Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

Publisher: Audible (Audiobook – 18 November 2020)

Series: Altered Realms – Book One

Length: 21 hours and 26 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altered Realms Cover 2

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Ascendancy - Chaos Rising Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 1 September 2020)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of Star Wars fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with a brand-new series that explores the early days of his most iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, with the first book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Chaos Rising.

A long time ago, beyond a galaxy far, far away…

Beyond the edges of the known galaxy, past the borders of the Republic, beyond even the backwater Outer Rim, lies the Unknown Regions.  The Unknown Regions are a chaotic and barely explored section of space, where hyperspace travel is difficult and dangers lurk around every corner.  Despite this, many species flourish in this region, fighting for their survival and forming civilisations hidden from the eyes of the Republic and the Separatists as they fight their bitter civil war.  However, out of all these races, none are more mysterious, secretive and dangerous than the Chiss Ascendancy.

The Chiss have long considered themselves to be one of the most powerful races within the Unknown Regions.  Boasting vast fleets of powerful vessels which can appear anywhere within the Unknown Regions thanks to their great secret weapon, the force-sensitive children who can navigate hyperspace in the Unknown Regions, known as Skywalkers, the Chiss believe themselves safe and secure.  However, a sudden ill-fated attack on their home planet by a mysterious fleet quickly shatters this allusion.  While many, including the Chiss ruling council, are convinced that the attacking ships are a precursor to an invasion and begin preparations to withdraw their outer fleets, Supreme General Ba’kif believes that there is more to this attack then what is apparent.  In order to explore his suspicions, Ba’kif calls upon one of his most talented officers to investigate, the young tactical genius Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known as Thrawn.

Many years before he became the Emperor’s most effective weapon as a Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn, served his own people as a member of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Already renowned for his rare tactical ability, as well as his disregard for the politics and rules of the Ascendancy, Thrawn begins his investigation into the attack and swiftly determines that it was merely a feint, designed to draw the Ascendancy’s attention away from a much more dangerous threat.  A new malevolent alien empire is building strength in the Unknown Regions, and its eyes are firmly fixed on the Chiss.  With his hands tied by protocol and with his political enemies within the Ascendancy trying to take him down, Thrawn may be unable to stop the upcoming attack before it is too late.  However, Thrawn always has a plan, and the Unknown Regions are about to understand just how dangerous he truly is.

This was another fantastic outing from Timothy Zahn, who has produced a cool and intriguing prequel novel to his previous series.  Zahn is one of the most experienced and highly regarded authors of Star Wars tie-in fiction in the world today, having written several impressive novels for both the current Disney-owned canon, and the previous Star Wars Legends canon.  While he has written various Star Wars novels, such as the fun standalone novel Scoundrels, Zahn is probably best known for his 1991 release, Heir of the Jedi, which is generally considered to be the start of a whole new era of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  While there are a number of interesting aspects to Heir of the Jedi, one of the most important things about it was that it introduced Zahn’s most distinctive and popular creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a rare alien officer in the xenophobic Imperial Navy who was revered as their ultimate tactician.  Thrawn proved to be a very popular character whose backstory and characterisation was later expanded on in a number of Zahn’s other Star Wars Legends novels.

Due to the Disney purchase of the Star Wars franchise and the subsequent removal of everything except the movies and the animated series from canon, Thrawn was temporarily erased as a canon character until the third season of the Star Wars Rebels animated television series, where he was reintroduced with an altered backstory and history.  As part of this reintroduction, Zahn was contracted to write several new Star Wars novels examining this new history of the character, and thus he wrote the Thrawn trilogy, featuring the excellent novels Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which are among some of the best pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction I have so far read.  This trilogy ended in 2019, but Zahn is far from done, having started a new trilogy, the Thrawn Ascendancy series, last year.  The Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, of which Chaos Rising is the first entry, is an intriguing and detailed series that serves as a prequel to the novel Thrawn and which show a younger version of the character as he serves the Chiss during the same time period as the Clone Wars.  Chaos Rising is an excellent and enjoyable novel which I read a few months ago, but which I have only just had a chance to review.  It was fantastic to see this complex and compelling character in action again, as well as more of Zahn’s impressive world-building.

This new novel from Zahn contains an amazing story that looks at the earliest adventures of Thrawn.  This is a very clever and layered tale that explores the main character in more detail while also providing him a new opponent to face in this book as he attempts to engage in battle against a dangerous enemy threatening his people.  Zahn builds a great narrative around the fight against this new antagonist, with Thrawn forced to engage in a number of intricate campaigns in order to obtain information and determine which points of weakness to exploit, whilst also have to contend with the machinations of members of his own race who are concerned with the reckless Thrawn’s actions.  At the same time, the author builds up a number of intriguing side characters who help to tell the tale of Thrawn in greater detail and with some interesting personal arcs.  This main storyline proves to be an extremely enjoyable and captivating read which flows at a great pace for most of the book, broken up with a number of cool and impressive battle sequences.  The main story is also supported by a fantastic collection of flashback sequences that depict an even younger version of Thrawn, showing some of his earlier encounters with many of the characters featured in the novel and highlighting how different the character has always been.  These flashbacks are used to great effect throughout the novel, not only building up the various characters’ pasts and personalities but also creating a great pace for the novel, with several key events from the protagonist’s life introduced where necessary to the main plot.  All of this helps to turn Chaos Rising, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series, into an intriguing prequel to the Thrawn trilogy as it begins to set up the various reasons why Thrawn was sent away by his people and recruited by the Empire.  One part of Chaos Rising even directly ties into the events of one of the books from the previous trilogy, Alliances, with the reader seeing an alternate viewpoint to Thrawn meeting with Anakin Skywalker that gives an entertaining context to the events of that previous book.  All of this results in a fantastic and clever story that is easy enjoy and which sets up some more intriguing adventures in the later entries in this series.

One of the things I always try to address while reviewing a Star Wars novel is what level of franchise knowledge a reader needs to have in order to fully enjoy the story.  While most Star Wars novels are generally fairly accessible to new readers or casual fans, I would say that Chaos Rising is one of those books that should primarily be read by major fans of the franchise.  This is because Zahn loads this novel up with a ton of Star Wars references and details, including details of obscure parts of Star Wars lore and characters.  While the author does do a good job of explaining all the relevant aspects of this extended universe through the book, I would say that having some pre-knowledge about some of these elements is important.  At a minimum I would suggest that the readers read Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy first, especially as Chaos Rising serves as a prequel to them, although fans with some basic knowledge of the character of Thrawn should be able to follow along without too much difficulty.  For new readers who do get through Chaos Rising, you are going to experience a huge amount of new information about the Star Wars universe as Zahn does a substantial amount of universe building throughout this book.  In particular, the author explores the legendary Chiss Ascendancy, a mysterious alien empire existing outside of the main Star Wars galaxy.  This is the first time that the Chiss planets and culture have been explored in any real detail in the current canon, and it proves to be a fascinating experience learning more about them and seeing the culture that produced such a unique character as Thrawn.  This novel contains a lot of detail about this alien race, as well as many other aspects of life outside the main galaxy setting of the Star Wars franchise, and while it is a tad overwhelming at times, I had a great time expanding my Star Wars knowledge and exploring this new, intriguing region.  It seems likely that Zahn will go into even more detail about this part of the Star Wars universe in future novels in the trilogy, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects he comes up with.

One of the best things about this book was seeing the return of the amazing and compelling character of Thrawn.  Thrawn is a very unique and enjoyable character, mainly because he has an unfathomable mind and is able to tactically outthink and outmatch any opponent that he comes across.  A highly analytical being who is able to discern fantastic insights about a person or species’ intentions, personalities and general mindsets from viewing some aspects of their creativity, mainly their artwork, Thrawn is easily able to predict actions and provide effective or crazy counters that shock and surprise everyone watching.  This makes him an incredibly fun character to see in action, especially as he makes some amazing and credible leaps of logic off the smallest details that Zahn features in his descriptions.  These analytical leaps then lead into a number of awesome and cool scenes where he outsmarts everyone around them, including in the book’s various battle sequences, which are awesome to read as there are some truly outrageous and clever tactical moves that no one can see coming.  Because of his way of thinking, Thrawn has a very closed off and odd personality that unnerves a lot of the people he deals with and makes many wary of his motivations and actions.

Just like he did in the previous novels, Zahn portrays Thrawn as a little less vicious and dangerous than he appears in Star Wars Rebels, with a little more humanity (or the Chiss version of it) added into his character.  Zahn also continues to explore the character’s lack of political awareness, a major flaw in his thinking that continues to cause him trouble as he constantly battles against the overarching hierarchy to take actions he knows will benefit or save his people.  I felt that Chaos Rising took a very interesting look at the character’s history, personality and backstory, and I quite liked the examination of his earliest trials and battles.  Thanks to the author’s use of flashback sequences, the reader gets a great view at different parts of his history, and you see the various steps that he takes rising up the military ladder and the various aliens and people he crossed or destroyed on the way.  All of this proved to be really cool to see, and Thrawn remains one of my favourite characters in the Star Wars canon, especially after this great outing from his past.

One of the most distinctive parts of any novel that follows Thrawn is the fact that none of the story is shown from his point of view; instead other characters tell his story.  This is mainly done to really highlight just how brilliant Thrawn is and to ensure that his eventual plans and insights come as a major surprise to the reader, much in the same way that a Sherlock Holmes novel is told from Watson’s perspective.  Chaos Rising features several different point-of-view characters, including one or two antagonists, who encounter Thrawn throughout the course of this novel and witness him utilise his tactical acumen.  I love seeing the various characters react to Thrawn’s impressive and clever schemes, and it is always fun when they realise that the impossible is happening right in front of them.  Several of these characters, particularly Thrawn’s allies, also provide a much deeper examination of the main character’s personality and mentality, and you see a different side to the character as a friend and mentor.

