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.

Throwback Thursday: Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry

Dogs of War Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 25 April 2017)

Series: Joe Ledger – Book Nine

Length: 17 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry, the 9th novel in the action-packed, over-the-top Joe Ledger series.

People familiar with my blog will be aware that over the last year or so I have been making my way through Maberry’s Joe Ledger science fiction thriller novels.  I have been a little obsessed with these books ever since I first checked out the 10th novel in the series, Deep Silence, and then went all the way back to book one, Patient Zero, to see how the series started.  Ever since then I have worked my way through the rest of the Joe Ledger novels, each of which has proven to be a pretty top notch read.  I absolutely love the clever writing style, unique stories and distinctive characters that Maberry features in these novels, and I usually power through them in extremely short order.  Dogs of War is no exception, as I was able to get through this in less than a week and it did not take long for me to get addicted to its intriguing and exciting plot.

Following the disastrous events of Kill Switch, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a secret American counterterrorist unit that focuses on dangerous and unusual technology and science, is damaged and discredited.  However, they are still determined to do good throughout the world, and their main field agent, the legendary Joe Ledger, is always keen for a new case.  So when his brother calls him out of the blue with an unusual mystery, Ledger does not hesitate to head back to Baltimore in order to investigate.

Arriving in his former hometown, Ledger discovers a curious set of circumstances.  A young street worker went on a rampage, killing several people before dying herself.  The cause of her madness appears to be a new strain of rabies, which was apparently triggered by nanobots in her brain.  Attempting to investigate more into the case, Ledger finds himself and his family targeted by ruthless killers with advanced technology, determined to ward him off the case.  It soon becomes apparent that the death of the young girl in Baltimore is just the tip of the iceberg, as other mysterious events and attacks occur across America, many of them targeting members of the DMS.  A new enemy has risen from the ashes of the DMS’s old foes, and she is determined to bring about a new world order.  Worse, the DMS’s most dangerous enemy has returned, ready to rain chaos and destruction down on the entire world.  Can Ledger and his team defeat this ruthless team of villains before it is too late, or will Ledger face the greatest tragedy of his life?

So, after reading all 10 Joe Ledger novels (as well as the spinoff novel, Rage), I have come to the conclusion that is actually impossible for Maberry to write a bad Joe Ledger novel.  I was once again blown away while reading this ninth book as Dogs of War contained an epic and addictive story that I could not stop listening to.  Maberry continues to utilise his distinctive writing style in this book, setting up a captivating and clever story that is loaded with intense action, likeable characters, memorable antagonists and a devious plot to end the world.  This results in a very captivating read and Dogs of War gets an easy five stars from me.  This is actually one of my favourite novels in the series and is probably the best one I have read this year (by a very small margin; Predator One and Kill Switch are both really good).  Also he briefly mentions my Alma mater, ANU, so yay for that!

Dogs of War contains an absolutely fantastic story that sees the fun and complicated protagonist, Joe Ledger, face off against another world ending threat.  Just like in the rest of the series, Dogs of War’s narrative is cleverly constructed with about half the novel is told from the point of view of Ledger, as he encounters the antagonist’s plot in real time.  However, the rest of the novel features a large array of alternate perspectives and preceding time periods that expands the range of the story and helps to create a complex and captivating narrative which really grabs the reader’s attention and interest.  Maberry backs up this great storytelling with a thrilling and action-packed narrative that is fast-paced and delightfully over-the-top.  I really love the unique science fiction thriller storylines that Maberry features within Dogs of War and I appreciated all the cool connections that it has to previous novels in the series.  This cool story will appeal to a wide range of different readers and it is extremely accessible to people who are unfamiliar with the Joe Ledger series as Maberry goes to great lengths to explain all the various story elements and characters featured within the book.  That being said, I really need to emphasise just how truly over-the-top this story could be, as there are a number of scenes that some readers may find uncomfortable or hard to read.  This includes some very graphic fight sequences and some rather disturbing sexual content, some of which, if I am being honest, is way too excessive (one flashback scene features the underage antagonist getting deflowered by a literal demon right after her mother’s funeral, which happened to coincide with 9/11).  Still I have a lot of love for the way in which Maberry constructs a Joe Ledger story, and Dogs of War is a truly fun and thrilling story as a result.

Just like with the previous novels in this series, Maberry has anchored his amazing story on a fantastic collection of characters who really help to enhance the narrative and turn this into a first-class read.  The main character is the series’ titular protagonist, Joe Ledger.  Ledger is an extremely complex character due to his fractured personalities and intense emotional range, and it is always incredible to see the story through his eyes, whether he is feeling each and every emotional blow that comes as way as a result of the case, or he is dishing out severe and brutal vengeance to those who have wronged him.  Ledger is also the cause of most of the book’s enjoyable humour, as he has an extremely flippant outer personality, including a hilarious and sarcastic inner monologue, which becomes especially funny when he encounters the various strange and over-the-top elements that this series is known for.

In addition to Ledger, Maberry also does an amazing job reintroducing and utilising the various recurring characters who have been featured in the previous entries in the series.  All of the side characters have their own distinctive and enjoyable personalities, and fans of the series will really appreciate seeing many of these characters return and continue their various individual storylines.  This includes the two surviving members of Ledger’s personal strike team, Top and Bunny, who serve as a great backup throughout the novel and get into some dangerous scrapes of their own.  I particularly appreciated the way in which the author examined and showcased the emotional damage that these two characters have been dealing with since the traumatic events of Kill Switch, and it added an amazing sense of realism to the story.  I also absolutely loved seeing more of Ledger’s attack dog, Ghost, the best and most lovable canine killing machine in all of fiction.  It is an absolute testament to Maberry’s writing ability that he is able to install such a fun and memorable personality into a fictional dog, and you can’t help but love it when Ghost is on the page doing his thing.  That being said, one of the best characters in the novel has to be the mysterious head of the DMS, Mr Church.  Church is a calm and measured figure throughout the novel, grounding the various main characters and providing stable leadership to them.  However, the main appeal of Church lies around his enigmatic nature and past.  Maberry has built up such an amazing amount of mystique around this character that anytime a little hint or mention of his past is presented the reader absolutely laps it up as they try to figure out who or what he is (is he an alien, an angel, some form of immortal hero from history? You just don’t know).  Dogs of War features several more tantalising hints and clues about this, and you get some very interesting glances into his past, although there is still so much mystery.  I really loved seeing all these great characters again, and it was fantastic to see how the story unwinds around them.

No Joe Ledger novel would be complete with a sensationally evil villain with a complicated past and an elaborate master plan, and Dogs of War features both in spades.  The main antagonist of this novel, Zephyr Bane, is a rather intriguing character with a unique view on the world and a range of connection to some of the villains previously featured in the series.  Maberry does an outstanding job building up this antagonist throughout the course of Dogs of War, including through a series of interludes that show key moments in Zephyr’s life, such as how she came up with her plans and how she was tutored in the art of villainy.  While Zephyr is a great antagonist, Maberry doubles down on the villainy in the novel by introducing another sinister opponent for the DMS to face.  This second antagonist is someone who has appeared in several of the past Joe Ledger novels, although his identity is hidden for a good part of the book (although fans of the series will work out who they are rather quickly).  This character is another particularly mysterious being, who spends most of the book manipulating events from the shadows, giving the reader hints at who they are and what they are capable of.  A major highlight of this novel is this villain’s long-awaited showdown with a major Joe Ledger character, and this fated interaction does not disappoint, even if it leaves the readers with more questions than answers.  Overall, these are some fantastic antagonists, and I absolutely love seeing the outrageously evil opponents that Maberry comes up with for these books.

I also have to highlight the extremely complex and intricate evil plot that these antagonists came up with for Dogs of War.  This was a great, high-stakes plan that contained a lot of different elements that are slowly revealed to the reader throughout the course of the book.  Not only does Maberry make great use of flashbacks and interludes to show how this plan came to pass and the various planning stages but he also spends time examining how the antagonists attempt to counter the inevitable interference from the DMS.  Both of the main antagonists have had interactions with the DMS before, and they know that any plan they implement will gain the attention of the DMS at some point.  As a result, they come up with a number of counters and tactics designed to directly target key elements of the DMS in order to take them off the board.  This was a really clever part of the story, as not only does it add an extra level of drama to the narrative, especially when Ledger is emotionally targeted, but it also represents a clever bit of continuity with the rest of the series.  A lot of the weaknesses that the antagonists attempt to exploit were previously introduced or discussed in some of the previous Joe Ledger novels.  The antagonists subsequently try to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors when they utilise these weaknesses, resulting in a lot of tension as some of the characters you are invested in are personally targeted.  I think this was one of the more inventive master plots that Maberry has come up with for the Joe Ledger series.

One of the most fascinating parts of Dogs of War was the author’s examination of certain real-world technologies.  Throughout the course of the book, the author examines all manner of technological marvels in great detail, including nanobots, advanced robots, drones, computer technology and artificial intelligence.  This results in a number of intriguing discussions as the various characters consider all the applications and impacts that such technology has on the world, these technologies are then cleverly worked into the plot of the book as the antagonists utilise them for their evil plans.  Not only is this immensely interesting and highlights the research that the author has obviously done, but all this technology adds a certain amount of real-world menace to the book.  As Maberry takes pains to explain at the very front of the book, all of the technologies that he features within Dogs of War is either in development, currently being tested or already exist in the real world.  As a result, the reader gets a little bit of dread at the thought that a lot of the terrible things that Maberry features within Dogs of War could happen in real life.  This of course helps to ratchet up the tension and suspense within the novel, and I really appreciated how the author used this to make the story even better.  Also, you get to see the protagonist go up against a bunch of robotic dogs, which is just awesome on so many levels.

