In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

In the Shadow of Lightning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 21 June 2022)

Series: The Glass Immortals – Book One

Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the most inventive and compelling authors of fantasy fiction, Brian McClellan, kicks off an awesome new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in The Glass Immortals series.

Few authors over the last 10 years have had more of an explosive impact on the world of fantasy fiction then Brian McClellan.  Debuting in 2013, McClellan quickly set the world ablaze with The Powder Mage trilogy, which saw chaos and destruction unravel in a new fantasy world where gunpowder-powered mages face off against an enraged god.  I had a brilliant time with the first book in the series, Promise of Blood, and McClellan followed this initial trilogy off with the sequel, Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, set in the same universe.  While I still need to finish the Powder Mage novels off, I was very excited to hear that McClellan was starting a new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in the author’s The Glass Immortals series.  This is an impressive and outstanding read that introduces readers to a distinctive new fantasy world, this time with a fascinating focus on glass magic.

Demir Grappo was once one of the most respected politicians, tacticians and glassdancers in the Ossan Empire.  A rising star in the assembly, a proven governor, and the only son of a prominent family, Demir’s promising career is suddenly shattered in the immediate aftermath of his greatest military victory when his army sacked and destroyed the entire city of Holikan, apparently on his orders.  Mentally broken by the massacre done in his name, Demir abandons his army and vanishes into the provinces, giving up his life of privilege for one of anonymity.

Now, nine years after the sacking of Holikan, Demir is a very different man, having spent the intervening time as a grifter with no true home.  However, everything changes when news reaches him that his mother was murdered, brutally beaten to death in public in an apparent political attack.  Determined to find her killers, Demir returns to the city of Ossa to reclaim his seat as the head of his family.  But not everyone is happy that he has returned, and Demir soon finds himself in the midst of several deadly conspiracies, while Ossa goes to war against its neighbour, all in the name of avenging his murdered mother.

To get to the centre of these conspiracies, Demir must find allies, including old friends and new acquaintances if he is to gain the power and influence he needs find answers, especially those hidden by the powerful guild families who rule Ossa.  However, as he searches, and soon finds a much more troubling secret: godglass, the source of magic within the world, is running out, and when it goes, chaos will reign.  The key to securing the future may lie in a device that could re-power inert pieces of godglass, and only one girl appears to have the skill to create such a device.  But as Demir fights to secure this new vital ally, he finds himself fighting against a mysterious new enemy, one that seems determined to destroy anyone who gets in their way.

McClellan impresses again with another incredible fantasy novel that had me instantly enthralled.  Presenting the reader with a multifaceted narrative that combines great characters with intriguing fantasy elements, In the Shadow of Lightning proved to be an outstanding start to McClellan’s new series and I had an exceptional time reading it.  Epic in scope, ambition and potential, In the Shadow of Lightning gets a full five-star rating from me and I am still reeling from just how good this was.

In the Shadow of Lightning is a particularly addictive novel, especially as McClellan presents the reader with an outstanding and complex narrative that pulls them in on so many levels.  Starting off with a compelling prelude that perfectly introduces central protagonist Demir Grappo and shows his dramatic and bloody fall from grace and sanity, the novel then undergoes a time skip which takes the reader into the current storyline, right as events are kicking off.  The initial focus is on Demir, who, after finding out his mother has been murdered, returns to Ossa to take over the family business and discover her murderers.  However, he soon finds that his mother was involved in complex dealings that might have led to her death, and that her assassination has been blamed on a neighbouring city Ossa is going to war with.  The story then splits as McClellan introduces three additional point-of-view characters, each other whom has their own distinctive story arc, closely related to Demir and the politics of Ossa.

These new characters include Thessa Foleer, a siliceer (godglass worker) from Ossa’s neighbour Grent, the breacher Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, an enforcer for a powerful guild-family who Demir hires to investigate his mother’s death.  Each of these new characters have their own individual storylines that tie into the plot points introduced in Demir’s initial chapters.  While these character arcs go in their own direction, their storylines are loosely connected together and form a great overarching narrative as they are dragged into war, imprisonment, political battles, conspiracies and criminal investigations.  I loved the cool blend of character-driven storylines, and everything comes together extremely well to show that something very rotten is going on within Ossa.  This is a very fast-paced story, and McClellan keeps multiple compelling plotlines running simultaneously to keep the reader’s attention, with some great reveals and amazing fight scenes scattered throughout the book.  Most of these reveals are set up and foreshadowed extremely well, with a couple of exceptions, and I didn’t see some of the twists coming, which was pretty fun.  Everything comes to a head towards the end of the novel, as all four characters find themselves in their own extremely dangerous and concerning situation.  Not only is there a massive battle for the future of Ossa but there are some shocking revelations about who is involved in the conspiracy and why.  The author leaves everything on an amazing note that not only leaves readers satisfied with the conclusion of some of the storylines but which also leaves a lot of questions unanswered and the reader wanting more.  An excellent and impressive story that dragged me in extremely quickly.

I was very impressed with how In the Shadow of Lightning’s story came together, as McClellan presented an epic and addictive offering that I snapped up extremely quickly.  I especially loved the use of four separate narrators to tell this story, and McClellan did an outstanding job of separating out their narratives.  Each narrator has their own unique story to tell, and what is really good is that they also explore a different aspect of the author’s new fantasy world, which often breaks across the associated genres.  For example, Thessa’s story focuses on the magical science behind godglass, and examines the political and social elements associated with this branch of magic.  Idrian’s tale comes across as a war tale as he is forced to participated in the deadly conflict between Ossa and Grent, where his particularly magical expertise makes him a living weapon.  Kizzie’s chapters come across as an investigation arc, as she attempts to uncover who killed Demir’s mother, and is forced to dive into the intrigues and shifting allegiances amongst the Ossan families, uncovering a deep conspiracy.  Demir serves as a bit of a joining figure; while he also has his own unique adventures, especially around Ossan politics, a lot of his arc involves interactions with the other three point of view characters.  Not only does this ensure that we get another viewpoint on the other character’s actions, as he gets involved in the godglass, espionage and the war elements that they are solely focussed on, but he helps to bring the other protagonist’s disparate storylines together into one solid and compelling narrative.

All four character-driven storylines are pretty exceptional in their own right, and this was one of those rare multi-perspective novels where you honestly can’t choose which character arc is the most intriguing or enjoyable.  I was particularly impressed with how McClellan brought these storylines together into one outstanding novel, and it makes for quite the epic read, especially as the author ensures you get the right blend of intrigue, action, magic and mystery throughout.  Despite its longer length, In the Shadow of Lightning has a pretty fast pace to it, and the readers are constantly treated to fantastic scenes that really keep your interest, either by being directly exciting, or featuring excellent examples of character development or world building.  I also really have to highlight the outstanding and amazing action sequences featured throughout this book.  McClellan has an impressive way of making these fight scenes really come to life in your mind, and it so easy to see all the epic events unfold.  These action scenes are particularly impactful when combined with the new magical features that the author has come up with, and I had so much fun seeing them unfold.  This really was an exceptional and highly entertaining read, and I loved how this entire amazing story was presented to the reader.

One of the things that most impressed me about In the Shadow of Lightning was the way in which McClellan envisioned and introduced the reader to an entirely new fantasy realm, equipped with its own distinctive magical system, all of which was substantially different from the elements featured in his previous Powder Mage novels.  While there are some similarities, namely that the Glass Immortals series also features magic, firearms, and a similar level of technology, there are quite a few differences which really make this new series stand out.  Most of the book is set in the Ossan Empire and its capital city of Ossa, which proves to be an excellent background location for the complex story.  Ossa, as well as some of the other nations mentioned reminded me of an Italian city-state, and I felt that it was an interesting change of pace to the French/English influences of Powder Mage universe.  The city is ruled by rival merchant guild families who are constantly battling for dominance, while the influence of the cities extends out to various provinces in the extended empire.  There is an intricate society set up around Ossa, and I loved the compelling interplay of industries, politics and intrigue that resulted.  McClellan examines various aspects of Ossan society, including sports, leisure, the military, and the various social levels, all of which were pretty intriguing to discover, and which painted Ossa and its people in a compelling light.  I particularly enjoyed their innate love for intrigue, contracts and business above everything else, and the fact that their national sport involves two magically enhanced people beating each other with cudgels tells you a lot about them.  Throw in some compelling snapshots of other relevant nations, as well as some sneaky hints at other mysterious beings, and the reader is given a really impressive and detailed introduction to this new world in this first book in the series, which McClellan did an outstanding job setting up.

However, the most distinctive part of this new universe is the cool magical system that forms the basis for much of the plot.  Just like with the Powder Mage novels, there are actually several different variations of magic and magic users in this series, which are connected to various forms of glass.  The first of these is the magical godglass, empowered glass items that give its users various abilities, such as strength, intelligence and enhanced senses, or which can be used to control a person.  Godglass is the most common form of magic in this series, which anyone can use, and indeed the entirety of human society in this world is based around the use of these items.  Pretty much every action a character does in this book is helped out in some way with godglass, resulting in some excellent sequences, especially during fights, and McClellan spends a lot of time exploring how it fits into his new world.  This includes multiple scenes set inside glassworks, where the godglass is forged, and you get an idea of how it is made and the significance it holds to the people of this world, including the fact that many of the characters have piercings that allow them to attach godglass to them.  Godglass actually becomes a key part of the book’s plot, once it is revealed that the supplies of magical cindersand that is used to create it is running low, resulting in an undercover war to control the remnants or finding a means of regenerating it.

The other magical elements of this new series involve the inbuilt talents of several characters, who have various degrees of sorcery in them.  The most prominent of these are the glassdancers, sorcerers who can control glass (except godglass) to an astonishing degree, and use it as a weapon.  There are multiple glassdancer characters featured throughout In the Shadow of Lightning (including the central protagonist), and you get to see multiple fights involving them, which are pretty badass.  You would never consider just how dangerous someone controlling glass could be until reading this book, and the brutal and quick ways in which they kill their opponents are pretty damn impressive.  The other major form of magical user are glazalier, who have more of a passive ability that allows them to resist the negative impacts of godglass (too much magic starts to eat away at someone) while still being able to use them.  These glazaliers are deployed as breachers, heavily armoured soldiers equipped with a ton of godglass that make them unstoppable tanks in battle, capable of killing units of men by themselves.  Acting as both a hammer and shield to their comrades, they are a lot more brutal than the subtly lethal glassdancers, and I loved the compelling contrast between the two major magical soldiers featured in this book.  McClellan does an outstanding job introducing, explaining and showcasing all these different magical elements in this first book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the many cool ways these magical abilities and the godglass could be used, especially in the book’s many awesome action sequences.  I look forward to seeing how McClellan expands on them in the future, and I am still so impressed by how much magic the author could work into glass.

Another area where McClellan really excels as a writer is with the complex and multi-layered characters he is able to create.  This was really evident in his new novel, where several great point of view protagonists and fascinating supporting characters are perfectly introduced to the reader and become exciting focal points for the brilliant plot.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist, Demir Grappo, a brilliant strategist and politician, whose entire life is shattered in the opening prologue.  Forced back into public life after the death of his mother, Demir takes control of his family and attempts to rebuild his legacy while also finding answers.  Utilising the swindling, bluff and manipulation skills he built in the decade he was away, Demir proves to be a tough political adversary and quite an interesting figure to follow.  I loved his impressive and unique storyline, and watching him regain his political skills and self-confidence was really enjoyable, especially as he acts as a deadly glass sorcerer, businessman, politician, leader and even a general.  There are great sequences that highlight his skills, and I loved how he was able to manipulate everyone in many different ways, from being an agreeable political ally, to acting like a smarmy lord who is able to bluff his way around by sheer force of personality.  While he does come across as arrogant at times, which is partially due to the fear and respect everyone gives him due to his sorcerous abilities, McClellan ensures that the protagonist is aware of it, and works to fix his character flaws as he goes.  However, the biggest character aspect of Demir involves the trauma he carries after his actions apparently led to the massacre of an entire city.  Still haunted by the scenes from that night, Demir is forced to revisit them throughout the course of the book, especially when he meets a survivor while trying to find out who was actually responsible.  His roiling emotions around these events are his one weak spot, and the author slips in some powerful and understandable scenes where he loses control.  McClellan did a great job setting up Demir in this first book, and I have no doubt his story is going to get even more complex and painful.

McClellan ensures that all his intriguing characters have their own distinctive and compelling motivations, as well as a dark history that is explored throughout the course of In the Shadow of Lightning.  This includes Thessa Foleer, whose heartbreaking narrative and past worked perfectly in concert with Demir’s, which was appropriate as their storylines were the most closely linked.  Thessa’s story is one of constant loss, especially as everyone who seems to get close to her dies or suffers in some way, and the character goes through some major grief and trauma as a result.  The author does a good job balancing the focus on her past and her feelings of loss, with the scenes depicting her work as a siliceer, and I liked how you get some of the best insights about this book’s primary fantasy elements throughout her chapters.  McClellan sets up Thessa as quite a major character in this novel, and it will interesting to see how her story progresses in the future.

The other two point-of-view characters are Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, who add a lot more excitement and fun to the story.  Idrian’s scenes are some of the most action-packed, and it is very cool to see him in battle, especially as he tends to plough through entire units of men like a human tank.  However, Idrian is one of the most caring and likeable figures in the entire novel.  Primarily concerned for the lives of his comrades, Idrian goes into the battle to protect them, and the close friendships he builds with his men help define him.  However, Idrian is also battling some inner demons, and it is clear that McClellan has some tragedy planned for him in the future.  This is a little heartbreaking, as you really cannot help but enjoy Idrian’s straightforward nature and natural integrity, and anything bad that happens to him is going to strike the reader twice as hard as a result.  Kizzie, on the other hand, is a scrappy enforcer, forced to survive the intense politics of the city’s guild families.  The bastard daughter of the Vorcien family head, Kizzie desperately seeks legitimisation and acceptance from her father, if only to protect her from vicious brother.  Dragged into Demir’s hunt for his mother’s killers, Kizzie dives into the world of political intrigue and family espionage, only to find herself conflicted by the answers she seeks.  Forced to choose between friends and family, as well as between her desires and what his right, Kizzie has some great moments in this book, and her inner conflicts add a great amount of drama to the plot.

These central protagonists are well rounded out by an impressive and enjoyable series of supporting characters, each of whom add to the plot in their own unique way.  McClellan does a great job introducing all the key supporting characters featured in the plot, and there are some amazing and distinctive characters featured here, from long-time friends of the characters, to bitter enemies with their own agendas.  My favourite supporting character would probably be Baby Montego, Demir’s adopted brother who returns to help Demir with his exploits and find out who killed their mother.  A massive brute of a man and a former cudgeling world champion, Baby is considered to be the deadliest man on the planet, even though he doesn’t have any magical abilities and can’t use godglass.  He more than lives up to this reputation throughout the book, and he has some of the most exciting and action-packed sequences in the entire novel as he casually deals out violence.  At the same time, he is also a cunning thinker, and his dry humour and complete self-confidence really make him standout.  It was fantastic to see amazing characters like Baby interact with the point-of-view characters, and you get some impressive moments as a result.  Honestly, every character featured in this book was amazing in their own way, and I cannot emphasise enough how well McClellan wrote them.

As I tend to do with most massive fantasy novels, I chose to check out In the Shadow of Lightning in its audiobook format, which proved to be pretty damn awesome.  Coming in with a runtime of just under 25 hours, this is a lengthy audiobook to listen to (it comes in at number 15 on my latest longest audiobooks I have listened to list), and it took me a decent amount of time to get through it.  However, I felt that was time well spent, as I was relentlessly entertained every single second I spent listening to In the Shadow of Lightning, and there were times I wished it was even longer.  This epic novel really came to life in the audiobook format, and I loved how impressive and cool some of the big action sequences and confrontations felt when being listened to.  While I did initially struggle to keep track of the side characters in this format (having the ability to easily go back and figure out who people were would have been helpful), I was soon able to figure out who everyone was, while also absorbing a heck of a lot more detail about the new universe and its unique elements.

I was also deeply impressed with the outstanding narration In the Shadow of Lightning featured, thanks to the work of Damian Lynch.  Lynch is a veteran audiobook narrator with several epic fantasy series under his belt and he swiftly made me a big fan with his great voice work here.  He really dove into the various characters featured in the book, and you got a great sense of their personalities, emotions and actions as he narrated them.  I had fun with several of the voices he provided in this book, and I thought that protagonists like Demir, Idrian and Baby Montego, were really good, especially as you get notes of weariness in the old veteran Idrian, and the barely contained violence that resonates off Baby every time he talks.  I particularly liked the cool European accents that Lynch gave to the various characters, which helped to reinforce the Italian city-state nature of the main location, and people from other nations or cities had subtly different accents, which I thought was a very nice touch.  All this, and more, makes for an outstanding audiobook and this is easily the best way to enjoy In the Shadow of Lightning.  I had a wonderful time with this exceptional audiobook and I will definitely be grabbing the next book in this format when it comes out.

As you can no doubt see from this lengthy review, I deeply enjoyed In the Shadow of Lightning, which was such an epic book.  Brian McClellan did a remarkable job with this new novel, and he really proved his ability to set up another distinctive and exceptional fantasy series.  Loaded with so many amazing story elements, a cool new fantasy world with unique magical elements, and some impressive and complex characters, In the Shadow of Lightning was so very addictive, and I really could not stop listening to it.  A highly recommended read, especially in its audiobook format, In the Shadow of Lightning was one of the best books of 2022 and is a must read for all fantasy fans, especially those who have enjoyed McClellan’s work in the past, and I am exceedingly excited to see how The Glass Immortals series progresses from here.

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The Martyr by Anthony Ryan

The Martyr Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 28 June 2022)

Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The always impressive Anthony Ryan continues his outstanding Covenant of Steel series with The Martyr, which was hands down one of the best fantasy novels of 2022.

Anthony Ryan is an extremely talented author who has been one of the leading authors of fantasy fiction for the last decade, producing several intriguing and major series.  Best known for his Raven’s Shadow trilogy (which was followed on by the Raven’s Blade duology), Slab City Blues, The Draconis Memoria and Seven Swords series, Ryan has a substantial catalogue of fantasy works to his name, most of which sound pretty damn epic.  However, I have so far only read the books from his latest series, The Covenant of Steel series, which has proven to be exceptional.  The first book in The Covenant of Steel was last year’s deeply compelling release, The Pariah, an excellent novel that set up a deeply intriguing and highly addictive character-driven tale of adventure, conspiracy and war.