While these characters are primarily there to follow Thrawn, Zahn does take the time to explore each of these characters, with a particular focus on Thrawn’s impact on their life.  Many of these characters have some excellent and enjoyable backstories to them, and it was fascinating to see these great characters have their carefully planned out lives completely thrown around when they meet Thrawn.  While I failed to connect to some of these point-of-view side characters (for example, I just could not get invested in the arc surrounding the Skywalker Che-ri), others proved to be quite intriguing to follow.  Examples include Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s former classmate at the academy, who becomes a lifelong friend and constantly finds herself trying to protect the protagonist from himself, or Thalias (Mitth’ali’astov) a former Skywalker whose encounter with a young Thrawn inspired her to join his clan and gave her a new vision for the future.  I also rather enjoyed following Qilori, an Unknown Regions navigator-for-hire, who secretly serves the Nikardun Destiny while also taking jobs for other clients like Thrawn and the Chiss.  It was immensely entertaining seeing Qilori attempting to manipulate Thrawn on the orders of the main antagonist, especially as Thrawn sees through every single one of his tricks.  Each of these great side characters added their own edge to the story, and I really appreciated having so many varied and unique viewpoints of the fantastic main character.

While I did receive a physical copy, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of Chaos Rising, not only because it made my reading schedule easier but because Star Wars audiobooks are always so much fun to listen to.  I think that I made the right decision here, as the Chaos Rising audiobook was a very awesome experience and I had a great time listening to it.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, this is a somewhat longer Star Wars audiobook, although once you get wrapped up in the story you don’t really mind.  Everything about this audiobook is cool, from the classic Star Wars sound effects, which help to drag the listener into the story (it is so much easier to imagine a dangerous fight scene when you can hear the blaster shots), to the outstanding use of John Williams’ iconic musical score, which just makes everything epic.  This audiobook also features the superb narration of the amazing Marc Thompson, who does a wonderful job.  Thompson, who has a vast experience voicing Star Wars audiobooks (for example, all the previous Thrawn novels, Dark Disciple, and roles in the Count Dooku and Doctor Aphra audio dramas), has an exceptional range of different voices which he uses to full effect throughout Chaos Rising.  Each of the characters is given a distinctive and enjoyable voice which allows the listener to easily follow who they are, while also getting an impressive and comprehensive idea of the character’s emotions and passion.  However, his most impressive work is saved for the main character himself.  Thompson has an excellent Thrawn voice, which very closely matches the voice of Lars Mikkelsen, the actor playing Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated show, which helps to bring the character to life in vivid and impressive detail.  Thompson’s take on the character captures the character perfectly, and you get an amazing sense of the character’s deep analytical nature and constantly calm façade.  This was an exceptional bit of voice work from Thompson, and it really added so much to my enjoyment of the story to have this character’s words read out to me.  An overall exceptional and outstanding audiobook, this is the perfect format to check out Chaos Rising.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is another outstanding novel from amazing Star Wars author Timothy Zahn that provides the reader with a captivating look at the early life of the incredible character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Featuring a clever and intriguing tale set deep in an unexplored area of the Star Wars universe, this novel serves as a fantastic and addictive prequel to Zahn’s impressive Thrawn trilogy and adds new layers to the author’s most iconic creation.  The second entry in this series, Greater Good, is set for release in a few months and looks set to be one of the most intriguing Star Wars novels of 2021, especially with renewed interest in the character of Thrawn after the second season of The Mandalorian.  I am extremely keen to see how the next novel turns out, but if it as good as Chaos Rising, then we should be in for a treat.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.

Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders.  Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world.  The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls.  However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned.  With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves.  However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.

Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose.  As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict.  A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.

Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it?  Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels.  I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last.  However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones.  I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019.  Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020.  Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.

For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world.  Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal.  While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are.  After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them.  At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events.  All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released.  While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.

One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story.  Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it.  Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships.  This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences.  In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them.  Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story.  I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine.  All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.

While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner.  At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination.  But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission.  Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel.  However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy.  Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination.  However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc.  A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour.  Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character.  The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.

In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew.  These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative.  The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly).  Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility.  Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience.  She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory.  Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature.  The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series.  The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew.  The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters.  However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader.  A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.

I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing.  I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him).  I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative.  Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations.  All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.

The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format.  I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison.  The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series.  I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel.  Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book.  Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do.  All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years.  This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world.  The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.  If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

The Kingdom of Liars Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 7 May 2020)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 37 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Impressive new fantasy author Nick Martell presents The Kingdom of Liars, an outstanding fantasy novel that is easily one of the top debuts of 2020.

Welcome to The Hollows, the slowly disintegrating capital of once-great kingdom where magic costs memory to used.  Once a shining beacon of culture and nobility, the city is now a shadow of its former self, surrounded by firearm-wielding rebels while petty nobles fight for scraps within and a corrupt prince plots for power.  While the people suffer under the rule of a grieving king, their only hope of survival may lie in the hands of the son of the kingdom’s most despised traitor.

Michael Kingman was only a child when he was branded a traitor for the crimes of his father.  Once the King’s loyal right-hand man, Michael’s father, David Kingman, was convicted and executed for the murder of the King’s nine-year-old son, and his family was cast out into poverty and infamy.  Now, 10 years later, Michael makes a living running petty cons on minor nobility while desperately trying to escape the legacy of his family.  However, after a devastating rebel attack rocks the city and kills someone close to him, Michael is determined to change his destiny.

Accepting employment with an eccentric and powerful noble, Michael is given a chance to re-enter noble society and find evidence that proves that his father was framed for the prince’s murder.  Participating in the Endless Waltz, the social highlight of year, Michael needs to gain influence and supporters in the court in order to gain an invitation into the king’s palace, where he believes the evidence he needs to vindicate his father can be found.  However, nearly everyone in the Endless Waltz has their own agenda and no-one wants to see a traitor’s son succeed.  Can Michael prove his father’s innocence and restore his family’s place in the kingdom, or is he doomed to share his fate and be executed as a traitor?

So, this is a book I have been meaning to read for quite some time.  Despite it coming out in May this year, I only managed to get around to listening to it a couple of weeks ago and I instantly realised I made a mistake in not reading this one sooner as The Kingdom of Liars was an epic and deeply impressive novel that I had an outstanding time listening to.  This was the debut novel from new author Nick Martell, which serves as the first entry in his planned The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series (which is a cool series name btw).  This amazing novel from Martell contains a deeply captivating and complex story that proved incredibly irresistible to me, especially when you throw in the great characters and inventive new fantasy world that the author came up.  The end result is an exceptional and powerful read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this awesome book is a first-rate story that sees the protagonist, Michael Kingman, attempt to navigate his treacherous city in order to find the truth behind the death of his father.  Martell starts his narrative off with an impressive opening sequence that sees Michael being found guilty of the murder of the king, a charge he does not refute.  The story then backtracks a few weeks and the full story of Michael Kingman and his adventures is revealed to the audience through the first-person narration of Michael in a way that is reminiscent of a historical chronicle and shows how the protagonist goes from street hustling to regicide in a short period of time.  This proved to be an extremely epic tale loaded with conspiracy, political intrigue, lies, deceit and dark magic, as Michael primarily battles through a series of intense social occasions while also attempting to outwit or survive the machinations of jealous royals, betrayed friends, dangerous mercenaries, fickle nobles and scheming rebels.  At the same time, he also has to work out the motivations for the various people he encounters, most of whom have deep secrets or interesting connections to Michael and his family, as well as diving down into the history of The Hollows and the Kingman family.

There is quite a lot going on in this book, and the readers get to witness a series of different storylines and character arcs, all of which are loaded up with surprise twists and intriguing revelations.  All these storylines prove to be quite entertaining and very cleverly written and I had a great time seeing how each of them unwound.  These separate story arcs come together extremely well, and it results in a deeply compelling overall narrative which proved very hard to stop reading.  I loved all the narrative surprises that Martell came up with throughout The Kingdom of Liars and he added in some great twists which did an outstanding job keeping my attention.  While I was able to guess some of the reveals that Martell was telegraphing, several others caught me completely by surprise, which is something I deeply appreciate in a novel.  I was particularly impressed by the eventual reveal of the main antagonist and I thought that the choice of character was a real masterstroke from Martell.  I was immensely annoyed with myself for not picking up on it sooner, especially as I missed an obvious clue.  I cannot emphasise how I much loved this clever narrative, and I look forward to seeing how Martell continues this captivating tale in the future.

Because he serves as the central protagonist and only point-of-view character, most of The Kingdom of Liars is spent examining the character of Michael Kingman.  Michael is a complex and damaged protagonist who finds himself burdened with the legacy of his great family and the deeds of his traitor father.  At the start of the novel, Michael is a rather self-destructive being, who attempts to find redemption from random and pointless acts of heroism and by skimming some cash off the nobles he despises.  However, after a series of personal losses, Michael begins the path to redeeming himself and his family by attempting to prove his father’s innocence and he starts to reconnect with figures from his past, including several he had forgotten.  I quite enjoyed the character of Michael and it proved to be quite fascinating to see his constant internal battle to determine his identity and his place within the world.  Do not get me wrong, at times Michael proved to be a frustrating protagonist to follow due to his stubbornness and anger, but I think this examination of his damaged emotions helped to make him a stronger character who the reader could emphasise with more.  Thanks to the various events and revelations that become apparent to Michael as the story progresses, the protagonists develops substantially throughout The Kingdom of Liars and by the end he is a vastly different character who is placed in an interesting position for the next novel.  I look forward to seeing how Michael’s story continues throughout the rest of The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series and I am sure it is going to be suitably dramatic and enjoyable.

In addition to the central protagonist, Martell includes an impressive supporting cast of characters who guide, befriend, manipulate, or try to kill Michael throughout the course of the narrative (sometimes they try to do all four at once).  I really enjoyed the various supporting characters that the author included in The Kingdom of Liars, especially as he ensures that each of them has a substantial and compelling backstory that is somehow interwoven with Michael’s past.  It proves to be extremely fascinating to see how each of these characters play into the larger picture of the narrative, especially as everyone has an alternate motive when it comes to dealing with Michael.  While each of the characters is suitably complex, there are a couple I need to particularly highlight.  This includes the other Kingman children, Gwen and Lyon, both of whom have been impacted by their father’s execution in a similar way to Michael, but who both deal with it in alternate ways, either by running from their family’s name or by subtly investigating it through their own means.  These two prove to be a dramatic counterpoint to Michael’s inner struggle about being a Kingman and it was fascinating to see the various, high-tension discussions they have with the protagonist on the subject.

