violence and revenge.
  • Leo dan Brock – a Union lord who is the son of two of the protagonists of The Heroes. Leo is a young man’s man, eager to prove himself in combat, whose abilities have made him a popular hero. However, his impatience and desire for glory ensure calamity on the battlefield, which guilts him to try and learn a new way of command. However, once he tastes glory again, he forgets all the lessons he has learned and the friends who got him there.
  • Vick dan Teufel – a Union Inquisitor serving under Arch Lector Glokta. Despite the fact that Glokta framed her father in the original trilogy and sent her and her entire family to a prison camp, Teufel appears loyal to him and the Union, as she likes being on the winning side. Despite her misgivings about the people she works with and her respect for some of the people she is investigating, she continues her missions and tries not to get close to anyone. Teufel is actually very similar to Glokta in personality, especially as she has the familiar storyline of being forced to investigate a conspiracy that no one wants solved.
  • Gunnar Broad – a former Union soldier who returned home after many years of fighting for his country to find that the local lord has stolen his farm. Attempting to find work in the cities, Broad becomes involved in the events of the Breaker’s revolution. Broad is a killer without peer whose temper, bloodlust and the emotional trauma of war drag him into great acts of violence, even when these actions backfire on him and his family.
  • Jonas Clover – a veteran Northern warrior who finds himself serving as an advisor to the young warlord Stour Nightfall. Clover is easily my favourite character in A Little Hatred, as his sense of humour, penchant for mockery and jaded personality really stand out amongst the more serious and blood thirsty characters he interacts with and he has some of the best lines in the whole book. Clover affects an air of laziness and cowardice and is constantly spouting wisdom and council to the younger warriors, who either don’t listen or openly mock him. Despite his apparently amiable nature, Clover is actually a vicious bastard when he needs to be, and he has a couple of memorable kills throughout the book.

In addition to the above seven new point-of-view characters, there is also a bevy of great side characters which really help move the story along. While I could go on about several of them, I might just stick to Isern-i-Phail and Stour Nightfall. Isern is another older Northern character who serves as Rikke’s mentor and protector. While Isern is generally a hard and practical character she is in many ways crafted in a similar vein to Jonas Clover, gently mocking the younger characters she interacts with and producing some of the most entertaining insults and comments throughout the book. Stour Nightfall, on the other hand, is one of the primary antagonists of the book. The cocky son of Black Calder and the grandson of Bethod, one of the major antagonists of the original trilogy, Stour has a real sense of entitlement and viciousness, brought on by his famous relatives and his skill with the blade. In many ways he is a mirror to Leo dan Brock, as both are determined to seek glory in combat, and both seek to emulate the Bloody Nine, Logen Ninefingers, despite their elder’s warnings about what kind of person their hero really was. While at times Stour was a bit two-dimensional as a character, he changes after a significant event at the end of the book, and his future in the series should prove to be very interesting.

Aside from this new group of protagonists, several of the major characters from the original trilogy make a return in this book, allowing readers to get an idea of what has happened to them since their last appearances. This includes returning former point-of-view characters Jezal dan Luthar, Sand dan Glokta (who might just be the best character Abercrombie ever came up with) and the Dogman, as well as several secondary characters. While all of these characters get a few lines and are presented as major figures in the current world order, most of the focus of A Little Hatred is given over to the newer protagonists, which I think fits in well with the book’s overall focus on change. It was great to see these characters again, and there were even some major developments surrounding one of them. It was also cool to see them interact with the younger generations, especially when they see these new characters making the same mistakes they did at their age. A Little Hatred also features the return of the First of the Magi, Bayaz, who is still pulling all the strings in the world. Despite his grandfatherly appearance, Bayaz is probably the main villain of this entire series, and you just know that he is behind all of the events occurring in this book. I look forward to seeing more of the excellent villain in the future, and I cannot wait to see how and why he is manipulating everyone this time.