The Pariah told the adventure of Alwyn Scribe, a young outlaw who was raised by brutal bandit chief.  However, his time as a member of a notorious band of villains came to a bloody end when his entire gang is brutally killed by the crown and his mentor is executed.  Imprisoned in a mine, Alwyn finds a new mentor in an imprisoned religious figure, who teaches him to be a talented scribe, and he is eventually able to escape.  Chance and self-preservation lead him to join the Covenant Company of Lady Evadine Courlain, a pious woman whose religious visions, sermons and sheer faith allow her to bring together a band of dedicated soldiers.  Swiftly growing loyal to her, Alwyn becomes one of her key followers, and saves her from certain death several times as they fight across the Kingdom of Albermaine.  I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and extremely addictive narrative contained within The Pariah, and this ended up being one of my absolute favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (as well as being one of my favourite new-to-me authors of the year as well).  As such, I was extremely happy to receive a copy of The Martyr a little while ago, although I held out reading it until I could get a copy of the audiobook version as well.

The Martyr takes places shortly after the bloody conclusion to The Pariah and sees Alwyn Scribe now firmly in the service of Lady Evadine Courlain, whose apparent resurrection has led to her being proclaimed a living martyr of the Covenant church.  However, this and the fanatical devotion of the faithful of Albermaine have placed her in the crosshairs of both the Crown and the Covenant, both of whom see her as a dangerous pretender to their power.  Unable to kill her without starting a religious rebellion, the king decides to use Evadine for his own purposes.

Sent south to the Duchy of Alundia to put down a rebellion and stop a series of religious attacks upon the Covenant faithful, Alwyn, Evadine and the Covenant Company take up residence in a small, dilapidated castle, which soon draws the attention of the Alundian nobility.  Besieged by a massive army, Alwyn and his companions must survive the onslaught if they are to pass on Evadine’s message for the future.  However, not everything is as it seems.  Dark forces are in play and Alwyn soon finds himself in the middle of treacheries, both new and old, as he desperately stands beside his mistress.  Forced to dive into the secret past of the land, Alwyn soon discovers that many of the things that Evadine preaches are true, including the legend of the Scourge that destroyed the world and threatens to re-emerge.  But is Alwyn fully prepared for all the heartache, betrayal and bloodshed his quest is about to unleash?

Anthony Ryan is on fire once again with his second book in The Covenant of Steel series.  The Martyr is an epic and deeply addictive read that perfectly follows on from Ryan’s previous book and in some ways surpasses it with its impressive storytelling and amazing characters.  Thanks to its incredible story and cool expansion of Ryan’s fantasy universe, I had an outstanding time getting through The Martyr, and it receives an easy five-star rating from me.

I had such an outstanding time with the epic story that Ryan pulled together for The Martyr, especially as it cleverly expands on the narrative from the first book, while also taking the characters in some awesome new directions.  The book has a very strong start to it, which follows on from a useful, and slightly humorous, summary of the events of The Pariah.  From there, we quickly see the fallout from the last book, with the protagonist Alwyn and his comrades forced to engage in the politics of the realm to ensure that living martyr Evadine is allowed to continue her work.  The narrative is still told from Alwyn’s perspective as he recounts the events in chronicle form, so I was quickly hooked, and I liked the immediate dive into fantastic political intrigue and compelling universe building.  However, the story only gets even more awesome from there, as the protagonist and his company are deployed to a war setting, which turns out to be particularly epic as they are soon caught up in some outstanding siege scenarios.

Now, I frankly had no idea how Ryan was going to improve on the outstanding story from The Pariah, but having a siege storyline was a pretty good way to go about it.  I love sieges, and Ryan featured an incredible example here, as a large amount part of the book revolves around two amazing battles between attackers and castle defenders.  The first of these sees the protagonists trapped inside a dilapidated fortress facing off against a larger army, which proved to be a lot of fun.  The author really captures the chaos and drama of an impromptu siege with this earlier one, and the carnage comes quick and fast as the characters are forced to bring the attackers to battle before repelling them, using their wits and limited resources.  The action here is pretty intense and shown in excellent detail, as Ryan does not hold back on the brutality and the complexities of a siege.  I had such a great time with this first siege, and words cannot describe how ecstatic I was that he followed it up with a second siege, with the protagonists now acting as besiegers, in a more traditional siege, with artillery, sapping and even a deadly storm of the breach with the point-of-view character in the front.  These two sieges were pretty damn exceptional and have some of the best and most bloody action scenes in the entire book.  I particularly liked how well the author contrasted the differing experiences that the protagonist experienced as both a defender and an attacker, and it was fascinating and very fun to see him on both sides of the wall, especially as he learns from his experiences to become a better invader.  However, it is not all about the action, as you have some compelling political considerations going on here, as well as some great character development and the protagonist gets closer to some of the other characters during the heat of combat.

Following the sieges, the story goes in some interesting and unique directions, as Ryan continues the epic of Alwyn Scribe by expanding the universe around him.  This includes a visit to a dangerous foreign land, where he learns some harsh and surprising truths about the universe he lives in and his place within it.  This results in some trippy but deeply fascinating scenes, especially as there are some interesting reveals and some great hints for the future.  Ryan also once again dives into the political intrigue, as the protagonists are involved in some great fights for the future of the realm.  Watching the protagonists fight both on and off the battlefield is pretty cool, and the sheer threats growing around them in the last quarter of the book bode well for the future of the series.  There are some interesting reveals towards the end of The Martyr, and Ryan also works to tie up a few loose ends from the previous book, which I was very happy to have closure on.  Everything ends on a very intriguing note, as Ryan leaves behind a great little cliff-hanger reveal that will be very thought-provoking in the lead-up to the next book.  I had such a great time with this story, and it really drew me in with its fantastic moments and complex, overarching storylines.

I am a pretty big fan of how The Martyr’s story came together, and Ryan has a great writing style that really enhanced the whole experience.  I absolutely loved the chronicle style that he uses to detail the plot.  Told completely from the protagonist’s perspective as he writes down all he experiences, you get a unique view of the events occurring, especially as the protagonist writes in funny or insightful comments that show his opinions of the events in hindsight.  At the same time, they allow the protagonist to air his many regrets, and you get a certain sense of foreboding for some of the events that are to come, either in this book or in the rest of the series.  I was pretty consistently entertained by this style of writing, and I think that it also added in some extra humour to a somewhat darker fantasy story, especially as the protagonist is quite a funny and unconventional figure.  The Martyr’s story has an amazing blend of different elements, and while I lavished my love above on the great action, especially during the siege sequences, most of the book is about the development of the protagonist and his attempts to keep Evadine alive.  This results in a brilliant combination of politics, intrigue, great interactions between figures, and some awesome character development, which works to produce quite an addictive read.  Watching Alwyn trying to come to grips with the many dangers threating his friends, while also unpicking the multitude of mysteries and secrets surrounding him is just great, and Ryan keeps adding in new secrets and supporting storylines to keep the reader interested.  While there is a lot going on within The Martyr, the pace is pretty fast and consistently exciting, and at no point was I not immensely entertained, either by the powerful action or fascinating world building.  Due to the amount of lore and history featured in the first book, I would strongly suggest that interested readers get through The Pariah before trying out The Martyr, and fans of the first book will really enjoy where this second book goes and how Ryan effectively tells the story.

I was very impressed with all the cool ways that Ryan expanded the series’ setting in The Martyr, as he adds in some great additional history, expands on some of the mysterious religious and mystical aspects of the first, while also showing off some fascinating new lands.  This additional context around parts of the nation of Albermaine proves to be pretty damn intriguing, and you learn a lot more about it, while also seeing a lot more about its internal politics and rule, especially as the characters are forced to deal with the royalty and the church.  The inclusion of the Duchy of Alundia, where much of the plot takes place, was also pretty excellent, especially as Ryan portrays it as a more rugged and dangerous locale, whose unique take on the Covenant religion leads to a veritable holy war when Evadine and her company arrive.  However, the most captivating new part of the book has to involve the protagonist’s journey to the Caerith Wastes.  Alwyn has been haunted by members of the mysterious Caerith race since the start of The Pariah, and their strange ways and powerful magics have been both a boon and a curse to him.  As such, a journey to their homeland was always inevitable, and Ryan ensures that there are many surprises, mysteries and some interesting reveals for the protagonist when he finally arrives.  Ryan did a really good job introducing this new race of people in the story, and there are some great scenes where Alwyn attempts to learn more of them, while using his own personal history to stay alive with them.  The subsequent reveals about some of their powers and how it has been impacting Alwyn are pretty amazing.  One reveal, which illuminates the origins of Alwyn’s historical chronicle that the entire series is based on, was particularly compelling, and it sheds a whole new light on everything you have been reading.  Overall, Ryan did a fantastic job expanding his fantasy realm in The Martyr, and I look forward to seeing what cool inclusions he features in the next book.

Easily one of the best things about The Martyr was the outstanding and complex characters that were such a key part of the book.  Ryan expands on many of the great characters from the first book and takes their unique narratives in some amazing new directions.  The compelling and dramatic interactions that occur between these figures results in some powerful moments and I deeply enjoyed seeing the outstanding ways their tales and lives evolved in this second book.

The character who naturally gets the most focus is central protagonist and sole point-of-view character, Alwyn Scribe.  A former bandit who, thanks to a series of influential leaders and friends, became first a talented scribe and then a soldier, Alwyn is a man with a past and a fast mind who now finds himself in the centre of his nation’s crisis.  Dedicated to the Lady Evadine, Alwyn spends much of this book advancing her cause, while also evolving further as a character.  While he still primarily considers himself to be a scribe, Alwyn ends up taking on more and more different roles as he finds himself thrust into Evadine’s adventures, including being a knight, a military commander, a politician and a spymaster.  As such, you see him go through some major leaps and developments as he tries to reconcile what he is with what he needs to be to keep those around him alive.  This proves to be quite fascinating, and I loved the various unique situations he finds himself in, especially as he begins to realise some of the mystical mysteries the world contains and his place in them.  Alwyn continues to be an excellent main character for this series, and I loved his depictions of how the events of the book unfold, especially as his later insights from when he chronicles his adventures add both weight and humour to the current story.  His unique background as a criminal and a scribe continues to serve him well in The Martyr, and he has some very inventive ways of solving problems that often rely on his criminal or academic past.  I also deeply enjoyed seeing him take on a role as a teacher and mentor to several younger characters in this book, and it was a nice to see Alwyn come full circle after all the mentorship he received in the first book.  I had a great time seeing how he grew into the new roles in this book, and it will be fascinating to see what different positions he takes on in the future, especially as he becomes more and more devoted to Evadine, not matter how crazy their adventures become.

That leads nicely to the other major character I wanted to highlight, Lady Evadine Courlain.  Evadine is a fascinating figure in this series, a pious and devote noblewoman who has been receiving prophetic visions all her life.  Believing these visions to be from the Seraphile (the divine focus of the Covenant religion), Evadine created her own military company in the hopes of averting the Second Scourge (an apocalyptic calamity).  After miraculously recovering from a fatal wound, Evadine has now been declared a Risen Martyr, and believes herself to have been raised up by the Seraphile, despite it actually being caused by a magical bargain struck by Alwyn.  Now a major religious figure, Evadine has become a threat to both the church and the crown and must deal with their attempts to destroy her while she attempts to achieve her mysterious goals.  I deeply enjoy Evadine as a character, particularly as there is such an inherent mystery behind her, as you have no idea whether she is actually divinely blessed or just crazy.  Ryan portrays her as both at times, and while it is easy to assume the latter, she keeps coming up with knowledge and insights that should be impossible to achieve.  Watching her continue to evolve as a religious figure in The Martyr is both fascinating, and a little concerning, as you really have no idea where her story is going to go, or what insanity or divine revelation may come from her next.  Evadine serves as a quite a good foil to the more cynical character of Alwyn, and they become quite an intriguing team in The Martyr, with Alwyn providing the means to many of her successes, while strongly disbelieving her divine status.  There is also a certain growing instability in Evadine that underlies much of the book and adds to the general tension between her an Alwyn.  This, as well as a few intriguing reveals, makes Evadine one of the most compelling and unique figures in the series and it is clear that Ryan has some very, very interesting plans for her future.

Aside from Alwyn and Evadine, The Martyr is loaded with a ton of great supporting characters who add a substantial amount to the overall narrative.  Many of these characters carry over from the first book, and there are some intriguing and dramatic developments that occur in The Martyr that prove to be quite shocking and fun in places.  Great examples of this include the disgraced knight Wilhum Dornmahl, who is a major figure in the Covenant Company’s ranks, Ayin a murderous young girl Alwyn takes under his wing and teaches, and the mysterious Sack Witch, who haunts the character, despite barely appearing in the book.  In addition, Ryan introduces many new great characters in the second book, or else finally introduces and expands on characters mentioned in The Pariah.  Two minor characters from the first book who really stood out to me in the sequel were Princess Leannor, the king’s sister, who serves as a canny and complex political adversary to Alwyn; and Ehkbert Bauldry, a legendary knight who Alwyn bears a grudge against, but who also proves to be an interesting ally.  Both have some intriguing interactions with Alwyn, especially as they know he has some substantial dirt on them that makes him quite a threat.  I also must highlight outstanding new characters like Juhlina, better known as a The Widow, a deadly Covenant Company soldier with a tragic backstory and unstoppable rage, and Lilat, another new mentee for Alywn.  These characters were all extremely fun and compelling, and I loved how Ryan fit them into the story and made them shine.

As I mentioned above, I did receive a psychical copy of The Martyr a little while ago, however, I held off reading it until the audiobook version came out.  While I did regret not diving into the story as soon as I got it, I think it was more than worth it as the audiobook format of The Martyr was pretty damn exceptional.  Coming in with a run time of just under 20 hours, The Martyr has a decent length to it, although I found myself getting through it in just a week, mainly because I was just so addicted to Ryan’s outstanding story.  The audiobook format really helped with my enjoyment of this book, and I really found myself getting drawn into the elaborate narrative through the narration.  I definitely absorb more narrative detail when I listen to a book, and this was particularly noticeable with The Martyr audiobook, as I found all the cool story elements, details about the setting, intriguing characters and epic action popped more into my head through this format.  I also really need to highlight the exceptional voice work of actor Steven Brand (who I best know as the villain from The Scorpion King) who has lent his voice to the audiobook versions of all of Ryan’s works.  Brand is an extremely talented audiobook narrator who deftly captures the many characters contained with The Martyr and gives them distinctive and compelling voices that really fit the character and showcase their emotions.  I particularly liked the way in which he portrays protagonist and narrator Alwyn Scribe, and you really get a sense of the character’s emotional state, as well as the sense of weariness the chronicle format conveys through Brand’s voice.  This ended up being a pretty awesome audiobook and it was definitely my preferred way to enjoy The Martyr.  As such, this format is highly recommended, and when I get around to reading the rest of Ryan’s books, I will be grabbing their audiobook versions.

After all the gushing above, I think it is fair to say that I deeply enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s latest book.  The Martyr was an exceptional and deeply addictive read that I felt perfectly continued the amazing groundwork he established in The Pariah.  This second entry in The Covenant of Steel series was something special, and I had such an epic time seeing what unique and captivating adventures and battles the great protagonists found themselves in.  The Martyr was such an outstanding fantasy read, and I can’t wait to see how Ryan continues this awesome series in the future.  A truly incredible read!

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Throwback Thursday: Warhammer: Vampireslayer by William King

Vampireslayer Cover 2

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – August 2021)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Six

Length: 11 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I continue my recent obsession with Warhammer Fantasy fiction by checking out another entry in the iconic Gotrek and Felix series by William King, Vampireslayer.

I have been on a real roll with looking at the cool fiction associated with the now defunct Warhammer Fantasy tabletop game over the last few weeks, including the fantastic novels Runefang and Van Horstman.  However, few Warhammer Fantasy books have grabbed my attention or interest more than the Gotrek and Felix series, which serves as one of the central pillars of Warhammer fiction.  The Gotrek and Felix books, which were originally written by William King, follow the titular characters, dwarf slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his sworn human companion Felix Jaeger, as they journey around the Warhammer Fantasy realm, finding monsters to fight and kill, all in the hope of finding a worthy death for Gotrek.  This is an awesome and unbelievably exciting fantasy series that take the reader to some of the darkest parts of the Warhammer Fantasy world and sees them face off against all manner of crazy foes.

I have had an absolute blast getting through the Gotrek and Felix books over the last year, as there have been some cracking reads in there.  The previous books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer, have all had their own unique charm, and all of them have been well written and compelling reads.  Vampireslayer is the sixth book in the series, and as the name suggests, it pits Gotrek, Felix and their allies against one of the most dangerous creatures in the Warhammer canon, an ancient and deadly vampire count.

Following their victory at the siege of Praag, Gotrek, Felix and their surviving allies, have finally been able to relax after a never-ending series of battles. However, the ever-restless Gotrek is still determined to find a worthy death to fulfil his suicidal oath, and Felix knows it is only a matter of time before they journey out to face the rising hordes of Chaos that are building around the realms of man.  But before Gotrek and Felix can head out, a new evil rears its head; one that is far more cunning and ancient than anything they have faced before.

After accepting a job from a wealthy Praag nobleman, Gotrek and Felix find themselves investigating a mysterious man who is attempting to steal one of their client’s treasured artifacts.  But the closer they look, the more apparent it becomes that their target is no ordinary man, but a powerful ancient vampire named Adolophus Krieger, who has been stalking the streets of Praag, feasting on the innocent.  Determined to slay this beast, Gotrek and Felix’s confrontation goes poorly, when the vampire outsmarts them, steals the artifact and takes their companion, Ulrika Magdova, hostage.

Determined to save Ulrika and get their revenge on their foe, Gotrek and Felix, as well as their allies, Snorri Nosebiter, Max Schreiber and Ulrika’s father, Ivan Straghov, pursue the vampire lord.  To kill Krieger, they will have to travel to one of the most dangerous places in the Old World, the haunted lands of Sylvania.  Controlled by the Vampire Counts for generations, Sylvania is a wicked place where the dead never rest, and dark creatures lurk around every corner.  Worse, their foe is powered by an ancient artefact forged by Nagash and has designs on becoming the supreme vampire ruler, leading them in a new war against the living.  With the odds stacked against them, Gotrek, Felix and their companions must dig deep if they are to kill Krieger, rescue Ulrika and save the world.  But after spending time trapped with the vampire, can Ulrika truly be saved?

King once again shows why his Gotrek and Felix books were the defining Warhammer Fantasy series with this epic and fast-paced read.  Vampireslayer is easily one of the stronger entries in the series and takes its distinctive protagonists on an intense and captivating adventure that I deeply enjoyed.

Vampireslayer had an amazing fantasy narrative, and I think this was one of King’s more impressive and enjoyable stories.  Taking off right after Beastslayer, the initial story sees Gotrek, Felix and their allies still at the city of Praag, planning out their next adventures.  They quickly find themselves dragged into another adventure when a distant relative of Ulrika reaches out to them for help with a mysterious threat.  This initial part of the book was rather interesting, and not only does it have some great follow-ups from the previous entry in the series but it also sets up the narrative and the current characters really well.  There is a fantastic cat-and-mouse game going on in the early stages of the novel, as the protagonists attempt to discern the new evil they are going up against, while their vampiric assailant, Adolophus Krieger, puts his plans into motion.  Following the first encounter between the heroes and the vampire, which is set up and executed to drive up anticipation for later interactions, Krieger escapes and the protagonists are forced into a deadly chase across the world.