There is also the excellent character of Trey, Michael’s best-friend, who, thanks to a tragic event early in the novel, ends up becoming more of an antagonist due to major feelings of betrayal that emerge between the two.  Trey ends up become a fantastic part of the book’s plot, as Michael is forced to constantly worry about his former friend attempting to kill him, while also attempting to do what is best for Trey’s well-being.  The various sequences with Trey are amongst the most emotional and powerful in the novel, and they add a real dramatic kick to the overall story.  The end of The Kingdom of Liars hints at a dark future for Trey in the rest of the series and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for him.  I also had quite a liking for the mysterious mercenary, Dark, a dangerous and shadowy being who Michael becomes inadvertently entangled with.  Dark is a fun and ultra-powered figure throughout the novel, and he had some great interactions with the protagonist.  However, out of all these characters my favourite is easily Charles Domet, the rich and powerful drunkard with innumerable secrets.  Domet serves as an excellent mentor character for Michael, while also being one of the most entertaining members of the cast.  I loved every scene that Domet appeared in, especially as he had a particularly intriguing backstory.  Each of these characters, and more, added substantially to The Kingdom of Liars, and it will be fascinating to see how each of them evolves in the future.

On top of the outstanding and clever story and the complex characters, Martell also invests in a captivating and highly inventive new fantasy realm, primarily set around the city of The Hollows.  This is a dark and dangerous world, with the major feature being a fractured moon hanging in the sky with occasional pieces falling to world below and causing substantial damage, while also offering cryptic remarks to those people who hold the shards.  The Hollows itself serves as an excellent setting for the novel, thanks to its dangerous politics, oppressed people, besieging rebels and withering monarchy.  Watching the scion of a once powerful house that was renowned as a force for good attempt to navigate the avenues of power throughout The Hollows proves to be extremely compelling and I really enjoyed it.  There are also some intriguing examinations of the city’s history, and each revelation about the past added a new layer to elaborate story that Martell came up with for The Kingdom of Liars.  The author has also come up with an intriguing magical system which allows people to wield substantial power at the cost of their own memories, ensuring that each magic user must work hard to maintain control.  I found this memory factor of this magical system to be very clever and it added a lot of great elements to the overall story, especially as several characters, including the protagonist, experience memory losses throughout the novel, which hinders them, and by extension the reader, from seeing the full picture.  There is also a rather intriguing comparison between magic and firearms throughout the story, as the nobles wield arcane power, while the rebels have guns.  This results in some thrilling sequences and it should be fun to see more elaborate fight scenes in the future.  Overall, this was a deeply enjoyable and compelling new setting and Martell really showed off his creativity in this first novel.  It seems likely that Martell is planning to massively expand this world in the future The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings novels and I am confident there will be some fantastic new inclusions in the future (like who actually fractured the moon).

As I mentioned above, I ended up buying The Kingdom of Liars’ audiobook format rather than grabbing a physical copy of the book.  I am extremely happy that I chose to do this as the audiobook was particularly good and it proved to be a fantastic way to enjoy this awesome novel.  I had an amazing time seeing the cool fantasy world that Martell came up be bought to life in this format and I found myself really getting into the story details as I listened to it.  The Kingdom of Liars audiobook has a relatively substantial run time of 15 hours and 37 minutes, although I found myself powering through it extremely quickly due to how much I enjoyed the story.  The audiobook features the narration of Joe Jameson, who I recently talked about in my review of King of Assassins by R. J. Barker.  Jameson’s narration in The Kingdom of Liars is pretty amazing and he does an incredible job inhabiting the various characters featured within the novel.  I think his voice and narration style really fit the way that this novel was written, and I felt that the point-of-view protagonist really came to life in his hands.  All of this results in a captivating and deeply enjoyable audiobook and this is the format I would recommend to anyone who wishes to check out The Kingdom of Liars.

The Kingdom of Liars is an incredible, compelling, and deeply exciting novel that I had an absolutely wonderful time listening to this year.  Debuting author Nick Martell really outdid himself with this first novel in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series and this superb book comes highly recommended.  I loved everything about this book, including the two different but equally awesome covers that it was released with (see above and below), and I know I am going to have an amazing time following this series in the future.  The next The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings novel, The Two-Faced Queen, is set for release in March next year, and it looks set to be one of the top books of 2021.

The Kingdom of Liars Cover 2

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

The Evening and the Morning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 15 September 2020)

Series: Kingsbridge – Book 0

Length: 819 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following three long years of waiting, one of the best authors of historical fiction in the world today (and one of my all-time favourite authors), Ken Follett, returns with another historical epic, The Evening and the Morning.

Follett is a highly acclaimed author who has written a number of impressive bestsellers over his 45+ year writing career.  After starting off with thriller novels, Follett really hit his literary stride when he moved on to massive historical fiction novels.  After experiencing great success with the iconic The Pillars of the Earth, he has gone on to produce several other epic books, including two sequels to The Pillars of the Earth and the outstanding The Century trilogy.  I have been a major fan of Follett for years ever since I had the great pleasure of reading The Century trilogy.  This was followed up with the second sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, A Column of Fire, which was easily one of my favourite books of 2017.  Thanks to how overwhelmingly compelling each of these previous novels were, I have been eagerly waiting to read his latest novel, The Evening and the Morning, for a while now, and it has been one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020.

The Evening and the Morning is a character driven historical fiction novel that is set near the end of the Dark Ages of England.  The novel actually serves as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth and is part of Follett’s Kingsbridge series.  The Kingsbridge novels are all set within the fictional town of Kingsbridge, which each novel exploring a different period of English history (for example The Pillars of the Earth is set between 1123 CE and 1174 CE, while its sequel, World Without End, starts in 1327 CE).  This prequel is once again set in the same area, with the novel running between 997 CE and 1007 CE.

At the end of the 10th century, England is far from settled and faces attack from external threats.  One particularly vicious Viking raid causes untold damage at the town of Combe, near the city of Shiring, and sets off a chain of events that will change the area forever.

Following the raid, one of the survivors, a young boat builder named Edgar is forced to abandon his home and follow his family to the small hamlet of Dreng’s Ferry.  Living amongst the unwelcoming locals and corrupt landlord, the brilliant Edgar chafes and tries to find a new way to provide for his family.  At the same time, a Norman noblewoman, Ragna, falls in love with the ealdorman of Shiring and travels to England to marry him.  However, she soon discovers herself engulfed in a brutal battle for power with her husband’s family, and any misstep could cost her everything.  These characters are joined by Aldred, a young and ambitious monk who wishes to turn the abbey at Stirling into an academic hub.  However, his strong sense of right and wrong gets him into trouble as he searches for justice in all the wrong places.

As all three of these characters try to survive the troubles of the location, they find themselves drawn into each other’s lives.  Together they have the power to solve each of their problems and prosper together.  However, each of them has run afoul of the area’s corrupt Bishop, who is determined to gain power and influence no matter the cost.

Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this new novel from Follett, who has once again composed an outstanding historical epic.  The Evening and the Morning is another exceptional book that takes the reader on a powerful and captivating ride through an exciting period of English history with an addictive story told through the eyes of several great characters.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and despite its length (at 800+ pages, it is one of the longest novels I have ever read), I powered through this book in relatively short order as I found the compelling narrative that Follett produced to be deeply addictive and hard to put down.  This was a fantastic read, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Evening and the Morning contains an impressive and addictive character driven narrative that sees three distinctive protagonists attempt to change their destiny and the destiny of the people they love over a period of 10 years.  Set during a turbulent period of England’s history, The Evening and the Morning follows these characters as they attempt to survive Vikings, hunger, bandits and the machinations of a dangerous bishop.  The scope of this book’s story is truly epic as Follett ensures that his protagonists are forced to contend with all manner of challenges and tragedies, from political intrigue, direct attacks, imprisonment and so much more.  The resulting story is deeply compelling, extremely intelligent and wildly entertaining, especially as Follett comes up with a ton of unique and intriguing scenarios for his characters to work around.  I had an incredible time reading The Evening and the Morning’s story and it proved extremely hard to put down.

As I mentioned above, The Evening and the Morning is part of the Kingsbridge series and serves as a prequel to the first book in the series, The Pillars of the Earth.  Despite this, I would say that readers really do not need to have any prior knowledge of the rest of the Kingsbridge books to enjoy The Evening and the Morning.  This latest novel from Follett is extremely accessible, and as it is set more than 100 years before the events of The Pillars of the Earth, readers really should consider this a standalone novel that any historical fiction fan can easily enjoy (that is true for every entry in this series).  That being said, long-term fans of Follett and the Kingsbridge series will no doubt really appreciate seeing this early version of this iconic fiction setting, especially as the author includes a number of clever connections to the future novels in the series.  I particularly liked seeing how the titular Kingsbridge of the series was created, and you also get more of a look at how important the clergy were to the early inhabitants of the town, which is fascinating if you consider how the relationship between the church and the townspeople changes over the course of the series.  As a result, I would say that The Evening and the Morning is a book that most readers will be able to enjoy, while also serving as an intriguing entry in the Kingsbridge series.

The Evening and the Morning’s story follows three major point-of-view characters, Edgar, Ragna and Aldred, and shows the reader 10 key years of their lives.  These three characters form the heart of this story, and it does not take long for you to get really drawn into their individual stories.  Each of these characters has their own intriguing and emotionally charged story arcs, such as the creative Edgar’s attempts to rebuild his life in a hostile new village after experiencing a series of terrible losses, Ragna’s marriage and the subsequent battle to gain power and influence, and Aldred’s bid for justice and knowledge.  I really enjoyed each of these character’s individual arcs, but their real strength lies in the way that their stories and lives tie into one and other.  All three major characters becoming incredibly entwined as the book continues, as they form a strong friendship between themselves and attempt to help each other come the various struggles they encounter.  These separate character storylines come together extremely well into one powerful and cohesive narrative which sees the reader become deeply engrossed in all their lives.  You really grow to care for all three of these characters as the story progresses, becoming deeply invested in their wellbeing and happiness.  While this is evidence of some outstanding writing on Follett’s behalf, it is a little unfortunate as a lot of bad things happen to each of these characters (especially Ragna), and it makes for some emotionally hard reading at times.  There is also a rather intriguing love triangle between these three characters with some interesting LGTB+ elements attached, which adds an additional level of drama to the story.  I ended up being quite satisfied with how these character arcs unfolded, and readers are going to have an incredible time seeing how they turn out.

