Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz

Dark Horse Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Audiobook – 15 February 2022)

Series: Orphan X – Book Seven

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top spy thriller authors in the world today, Gregg Hurwitz, returns with the latest book in his exciting and captivating Orphan X series, Dark Horse.

Over the last few years, I have been having an absolute blast checking out the epic Orphan X series by Hurwitz, which has featured some amazing and extremely fun reads.  The series started back in 2016 with Orphan X, which introduced the former government assassin turned vigilante known as Orphan X.  Since then, the Orphan X series has expanded to seven great books, each of which pushed the protagonist against some dangerous and ruthless foes.  I have deeply enjoyed the last few books, including Out of the Dark, which set Orphan X against the corrupt President of the United States; Into the Fire, which was one of the top audiobooks of 2020; and Prodigal Son, a fantastic and exciting dive into the world of advanced military technology.  All these novels have been really good and I was quite excited to see what Hurwitz had planned for his latest book, Dark Horse.

After barely surviving a deadly explosion in his sanctuary, Evan Smoak, the former government assassin known as Orphan X, has returned to his mostly usual life.  Once again taking up his persona as the elite vigilante, the Nowhere Man, Evan attempts to balance his dangerous activities with the unusual romantic and familial bonds he has formed.  However, his latest case will push him like none before as he finds himself thrust into a deadly and conflict between two notorious criminal organisations.

Aragon Urrea is a lifelong criminal who has established himself in south Texas as a major underworld figure.  Operating a subtle and profitable undercover drug smuggling operation, Aragon has set himself as the patron of his local area, supplying employment, help and justice to those who need it, while ensuring the love and loyalty of everyone surrounding him.  However, despite all his power and influence, Aragon has one weak spot, his teenage daughter, Anjelina, who is kidnapped by one of the most vicious and notorious drug cartels.  Now held captive in the cartel’s impregnable stronghold, Aragon has no way to rescue her, and in desperation he turns to a man even more dangerous than him, the Nowhere Man.

Despite his misgivings about working for a drug kingpin, Evan soon finds himself drawn to Aragon’s side to save Anjelina, and discovers his new client is an honourable man worthy of his help.  Forced to contend with dangerous murderers, drug dealers and psychopaths, Evan starts his attempt to infiltrate the cartel’s ranks and enter their fortress.  However, what he discovers inside the fortress will change the entire mission and force Evan to attempt an impossible rescue.  But can even the Nowhere Man defeat an entire drug cartel by himself, or has this legendary spy finally met his match?

This was another great novel from Hurwitz that combines an intense and action-soaked story with deep character moments and powerful self-examinations, all of which comes together into one heck of a novel.  I had a brilliant time with Dark Horse, and it was an awesome continuation of the Orphan X series.

Dark Horse has an excellent narrative that I found to be extremely captivating and fun, especially as it pits the protagonist against a brutal drug cartel.  The story has an interesting start, introducing the client and his kidnapped daughter, before resetting the story towards Evan and showing how he survived the cliff-hanger conclusion of the last novel.  From there, Evan is slowly drawn into Aragon Urrea’s life as the drug lord convinces him to save his daughter, which eventually leads to the Nowhere Man attempting to infiltrate the rival cartel.  This leads to some impressive and dark scenes as Evan draws the attention of the cartel and starts to gain the trust of their deranged leader.  This central part of the book is very powerful, especially as the protagonist finds out several complications to his plans and witnesses the true evil of his target.  At the same time, Evan is dealing with multiple personal problems, as issues with his friends, family and love interest all impact upon his mind, resulting in a richer narrative.  This all leads up to the epic and destructive final major sequence where Orphan X is unleashed and takes out his opponents in some very clever and brutal ways.  The book ends on a satisfying conclusion which touches on many of the brilliant character moments built up throughout the novel, while certain hints at the events of future novels will ensure that you come back for me.

I love how Hurwitz told the cool story in Dark Horse.  Like the rest of the novels in the series, Dark Horse can be read as a bit of a standalone read, although Orphan X fans will really enjoy seeing the continuation of certain storylines, especially those raised in the last couple of books.  Readers are in for the suspense, intense and highly detailed action, and intriguing dives into the complex character that have been such a distinctive feature of this series, and I loved how they improved the cool new story Hurwitz came up with.  The scenes set down in Mexico are particularly dark, and I found myself inevitable drawn to the over-the-top depictions of cartel country and the dangerous people living there.  I also need to highlight a particularly gruesome scene inside a drug house in San Bernardino, which will leave you shocked and reeling, especially with Hurwitz’s descriptive writing.  There was a very interesting focus on ethics, morality and personal emotion throughout Dark Horse, with two very different drug organisations shown.  Evan’s attempts to decide whether the person he is trying to help is a good person become a key part of the story, and I enjoyed the captivating comparisons between the protagonist and the various people he interacts with throughout the novel.  I do think that Hurwitz could have perhaps sacrificed a little of this philosophical introspection and replaced it with some more action or suspense in a few of the slower parts of the novel, but overall this was an impressive and highly enjoyable read.

Hurwitz has once again loaded his novel with some complex and intriguing characters who add a substantial amount to the story.  The most prominent of these is main protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X.  Evan is a particularly complicated figure who Hurwitz has been carefully building over the entire series.  Raised since childhood to be an assassin, Evan lacks many of the appropriate social skills people are supposed to have.  This, combined with his intense OCD and lack of emotional awareness, ensures he has difficulties adjusting to everyday life now that he is mostly retired from his assassin work.  His many issues cause multiple strains on his relationships in Dark Horse and it is very compelling to see him continue to adapt and improve as a person.  Evan also experiences many revelations in this novel, especially when it comes to the complex people and families he encounters.  Seeing people who strive to be good like him while also supporting evil or illegal actions really impacts him, and it proves to be very intriguing to see him attempt comprehend what sort of person he is and the people he is dealing with.

In addition to Evan, Dark Horse contains an interesting collection of supporting character who round out the story and ensure that the main character’s life is even more complex and meaningful.  Dark Horse makes use of a good combination of recurring characters from the previous novel and several new figures, including several over-the-top and menacing antagonists.  A large amount of focus is placed on new character, Aragon Urrea, who in many ways is a similar figure to Evan, as he is a genuinely good person, but he does bad things to achieve his goals.  There is also the character of Anjelina, who finds herself as a secondary point-of-view character in parts of Dark Horse.  A young, scared teenager, Anjelina makes some dangerous decisions in this novel and Hurwitz throws in some great surprises about her actual motivations and mindset.  I also really enjoyed seeing more of some of the recurring characters from the previous novels.  Evan’s main love interest, Mia, goes through some dark moments in this book, which adds to the emotional weight on the protagonist’s shoulders.  It was also cool to see more of Joey and Peter, Evan’s substitute children, whose interactions with the protagonist go to show how unprepared and damaged he truly is.  Throw in the residence of Evan’s building, who have some entertaining and frustrating interactions with Evan, and you have a fantastic cast for this novel that proves to be extremely fascinating to follow.

While I did receive a physical copy of this novel, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Dark Horse, which was a fun and enjoyable experience.  Dark Horse’s audiobook has a run time of just over 15 hours, and proves to be easy enough to power through, especially when you get caught up in the cool story.  I loved having this cool action-packed story read to me, and I found it helped me to really envision the great fight scenes, as well as context with the multitude of compelling characters.  This great audiobook also features the impressive voice work of Scott Brick, a veteran narrator of thriller audiobooks, including the previous Orphan X books, as well as entries in the Cotton Malone series by Steve Berry (The Malta Exchange, The Warsaw Protocol and The Kaiser’s Web).  Brick has an excellent voice that really lends itself to the spy thriller genre.  I felt that he perfectly captured many of the great characters in this novel, and he ensured that their full range of emotions and reactions were on full display.  This amazing voice work helped to turn the Dark Horse audiobook into a real treat, and I am very glad that I decided to enjoy it in this format.

With the awesome and impressive Dark Horse, Gregg Hurwitz presents an excellent continuation to his outstanding Orphan X series.  Containing an epic story filled with cool action, entertaining sequences and impressive characters, Dark Horse is a captivating and addictive read that is really worth checking out.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Audiobook Narrators

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, participants have been given a freebie topic, meaning that they can do a list on whatever interests them.  So, I thought I would take this opportunity to talk about something I am very passionate about, audiobooks.  In particular, I am going to have a crack at listing my favourite top ten audiobook narrators.