The rest of the novel is primarily set in the dread realm of Sylvania, and sees the protagonists chase after the vampire and his kidnapped victim.  This second part of the book is filled with some fun and exciting classic horror elements as the protagonists go up against a variety of foes from the vampire count’s army.  There is a lot of great action, fantastic chases, and some substantial character development occurring during this part of the novel, as the author brings together many of the threads from earlier in Vampireslayer, while also introducing some intriguing new supporting characters.  King makes particularly good use of multiple character perspectives throughout this part of the book, and I loved seeing the conflicted thoughts of the main protagonists (minus Gotrek as usual), as well as the many plots of the villain and his new minion.  This all leads up to the big confrontation between the protagonists and their foe at the legendary Drakenhof Castle, as the heroes face off against an army of the undead and the vampire himself.  The action flows thick and fast here, and King pulls no punches, showing the brutal and dark nature of the Warhammer Fantasy universe.  I did think that the final confrontation was a bit rushed, with the anticipated battle against Krieger lasting only a short while, but it was pretty fun to see.  There are a couple of good tragic moments in this conclusion, as well as some interesting developments for some long-running supporting characters, and King brings everything to a good close as a result.

I think that one of the things that made this story particularly enjoyable was that it was a lot more focused than some of the other books in the series.  This was mainly because it was the first book since Skavenslayer not to feature a sub-story that focused on recurring villain, Grey Seer Thanquol.  While Thanquol’s perspective was good for Skavenslayer, its use in the following novels, while usually very fun and entertaining, seemed a bit unnecessary and often affected the pacing or stole the impact away from the book’s actually antagonists.  This became more and more apparent in Dragonslayer and Beastslayer, especially when Thanquol’s actions rarely had any impact on the main plot.  As such, not having a Thanquol focused side story in Vampireslayer was a bit of a blessing, and it really increased the impact of the remaining storylines.  It also ensured that the parts of the book told from Krieger’s perspective really pop, as he was the only villain you could focus on.  I had a brilliant time with this impressive story and it ended up being an excellent adventure to follow.

Vampireslayer proved to be a pretty awesome entry to the wider Warhammer Fantasy universe, and I loved the cool details and references that King added in.  Like most of the books in the Gotrek and Felix saga, Vampireslayer can be read as a standalone novel (probably more so than the last three books in the series), and very little pre-knowledge about the Warhammer Fantasy or the previous books in the series is required to enjoy this excellent book.  King does a great job of once again introducing the key elements, recurring characters, and wider evils of this universe, ensuring that new readers get the information they need without making it too repetitive or boring for established fans.

One of the things that makes Vampireslayer standout a little more from some of the recent entries in the series is the move away from Chaos focused opponents and instead brings in a new faction from the universe in the form of a vampire and his undead hordes.  This is a fantastic change of pace, and I rather enjoyed seeing one of the more compelling factions from the game, even though I have bad memories of facing my brother’s Vampire Counts army.  King does a brilliant job diving into the lore and history of vampires and the general undead in the Warhammer universe, and the protagonists get a good crash course on them, which new readers will deeply appreciate.  I loved seeing a vampire antagonist in this novel, especially as it is one of the classic Vampire Counts types (a Von Carstein vampire).  This vampire has a lot of the classic European elements associated with Dracula, and it was fun to see the protagonist deal with this sort of creature, especially as Krieger takes the time to taunt them in a way they’ve never dealt with before.  King also adds in several of cool units from the Vampire Counts book, and it was pretty fun to see them in action in some brilliant fight scenes.  I also deeply enjoyed the dark setting of Sylvania, where much of the story takes place.  Sylvania, a Warhammer realm based deeply on Transylvania and ruled over by vampires, has always captured my imagination and it was fun to see it used in Vampireslayer.  You really get the sense of fear and despair surrounding the countryside, and all the locals, many of whom are just a step away from becoming some form of creature, are a depressing and scared group.  Watching the characters attempt to traverse this land was really entertaining, and I think all these awesome Warhammer Fantasy elements helped to make this great story even more impressive.

I also found some of the character work in Vampireslayer to be pretty intriguing, as King examines several great characters in this book.  The central two characters are naturally Gotrex and Felix, although not a great deal of character development went towards them in this book.  Gotrex is his usual gruff, murderous and unreadable self, who is essentially shown as an unkillable beast at this point, and you really don’t get much more from him, especially as Gotrex’s perspective is deliberately not shown.  Felix also doesn’t get much growth in this book, although he does serve as a primary narrator, recording and observing the events of the book.  Despite this lack of growth, Felix is a great everyman character to follow and it is really entertaining to see his quite reasonable reaction to facing off against the evils that gravitate towards Gotrek.

A large amount of focus went to the supporting characters of Max Schreiber and Ulrika Magdova, who have been major parts of the series since Daemonslayer.  The attention on both has been growing substantially through the last couple of books, especially in Beastslayer, and they had a massive presence in Vampireslayer.  Max, the team’s wizard, is pushed to the brink in this book after investigating a dangerous magical artefact and having his companion Ulrika kidnapped.  Max, who has always had a crush on Ulrika (it was pretty creepy at first, but better now), becomes obsessed with saving her before its too late, and this drives him to some extremes in this book.  Ulrika, on the other hand, must survive the evil attentions of the book’s villain, especially once the vampire takes an unhealthy obsession with her.  I must admit that I have always found Ulrika to be a fairly annoying character (which isn’t great when she’s usually the only female figure in the books), however, this was one of her best appearances as she goes through a physical, mental and magical wringer.  Her attempts to resist the vampire are extremely powerful and her eventual fall to darkness is one of the more compelling and best written parts of the book.  This was an excellent outing for both these supporting characters, and it actually serves as a wonderful final hurrah, as I know they don’t appear in many books in the future.

The final character from Vampireslayer that I need to talk about is the book’s primary antagonist, the titular vampire Adolophus Krieger.  Krieger, a centuries-old creature with connections to Vlad von Carstein, serves as a brilliant villain for this adventure novel, especially as King takes a substantial amount of time to dive into his history, personality and motivations.  Rebelling against his sire and attempting to become the next vampiric master of the Old World, Krieger is shown as a complex and intense being with some major issues.  Not only does he have to temper his intense ambition, but he also finds himself mentally deteriorating towards savagery and must constantly fight for control as his afterlife’s goals comes to fruition.  King does a great job capturing this compelling figure throughout the book, and I particularly enjoyed his introductory chapters where his temper and inability to suffer fools is shown with gruesome results.  Krieger has a brilliant presence throughout the novel, and he was a great villain opposite Gotrek and Felix with his gentlemanly airs (he has a great comeback to a line from Snorri Nosebiter).  I deeply enjoyed all the outstanding characters in Vampireslayer, and King did some superb work with them throughout this novel.

After reading paperback versions of Dragonslayer and Beastslayer, I’ve finally gotten back onto the Gotrek and Felix audiobooks with Vampireslayer, which was a lot of fun to listen to.  The audiobook format did an amazing job of capturing the dark tone and fast-paced action of this intense novel, and I felt that listening to Vampireslayer on audiobook really helped me appreciate a lot of the book’s more interesting details.  With a runtime of just over 11 hours, this is an easy audiobook to power through, and I personally managed to get through it in a few days.  This great audiobook was further enhanced by the excellent narration of Jonathan Keeble, who has narrated most of the other Gotrek and Felix audiobooks.  Keeble has an amazing voice for this sort of novel, and I loved the fantastic way he was able to move the story along at a brilliant pace while also enhancing the book’s horror and action elements.  I particularly loved the range of excellent voices he attributes to the various characters, many of which are carried over from his previous audiobook experiences.  All the characters get some distinctive and very fitting tones here, which I think worked extremely well.  Examples of some of the best voices include Felix, whose calm voice of reason, serves as the narrator’s base tone for most of the story; Gotrek, who is given a gruff and menacing voice that contains all the character’s barely restrained anger and regret; and even the new vampire character, Adolophus Krieger, who is gifted a French/European accent to match the classic vampire vibe that goes with the Vampire Counts characters in Warhammer, and the character’s likely origins as a Bretonnian Knight.  This expert voice work was extremely good and I had a brilliant time listening to this version of Vampireslayer.  As such, this format comes highly recommended and it is usually one of the best ways to enjoy a cool Warhammer novel.

Vampireslayer was another epic entry in the fantastic and ultra-fun Gotrek and Felix series by William King.  Bringing in a great new opponent who pushes the protagonists to new lows, this was an excellent adventure novel that shows some of the best parts of the Warhammer Fantasy world.  With a captivating and fast-paced narrative, this was one of the better entries in the series and I had an outstanding time getting through Vampireslayer.  An awesome read for all Warhammer and general fantasy fans, especially on audiobook.  I love this series so much!

Vampireslayer Cover

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The Sandman – Act 1 (Audiobook) by Neil Gaiman and performed by a full cast

Sandman Act 1 Cover

Publisher: Audible Original (Audio Drama – 15 July 2020)

Series: The Sandman

Script: Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs (script adapter)

Director: Dirk Maggs

Cast: Neil Gaiman, James McAvoy, Kat Dennings, Taron Egerton, Riz Ahmed, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, Michael Sheen, Justin Vivian Bond, Arthur Darvill, William Hope, Mathew Horne, Reginald D. Hunter, Sue Johnston, Paterson Joseph, Josie Lawrence, Anton Lesser, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes, Tom Alexander, Stephen Critchlow, Blake Ritson, Oris Herhuero, Karen Batke, Ray Porter, Michael Roberts, Kerry Shale, Andrew James, Simon Vance, Sandra Dickinson, Ellen Thomas, Cathy Tyson, Sandra-Mae Luyx, Amaka Okafor, Shey Greyson, Laurel Lefkow, Harry Myers, Mack Keith Roach, Laurence Bouvard, Toby Longworth, Daniel Weyman, Samantha Beart, Cliff Chapman, Felicity Duncan, Julia Winwood, Nicholas Boulton, John MacMillan, Tracy Wiles and Adam Thomas Wright.

Length: 11 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Thanks to a lengthy and productive road trip, I have finally breached the realm of dreams and explored the iconic and powerful creation that is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.  In this review I check out the first act of its impressive full-cast audiobook adaptation.

Back in 1989, mind-bending author Neil Gaiman unleashed his most iconic comic creation when he introduced the complex and dark The Sandman.  Centred on the mysterious character of Dream, the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, The Sandman was a clever and intense hybrid of horror, fantasy and superhero storylines released as part of the Vertigo comic imprint, which was associated with the DC Comics universe.  This series was considered a revolutionary success and its unique and colourful story cemented Gaiman’s legacy in comic circles, as The Sandman and its spinoffs are still very highly regarded.

Now I must make a bit of a confession: I have never actually read The Sandman and it is a bit of a gap in my comic book knowledge.  I just never seemed to be in a position to read these comics despite hearing how good they were.  However, with the upcoming television adaptation of The Sandman set for release later this year, I thought that it was about time that I tried to check it out.  Luckily, the good folks at Audible decided to make this rather easy for me as they recently released a full-cast audiobook adaptation of The Sandman.  Not only was this a great opportunity for me to check out this cool comic in my favourite format, but this adaptation featured a truly remarkable cast of actors, with the production pulled together by the highly acclaimed Dirk Maggs.

There are many strange, unusual and powerful creatures inhabiting the universe, but only seven siblings, known as the Endless, are truly immortal.  The Endless, each a personification of a human concept, have their own realms and powers, with the most mysterious and unique belonging to Dream.  Known by many names, including Morpheus, he is the manifestation of all dreams and stories, and governs the Dreaming, the vast realm made up of creation’s collected dreams.  Unchanging since the dawn of time, Morpheus’s eternal life is about to get more complicated than he ever believed.

Summoned by a mystical cult seeking to capture his sister, Death, Morpheus finds himself trapped and powerless on Earth.  Stripped of his tools of office and placed within a magical cage, Morpheus is kept as a prisoner for over 70 years.  When he eventually escapes from his captors, Morpheus returns to his realm only to find it in tatters, with several of his servants missing and his own powers greatly weakened.  To ensure the continued stability of the Dreaming, Morpheus must endeavour to regain his full strength by recovering his lost tools of power.

However, this is no easy task as all three items have been scattered across the world and are now in the hands of several dangerous foes.  To obtain them, he will have to contend with human magician John Constantine, face down Lucifer and battle the malicious Justice League foe known as Doctor Destiny.  From dangerous demons to rogue dreams and even his own siblings, Morpheus will face great challenges and unique creations on his road back from capture.  But even if Morpheus does succeed, is he prepared for the full chaos his absence has wrought on the world?

I’ve been exceedingly foolish by neglecting The Sandman for so long.  This is such a unique and epic tale that contains powerful looks at revenge, change, human perception and the power of dreams and stories, and so much more, as Gaiman cleverly examines elements of the human psyche through the eyes of an elusive immortal.  The impressive and exceedingly memorable story contained within these early entries of The Sandman, are deeply captivating and I found myself really getting drawn into the amazing narrative and distinctive characters.  Throw in an exceptional voice cast and a brilliant audiobook production, and I honestly have no choice but to give this a full five-star review.

When I first heard about The Sandman audiobook I did wonder if it would provide a more abridged version of the narrative.  However, it appears that this production was a pretty faithful and full adaptation of issues #1-20 of The Sandman comic.  As such you get an intense and fully developed story that is guaranteed to grasp your attention and send your imagination into overdrive, especially by the two major storylines contained within these first 20 issues.  The first of these, the “More than Rubies” storyline, examines Morpheus’s capture by human occultists in the early 20th century, his decades-long imprisonment, his eventual escape, and his subsequent attempts to recover his tools of office to regain his lost power.  This storyline serves as a pretty awesome and captivating start to the entire production and it contains several distinctive and addictive chapters.  The initial chapters that deal with Morpheus’s imprisonment set up a lot of major storylines for the rest of the series, give you some fantastic early impressions of this world, introduce some key concepts and provide readers with their first compelling look at the main character.  From there, the story gets even more exciting as you follow Morpheus as he attempts to recover his items of power from some dangerous individuals.  This sets up some brilliant chapters as he deals with everyone’s favourite magician, John Constantine, in a horrific tale that provides readers with their first glimpse at the true danger of dreams.  From there, Morpheus goes straight to hell as he attempts to retain his helm from an army of demons while also dealing with the nefarious Lucifer in what is possibly one of the most entertaining parts of the entire production.  That is then followed by a particularly dark storyline that sees Morpheus forced to contend with damaged DC comics supervillain Doctor Destiny, who is using Morpheus’s own powers to destroy the world.  This initial main storyline is particularly good, with an amazing and captivating flow to it that is guaranteed to make you a fan of The Sandman.

The other major storyline of this first act of The Sandman sees Morpheus attempt to contend with a new dangerous threat impacting the Dreaming.  This threat turns out to be young woman, Rose Walker, who is a powerful Dream Vortex.  To fully understand her, Morpheus finds himself getting involved in her hunt for her missing brother, and soon finds himself in conflict with several of his missing creations, each of whom has their own agenda in the real world.  At the same time, Morpheus must contend with the machinations of his powerful siblings as they attempt to manipulate him for his own ends.  This second major storyline, The Doll’s House, is an extremely good follow-up to the introductory issues and continues several plot points, with several characters returning in interesting ways.  Indeed, as you traverse through this storyline, it becomes apparent how much the author set up in the initial major storyline, and this helps to make The Doll’s House flow extremely well.  This major storyline itself is pretty damn fun, and I liked how it split between Morpheus and several of the other major players, particularly Rose Walker and The Corinthian.  The entire thing goes in some rather interesting directions, from the traumatised dreaming mind of a young boy also containing several lost superheroes, to a serial killer convention where some of Morpheus’s most dangerous creations have arrived.  This entire storyline is pretty damn twisty and trippy in places, but it comes together extremely well and has some amazing high points to it.  I particularly enjoyed the sequences depicting the serial killer convention, which was both entertaining and disturbing in equal measures but which also has an outstanding payoff to it.  The Doll’s House ends the major storylines on an extremely high note and it will ensure that you will come back for the second act desperately wanting more.

Aside from the two main storylines, The Sandman also contains several filler arcs that take place around the main storylines, including all the stories contained in the collected volume Dream Country.  While I would usually be a little disappointed to have a gap occur between some of the main storylines like this, it worked really well.  Not only do these filler chapters serve as a bit of a palate cleanser, breaking up the major storylines, but they also provide a lot of additional context for the wider The Sandman universe by expanding on many of the supporting characters, such as Morpheus’s relatives or some of the strange people he encounters through his travels.  Each of these storylines lasts for a single chapter (an issue from the comic), and are fairly self-contained, coming together and concluding in short order.  Each of these filler stories is quite intriguing in their own right, especially as these stories are a little more metaphysical and often contain a dark, thought-provoking cautionary tale.  There is also an interesting range of settings and time periods for many of these stories, as some occur many years before the events of the major storylines, due to the immortal nature of Morpheus and his siblings.  I honestly enjoyed each of these separate storylines, not only because of the fantastic ways that they expanded The Sandman universe but because of the way that each story hit a different emotional note.  My favourite was probably Men of Good Fortune (issue #13 of the comic), a brilliant story that sees Morpheus and Death encounter a man, Hob Gadling, who is certain of his desire never to die.  Intrigued, Morpheus ensures his immortality and arranges to meet him once every 100 years in the same tavern.  So begins a fantastic story that skips across centuries as you see Hob continue to exist and change through the centuries.  Watching him achieve the highs and lows of an immortal is deeply fascinating, as is his compelling and deeply personal interactions with Morpheus as they discuss his experiences and his desires to stay alive.  The conclusion of this story proves to be particularly moving, and it helps to humanise Morpheus after several issues of him being emotionally distant.  Other interesting filler arcs include Morpheus meeting with Death and following her around in her complex and sad duties, another sees William Shakespeare, who years earlier made a Faustian bargain with Morpheus, debut A Midsummer’s Night Dream to a host of elven nobility in a touching performance.  All these filler arcs, and more, add a certain gravitas to the overall book, and I think that they really helped to enhance the major storylines they were set around.