In order to enjoy Dogs of War I checked out the audiobook format of the novel, which has a decent run time just short of 18 hours.  I absolutely love the Joe Ledger audiobooks and they are by far my preferred way to enjoy these fantastic novels.  The main reason for this is the awesome narrator, Ray Porter, who has lent his talent to every novel in the Joe Ledger series, including Dogs of War, and whose voice really enhances these books.  Porter, who is probably my favourite audiobook narrator at the moment, does an amazing job bringing the characters and the story to life, thanks to his memorable voices and the impressive way that he loads each word with so much emotion and personality.  You always get an incredible sense of the character’s emotions, as the anger, rage, fear or grief that they go through always comes through so clearly.  I particularly love the way that Porter brings the series’ main character, Joe Ledger, to life, as he perfectly captures Ledger’s diverse emotive range, including his boundless anger and his outrageous and sarcastic humour.  I also love the incredible voices he utilises for some other characters, such as the mysterious Mr Church, and his depiction of him contains all the necessary gravitas and power to match the character described in the text.  I also liked the way in which Porter loads one of the antagonist’s voices up with such pure menace and hatred, turning them into a very threatening figure in this format.  All of this made listening to Dogs of War an absolute treat, and I cannot recommend the Joe Ledger audiobooks enough.

Dogs of War was another excellent and addictive entry in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, and I had an amazing time listening to it.  Featuring an outstanding story, awesome characters and so many other fantastic elements, this was an incredible read and I am extremely glad that I checked it out.  I have to admit that I am actually a little sad to have finished off Dogs of War, as that was the last Joe Ledger novel that I had to read.  I have really enjoyed going back and checking out all of the wonderful novels in this superb series, and I will have to get my science fiction thriller fix somewhere else in the future.  Luckily, Maberry actually references several other great series in Dogs of War that could be worth checking out, including the Sigma Force, Seal Team 666 and Chess Team thriller novels, all of which apparently exist in a shared universe with the Joe Ledger books.  I will have to have a think about look at some of these in the future, especially as I wait for Maberry to write another entry in his spin-off Rogue Team International series.  In the meantime, Dogs of War is really worth reading and it comes very highly recommended from me.

Throwback Thursday – Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts Cover

Publisher: Audible Frontiers (Audiobook – 5 June 2012)

Series: Standalone

Length: 7 hours and 41 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Prepare to dive into one of the most meta and entertaining novels you will ever read with Redshirts by John Scalzi, a fun and clever Star Trek parody that explores what it must be like to be a background character in a science fiction series.

John Scalzi is a well-established and highly regarded science fiction author responsible for a number of impressive and expansive series.  Some of his best-known works include his Old Man’s War series, his Lock In novels and his The Interdependency series, the last of which I have been eying off for a couple of years now and have been meaning to check out.  Each of these series sounds really exciting and have received a lot of positive praise from readers and reviewers.  In addition, Scalzi has also written three standalone novels, each of which has a very fun concept behind it, including the focus of this review, Redshirts.  While I am extremely interested in some of Scalzi’s other works, the moment I found out that he had written a Star Trek parody novel told from the perspective of a redshirt, I grabbed myself a copy of its audiobook format and I have been looking for a chance to listen to it.  Last weekend I had a long car trip with my wife/editor Alex, and we decided that listening to Redshirts would be the perfect entertainment for the drive.

Redshirts takes place in humanity’s far future, aboard the flagship of the Universal Union, the starship Intrepid.  The Intrepid is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and exploration, containing only the most talented crew and scientists that humanity has to offer.  In all respects it seems like the perfect posting for newly commissioned Ensign Andrew Dahl, but it does not take long for Dahl to suspect that there is something seriously wrong aboard the Intrepid.  Not only does the lab that Dahl is assigned to have a magical box which solves every major problem that the ship runs into (with only seconds to spare, without fail), but the entire crew is terrified of the captain and his senior officers, actively trying to avoid them and the near constant away missions.  The crew has come to realise that the away missions are guaranteed to be lethal, with any crew member who joins likely to die while the senior officers constantly walk away without a scratch (with the exception of the unlucky Lieutenant Kerensky).  Now a great deal of energy is place into avoiding an away mission at all cost, with new transfers to the ship kept in the dark until it is too late.

As Dahl and his friends begin to realise the full extent of the terror that has engulfed the ship they attempt to find some sort of answers for what is going on.  However, the more deadly adventures that they go on the more obvious it becomes that some mysterious force is controlling their actions and causing their deaths.  With the lives of every crewmember aboard the Intrepid at stake, Dahl and his friends are left with only one crazy plan, to hunt down the beings controlling them and convince them to stop no matter the cost.  However, what happens when these expendable redshirts end up meeting their own creators?

I am going to say right of the bat that both Alex and I absolutely loved this book and we had an incredible time listening to it.  A good indication of how much we enjoyed it can be seen in the fact that we easily and eagerly powered through it during the two halves of our car trip without any breaks, laughing our asses off the entire time.  Redshirts is an extremely funny and clever novel that acts as both a parody of and a love letter to the Star Trek television show.  Scalzi has come up with a truly awesome and enjoyable novel that combines an amazing amount of humour and parody with a clever and heartfelt story.  This results in a memorable and addictive tale which you cannot help but enjoy, especially if you are a major fan of Star Trek.

For this great novel, Scalzi has come up with a very compelling and enjoyable story that acts in many ways like a unique combination of Galaxy Quest, The Cabin in the Woods and The French Mistake episode of Supernatural.  The story focuses on Ensign Dahl and his friends as they begin to work out the issues aboard the Intrepid.  This is a very fast-paced narrative and the reader is soon introduced to all the mysterious events occurring on the ship, from the terrified crew, the weird science, the exceedingly dangerous and improbable away missions and the strange characters who seem to have the answers.  All of this is shown to the reader in a very clever way, and while you are expecting many of these events occur, especially if you are familiar with Star Trek, seeing these characters react to the various odd occurrences with realistic shock and scepticism is a great source of entertainment.  Following the initial introduction, you get several chapters of the protagonists humorously traversing a chaotic ship full of self-aware redshirts desperately trying to avoid their fates.  The various attempts by the characters to understand what is going on and change their fates are amazing, if a little tragic in places, and this is a very comedic part of the book loaded with some of the best jokes at Star Trek’s expense.  The story then takes a very interesting change of direction as the protagonists undertake a desperate plan (inspired by a classic Star Trek film) to save the ship and prevent their upcoming deaths.  This third part of the book is exceedingly meta, and fans of both Star Trek and surreal, self-referential fiction will love where the story goes and various clever character interactions that occur.  These distinctive parts of the book come together extremely well and form an intricate and captivating overall narrative that fits a lot of story elements into a relatively short novel.  I had an amazing time listening to this complex story, as not only did it make me laugh, but it also made me care about the various characters who are introduced throughout the course of the book (something which the author is aware of and sadistically exploits at times, especially with that last joke at the end of the main story).

In addition to the main story, Scalzi also features three substantial codas at the end of the novel.  These codas are essentially short stories that follow side characters the protagonist meets during the course of the main narrative.  While I would normally be a little concerned about some concluding material taking up so much space from an already shortish novel, these codas are extremely well written and contribute a great deal to the book.  Titled Coda 1, 2 and 3, the codas are told in the first, second and third person narrative respectively, and contain some truly impressive and touching character-driven narratives.  These extremely clever codas really dive down into the psyches and emotions of their respective characters, showing their own complex histories and how their encounter with the protagonist had such a major impact on them.  Of the three, my favourite is probably Coda 1, which is easily the funniest, containing a very humorous series of blog posts, although Codas 2 and 3 are both emotionally rich and heart-warming.  While some readers may be tempted to skip these codas after the main story is finished, I would very strongly recommend checking each of these out as you are guaranteed to come away being extremely attached to each of these great side characters and also feeling a lot better after hearing each coda’s happy ending.

While Redshirts also has its own unique and captivating story at its heart it is an extremely funny parody of the iconic Star Trek television show.  Scalzi is clearly a fan of the series as he expertly works all manner of fun jokes and references to the show into the novel.  The Intrepid and its bridge crew are clear parodies of the Enterprise and the main characters of The Original Series, and Scalzi does an amazing job working his narrative around them, emphasising all their iconic character traits and showing just how ridiculous they and their actions are to the eyes of a normal person.  This includes the captain’s dramatic tone and way of over exaggerating events, and the poor junior officer with a Russian accent who gets the crap kicked out of him every single episode and yet is fully recovered by the next adventure without a hint of injury or PTSD.  Redshirts contains all manner of references or parodies to the over-the-top, badly written or ridiculous elements of the show, and Scalzi lovingly features and critiques them in an amazingly funny way; everything from the evolutionarily questionable alien monsters, the repetitive space battles (those poor people on decks six to twelve!) and the high death toll of the normal crew.  The highlight of the book has to be the terrified and disbelieving reactions that each member of the crew has to the events going on around them, and the fun and exaggerated attempts to survive them.  I also really loved the comedic metafiction elements of the book, which allowed Scalzi to take some humorous shots at the writers and creators of shows like Star Trek.  While this humour is obviously geared towards Star Trek fans, you really do not need to have a lot of in-depth knowledge of the series to appreciate the humour.  Anyone who has a passing knowledge of Star Trek and its tropes will find this book deeply amusing and hilarious and you are guaranteed to have a fun time getting through it.