Readers of my blog will know that I have a particular love for the audiobook format, and it is one of my favourite ways to enjoy a good book (I’m listening to one now as I put this post up).  I have long loved audiobooks, going all the way back to my childhood when I had Goosebumps books on cassette tape.  While I eventually grew out of these series (and cassette tapes), my appreciation for audiobooks has remained, and I have become even more fond of them in recent years, due to how easy and accessible audiobooks are these days.  As such, I have had the great pleasure of listening to some outstanding audiobook in the last few years, and I honestly find myself enjoying some books a hell of a lot more in this format.

One of the main reasons why I have so much fun with audiobooks is because a lot of them have outstanding narrators who excel at telling the story or bringing the characters to life.  A great narrator can turn a good book into something truly magical, while boring narrators can ruin even the most compelling stories.  Over the years I have found myself becoming a big fan of several talented narrators due to their ability to make every story they read incredibly awesome with their impressive range.  Some of these narrators have been so good that I have followed them to other books and series, as I know that I am going to have a great time with whatever they are reading.  As a result, I thought it was about time that I highlighted my absolute favourites of these on this blog.

To pull this list together, I sifted through the best narrators I have listened and tried to work out who I enjoy listening to the most.  While there were a couple of great narrators I have enjoyed once or twice, my list tended to focus on those narrators whose work I have heard multiple time.  I ended up pulling together a descent list, which I was able to cull down into a good top ten list with a generous honourable mentions section.  The end result turned out pretty good, and I liked the cool cross section of genres and narrators that this list contained.  So, let us see who made the cut.

Honourable Mentions:

Scott Brick – Orphan X and Cotton Malone series

Prodigal Son Cover

Scott Brick is the narrator of two awesome thriller series, the Orphan X and Cotton Malone books.  I have listened to several great books narrated by Brick, including Into the Fire and Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz, and The Malta Exchange, The Warsaw Protocol and The Kaiser’s Web by Steve Berry, all of which were fantastic and compelling listens.

Jim Dale – Harry Potter series

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Cover

I had to include actor Jim Dale somewhere on this due to his outstanding work narrating the Harry Potter audiobooks.  While Stephen Fry also did a version, I have only had the pleasure of listening to Dale’s version, and it is such an outstanding way to enjoy this iconic series.

Jonathan Keeble – Trollslayer series

Trollslayer

I have recently enjoyed Jonathan Keeble’s work on the Trollslayer series by William King, set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe.  I have so far listened to three of these books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer, and each of these has featured some impressive voice work, especially around the main characters.  I am planning to check out more Warhammer novels narrated by Keeble soon, which should be a lot of fun.

Emily Woo Zeller – Star Wars: Doctor Aphra and Cyber Shogun Revolution

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

I also needed to highlight a rising audiobook narrator who has done some awesome books lately, Emily Woo Zeller.  Zeller came to my attention when she voiced the titular character in the outstanding Star Wars: Doctor Aphra audio drama, perfectly capturing this outstanding and complex protagonist.  This amazing performance, as well as her work in Cyber Shogun Revolution, really impressed me, and I look forward to seeing what Zeller will do in the future.

Top Ten List (unranked):

Ray Porter – Joe Ledger and Rogue Team International series

Relentless Cover

The first entry on this list is the incredible Ray Porter, a narrator whose work I am deeply enjoying.  While Porter has narrated an amazing number of books, I know him primarily through his collaboration with author Jonathan Maberry.  Porter has narrated most of Maberry’s novels over the years, and they are an impressive and captivating team.  I particularly enjoyed Porter’s work in Maberry’s Joe Ledger series (which includes books like Assassin’s Code, Code Zero, and Dogs of War) and the sequel Rogue Team International series (featuring Rage and Relentless), as Porter always perfectly fits into the skin of the titular protagonist.  I also really enjoyed his work on the standalone horror novel Ink, which was one of the best audiobooks of 2020, and I am particularly keen to check out more novels narrated by Porter.

R. C. Bray – Planetside series and The Dark

The Dark Cover

Another fantastic narrator whose work I have been appreciating lately is R. C. Bray, who has lent his voice to some amazing audiobooks.  I first came across Bray through his work on Michael Mammay’s Planetside series, including Planetside and Colonyside (one of the best audiobooks from the first half of 2021).  Bray did an outstanding job on these science fiction military thrillers, and his gruff voice was perfect for the veteran soldier the series followed.  However, Bray can also voice some other unique characters, a fact I recently discovered when I listened to the wildly entertaining horror novel, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.  In this book, Bray voiced a stoner character who finds himself leading the fight against a horde of invading demons.  Not only did Bray really get into this different protagonist, but he helped to turn The Dark into one of the best audiobooks of the year.  I look forward to checking out more from Bray in the future, especially as he has already narrated a ton of books by Robinson that sound really cool.

James Marsters – Dresden Files series

Battle Ground Cover

The next entry on this list is someone who I was a fan of well before I enjoyed their audiobook work, actor James Marsters.  Best known for his roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Marsters has also provided his voice to the audiobook versions of the Dresden Files urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher.  I found this out last year when I listened to the awesome latest entry in the series, Battle Ground, and I instantly fell in love with Marsters’ take on the various characters.  Marsters really dived into the role of titular protagonist Harry Dresden, and I appreciated all the cool voices he did throughout this novel.  When I decided to go back and check out the earlier entries in this series, I was very excited to see that Marsters narrated all these prior audiobooks as well, so it was an easy choice to check them out in audiobook as well.  I have so far enjoyed another four Dresden Files novels, Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, and each of them has featured some exceptional voice work from Marsters, which is really worth checking out.

Robert Petkoff – Star Trek audiobooks

Star Trek - Picard Cover

Each year there are a ton of Star Trek tie-in novels released, all of which get adapted to audiobook.  Of these multiple Star Trek books, nearly all feature the voice of Robert Petkoff.  Petkoff has an excellent voice for Star Trek, especially as he can perfectly replicate most of the Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation cast.  I have already listened to a great number of his Star Trek audiobooks including More Beautiful Than Death by David Mack, Agents of Influence by Dayton Ward, The Unsettling Stars by Alan Dean Foster, Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack and The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett, just to name a few.  I currently have several of his audiobooks currently loaded up on my phone, and I will hopefully listen to some of them soon.

Marc Thompson – Star Wars audiobooks

Star Wars - The Rising Storm Cover 2

Moving from Star Trek to Star Wars the next narrator I need to highlight is the outstanding Marc Thompson.  Thompson is a wonderfully talented narrator who has been lending his voice to some of the best Star Wars tie-in novels out there, and perfectly bringing them to life.  I love the outstanding range of characters that he can voice, including those from the films, characters from the animated shows, and new characters never seen on screen.  I am a particular fan of the voice he uses for the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, as he perfectly captures the character’s complexities, especially in books like Thrawn, Chaos Rising and Greater Good by Timothy Zahn.  Other impressive examples of his voice work can be seen in the audiobook versions of Scoundrels, Dark Disciple by Christie Golden, Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule and The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott.

Steven Pacey – First Law and Age of Madness trilogies

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover

I am a major fan of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, so I also must highlight the impressive Steven Pacey.  Pacey is a great narrator who I primarily know through his work on Abercrombie’s novels.  I deeply enjoyed the narration he provided to Abercrombie’s iconic dark fantasy series, the First Law trilogy, with each of the complex characters perfectly portrayed by this talented narrator.  Pacey really puts a lot of himself into this exceptional audiobook adaptions, and I was very happy that he continued to provide his voice to Abercrombie’s Age of Madness sequel trilogy, providing his exceptional voices to books like A Little Hatred, The Trouble with Peace and The Wisdom of Crowds.

Joe Jameson – King of Assassins and The Legacy of the Mercenary King series

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

The next entry on this list is Joe Jameson, a narrator whose voice I have been hearing a fair bit of lately.  Jameson is a very talented voice worker who has been narrating several amazing recent fantasy novels.  I first heard Jameson’s voice when I listened to the audiobook version of King of Assassins by RJ Barker, and I was particularly impressed by his impressive take on the intriguing characters contained within.  Following this, Jameson was also provided his voice to The Legacy of the Mercenary King series (currently made up of The Kingdom of Liars and The Two-Faced Queen), where I was deeply impressed with his exceptional ability.  I cannot wait to hear more of Jameson’s work on this series as it continues, and I am also thinking about listening to several unrelated novels that were also voiced by this talented narrator.