I was really impressed with all these major and minor storylines, especially as the writing behind them was particularly powerful and brilliant.  Everything flows together extremely well and you can see that Gaiman is setting up a ton of fascinating storylines for the future, while also ensuring that the current plot points stand on their own and are extremely fun.  Everything about this story is interesting, and while the author does occasionally go in some zany, grotesque and unique directions, it generally proves to be entertaining and eventually fits back into the major storylines in a great way.  Gaiman seeks to create a massive and powerful epic that not is not only filled with action and excitement but which causes the reader to stop and think about certain states of being or metaphysical aspects such as dreaming.  This is often achieved, especially in the audiobook format, with distinctive and powerful dialogues that showcase the unique attributes of the characters and the dramatic and dangerous situations they find themselves in.

I personally loved how there were a range of different styles and elements featured throughout the plot as The Sandman didn’t conform to one particular genre.  The story could at any time jump from unique fantasy adventure to a deep character driven narrative or end up being a bleak and deeply disturbing horror tale.  For example, one of the best chapters in this act of The Sandman was a dark, disturbing and somewhat detached horror narrative they fit in right after a chapter involving the Justice League and certain Batman villains.  In this story the deadly Doctor Dee, having stolen Morpheus’s dream stone, holds several people hostage in a diner over the course of a day.  Throughout this day (which is counted down hour by hour for some impressive dramatic impact), Doctor Dee toys with his pets, diving deep into their personal lives and using disturbing elements from their past to manipulate their emotions and their reactions.  This results in several extremely disturbing hours as the bad doctor makes them experience lust, despair, hatred, animalist urges, religious zeal and more to entertain him as he waits, and it turns this chapter into a horrific experience in between some more action packed or fantasy issues.  This frequent change in genre really helps to make this first act stand out, and all the different storylines and elements work well with the overall dark gothic theme of The Sandman.  It also helps to make The Sandman a bit more accessible to different readers as there is something here for all fans of horror, fantasy and comics, although some basic knowledge of DC and Vertigo comics may be somewhat helpful.

This story is greatly helped by the complex and exceedingly memorable characters featured throughout.  The most notable of these characters is the titular Sandman himself, central character Dream/Morpheus, an immortal anthropomorphic personification who lives in creation’s dreams and serves as their lord and master.  I loved how Morpheus is portrayed in this first act as the reader really gets to sink their teeth into the character and find out what makes him tick.  Gaiman ensures you get the most out of Morpheus by immediately showing him at his worst, imprisoned for decades by humans with his powers stolen from him.  While you don’t get a lot of insight into who or what he is at the beginning, once he escapes you find out everything you need about his motivations, responsibilities and personalities.  Gaiman initially paints Morpheus as a callous and detached being, removed from humanity and more concerned with his own needs and realm than the people he interacts with.  While it does make it a little harder to root for him in some of the earlier storylines, I think this coldness helped to stoke some real mystery around the character and you wanted to find out more about him and his past.  Once the first major story arc ends and you get into some of the filler stories, especially the one involving the interaction with his sister Death, you start to understand him a lot better and soon see that his a basically good person, just with some major personality flaws brought on by his immortal existence and purpose.  Don’t get me wrong, at times he is still a pretty hard character to like, especially when details about his love life are revealed, but he is generally a lot more likeable than most of the other immortal or non-human characters you encounter, and you get really invested in his continual struggles.  By the end of his first act you will become extremely addicted to his story arc, and I cannot wait to see how Morpheus’s narrative continues in the future.

Gaiman has come up with an eclectic and distinctive group of characters to support the story, with a fantastic combination of original characters, mythological figures and even a few established DC and Vertigo comic characters.  These great characters are featured to various degrees throughout the story, with some being continuously used, while others only get brief flashes.  All of them are pretty fantastic, and I loved seeing how Gaiman worked them into his brilliant narrative.  There are so many notable characters throughout this first act to talk about, especially as they were portrayed by some outstanding actors (more on that later), and I could honestly spend pages talking about all of them, however, in the interests of saving time I might just limit it to my absolute favourites.  I must highlight Dream’s sister Death; rather than a traditional mournful or skeletal figure, Death is shown as a cheerful young woman who bears great compassion and kindness to those she reaps.  This is a really interesting change to the usual personification of Death you see in fiction, and it works really well, especially as Death here serves as a great positive foil to her dour brother Dream and the other Endless.  As such, she swiftly becomes a favourite character to follow, especially with her many different appearances.  I also must mention Gaiman’s great use of John Constantine, everyone’s favourite drunk English wizard, who has a notable chapter towards the start of the story.   Lucifer himself is also brilliant as a brief secondary antagonist, and Gaiman lays some interesting story seeds here for him.  The comedic duo of Cain and Abel brings some fun to several stories, as does Morpheus’s servant, Matthew the Raven.  Rose Walker serves as an excellent protagonist of the second major storyline, and I enjoyed her very English protector, Gilbert, who has some intriguing scenes.  Finally, I was rather impressed with the great early antagonist Doctor John Dee, better known as the Justice League villain Doctor Destiny.  Gaiman went out of his way to make Doctor Dee as creepy and deranged as possible in this comic and he has some outstanding, if shockingly horrifying, scenes throughout the More than Rubies storyline.  He, and other great villains like The Corinthian, add some intriguing danger and a ton of depravity to the story, and I had an absolute blast getting to know all these great characters.

As I mentioned before, I chose to check out the full-cast audio adaptation of The Sandman rather than reading the original comics, and this greatly impacted my experiences of how I absorbed this unique story.  However, while I probably missed out on some brilliant artwork, I think that this audio adaptation was the perfect way to enjoy this elaborate and massive story.  As far as I can tell, the audio production faithfully adapts all the comic storylines throughout its run, with the movement and action of the comic page replaced with narration, sound effects and probably altered dialogue where necessary for the benefit of the listener.  While this is probably a little different than the comic, I think that it captured the tone, characters, and intent of The Sandman exceedingly well, and the resulting production is pretty damn impressive.  Not only does it feature some brilliant acting, but the production team makes outstanding use of a ton of cool sound effects and some moving music to create something extremely special.

While this audio production has many great features, without a shadow of a doubt its most defining aspect is the incredibly stacked voice cast who bring the various characters to life.  Someone clearly sold their soul to get the eventual cast for The Sandman, as some exceedingly talented actors are featured here giving some intense and powerful performances.  These great performances deeply enhance the entirety of The Sandman and turn this already outstanding story into something that you will listen to again and again.  This voice cast is led by the insanely talented James McAvoy, who voices main character Morpheus.  McAvoy is extremely good in this production, showcasing all his acting range to bring this complex character to life in all his dark, gothic and detached glory.  Thanks to the way he voices the character, listeners really get a sense of how ethereal and distant Morpheus can be, as well as the intense weight of the events of this story and the relationships he has formed.  You really get the full gambit of Morpheus’s emotions during this first act and McAvoy covers them all perfectly, embodying the character’s rage, sorrow, impatience and intense regret extremely well.  This performance really serves to enhance the character of Morpheus in this production of The Sandman, and McAvoy was the perfect actor to helm this entire series.

The rest of the voice cast is just as impressive, with several major celebrities featured here.  Taron Egerton has a notable time voicing the iconic John Constantine and his pretty damn good here, bringing the distinctive magician to life extremely well.  Edgerton brilliantly brings forth Constantine’s full emotional range throughout The Sandman, and you get a great sense of his cheeky demeanour which overlays his insane amount of guilt and despair.  This was a very good version of Constantine, and indeed after listening to this production, Edgerton would be my choice for Constantine if they chose to do another major movie with him.  In addition, Kat Dennings has a major role in this audiobook as Death.  Dennings is pretty amazing here, and she brings some real life (pun intended) to this major role, showcasing this character’s intense warmth and friendliness, as well as her exasperations when it comes to her brother.  Dennings really made this unique character her own, and I deeply enjoyed her performance.  I also had a lot of fun with Andy Serkis who voices Matthew the Raven, Dream’s messenger and servant.  Matthew is a fairly comedic role which Serkis fills perfectly, giving the raven a sarcastic and everyman feel that fit the lines really well and helped to make him a very distinctive and fun figure.

Other big-name actors include Bebe Neuwirth, who perfectly voices a prophetic cat with aspirations to change the world through dreaming.  Riz Ahmed is pretty terrifying as The Corinthian and you get some major serial killer vibes from his performance.  Arthur Davill has a great couple of appearances as William Shakespeare, while the legendary Joanna Lumley has an unfortunately short appearance as Lady Johanna Constantine, although she gets her time to shine in future productions.  Likewise, Michael Sheen has only a short appearance as Lucifer Morningstar, although he brings some incredible flair to the character, dripping style, venom and power.  Like Joanna Lumley, Sheen will get his time to shine in future instalments of this audio series, so don’t be too disappointed with his limited appearances here.  I loved William Hope as Doctor Dee, as he gives the villain some deep malevolence and insanity.  Michael Roberts and Kerry Shale are fun as Cain and Able respectfully, while Paterson Joseph has a great sequence as The Demon Choronzon.  I was also very happy to see that one of my favourite audiobook narrators, Ray Porter, was featured here, voicing multiple supporting characters.  All of Porter’s portrayals were very fun, although I think he was best as Gilbert, providing some fun British pomp to the character.  Finally, Neil Gaiman himself has a massive role in this production as the Narrator, which is pretty damn appropriate.  Gaiman is great as the narrator, with his distinctive voice perfectly moving the story along, as he describes events, actions and settings, as well as providing a massive dose of exposition.  I was really impressed with Gaiman’s continued performance here, and I honestly don’t know if anyone else could have done such an impactful and meaningful job of it.  I am honestly only just scratching the surface of this cast, as there are a ton of other actors featured throughout The Sandman in some way.  However, all of them are extremely good and their work on this show is just superb.

As you can no doubt tell from the elaborate and long-winded review above, I had an outstanding time with this audio production of The Sandman, and I am so very happy that I got to finally experience Neil Gaiman’s amazing series.  Everything about this audiobook was impressive, with an elaborate and dark narrative, gritty characters, fantastic performances and some incredible world building.  There is truly something for everybody here, as readers unfamiliar with The Sandman can easily jump in and learn everything they want to know about the series (I’m now ready for that upcoming Netflix series), while established fans will no doubt enjoy it performed by such a talented team of actors.  I had such a good time listening to this first act that once I finished, I immediately jumped into listening to the second act, which has an even better and expanded voice cast.  I will hopefully review that in a few weeks, but in the meantime do yourself a favour and listen to this incredible audio production of The Sandman, as you will not regret it.

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The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 14 April 2022)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book Two

Length: 22 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Extremely talented dark fantasy John Gwynne returns with one of my most anticipated fantasy novels of 2022, The Hunger of the Gods, the epic second entry in The Bloodsworn Saga.

Last year, the fantasy world was aflame with discussion about a certain novel from acclaimed author John Gwynne, best known for his The Faithful and the Fallen series and its sequel Of Blood and Bone trilogy.  While I wasn’t initially intending to check this book out, the sheer amount of positive feedback and reviews convinced me that I was clearly missing out, so I grabbed a copy and ended up being deeply impressed by the elaborate fantasy saga it contained.  That novel was The Shadow of the Gods, a Norse inspired dark fantasy tale that saw three intriguing protagonists explore a deadly new fantasy world wrecked by the last battle of the dead gods, and filled with monsters, warbands and powered humans tainted by the divine ancestors.  I had an exceptional time with this great book, which really met all my expectations and ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (it also topped my favourite new-to-me authors list and best covers of 2021 list, it was just that damn awesome).  I deeply enjoyed the fantastic and elaborate tale this novel contained, and I could not wait to see how it would be continued.  As such, when I received a copy of the sequel, The Hunger of the Gods, which featured another awesome fantasy cover and plot synopsis, I immediately started reading it and was once again thrust into world of gods and heroes.

The dread dragon god, Lik-Rifa the soul-stealer, has been released from her ancient tomb and now all of Vigrid lies in peril.  Determined to unleash a new era of blood, death and conquest upon the lands, Lik-Rifa immediately begins to gather around her horde of Tainted warriors, including her own descendants, the dragon-born, terrible monsters and a cult of followers, all slaved to her will.  Hope looks bleak, especially as the warring human kingdoms remain unaware that Lik-Rifa is free and about to unleash fresh horrors upon them.

Amongst this chaos, the deadly Orka continues her hunt for her stolen son, taken by Lik-Rifa’s followers.  Now revealed as the legendary and infamous warrior, the Skullsplitter, Orka will not rest until she has her son and her vengeance, no matter the obstacles.  While Orka continues her quest, her former warband of secretly Tainted warriors, the Bloodsworn, head south, determined to rescue one of their members, while their newest initiate, Varg, continues his attempts to find vengeance for his sister.  Meanwhile, Elvar is forced to fulfil the blood oath she took to rescue another child from the dragonborn, and needs to convince her now leaderless warband, the Battle-Grim, to follow her.

As these brave warriors each take their own steps to destiny, they will all face dangerous challenges and horrendous odds.  Orka will need to come to grips with the wolf lying deep in her heart as she attempts the impossible: defying a god.  Varg and the Bloodsworn will travel to a distant land to achieve their goals, only to meet tragedy and loss.  Elvar finally attempts to claim the responsibility of leadership that she has always desired.  However, despite all their bravery and skill in arms, none of these heroes are going to be capable of fighting Lik-Rifa directly.  Instead, Elvar and her company will attempt a desperate plan, using forbidden magic to bring a dead god to life and bind it to their will.

Wow oh wow, what an incredible and awesome read.  Gwynne continues to showcase why he is one of the best current authors of fantasy fiction with The Hunger of the Gods, which perfectly continues the impressive Bloodsworn Saga in a big way.  Featuring tons of bloody action, impressive new fantasy elements, complex characters, and a powerful and elaborate narrative that is the very definition of epic, The Hunger of the Gods was another five-star read from Gwynne that is easily one of the better books I have read so far this year.

The Hunger of the Gods has an outstanding and impressive story that instantly grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they are unable to put the book down until the very last page.  This sequel kicks off right after the epic conclusion of The Shadow of the Gods and quickly follows up on all the big revelations and events that occurred there, especially the release of the giant dragon god, Lik-Rifa, who serves as a suitably sinister and epic main antagonist for the series.  Just like the first book, The Hunger of the Gods’ narrative is told from a series of split storylines, each one focused on a specific point-of-view character.  All three character-specific storylines from The Shadow of the Gods are continued here, following Orka, Varg and Elva.  These existing storylines go in some exciting and interesting directions in The Hunger of the Gods, and I loved how the author expanded on the character’s growth and individual journeys from the first novel, while also keeping some of the existing dynamics and elements.  Gwynne also adds in two new point-of-view characters, as antagonists Gudvarr and Biorr, who were good secondary characters from The Shadow of the Gods, get their own intriguing storylines here.  These new character arcs are impressively entertaining, providing great alternate perspectives to deepen the story, while also working into the existing storylines extremely well.  All five storylines go in some great directions throughout the course of the novel, and there are some absolutely brilliant moments, twists and revelations that occur throughout, especially as many of these storylines started to come together more.  I had an excellent time seeing where everything went, and Gwynne really did a great job taking all these character stories in some appropriate directions.  Every single storyline end on an amazing note and the conclusions are guaranteed to drag readers back for the third Bloodsworn novel.

This second book in The Bloodsworn Saga is written pretty damn perfectly as Gwynne continues his magic to produce an addictive and distinctive read.  The Hunger of the Gods retains the excellent tone introduced in the first novel, ensuring that everything comes across as a Norse adventure story set within a unique, dark fantasy realm.  Everything about this book is handled extremely well, from the exceptional pacing, which ensures that you fly through this massive novel, to the intense and brutal action that is installed in every section of the book, guaranteeing that readers get that much needed adrenalin rush.  Gwynne utilises an interesting writing style here that really emphasises repetition and unique dialogue to help to make the story feel more and more like an epic Norse saga.  Just like the preceding novel in The Bloodsworn Saga, I think that The Hunger of the Gods had just the right blend of action, humour, character growth, world building and darker elements to create an excellent and enticing read.  I also have to say that I was quite impressed with how Gwynne was able to avoid middle book syndrome here, as in many ways The Hunger of the Gods was even better than The Shadow of the Gods.  While the story does slow down in places to help build up certain settings or plot elements, there is always something interesting or compelling going on, and I can honestly say that I was not bored at any point in the book.  You could almost read The Hunger of the Gods by itself with no knowledge of the preceding book and still have a brilliant time with it, especially with the detailed synopsis of the prior novel at the start.

The best thing about how this story is written is the exceptional use of multiple character perspectives.  The story perfectly flits between the five separate characters arcs throughout the novel, with a different character being focused on with each new chapter.  Thanks to the inclusions of two new characters, readers of this sequel get to enjoy a much deeper story here, especially as the new characters are associated with some of the series’ antagonists, providing some fantastic new elements.  I think the additional characters worked really well, as while the existing three protagonists are great, their storylines needed to be spaced out more in this sequel.  All five separate character storylines play off each other perfectly as the novel continues, telling an immense narrative that, while connected, still contains a fair bit of individuality as you follow their specific adventure.

I liked finally being able to see some interactions between the various protagonists and I loved seeing these outstanding and well-written characters finally come together in some intense scenes, allowing the reader to see these distinctive characters viewed through the eyes of the other protagonists.  The author had a great sense of which perspectives needed to featured at certain times, and there were some amazing contrasts as certain exciting storylines were played off each other, especially when you were able to see two sides to certain major battles or events.  In addition, this is one of those rare multi-narrative fantasy novels where it is near impossible to choose a favourite storyline or character to follow.  Each of the five storylines offers the reader something different, from a bloody revenge story, to an intriguing look at the book’s main antagonists, and all of them work extremely well in the context of the wider story.  I will say that Orka’s brilliant quest for her son has some amazing action scenes and powerful character moments, while the camaraderie and excellent larger-scale battles of Varg’s storyline ensured that I was excited to hear from this character.  In addition, Gudvarr provides some great political intrigue from the perspective of a true weasel, which was so very fun to watch.  However, I honestly had a great time with every single character, and there was not a moment that their individual stories did not enhance the overall quality of The Hunger of the Gods.

I really must highlight the incredible dark fantasy setting of The Bloodsworn Saga that is expertly used again in The Hunger of the Gods after Gwynne took the time to set it up in the first novel.  The harsh land of Vigrid, with its warring Jarls, terrifying monsters, long-dead gods, glory-seeking warbands and the feared and exploited Tainted, works so well as a background to this epic story and it really helps to expand the bloody adventures featured within.  I loved how Gwynne uses classic Norse elements like shield walls, longboats, weaponry and mindsets, and I still really love seeing this in a fantasy context, especially when combined or used against the monsters and Tainted characters.  This is further enhanced with the continued use of Norse inspired terms and dialogue throughout the novel, and it helps to give this entire series such a distinctive feel (although I kind of wish that he would stop trying to continually make “thought cage” an alternative to a person’s skull).  While the author spends a bit of time continuing these elements from the first book, The Shadow of the Gods also features some brilliant world building as Gwynne provides intriguing enhancements to the existing gods, land and people, which were already extremely intriguing.  There are also some examinations of the neighbouring nation of Iskidan, which was mentioned a few times in the first book.  Iskidan, which has elements of historical China, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in its construction, serves as an intriguing counterpoint to Vigrid, and it was fascinating to learn more about it.  I also loved a couple of cool, if freaky new monsters, that were featured in this book, although the flesh burrowing insect monster and the nightmare inducing tongue eaters, are a bit on the gruesome side (readers who don’t like body modifying monsters are warned to stay away).  All these awesome elements are fitted in the book perfectly, and I loved this continued dive into the dark and gruesome world Gwynne has lovingly created.