While I absolutely loved Redshirts’ story, I did find that the dialogue was a little clunky in places.  While most of the conversation is quite fun and snappy, the overabundance of dialogue tags and the extreme overuse of the word “said” gets repetitive and distracting, especially in scenes where the conversations fly thick and fast.  In some heavy dialogue scenes, “character 1 said”, “character 2 said”, “character 3 said” repeats about 20 times in a minute, which is really distracting.  If Scalzi had used more variety in indicating which character said what, this book would have been pretty damn perfect.  But the story and the comedy were strong enough to overcome most of these issues, and I chose to focus on them instead.  However, I can easily see other readers getting a little frustrated with this, which would be a real shame as this is a very fun book.

The audiobook format of Redshirts ran for 7 hours and 41 minutes, although it is a closer to six hours if you decide to skip the codas at the end of the book.  This was an extremely easy audiobook to listen to quickly and we absolutely flew through it.  One of the main reasons that we were so interested in this book is because the audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton.  Now, there is obviously a lot of appeal to Wil Wheaton, or any cast member of a Star Trek television show, getting involved in a parody like this, but Wheaton did a pretty good job narrating this audiobook.  Wheaton had a great voice for this novel, and he was able to keep the audience’s attention through the entirety of the story.  While he did not really change his voice from character to character, the listener was generally able to tell when someone new was talking (ironically thanks to the author’s overuse of “said”).  Wheaton was, however, extremely adept at expressing the relevant emotions of the characters through his voice, and the fear, anger, frustration and sheer disbelief of the protagonist and the people he encounters really shines through.  I also really enjoyed his portrayal of the Intrepid’s senior crewmembers, each of whom is a parody of the main characters from Star Trek: The Original Series.  I particularly had a lot of love for the Captain’s “dramatic voice” that Wheaton did, which really captured the over-the-top tone Kirk had when he was excited or animated.  Overall, the audiobook format is a fantastic way to enjoy Redshirts and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in checking this novel out.

Redshirts by John Scalzi is a masterful and hilarious novel that presents the reader with a wonderful and clever parody to the classic Star Trek television series.  While there are some style issues associated with the dialogue, the story is loaded to the brim with all manner of great jokes, interesting characters, compelling plot elements and a whole lot of meta comedy.  An absolutely fantastic read that will appeal to all manner of Star Trek fans or people in need of a good laugh, Redshirts comes highly recommended and I can guarantee that Wil Wheaton’s audiobook format will serve as a great form of entertainment for a long road trip.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 4 August 2020)

Series: The Locked Tomb – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 51 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sensational author Tamsyn Muir follows up her incredible 2019 debut with another epic, complex and infinitely entertaining hybrid novel, Harrow the Ninth.

Tamsyn Muir burst onto the writing scene with a real vengeance last year with her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in The Locked Tomb series.  Gideon the Ninth was an extremely clever and compelling novel that followed a group of spacefaring necromancers who were summoned to the house of their Emperor and god, and given an opportunity to learn from him and become Lyctors, immortal beings with immense necromantic power who are considered to be living saints.  What they instead found was a haunted manor filled with secrets, weird experiments and mysterious hints at the past.  The protagonist of this first novel was the titular Gideon, a smart assed, foul mouthed lesbian swordswoman who was reluctantly serving the necromantic lady of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.  I absolutely loved Gideon the Ninth and it was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019.  As a result, I was rather intrigued when I heard about its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (which, as you can see above, featured another intense and beautiful cover by the talented Tommy Arnold) and I eagerly grabbed an audiobook copy of it when it came out.  I have to say that I am extremely glad that I decided to do so as Harrow the Ninth turned out to be a truly outstanding book and I had an incredible time reading it.

Harrow the Ninth is set shortly after the dramatic conclusion to Gideon the Ninth and switches the focus of the novel over to Harrowhark, who has succeeded in becoming a Lyctor at great personal cost.  Now alone, mentally scarred and more powerful than ever, Harrow finds herself in the personal care of the Emperor of the Nine Houses, who is determined to use his new Lyctor in a deadly war against an ancient and powerful terror, a Resurrection Beast, the insane and vengeful ghost of a murdered planet.

Travelling to the Mithraeum, the Emperor’s isolated sanctum, Harrow finds herself trapped aboard a desolate space station with her god and her fellow Lyctors.  Each of her companions on the station has their own agenda and motive for being there, and all of them are seeking to use Harrow for their own ends.  Worse, as Harrow attempts to learn the full extent of her new powers and abilities, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong with her transition to Lyctorhood.  Her body keeps failing her, her swordcraft is shoddy, her blade makes her nauseous and her mind keeps presenting her with impossible scenarios.

As the Resurrection Beast comes ever closer to the Mithraeum, Harrow desperately attempts to understand everything that is happening to her and learn how to survive the oncoming attack.  However, she finds herself distracted with the machinations and plots of her untrustworthy rival and the attitudes of her three ancient tutors, especially as at least one of them is trying to kill her.  Can Harrow unwrap all of the dark secrets that lie hidden on the Mithraeum before it is too late, or will the entire Empire fall into ruin before them?

Well damn, now that was a truly enjoyable and incredible read.  Harrow the Ninth is a complex, clever, entertaining and exceptionally well written novel that does an awesome job following on from Muir’s impressive first novel.  I had an absolutely amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I think in many ways is somewhat stronger than Gideon the Ninth.  Not only does Harrow the Ninth have a deeply captivating story that successfully utilises elements from a range of different genres, but it also features some memorable and compelling characters, excellent universe building and a magical system that really stands out thanks to its descriptive necromantic powers.  Harrow the Ninth also serves as a marvellous follow-up to Gideon the Ninth, continuing the clever story from the first book with the same distinctive tone and writing style, while also featuring an intriguing reimagining of prior events.  All of these makes for an epic read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this amazing novel is an intense and multilayered narrative that presents a compelling tale of love, tragedy, treachery and self-discovery.  The story is actually split into several distinct sections, with the main storyline focusing on Harrow after her transformation to Lyctorhood as she spends time in the Mithraeum with the Emperor and the other Lyctors.  This part of the book expertly jumps back and forth through time and is an extremely entertaining part of the book, detailing Harrow’s education under the Emperor and the other Lyctors and her attempts to survive the various internal politics, plots and personal chaos.  The other major part of the story shows a curious alternate version of the events of Gideon the Ninth, shown from Harrow’s point of view, made distinctive due to the complete lack of Gideon, who appears to be erased out of existence.  This alternate version of the prior book is a really intriguing part of Harrow the Ninth’s story, and while I was initially a little confused about why it was included and where Gideon had disappeared to, it proved to be an extremely clever and compelling part of the book, especially when everything becomes fully revealed.  Due to this reimagining of already existing narrative, as well as the continued references to the events of the first book, readers interested in checking out Harrow the Ninth really do need to have read Gideon the Ninth first, as the story gets a little confusing and significantly less impactful without this established knowledge.

These separate storylines complement each other is exceedingly cleverly.  This novel does start off a tad slow, but this is mainly because Muir is re-establishing the narrative from the previous book and loading up the front end of the story with hints and foreshadowing about the multitude or revelations that come throughout the course of the plot.  A lot of big events and reveals occur towards the end of Harrow the Ninth, including a few reveals that were hinted at in the previous novel, and I felt that the author set all of these up perfectly.  This results in an extremely epic conclusion to the novel and I was really impressed by how it all turned out.  This novel contains a unique blend of genres, as Harrow the Ninth features elements from the fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller and murder mystery genres.  All of these disparate features work together extremely well in the story and it helps to produce a distinctive and entertaining narrative, especially as Muir adds on a rather good comedic edge.  The end result is a fascinating and exceedingly captivating overarching narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting pleasantly blindsided by the inventive twists and turns.

This excellent and unique story is expertly supported by a distinctive writing style that I felt did an amazing job enhancing the narrative.  Perhaps one of the most noticeable elements is the clever narration that accompanies the story.  While Harrow is the point of view character for most of the novel, she is not actually the one narrating the story.  Instead Harrow’s actions, emotions and thoughts are identified, summarised, and relayed back to Harrow by an unidentified second person narrator.  Naturally, this proved to be an interesting and unusual way to tell this story, although it works well in the context of the overall narrative, even if it takes a little to get used to.  This narrative format plays into certain character reveals and plot points of the novel and it makes a lot of sense once you get further into the book, with the style itself actually being a hint about what is happening with Harrow.  This narration style changes at a certain point towards the end of the book in accordance with certain plot developments and the subsequent deviation is clever and reminiscent of past events.  I also really must highlight the author’s extremely descriptive form of story writing, as every event, person or location is described in overly vivid detail.  Not only did this ensure that the reader got the full breadth of certain magical action and developments but it also helped to enhance the overall gothic feel of the book and ensure that reader was able to easily imagine the various locations the protagonist found themself in.  This really helped the story to shine and I have a lot of love for how Muir was able to work story elements into this style.

In addition to the great story that Muir has come up with for this book, Harrow the Ninth also boasts an impressive array of amazing characters.  The central protagonist is the titular Harrow, who takes over from Gideon as the main character after the first book.  Harrow is a vastly different character to Gideon as she has a much more subdued personality, less self-esteem, and a more restrained, subtler sense of humour.  Due to Gideon’s somewhat biased narration in the first novel Harrow was mostly viewed as an extremely arrogant, confident, and brilliant person, and this is how Harrow attempts to act throughout most of the novel.  However, certain vulnerabilities in Harrow’s character that were previously explored in Gideon the Ninth once again come to the fore in this second novel.  Harrow was already an extremely complex individual, having been birthed by dark magic, ended up being responsible for the death of her own parents and having an interesting love interest.  However, following her alteration into Lyctorhood, Harrow is a much more damaged person due to the absorption of her cavalier.  Harrow’s already fractured psyche is made even worse throughout the course of the book, as she sees all manner of things that are not there and has some very different ideas of the past or how she perceives the world.  In addition, Harrow bears an immense amount of guilt on her shoulders as a result of various events in her past and the many deaths on her conscience.  Harrow needs to work through all these issues throughout the course of the story if she has a chance to survive, and this becomes a major and dramatic part of the story that was really intriguing to explore.  I had an amazing time seeing the story primarily through Harrow’s eyes and it was a refreshing and compelling change of pace from the first book.