Nigel Planer/Stephen Briggs – Discworld series

Guards! Guards! Cover

There was no way that I could do a list about audiobook narrators without mentioning the epic duo of Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs.  Both Planer and Briggs are talented actors and narrators, but I love them the most for their work on adapting the epic Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.  The Disworld books (such as Moving Pictures and The Last Continent), are my absolute favourite books, and I have so much love for them, especially in their audiobook format.  All the Discworld novels (as well as some other standalone books that Pratchett wrote), were voiced by either Planer or Briggs, with Planer voicing the first 23 books, while Briggs narrated the last 18 books.  Each of these narrators brings something a little different to the books they adapted, but both do an amazing job capturing Pratchett’s unique humour and compelling characters.  I would strongly recommend any Discworld audiobook that these two narrate, and I have so much appreciation for them.

Jonathan Davis – Star Wars audiobooks

Master & Apprentice Cover

Another great narrator who has lent his voice to the Star Wars tie-in genre is the talented Jonathan Davis.  Like Thompson, Davis is a leading Star Wars audiobook narrator, and he always does a great job portraying some of the iconic characters from the franchise.  I have had a lot of fun listening to Davis’ work on such books as Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray, Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp, Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber and the Dooku: Jedi Lost audio drama by Cavan Scott.  I especially love Davis’ take on characters like Emperor Palpatine and Qui-Gon Jinn and I look forward to listening to more books from him in the future.

Jay Snyder – Gray Man series

One Minute Out Cover

The final audiobook narrator I need to highlight on this list is the fantastic Jay Snyder.  I have recently been really getting into the Gray Man books, and a lot of that is because of Snyder whose audiobook version of the last two novels, One Minute Out and Relentless, were pretty incredible.  I even recently went back and checked out the first novel in the series, The Gray Man, and I was really impressed by Snyder’s work on this initial book.  As I am intending to get through all the Gray Man books in the next little while, I will be hearing more of Snyder’s voice work in the future, and I cannot wait to see what other cool adventures he gets to narrate.

That’s the end of this latest list.  I think it turned out pretty well, and I liked the intriguing selection of narrators I ended up featuring.  Each of the above narrators are pretty damn amazing and I would honestly listen to any novel that they cared to lend their voices to.  Any audiobook narrated by them comes highly recommended and I am deeply excited to hear more from them in the future.  I had a fair bit of fun coming up with this list, and I think it is one that I will revisit in the future.  Hopefully the next version of this list will have more variety (such as more female narrators), and I cannot wait to explore even more awesome audiobooks in the future.  In the meantime, let me know who your favourite audiobook narrator is in the comments so I can check them out.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Audiobooks from the First Half of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  The official topic for this week is Books I’d Want With Me While Stranded on a Deserted Island, but I am going to do something a little different and instead look at my favourite audiobooks from the first half of 2021.  This is a continuation of my Top Ten list from a few weeks ago that featured my favourite overall novels from the first half of 2021.

People familiar with my blog will know that I have a great deal of love for the audiobook format, and it is one of the main ways that I tend to check out books.  Each year I enjoy a great number of different audiobooks and use the format to check out recent releases and older novels.  I have been enjoying audiobooks for years, and it is amazing the various ways in which listening to a book can enhance your enjoyment.  A great narrator can really bring you into the story, and I find that listening to a book enhances the amount of detail that you can take in.  In addition, other features, such as great voices, music and sound effects can really make an audiobook something special, and there some great examples of that out there.  This year alone I have listened to several outstanding audiobooks, includes some of my favourite books from early 2021.  Because I love this format so much, I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight my favourite audiobooks from the first half of the year.

To pull this list off I had a look at all the 2021 releases that I listened to on audiobook to figure out my favourites.  It turns out that I have already gone through quite a few this year so there was a very large collection of potential additions to this list.  I was eventually able to whittle it down to the ten audiobooks I consider to be the best, as well as a generous honourable mention section.  There is a bit of a crossover with my previous Favourite Books from the First Half of 2021 list, but I think there are enough new additions to make this list worthwhile.  I did prioritise audiobook production and narration over story in a few places, as outstanding narration or use of music and sound effects can enhance the plot.  That is why so many Star Wars novels made this list, because they are awesome productions, which are really worth checking out.  I am pretty happy with how the overall list turned out and I think that the below entries really highlight what my favourite audiobooks are.

 

Honourable Mentions:

The Coward, written by Stephen Aryan and narrated by Matt Wycliffe

The Coward Cover

 

Serpentine, written by Jonathan Kellerman and narrated by John Rubinstein

Serpentine Cover

 

Prodigal Son, written by Gregg Hurwitz and narrated by Scott Brick

Prodigal Son Cover

 

The Girl and the Mountain, written by Mark Lawrence and narrated by Helen Duff

The Girl and the Mountain Cover 2

 

Top Ten List (No Particular Order):

The Two-Faced Queen, written by Nick Martell and narrated by Joe Jameson

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

One of my favourite books of the year, The Two-Faced Queen, is easily one of the best audiobooks as well.  There were actually two separate audiobook versions of this book, and I chose to go with the Joe Jameson version, since he previously narrated Martell’s debut novel, The Kingdom of Liars.  I am a big fan of Jameson, especially after his work on books such as King of Assassins by R. J. Barker, and he did another amazing job on this book.  The Two-Faced Queen audiobook is an excellent and addictive listen, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this format to anyone wanting to enjoy this awesome five-star novel.

 

Star Wars: Victory’s Price, written by Alexander Freed and narrated by January LaVoy

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

Earlier this year, impressive author Alexander Freed finished off his Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron series with Victory’s Price, and in the process created one of the best books of 2021.  This audiobook massively enhances the already incredible and moving narrative within this exceptional novel, utilising outstanding voice work from January LaVoy, as well as the iconic Star Wars score and sound effects.  Easily one of best audiobooks of the year.

 

Relentless, written by Mark Greaney and narrated by Jay Snyder

Relentless by Mark Greaney Cover

One of the leading authors of spy thrillers, Mark Greaney, produced another intense and exciting novel this year with Relentless.  Thanks to some excellent voice work from Jay Snyder, the Relentless audiobook was pretty damn impressive, and you are in for a real treat with this exhilarating novel.

 

Star Wars: Light of the Jedi, written by Charles Soule and narrated by Marc Thompson

Star Wars - Light of the Jedi Cover

Another outstanding Star Wars audiobook was Light of the Jedi, the introductory novel in the new High Republic range.  Just like Victory’s Price, Light of the Jedi makes full use of the Star Wars music and effects to produce a fantastic listen.  However, Light of the Jedi also features the incredible voice work of Marc Thompson, one of the best narrators utilised by the Star Wars franchise.  Thompson produces a raft of great voices to highlight the new characters featured within this novel and it was really fun to hear him tell this story.  Thompson is lending his vocal talents to several other outstanding Star Wars audiobooks this year, including the latest High Republic novel, The Rising Storm, which is another great audiobook to check out.

 

The Shadow of the Gods, written by John Gwynne and narrated by Colin Mace

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

After hearing some incredible things about the latest John Gwynne novel, I ended up checking out The Shadow of the Gods on audiobook.  Not only was this book one of the absolute best fantasy releases of 2021 but the audiobook format was pretty damn exceptional.  Colin Mace’s voice really fit the dark fantasy setting and he really dives into the complex characters to highlight their deeper feelings and hidden rages.  An impressive and captivating listen.

 

Later, written by Stephen King and narrated by Seth Numrich

Later Cover

I was deeply impressed earlier this year when I checked out the audiobook format of the latest Stephen King novel, Later.  Outstanding new narrator Seth Numrich really dives into this excellent novel, and I had a wonderful and freaky time getting through this fantastic audiobook.

 

The Bone Maker, written by Sarah Beth Durst and narrated by Soneela Nankani

The Bone Maker Cover

I had an absolute blast listening to the latest great fantasy novel from Sarah Beth Durst, The Bone Maker, especially as narrator Soneela Nankani does a great job bringing the novel’s damaged protagonists to life.