In addition to the main three characters, there is also another major point-of-view character, Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring.  Wynstan is the book’s main antagonist, a cunning and ruthless manipulator who is desperate to gain power and influence at the expense of others.  Wynstan is the half-brother of Ragna’s husband, who uses his familiar connections and his corrupted followers to control much of Shiring and the surrounding area.  Follett has created an extremely despicable and aggravating villain with Wynstan, who comes into conflict with all three major protagonists, as each of them cross him in some way or another.  Wynstan is an extremely vengeful and dangerous opponent, who manages to do some fairly evil deeds throughout the book, while avoiding too many repercussions.  I found myself really growing to hate Wynstan and his followers as the book progressed, becoming fairly aggravated whenever he managed to weasel his way out of trouble.  This emotional response to Wynstan is exactly what you want when you write an antagonistic character, and I think that he helped add a lot to the overall narrative.

Follett has also loaded up his story with a ton of side characters who the point-of-view characters interact with throughout their lives.  There are quite a substantial number of side characters in this book, but thanks to Follett’s excellent writing the reader is able to keep track of each of them; at no point during this book did I become lost working out who someone was.  Many of these supporting characters have their own minor story arcs throughout the book, and it is interesting to see how they evolve and change over the years.  While quite a few of them are fairly despicable (indeed, at times it seems like the three main characters are the only decent or sensible people in the story), you do grow attached to them and become wrapped up in what happens to them.  That being said, readers are advised not to get too attached to them, as they have a much higher mortality rate, although there are a few happy endings in there which are guaranteed to satisfy.  Overall, Follett does an exceptional job with all the characters in this novel, and watching their lives unfold was a real emotional rollercoaster.

I also quite enjoyed the author’s fascinating depiction of England (with a bit of Normandy thrown in for good measure) during the late 10th and early 11th century.  While the setting of this book, Shiring and its surrounding environs, are fictional, they come across as period-appropriate settlements and the reader gets a real sense of what life in the various villages and towns would have been like.  Due to the broad scope of the story and what the characters witness, the reader gets a look at a huge range of different people who would have existed during this period, including the nobility, the various members of the clergy, the common people and even slaves.  Follett does an amazing job of highlighting how these various characters would have lived, what their professions or stations were like and the problems they would have typically experienced.  The author really replicates the hard nature of the times, allowing the reader a fascinating glimpse into the harsh and dangerous lives of our ancestors.  Follett also works in some broader historical elements, such as the increased attacks from the Vikings and the political situation at the time.  A lot of these historical inclusions, such as having King Ethelred the Unready appear as a minor character, proved to be really intriguing, and I loved how the author dived back into history to enhance his tale.

With The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett has once again shown why he is one of the top historical fiction authors in the world today.  This latest novel presents the reader with an exceptional and captivating tale of love, connection and triumph over adversity at the end of England’s dark ages.  Serving as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth, The Evening and the Morning contains an amazing story that follows some driven and likeable protagonists during this dark period.  The end result is an epic and incredibly addictive read that comes highly recommended and is easily one of the best books of 2020.  There is a reason why Follett is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I cannot wait to see what elaborate novel he comes up with next time.

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 29 September 2020)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book 17

Length: 15 hours and 43 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of the urban fantasy novel, Jim Butcher, returns with the next entry in his world-acclaimed Harry Dresden series, Battle Ground, an awesome novel that was one of the most anticipated releases of 2020.

Jim Butcher is a highly acclaimed fantasy author who has been dominating the market since his debut novel in 2000.  Butcher has written a number of books throughout his career, including his Codex Alera series, the first book of his planned Cinder Spires series, The Aeronaut’s Windlass and even a Spider-Man tie-in novel, Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours.  However, the body of work that Butcher is best known for is his long-running urban fantasy series, the Dresden Files.  The Dresden Files started back in 2000 with Storm Front and follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard who works as a private investigator in Chicago, solving supernatural crimes and protecting humans from dangerous magical creatures.  This series proved to be incredibly popular and is widely considered to be the gold standard of urban fantasy novels.  The Dresden Files currently consists of 17 books, with the universe expanded out with short stories, novellas and even some graphic novels.

While I have always heard incredible things about the Dresden Files books, I have not previously had the pleasure of reading any of them yet.  This is an admittedly massive gap in my fantasy reading knowledge, and it is one that I have been meaning to fill for a while.  So when I recently received a copy of the latest novel in the series, Battle Ground, I figured that this would be a perfect opportunity to finally break into the series.

For years, Harry Dresden, rogue wizard and general smartass, has defended the city of Chicago from all manner of supernatural threats and each time he has managed to keep it safe, until now!  War is coming to Chicago as a being of unbelievable power, the Last Titan, Ethniu, marches towards it, determined to have her revenge.  To achieve her goal, she has assembled a vast supernatural army and is in possession of a magical superweapon of unbelievable destructive power.  With these forces at her command, Ethniu has sworn to wipe out the entirety of Chicago in one night and kill all eight million of its inhabitants.

In order to combat this terrible threat, Dresden must rally together every friend, former enemy and magical ally he can find in order to face down the opposing army and stop Ethniu.  However, this will be no easy task.  Not only must he deal with the conflicting politics of the rival magical factions but dangerous monsters are also loose in the city, determined to take advantage of the destructive circumstances.  Worse, thanks to Ethniu’s superweapon, every electronic piece of technology in Chicago has been knocked out and the entire population is now helpless and unable to flee from the oncoming chaos.

As Dresden and his allies attempt drive back the enemies coming towards them, they face an uphill battle.  Ethniu is one of the most powerful beings in existence, and not even the combined might of Chicago’s magical elite may be enough to stop her.  Throughout this night Dresden will face terrible losses and be forced to make some of the hardest decisions in his life.  But even Dresden’s most desperate tricks may not be enough to turn the tide and save the city.  One thing is clear: no matter who wins, Dresden and the entire city of Chicago will never be the same again!

Well damn, Jim Butcher really went all out with Battle Ground and has produced one heck of an impressive novel.  This was a spectacular read, filled with a lot of huge, epic moments, smart storytelling, extremely likeable characters and clever fantasy inclusions, all wrapped up with a fun sense of humour and excitement.  Battle Ground is the 17th Dresden Files book, quickly following up the 16th book, Peace Talks (where several storylines explored in the novel originated).  I had an absolute blast reading Battle Ground, and I do have to admit that I am currently feeling a lot of regret for not getting into this series a heck of a lot sooner, as this latest entry is easily one of my favourite books of 2020.

At the heart of this outstanding novel is an extremely powerful story that sees beloved series protagonist Harry Dresden attempt to save his city from all-out destruction as a magical army invades, intent on killing everyone.  This results in an intense and action-packed novel that is a bit of a change of pace from some of the previous novels in the series, which usually read more like fantasy detective fiction.  Battle Ground is a war story, with the protagonist engaged in the battle of his life throughout the entirety of the novel.  Butcher starts Battle Ground off quickly with the protagonist having to face off against a kraken, which easily draws the reader in off the bat (I know I was pretty darn impressed with that introduction).  From there he sets up the start of the war perfectly, with a number of characters introduced as their roles in the coming fight are established, as well as an exploration of the various magical political entities in the city and why they are supporting Dresden in his fight.  It does not take long for the actual war for Chicago to start, and once it does the story does not slow down again until the battle reaches its brutal climax.  There are some truly epic and captivating battle sequences throughout the course of this book as Dresden and his allies face all manner of dangers and turmoil, including a range of distinctive adversaries from the previous entries in the series.  There are so many memorable and exciting moments that featured in this part of the book and I found myself going through an emotional ringer as everything unfolded, from feeling saddened at some critical scenes, to being inspired as a beloved character led an impassioned charge against the foe.  I was on the edge of my seat as I listened to Battle Ground’s story, and it honestly did not take me long to get completely and utterly addicted to the narrative as I desperately waited to see how the story would conclude.  When it did, I found myself completely satisfied with the ending and it left me with a deep longing to see where Butcher takes the series next.  Overall, this was an incredibly well-written and wildly exciting narrative which will stick in the readers mind as they wait for the next Dresden Files book to be released.

Now, was it a mistake coming into this series on the 17th book that serves as an epic conclusion to a number of key storylines?  Potentially.  But do I have any regrets about reading this latest Dresden Files novel?  Absolutely freaking not!  I had an incredible time with Battle Ground, especially as Butcher made sure to make this novel accessible to new readers, even with the book’s huge range of characters and massive stakes.  Pretty much every major character or event that is relevant to the main narrative of Battle Ground is explained in sufficient detail so that new readers coming to the series for the first time can follow what is happening and get a decent sense of the significance of a location, event from a prior book or the personal history that Dresden has with a character.  I do have to admit there were a few things I was a tad uncertain about, mainly because they would have been covered in Peace Talks.  For example, I did find the motivations of the book’s main antagonist, Ethniu, a little vague and there was a lack of build-up around her various allies and minions.  There is also a major twist towards the end of the book which did not hit me as significantly as it would have for a long-term reader of the series, as it is tied into several overarching plot threads from the previous books.  Despite this, I was able to follow the plot extremely closely, and my lack of prior knowledge in no way stopped me enjoying all the incredible action and wonderful characters that were part of the books plot.  As with any later addition to a series, Battle Ground is definitely intended to be enjoyed by established fans; however, I will recommend this to readers unfamiliar with the series as I know they will have an amazing time reading it.

One of the key things that I enjoyed about Battle Ground was the extremely likeable and entertaining series protagonist, Harry Dresden, who serves as the narrator of the entire story.  Dresden is a very fun and unique protagonist, and for most of the series he has worked outside of the established system of magical rule as a private investigator.  However, in this book he is part of the government, serving both the White Council of Wizards and as a member of Queen Mab’s court.  Despite this, he still retains his extreme anti-authoritarian streak and is constantly infuriating those people who are higher up on the magical hierarchy with his glib attitude.  I have a strong attachment to sarcastic and infuriating protagonists and Dresden is one of the more enjoyable ones I have seen in fiction.  Butcher really goes out of his way to make Dresden as likeable and entertaining as possible and most of the book’s brilliant humour is derived from Dresden’s comedic observations and statements about the events occurring around him and the outlandish people that he meets.  I also had to have a chuckle about the various pop-culture references that Dresden brought up throughout the course of the book, even in life threatening situations, such as the way he imitated Gandalf while holding off opponents on an iconic Chicago bridge.  Despite this carefree and entertaining exterior, Dresden is actually a very deep protagonist, weighed down by the responsibilities he faces and the constant desire not to be corrupted by the forces he encounters or bargains with.  Dresden goes through a lot of emotional damage in Battle Ground as he must not only contend with the guilt of letting this destruction reign down on his beloved hometown, but also with a series of losses that he faces along the way.  Butcher expertly captures Dresden’s emotional turmoil through his use of the first-person narrative, and the reader cannot help but be entranced by some of the darker moments this usually cheerful character experiences.  This excellent combination of characteristics really helps to turn Dresden into a relatable individual and an impressive protagonist and I cannot wait to see what happens to him in the future books of the series.