While the awesome narrative, clever storytelling and dark fantasy setting are amazing parts of the book, I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t highlight the incredible character work that Gwynne did within The Hunger of the Gods.  Just like the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, The Hunger of the Gods features an impressive and captivating cast of characters, each of whom are expertly featured and who add some fantastic elements to the overall story.  This is particularly true for the wonderful and memorable characters from whose perspective this epic tale unfolds.  Gwynne did an incredible job introducing these excellent characters in the first book, and it was great to see two previous supporting characters promoted up to the central cast.  All five main characters are exceptional and their unique personalities and goals ensure that every chapter is different from the last which helps to produce an awesome and expansive read.

The first of these characters is Orka, an incredibly dangerous warrior who is hunting for her lost son and vengeance for her murdered husband.  Orka is a brilliant and complex figure who is easily one of the most exciting and enjoyable characters in the entire series.  Due to her single-minded determination and bloodlust, pretty much all Orka’s chapters read like a bloody revenge trip that is essentially a dark fantasy version of Taken.  Gwynne continues this excellent trend with Orka in this second novel and it was great to see this implacable warrior travel across this land, killing everyone who gets in her way as she takes big risks.  However, Gwynne adds in some extra elements to Orka’s tale in The Hunger of the Gods, especially following the revelations made at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that Orka is both Tainted and the former leader of the Bloodsworn, the legendary killer known as the Skullsplitter.  Orka actually comes across as a lot more bestial in this second book, especially after the big massacre she created at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that unleashed her inner monster.  As such, there are more scenes of Orka trying to contain her rage and anger, and there were some fantastic and clever portrayals of her inner beast throughout the book.  We also see some of Orka’s guilt and regret as the novel explores how she left the Bloodsworn and the relationships she sacrificed for the sake of her unborn son.  I also quite enjoyed seeing her as a reluctant leader in this novel as she finds herself in charge of a small team of warriors and monsters.  This enhances her sense of guilt and remembrances of her previous time with the Bloodsworn, and it adds some fun drama and even a mentoring arc as continues her work with her young student, Lif.  Orka’s storyline goes in some great directions throughout The Hunger of the Gods, and you will be enthralled with her tale right up until the last line of this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Varg in this book.  Varg, or as his warband knows him, Varg No-Sense, was probably my favourite character in The Shadow of the Gods and he continues to be an excellent part of this sequel.  While he doesn’t develop as much as some of the other characters in The Hunger of the Gods, Varg still remains an enjoyable figure.  Most of the appeal revolves around his friendship and growing sense of acceptance with his fellow Bloodsworn, and I liked seeing him continue to develop as a warrior and a free person, especially as starts to create some meaningful relationships.  Like Orka, a lot of Varg’s personal storyline deals with his desire for vengeance, as well as his issues controlling his Tainted rage, and I liked seeing how this complemented and contrasted with Orka’s experiences.  This is particularly noticeable when it comes to how he deals with loss, something he is not good at, especially when some good friends fall throughout the story.  As a result, there are some great moments for Varg in this novel, and his chapters are filled with some of the funniest supporting characters and best battle sequences.  I did find it interesting that Varg didn’t have the biggest impact on the overall storyline in this novel, even during his own chapters, but Gwynne is clearly planning some big things for him in the future, which I am really looking forward to.

Elvar, also has a great storyline in The Hunger of the Gods, and I honestly think that out of all the characters, she has the most development in this book.  Due to where her story from The Shadow of the Gods ended up (dragon gods rising and all), I was extremely excited to see more from Elvar in this novel, and it really did not disappoint as she immediately gets into action, resurrecting gods and bending them to her will.  Quite a lot of major plot elements occur through Elvar’s eyes, and she proves to be an excellent focus for all these key storylines.  I liked how Elvar grew up quite a lot in this sequel, especially after the traumatic betrayals of the previous book, and she ends up with a very different mindset throughout this sequel, especially when it comes to leadership and her need for fame.  Watching her grow and take control of the Battle-Grim is a compelling part of this novel, and it was awesome to see her come to terms with her new responsibilities.  It was also great to see how a lot of Elvar’s story comes full circle in this novel, especially when it comes to her personal history and family, and her final chapters in this novel are some of the best in the book.  I am once again extremely keen to see how Elvar’s story continues in the rest of the series, and Gwynne has left her in an incredible spot for the future.

Like I mentioned above, I was really impressed with Gwynne’s decision to start utilising two additional point-of-view characters in The Hunger of the Gods, and it really helped to turn this sequel into a much more detailed and compelling read.  Part of the reason this works so well is that these two additional characters are both complex and excellent characters, and their chapters act as a great continuation of some of the minor storylines from the first book.  The first of these characters is Biorr, former member of the Battle-Grim who was revealed to be a spy planted by Lik-Rifa’s followers and who ended up betraying and killing the Battle-Grim’s leader.  While it would be easy to hate Biorr for his actions, he becomes quite a sympathetic character.  Not only does he spend most of the book feeling intense guilt for his actions, but he also paints a pretty grim picture of his previous life as a slave, showcasing the hardships he and his fellow Tainted have suffered.  As such, you can understand many of his reasons for why he is helping Lik-Rifa, especially as she is promising a new world order for people like him.  Despite this he is still quite conflicted, and he acts as a more moderate antagonist.  This changes towards the end of the book, especially after he meets a certain divine being, and he starts to become a bit colder and more determined to support Lik-Rifa.  Despite being one of the least action-packed storylines in the novel, Biorr’s chapters were an excellent and entertaining part of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed the intriguing alternate views they gave of the main group of antagonists, making them seem more reasonable and complex, and the inclusion of Biorr greatly enhanced the entire narrative for the best.

The other new point-of-view character is Gudvarr, the conceited lordling who hunted Orka in the last book and was a particularly annoying antagonist.  I must admit that I was initially surprised that out of all the great supporting characters, Gudvarr was the one who was upgraded to main cast.  However, it soon became apparent why he was used, as Gwynne had some real fun turning him into one of the entertainingly despicable characters in the entire novel.  Gudvarr is the absolute epitome of arrogance, petty cruelty and cowardice throughout this book, and it is near impossible to have any respect for him, as he lies, brownnoses and attempt anything to gain power and reputation, often with disastrous results.  Gwynne goes out of his way to make him seem as conceited and cowardly as possible throughout the novel, mainly through his inner monologue, where he constantly hides all his insults and most cowardly thoughts to avoid getting into trouble with actual warrior.  He is such a little arseling in this novel, and you can’t help but hate him, especially as he has the devil’s luck and frustratingly manages to wiggle out of every single disaster he finds himself in.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I grew to really enjoy Gudvarr’s chapters as everything he did was hilarious in a sneaky and spiteful way, and it is just so damn entertaining to see him get pushed around then overcome more powerful and confident characters.  The Gudvarr chapters also provide some fantastic insight into another group of antagonists, loaded with political intrigue and deceit from one of the main courts of Vigrid.  I had an absolute blast following Gudvarr throughout the novel, and the way that his storyline in this novel comes to an end is just so perfect and really showcases what an absolute cowardly snake he is.  I cannot wait to see him get his eventual just deserts (or maybe he’ll be the only survivor), and he ended up being on of my surprisingly favourites in The Hunger of the Gods.

Aside from these main five characters, The Hunger of the Gods is filled with a massive raft of supporting characters, with a distinctive cast associated with each of the point-of-view storylines.  Gwynne handles these supporting characters beautifully; despite the cast list going on for six pages, you get to know all of them and fully appreciate everything they bring to the story.  Most of these characters support their respective storylines incredibly well and many of the characters either stand on their own as distinctive figures or have some brilliant interactions with the main characters.  Many of my favourites were members of the Bloodsworn band, with the hilarious and witty Svik being the best example of this with his tall tales, love of cheese, and calming attitude towards Varg, while an additional storyline about his connection to Orka adding some intriguing depth to his character.  You really get to enjoy many of the key Bloodsworn members, although this does mean you become way too emotionally strained when they get hurt or killed.  I also really grew to enjoy returning character Lif in this book as he continues to grow as a warrior through Orka’s tutelage.  Watching him develop is a great part of the Orka chapters, and he proves to be an excellent foil to the brutal main character.  I loved the deeper look at many of the series’ main antagonists throughout The Hunger of Gods, especially with the two new character perspectives, and it was great to see a different side to their plans and motivations.  The multiple resurrected or freed god characters proved to be an excellent addition to this second novel, with the main characters brought into their renewed war one way or another.  These gods really changed the entire story, and it was fascinating to see their interactions with the main characters, as well impact they have on everyone’s psyches.  These great characters, and many more, all added a ton to the story, and I loved how their various arcs and storylines came together.  It will be fascinating to see if anybody else becomes a point-of-view protagonists in the future (my money is on Lif), and I can’t wait to see what happens to these brilliant characters in the future.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Hunger of the Gods, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of it instead, which was an extremely awesome experience.  With a runtime of just under 23 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook (the 19th longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to) and requires a substantial investment of time.  However, this is more than worth it as hearing this epic tale read out to you is a brilliant experience.  Not only does it ensure that you become deeply trapped in the elaborate story and are able to absorb all the great detail, but it also fits with the book’s inherit theme of an oral saga.  One of the best features of this audiobook is impressive narrator Colin Mace, a man with a ton experience narrating elaborate fantasy and science fiction audiobooks (such as The Black Hawks by David Wragg).  Mace has a commanding and powerful voice that really fits the theme of this universe and perfectly conveys all the violence, grim settings and powerful elements of the dark fantasy world.  He does a particularly good job with the character voices as well, as every character has a distinctive tone that fits their personality and actions extremely well.  I loved some of the great voices that he comes up with, including deep-voiced warriors, snivelling cowards, strange creatures, ethereal gods and more, and it helped to turn The Hunger of the Gods audiobook into quite an experience.  As such, I would strongly recommend this audiobook format as the way to enjoy The Hunger of the Gods, and I fully intend to check out the rest of this series on audiobook when it comes out.

John Gwynne continues to dominate the fantasy genre with his incredible Bloodsworn Saga.  The amazing second entry, The Hunger of the Gods, is another exceptional read that takes you on a wild and deadly adventure through Gwynne’s impressively put together dark fantasy world.  Containing an epic and powerful story, chock full of action, Norse fantasy elements and impressive characters, The Hunger of the Gods was one of the best reads of 2022 so far and I had an outstanding time reading it.  In some ways The Hunger of the Gods ended up being a better novel than the first entry in the series and is an absolute must read for all fantasy fans.

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Sierra Six by Mark Greaney

Sierra Six Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 15 February 2022)

Series: Gray Man – Book 11

Length: 15 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Epic thriller author Mark Greaney returns with the latest entry in his incredible Gray Man series with Sierra Six, an intense and captivating spy thriller that will grab your attention and refuse to let go until the final explosion.

Over the last few years, I have been absolutely hooked on the incredible thrillers of Mark Greaney, who is easily one of the best authors of spy fiction in the world today.  Not only did he cowrite a very cool military thriller, Red Metal (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), but he has continued his exceptional Gray Man series.  The Gray Man books follow Court Gentry, the titular Gray Man, an elite assassin and undercover operator who has worked both for and against the CIA.  This series has been so very cool, from the first novel The Gray Man (set to become a Netflix movie later this year), to the last three awesome entries, Mission Critical, One Minute Out (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020) and Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021).  Due to how impressive this series has been, I have been really excited to read the next book, Sierra Six, and it was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, especially as it had a very cool plot to it.

Court Gentry, the Gray Man, is once again the world’s most wanted spy, hunted by his former employers, the CIA, and every other intelligence agency on the planet.  Looking for work, Gentry accepts an easy infiltration mission in Algeria to spy on a delegation from Pakistan.  However, the mission goes sideways when Gentry recognises one of the Pakistanis and his rookie technical officer is captured.  Chasing after the kidnappers, Gentry follows their trail to India and must relive one of the darkest moments from his past.

12 years ago, long before he became the Gray Man, Court Gentry was a talented young agent for the CIA.  Specialising in solo operations, Gentry is suddenly reassigned to Ground Branch and must work as the junior member of veteran CIA action team, Golf Sierra.  Given a new designation, Sierra Six, Gentry is forced to adapt to a new way of fighting as he and his team attempt to hunt down a dangerous terrorist leader in Pakistan.  However, their mission resulted in a high body count and a great personal loss that has haunted Gentry ever since.

Now, as Gentry works his way through Mumbai, he must face the realisation that the target of his original Sierra Six mission is still alive and active after all these years.  Determined to finish the job once and for all, Gentry works with a small team of rogue operators to find his target.  However, his old foe has initiated a bold new plan that could have devastating consequences for all of India.  Can Gentry get his revenge before it is too late, or will the ghosts of his past finally finish him off?

Greaney is in fine form with Sierra Six as he has written another excellent and intense spy thriller that I deeply enjoyed.  Containing an action-packed and multilayered narrative loaded with major set pieces, exciting spy elements and some complex characters, this was another awesome Gray Man novel from Greaney.

Sierra Six was an absolutely thrilling read and I had an outstanding time getting through the impressive and addictive narrative.  Greaney does something a little different for this book and features an excellent and intricate split timeline narrative, with the book divided between the events of the past when Gentry was part of Golf Sierra, and the current events in Mumbai which see Gentry again contending with the target of this original mission.  The narrative switches between the two timelines every chapter or two and you get a great sense of what is happening in both well-established storylines.  These two plot lines advance at a great pace throughout the entire novel and feature their own range of distinctive and fun supporting characters, some of whom appear in both the contemporary and past storylines.  I had a lot of fun with the two separate periods, and I loved how they both made excellent use of interesting characters, fantastic developments and a ton of high-octane action sequences.

The timelines support each other extremely well, with certain hints about the events of the past contained in the contemporary storyline increasing anticipation for the historical storyline, while revealed details about the villain and the young Court Gentry from 12 years ago enhance the protagonist’s current adventure.  In both cases, Gentry and his allies embark on a methodical hunt for their quarry, with a high body count accumulating as they follow various leads and respond to their opponent’s counter plays.  While primarily told from Gentry’s perspective, both timelines utilise distinctive side characters to great effect, and you see intriguing supporting perspectives, including from the antagonist, that help to widen the picture and enhance the richness of the story.  Both timelines eventually lead up to an awesome final sequence, comprised of two near-suicidal missions that the protagonist is engaged in.  This final section of the novel is extremely fast paced, especially as Greaney shortens the chapters and introduces more frequent jumps between the timelines to make everything seem even more frenetic.  Both timelines end with some incredible and awesome major set pieces, and I loved how Greaney used the end of the past storyline to set up the antagonist’s eventual return.  The novel ends on a great note, with the two separate storylines coming together perfectly, and the reader is left very satisfied, if a little moved, at the tragic ending of the events from 12 years ago.  I was extremely impressed with how this fantastic story came together, and this ended up being an addictive read with so many awesome moments in it.

Sierra Six was a particularly good entry in this already awesome series, and I loved how Greaney was able to create a book that both stands on its own as a thriller, while also serving as an amazing entry in the wider series.  This novel is structured to be very accessible to new readers, and anyone can easily pick up this book and start reading it without any knowledge of the prior entries in the series, especially as certain key elements are carefully explained when necessary.  There is also a lot for established Gray Man fans to enjoy here, as Greaney provides a bit of an origin story for his long-running protagonist.  Not only do we get to see Court Gentry do some of his earliest work for the CIA, but you also get to see his first interactions with key supporting characters, including Matthew Hanley and Zack Hightower.  I also loved a couple of fun little cameo appearances and throwaway lines that reference some of the earlier books, including the quick but enjoyable inclusion of the antagonist from the original novel.  While there is are no major continuations of some of the established storylines this is still a key and intriguing Gray Man novel, and it is one that people familiar with this series will deeply enjoy.

I was very impressed with some of the unique elements of this book, particularly those involving tradecraft, espionage work and covert combat teams.  There is a real focus on tradecraft throughout Sierra Six, and the author ensures that everything feels exceedingly realistic and gritty as the characters play their spy games.  Not only do you get to see some of the usual undercover work that Gentry excels in but you also get a great look at paramilitary combat, as the protagonist learns from scratch the rules of fighting as part of a combat team.  All this tradecraft really adds to the authenticity of the story, although it did make parts of the book a little clunky in places, especially when the narrator or the characters explain certain espionage or military elements multiple times in overly descriptive ways.

I also rather enjoyed the exciting settings of the various timelines, as Greaney takes the reader to wartime Afghanistan, Pakistan and modern-day India.  This is an interesting change of pace from most of the Gray Man novels I have read, which have been primarily set in Europe, and I liked seeing the various descriptive landscapes and unique people.  Mumbai proved to be a great setting for most of the contemporary storyline, and it was very fun to see Gentry manoeuvre his way through the crowded districts and locals.  I also really enjoyed the focus on Pakistani intelligence and the Indian underworld, which proved to be very fascinating.  For example, the fiction criminal group B-Company are clearly based on the infamous real-life D-Company, and it was quite intriguing to see them worked into the story, while also examining their origin and goals of their leadership.  All these cool tradecraft elements and intriguing settings deeply enhanced the overall story, and it made for quite a fascinating and distinctive read.

There was some rather interesting character work going on in Sierra Six as Greaney takes his fantastic protagonist to some very dark places at various points in his timeline.  I really appreciated the dive back into the period before Court Gentry became the Gray Man, and Greaney paints a compelling figure of a habitual loner with no personal attachments only at the beginning of his espionage career.  Watching Gentry join a team and try to play nice with others was a captivating part of the book, and it was fascinating to see the rookie Gentry get rattled by stuff he’ll become much more used to in the future.  Greaney also enhances Gentry’s development by including a curious, but touching, relationship in the earlier timeline, which helped to humanise Gentry a lot.  However, certain tragic elements from this help mould him into the killer we all know and love, and Greaney subtly introduced the ripples from this into the contemporary storyline.  The reader leaves Sierra Six with a much better understanding of this cool character, and I had a great time seeing more of the Gray Man’s past.