 

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: The Greater Good, written by Timothy Zahn and narrated by Marc Thompson

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Greater Good Cover

The final Star Wars audiobook on this list is the second Thrawn Ascendancy entry, The Greater Good.  Thompson once again lends his incredible voice to this great book, bringing the unique characters to life.  However, his best work is reserved for main character Grand Admiral Thrawn, as Thompson perfectly replicates the character’s voice from the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  This makes for a complex and powerful audiobook, and I loved every second I spent listening to it.

 

Colonyside, written by Michael Mammay and narrated by R. C. Bray

Colonyside Cover

One of the fastest rising science fiction authors, Michael Mammay, continued to impress earlier this year with Colonyside, the third entry in the Planetside series, which was another awesome read.  You really need to listen to this novel’s audiobook format, as narrator R. C. Bray brings a certain necessary gruffness and fun to the central character.  An amazing book to listen to!

 

The Mask of Mirrors, written by M. A. Carrick and narrated by Nikki Massoud

The Mask of Mirrors Cover

The final entry on this list is the great fantasy novel, The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick.  The Mask of Mirrors is a particularly fun and intriguing read, and I found myself really drawn to its audiobook format.  This is mainly because of narrator Nikki Massoud, who strategically utilises a fantastic range of voices and accents to turn this amazing book into an incredible listening experience.

 

That is the end of my latest list.  As you can see, I have a pretty typical Unseen Library Top Ten List (I’ve got to fit in as many Star Wars novels as possible), but I really do think this represents all of my absolute favourite audiobooks from the first part of 2021.  All of the above audiobooks come highly recommended, and in my opinion, the audiobook format really enhances all of these great reads.  Let me know what your favourite 2021 audiobooks are in the comments below, and I look forward to seeing which of the above make my Top Audiobooks of 2021 list later this year.

The Kaiser’s Web by Steve Berry

The Kaiser's Web Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 23 February 2021)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 16

Length: 14 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The always impressive Steve Berry returns with another amazing great historical conspiracy thriller, The Kaiser’s Web, which sees his long running protagonist Cotton Malone investigate secrets left over from World War II.

Germany is in the midst of a ferocious electoral battle as two very different candidates vie to become chancellor.  One is the incumbent chancellor, a long-term public servant who believes in the goodness of her fellow Germans, while her opponent is a far-right populist, stoking the flames of nationalistic hatred and resentment to gain his power.  Both have their own vision for the future, but the key to this election may lie in the past, specifically, to what really happened on 30 April 1945, the day that Hitler and Eva Braun supposedly died in their bunker underneath Berlin. 

When a series of mysterious documents hinting at secrets from her opponent’s past are delivered to the German chancellor, she turns to her long-time friend, former United States President Danny Daniels for help.  Determined to keep Germany from going to the far-right, Daniels calls on the services of former American intelligent agent, Cotton Malone, and his girlfriend, the resourceful Cassiopeia Vitt.  Together, Malone and Vitt follow the trail left in the documents to Chile, where they uncover a dangerous web of deceit and hidden Nazi money, seemingly created by Hitler’s closest confidant and personal secretary, Martin Bormann.

When evidence suggests that Bormann, who everyone believes died in the last days of the war, may have actually survived and fled to South America with billions in stolen wealth, Malone and Vitt are shocked.  However, they soon discover that not everything is as it seems, and that someone has woven a dangerous trap around them, one that could tip the election in the far-right’s favour.  In order to save Germany from itself, Malone and Vitt must unravel the entire truth behind the conspiracy known as the Kaiser’s Web before it is too late.  But what impact can secrets from over 70 years ago have on present day Germany, and how far are people willing to go to protect them?  The truth about Hitler, Braun and Bormann will shock the world, and not even the legendary Cotton Malone will be prepared for the consequences.

Berry has been writing exciting and clever thrillers for nearly 20 years, ever since his 2003 debut, The Amber Room.  While he has written several standalone novels, Berry is best known for his Cotton Malone books, which started in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, and The Kaiser’s Web is the 16th entry.  I only started getting into the Cotton Malone series a few years ago when, on a whim, I decided to try the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange.  I ended up really enjoying the amazing story contained within The Malta Exchange, which combined together historical tales of Malta, the Knights Hospitaller and the Vatican, to create an impressive and addictive read.  I was also lucky enough to receive a copy of the 15th book in the series, The Warsaw Protocol, last year, which turned out to be another awesome read that dived deep into the heart of Poland’s history and politics.  Both books were really intriguing reads and I am now quite determined to check out any and all new Cotton Malone novels that come out.  I was particularly interested when I saw the synopsis for The Kaiser’s Web last year and I have been looking forward to reading it ever since.  I am extremely glad that I did, as Berry has once again produced a fantastic and captivating thriller that not only weaves a unique fictional historical conspiracy into an excellent and highly enjoyable story, but which also allows new readers to dive in and readily enjoy. 

For his latest novel, Berry has come up with another cool and impressive story that combines an investigation into historical secrets with an intense and dramatic thriller.  Told from the perspective of all the various players in the book, The Kaiser’s Web’s narrative starts off quickly when a mystery with world-altering implications is presented to the protagonists, forcing them to explore the final days of the Nazi regime and travel all over the world to find the answers.  While it initially seems like the protagonists are caught up in an elaborate and dangerous trap, the narrative quickly takes a turn when a third party intervenes, disrupting the entire plot and leaving everything, including the protagonist’s success or failure, up to chance.  There are so many amazing elements to this story and I loved the way that the author works his altered historical details into a high takes, thrilling narrative, with the secrets of the past very much having an impact of key events from the future.  Like several of Berry’s previous novels, The Kaiser’s Web has a lot less action in it than most thrillers do; instead most of the narrative is filled with talking, historical flashbacks and character building, which I personally really liked and which give this book a much more distinctive feel than some other examples of this genre.  That being said, there are several great, fast-paced action scenes in this book, which, when combined with the clever historical elements and investigation, resulting a thrilling and powerful novel.  I also liked how The Kaiser’s Web has much more a political thriller vibe to it than some of the previous Cotton Malone novels I have enjoyed, with the result of the protagonist’s investigation having severe impacts on the fate of Germany’s election, and indeed Berry works several different stages of the opponent’s campaign into the overarching story, showing how close the election is.  All of this comes together into one big and captivating conclusion, and while I was able to predict a couple of the big twists, including a particularly major reveal, Berry still surprised me in places, and I had an outstanding time getting through this awesome story.

To really flesh out The Kaiser’s Web’s narrative, Berry dives deep into the heart and soul of the country of Germany and its people to set up the story’s central conspiracy and explain its significance.  This includes a really intriguing examination of Germany’s history, both during the war and in the post-war period, and readers get a comprehensive understanding about what happened in Hitler’s bunker, and how history has recorded or, in many cases, failed to properly record these events.  Berry also features a really in-depth examination of some key Nazi figures, including Martin Bormann and Eva Braun, showcasing their psyches and personalities, as well as exploring their role in the war, the major policies that Bormann enacted and their significance to people like Hitler.  There is also an intriguing exploration around their recorded deaths, and the historical inaccuracies about them become a key part of the plot.  There is also a compelling look at what happened to former Nazis post World War II, both in Germany and outside of it.  In particular, the story traces the routes and hideouts that several former Nazis had in South American countries, and it was fascinating to see some of the real-life examples of fleeing Nazis that are repurposed for this narrative.  All of these historical aspects are very interesting, and I love the unique and clever story that Berry was able to create using them.

In addition to Germany’s wartime history, Berry also examines the current political and social climate of Germany, which becomes a significant part of the book’s plot.  Berry really attempts to explore a lot of the current attitudes that the modern German people have, especially as certain resentments, forced political concessions and other factors have seen a re-emergence of the far-right in Germany (and other European countries), and the election featured within the book becomes a real battle for the soul of the country.  The author has obviously spent a lot of time researching current German moods and political preferences, and this proves to be a powerful and compelling heart to the novel, especially as he really does not have to exaggerate some of the problems that new hard-right organisations in Germany are causing.  Berry does a fantastic job not only exploring the roots of a lot of these problems, many of which date back all the way to the war, but also working it into his clever thriller story, resulting in an amazingly powerful narrative that, thanks to these real-world issues, really drags you in.