In addition to Dresden, Battle Ground features a veritable smorgasbord of cool side and supporting characters who the protagonist encounters throughout the course of the novel.  Due to the high stakes of the plot, this book contains a massive cast with a huge number of characters from all the previous books and novellas appearing in cameos or significant roles.  Most of these characters are really amazing, and Butcher does a fantastic job introducing them and ensuring that the reader knows who they are, what their connection to the protagonists is, as well as key elements of their history.  Due to my lack of familiarity with the series, I really appreciated the author’s dedication to reintroducing these characters and I felt fairly confident following who the various people were and what their role in the story was.  That being said, I was probably a little less emotionally impacted with some of the resultant twists and turns involving some of these characters, and I imagine long-time readers of the story are going to get a lot more out of their actions then a newcomer to the series.  These long-term readers should be warned that Butcher takes the stakes of this book particularly seriously and several characters are going to meet some dramatic fates.

I personally enjoyed many of the characters that were featured in the plot and I felt that each of these inventive personalities either added some real emotional depth to the novel or served as an entertaining additional to the story.  Some of my favourite characters in Battle Ground included River Shoulders (full name: Strength of a River in His Shoulders), a Sasquatch magician who wears Victorian era garb and who is one of the most likeable creatures in the book.  River Shoulders has a lot of fun moments throughout the story, although I have to highlight the quick scene which saw him make a pitch to improve race relations with an improvised ventriloquist act, as it made me laugh pretty hard.  I also really enjoyed Major General Toot-Toot Minimus, a small fairy who leads an army of Little Folk in defence of Dresden, all in the name of pizza.  Toot-Toot is one of the main comic reliefs of their entire novel and it was quite entertaining to see in action, especially when he manages to overcome the bigguns in defence of Za Lord.  However, the character I enjoyed the most aside from Dresden was Waldo Butters, Knight of the Cross.  Now, despite the fact that I would constantly think about the character of Butters from South Park whenever he appeared (in fairness, they have a lot of similarities with each other), Waldo Butters is probably the character who gets the most development and use throughout the course of Battle Ground.  Butters, who only recently took on the mantle of a Knight after spending most of the series as a defenceless sidekick, really comes into his own in Battle Ground, acting in a major defence role throughout the fight for the city.  Not only does he have some very inspiration fight sequences, but he also has a series of particularly emotional scenes with Dresden and adds a lot of heart to the narrative as a result.  I also really loved some of his scenes where he squares off against Battle Ground’s big bad, and you get a real Neville Longbottom vs Voldemort feel from it.  You can clearly see that Butcher has some big plans for Butters in the future, and I am personally cannot wait to see what they are.  I am honestly only scratching the surface of the various side characters who appeared throughout Battle Ground, but needless to say that they were all pretty exceptional and it was a real treat to meet them.

Battle Ground also served as my introduction to the magical version of Chicago that serves as the setting for this fantastic series.  This proved to be an excellent setting for this great book, and I really enjoyed the way that Butcher has melded together regular Chicago with some more subtle magical elements, such as a ruling magical council, hidden enclaves of power and mysterious creatures hiding just beneath the surface.  There are a lot of cool elements to this setting, and I think that the author did an amazing job reintroducing it for the context of this latest novel.  I was particularly impressed by the way Butcher brought a number of key city landmarks to life in this book, with several iconic pieces of Chicago used to great effect throughout the book as settings for epic scenes.  Unlike any previous book in the series, the events of Battle Ground ensure that Chicago goes through some massive changes as a magical army invades.  The destruction levelled upon Chicago is substantial, and there are several emotional sequences that see the citizens attempting to deal with these forces coming to kill them.  Naturally, this is going to have some major impacts in the future entries in the series, and I look forward to seeing what the long-term impacts of this book are going to be.

I also need to mention that, aside from Battle Ground’s main story, this novel and its associated audiobook format also contains the short story, Christmas EveChristmas Eve is a relatively tiny part of the novel, only made up of 15 pages (or around 25 minutes of the audiobook), and shows Dresden encountering several people on Christmas Eve.  This short story is set after the events of Battle Ground (despite being initially written and released in 2018) and contains a rather nice and emotionally rich narrative that examines Dresden’s emotional state as a father and friend.  Christmas Eve is a much more relaxed and lower-stakes story that Battle Ground, and I personally really enjoyed reading it after all the bloodshed, sacrifice and death of the main story.

While I did receive a nice hardcover copy of Battle Ground, I ended up listening to its audiobook format instead.  The Battle Ground audiobook runs for a little under 16 hours, which I powered through in only a few short days; it did not take me long to get addicted to this novel.  I deeply enjoyed the Battle Ground audiobook and I felt that it was an awesome way to enjoy this great book.  Not only did I find myself absorbing more of the story elements and getting drawn more into the plot but I also loved the top-shelf narrator they utilised for this audiobook.  Battle Ground was narrated by James Marsters, best known as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who has also narrated all the previous books in the series as well as the short stories and other associated novels.  I am a major fan of Marsters, having watched a ton of the television shows he has appeared in, so I was very excited to listen to one of the audiobooks he narrated.  Unsurprisingly, Marsters proved to be an outstanding narrator, empowering this already impressive novel with his amazing vocal talents and moving the story along at a brisk and exciting pace.  Marsters did an awesome job providing each of the characters with their own unique and distinctive voice which fit the personality and depiction of each character perfectly.  I was also particularly impressed with how he brought the book’s protagonist to life.  Marsters really dove into the character of Harry Dresden, providing a perfect voice for the maverick wizard that effectively captured his various quirks and personality traits.  This excellent narration also explored the various raw emotions that Dresden experienced throughout the course of the novel and you get a fantastic sense of what the character is going through and how much he is struggling.  I really have to highlight the enthusiastic emphasis that Marsters utilises when reciting Dresden’s various spells and I could totally imagine the protagonist shouting out his incarnations in that way.  I also liked the humorously altered voices that were utilised for some of the supernatural creatures, such as Toot-Toot, which was not only widely entertaining but which fit the outrageous character extremely well.  All of this makes for an incredible audiobook experience and I fully intend to listen to the other entries in the series rather than seeking out a physical copy.

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher is an extraordinary and epic urban fantasy novel that serves as the latest novel in Butcher’s acclaimed Dresden Files series.  Butcher has done an incredible job with Battle Ground, presenting the reader with an awesome and captivating narrative, filled with a huge array of enjoyable characters and clever fantasy elements.  The result is an outstanding and deeply impressive novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Battle Ground gets an easy five-star rating from me and it was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2020.  I cannot praise this novel enough and it certainly served as a wonderful introduction to the Dresden Files.  I am intending to go back and start reading the series from book one and I have no doubt I will love each and every entry in the series.  I am especially keen to check them out in their audiobook format because James Marsters has narrated each of them and I know I will deeply enjoy hearing these clever stories read out.  Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to see what other extraordinary stories exist within Butcher’s extensive Dresden Files.

The Trouble with Peace by Joe Abercrombie

The Trouble with Peace Cover

Publisher: Orion Audio (Audiobook – 15 September 2020)

Series: The Age of Madness – Book Two

Length: 21 hours and 56 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The master of dark fantasy fiction, Joe Abercrombie, returns with another masterful and incredible novel, The Trouble with Peace, the second entry in The Age of Madness trilogy, which is easily one of the best novels of 2020.

Abercrombie is an extremely talented author who has written several impressive dark fantasy novels over the years.  His most distinctive works are the books in The First Law universe, which started back in 2006 with the author’s debut novel, The Blade ItselfThe First Law trilogy (which I really need to review) was an amazing and captivating series that followed a motley collection of broken characters and bastards as they found themselves caught up in the chaos of a dark and brutal fantasy universe.  The author has revisited this universe several times, first with three standalone novels set after the events of The First Law trilogy, and then with The Age of Madness trilogy, of which this latest book is a part.  The Age of Madness novels serve as a sequel series to The First Law trilogy, and follow several of the children of the original protagonists (as well as some other new characters), as they engage in a whole new level of chaos and destruction.  The first entry in this trilogy, last year’s A Little Hatred, was an exceptional novel that not only got a full five-star rating from me but which was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2019.  As a result, I was extremely excited when I got my copy of The Trouble with Peace, and it was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

The age of madness rolls on!  Following the death of his father, Crown Prince Orso has taken the throne of the Union and is now king, a role he never wanted.  What he inherits is a nation riven with discord and disharmony, with enemies within and without waiting to cut him down and take power for themselves.  Forced to deal with the machinations of the lords of the Open Council, the revolutionary Breakers, the anarchist Burners and the rival Kingdom of Styrians attempting to take his kingdom from him piece by piece, Orso soon begins to learn that even as king, he is just as powerless as always.

As chaos begins to descend on the Union and the North, the great and the powerful attempt to find their place in the new world order.  For Savine dan Glokta, formerly Adua’s most powerful investor, she finds herself in a vulnerable position with her judgement and reputation ruined.  However, her ambition remains unchecked and an unlikely alliance may help to secure the future she has always desired.  In the North, peace temporarily reigns and the governor of Angland, Leo dan Brock, chafes at the lack of action and finds himself drawn into the political turmoil surrounding the rulership of The Union.  As a famous war hero, he now wields great influence in the Open Council and many seek to use him for their own ends.  This chaos leads to him making deals he never expected, including with his former enemy, the new King of the Northmen, Stour Nightfall.  At the same time, the Dogman’s daughter, Rikke, attempts to control her dangerous gift of prophecy and heads along a new path of blood and violence.

As order and peace unravel across the Union, discord and rebellion raise their ugly heads.  With the old leaders of the world dead and the new generation taking their place, war seems inevitable.  Those who remain must decide who they are loyal to and who they can trust.  However, no alliances, no peace and no friendships last forever, and when the dust settles the Union will be changed forever!