Both timelines are filled with an excellent and comprehensive cast of side characters, each of whom add a great deal to the narrative and Gentry’s development in their own way.  While there are a few recurring characters from the previous Gray Man novels, most of the focus are on newer figures, who Greaney provides with compelling and interesting backstories.  I liked how the past and modern-day storylines both featured great female side characters who helped move the story along in their own distinctive ways.  This includes the socially awkward intelligence officer Julie Marquez, from the original Golf Sierra mission, and Indian tech guru Priyanka Bandari, who Gentry is forced to work with after saving her from kidnappers.  Both female characters add to the plot a great deal, and it is fascinating to see events unfold from their eyes, especially as they have diverse life experiences and are also seeing very different versions of the protagonist.  The storylines around both women are written extremely well, and I really appreciated where both went, especially as they both included tragedy, regret and definitive action.  I also must really highlight the use of long-running supporting character Zack Hightower, who was an excellent inclusion in the historical storyline.  Zack is always a great foil to Gentry, and I really enjoyed seeing him interact with the younger, cockier version here, especially as it shows some of the earlier dynamics between them.  Watching Gentry meet his mentor and friend for the first time was great, and I really enjoyed the cool storyline that developed between them and the other members of the Golf Sierra kill team.  All these characters were extremely impressive and I had a brilliant time getting to know them throughout the course of Sierra Six.

While I did receive a paperback version of Sierra Six, I went out of my way to also get this novel on audiobook as I have had some awesome experiences with the Gray Man books in this format before.  This proved to be an excellent decision as the Sierra Six audiobook was amazing, perfectly telling the cool story while enhancing the intriguing tradecraft and action elements.  The Sierra Six audiobook has a run time just short of 16 hours and so requires a bit of a time investment to get through it, although I think this was more than worth it and dedicated listeners should be able to get through rather quickly.  I was also very happy to see that this audiobook once again featured the vocal talents of Jay Snyder, who is one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.  Snyder has a gruff and distinctive voice that fits the harder spy thriller feel of this novel perfectly and drags the listener into the intense tale.  Snyder does a brilliant voice with all the characters featured within, and you get a good sense of their various emotions and feelings, especially during some of the more action-packed sequences.  I had an outstanding time listening to this audiobook and it is an excellent format for anyone interested in trying out this latest Gray Man novel.

The always impressive Mark Greaney has done it again, producing an incredible and exciting new Gray Man novel.  Sierra Six, features a bold and captivating story that cleverly utilises two distinctive timelines to tell its intense and moving tale.  Loaded with fun character, brutal action sequences, and some intriguing espionage moments, this was another outstanding book I had a brilliant time reading.  Sierra Six comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to get my hands on the next Greaney book.

Sierra Six Cover 2

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Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12: Grasscutter by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grasscutter Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 12

Length: 255 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I return to my very favourite comic book as I look at the 12th volume in the epic Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai, Grasscutter.

Usagi #13

It has been a little while since I covered one of these Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a Throwback Thursday article.  I had a bit of trouble getting this specific volume, which kind of put everything on pause.  Despite my belief that I had a whole collection of the Usagi Yojimbo comics, it turns out I was missing the 12th volume and I honestly have no idea how I could have misplaced my copy (or did I ever really own it? Who knows?).  To fix this oversight, I recently ordered a second-hand copy from Amazon and managed to get it shipped down here from America.  Now that I finally have a full collection, I can get back to reviewing this entire epic series, which is proving to be so much fun.

A quick refresh about this series before we start: the Usagi Yojimbo comics are the incredible work of legendary comic author and artist Stan Sakai, who has been working on this series for nearly 40 years.  Made up of a ton of amazing volumes, the comic is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals.  The series follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering bodyguard and adventurer who gets involved in all manner of troubles as he faces off against criminals, bandits, ninja, monsters, psychopaths and ambitious lords.  Combining brilliant stories with complex characters, cool action, elaborate scenarios and outstanding artwork, this series is an absolute masterpiece and it is one that I have adored for years.

Usagi #14

The 12th volume of this series is Grasscutter, which serves as a particularly major entry in the entire Usagi Yojimbo line.  Containing issues #13-22 of the Dark Horse Comics run, this volume unusually contains a single story, rather than the multiple shorter, episodic tales typical of this series.  Bringing together several intriguing story threads from previous comics and reuniting several of the more distinctive supporting characters, Sakai tells his most ambitious tale, and the results is absolute magic.

Following a destructive war centuries ago between two rival houses, the nation of Japan is now firmly controlled by the shogun and his court, while the emperor rules only as a symbolic figure, detached from the politics of the realm.  While many are content to live within the shogun’s peace, there are some who seek power and prestige through the return of the imperial family to true power.  But with the full might of the military and the samurai behind him, only one thing could possibly inspire the people to revolt against the shogun: the legendary heaven-forged sword, Kusanagi the Grasscutter.

Usagi #15

However, this divine sword was lost generations ago in the battle that saw the Imperial family overthrown, and it now rests at the bottom of a watery strait, impossible to recover.  Undeterred by the odds against them, a small contingent of rebellious lords have initiated a conspiracy to overthrow the shogun by any means necessary.  Calling upon the powers of a mysterious witch, the conspirators hope to obtain the sword through sorcerous means.  While they succeed in freeing Grasscutter from its watery tomb, fate ensures that the sword ends up in the mostly unlikely of hands, that of the wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi.

Unsure what to do with the legendary sword, Usagi soon finds himself pursued by the forces of the conspirators and must fight with everything he has to keep it out of their hands.  But the events of this conflict spread far beyond Usagi, and soon everyone he knows is in danger as the conspirators attempt to kill his friends Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki to stop them bringing Grasscutter to the shogun.  At the same time, the bounty hunter Gen and the rogue swordswoman Inazuma as drawn from their own scuffles into the greater battle for Grasscutter, especially when they encounter the feared demon-spearman Jei.  Can Usagi and his friends survive the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, or will the nation be thrown into war once again with the resurgence of the Grasscutter?

Usagi #16

Wow, just wow!  This is such an impressive comic that is so very epic in scope, storytelling and major character moments.  Sakai has done a brilliant job with this cool volume, and I loved the brilliant narrative he cooked up for Grasscutter, especially as it ties into so many major moments from the previous volumes.  Filled with intense action, brilliant set pieces and some beautiful art, Grasscutter is an incredible volume that, unsurprisingly, gets a full five-star rating from me.

I loved the incredible story that Sakai has featured in Grasscutter, especially as, in a departure from the series’ usual style of short stories, this volume features one massive and complex story.  This change in story length works extremely well and ensures that this volume stands out as a major entity in this epic series.  Sakai sets his narrative up carefully, with the initial issues of the comic dedicated to explaining the importance of the sword Grasscutter and how it was lost during a deadly civil war.  After establishing the significance of this weapon, the main narrative quickly gets into full swing, continuing one of the storylines from the previous volume, Seasons, and showing the members of the Conspiracy of Eight working to summon the sword from the bottom of the strait using possessed crabs (it makes sense in context).  As this is occurring, several other intriguing storylines are set up and you are soon following Usagi as he does his usual wandering routine, as well as other great side characters like Gen, Inazuma, Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki, as well as the deadly villain Jei.  Having all these characters caught up in these events makes for quite an interesting and elaborate tale, with each of them getting their own distinctive storyline that slowly merges with the others.  For example, Usagi finds himself in a desperate battle against the forces of the conspirators, Gen attempts to hunt down Inazuma for the big bounty on her head, only to run afoul of bandits and police, Tomoe attempts to save Lord Noriyuki from a treacherous ambush only to run into a far more dangerous foe, while Jei finds himself drawn towards the power of the divine sword.

Usagi #17

All these storylines come together extremely well as the story proceeds, often in some explosive and action-packed ways.  Usagi, in his pursuit of the sword, finds himself once again teaming up with Gen, only to run right into Jei when he is at his most dangerous.  Meanwhile the intense storyline surrounding Tomeo and Noriyuki has some large set pieces as the two attempt to escape the army chasing after them.  While mostly separate, these two storylines complement each other nicely, especially as the ambush on Tomeo and Noriyuki is due to the conspirators searching for Grasscutter, and it serves as a dramatic side adventure to the main story.  There are some amazing moments here, and I was particularly impressed with the storyline that saw Noriyuki come face to face with his father’s worse enemy in a complicated manner.  The big finale involves the final fight between Usagi and his mortal enemy, Jei, which sees some absolute carnage.  The subsequent damage and the impossible consequences will leave you reeling, and this entire story concludes perfectly, not only bringing the impressive narrative around Grasscutter to a satisfactory end, but also setting up some additional interesting storylines and character arcs.  This entire volume is just so damn epic, and I really appreciate the way in which Sakai journeys back to many of his previous storylines and utilises elements from them here, although it does mean that Grasscutter isn’t a great entry for first-time readers to check out.  The great combination of action, character development and intriguing world-building elements is just exceptional, and this entire comic is brilliant from start to finish.

Usagi #18

One of the main things that I always love about the Usagi Yojimbo comics is Sakai’s use of intriguing elements from Japanese culture and history to compliment his excellent original storytelling.  This is particularly true in Grasscutter as Sakai utilises some of the most iconic parts of Japanese mythology and history as the basis for much of the plot, particularly around the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grasscutter or Grass-Cutting Sword).  Sakai, who has clearly done a ton of research here, produces an amazing interpretation of the origins of the sword, going all the way back to the Japanese creation myth and showcasing the origins of the Kami and their many descendants.  He then goes into the history of the sword, showing its discovery of the sword, the events that resulted in the name change to Grasscutter, before going all the way to the Japanese Civil War (the Genpei War), that saw the rise of the shogunate and the decline of imperial authority.  This ends with a brilliant showcase of the massive and destructive naval battle between the two factions which led to the death of the young emperor and the loss of the sword.  The loss of the sword, as recounted in The Tale of the Heike, becomes a key part of this narrative, and it is so fascinating to see its sudden return be used as a major story element.  Readers unfamiliar with Japanese history or mythology get a brilliant understanding of these cultural elements at the start of the book, and this allows the rest of the story to flow perfectly.  I deeply enjoyed how Sakai brought all these cool moments to life (even if he does simplify it in places for narrative reasons), and it ended up being an exquisite and clever start to the book.  Throw in a very detailed and fascinating notes section at the back from Sakai, explaining his research and how it influenced his story, and you have some exceedingly cool historical elements that are expertly utilised to create an epic Japanese tale.

While I had a lot of fun with the story, action and Japanese cultural elements, one of the main highlights of Grasscutter is the substantial character work that occurs within.  Due to its length and scope, Grasscutter serves as a major part of the Usagi Yojimbo series and as such, it features many of the best supporting characters from the previous volumes.  All these characters get some substantial storylines in this book, either as protagonists or villains, and it was extremely fascinating to see what happened to some of them.  Sakai melds the unique character storylines together into one cohesive and powerful narrative which does an excellent job exploring each of the characters and giving them key moments in their storylines.

Usagi #19

Unsurprisingly, much of the story focuses on the character of Usagi, who serves as the main protagonist of the story.  Thanks to his usual luck, Usagi winds up finding the blade immediately after it emerges from the water and is soon thrust into the midst of the conflict surrounding it.  This immediately puts him in a major dilemma as he is uncertain what to do with the sword, as all the sides who would claim it (the shogun, the emperor, even some of his own friends) would all use it for their own benefit and the nation would likely suffer as a result.  As such he fights incredibly hard to hold onto the blade for everyone’s good, and this forces him into some increasingly desperate battles.  Usagi gets pretty beat up and exhausted throughout this entire ordeal, and his final match with Jei pushes him to the limit and strikes him at his very core.  While he doesn’t get a major amount of development in this story, he still served as a great centre for the plot and it is always fun to follow along on one of his adventures.

You can’t have a major Usagi story without his friend, Murakami Gennosuke (Gen) showing up and trying to get paid.  The rhino bounty hunter has an excellent story which starts when he unsuccessfully tries to claim a bounty on some dead criminals he discovers in the woods.  This almost immediately backfires on him and forces him to deal with all manner of corrupt cops and murderous bandits as he attempts to make a little money.  His misadventures lead him to face off against Inazuma, the deadly swordswomen who Usagi encountered in the 10th volume, The Brink of Life and Death.  Inazuma, a former innocent girl turned sinister killer, is still being pursued by assassins and bounty hunters who want the massive price on her head.  Naturally Gen decides to chase after her, and this results in a pretty brutal fight between the two, which really showcases just how dangerous Inazuma can be.  The subsequent storylines are also fascinating as Gen gets dragged into the fight for Grasscutter by Usagi and Inazuma goes deep into her own soul when she encounters Jei.  This results in some extremely dark moments for both characters, and it was captivating to see what happened to them throughout the volume.  The final reveals about Inazuma and her future are very grim, and it sets up some excellent storylines in the future.

Usagi #20

There are also some brilliant storylines going on around the characters of Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki.  While primarily separate from Usagi and his adventures, Tomeo and Noriyuki find themselves under attack and are pursued throughout the land by murderous assassins and samurai (much like in their first appearance in Volume 1: The Ronin).  Their dangerous journey becomes even more perilous when they run into a familiar face, General Ikeda, the character so perfectly featured in the short story The Patience of the Spider from the previous volume.  Ikeda is a great character in that he is a former general who, after failing to kill Noriyuki’s father in a revolt, has spent the last several years living as a peasant, a simple life he became content with.  However, when he suddenly finds the son of his mortal enemy in his house, he must choose whether to take up the old grudge or forge a new path for himself.  Watching the internal struggle that occurs within Kieda is pretty awesome, and his interactions with the suspicious Tomeo and Noriyuki are just wonderful.  I deeply enjoyed how this story unfolded, and it was some of the best character work in the entire volume, not to mention the most action-packed.

The final major character I really to talk about is the infamous Blade of the Gods, Jei.  First appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, the crazed killer Jei has been one of the best villains in this series, constantly following Usagi and trying to kill him (another good story was in the sixth volume, Circles).  Jei and Usagi finally come face to face again in Grasscutter when Jei recovers the sword and attempts to use it for his own dark purposes.  Sakai really goes out of his way to make Jei appear as a deadly badass in this comic, with his first appearance shows him killing an entire detachment of samurai by himself.  His subsequent wanderings see him interact with several other side characters for the first time in the series, and their reactions to his weird aura and power are brilliant.  I loved how the dark Jei is perfectly offset by his companion, the young, innocent girl Keiko, who is the only person Jei cares about and will not hurt.  They have some great moments in this comic, and it is fascinating and troubling to see the interactions between them.  However, Jei’s big moment in Grasscutter is his rematch with Usagi, which has been brewing for ages.  Watching these bitter enemies face each other again is pretty fantastic, and you get some amazing moments during their duel.  The conclusion of their fight is very clever and really alters your opinion about both Jei and Usagi, while also seeming to confirm Jei’s supernatural background.  Watching the pure fear and shock on the usually unflappable Usagi when he encounters the many mysteries of Jei is so awesome, and Jei continues to shine as a brilliant antagonist in this volume.  His intriguing final fate will leave you shocked and surprised as a new version of the character emerges.  All this character work and more really helps to turn this outstanding comic into a true masterpiece, and I have so much love for Sakai’s ability to create such amazing and iconic figures.

Usagi #21

The final thing that I want to highlight is the impressive artwork contained within Grasscutter.  As with all the Usagi Yojimbo volumes, all the art of this comic has been drawn exclusively by Sakai, which is exceedingly impressive.  His drawing skills are amazing on multiple levels as he portrays such complex adventures with a simple yet beautiful style which I have so much love for.  As with most Usagi Yojimbo comics, Grasscutter is filled with stunning drawings, from amazing landscape shots that show off the beauty of the Japanese wilderness, to close-up shots of the deadly battle sequences.  There are some amazing scenes throughout this book, although I personally really enjoyed the fantastic and powerful renderings of key moments of Japanese history and mythology that were featured in the volume’s first two issues.  Everything from the formation of the lands to the events that gave Grasscutter its name is very cool, and Sakai expertly imparts his own style into these intriguing spiritual stories.  The massive battle that ended the civil war is shown in some exquisite detail here, and I loved how he showcased this elaborate and deadly naval fight.  Of course, you cannot forget the brilliant final duel between Usagi and Jei, which was such a highlight of the story.  Sakai goes out of his way to make this fight as epic and as brutal as possible, and you get a real sense of both participants skill and determination to win.  The mystical aftermath of their fight looks extremely awesome as well, and I loved all the intriguing and unique detail Sakai featured here, including the spooky alterations that happened to one of the characters.  Another brilliant artistic outing from Sakai that perfectly supported his incredible storytelling and character work and is some must see drawing.

Usagi #22

As you can no doubt tell from the glowing descriptions above, I deeply enjoyed this 12th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Stan Sakai was in excellent form when he created the powerful and exciting Grasscutter, which features one of the author’s most impressive and extensive stories.  Featuring all his best characters, his great love of Japanese culture, as well as some impressive artwork, Grasscutter shines as an outstanding entry in this brilliant series, and it is one that cannot recommend enough.

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Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray

Star Wars - The Fallen Star

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 January 2022)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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The awesome new focus of Star Wars fiction, the intriguing High Republic range, continues to shine brightly with the latest epic adult novel, The Fallen Star, a dark and impressive entry by the extremely talented Claudia Gray.

Ever since its start at the beginning of 2020, the High Republic multimedia project has presented some unique Star Wars stories that I have deeply enjoyed.  Set in the golden age of the Republic and the Jedi, hundreds of years before the films, The High Republic focuses on a different generation of Jedi facing off against the murderous raiders known as the Nihil.  This series has so far produced some excellent gems across various forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and other cool entries written by some of the best authors of Star Wars fiction.

While there is an interesting spread of fiction in The High Republic, the key storylines are generally contained in the main adult novels such as The Fallen Star, and the previous novels, Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, which introduced the High Republic era and the Nihil, and The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, which saw the Nihil launch a bold attack at the very heart of the Republic.  Other cool entries, such as the young adult novels Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows, and the audio drama Tempest Runner, added to this tapestry, and it has resulted in a fantastic and compelling overarching narrative and setting.  As such, I have been very excited to see where this franchise goes next, especially as The Fallen Star acts as one of the finales to the current phase of High Republic fiction.  Written by Claudia Gray, who previously authored the incredible Master & Apprentice (one of my favourite Star Wars novels), this was an epic book with a fantastic adventure story.

Following the brutal Nihil attack on the Republic Fair, the entire galaxy is hunting for the Nihil, determined to destroy them and their mysterious leader, the Eye, once and for all.  However, the Republic and the Jedi are unaware that the true Eye of the Nihil is the fearsome Marchion Ro, who plans to devastate the Jedi and the Republic headquarters, Starlight Beacon.  A massive space station out in the Outer Rim, Starlight Beacon was intended to bring light and cooperation to the most remote areas of the galaxy.  Staffed by some of the most powerful Jedi, Starlight Beacon stands a symbol of hope and determination, but that is about to change.  Determined to make the Jedi and the Republic pay, Ro sends his cohorts on a deadly mission to destroy Starlight Beacon from the inside, causing a massive explosive that rips through the station, causing chaos and destruction, as Starlight Beacon loses all power.