One of the things that I always like about the Cotton Malone novels are the awesome depictions of the different countries and landscapes that form the backdrop for the impressive narrative.  It is obvious that the author has a real passion for travel and new landscapes, and this really flows through into his writing as Berry spends a lot of time describing all the key features and locations his characters see, both man-made and natural, in exquisite detail.  These depictions are so detailed and compelling that the reader can often believe they are standing next to the characters enjoying the view.  The Kaiser’s Web is no exception to this as the author once again details several amazing places that form the backdrop to the complex story.  As a result, the reader gets to experience some really cool locations, including several provinces of Germany, parts of Chile, brief looks at countries like Switzerland, Belarus and Austria, and an expanded exploration of the Free State in South Africa.  In each of these locations, Berry provides the reader with fantastic details about the landscape, the people, local industries and politics, as well as some fun snippets of history, most of which relate to the post-war period.  This becomes an extremely fascinating part of the book, especially as Berry’s enthusiasm for different horizons is quite infectious, and I had a great time exploring these new locations.  I cannot wait to see where the next Cotton Malone novel is set, as the author is bound to feature some new and intriguing places.

I have to say that I also really enjoyed some of the new characters featured within The Kaiser’s Web.  This was a pretty good book for characters, as Berry continues to not only showcase his long-running protagonist Cotton Malone but also reintroduces two characters who were somewhat underutilised in the previous book.  Cotton, who is something of a nexus for historical conspiracies, has another great adventure in this novel, and I loved seeing this ageing former agent turned rare book dealer get into all manner of trouble as he attempts to find the truth.  Despite being the nominal main character of this novel, I did think that Cotton was slightly pushed into the background of the story, mainly because several of the other characters were very heavily featured.  Part of this is because Cotton spends the entire novel teaming up with his love interest Cassiopeia Vitt.  Due to the fact that I have only read a couple of Cotton Malone novels, this was the first time I have seen the character of Cassiopeia in action, and I quite enjoyed her as a character.  Cassiopeia, who is also the focus of several Berry’s short stories and novellas, is another great character to follow and it was interesting to see her counterpoint to Cotton’s perspectives.  Cotton and Cassiopeia form a fantastic team in this book and I enjoyed seeing them work together and support each other in various ways.  Aside from Cotton and Cassiopeia, it was also great to see more of former US President Danny Daniels, who becomes a key part of the story.  I loved the idea of a popular former President running important international espionage missions after his retirement (could you imagine Obama doing something like that? That sounds pretty awesome), and he serves as a great supporting character getting Cotton and Cassiopeia involved in the story.

While the returning characters are good, my favourite point-of-view characters had to be Marie Eisenhuth, the current German chancellor who finds herself caught in the middle of dangerous events, and her main opponent in the upcoming election, Theodor Pohl, the book’s primary antagonist.  These two characters represent the very different ends of the German political spectrum, with Eisenhuth a pro-immigration and anti-Nazi politician, while Pohl is a far-right figure who is attempting to utilise the conservative populations to introduce damaging nationalistic policies.  Both Eisenhuth and Pohl get a substantial amount of focus in this book and it proved extremely fascinating to see them throughout the novel, especially as their electoral campaign plays out like a battle for the soul of Germany.  It was also great to see Pohl’s perspectives, especially when he is manipulating people or reacting to the actions of Cotton and his friends and is forced to put more deadly plans into play.  While The Kaiser’s Web initially focuses on their political differences, the novel soon examines various parts of both characters’ lives, pasts and families, which proves to be deeply compelling and interesting.  I love the cool reveals behind these characters, and their storylines reveal a very intriguing case of nature versus nature.  I think both characters had exceptional story arcs throughout this book and their storylines ended up being an outstanding part of The Kaiser’s Web.

I ended up listening to The Kaiser’s Web on audiobook, mainly because I have found that Berry’s awesome historically based conspiracies translate across to the audiobook format extremely well and I end up following all the cool detail and inclusions a lot more.  With a run time of 14 hours and 32 minutes, this is a fairly decent sized audiobook, but listeners should generally be able to power through it rather easily, especially once the cool conspiracy really hits its height.  I also really enjoyed the awesome narration of Scott Brick, who does an exceptional job with this latest Cotton Malone book.  Brick is a well-established narrator who has contributed his voice to an amazing number of audiobooks, including all the previous entries in the Cotton Malone series, as well as the fantastic Orphan X series (for example, he did a great job narrating Into the Fire and Prodigal Son).  I particularly enjoyed Brick’s amazing voice work in The Kaiser’s Web, mainly because he got an opportunity to show off the wide range of accents he could do.  Not only does he pull off a range of German accents for the various German characters, but he also does some amazing South American accents and some extremely authentic South African accents.  The South African accent, which is a really hard one to pull off (so many narrators and voice actors try and fail to do it properly, often coming off as Australian), was really good in this book, and I am really impressed by Brick’s skill.  At the same time, Brick’s general narration voice fit the intense tone of The Kaiser’s Web extremely well, and I thought that he moved this dense and complex story along at a decent pace, ensuring that the listener’s attention was constantly drawn in.  As a result, I had an exceptional time listening to this audiobook and this is easily my preferred format to enjoy Berry’s Cotton Malone novels with.

The Kaiser’s Web is another outstanding novel from Steve Berry, who has once again produced a captivating and clever historical conspiracy thriller.  Featuring a unique tale, intriguing dives into several countries and some fantastic characters, The Kaiser’s Web is a must-read for thriller fans and comes highly recommended.  I personally loved untangling all the threads in this cool thriller and I cannot wait to see what Berry comes up with next.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most exciting and impressive thriller series out there returns with the sixth entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, Prodigal Son.

Over the last couple of years I have really been expanding my love for the thriller genre and I have been getting into several cool series, many of which have been spectacular reads.  One of my favourites at the moment is the fantastic Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz.  The Orphan X series follows protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, a lethal and highly capable special operator who was recruited out of an orphanage when he was 12 and trained in every conceivable aspect of combat and spycraft.  After breaking from the Orphan Program and moving to Los Angeles, Evan has taken on a new moniker as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante who helps those in desperate situations as penance for his former life as an assassin.  I had a lot of fun reading the fourth book in the series, Out of the Dark, which saw Evan go up against the corrupt President of the United States.  I also deeply enjoyed the fifth book, Into the Fire, which was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020 and one of the best audiobooks of the year.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to reading the new Orphan X novel for a while now and I was excited to see what sort of fascinating story Prodigal Son would have.

After successfully taking down the shadowy forces behind the Orphan Program, Evan Smoak is ready to retire.  With an unofficial pardon from the new President, all Evan has to do to stay off the government’s radar is to stop his activities as The Nowhere Man and live a normal life.  However, the past once again returns to haunt Evan when he receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be his long lost mother, asking for his help.

Shocked and rattled by the revelations, Evan’s curiosity and need for family drives him to meet with this woman and discover what she wants.  After tracking her down, Evan is surprised at the woman’s one request: to find and help Andrew Duran, a nobody living in LA whose life has gone off the rails.  Working a dead-end job at an impound lot, Andrew witnesses the mysterious death of a former drone pilot, and now finds himself being hunted by a pair of brutal killers.

While initially reluctant to take the case and risk his pardon, Evan’s interest is piqued when he barely survives a hellfire missile strike on Andrew’s house.  Digging deeper in the circumstances around the murder at the impound lot, Evan begins to uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless weapons contractor and his next generation drone weaponry.  However, the biggest dangers to Evan may come from a direction he would never expect, as his new client, Andrew, brings up unwanted memories from his traumatic past.  What is Andrew’s connection to Evan’s mother and his childhood and how will an emotionally compromised Evan save everyone important to him?

Wow, that was impressive.  Hurwitz has once again come up with an epic and exciting Orphan X novel that combines high-octane action, with a fantastic plot, some excellent characters and an intense amount of growth and emotional turmoil surrounding the series’ protagonist.  The combination of this results in a deeply addictive and extremely captivating read that ended up getting a full five-star rating from me, and it proved extremely hard to put Prodigal Son down.