Well damn, that was a good read!!  The Trouble with Peace is another exceptional and captivating novel that takes the reader on a dark thrill ride that proves impossible to escape.  The author once again comes up with an impressive and clever story of war and betrayal, which is anchored by a series of complex point-of-view characters, each of whom is damaged in some unique and compelling manner.  This results in a truly incredible book that was an absolute joy to read and which I flew through in a relatively short period of time.  I absolutely loved this latest book from Abercrombie, and The Trouble with Peace gets an easy five-star rating from me as a result.

At the centre of this awesome novel is an extraordinary and fast-paced narrative that sees various diverse characters and factions attempt to manipulate and outwit each other in order to gain ultimate power in the world.  The plot of The Trouble with Peace continues immediately after the shocking conclusion of A Little Hatred and sees each of the characters introduced in the previous book continue along their established storylines.  Of course, as this is a The First Law novel, it really does not take long for events to take a downward turn and soon the characters find themselves on opposite sides of a growing, major conflict.  There is a real focus on political intrigue, personal relationships and revolution in this novel, all of which proves to be deeply captivating and a lot of fun to read.  On top of that, Abercrombie throws in his usual blend of high-adrenaline action, extreme humour and wild personalities, resulting in an impressive and addictive story that readers will lap up and try to finish off as soon as possible.  Abercrombie does a great job of making this story accessible to new readers and those people unfamiliar with the universe could easily jump in here and have a great time.  However, this is definitely a novel for those readers familiar with the other entries in The First Law series, especially the preceding novel, A Little Hatred, and fans of the series will love the clever directions Abercrombie goes in The Trouble with Peace.  This is a first-class story, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Abercrombie backs up this amazing narrative with a powerful and distinct writing style that helps to turn The Trouble with Peace into a first-class read.  Like all the novels in The First Law series, The Trouble with Peace is told from some different and unique perspectives, as several captivating characters show the events of the novel occurring in front of them.  This results in an impressive and far-reaching story as the reader gets to see a bunch of different points of the same story.  This allows you to witness the various political, tactical and personal manoeuvrings on each side of the conflict, enhancing the overall narrative and driving certain key plot points home.  Abercrombie uses these multiple perspectives to great effect throughout the novel and some of the best sequences in the book are the result of some quick changes of perspective.  This includes an amazing succession of scenes in which two rival characters are disguised in a casino and have subsequent meetings with the same person in quick succession.  It proved remarkably entertaining to see the different approaches both characters took to the same situation, and served to highlight the similarities and differences between them.  Other scenes showed how the major point-of-view characters deal with each other when they meet, and it was fun to see the various mental gambits from both sides of the conflict, especially as Abercrombie ensures that all these characters are competing to be the most manipulative person in the room.  There are also two extended sequences where a single event is witnessed not only by a main character but also by a series of side characters and minor one-off characters to really showcase the chaotic nature of some scenes and the wide range of people they impact.  The use of various perspectives also really helps to set the brutal and dark tone for the entire novel, as the characters they follow are usually right in the centre of a series of different messes that they are either the cause of or they are trying to avoid.  I also really enjoyed the unique outlooks of each character as their fun reactions to the outrageous events occurring around them provide a great deal of the book’s impressive and entertaining humour.

As with all of Abercrombie’s books, the true highlight of The Trouble with Peace is easily the fantastic selection of damaged and deranged characters that make up the main cast of the series.  Like the first entry in The Age of Madness trilogy, The Trouble with Peace is primarily told throughout the eyes of seven separate point-of-view characters, each of whom has their own unique and captivating character through the novel.  These characters include:

  • King Orso – son of King Jezal, who has taken the throne after the sudden death of his father. Orso has inherited a fractured kingdom, essentially made up of people who all hate him.  Orso has a lot of growing up to do in this novel as he soon discovers all the troubles that relate to being king and the limited power he truly has.  I really liked Orso’s storyline in this book, mainly because he comes into his own and starts to demonstrate some backbone and leadership abilities.  His unique way of dealing with problems, many of which relate to his background as a wastrel and a coward, are surprisingly effective and often very entertaining.  Orso proves to be a very enjoyable protagonist throughout this book, and I personally found myself really getting behind him and hoping that he comes out on top.
  • Savine dan Glokta – the adoptive daughter of Arch Lector Glokta and the foremost businesswomen in the Union. Savine has gone through some substantial changes since the last book.  Rather than the confident and crafty women we were introduced to, this Savine is a mess, still reeling from the horrors she experienced in Valbeck and the revelation that her former lover, Orso, is her half-brother.  However, Savine soon manages to find a way back on top, thanks to a profitable marriage, and sets her sights on a particularly tempting target.  Savine is a rather despicable character in this book, and the readers are going to have a hard time feeling too sympathetic for her.  Still, Abercrombie does an amazing job exploring her trauma damaged psyche and she ends up being a very compelling character to follow.
  • Leo dan Brock – the new governor of Angland and the son of two of the protagonists of the standalone novel, The Heroes. After securing the North and bringing Stour Nightfall to heel, Leo has gained much influence and celebrity in the Union.  However, even after the events of the first book, Leo is still as hot-headed as ever and finds himself easily led into a number of conflicts.  Despite his apparent heroism and charisma, Leo is a very hard character to like, mainly due to how stupid he is.  Essentially anyone with half a brain can manipulate him in some way, and it becomes quite tiring to see him do something stupid and destructive merely because he has been told it is the noble thing to do.  Despite this, Leo forms a very fascinating counter point to his rival, Orso, as Leo has many of the things that Orso desires, such as heroism, martial prowess and the love of the people.  I also quite enjoyed the author’s exploration of Leo’s sexuality and love interests, and I look forward to seeing how that progresses in future books.
  • Rikke – a Northern girl and the daughter of The First Law trilogy point-of-view character the Dogman. Rikke is a troubled waif who is regretting her decision to force open her Long Eye in order to increase her prophetic abilities.  Rikke has to make some hard choices in this novel, but her eventual storyline sees her take up a leadership role in the North that sees her face off against the vicious new king of the Northmen, Stour Nightfall.  Rikke is another character that really comes into her own in this book, as she is forced to grow up quick and do hard things to survive.  There are some interesting story elements involved with this character, especially thanks to her magical Long Eye, which allows her to see into the future, and which also results in some very trippy chapters shown from her perspective.  I really enjoyed Rikke’s storyline and character arc through this book, and there are some excellent scenes that show just how devious she has become.
  • Vick dan Teufel – a Union inquisitor who works for Arch Lector Glokta and is loyal only to him. Vic spends a good part of the book working throughout the Union and attempting to identify the King’s enemies, as well as trying to find out who is behind the Breakers and the Burners.  Vick is a really interesting character and I like how much of her storyline seems to mimic Glokta’s from the original trilogy.  For example, in The Trouble with Peace, she is sent to a far-off Union city and must find a way to hold it against a rival kingdom.  However, she soon starts to discover the truth about who really runs the Union and the extent of their power.  Vick is a great character to follow, especially as her chapters tend to focus on the hidden political intrigue and manipulation that infests the Union.  Abercrombie also spends a bit of time continuing to explore the traumatic childhood of Vick, and it was interesting to see how her damaged and dangerous personality came to be.
  • Gunnar Broad – a former Union soldier with a perchance for extreme violence. After the events of Valbeck, Gunnar, a former breaker, now finds himself in the employ of Savine, and works as her brutal enforcer.  Gunnar is another fascinating character, who attempts to escape from the violence that he has known his entire life.  However, this is easier said than done, and his chapters feature some fantastic examination of self and philosophical thoughts on personality and the events of the past.
  • Jonas Clover – an old and experienced Northern warrior who works as an advisor for Stour Nightfall. Clover, who remains my absolute favourite character in this new trilogy, is an exceedingly entertaining person, thanks to his unique sense of humour and jaded personality.  Clover really stands out as a character, mainly because he is so different to the other Northern characters in the book.  While most of the people he surrounds himself with are eager for combat or glory, Clover is the only one extolling the virtues of patience and self-restraint, much to the other character’s annoyance.  However, he is usually right, and he has developed a habit of surviving as a result.  I really love this character, especially because he has some of the best lines and insults in the entire book.  It was really entertaining to see him work under the brash and arrogant Stour Nightfall, as Clover is constantly forced to try and reign in his new king, with little effect.  Despite not being used as much as I would have liked, Clover is still a standout character in this novel, and he has some very memorable moments as a result.

I really enjoyed all these excellent character arcs, and I thought that each of them was incredible and enjoyable in their own rights.  However, thanks to how the narrative progressed, many of these character arcs crossed over a lot more than in the previous novel, and you get to see the various storylines proceed side-by-side as a result.  Because of how they were connected, Orso, Savine and Leo tended to get the most focus throughout the book, and some of the other point-of-view characters (Vic, Broad and Clover in particular), did not get as many chapters told from their perspective.  While I would have loved more scenes from some of the other characters (more Clover would have been awesome), I felt that this was a good character balance and I liked how the various arcs progressed.  All the character arcs worked together exceedingly well, and I really liked how together they formed an exceptional and addictive plot.  The protagonists of The Trouble with Peace go through a lot in this book, and I enjoyed seeing how each of them progressed through their latest trials and dangers.  I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the final book of the trilogy and I imagine some dark things are in store for most of them.

In addition to all the outstanding and complex main characters, Abercrombie also has a great swathe of supporting characters throughout the novel and are extremely entertaining or memorable in their own right (I was a particular fan of the wild hillwomen, Isern-i-Phail).  Abercrombie does an excellent job building these characters up through the course of the book, and there are some amazing and entertaining personalities featured as a result.  However, readers should be extremely cautious about getting too attached to some of these characters, as their life expectancy is a little less certain than the main cast.  The Trouble with Peace also saw the return of several characters featured in the original The First Law books, including a couple of former point-of-view characters.  It was great to see how their stories continued years after the heydays of their adventures, and it adds an interesting aspect to the novel.  Fans of the original trilogy will no doubt enjoy seeing these characters return but should prepare to have their hearts broken.  I really liked the various storylines associated with these characters, and I was also impressed by several twists Abercrombie threw in around them, including one particularly good twist about who the ultimate antagonist of this latest trilogy really is.  Several of the scenes that utilise a ton of separate perspectives to show a single event are often briefly shown from the perspective of some of these side characters, as well as a few additional minor characters who only appear for that scene.  The author really makes the most of these scenes, introducing the character and setting up their personality and history in short order, and then showing how that event affects them (usually in a terribly negative way).