Rather than read a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the audiobook version, which was narrated by Steven Pacey. The A Little Hatred audiobook runs for 20 hours and 20 minutes, making it a fairly substantial audiobook that would actually come in at number 19 on my longest audiobook list. The audiobook format is an excellent way to enjoy A Little Hatred, as you get a real sense of all the gore and violence as it is narrated to you, as well as a better vision of the impressive, changed world that served as the setting of this book. I was really glad that they continued to utilise Steven Pacey as narrator for this new book as Pacey has narrated all the previous First Law audiobooks. It was really good to once again hear the unique voices that Pacey assigned to the characters from the original trilogy, especially as, to me, they were the defining voices of these original characters. The voices that he came up with for the new characters in this book were also good, and I think that he got the character’s personalities down pretty effectively. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of A Little Hatred to anyone interested in checking out this book, and I am planning to listen to the rest of The Age of Madness books.

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie is an outstanding and impressive new addition to his brilliant First Law series. Abercrombie has once again produced a captivating, character-based tale of bloody war and politics, while also adding some intriguing new elements to it. This is an exceptional book, which I had an absolute blast listening to. The Age of Madness is off to an extremely strong start, and I cannot wait to see where Abercrombie takes this amazing series to next.

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Quick Review – Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep – Audiobook Review

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Publisher: HarperAudio (2 October 2018)

Series: A Crown of Shards series – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Kill the Queen is a fun young adult fantasy book that came out late last year. Written by veteran author Jennifer Estep, known for her work on fantasy books such as the Elemental Assassin and Mythos Academy series, Kill the Queen is the first book in her new Crown of Shards series. I listened to the audiobook version of it, narrated by Lauren Fortgang, earlier this year and I have been meaning to review it for some time. With the sequel, Protect the Prince, coming out in a couple of weeks, I figured that it was about time I finally wrote this one up.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

Initially I was not too sure about this book, especially as the opening scenes were a tad slow and less action-packed than I was expecting. However, since the blurb and several early parts of the book indicated that there was an upcoming massacre in the palace, I decided to stick around and keep listening to it. This proved to be quite a good decision; not only did the story quickly pick up pace but I ended up really liking this book.

The lead-up to the massacre at the start of the book was done exceedingly well, especially as the reader can see it coming and you find yourself becoming quite involved with the story at that point. The rest of the story is also fairly exciting. The massacre at the palace is surprisingly brutal for a young adult book, and I really enjoyed the next half of the story, which featured the character joining the gladiator troupe. This part of the book was a good combination of training montage, character development and romance, while also showing a small amount of the antagonist’s moves to solidify her hold on the country. The eventual assault on the palace by the protagonists and the final fight between Evie and Vasilia were good, although I was expecting something a tad more epic, such as a massive battle between all the gladiators and the guards. Still it sets up the future books in the series well, as there are still antagonists on the loose, secrets to be discovered and wars on the horizon.

While the story is very good, this it does feature a number of young adult and fantasy tropes that are a tad overused at this point. The ostracised girl finding her confidence is very familiar, as is Evie’s romance with Lucas, the bad boy she initially cannot stand. I was also a bit disappointed with the shared history with the antagonist that was hinted at throughout the book. It is made to sound like Vasilia did something horrible to Evie in the past, but the evil deed was revealed to be engineered social ostracism because Vasilia had no more use of Evie. This is just a tad disappointing, especially as Evie mentions several times how terrible the event was and several flashbacks are utilised to build up the reveal. Do not get me wrong, the social ostracism that Vasilia organises is cruel, but, honestly, it’s insignificant compared to some of the other traumatic events Evie experiences, and better suited to a high school drama than a fantasy book like this. In addition, I did find that Evie’s whole character arc was also a little bit predictable. It is clear very early on that Evie was going to a classic ‘chosen one’ character whose secret magical ability and mysterious status as Winter Queen will save the country in the future. While a tad predictable, it was still a very interesting story to listen to, and even led to the author including a fun, self-aware declaration from Evie about how she totally is not a chosen one. I hope that Estep cuts down on the young adult and fantasy tropes in the next book, but this was still an amazing piece of fiction that is well worth checking out.

Overall, I would give this book 3.75 out of 5 stars and would definitely recommend it to any reader who is looking for a good new young adult fantasy series. I had a great time listening to it and I managed to power through it in a short amount of time. The audiobook version of Kill the Queen is really well done, and Fortgang is an excellent narrator who contributes some superb voicework to this book. I am probably going to get the second book in the Crown of Shards series when it comes out and I am eager to see where the story goes, especially as the author did leave some interesting plot points open.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

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Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.