This latest Orphan X novel contains a particularly clever and enjoyable narrative that sees Evan once again engage in a deadly mission as The Nowhere Man, although this time he is drawn in for far more personal reasons than usual.  Hurwitz starts Prodigal Son off with a fun introduction, as Evan attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement (which goes about as well as expected), before his curiosity at the cliffhanger ending of the previous novel, Into the Fire, drives him to seek out the woman claiming to be his mother.  This in turn leads him to attempt to save another lost soul from dangerous forces, as he goes up against a sociopathic tech genius and their ruthless assassins (as well as some repugnant bastards he encounters along the way).  The rest of the story progresses at an intense and enjoyable pace as Evan attempts to get to the bottom of the plot that his client finds himself in.  This results in several really impressive fight scenes, including a particularly brutal sequence in a impound lot (I will never, ever think about putting a torch in my mouth again).  Hurwitz really has a talent for writing action scenes, and I loved all the ruthless detail and fun moments that he features within them (never bring a Tesla to a gun fight).  In addition, there are some cleverly written infiltration scenes that I had fun with, especially when it comes to Evan breaking into some very high-security places with some elaborate disguises and a vape pen.  All of this comes to a head with an explosive conclusion which, while a tad predictable, was still a fun way to end the book and should make for some interesting future entries in the series.  I really enjoyed getting through Prodigal Son’s story and I found it to be particularly addictive and fun.

One of the most impressive and distinguishing highlights of the Orphan X series has always been its compelling and complex protagonist, Evan Smoak.  Evan is a highly trained professional assassin who learnt a meticulous code of honour and responsibility as a child and now seeks to redeem himself by helping those in trouble.  Thanks to his troubled and complicated past, as well as some mild OCD (brought on by a need for perfection in his work), Evan has been a particularly compelling character to follow, and there has been an intriguing subplot about his troubles connecting to other people.  However, the emotional turmoil hidden within the character really comes to a head in Prodigal Son when Evan is reunited with the woman who abandoned him as a baby.  Hurwitz really dives deep into the character’s psyche for this latest novel, presenting an intricate and powerful picture of a conflicted person, one who is torn between his long-repressed desire for family and to fit in and his training to be independent and alone.  This emotional turmoil becomes even more pronounced when several secrets and revelations come to the surface, and this really throws Evan for a lot of the book.  These added emotional distractions prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as it dulls Evan’s usual keen senses and amps up the risk during his missions.  Hurwitz also spends time diving back into Evan’s childhood, including through a series of flashbacks to when he was first recruited to the Orphan Program, and it was fascinating to see more of his early life, especially when it impacts on his current state of mind.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hurwitz explores Evan’s relationship with several other characters, and it was fascinating to see more of this killer’s paternal instincts and cravings come to life, especially after he finally comes face to face with his mother.  In addition, Hurwitz also explores his protagonist’s mentality when it comes to retirement, and it proved interesting to see how Evan reacts when he is once again exposed to danger and violence.  This is easily some of the best character development and exploration that Hurwitz has ever done, and I really appreciated the dramatic edge that it gave to Prodigal Son’s story.

Aside from Evan, this novel is filled with a selection of amazing and well-developed characters.  The most prominent of these are probably Evan’s client, Andrew, and his long-lost mother, Veronica.  Both serve as intriguing catalysts to Evan’s own development, and it was fascinating to see how their introduction to the plot impacted the protagonist’s mentality, especially when their various secrets come to life.  Andrew in particular proves to be a great addition to the plot, and I liked to see another one of Evan’s clients whose life is both upended and improved by his interactions with The Nowhere Man.  Several recurring characters from the previous Orphan X series also have some fantastic roles in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing more of Joey, a former Orphan Program participant and master hacker, who Evan treats like a little sister/daughter.  Joey is a very fun character whose style, personality and expertise in all things technological strongly clash with Evan, but together they form a great team, and they have some amusing interactions throughout the book, especially when Evan finds out that Joey is dating and instantly enters protective dad mode.  There is also the usual inclusion of the other residents of Evan’s apartment complex, including his love interest Mia and her young son Peter.  While many of the characters in this complex seem a bit weird or one-dimensional, they actually prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as Evan is able to reconcile his own emotional issues with some of the problems they are facing.  This is particularly true when it comes to Mia and Peter, and there are some interesting developments on that relationship throughout Prodigal Son.

Aside from these excellent side characters, Hurwitz has also come up with some fun villains for this latest novel that Evan needs to contend with.  The main three villains of the story are a pretty unique group of antagonists, including the brother-sister team of Declan and Queenie Gentner, contracted assassins who have been hired to kill Andrew and other witnesses to their boss’s plot.  Declan and Queenie are an interesting and sadistic pair of killers who prove to be a bit of a challenge for Evan throughout the book.  I really appreciated that Hurwitz spent the time developing both of them, especially Declan, who has some major childhood traumas, and I felt that their arc throughout Prodigal Son was rather clever.  The main villain of this story is the Gentner’s employer, known as the Doctor, who has access to some rather dangerous technology.  The Doctor has a very James Bond villain feel to him, right down to having an odd and distinguishing physical characteristic and a sinister vision for the future.  While a little more mystery or a twist about who the Doctor ultimately was might have worked out well, I still thought they were a great villain.  I particularly liked the inclusion of all the drones that they used, and it was really fascinating to see how the author envisioned the future of warfare and how a trained agent like Evan would deal with them.  Overall, there are some great side characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing how Hurwitz utilises them in future Orphan X entries.

Like I did with the previous novel in the Orphan X series, I ended up choosing to listen to Prodigal Son’s audiobook format.  This was a fantastic decision as this version of Prodigal Son was well put together and proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing story.  Prodigal Son has a decent run time of 13 hours and 42 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through fairly quickly, and was narrated by the talented Scott Brick.  Brick is an exceptional narrator who has lent his voice to an impressive catalogue of audiobooks, including several excellent thrillers, such as the Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series (I enjoyed his narration for The Malta Exchange and The Warsaw Protocol) and the rest of the Orphan X novels.  For Prodigal Son, Brick once again gives an excellent performance, providing the characters with some tough voices which fit each of the perfectly and helped to bring the story to life.  I ended up getting really wrapped up in this audiobook and I felt that it was an amazing way to experience and step inside of this fantastic novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz is an exceptional and powerful read that serves a great new addition to the amazing Orphan X series.  I had an outstanding time listening to this fantastic new book, especially with its epic story and terrifically deep characters, and this is swiftly becoming one of my favourite thriller series.  Prodigal Son comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how Hurwitz continues this in the future.

Top Ten Tuesday – Favourite Audiobooks of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this latest Top Ten Tuesday, participants needed to list the top ten books they hoped that Santa would bring them, however, I am going to do a slightly different topic.  As we are nearing the end of 2020, I have decided to once again produce a series of lists that highlight my favourite books for the year, judged by several different criteria.  I have previously listed my Top Ten Pre-2020 novels I read this year and now I am going to focus on something else, my Top Ten Favourite Audiobooks of 2020.

Readers of my blog only need to check out my extensive audiobook category to know that I have a lot of love for the audiobook format.  In my opinion, the audiobook is often the best way to experience a good book, and in many cases this format makes a book more enjoyable for me.  As a result, I listened to quite a few audiobooks this year, and while several of them are books that had been released before 2020 and featured in my Throwback Thursday posts, a large majority of them were released this year.  There were some outstanding audiobook adaptions this year, and while I had a few books to choose from, I was eventually able narrow my absolute favourites down to a top ten list.

For this list I have only included audiobooks released in 2020 that I have listened to and completed, so I am excluding a few books that probably had some great audiobook productions (for example, I am sure that audiobooks of The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett or Devolution by Max Brooks were amazing, but I ended up reading a physical copy of them instead).  While all of the books that made the top ten are outstanding novels, I have tried to take overall audiobook production into account while choosing my list.  Each of the books that I included below had great narrators and I think that for most of these novels the audiobook format actually enhanced the story and helped me enjoy the book even more.  I am extremely happy with how this list eventually turned out (with my typical extended honourable mentions section), and I had an amazing time coming up with this latest Top Ten article.

 

Honourable Mentions:

 

The Salvage Crew, written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and narrated by Nathan Fillion

The Salvage Crew Cover


House of Earth and Blood
, written by Sarah J. Maas and narrated by Elizabeth Evans

House of Earth and Blood Cover


Star Trek: Discover: Die Standing
, written by John Jackson Miller and narrated by January LaVoy

Die Standing Cover

I was also strongly tempted to use Star Trek: Picard: Last Best Hope, but I felt that Die Standing had a stronger and more exciting story that worked well with the audiobook format.