Harrow the Ninth also focuses on a great collection of supporting characters who add some intrigue and drama to the story.  Perhaps the most distinctive side characters in this novel are the five beings that Harrow finds herself trapped with aboard the Mithraeum, the Emperor of the Nine Houses and his four other Lyctors.  This is an extremely fascinating collection of people and much of the story revolves around Harrow’s unique interactions with them as each of them attempts to teach her, manipulate her or kill her at various points within the book.  These characters are really entertaining and distinctive, from the seemingly kind, patient, and infinitely calm Emperor, to the three ancient Lyctors, the cool and confident Augustine, the exceedingly self-involved Mercymorn and the ultra-focused and lethal Ortus.  In addition, we see the return of the manipulative Ianthe, who became a Lyctor at the same time as Harrow and who forms a very distinctive relationship with her throughout the course of the book.  I really enjoyed the complex interactions and relationships that forms between all of these characters (including some wild relationships between various participants), with the Emperor acting as the father figure, the three existing Lyctors portrayed as older siblings who have a complicated power dynamic with each other, while Ianthe and Harrow are the younger sisters learning the ropes from the others.

I also have to highlight the inclusion of several other characters who previously appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  It was rather intriguing to see many of these characters return, especially as most of them died or appeared to die in the prior novel.  Muir does a fantastic job working them into the fabric of this novel, such as by featuring some of them in the alternate version of the events of the first book, changing their roles and impacts on the story as a result.  I particularly enjoyed the extended role of Ortus, cavalier of the Ninth House.  Ortus, not to be confused with the Lyctor mentioned above (although the names are actually a clever clue to a big reveal), died early on in the events of Gideon the Ninth.  But in this book the dour Ortus serves as a fantastic yet reluctant companion to Harrow, with surprising hidden depths and an entertaining obsession with gloomy epic poems and verse.  He is also essentially the complete opposite to Gideon, resulting in a very different dynamic between necromancer and cavalier then we saw in the prior book.  Overall, I have to say that I was exceedingly impressed with the characters featured within this amazing novel.  Each of these complex and memorable characters added a heck of a lot to the story and it was deeply fascinating to see each of their storylines unravel and come to their compelling conclusions.

One of the major elements of this series that I love so much is the weird and wonderful necromantic magical system complements the science fiction of the book.  Pretty much all of the main characters in this book are powerful necromancers, specialising in a different form or style of necromantic magic.  All of this magic is extremely cool, and it was really awesome seeing it utilised in fight sequences and other scenes throughout the book.  Most of the magical elements revolve around Harrow’s bone magic, as she creates skeleton and bone constructs, manipulates her own bones to either enhance herself or detach them to make weapons or other creations, as well as elements of biological alteration.  Muir does an outstanding job explaining the full range of different powers that Harrow has, and there are some amazing scenes where the young necromancer does some really inventive and clever things with her bones.  There is one sequence in particular that sticks in the mind, and I’ll certainly remember it when eating soup in the future. 

In addition to Harrow’s abilities, Muir also showcases the creative and impactful abilities and magical powers that some of the other characters have.  These various abilities are all biological or spiritual in nature, and it was quite fun to see what the different necromancers can do, especially when they go up against Harrow’s bone magic.  All these magic scenes feature some rather vivid imagery and descriptions from Muir as she tries to show the full biological manipulations that are occurring, which really help to make these scenes pop.  The author also does a truly fascinating deep dive into the origins and mechanics of her unique magical system.  A lot of these new magical elements are explained to protagonist in some detail from one of her teachers, so the reader is able to understand these elements really well, and a lot of the lessons and explanations of magic have major impacts on the story down the line.  This proved to be an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of the book and I have a lot of love for Muir’s creativity when it comes to her version of necromantic magic.

I also have a lot of love for the distinctive gothic settings that Muir has imagined up for this series.  Each of the central story locations are filled up with all manner of dark and macabre trappings and features, which the author does a fantastic job bringing to life with her descriptive writing.  This includes the dreary and dark Mithraeum, a vast and mostly abandoned space station where most of the story takes place, as well as an alternate version of the First House that appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  All of these locations are described in great detail and each of these fun and distinctive settings helps to present a darker vibe to story and helps makes this series more unique and memorable as a result.  Harrow the Ninth also contains some rather captivating and inventive universe building expansions as the author attempts to introduce new things into her universe.  All of these extensions to this universe are really clever, playing into the story really well and I loved learning more about this fun fictional setting which does so much to enhance the story. 

I found that the audiobook format of Harrow the Ninth proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing novel.  With a run length of just under 20 hours the Harrow the Ninth audiobook does require a bit of a commitment to get through it, although I felt that it was really worth the time investment.  I do have to admit that it took me a little while to finish this audiobook, especially at the start.  However, I absolutely flew through the second half of the novel once I became extremely invested in the story, and I managed to knock out the final six hours in rather short succession.  I have to highlight the fantastic narrator for this audiobook, Moria Quirk, who does an outstanding job telling the story and bringing the various characters to life.  I felt that Quirk utilised perfect voices for each of the main characters and you get a real sense of each character’s personalities and emotions from this vocal work, from the calm, composed tones of the Emperor to the exceedingly petulant voice of the Lyctor Mercymorn.  This excellent voice work really added a lot to this audiobook. I really think that Harrow the Ninth translates well into the audiobook format, and listening to it really added to my enjoyment of this second novel, especially as I absorbed a lot more of the detail and gothic atmosphere through the narration.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was an epic and exceptional piece of fiction that I deeply enjoyed, and which comes highly recommended.  Not only did Muir present an impressive follow-up to her amazing debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, but she was able to turn out a complex and beautifully written sequel that proved extremely hard to stop listening to.  Powerful, cleverly written and just generally outrageous, Harrow the Ninth is an outstanding read and you have no discovered Tamysn Muir and her fantastic pieces of literature, you are really missing out. 

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Shadow Fall Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 23 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Strap in and prepare yourself for some intense combat out in the black of space, as Alexander Freed returns with another exciting and compelling Star Wars novel, Star Wars: Shadow Fall.

In the wake of the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star above Endor, the once mighty Galactic Empire is on its last legs as they face a determined and continuous assault from the forces of the New Republic.  Amongst the New Republic troops fighting to end the tyranny of the Empire are the ragtag fighter group known as Alphabet Squadron.  Formed by New Republic Intelligence and serving under legendary Rebel General Hera Syndulla, Alphabet Squadron’s mission is to hunt down and destroy the elite TIE fighter pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, known as Shadow Wing, who have been terrorising the galaxy and are one of the greatest threats to the New Republic’s success.

Following their recent victory, which saw Shadow Wing’s base destroyed and their commanding officer killed, Alphabet Squadron are assisting with the lengthy siege of the Imperial system of Cerberon.  Led by former Imperial pilot Yrica Quell, herself a deserter from Shadow Wing, the five pilots of Alphabet Squadron are finally starting to work together as a team.  However, while they are happy to help Syndulla with her latest vital campaign, the squadron is still determined to finish off the remaining members of Shadow Wing before they cause more chaos and destruction.  Working with their New Republic Intelligence handler, Caern Adan, Quell believes she may have come up with a plan to trap her former Imperial comrades.  However, Quell has severely underestimated just how ruthless Shadow Wing has become.

Quell’s former mentor and commanding officer, Imperial fighter ace Soran Keize, has returned and taken control of Shadow Wing.  Determined to keep his people alive while inflicting as much damage as possible to the New Republic, he launches an attack against the Cerberon system that manages to bypass the trap laid for him.  Scattered, the members of Alphabet Squadron must each fight their own battles throughout Cerberon as they all attempt to survive and strike back.  However, as they face their greatest challenge to date Alphabet Squadron soon begins to realise that their most dangerous threat may not be the pilots of Shadow Wing, but the terrible secrets their own leader is keeping.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall is a fantastic and impressive Star Wars novel that examines the immediate aftermath of the original Star Wars trilogy while focusing a group of complex and damaged characters.  Shadow Fall is the fifth Star Wars novel from science fiction author Alexander Freed, and it serves as the second book in his Alphabet Squadron trilogy, which started last year with Star Wars: Alphabet SquadronAlphabet Squadron was an excellent first novel in this series, thanks to its exciting story which did an amazing job introducing the reader to each of the main characters of the titular Alphabet Squadron (so called because each member flies a different model of Rebel ship, i.e. one X-Wing, one Y-Wing and so on).  Freed’s latest novel is an outstanding sequel to Alphabet Squadron which continues the amazing character arcs and war-based narrative, while also adding in some excellent new elements.  While I really enjoyed the prior novel from Freed, I personally felt that Shadow Fall was a stronger book than Alphabet Squadron and I ended up really getting into this powerful and action-packed story.