Determined to save the station and its inhabitants no matter what, the Jedi try to restart the station before it is too late.  However, something else is aboard Starlight Beacon, something ancient, unseen and bearing an insatiable hunger that drives it to hunt and feast on Jedi.  With their abilities to connect with the Force disrupted by the foul beasts stalking them, the Jedi will need the help of everyone on the station, including weird pilots, annoying droids and rogue Nihil, to save the people around them.  But even their combined abilities might not be enough to save Starlight Beacon from its imminent destruction, nor from monsters capable of turning even the most skilled Jedi into dust.

The Fallen Star was an incredible book from Claudia Gray that does an excellent job of continuing the impressive High Republic storylines.  Gray has come up with a very unique Star Wars tale that sees some of this era’s best characters trapped in an impossible and dangerous situation.  Loaded with a ton of action, some major plot moments, interesting storyline continuation and a ton of character development, this was an excellent novel that proves very easy to get drawn into.

Honestly the best way to describe The Fallen Star’s story is as a nautical disaster story, like Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure, in space.  This novel begins with the initial stages of the disaster as a small team of Nihil saboteurs infiltrate Starlight Beacon and systematically take out the station.  These early parts of the novel have a great sense of tension, as the reader is forced to watch the Nihil continue to succeed while the Jedi remain oblivious.  The story starts to pick up as the Nihil plan goes into effect, not only because of the explosion that knocks Starlight Beacon out of orbit, but because several unseen creatures immediately start to attack the Jedi in brutal mind-bending ways while also disrupting their connection to the Force.  The true disaster narrative takes over from here as the characters attempt to survive the destruction while also trying to save the station.  Gray really dives into character psychology here, as the Jedi are forced to overcome their guilt and the building fear of the creatures attacking, while the other characters try to determine whether to focus on self-preservation or helping those around them.  The last two-thirds of the book is purely devoted to the attempts to survive the station’s slow destruction, and Gray really does not let up the plot intensity.  Every time the protagonists seem to make some progress or success they are immediately hit with obstacles or tragedy that seek to overwhelm them.  This leads to some impressive and confronting moments throughout the book, and you honestly will be surprised and shocked by some of the deaths or twists that occur.  While there are one or two fake-outs designed to ramp up the feels, you will come away from this book being extremely moved and a little emotionally drained.

This was a very well put together novel; it has an amazing flow to it, and once the various disasters start up, the pace and stakes of the novel just keep jumping higher and higher.  The use of multiple character perspectives helps to tell a massive and impressive story, and you really get the full sense of how deadly and disastrous the events of the book are.  I loved how well Gray layered tension and grief into the non-stop action of the plot, and you are honestly left reeling or yelling at the book, wishing to help the characters you have become extremely attached to.  Gray also is also very skilled at detailing some fun and compelling action and disaster sequences, which works extremely well to showcase all the chaos and destruction occurring around.  I did find that there were a few plot gaps here and there throughout the novel, most likely because the full extent of this event will be featured in other High Republic media, such as the main comic series, although this didn’t impact the story too dramatically.  Overall, thanks to its powerful moments, character growth and great action, and you have an outstanding narrative that hits all the right notes at the right time.

In addition to its excellent narrative, The Fallen Star is also a great new entry in the High Republic sub-series.  Gray does an impressive job of continuing the events from the previous pieces of High Republic fiction, and aspects from most of the preceding novels are strongly featured here.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the return of several great characters and the continuation of some interesting story arcs, and Gray brings them together to create an outstanding Star Wars story.  Like most of the High Republic series, The Fallen Star is probably best read by fans of the expanded literary universe, especially as much of the build-up for this period was in the prior novels.  While I would recommend at least reading The Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm first, people with a basic knowledge of Star Wars should be able to follow what is happening here, as Gray does a good job of recapping key events.  While there are a few good reveals here, there is still an aura of mystery around other parts of the book, particularly the character of Marchion Ro and the real motivations of the Nihil.  An epic conclusion to this phase of the High Republic novels, I will be interested to see if any other reveals or revelations occur in the connected comics.

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 3

To support her fantastic narrative, Gray makes use of an excellent collection of great characters, and I loved the mixture of protagonists and antagonists that she chose.  Not only are the protagonists of the previous adult High Republic books heavily featured, but Gray also makes strong use of characters from young adult novels like Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows.  This amazing blend of character perspectives really helped to craft a unique and interesting book, and it was great to see the different protagonists react to the situation.  Readers should be aware that Gray has gone on a bit of a killing spree here, and several fan favourite characters may not survive.  These deaths really help to ratchet up the tension and emotional weight of this novel, and you will really be left reeling.  While I might question the wisdom of killing off as many characters as they did, especially as the High Republic has a greater need of recognisable characters than other Star Wars novels, I think they all worked in the context of the plot and served the overall narrative extremely well.

The most prominent characters of The Fallen Star are the Jedi protagonists of Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm.  These Jedi go through some big moments in The Fallen Star, especially as they face disaster and failure on a scale they have rarely seen before.  Gray works in some very interesting changes in the various Jedi’s characterisation because of the unseen monsters let loose on the station who disrupt the Jedi’s connection to the Force, which messes with their heads.  As a result, for most of the book the Jedi are scared, uncertain and irritable, which is a fun and clever change of pace that I felt added to the high-stakes disaster narrative extremely well.  The most prominent of these characters include Stellan Gios, Bell Zettifar, Elzar Mann, who have had some excellent character arcs in the previous novels, and it was great to see them again.

The first of these is Elzar Mann, who has been a standout figure due to his battles with his emotions, his romantic feelings towards fellow Jedi Avar Kriss, and his inadvertent connection to the Dark Side of the Force.  Following this dark moment, Mann has gone into a deep meditation retreat with a unique spiritual guide, who is teaching him to have a different perspective on life.  As a result, when Mann returns to Starlight Beacon just before the first attack, he has mostly cut himself off from the Force.  While this impacts his ability and mentality as a Jedi, his lack of a Force connection ensures that he is one of the only Jedi not incapacitated by the monsters roaming the station, which forces him take on more responsibility during the crisis.  I liked seeing this side of Mann, and it was great to watch him attempt to step up and protect his more responsible friends.  Unfortunately, Mann also experiences some big losses and failures in this novel which really strike him hard.  The final few chapters of The Fallen Star have some major moments for this character, and there was some brilliant development occurring here.  Gray did an incredible job expanding on one of the best and most complex High Republic protagonists here, and I loved Mann’s story in this book.

I also deeply enjoyed the story arc that surrounded apprentice Bell Zettifar.  Bell has gone through a lot in the last two books, especially as his master was killed before him in The Rising Storm.  This has led to some excellent and dark moments for Bell, and Gray does a wonderful job continuing them here as Bell struggles for most of this book, dealing with intense doubt and a sense of failure that gets enhanced by the influence of the strange creatures stalking the station.  I enjoyed seeing Bell slowly regain his confidence as he finds himself in the middle of another crisis and it led to some great and heartfelt moments, even as Bell suffered even more personal tragedies.

I must also highlight the continued story of Stellan Gios, the Jedi Master and rising star of the Order who was such a fantastic figure in The Rising Storm.  Stellan starts this book off as the new Marshal of Starlight Beacon, but he is still impacted by the doubts and trauma of the last Nihil attack at the Republic Fair.  Thanks to this and the influence of the Nihil’s monsters, Stellan shows a very different side to his character in The Fallen Star, being more petty, angry, and dispirited.  This is such a substantial change to what we have previously seen out of Stellan that it really hammers home just how dangerous the Nihil monsters are.  Watching Stellan battle with his emotions is pretty intense, and it proved to be exceptional to see him slowly overcome everything that is happening to him.  Gray writes an amazing couple of moments for Stellan in this book, and you end up with an impressive appreciation of this character by the end of this awesome book.

Aside from these main three figures, The Fallen Star also features an interesting array of supporting Jedi characters.  This includes the friendliest and fluffiest Jedi of all-time, the Wookie Burryaga, who everyone loves due to his kind nature and innate connection to the Force.  Burryaga forms a moving friendship with Bell, and he is easily one of the best supporting characters in the entire novel.  I also liked the reappearance of the Jedi Wayseeker, Orla Jareni, a semi-rogue Jedi who offers her own insights into the Force.  I will say I was surprised that there was barely any Ava Kriss in this novel.  Kriss, who is frequently touted as the main protagonist of the High Republic, has barely appeared in any of the novels since The Light of the Jedi, being more of a feature in the comics.  I feel that she leaves a noticeable absence in the novel, especially as the other character seem to reference how awesome she is in every second sentence.  Still, I think it worked without her, although I hope they use her more in the future.

Aside from the Jedi characters, Gray also makes exceptional use of an interesting collection of other characters trapped aboard the station who offer a great alternate viewpoint to the various Jedi.  What is interesting is that most of these characters are creations of Gray’s who first appeared in her last High Republic book, Into the Dark.  This includes the crew of the Vessel, a unique and unusual ship that transports Mann and Orla Jareni to Starlight Beacon and then gets trapped there.  The Vessel is crewed by a very entertaining trio of characters who balance each other out nicely.  This includes owner Affie Hollow, who plays straight woman to her unusual crew, and is a great central adventurer and emotional base for much of the book.  However, Affie is very much overshadowed by the rest of the crew, including captain Leox Gyasi, who is essentially a space hippy.  Leox is a wildly entertaining figure, with his Zen mindset, pacifistic tendencies, unique way of talking, and outrageous sense of humour, and you will quickly fall in love with him as the book progresses, especially in the few scenes where he gets serious.

The most solid member of the Vessel’s crew is Geode, a Vintian who ends up being the heart and soul of not only the Vessel but all of Gray’s High Republic novels.  Geode is essentially a sentient rock who never talks, rarely moves, and for most of his first appearance in Into the Dark, you were half convinced was some sort of elaborate prank and was really just a rock.  However, Geode ends up being a remarkable figure, capable of great feats of ingenuity and courage, while also being a social genius and a massive flirt.  I cannot emphasise how hilarious it is to see all the outrageous things that the other characters attribute to this silent, giant rock, especially as he just sits there for the entire book.  However, the other characters can apparently all see the “facial” expressions he gives off, and he is apparently quite an emotional and thoughtful character, who ends up being the solution to several problems.  Honestly, having a motionless rock as a major supporting character should not work, but it really does in The Fallen Star, and I loved every second that was spent on him.  I enjoyed seeing all these characters return, and I hope that Gray brings them back in the future, although I do worry the Geode joke might eventually becomes too overused.

Former Nihil members Nan and Chancey Yarrow perfectly rounded out the main cast aboard Starlight Beacon.  Both have had some interesting appearances in the young adult books, and it was great to see them here.  Nan is another character created by Gray and is a young and zealous Nihil member, while Chancey is a brilliant scientist working for the Nihil while also promoting her own agenda.  After leaving the Nihil and starting their own partnership, Nan and Chancey get captured by the Jedi and are being questioned about Starlight Beacon when events kick off.  Freed by the Nihil infiltrators, they spend most of the book on the fence about where their loyalties lie as they try to find their own way to escape.  This results in a fantastic and compelling alternate viewpoint to the book, and I loved seeing these two morally grey characters interact with the more selfless protagonists.  Gray comes up with a great dynamic between Nan and Chancey, which is semi mother-daughter in nature, and there are some interesting moments as Nan struggles to overcome her loyalty to the Nihil.  Their storyline comes to a very interesting and powerful end, and I will be deeply intrigued to see what happens to them next.

I want to make a final mention about the antagonists of The Fallen Star, especially as there is a rather unusual dynamic with this book.  This because, in many ways, the main villain of the story isn’t the Nihil, but is instead time, despair, impossible choices, panic, and human nature.  To a degree, these basic, uncontrollable elements end up causing more damage, and the impossible battle against them results in much of the book’s most dramatic and powerful moments.  There are a few proper villains in this book, such as series antagonist Marchion Ro.  Despite only being in it for a short while, Marchion cuts a distinctive and menacing figure in The Fallen Star, especially as he instigates the next stage of his master plan.  There are some interesting developments around Marchion here, and although they are probably saving any major revelations for his upcoming comic limited series, I felt that he continues to shine as the main villain of The High Republic.  The rest of the Nihil aren’t shown as much in this book, although I did enjoy the examination of the fear and hatred associated with them, especially after all the pain and suffering they caused.  I was very intrigued by the mysterious Nihil controlled monsters that infest Starlight Beacon and mess with the Jedi.  Despite the fact you never see them, they are incredibly intimidating, effortlessly defeating the Jedi and sending them on some dangerous head-trips.  I cannot wait to find out more about them in the future, especially as they are bound to explore their history more, and it should lead to interesting discoveries.  Overall, The Fallen Star had an exceptional group of characters and their intense, compelling and entertaining story arcs really elevated this around exciting novel.

I will come as very little surprise to anyone familiar with this blog that I chose to check out The Fallen Star audiobook.  I have so much love for Star Wars audiobooks, and this ended up being a very good example of how fantastic this format could be as it combines impressive narration with clever sound effect and epic music.  With a run time of 13 and a half hours, this is a somewhat shorter Star Wars audiobook.  I had a wonderful time getting through the story in this format, and I found that the compelling narrative became even more intense when read to me.  This is particularly true in such a trauma and action laden book like The Fallen Star, with the awesome medium of the audiobook helping to enhance the danger and despair of the situation.  The use of sound effects and music was once again superb, and I loved how hearing the distinctive sound of blasters, lightsabers and other pieces of Star Wars technology, helped to bring me into the story and enhance the events being described.  I also cannot overemphasise how awesome it is to hear the incredible and iconic Star Wars music during this plot as well.  Whenever the music is played, especially during some of the more dramatic or action-packed sequences, it really enhances the impact of the moment, drawing the listener in and ensuring that they are perfectly entrapped by the events occurring.

You can’t talk about this audiobook without mentioning the epic voice work of the narrator Marc Thompson.  At this point in his career, Thompson is essentially Star Wars royalty, as he has narrated so many amazing Star Wars audiobooks over the years.  He is easily one of my favourite audiobook narrators and I loved his work on previous audiobooks like Thrawn, Chaos Rising, Greater Good, Lesser Evil, Scoundrels, Dark Disciple and more.  He once again does a great job on The Fallen Star, bringing all the characters to life and moving the story along at a swift pace.  I loved the consistency in voices from all the previous High Republic books he narrated, and he also did a great job voicing characters from other books he hasn’t worked on.  All the characters have very distinctive and fitting voices, which included some very distinctive accents, which helped to highlight the characters and what they did.  I also loved the sheer emotional range that Thompson was able to fit into these great characters, ensuring that all the intense emotions were on full display.  It was pretty intense hearing all the character’s despair, anger and grief as everything they knew and loved was burned around them, and it makes for some incredible sequences.  This was easily the best way to enjoy this cool Star Wars novel, and I would strongly recommend The Fallen Star audiobook to anyone interested in checking this book out.

Overall, Star Wars: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray is an excellent read that I would strongly recommend.  Featuring a clever, action packed, and emotionally rich, character driven story, The Fallen Star brilliantly continues the outstanding High Republic series, and you will love the dark places this story goes. I deeply enjoyed this cool book and I cannot wait to see what happens in this brilliant sub-series next.  Long live the High Republic!

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 2

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Leviathan Falls by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Falls Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Recorded Books (Audiobook – 30 November 2021)

Series: The Expanse – Book Nine

Length: 19 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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For my last review of 2021 I check out the epic and highly anticipated final book in the iconic The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Falls.

For the last ten years the science fiction genre has been dominated by the impressive and captivating The Expanse series.  Written by James S. A. Corey, the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, The Expanse series consists of nine awesome novels that navigate the troubles and wars of future humans in both our solar system, and other systems accessed by ancient alien technology.  This has been a pretty amazing series which has moved from wars between Earth, Mars and the Belt, to intergalactic travel and battles between galactic empires and interdimensional aliens.  I have been really enjoying this series lately, and the last two novels, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath were extremely fun, especially as they utilised the conquering Laconian Empire, which forced the protagonists to form a rebel movement known as the underground.

The plot of Leviathan Falls starts a few months after the events of Tiamat’s Wrath, which saw the underground destroy Laconia’s shipyards and free James Holden, captain of the Rocinante, and Teresa Duarte, the daughter of the Laconian high consul.  Now the Rocinante flies throughout the various settled systems attempting to keep the underground alive and bring down the faltering Laconian Empire.  At the same time, unnatural and destructive alien forces, disturbed by the intergalactic technology used to traverse space, are reaching into our universe and attempting to exterminate all human life.

The best hope for humanity may lie in the hands of the Laconian high consul, Winston Duarte, whose alien enhancements have given him unnatural insight into the universe.  However, Winston Duarte is currently missing, having vanished from his room as he attempts to unleash his ambitious master plan.  To find him, the Laconians unleash their ultimate hunter, Colonel Aliana Tanaka, who focuses on the Rocinante, determined to use Teresa as bait.  At the same time, Dr Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to uncover the secrets of the ancient aliens whose technology has allowed humanity to expand throughout the universe.  But her progress is dependent on the lives of the mysterious half-alien children in her care, whose ability to connect with the past could save the future.

As the situation in the universe becomes even more desperate, the crew of Rocinante are once again thrust into the midst of the battle for humanity’s survival.  Entering a desperate alliance and faced with near certain extinction, the Rocinante and their allies embark on a final battle for the future.  However, not only are they facing the malevolent forces from outside their universe, but also the radical and altered Winston Duarte, whose plan to save the species comes with an impossible price.  Can Holden and his crew stop him before it is too late, or is the final chapter in humanity’s story?

Leviathan Falls was another intense and impressive science fiction read from Corey, who brings this epic series to an end in a big way.  This ninth and final Expanse novel had a captivating and intense narrative filled with amazing and realistic science fiction elements, complex characters, and a fitting and heartbreaking conclusion that wraps everything up extremely well.  This ended up being a fantastic novel and I was glad I had a chance to see how everything finished up.

There is a great narrative for this book that takes the reader on a powerful and compelling ride as the authors seek to wrap everything up.  Leviathan Falls continues several of the storylines set up in the previous novels, especially Tiamat’s Wrath, and takes them towards their inevitable conclusion.  Told through multiple characters, including several minor figures, this is a slow-burn narrative that methodically sets up the various storylines and explores them to their full extent.  The story gets quite complex in places as the protagonists attempt to survive not only the various battles between the Laconians and the underground but also the malevolent entities attempting to take them down from another universe.  The first half of the story focuses on a cat-and-mouse battle between the protagonists on the Rocinante and the Laconian Colonel Tanaka, while there are some interesting examinations of Elvi’s attempts to understand the threat facing humanity.  These storylines lead up to a big event that sets up the intense and exciting second half of the novel and forces the previously disparate characters to come together and face the major threat.  This results in a massive, extended sequence that forces several characters to make some major decisions, and a moving conclusion that is both devastating and a fitting ending to the franchise.