Song of the Risen God
, written by R. A. Salvatore and narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds

Song of the Risen God Cover

Top Ten List:


Battle Ground
, written by Jim Butcher and narrated by James Marsters

Battle Ground Cover


The Thursday Murder Club
, written by Richard Osman and narrated by Lesley Manville

The Thursday Murder Club Cover


Harrow the Ninth
, written by Tamsyn Muir and narrated by Moira Quirk

Harrow the Ninth Cover


Race the Sands
, written by Sarah Beth Durst and narrated by Emily Ellet

Race the Sands Cover


Into the Fire
, written by Gregg Hurwitz and narrated by Scott Brick

Into the Fire


Star Wars: Doctor Aphra
, written by Sarah Kuhn and narrated by a full cast

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

While a couple of other 2020 Star Wars tie-in novels did have more compelling or original stories, I felt that the combination of the fun adapted narrative in this audio drama and the excellent full voice cast made Doctor Aphra the best Star Wars audiobook of the year.


The Trouble With Peace
, written by Joe Abercrombie and narrated by Steven Pacey

The Trouble with Peace Cover


Ink
, written by Jonathan Maberry and narrated by Ray Porter

Ink Cover


The Kingdom of Liars
, written by Nick Martell and narrated by Joe Jameson

The Kingdom of Liars Cover


One Minute Out
, written by Mark Greaney and narrated by Jay Snyder

One Minute Out Cover

 

Well that is the end of this latest Top Ten list.  All of the above novels are extremely good, and I would highly recommend each of them in their audiobook format.  There is still time for me to listen to a few more great audiobooks this year, and I am planning to listen to either A Fool’s Hope by Mike Shackle or Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas next.  Let me know what your favourite audiobooks of 2020 were in the comments below, and I might try and check them out.

The Warsaw Protocol by Steve Berry

The Warsaw Protocol Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 25 February 2020)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 15

Length: 11 hours and 48 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for an exciting thriller that not only features an intense, high-stakes spy adventure but also an intriguing and detailed examination of a nation’s history and culture? Then you are going to love The Warsaw Protocol, the latest novel from bestselling thriller author Steve Berry and the 15th novel in his long-running Cotton Malone series.

Former United States Justice Department agent Cotton Malone is now retired and enjoying his life as a rare book dealer and occasionally supplementing his income with some freelance intelligence work. In Bruges to attend a book fair, his holiday takes an unexpected turn when he attempts to stop the theft of a rare religious artefact. His interference accidently places him in the centre of a new conspiracy threatening to engulf Poland, one with massive global ramifications.

A notorious information broker has obtained a series of documents that reveal troubling secrets about the President of Poland, Janusz Czajkowski, and his past during the communist occupation of his country. These secrets, if revealed, would ruin the political career of Czajkowski and are the ultimate form of blackmail. With a controversial proposal surrounding an advanced American missile defence system in Poland on the table, both the United States and Russia want these documents, as do several other interested nations. The documents will be auctioned off in a secret location, with the price of admission one of seven sacred Christian relics located around the world.

Recruited by his former boss, Stephanie Nelle, Cotton attempts to steal one of the remaining relics in order to enter the US into the auction. However, despite the best-laid plans of the new President of the United States, the auction turns into a disaster, with Russian duplicity, Polish intelligence agents and a rival information broker all coming into play. As Cotton attempt to recover the documents, he is faced with severe moral implications, should he really be party to an American plan to blackmail a foreign nation?

Berry is an outstanding thriller author who has been producing consistent and enjoyable work since his 2003 debut, The Amber Room. While he has produced several standalone novels, his main body of work is the Cotton Malone novels, which started in 2006 with The Templar Legacy. So far, I have only read the prior book in the Cotton Malone series, The Malta Exchange, which came out last year. I really enjoyed The Malta Exchange and became an instant fan of the way that Berry combined exciting thriller storylines with historical conspiracy theories and deep dives into the history and culture of various nations. I have been looking forward to The Warsaw Protocol for a while now, and I even featured it on my recent Most Anticipated Books for the First Half of 2020 list.

Like the rest of the books in the series, The Warsaw Protocol can easily be read as a standalone novel, with absolutely no knowledge of any of the prior books required to enjoy the fun and exciting story contained within. Long-term fans of the series will definitely enjoy this new entry, not only because of its great story but because some of the events depicted are likely to have major repercussions for future books in the series. Berry makes excellent use of multiple viewpoints to tell this story, with several major characters getting a number of chapters to themselves, which not only show their actions in the current day but also dive into their own personal history and the history of the people or places they are interacting with. This leads to a richer overall narrative, and I think it was the best way to tell this complex story. Overall, I am really glad that I decided to dive further into the Cotton Malone series, as I found The Warsaw Protocol to be another fantastic and captivating thriller with some first-rate depictions of the complex nation of Poland.

At the centre of this book lies an outstanding thriller which sees the agents of several different nations fighting over sensitive material that could change the balance of power in the world. Berry takes this thriller storyline in some fantastic directions, and I really enjoyed the fast-paced and exciting final result. I loved seeing the past coming back to haunt people, especially as this allowed the author to dive back into Poland’s history when it was part of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Protocol contains several excellent action sequences, although the book has more of a focus on uncovering the past and solving historical clues. I felt that the author’s use of multiple viewpoints worked really well to increase story’s suspense and intrigue, especially as you get to see the various major players react and enact countermoves against each other. I was a tad surprised that the author did not really do much more with the holy relics the auction participants needed to collect, especially as I spent a good part of the book thinking they were going to lead to some other great Polish treasure. There were also some other McGuffins and secrets that were mentioned or discovered throughout the book that didn’t really go anywhere either, and I would have been interested to see what impact they would have had on the plot if the protagonist had known about them. Still, this was an incredibly captivating piece of thriller fiction, and thanks to the fast-paced and exciting story, I had a really hard time putting The Warsaw Protocol down.

One of the main things that draws me to the Cotton Malone series is the way that Berry makes sure to dive into the history and culture of the countries in which his books are set. I really loved the in-depth look at Malta in his previous book, and I have a great appreciation for all the intriguing details about Poland that he features in his latest novel. Make no mistake, while this book does mainly follow the story of an American intelligence agent, The Warsaw Protocol is first and foremost a novel about Poland, featuring examinations of the nations troubled history and its unique cultural mindset. I am a huge history buff, so I absolutely loved Berry’s examination of these elements of Polish history. His major focus was on Poland when it was controlled by the Soviets following World War II, although he also looks back at the medieval history of the country as well. I found this examination of the Communist occupation of Poland to be quite fascinating, although Berry makes sure to point out the terrible circumstances that the people found themselves in and the lasting impact Communist control has had on the nation. The author sets up the seeds of the book’s central thriller in the country’s Communist past, and the resultant bloom turned out to be an excellent story.

In addition to the country’s history, Berry also attempts to showcase the social and cultural identity of Poland, while examining how the country’s long history of dissention, political upheaval and oppression from other nations has helped to create a unique society of people with a distinctive social mindset and way of life. Berry obviously has a lot of love for the people of Poland, and his examination of their national personality is quite intriguing. It is also another element of this book that works well with the overarching thriller storyline, as several of the point-of-view characters are able to predict how the general population of Poland will react if the information up for auction is released, motivating several of the characters. All in all, this was an incredibly fascinating and compelling examination of one of Europe’s most distinctive and important countries, and I really liked how Berry was once again able to use these captivating elements to produce an excellent spy thriller.

Berry also spends a lot of time bringing several iconic Polish locations to life to serve as backdrops for his story. There are some absolutely fantastic locations featured within this novel, including a number of major cities, some important castles, significant religious sites and even a world-famous salt mine. Berry has apparently spent a lot of time faithfully replicating these sites within his book, with some minor exceptions for plot reasons. The author really paints a vibrant picture when he presents these locations to the reader, and many of them sound like incredible places to visit (I personally would love to see the aforementioned salt mine after reading this book, as it sounds pretty damn awesome). There is also a rather fun sequence at the start of the book set in the Belgium city of Bruges, which the author uses to full advantage, setting a great chase sequence in the city’s iconic canals. There are also descriptions of several real-life restaurants, cafes and other such locations throughout this book, and it is clear that the author has really done his homework. Indeed, the author has even included a substantial notes section at the back of the book discussing the accuracy of his portrayals of history and locations. All of these are amazing backdrops for this fast-paced thriller storyline, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the action taking place in this amazing historical and cultural locations. Those readers who have been to these locations in Poland are bound to get a kick out seeing them so lovingly portrayed in this book, and I think that Berry did a wonderful job of bringing these places to life.