This latest book from Freed contains an epic and enjoyable character-driven war story that follows the pilots of Alphabet Squadron as they attempt to subdue the Empire once and for all.  This proves to be a rather elaborate and multifaceted narrative as Freed utilises the key members of Alphabet Squadron as point-of-view characters.  While Shadow Fall initially has all the squadron members together, each of them goes on their own adventures throughout the book, breaking it up into several distinctive storylines.  Each of these storylines is rather intriguing and emotionally charged, especially as all the characters go through their own voyages of discovery.  These storylines are all confined to the same star system and each has its own take on the war occurring throughout Cerberon, especially as Freed also features a number of chapters from the point-of-view of the novel’s main antagonist, which allows the reader to see the plans and issues surrounding Shadow Wing.  All of this helps to create a compelling and exhilarating read, particularly as Shadow Fall contains a number of exciting and well written action sequences, including a series of amazing and impressive ship to ship combat scenes.  The characters get into some unique and deadly battles throughout the course of this book, and I really loved seeing all the intense fighting out in space.  Overall, this was a fantastic story and it ended up being quite a remarkable and addictive read.

One of the big things that I liked about Shadow Fall was the way that it continued to explore the turbulent period of Star Wars history that follows in the immediate aftermath of the death of the Emperor.  This period within the Star Wars universe has so much potential for great fiction and I feel that Freed does an outstanding job utilising it within his novels and showing off the battles that occurred.  There is a real gritty and dark feeling to this book, as both sides are involved in a lengthy and bitter conflict.  I really liked the darker and more desperate conflict that Freed portrays throughout this book, as both sides get pushed into some corners as they battle throughout the system.  This turned out to be an excellent setting and I really found it fascinating to see this vision of the post Return of the Jedi universe, especially as there was no instant victory for the Rebels as the movies suggest.  I look forward to seeing more of the war as the Alphabet Squadron series progresses and it will be interesting to see what battles and scenarios occur in the final book.

Readers interested in checking this series out do not need to have too much knowledge about the Star Wars extended universe; a general knowledge of the movie franchise should suffice.  However, like all pieces of tie-in fiction, those readers who are familiar with the more obscure bits of the fandom’s lore and history will get a lot more out of these books than casual readers.  I would also strongly suggest that people who want to read Shadow Fall should go back first and try Alphabet Squadron, as this will allow readers to get a better idea of the various characters and their histories and ensure that their actions have greater impact.  However, if you are determined to start here, I felt that Freed made Shadow Fall pretty accessible, summarising certain key events from the prior book and also providing some wider background information about the Star Wars universe during the period the novel is set.

One of the reasons that this story is so impactful and enjoyable is that Freed has anchored his narrative on the memorable and flawed characters that are Alphabet Squadron.  Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character viewpoints, the reader gets an in-depth understanding of all the key characters and their various story arcs and development.  A large amount of the book’s plot continues to focus on the leader of Alphabet Squadron and X-Wing pilot, Yrica Quell.  Quell is a former Imperial pilot and member of Shadow Wing, who defected after the end of the war, claiming that she attempted to stop her squadron from implementing Operation Cinder, a series of genocides ordered by the Emperor in the event of his death.  However, it was revealed at the end of Alphabet Squadron that she was actually a willing participant in Operation Cinder and only defected because her commanding officer, Soran Keize, ordered her to leave.  Quell is still haunted by her actions and is attempting to find redemption by working for the New Republic to hunt down her old squadron, while at the same time being blackmailed by her handler, Caern Adan, who is keeping the information about her crimes secret.  There are several great scenes throughout this book that deal with Quell’s guilt and fear of being found out as she attempts to come to terms with all she has done and tries to become the good person everyone believes she is.  However, chaotic events towards the middle of the book undo some of her progress and force her to really look deep into herself.  Quell easily has the best character arc entire book and her entire dramatic storyline is extremely well-written and emotionally rich.  It looks like Freed is taking this character in some interesting directions and it will get see what happens next.  I also enjoyed certain LGBT+ inclusions surrounding Quell (and some other characters), and it always great to see more of that added into the Star Wars universe.

Several other members of Alphabet Squadron get their own fascinating storylines and character arcs.  First up you have Wyl Lark, the team’s young A-wing fighter pilot, who is still shaken after his encounters with Shadow Wing during the first book.  Lark is a complicated character within this novel, as due to the past trauma he has started to experience some real weariness at all the fighting.  He also bears some inner conflict thanks to his past interaction with an unnamed member of Shadow Wing, who he knows only as Blink (due to the condition of their TIE fighter in the first book), which has made him believe that the Imperials are more human than most New Republic fighters believe.  This makes him act out in some odd ways, potentially endangering himself and others.  Regardless, Lark also takes on a big leadership role within this book as he finds himself in charge of a mixed force of New Republic soldiers and pilots who he must rally together to stop the machinations of Shadow Wing.  This forces him to make some tough decisions and results in some excellent character development, which is probably going to become a key part of the next entry in the series.

The book also focuses on Chass na Chadic, the pilot of the squadron’s B-Wing.  Chass is also an emotional mess throughout the book, which causes her to act out in an aggressive and reckless manner.  However, Chass’s difficulties are a result of her own addiction to combat and danger and her worries about what she is going to do after the war.  Chass also has a rather intriguing storyline that sees her forced to seek shelter with a growing cult after she is shot down.  This only adds to her emotional confusion as, while this organisation has some very valid points about the war, Chass has her own problematic history with cults which severely colours her opinions.  A fourth member of Alphabet Squadron who also gets a fair bit of attention is Y-Wing pilot Nath Tensent.  Nath gets a little less use than Quell, Lark and Chass in this book, and rather than getting his own individual storyline he ends up being more of a supporting character to the other members of Alphabet Squadron.  I liked how Nath, after getting the revenge he desired in the first book, started taking on more of a mentor role within the team and he ends up being the glue that keeps them somewhat together.  His experience, easygoing manner and ability to socialise with everyone really helps to balance out the team, and I think it was good decision from Freed to have at least one point-of-view protagonist not be an emotional wreck.  I have to admit that I really liked seeing all of these complex and damaged protagonists and their various storylines and development became a powerful part of the book’s story.

Aside from these main four members, Shadow Fall also features several other great New Republic characters.  This includes the fifth and final member of Alphabet Squadron, Kairos, the mysterious scarred alien pilot of the team’s U-Wing.  Kairos does not get a lot of use throughout this book and is barely seen or mentioned after the first 100 pages.  Despite this, there are a few minor reveals about her shrouded past, and I can only hope that we find out a lot more about her in the final book.  There is actually a lot more of a focus on the supporting character of Caern Adan, the New Republic Intelligence officer who has been leading the hunt for Shadow Wing, as well as his companion, IT-O, a former Imperial torture droid turned therapist.  I found Caern’s use within Shadow Fall to be rather compelling, especially after he was portrayed as such a despicable and self-serving character in the first novel.  Freed dives into this Caern’s background in this novel and shows how he became the harsh, calculating person you met in Alphabet Squadron, as well as exploring his history with IT-O and Kairos.  This examination into his past, as well as his present-day adventures with Quell, helps generate a bit of sympathy for him and he ends up becoming a bit of a tragic character as a result.  I was also really glad to see more of New Republic General Hera Syndulla, who fans would know as one of the main protagonists of the Star Wars Rebels animated television show.  Hera was a great character on the show and in recent years she has been featured as a key Rebel commander in the expanded fiction (with her ship, Ghost, having brief cameos in two separate live action Star Wars movies).  I am always happy to learn more about Hera’s story post-Star Wars Rebels, especially as she has a great role as the wise overall commander throughout this book, and Star Wars Rebels fans will get sad in one or two places, such as when she wistfully asks if anyone has a Jedi hidden away.  Overall, these were some great supporting characters and I enjoyed Freed’s focus on them.

In addition to all the members of the Alphabet Squadron and the various New Republic supporting characters, Shadow Fall is also a tale of Imperial pilot Soran Keize.  After spending most of the first book trying to forget his past and exploring the post Imperial galaxy, Soran returns to claim his place as leader of Shadow Wing.  Soran is another compelling character who ends up serving as an alternate point-of-view character for roughly a third of the book.  I always love it when authors show the story from the antagonist’s perspective, and this ended up working incredibly well in this novel.  Not only do we get to see Soran’s complex motivations for returning to his wing and restarting the fight with the New Republic, but through his eyes we also get a better idea of how the Imperial remnant is fighting and surviving at this point of the war.  Freed adds some real desperation to the Imperial characters as they start to deal with the fact that they are going to lose the war, and there are some interesting discussions about the Imperial pilots having to change tactics, as they no longer have access to the vast resources they were previously used to.  Despite his at times merciless tactics, Soran’s viewpoint really helps to humanise the Imperial antagonists and, in many ways, they are mirrors to the New Republic characters, as both teams are fighting for their ideals and beliefs.  That being said, none of the Imperial characters aside from Soran popped out to me, and I had a hard time really caring about them in any way or remembering who they were.  Still, it was great to get more of an Imperial viewpoint in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron series.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed is another outstanding and enjoyable Star Wars novel that serves as an exceptional sequel to last year’s Alphabet SquadronShadow Fall is an extremely captivating and addictive read, especially as Freed features an amazing action-packed story, fun Star Wars elements and some incredibly complex and compelling characters whose damaged personalities and scarred pasts really stick in the reader’s minds.  I had an awesome time reading Shadow Fall and I cannot wait to see how Freed finishes off this darker Star Wars series.

Last Survivor by Tony Park

Last Survivor Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 June 2020)

Series: Sonja Kurtz – Book Four

Length: 401 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of the Australian thriller, Tony Park, is back with Last Survivor, another intense and action-packed novel that explores the turbulent and beautiful continent of Africa.