The awesome and exciting action sequences really helped to enhance The Trouble with Peace.  Abercrombie’s books have always featured some brutal and graphic fights and examples of combat, and this latest book is no exception.  There are some very impressive fight sequences in The Trouble with Peace, and the reader is always guaranteed of some action just around the corner.  I really do have to highlight one particularly massive and well-done war sequence that occurs in the latter half of the book.  This battle is the culmination of much of the novel’s plot and has a lot of build up as a result.  Luckily, it did not disappoint in any way, as the reader is treated to a series of powerful sequences that really drag them into the midst of the fight.  Thanks to Abercrombie’s excellent writing, the reader gets an incredible sense of the chaos, the fear and the claustrophobic horrors of a battle.  I really got sucked into this major fight, especially as the author makes good use of multiple perspectives to showcase just how bad it could be in the midst of the fighting, and how destruction, death and despair can infect anyone on the battlefield.  These action scenes are exceptionally written and extremely memorable, and all I can really say is thank goodness pikes are no longer used in war.

In addition to the outstanding story, characters and action sequences, I was also quite impressed with the new elements introduced into the series’ dark fantasy world.  While part of The Trouble with Peace is set in the brutal North, most of the plot takes place in the Union, which has gone through some dark times recently.  This version of the Union is extremely different to the setting that was featured in The First Law trilogy, with a recent industrial revolution bringing both progress and problems, as the land moves away from agriculture to factories.  I really appreciate how Abercrombie has altered his primary fantasy nation since the last trilogy, and his portrayal of an early industrial nation which is on the brink of various revolutions proves to be an awesome setting for this brutal and creative novel.  The author really explores the essence and heart of the Union in this book, and there is a particular deep dive into the politics and social economics of the nation as a result.  I had a lot of fun seeing how the Union falls into war, and a lot of the elements are set up extremely well during this book and the preceding novel.  The resulting conflict has a real English Civil War feel to it at times, with the parliament-like Open Council facing off against the forces of the Crown.  All of this works extremely well as a setting, and I had an amazing time once again visiting this chaotic and dangerous fantasy world.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Trouble with Peace, I ended up listening to the excellent audiobook version which was narrated by Steven Pacey.  Pacey is a talented audiobook narrator who has lent his voice to all the previous The First Law novels.  Pacey does an outstanding job narrating this audiobook and the amazing story clips along at a substantial pace thanks to him.  The narrator also has an impressive repertoire of cool voices for the various characters featured in this book and he even utilises some of the voices of the returning characters from the original novels.  Each of these voices is distinctive and fits its respective character perfectly, which in turn enhances the book’s writing and helps to showcase the character’s personality.  All of this results in an enjoyable and deeply addictive listen and I can already tell you that The Trouble with Peace is going to be one of my top audiobooks for 2020.  Listeners should be aware that this is a substantial audiobook, which has a run time of just under 22 hours (it just cracks my top 20 longest audiobooks list).  However, I would say that it is worth the time investment to check this amazing book out in this format and listeners are guaranteed a superb listen.

Joe Abercrombie continues to cement his position as one of the best modern fantasy authors in the world today with the awesome second novel in his Age of Madness trilogy, The Trouble with Peace.  Serving as the latest instalment in the overarching The First Law series, The Trouble with Peace is a captivating and impressive novel, containing an outstanding plot, memorable multi-layered characters and intense action, all set in one of the best dark fantasy worlds in modern fiction.  The Trouble with Peace is one of the best novels of 2020 and I am so glad that I got the opportunity to read it.  Abercrombie has really knocked it out of the park again and I cannot wait to check out the final book in the trilogy next year (currently titled The Wisdom of Crowds).  You will love this book!

The Trouble with Peace Cover 2

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

River of Gold Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardback – 6 August 2020)

Series: Empire – Book 11

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Anthony Riches, comes River of Gold, the action-packed and epic 11th entry in his bestselling Empire series.

Aegyptus, 187 AD.  Under the command of Tribune Scaurus, decorated Centurion and former fugitive, Marcus Valerius Aquila, serves with several elite veteran officers, each of whom has displeased the Imperial hierarchy in some way.  These Roman soldiers now find themselves part of an informal troubleshooter unit, destined to die if they should ever fail one of their impossible tasks.  The Roman Empire is once again in danger as a mysterious army advances from the south of Africa, killing a major garrison and conquering a key port city at the southernmost border of the empire.  In order to solve this problem, the Emperor’s corrupt advisor sends Centurion Marcus and his comrades on another dangerous mission.

Arriving in Alexandria, Marcus and his comrades discover a rich province riddled with corruption and with a much reduced military presence.  Taking command of the local legion, Scaurus marches what soldiers he can down to the site of the massacre to find a new grim reality waiting for them.  After centuries of peace, the mysterious kingdom of Kush has once again declared war on Rome, determined to claim what is rightfully theirs from the weakened Romans.  In order to stop them, Scaurus leads his force deep into enemy territory to recapture an abandoned fortress and hold it against impossible odds.  Their mission is borderline suicidal and only has a slim chance of success, but if anyone can pull of this impossible task, it is Marcus and his friends.

This was another fun and exciting historical novel from Riches which proved to be a fantastic new entry in his Empire series.  Riches is a prolific and talented author who has been writing since 2009, when he debuted the first Empire novel, Wounds of Honour.  Since then he has gone to write an additional 10 novels in this series, as well as writing his separate series, The Centurions.  I have previously read a few of Riches’s books, including the first three entries in the Empire series when they were released.  While these first three books were extremely enjoyable Roman historical fiction novels, I missed the chance to read a couple of entries in the series and fell too far behind to catch up.  However, I recently got a copy of this latest book and, as I was in the mood for a visit back to ancient Rome, I tried out River of Gold to see how it would turn out.

This proved to be a good decision on my behalf as River of Gold ended up being a fantastic and compelling read.  Riches sets up an excellent character-driven story that sets a group of unique Roman officers against a dangerous new foe.  The author does a good job setting the story up, allowing those readers unfamiliar with the series or the historical era to easily jump in, and then sets the characters toward their goals.  This results in a captivating narrative that has a good blend of action, character development and cool historical features, as the protagonists embark on a madcap plan to win the war.  This leads to a number of awesome battle scenes, including an extended siege sequence which was a lot of fun to read, and the various characters find themselves in sufficient danger throughout.  The story ends a tad suddenly, although Riches does a good job of setting up the overall conclusion to the main storyline.  This story also felt a bit short, and I think it could have benefited from another 50 pages or so, perhaps extending out the siege sequence and adding in some more action and peril there.  However, this was still an overall excellent narrative which I was able to get through in only a few short days.

Riches spends a good part of River of Gold focusing on the various characters he has introduced and developed over the course of his long-running series, and this proves to be an entertaining group of protagonists.  In order to examine these characters Riches utilises a detailed, in-narrative character introduction near the start of the book, in which a newcomer reads off personnel files about each of the recurring characters.  While this was rather forced and inelegant way to introduce the characters and their history, it does the job and allows the readers to get an idea of who these protagonists are and their various quirks.  I found this particularly useful after having skipped several books in the series, and new readers will definitely appreciate the background.  Most of these characters get some intriguing arcs throughout the book.  For example, Marcus is once again the lead character of the novel as he tends to get the most important missions and ends up in the most danger, including a particularly close look at the Kush and their society.  Marcus is a fairly typical Roman historical fiction protagonist who has gone from raw recruit to hardened veteran throughout the course of the series, and it was interesting to see the various developments that have occurred since the last Empire novel I read.  Tribune Scaurus also gets a fair bit of attention as the leader of the Roman force and the mastermind behind their attack.  Scaurus is a good leader character, providing the rest of the characters with backbone and fortitude, and I liked his rather unique command style that relates to the dangerous political situation he finds himself in.  The other major character arc that I liked revolved around Cotta, the group’s veteran centurion and Marcus’s mentor, who reluctantly returns to Aegyptus for the first time after assassinating a Roman general who sought to rebel against the Emperor.  Cotta’s interesting subplot revolved around him reminiscing about his past mistakes while he attempts to hide his identity from the legion they have taken over, as they suffered as a result of his actions.  All of these recurring characters provided a great base for the story and some major moments that occurred will definitely rock readers, especially those long-term fans of the series.

While the recurring characters are good, I really have to highlight some of the new characters that Riches created for this novel, one of whom in particular outshines the rest.  This new character is Demetrius, a Christian who accompanies the army down south as part of his holy mission.  Demetrius is a complex and enjoyable character mainly due to his past as a vicious Christian-hunting Roman soldier.  After a series of brutalities, Demetrius sought redemption by joining the Christian cult, and now he fights against the invaders, believing that this fight is a holy war.  Riches focuses a good amount of the plot on Demetrius, and he proves to be a captivating and central figure, offering words of wisdom and defending his newfound Christian beliefs.  I found the author’s portrayal of this character to be really intriguing and I liked the close relationship he formed with some of the recurring characters, especially Marcus, despite that fact that none of them are Christians.  The other new character I liked was Ptolemy, an Imperial secretary and scribe assigned to the group, who provides them with relevant information and history to assist with their mission.  Ptolemy is essentially a walking piece of exposition, and a large amount of the book’s historical information is revealed thanks to him.  Despite this, he was a rather entertaining character, mainly due to the odd-couple friendship he formed with Dubnus.  The two characters are pretty much opposites in every way and end up bickering on a number of subjects, while also building up a mutual respect for each other.  This fun discourse between the two resulted in some great moments throughout the book and he was an interesting addition to the plot.