The team behind The Expanse have a really unique writing style that I think fits the epic scope of their series.  Using an intense amount of description, as well as some colourful analogies, the authors paint a brilliant picture of the events occurring around them that perfectly encapsulates the insanities and complexities of the situation.  The Expanse series is known for its realistic approach to science fiction, and this continues through in Leviathan Falls as the reader gets a real sense of the awesome nature of space flight through the various characters’ eyes.  While some of the science fiction elements are obviously invented solely for the narrative, most of the human technology in this book appears to be quite realistic and well thought out.  I also love the cool take on space travel, communication and fights, with many of the events in space taking hours or days to complete due to distance and light delays.  This is particularly impressive during the battle sequences which rely more on calculations and manoeuvres than fast-paced firepower, and it really added to the intensity of multiple scenes throughout the book.

While I enjoyed the narrative and the way that the authors told the story, Leviathan Falls did drag a little in places.  I honestly think they could have streamlined this into a better novel by taking out, say, 50 to 100 pages, and I personally would have cut all the chapters told from the perspective of Kit Kamal, which have no major impact on the overall story.  I also think that the authors went a tad overboard in places trying to make some of the elements and experiences seem a little cleverer than they needed to be, such as certain long-winded interludes.  While I understand that this is their writing style and it usually works, I felt that it made parts of the book a little unwieldy and unnecessarily complex.  Being the grand finale, it was also a very inaccessible novel for new readers, especially as so much of the plot relies on knowledge of some of the preceding books, particularly Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath.  However, the rest of Leviathan Falls story more than compensates for some of the above issues, and this still ended up being an excellent and compelling read.

Fans of this series will no doubt appreciate some of the excellent world building that took place in Leviathan Falls.  The author introduces some interesting and compelling expansions of various elements of lore and technology within this universe, especially when it comes to the two ancient alien races who the protagonists have been encountering throughout the series.  It was rather fascinating to see how certain elements were utilised throughout the plot, and they ended up enhancing the narrative extremely well.  I loved all the use of alien technology, especially as there are some great call-backs to the previous books and the weird molecules and artefacts the protagonists previously encountered.  There was also a good wrap up with the universe that I really appreciated, and it think it ends everything on a compelling and interesting note.

Leviathan Falls features an impressive cast of complex characters, and the multiple perspectives are used to great effect throughout the book to craft a massive and elaborate narrative.  I liked the cool range of characters in this book, especially as it primarily focuses on the well-established cast from the previous novels, as well as one great new antagonist.  The vast array of perspectives proves to be a lot of fun to explore, although I do question the necessity of one or two overutilised point-of-view characters.  I also appreciated some of the development that occurred around the recurring cast of the series.  This included a tangible sense of weariness that multiple characters experienced, especially the series’ long-running protagonists, which helped to reflect how they have aged and evolved over the years, especially in the face of so much adversity.  There are also a couple of interesting inclusions that I quite enjoyed, including one excellent character whose return will come as a pleasant surprise to fans of The Expanse.

There are several extremely awesome characters that I really must highlight in this book, including protagonist James Holden, the captain of the Rocinante and main character of the series.  Holden has gone through a lot throughout The Expanse novels, and it shows in Leviathan Falls.  The character is clearly dealing with some PTSD following his extended imprisonment in the prior novel, and there are some compelling and intense trauma storylines around him.  Holden has a particularly major moment in this novel, and it ended up being an interesting and moving novel for this great central character.  Aside from Holden, you also must love the work put into the surviving crew members of the Rocinante, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton and Alex Kamal, each of whom have their own interesting storylines and serve as great point-of-view characters.  I particularly enjoyed the increased focus on Naomi now that she’s the head of the underground, and it was still fascinating to see her as a confident and capable leader.  Amos’s storyline was also rather interesting, especially after he died and was resurrected by alien technology in the previous novel.  This gives him some unique perspectives throughout the book, although there were only so many times you can hear about the “unnatural pauses” he now has.

In addition to the Rocinante crew members, several other exceptional characters also really stood out to me.  I continued to enjoy the inclusion of Elvi Okoye, the brilliant scientist who was drafted into the Laconian military force as the leading expert on alien technology.  Elvi offers most of the scientific insight into the events occurring in the novel, and it was interesting to see her experiences as she attempts to understand the ancient alien technology and discover a solution to the mysterious attacks plaguing the various human systems.  I also really appreciated Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a Laconian soldier who is sent to track down the missing Winston Duarte by hounding the Rocinante and trying to take back Teresa Duarte.  Despite being a new character, Tanaka has one of the best arcs in the entire novel, as she is forced to contend with not only the boldness of the protagonists but also her own instabilities and issues.  While she initially appears to be a mostly rage filled attack-dog, the author soon expands on her character and backstory turning her into a very complex and somewhat sympathetic figure.  This is particularly true after a major event results in an unwelcome intrusion in her mind, and her inability to cope makes her even wilder and angrier.  These brilliant characters really helped to enhance Leviathan Fall’s plot and it was an absolute pleasure to see all the great character driven story arcs come to an end.

While I did receive a physical copy of Leviathan Falls, I ended up listening to the audiobook version to fit this book into my reading schedule.  This was a pretty good audiobook, and I had a fantastic time getting through it.  Leviathan Falls has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, which did take me a while to get through, especially in some of the spots where my engagement slipped a little.  Despite the length, this was a fantastic audiobook adaptation and I appreciated the impressive narration from Jefferson Mays, who has previously lent his voice to all the previous The Expanse novels.  Mays’ voice seems to fit the massive and epic format of the series extremely well and I found myself appreciating and following some of the heavy scientific elements, battle sequences and intriguing analogies a bit better with his work.  He also provides some excellent voices to the various characters featured in the series which fit their various personalities and helped to showcase their emotions.  I had an awesome time listening to this latest audiobook and it is an impressive way to check this novel out.

After nine epic novels, The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey finally comes to end with the fantastic Leviathan Falls.  This final book does an excellent job of tying together the various story threads from the previous novels and giving this impressive series the outstanding conclusion it deserves.  Filled with complex characters, a powerful and rich science fiction setting, and an intriguing central storyline, Leviathan Falls was an awesome read.  An amazing and cool conclusive episode, Leviathan Falls is really worth checking out and I loved its compelling and exciting story.

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Mind Bullet by Jeremy Robinson

Mind Bullet 2

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 23 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Infinite Timeline

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The deliciously twisted mind of bestselling science fiction thriller author Jeremy Robinson returns with another epic and over-the-top adventure, Mind Bullet, a fantastic and captivating read.

Robinson is an outstanding author whose work I first checked out earlier this year.  Known for his Nemesis Saga and Chess Team series, Robinson is currently working on a collection of partially connected standalone novels, all of which are set within the same extended universe and which are leading up to some massive crossover novels.  I was lucky enough to read one of Robinson’s other 2021 releases earlier this year, The Dark, which was a captivating and deeply entertaining read with a bonkers story to it.  I had a wonderful time with The Dark, which got a full five-star rating from me, and it made me an instant fan of this cool writer.  As such, I was extremely intrigued when I saw that he had another novel coming out this year.  This book, Mind Bullet, was another unique and fascinating read from Robinson with a killer plot to it that I just had to pick up and check out.

In the world of high-level international assassination, Jonas is something of a legend.  Raised by two honourable killers, Jonas had set out on his own, taking on the most dangerous and difficult of jobs and succeeding in some extremely flashy ways.  Despite the ostentatious techniques used in some of his kills, Jonas has managed to stay out of the limelight and out of sight from conventional law enforcement due to fact that none of his targets ever shows any signs of violence.  That is because Jonas has a secret: he has telekinesis and can blow a small hole into people’s brains merely by concentrating on them, an unexplained ability he calls Mind Bullet.

However, despite all his success and the accompanying wealth, Jonas is unhappy and depressed.  Alone except for his sarcastic and possibly psychotic AI, Bubbles, Jonas is still grieving the loss of his dead parents, convinced that someone killed them and got away with it.  As his depression and loneliness results in Jonas taking more and more dangerous jobs, Bubbles decides to intervene for his own good.  Playing matchmaker, Bubbles determines that Madee, a local Thai food delivery woman and part-time thief, would be perfect for him.  After an awkward first meeting where Madee attempts to rob him, the two loners start to hit it off.  However, true love is about to get interrupted by the worst kind of gate crasher, the assassin group known as the Shrieking Ninja.

Angered by one of Madee’s burglaries, the Shrieking Ninjas attempt to break into Jonas’s house and kill them both.  Barely escaping from the Shrieking Ninjas’ mysterious and powerful master, Jonas goes on the run with Madee, hoping to find a way to get them off their trail for good.  However, the disastrous and very public encounter at his house has raised unwelcome attention and Jonas is shocked to find that a $10 million bounty has been placed on his head.  A mysterious organisation is determined to capture Jonas by any means necessary, and every elite assassin and hitman in America is willing to collect.  Pursued by a legion of outrageous killers, Jonas, Madee and Bubbles find themselves thrust into the midst of a dark and deadly conspiracy that lies in the heart of Jonas’s past and the secrets behind his lethal abilities.  Can this unusual group survive the onslaught headed their way, or will they be buried by a legion of lethal killers with their own unique abilities?

Wow, just wow, this novel was the absolute definition of fun.  Robinson did another amazing job with Mind Bullet, producing an intense and exciting novel that is wildly addictive and incredibly entertaining.  Featuring a brilliant, fast-paced story, Mind Bullet had me hooked from the very second I started listening to it, and I ended up powering through it in a few short days.  An outstanding and compelling read, this novel also got a five-star rating from me.

Mind Bullet has an awesome and deeply entertaining narrative that is extremely easy to read and even easier to get addicted to.  Robinson starts off strong with an audacious assassination involving an airborne car, an unethical AI, psychic powers and a parachute, which serves as the perfect introduction to Jonas and his assistant, Bubbles.  From there the story quickly evolves, with Jonas meeting the mysterious Madee while being forced to defend her from the outrageous Shrieking Ninjas (that name says it all).  Following that encounter, Jonas and Madee are forced to contend with continued attacks from even more unusual and deadly assassins, each of whom steal the scene they’re in, either by their unique methods or dangerous powers not unlike Jonas’s.  The protagonists are thrust into deadly situation after deadly situation, picking up new friends as progressively more dangerous foes attack with devastating effect.  This amazing and compelling narrative contains the right blend of forward action and intriguing backstory, as the attacks awaken memories from Jonas’s past, which he also seeks to explore.  After a series of interesting reveals after the halfway point of the book, the protagonists are thrust into their most dangerous situation yet when they encounter the book’s big bads, in an epic and twisty confrontation that brings everything together and ensures everything is out on the table.  All this leads up to an explosive conclusion that wraps up the story and the character arcs exceedingly well, while also leaving the door open for appearances in future Robinson books.

This entire story was extremely intense and addictive from the very beginning, and I had an outstanding time getting through it, and loved every single development, explosive encounter, and fantastically weird new character.  Despite its myriad elements, the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the readers are left feeling extremely satisfied, especially as this is a mostly self-contained story.  I felt that Robinson’s use of single first-person perspective to tell the whole story worked extremely well, especially as the point-of-view character was particularly entertaining and enjoyable.  Like most of Robinson’s stories, Mind Bullet’s narrative contained a great combination of humour, action, character growth and sheer insanity, which helps to produce a deeply entertaining and compelling plot that grabs the reader’s attention and holds on tight.  While substantially less dark in tone and character development than Robinson’s prior book, The Dark, Mind Bullet has serious moments which contrast extremely well with the inherent silliness to produce an overall epic read.  I honestly loved every second of this story, and there are some brilliant scenes featured throughout it, from massive and elaborate fight scenes, brutal psychic brawls both in reality and the mental plain, as well as several simpler scenes that deal with the characters and show their growth as people.

It is interesting to note that this book is part of Robinson’s wider Infinite Timeline, a collection of mostly unconnected novels set in the same overarching universe.  Robinson is currently making a play to combine the plots and characters of these standalone novels, and several upcoming novels will feature multiple characters from across the canon.  As such, Mind Bullet contains multiple references to Robinson’s prior works, mainly Tribe and The Dark, which are part of the same loosely connected storyline (the books of which are are going to have their first crossover in 2022’s Khaos).  There is also a surprising appearance from some of the protagonists of Robinson’s other books, which hints at the bigger crossover later in the series in Singularity (this universe’s version of Avengers: Endgame).  While readers can easily enjoy Mind Bullet without any knowledge of Robinson’s prior books, a couple of scenes and references might be a bit weird without context, especially as a few characters are briefly parachuted (or teleported) in.  Still, readers should be able to follow what is going on without too much difficulty, especially as Robinson does provide some explanation or interesting reaction from the protagonist, and hopefully these appearances will encourage them to check out some of the author’s other books.  I personally really enjoyed these inclusions, and it was fun to see how Robinson is getting more and more blatant with the connections between the various novels.  I am really looking forward to seeing how this entire series comes together, and I really need to go back and read some of Robinson’s other books before this happens.

One of the things that Robinson truly excels at as an author is his ability to produce some complex and relatable characters.  This is particularly true in Mind Bullet, which features a fantastic cast of compelling and relatable protagonists and antagonists with intriguing plot threads that the reader will quickly get invested in.

The most prominent character of this novel is the point-of-view protagonist, Jonas, the dangerous assassin with a heart of gold.  In many ways, Jonas was a pretty typical protagonist for Robinson, a confident and fun-loving figure who cracks a ton of jokes and has their own unique style and a liking for obscure pop culture.  I had a lot of fun following the adventure through Jonas’s eyes, especially as his hilarious view of all the outrageous stuff occurring around him and his constant quips kept me in stiches for most of the novel.  Despite this entertaining outer facade, once you dig deeper Jonas proves to be a lot more complex and emotionally damaged.  The character is chronically depressed and bored, especially after the mysterious car crash that killed his parents, and at the start of the book he has a substantial subconscious death wish.  The character evolves for the better as the novel progresses, especially as he starts to make some connections with the various side-characters.  These friendships and deeper relationships really change him for the better, although they also uncover a range of secrets from the past.  I loved the dive into the character’s psychic abilities, especially as he goes through a trial-by-fire against a range of powerful foes, each of whom is deadlier than the last.  It was also cool and intriguing to explore his hidden, traumatic past, which the author does extremely well through several clever flashback sequences.  The eventual reveal of who or what Jonas really is was done very well, and it will be interesting to see how the author expands on that in some of the future books.

My other favourite character in Mind Bullet was probably the sassy and potentially crazy artificial intelligence, Bubbles.  Bubbles, whose origins and capabilities are also unknown, is Jonas’s assistant and best friend, whose personality is growing based on her interactions with Jonas.  Thanks to the unique experiences she has gained living alongside a quipping assassin, Bubbles has developed quite a sarcastic and entertaining personality, and nearly every interaction with Bubbles results in an inappropriate joke or shocking comment which is pretty hilarious.  Like Jonas, Bubbles also develops a bit throughout the novel, and it was fascinating to see the author’s viewpoint about nature vs nurture when it comes to this character’s personality and emotions.  Despite being an AI, Bubbles is quite a caring being, even if she has developed some homicidal tendencies (especially towards ducks), and I appreciated the unique bond she forms first with Jonas, and then with some of the characters in the book.  Bubble’s meddling in Jonas’s life to keep him alive is particularly sweet, even if she tries to cover it with analytics, and it ended up being one of the major character threads of this book.  An outstanding and brilliant AI character who you will fall in love with!

Aside from Jonas and Bubbles, there are some other amazing characters throughout Mind Bullet.  Madee is another sassy and strong-willed female character (most of Robinson’s characters are sassy and sarcastic), whose break-in to Jonas’s house triggers all the events of the book.  Madee is another fun character, and I really loved the entertaining romance that bloomed between her and Jonas, despite their awkward, computer assisted meeting.  Robinson plays it pretty smart with Madee, and I loved some of the great twists surrounding her, even if by the final reveal it is apparent there is more going on with her.  Jonas also bands together with a group of other complex and entertaining characters, most of whom get pulled into his orbit as the world explodes around him.  While I did think the inclusion of several attractive female characters helping Jonas did appear a little harem-like, each of them proves to be a valuable member of the team, and I liked some of the fun character arcs surrounding them.  I also really need to highlight the fun collection of killers that come after the protagonists throughout Mind Bullet, especially as Robinson went out of his way to produce some wild and truly ridiculous figures here, including incompetent Neo Nazis, stereotypical gun-toting Texans, and foul-mouthed murderous nuns.  There are also a group of dangerous psychic killers, each of whom has their own unique history with Jonas, and whose compelling range of powers results in some dramatic action sequences when they try to fight the protagonists.  I had an outstanding time getting to know all these brilliant characters, and the sheer range of captivating figures really helps to make Mind Bullet stand out.

When Mind Bullet came out I absolutely had to grab this book in audiobook format.  This is because Mind Bullet was narrated by the incredibly talented R. C. Bray, who is one of my all-time favourite audiobook narrators (check out his narration of Michael Mammay’s Planetside, Spaceside and Colonyside).  Bray, who has narrated most of Robinson’s works, did another incredible job here, lending his fantastic and powerful voice to this wild and entertaining book.  Bray really gets Robinson’s fantastic protagonists and writing style, and he was soon moving this brilliant novel along and an ultra-fast pace, ensuring that listeners power through its 11 hour and 42 minute runtime in a very short order.  Bray really dives into the characters of the book, and I loved how he brought Jonas to life, ensuring that the reader gets the full sense of his humour, unique worldview and deeper inner struggles.  The rest of the character are also portrayed perfectly as well, especially Bubbles, and I loved the cool and amusing voices that he provides to each of them.  Bray obviously has a lot of fun here with this book, and the fantastic voices he uses for some of the more unique moments and characters are extremely entertaining and memorable.  I especially loved the ultra-serious and dramatic voice that he used for the formal name-drooping introduction of each major character’s names or codenames (which appear in the printed version in massive bold print).  I really appreciated this fun and entertaining take on the audiobook narration, and you will fall in love with Bray’s brilliant voice and entertaining style if you check out the audiobook version of this novel.

Overall, Mind Bullet is another epic and incredible read from the exceptional Jeremy Robinson.  Robinson’s latest book is crazy in all the right ways, and readers will deeply enjoy the wild and unpredictable ride that the characters go on.  Featuring an amazing group of characters, some fantastic humour, and some massive memorable scenes, Mind Bullet is an outstanding novel that I had an awesome time getting through.  Highly recommended to anyone looking for something fun, especially in its audiobook format, you need to check this book out!

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