Tony Park is an awesome Australian author who has been writing some great thriller novels since his 2003 debut, Far Horizon.  I have been really getting into Park’s fantastic books over the last couple of years and I really appreciate their excellent adventure storylines, as well as the author’s outstanding use of Africa as a background setting for all his books.  I rather enjoyed his 2018 release, Scent of Fear, and I had an amazing time reading last year’s Ghosts of the Past which had some impressive historical fiction elements to it.  As a result, I was very excited when I received my copy of Last Survivor and not just because it quoted my Canberra Weekly review for Ghosts of the Past on the back (see below).  Last Survivor is the 18th novel written by Park and it also serves as the fourth book to feature his recurring protagonist, Sonja Kurtz.

In Last Survivor, freelance intelligence agent Sonja Kurtz is back and on the trail of a terrorist organisation who are financing themselves through the smuggling of rare cycads.  This story starts with Joanne Flack, treasurer of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, on the run from her home in South Africa, accused of stealing an extremely valuable cycad worth millions of dollars.  However, when Joanne is attacked by a terrorist operative in the heart of London, she flees back to Africa, where she knows how to hide.

Following a dangerous operation in Mali, Sonja Kurtz is given a new mission by her contact in the CIA, who wants her help tracking down Joanne and finding out what she knows about the terrorists who attacked her.  Teaming up with former Fish and Wildlife Services investigator Rod Cavanagh, who has significant history with Joanne Flack, Sonja travels Africa to initiate contact.  However, the moment that Sonja finds her Joanne they are attacked by a team of heavily armed killers, determined to take her out.

With their CIA contact down and everyone now trying to kill them, Sonja, Joanne and Rod flee deeper into Africa seeking refuge where they can.  In order to protect Joanne, they need to work out who is funding their attackers and what their interest in the cycad is.  To that end, Sonja infiltrates the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society in order to use them as a cover for her investigation.  However, it soon becomes clear that someone in the Society is working for the terrorists, and Sonja and her friends will have to tread carefully if they are to survive the forces coming for them.

Now, that was a fun read.  Park has once again produced another deeply exciting, high-octane thriller that drags the reader in and keeps them engaged until the bitter end.  I really loved this amazing read which combines a fantastic story with a captivating modern-day setting and a focus on a new and unique real-world issue.  Last Survivor is a very easy book to get into and it mostly serves as a great standalone novel.  Readers unfamiliar with Park’s work do not need to check out any of the author’s prior novels first, not even the previous books that featured Sonja Kurtz as a protagonist.  However, those long-term fans of Park will love seeing more of his unique style, as well as the return of one of his few reoccurring characters.

Park has come up with an outstanding and enjoyable thriller storyline for Last Survivor which was addictive, clever and very exciting.  The story revolves around the hunt for a rare cycad, and the protagonists’ attempts to stop the terrorist organisation attempting to obtain it to finance their operation.  This proves to be a fantastic narrative that combines a clever spy thriller story with great character development and impressive action sequences.  The author utilises a number of separate character perspectives to tell the story, allowing for an expansive and enjoyable narrative that splits into several separate plot lines.  I also liked all the fun characters that Park introduced throughout this book, from the troubled Joanne Fleck, whose significant past with Rod Cavanagh adds a lot of drama to the story, to the members of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, heavily armed plant enthusiasts who have a traitor amongst their ranks.  It was also great seeing more of his recurring character, Sonja Kurtz, an aging spy with commitment and trust issues, whose burning love for Africa matches the author’s.  This story goes into some enjoyable directions, and there are several great twists and turns throughout it punctuated by a number of amazing action sequences to really drag in the reader’s attention.  I particularly liked the unique and extended battle sequence that served as the book’s conclusion and it was both intense and entertaining to watch Kurtz and her rag-tag team of elderly African gun-nuts go up against a group of terrorists and criminals.  All of this makes for a fantastic read and I found myself swiftly getting through the entire book in very quick fashion.

Another awesome element of this book is the way that Park once again sets the story throughout various parts of Africa.  Park has a clear and sustained love for Africa, as all his novels are based in or around the continent, which always proves to be an excellent literary setting.  This is once again true for Last Survivor, as the story jumps around various parts of multiple countries such as South Africa, Mali and Zimbabwe.  Each of these different countries prove to be great locations for this book and Park expertly examines several social and political realities of living in these countries, working them into the plot of the story in a compelling and enjoyable manner.  While it is great learning more about these African countries, the real magic occurs when Park takes the story out into the African wilds.  Not only does this prove to be an awesome location for the book’s intense action sequences but the author always provides such powerful and endearing descriptions of the wilderness and its animal inhabitants.  Park’s sheer love of the African countryside really shines through every time that a character considers their surroundings and he always manages to bring these locations to life.  I also like the way that Park uses his stories to examine parts of Africa that he is really passionate about, such as highlighting the damage and evils of illegal poaching, lauding various anti-poaching groups and patrols that are trying to oppose them, and also looking at the various national parks and nature preserves that exist across the various countries.  All of this really makes for a fantastic setting, and I cannot wait to see what new aspects of Africa that Park reveals in his next book.

As I mentioned above, Park routinely uses his thriller novels to throw a spotlight on the evils of poaching in Africa and the organisations and community groups who attempt to combat it.  While there is still a lot of that within this novel, the story mainly focuses on a fascinating new illegal operation that has taken root in Africa, the smuggling of rare cycads.  Cycads are ancient seed plants that have existed since the Jurassic, and while many species can be found around the world, several species are currently on the brink of extinction.  This apparently has led to a thriving smuggling market in Africa with many rare specimens illegally taken out of the country and sold off to rich collectors around the world.  Park really dives into this new illegal trade throughout the book with the story filled with a number of intense discussions about what cycads are, their various biological properties, why some of them are so rare and valuable, and how they are currently becoming a major source of financing for smugglers and terrorists.  This proves to be extremely fascinating, and I really appreciated the information I received learning more about cycads, a subject that I really did not too much about prior to this book.  The illegal cycad smuggling also plays really well into the book’s amazing thriller story, and I really enjoyed how an intense action story revolved around people smuggling plants and the lengths people will go to obtain them.

Last Survivor is another deeply impressive thriller novel from Tony Park, who has once again produced a clever, relevant, and intensely action packed read which you find extremely hard to put down.  I had an incredible time seeing another one of Park’s amazing adventures take place amongst the African wilds and I really love the unique elements he adds to the story.  This is a fantastic and compelling book and it comes highly recommended.

Last Survivor Back Cover

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - The Brink of Life and Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 10

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Another week, another Throwback Thursday review of an early volume of one of my all-time favourite comic book series, Usagi Yojimbo, by legendary author and artist Stan Sakai.  This week I will look at the epic 10th volume in the series, The Brink of Life and Death, which proved to be another amazing and exciting five-star read.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage 15

The Brink of Life and Death continues the adventures of the rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he travels throughout the lands encountering all manner people and dangers.  This 10th volume is a fantastic addition to the series, featuring a great mixture of stories, from the tragic to the supernatural, and utilising some iconic recurring characters.  This volume is the third that has been collected by Dark Horse Books, and it features a mixture of issues from two separate publishers.  This includes the final issues of the Mirage Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, with Issues #15 and 16, as well a story taken from Issue #13 (the rest of Issue #13 was used in the last volume, Daisho).  It also contains the first six issues of the Dark Horse Books publication run of Usagi Yojimbo and serves as the starting point to Dark Horse’s lengthy connection to the series.  As a result, the volume starts off with a quick recap of the series (titled Origin Tale), containing some very broad strokes and ensuring that new readers could start on this volume if they wanted (although Sakai does make most of his comics fairly accessible to unfamiliar readers).  This volume also contains Dark Horse’s trademark story notes at the end of the volume, which proved to be a particularly intriguing companion to the excellent stories contained within The Brink of Life and Death.

The first story contained within this volume is the intriguing and exciting Kaiso.  In Kaiso, Usagi encounters a local peasant, Kichiro, while wandering on the coast, and travels with him to his village.  There, Usagi becomes familiar with Kichiro’s family and begins to learn more about the village’s main trade, seaweed (kaiso) farming.  While Usagi enjoys the seemingly simple life of the villagers, he soon finds himself involved in a feud with a neighbouring village, who Kichiro believes are poaching their seaweed fields.  However, not everything is as it seems, and Usagi manages to uncover a conspiracy that threatens to destroy his new friends.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 16

Kaiso is a fantastic and compelling story that once again highlights a traditional Japanese industry, in this case, seaweed farming.  Sakai does a fantastic job exploring seaweed farming in this story, as he introduces and portrays a number of key tools, concepts and techniques involved with the production of edible seaweed, all the way from harvesting it from the ocean to turning it into its dried form, nori.  This examination of seaweed farming serves as a surprisingly good centre for this story, and it is a testament to Sakai’s skill as a writer that he was able to produce an exciting and intrigue filled narrative around this industry in just 20 pages.  There are some great action sequences throughout this story, and it was cool to see Usagi fighting off a bunch of attackers whilst on a small fishing boat, utilising traditional farming tools as weapons.  There are also several impressive drawings throughout this story, as Sakai seeks to capture the beauty of the Japanese coastline as well as the complexities of the seaweed trade.  Kaiso proved to be an awesome first entry in this volume, and its intriguing story content and premise really helps to draw the reader in right off the bat.