One of Berry’s inclusions that I found particularly interesting was the character of the new US President, Warner Fox. Fox is a brash, undiplomatic and ill-informed former businessman who practices cronyism and is generally painted as being an incompetent and unworthy President by the book’s characters. This sort of US President is becoming more and more common in thriller novels these days for obvious reasons, and I always find it intriguing to see what perceived impacts authors believe such a person would have on the intelligence community. In The Warsaw Protocol, the President is portrayed in an antagonistic manner, as Cotton Malone greatly disagrees with him and his methods. The President and his advisors blunder through the entire book, failing to listen to the advice of seasoned intelligence operators and generally make the entire situation far worse, while the other world leaders easily run rings around them. This actually becomes a major issue for the protagonist, as not only does it make his mission more difficult, but this new President ends up shifting the entire landscape of the series. I thought that this was a really intriguing, if somewhat horrifying, addition to the novel, especially as it is a potentially accurate depiction of how the current administration would interfere with or attempt to control intelligence agencies, and I look forward to seeing how Berry expands on this point in future novels (especially after the next election).

Just as I did with the previous book in the Cotton Malone series, I chose to listen to The Warsaw Protocol’s audiobook format. The Warsaw Protocol audiobook is narrated by Scott Brick and runs for just under 12 hours, allowing for a relatively quick read for a determined listener. I personally find that the audiobook is a great format to enjoy Berry’s books with, as listening to the story helped me appreciate his vivid descriptions and intriguing examinations of history a lot more. Brick is an excellent audiobook narrator who has narrated nearly all of the Cotton Malone books in the past and also provides his vocal talents to a number of other thriller novels, such as the recently released Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz. I find that Brick has a fantastic voice for thriller novels such as The Warsaw Protocol, and he is able to present the complex story in an enjoyable way, as well as provide some great Eastern European accents for some of the individuals featured in the novel. If I had to make a complaint, though, I did find it a little hard at times to distinguish between a couple of characters with similar voices, especially when they are having a conversation with each other. This was not a major issue; it just occasionally left me wondering for a couple of seconds who was talking, although it was usually made clear right after I had that thought. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone who is interested in checking this book out, and I personally loved listening to the story unfold.

Steve Berry has once again produced an incredible and deeply enjoyable thriller novel that utilises his trademark love for all things historical and cultural to create a fantastic read. The Warsaw Protocol does a wonderful job of combining an exciting story with an in-depth look at the vibrant, distinctive and at times chaotic nation of Poland, and I loved the final result. I cannot wait to see what amazing adventure Berry comes up with next time, and I fully intend to keep reading all the Cotton Malone books he brings out. This is a highly recommend thriller that I think a lot of people are going to enjoy.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

Into the Fire

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

Series: Orphan X – Book Five

Length: 12 hours

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Tuesday – My Top Ten Favourite Audiobooks of 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, readers get a freebie and can choose whatever topic they want. As we are getting towards the end of the year, I thought that this would be a good time to start a series of Top Ten Tuesday posts that look at my favourite books of 2019, and the first of these lists is going to look at my favourite audiobooks that came out this year.

I have long been a major fan of the audiobook format. In my opinion, the audiobook is often the best way to experience a good book, and in many cases this format actually makes a book more enjoyable for me. As a result, I listened to quite a few audiobooks this year, and while many of them are books that had been released before 2019 and which featured in my Throwback Thursday posts, a large majority of them were released this year. There were some absolutely outstanding audiobook adaptions this year, and while I had a few books to choose from, I was eventually able narrow my absolute favourites down to a top ten list.

For this list I have only included audiobooks released in 2019 that I have listened to and completed, so I am excluding a few books that probably had some great audiobook productions (for example, I am sure that Starsight’s audiobook was amazing, but I ended up reading a physical copy instead). While all of the books that made the top ten are outstanding novels, I have tried to take overall audiobook production into account while choosing my list. Each of the books that I included below had great narrators, and I think that for most of these novels, the audiobook format actually enhanced the story and helped me enjoy the book even more.

Honourable Mentions:

The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett, narrated by Robert Petkoff

Star Trek - The Captain's Oath Cover


The Malta Exchange
by Steve Berry, narrated by Scott Brick

The Malta Exchange Cover


Recursion
by Blake Crouch, narrated by Jon Lindstrom and Abby Craden

Recursion Cover

Top Ten List:

1: Rage by Jonathan Maberry, narrated by Ray Porter

Rage Cover

There was no way that I would do a list about my favourite audiobooks of 2019 without mentioning the latest book Joe Ledger book narrated by Ray Porter. Not only is Rage an outstanding novel, but Porter once again brings his incredible vocal talents to the audiobook adaptation, perfectly encapsulating the various characters and providing a voice filled with humour and raw emotion. The Joe Ledger books are one of my favourite series at the moment, and thanks to Porter’s voice work, the audiobook is the best way to enjoy them.

2: The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker, narrated by Jude Owusu

The Bone Ships Cover

I am still working on my review for The Bone Ships, but it easily one of the best new books I read this year (it gets a full five stars from me). I really loved listening to The Bone Ships’ audiobook format, and it was a really good way to absorb the excellent story. I was particularly impressed with Jude Owusu’s narration, and his enthusiasm and understanding of the characters really shines through and creates and epic production that is really worth checking out.

3: The Night Fire by Michael Connelly, narrated by Titus Welliver and Christine Lakin

The Night Fire Cover

Not only is The Night Fire an amazing piece of crime fiction, but the use of two separate narrators really adds a lot to the novel’s audiobook adaption. Both narrators do an amazing job with this book, and it’s pretty cool that they get Titus Welliver to voice the character he plays in the Bosch television adaptation.

4: Red Metal by Mark Greaney and Lieutenant Colonel Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV (USMC), narrated by Marc Vietor

Red Metal Cover 2

This is an epic and well-crafted military thriller that deals with a potential invasion into Europe and Africa from Russia. This book was pretty exceptional, and the audiobook format helps add a lot to the story, enhancing the various action sequences and bringing some great life to characters.

5: Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio, narrated by Saul Reichlin

Howling Dark Cover

Howling Dark is a massive and exceedingly detailed science fiction novel. Not only was the narration top-notch, but I found that the audiobook format was really effective in helping me absorb all the relevant plot details and appreciate all the world building that Ruocchio came up with.

6: The Kremlin Strike by Dale Brown, narrated by William Dufris

The Kremlin Strike Cover

This was an amazingly fun book to listen to, as all the action, dogfights and battles in space against the Russians really came to life in this format.

7: Dark Forge by Miles Cameron, narrated by Mark Meadows

Dark Forge Cover.jpg

Another book I haven’t yet finished my review for. Dark Forge, the sequel to the excellent 2018 novel, Cold Iron, is an exceedingly detailed book, and I find that Meadow’s narration really helped we appreciate everything going on.

8: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray, narrated by Jonathan Davis

Master & Apprentice Cover

Master and Apprentice was one of my favourite Star Wars novels of 2019, and I had an absolute blast listening to its audiobook. Not only are the Star Wars audiobooks filled with all the iconic sound effects and music from the movies, but Davis’s narration was very impressive, and did a great job of impersonating several major movie characters.

9: Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey, narrated by Jefferson Mays

Tiamat's Wrath Cover

A great piece of science fiction and a really good audiobook production. Mays comes up with some amazing voices for this novel, and I felt I was able to enjoy the widespread, science fiction story a lot more in this format.

10: Boundless by R. A. Salvatore, narrated by Victor Bevine

Boundless Cover

The final inclusion on this list is the audiobook format of the latest R. A. Salvatore book, Boundless. Bevine did a fantastic job with his narration, coming up with all manner of unique fantasy accents and voices. I quite enjoyed this audiobook production, and it was an amazing way to enjoy this fantasy book.

There is still time for me to listen to a few more great audiobooks this year, and I am planning to check out the audiobook adaption of Joe Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred next. Let me know what your favourite audiobooks of 2019 were in the comments below, if they sound interesting, I might try and check them out.

The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry – Audiobook Review

The Malta Exchange Cover

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

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 14

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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