In addition to the fun story and great range of characters, Riches also invests a significant amount of time and effort in bringing the historical aspects of this novel to life.  The author has obviously done some serious research on the subject of Roman military history as he does a wonderful job showcasing various elements of the Roman legions and soldiers to life, including gear, unit makeup and tactics.  This also translates incredibly across into the various combat scenes throughout the novel, as you get a real feel for how a Roman solider would have felt in combat, especially at the Centurion level, although Riches mostly focuses on unique fight situations in this book.  The book also contains a number of detailed descriptions of the historical landscapes that the protagonists traverse through, such as Alexandria and the rest of historical Egypt.  This proved to be quite a fascinating inclusion in the story and I always enjoy seeing an author’s depiction of historical settings.  However, the most fascinating part of this novel has to be the inclusion of the ancient African Kingdom of Kush, with whom our protagonists face off against.  The Kushites were a powerful and advanced civilization, who, until recently, have been somewhat overlooked by historians and archaeologists.  Riches does an incredible job working them into his novel and setting them up as a rival kingdom to Rome.  Not only does he feature a number of detailed depictions of their culture and military make up during the events of the book, but he also spends time exploring the history of Kush, including their origins as a civilization, their prior history throughout Aegyptus and their conflicts with the Romans.  This was easily one of the most interesting and compelling elements of River of Gold, and I really appreciated Riches’s inclusion of such a unique historical adversary.  Indeed, all of the historical inclusions in this book are excellent, and I had an amazing time exploring them as the story progressed.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches is a captivating and enjoyable novel that takes the reader on a fascinating and action-packed journey through history.  Riches does an excellent job continuing his bestselling Empire series, and I had a great time getting through his exciting story, loaded with great characters and an impressive historical background.  All of this results in an amazing historical fiction novel that is well worth checking out, whether you are a fan of this long-running series or a general historical fiction fan looking for a fun adventure story.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg

The Black Hawks Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Audiobook – 3 October 2019)

Series: Articles of Faith – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to join the roughest, toughest and most maladjusted mercenary band in the land with The Black Hawks by David Wragg, and excellent fantasy debut that was a lot of fun to read.

Vedren Chel is a minor noble struggling to adjust to his life as a knight and glorified servant to his lazy step-uncle.  Hoping to escape the meaningless existence that has been forced upon him, Chel suddenly finds himself thrust into a great adventure when a mysterious enemy force invades the city he is stuck in, causing panic and confusion all around.  Managing to flee from the chaos, Chel finds himself the inadvertent travelling companion to the useless and cowardly Prince Tarfel, the King’s son and second in line to the throne.

Accompanying Tarfel to safety, Chel hopes to be rewarded with his freedom and the chance to forge a new life.  Instead he finds himself swept up in the dangerous politics of the realm when he is chosen to become Tarfel’s protector and loyal servant.  Forced to accompany the prince back to the very city they just fled, Chel has very little hope for their survival.  His fears prove justified when a force of disguised men attempt to kill them the night they arrive.  Their lives are only saved when a mysterious band of warriors arrive, killing their attackers and then promptly kidnapping them.

Awakening, Chel and Tarfel find themselves under the dubious protection of the Black Hawk Company, a small group of elite mercenaries who have been hired to escort Tarfel to a mysterious destination.  Despite their unconventional tactics and makeup, the Black Hawks are a dangerous and clever collection of killers, which proves useful when several bands of assassins and fanatics associated with the kingdoms corrupt and all powerful church; converge upon the group, determined to kill Tarfel.  Deciding that their kidnappers are the only group with their best interests in minds, Chel and Tarfel accompany the Black Hawks off into the unknown.  Their journey will take them through dangers, both seen and unseen, and lead them into the very heart of the kingdom as they try to remove the corruption from within.  But dark secrets lie in store for all of them at the end of their journey and no one will be prepared for the dangers and betrayals in front of them.

The Black Hawks is an exciting and captivating dark fantasy novel that I had an absolute blast reading.  This debut novel from David Wragg was originally released about this time last year and it serves as the first entry in his planned Articles of Faith series.  I didn’t get a chance to read The Black Hawks last year, but I have been eyeing this novel off for several months now as I loved how fun its synopsis sounded.  I finally got the opportunity to read this book a couple of weeks ago and I am extremely glad that I did, as The Black Hawks proved to be an impressive and entertaining read that I ended up powering through in relatively short order.  Wragg has come up with an excellent novel that combines a compelling and slick story with some memorable characters and a dark fantasy landscape loaded with perils and betrayals.  These, combined with the book’s many intense action sequences, fun humour and several dark scenes, help to create an addictive and amazing read that I quickly fell in love with.

Wragg utilises a fun, fast-paced and compelling narrative to serve as the centre of this great book.  The entirety of The Black Hawks’ plot is told from the perspective of Chel, who is constantly falling into the midst of some world-changing events.  The plot starts off quickly, with Chel quickly finding himself in the company of Prince Tarfel and from there into the middle of a number of conspiracies and plot aimed at eliminating or manipulating the prince.  This ensures that the reader is quickly enveloped in a complex and entertaining plot which sees the protagonists surrounded on all sides by betrayals, conflicting agendas, mortal perils and all manner of conspiracies.  It was really fun and captivating to see how the various storylines turned out, and the author comes up with a number of intriguing surprises and twists to ensure that the story stays quite interesting and fresh.  There was one very major twist revealed at the end of the novel that I was particularly impressed with.  Wragg sets this twist up perfectly, with a number of hints towards it scattered throughout the book.  While I was able predict some of what was going to happen in advance, I was pleasantly surprised with some of the other revelations that came to light, and this beautifully cultivated twist was one of the high spots of the book.  I was also expecting a completely different ending to the novel, perhaps something a tad more light-hearted, but I liked the direction that Wragg took it instead, especially as it means that I will be grabbing the eventual sequel to this novel as soon as possible to see what happens next.  Overall, The Black Hawks contains a really enjoyable and smartly written narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting through it.

One of the best parts of The Black Hawks is the enjoyable and distinctive characters that Wragg has come up with.  The book’s main protagonist is Vedren Chel, who serves as the story’s point-of-view character.  Chel starts off as a fairly typical fantasy character: a young, bored minor noble who finds himself suddenly involved with events outside of his understanding.  However, as the story progresses, he shows himself to be a much more complex character, mainly thanks to his dedication to Prince Tarfel, who he becomes sworn to.  Tarfel is a spectacularly naive and incompetent royal, who is usually completely unaware of the danger that he finds himself in, or the full scope of the conspiracies playing out around him.  Despite recognising how useless Tarfel is, Chel takes his oath seriously and does all he can to protect him, even though that essentially means he gets the crap kicked out of him every second chapter or so.  This dogged loyalty and determination to do the right thing makes him quite an appealing protagonist, and he proves to be a rather resourceful individual who starts to fit in with the members of the Black Hawk company who kidnap him.  This camaraderie with the Black Hawks, something that he has been missing for most of his life, results in several great scenes, especially as he finds himself conflicted in his loyalty to them and to Tarfel.  Overall, his character arc goes in some interesting directions, and it was great to see him grow as a person through the course of the book.  Tarfel also grows a little during the course of the novel, becoming slightly less boorish and a little more capable.  Some of the reveals at the end of the novel have some rather large impacts of Tarfel’s personality, as he completely re-evaluates his entire life, and it will be rather interesting to see what happens to him in the future novels.

While Chel and Tarfel are both great characters to anchor the main plot around, the most entertaining and memorable characters are easily the members of the titular Black Hawk company.  The Black Hawks are a small group of dangerous mercenaries who have banded together after failing to fit in with all the other companies.  Wragg has gone out of his way to create a distinctive band of mismatched rogues to fill the ranks of the Black Hawk company, and there are a number of fun characters introduced as a result.  These members include a grim and taciturn leader with a notorious hidden past seeking redemption, a shadowy archer who has had her tongue cut out, a beautiful but lethal swordswoman, the group’s dangerous and self-serving assassin who is probably going to betray everyone, and a philosophical giant.  While there are a few stereotypical fantasy roles in there, such as with the Black Hawk leader, this turned out to be a particularly fun group of characters.  My personal favourite was Lemon, a short, red-haired human woman with a crude personality, amazing sense of humour and a fascination with her arsenal of axes (essentially a classic fantasy dwarf character).  Lemon is a great entry in the book, especially as she serves as the story’s main comic relief and is generally the most likeable and entertaining character in the novel, especially when she regales the protagonist with her blunt and tasteless jokes.  I really liked the excellent group dynamic that Wragg came up with for the members of the Black Hawks, and while they work together and are friends, there is a real sense of how mismatched the group is as all of its members are more individualistic than a team player.  All of these characters are great and Wragg does an excellent job introducing each of them and ensuring that all of them get their moment to shine throughout the course of the story.  However, he makes sure to keep most of their backgrounds hidden from the protagonist and the reader, ensuring there is a certain amount of mystery and mystique around them.  While certain hints about their past are revealed, for the most part the reader is left in the dark about who these people are and what brought them to the Black Hawks.  I imagine that Wragg plans to reveal each of these character’s full backstories throughout the course of the series and now that I am somewhat invested in them, I look forward to finding out more about their pasts.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing characters, The Black Hawks features an excellent new dark fantasy world that serves as an awesome setting to this book.  Wragg’s novel features a somewhat desolate fantasy kingdom, ruined by years of constant warfare and ruled over by a corrupted and militant religious order that is desperately clinging to power.  This proved to be a really cool and enjoyable setting for the novel, and readers quickly become intrigued by the chaotic events occurring throughout the landscape.  While Wragg does drop the reader into this setting with any preamble and gets the story going rather quickly, the reader is never really lost about what is going on in this setting, and the author provides the relevant details about the fantasy world when necessary.  This proved to be an excellent overall setting, and I really liked seeing how all the politics and religious strife worked out.  This world also has a lot of potential for expansion, with a number of different nations and regions mentioned throughout the course of The Black Hawks’ story.  I imagine that the series will eventually visit many of these locations in the future, which should result in some interesting and enjoyable storylines, and I look forward to seeing how that turns out.

I ended up listening to The Black Hawks through its audiobook format, which runs for just over 12 hours and is narrated by Colin Mace.  This proved to be an excellent way to enjoy The Black Hawks, and I was able to power through it in only a few days as it was a really easy novel to listen to.  Thanks to Mace’s enjoyable narration, readers will be able to fly through this exciting and fast-paced story without losing focus for a second.  Mace also does a number of excellent voices for the various characters in the novels, capturing the diverse personalities and over-the-top characters really well.  As a result, I felt that this format was an awesome way to enjoy The Black Hawks and the audiobook comes highly recommended.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg was a cool and impressive dark fantasy adventure that I am really glad I checked out.  Thanks to his captivating and action-packed story, distinctive characters and dark fantasy setting, Wragg knocked his debut out of the park, creating an awesome overall read.  I had an amazing time listening to this fantastic book and I am looking forward to seeing how the story continues in the second Articles of Faith novel.