The next story within The Brink of Life and Death is a great entry titled A Meeting of Strangers.  While enjoying a quiet lunch at an inn, Usagi watches as a striking swordswoman, later revealed to be called Inazuma, enters the inn.  Wary of this mysterious woman, Usagi bears witness to her skill and ferocity in combat as she takes down a band of bounty hunters who attack her, before departing into the wilds.  However, Inazuma is not the only person being hunted, and soon Usagi finds himself under attack from a group of killers who have been hired to end him.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #1

This is a really good story that showcases Sakai’s ability to quickly introduce an intriguing new character.  Inazuma goes on to become a major figure in the Usagi Yojimbo series for the next 14 volumes, and she gets an amazing introduction in this story, instantly coming across as something new, due to her striking appearance and her tough mannerisms.  Sakai shows early in the story that she is pretty damn dangerous, as Usagi casually reaches for his sword the moment he sees her, a completely new action from the character, which clearly identifies Inazuma as a major threat.  She quickly backs this up with her impressive swordplay, including slicing up the clothes of a local creep, and then taking out a band of bounty hunters.  She has a brutal fighting style as shown in this comic, and I loved her trademark finishing manoeuvre of completely cleaning the blood off her blade with one deft swish through the air.  In addition to the introduction of this great character, other fun elements of the story include the return of the Snitch (who was introduced in the last volume), who facilitates the hit on Usagi.  The Snitch is such a fantastic minor antagonist, and it is really entertaining seeing him running around doing his thing: “money, money, money!”  There is also a particularly impressive fight sequence in the last half of the story between Usagi and the assassins in the woods.  This scene sees Usagi take on over 20 guys in quick succession and is a real showcase of his ability.  There is a particularly fun panel in this sequence which sees Usagi kill several people at the same time, with his defeated opponents arranged in a semi-circle, all of them dying in dramatic fashion while making a different death rattle (including one guy who goes: “Trout, Trout!” for some reason).  All of this was over-the-top and helped show off just how crazy and action-packed this series can be.

The third story in this volume is the short entry Black Soul, which continues to showcase the return of series antagonist, Jei.  During a stormy night, a young girl and her grandfather have their house invaded by three bandits who steal their food and kill the grandfather.  However, the bandits are far from the only predators out that night, as the mysterious and frightening Jei appears at the door.  This was a great story that added a lot of key elements to the character of Jei in only a few pages.  Jei’s sudden appearance is suitably dramatic, and it shows off how terrifying he can be.  I loved the way that Sakai portrayed Jei’s fight against the three bandits, as all you see is several drawings of the hut’s exterior while terrified screams run out.  The story then returns to the interior of the house, where the bandits’ corpses are strewn around the house, including one guy who is hanging upside-down from the rafters, dripping blood.  Not seeing what actually happened makes the reader imagine the very worst scenario, and it really amps up the dread that this antagonist emanates.  Sakai then continues to hint at Jei’s more supernatural abilities by having him ‘consecrate’ the spear of one of his fallen opponents, with the blade visibly turning black in his hands, matching the soul of the wielder.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the young peasant girl, Keiko.  At first it appears that Jei is going to kill her; however, he stops after not sensing any evil in her.  This is the first time we have seen Jei show mercy, and it is a defining moment for the character, especially as Keiko starts following him as his companion.  Having Jei care for a young girl really adds to the complexity around Jei’s character, and in many ways it makes him seem even more evil, as he is corrupting this innocent with his dark crusade.  Overall, Dark Soul is a great and scary story which leaves the reader wanting to see more of this fantastic antagonist.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #2

Now we move on to Noodles, the only multi-issue entry in the volume which contains a powerful and impressive narrative that I really enjoyed.  In Noodles, Usagi enters a new town, only to be immediately accosted by the police, who are searching for a thief behind a recent crime wave.  Proving his innocence, Usagi swiftly finds out the source of the recent crimes is his friend Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks.  Kitsune has a new companion, a soba noodle street vendor and mute giant known only as Noodles, who assists Kitsune to hide from the police.  However, Kitsune has underestimated the deviousness and corruption of the local police administrator who puts a deadly plan into place to save his own skin.

This was an incredible entry in this volume, and I have a lot of love for Noodles’s fantastic crime narrative.  Sakai crafts together a fantastic storyline that follows Usagi as he meets up once again with the entertaining side character Kitsune and intriguing new character Noodles.  Kitsune is her usual fun self, and the introduction of the mute gentle giant Noodle adds a lot of dimensions to her character.  Up to now, Kitsune has been shown to be a generally good person, although she is motivated by greed or a sense of mischief.  However, in this story, she is given someone to care for, and she is determined to protect him no matter what.  Unfortunately, this leads to some great tragedy for her, which I found to be extremely moving, and you cannot help but feel bad for her.  Luckily, this leads to a rather good revenge plot in the second part of the story, which gives Noodles a satisfying and enjoyable ending.  This entire story was extremely well written, combining together humour, intrigue, character interactions and some genuine tragedy to produce an epic and compelling read.  I also really enjoyed Sakai’s amazing depictions of life in a larger feudal Japanese town, and it is clear that he did a lot of research to show what day-to-day life would look like, as well as examining how the criminal justice system worked during this period.  There are some really impressive drawings throughout this story, from the multiple detailed street and crowd views filled with all manner of activities and people (there is a sneaky shot of Jei and Keiko walking through town at one point), to the amazing action sequences, including a great scene where the gigantic Noodles is attacked by the police.  However, I really must highlight a particularly gruesome execution sequence that was a key part of the story.  While this scene is sad and horrifying, it is extremely well drawn, very memorable and it does its job of producing a major emotional response from the reader.  Noodles is probably the best entry in this entire volume, and I cannot praise just how amazing its clever and captivating story is.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #3

The next story within this volume is the supernatural tale, Wrath of the Tangled Skein, which sees Usagi arrive at a local inn which is experiencing some trouble.  A rich merchant’s daughter has been taken mysteriously ill, and her entourage fear that it is the work of a demon or haunt, picked up from their travels through the dangerous forest known as The Tangled Skein.  Usagi, who has previously travelled through The Tangled Skein (back in Volume 7: Gen’s Story), offers his assistance and takes command of the merchant’s ronin while they wait for a priest to arrive.  It does not take long for events to come to a head, and Usagi finds himself facing off against dangerous and malicious terrors.

I really like it when Sakai does a supernatural tale in the Usagi Yojimbo series, and this one was particularly awesome as the author expertly utilises some fascinating creatures from Japanese mythology.  There are two separate monsters contained within this story.  First you have the nue, a terrifying chimeric creature with the head of a monkey, the body of a badger, the legs of a tiger and a snake for a tail.  Needless to say, this is a particularly weird creature, and Sakai does a fantastic job drawing it and then portraying a chaotic and dangerous fight around it as Usagi attempts to defeat it.  In addition to the nue there is also a tanuki, a shape-changing racoon dog, who manages to trick Usagi and almost costs him everything.  I really loved the designs of both these creatures within the comic, and it was extremely cool to see and learn more about these facets of Japanese culture and tradition.  This story is set up extremely well, and the author has a great blend of action, supernatural intrigue and fun character moments.  Wrath of the Tangled Skein also introduces the character of Sanshobo, a Bonze priest who goes onto become a key recurring character, helping to make this a significant and important entry in the Usagi Yojimbo series.

Up next we have another short character-driven tale, The Bonze’s Story.  In this entry, Usagi travels with the Bonze priest Sanshobo after the events of the previous story.  The two quickly find camaraderie with each other, especially when Usagi realises that his companion is a former samurai.  Sanshobo then relates the tragic tale of how he gave up his warrior ways, which occurred when the young son of his lord accidently died in his care.  This forced Sanshobo’s own son to take his own life to restore his family’s honour, an event that broke Sanshobo.  This was a rather fascinating tale that does a lot to cement interest in a new side character.  The origin tale for Sanshobo is really good, and the whole story of sacrificing a son to save honour is extremely captivating and memorable.  The entire background story is drawn amazingly, and the various expressions of horror, sorrow and pride on the face of participants as they attempt to survive in a storm are quite exceptional.  This was another amazing example of what sort of impressive story Sakai can tell in only a few short pages, and The Bonze’s Story definitely sticks in the mind.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #4

Following this shorter tale, we have the fun, action-packed Bats, the Cat and the Rabbit.  In this entry, Usagi seeks shelter in an old temple, but his quiet night is ruined when several Komori Ninja arrive, seeking a specific prey.  After they leave, Usagi discovers that the person they are hunting is an injured Chizu, the leader of the Neko Ninja.  Helping her, Usagi learns that she is carrying a valuable and dangerous scroll that the Komori Ninja are desperate to obtain.  Can Usagi and Chizu keep it out of their hands, or will a powerful new weapon be unleashed upon the lands?

Bats, the Cat and the Rabbit was an exciting and entertaining entry that sees Usagi reunited with one of his potential love interests Chizu, who we last saw back in Volume 8: Shades of Death.  This is a fast-paced story that focuses on the conflict between two rival ninja clans, Chizu’s Neko Ninja and the Komori Ninja.  The Komori Ninja, giant bats with blades on their wings who had an amazing introduction back in Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid, are fantastic antagonists for this story, and it is always cool to see them in action, especially when Sakai draws them slicing through trees to get their prey.  The highlight of this story is the impressive ninja-on-ninja combat, as the more traditional ninja techniques of Chizu and the Neko Ninja go up against these flying opponents, all with Usagi in the middle.  This results in some epic fight sequences which end up being a lot of fun to see come to life.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic conclusion to this story, which not only has a great twist but which also adds a bit of tragedy to the life of Chizu, as she reflects on what constitutes duty for ninja.  An overall awesome and enjoyable story, this was another fantastic entry in this volume.

The penultimate entry in The Brink of Life and Death is the gripping story, The Chrysanthemum Pass.  After humiliating a group of thugs in a town, Usagi obtains a new travelling companion, Icho, a wandering medicine peddler.  The two become friendly as they wander around the mountains, but Icho is not what he seems.  Instead, he is secretly a member of the Koroshi, a notorious assassins’ guild, and is planning to take out a rich lord who is travelling through the Chrysanthemum Pass, and Usagi is also on his kill list.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #5

This was another outstanding story.  I loved the entire cleverly written narrative, which sees Usagi dragged into the middle of another devious plot.  Having his companion, Icho, turn out to be secretly evil was a fantastic choice by Sakai, and he sets it up perfectly, with only minor hints of his true intentions being revealed to the reader until about halfway through the story.  The rest of the story deals with Icho trying to subtly kill Usagi before his assassination mission and failing, allowing Usagi to be in the midst of the events in the pass.  This story then features a number of fantastic twists, including the fact that Usagi suspected that Icho was an assassin the entire time, implying that his reasons for travelling with him was to keep an eye on him and intervene if he was proven correct.  It was great to see the return of the Mogura Ninja, ninja moles with some really cool character designs who were introduced in the very first volume, The Ronin, and they once again proved to be surprisingly effective adversaries.  This story also serves to introduce a new group of antagonists for Usagi, with the first mention of the Koroshi assassins’ guild, whose various members tangle with Usagi multiple times throughout the rest of the series.  The Chrysanthemum Pass is therefore a fantastic and notable entry within this volume, and it ended up having quite an impressive story.

The final story in this volume is Lightning Strikes Twice, a powerful and captivating entry which provides new background for new character Inazuma.  In this story, Usagi once again runs into the mysterious Inazuma after finding several dead bodies on the road.  Encountering her within a temple, surrounded by other travellers, Usagi sits and listens to her tragic tale of love, loss and revenge as she recounts how she became so skilled with the sword, and the reasons why she is constantly being hunted throughout the lands.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #6

This was another epic story that really helps to build up Inazuma as an impressive and unique character within the series.  Her entire backstory as a girl who followed her heart and then lost everything is really emotional and humanising, adding layers of complexity to her rough exterior.  It was rather jarring to see such a strong woman stay with an abusive and uncaring partner, and it serves as an intriguing starting point for her road to exceptional warrior.  I enjoyed seeing her learning the way of the sword, and Sakai really builds her up as a natural prodigy with the blade.  Despite the humanising aspects of this story, Inazuma again comes across as a major badass within this story, thanks to the bloody fight sequence at the beginning, where she swiftly takes down a band of assassins with some very fancy moves, as well as the sequence at the end of the origin story, where she shows just how dangerous and cruel she can be.  I also absolutely loved the shocking reveal at the end of Lightning Strikes Twice where Usagi discovers that the people who have been quietly sitting through Inazuma’s story with him are all dead bounty hunters, which adds a real edge to Inazuma and her actions.  Lighting Strikes Twice proves to be a truly compelling and exciting tale, and I really liked learning more about this intriguing new character.  I also really appreciated how it tied into the previous Inazuma story and it ended up being a fantastic way to end the entire volume.

This 10th volume of the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series, The Brink of Life and Death, is another outstanding and addictive creation from Stan Sakai that features several impressive stories.  I loved this amazing combination of tales, and it was great seeing both standalone stories and entries that have deeper ties with the rest of the series.  Filled with awesome character moments, stunning artwork, and detailed depictions of feudal Japan, The Brink of Life and Death is a must read for fans of this series, and Sakai should be very proud of what he accomplished with this volume.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by E. K. Johnston

Queen's Peril Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 6 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into a galaxy far, far away, as bestselling young adult author E. K. Johnston presents the very first Star Wars novel of 2020, Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.

Padmé Naberrie has always wanted to serve the people of her home planet of Naboo, and she knows that the best way to do that is to become Queen. Entering the competitive election, the 14-year-old politician is elected as ruler of Naboo. Casting aside her real identity for the protection of herself and her family, Padmé takes on a new name, Amidala, and moves into the royal palace, determined to bring change to Naboo. However, even a ruler as brilliant and diplomatic as Padmé is unable to do everything by herself, and she finds out that she is going to need help.

In order to keep her safe and to assist her with her needs, Padmé is introduced to a group of talented young women who will serve as her handmaidens. Acting as her assistants, confidantes, bodyguards and decoys, each of her handmaidens brings something different to the group, and it is up to Padmé to turn them into an effective team. Together, Padmé and her new friends seem capable of dealing with any challenge that may impact them.

However, there is a dark plot at work within the Republic, and its mastermind has Naboo in their sights. Soon Naboo is invaded by the armies of the Trade Federation, who seek to capture Queen Amidala and force her to sign away the planet. Forced to flee in disguise, Padmé sets out to reclaim her home and will do anything to free her planet. While Jedi, soldiers and a young chosen one may rally to their cause, the fate of Naboo ultimately rests on the shoulders of a young queen and her loyal handmaidens.

Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and enjoyable new addition to the Star Wars canon from bestselling author E. K. Johnston. I have been rather enjoying some of Johnston’s recent Star Wars releases, and I had a fun time reading her 2016 novel, Ahsoka, as well as last year’s fantastic release, Queen’s Shadow. Queen’s Peril is the first of several Star Wars books being released in 2020 (although some have been delayed), and I have been looking forward to seeing how this book turns out. This new novel acts as a prequel to Queen’s Shadow and is set both before and during the events of the first Star Wars prequel film, The Phantom Menace. This ended up being a fun and interesting read that explores some unique parts of Star Wars lore.

This latest Star Wars novel contains an intriguing tale that starts from the moment that Padmé is elected queen and takes on the Amidala persona. The first two thirds of this book follow the early days of Amidala’s reign, introducing Padmé and her handmaidens and showing how they became such a tight-knit team. There are a number of great moments during this first part of the story, and it was interesting to see the origin of a number of elements of the Amidala character that are shown in The Phantom Menace, such as her voice, the establishment of the decoy system, and a huge range of other compelling features. There are also several scenes that are dedicated to exploring why the Trade Federation decided to target Naboo and what the origins of their conflict were. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, and I feel that the final third kind of let it down a little. The last part of the book focuses on the invasion of Naboo and follows the events of The Phantom Menace. While it was cool to see some different perspectives on the events of the film, this part of the book felt rather rushed, as the narrative jumped between a number of sequences from the movie in rather quick succession. Despite the problems with the ending, this was still a rather compelling story, and I did enjoy Johnston’s additions to the Star Wars universe.

While on the surface this book appears to be purely about Padmé, Queen’s Peril is actually about a number of different characters who made Padmé’s role as Queen Amidala possible. Padmé is naturally one of the main characters of the book, but all five of her handmaidens are just as important to the story. Johnston previously introduced each of these handmaidens in Queen’s Shadow, and briefly explored their unique skills and what they brought to the group. She does this again in Queen’s Peril, although this is done in greater detail, as this book shows each character’s history and how each of them became a handmaiden. Each of the handmaidens is given a distinctive personality, and all five get a number of scenes told from their point-of-view. I really enjoyed learning more about these characters, and it was great to see them come together as a group and work towards ensuring that Padmé was protected and an effective queen. While each of the characters are explored in some detailed, the biggest focus is on Sabé, Padmé’s first handmaiden and her main decoy (played by Keira Knightly in the film). The author spends time showing the unique relationship between Sabé and Padmé, and it was captivating to see the trust between them grow. Because she was so heavily focused on in the movie, Padmé does not get a lot of scenes in the last third of the book, so quite a bit this part of the story is told from the perspective of all the handmaidens. It was rather interesting to see how each of these characters went during the course of the film, and it was particularly cool to see some scenes with Sabé as she pretended to be the Queen.

In addition to Padmé and her handmaidens, Queen’s Peril also featured point-of-view chapters or scenes from pretty much all the key characters from The Phantom Menace film. The use of all these extra characters was an interesting choice from Johnston, and I liked how it expanded the story and showed some fresh perspectives and backstory for several major Star Wars protagonists. Most of these appearances are rather brief, with characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn only getting a few minor scenes. However, other characters do get some extended sequences, especially Captain Panaka, the head of Amidala’s palace guards. Several chapters are told from Panaka’s perspective, and he becomes quite a key character within the book, mainly because he is the person who finds and recruits all of the handmaidens. Panaka is a major driving force of the plot, and it was interesting to see his role expanded from the films, especially as you get more insight into why he is so dedicated to the Queen. I also really liked how the book features several sequences told from the perspective of Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious. These scenes were fun, as they showed a lot of Palpatine’s earliest manipulations, including how he was able to organise the invasion of Naboo. Overall, I rather appreciated how the author utilised all the characters within Queen’s Peril, and watching their development and interactions proved to be quite compelling.

Like the author’s other Star Wars novels, Queen’s Peril is intended for a young adult audience, and Johnston does a fantastic job tailoring it towards younger readers. This book has a lot of great young adult moments to it, especially as it focuses on a group of teen girls working together to outsmart a variety of adults and then eventually save their entire planet from an invasion. Queen’s Peril has some fantastic portrayals of these teen protagonists, and there are a number of sequences which show them stepping up or dealing with complicated issues that younger female readers will appreciate. While it is intended for younger readers, Queen’s Peril, like most young adult Star Wars novels, is also very accessible to all readers who are major fans of the franchise, and it is easy for older readers to get into and enjoy the plot of the book and its intriguing new additions to the Star Wars lore.

I did have a minor complaint about the release order of the books in Johnston’s series about Padmé. While I enjoyed both Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow, I really do think that it was an odd decision to release Queen’s Shadow first, and then release a prequel novel a year later. It would have been better to release Queen’s Peril first to introduce the various handmaidens and help build up the emotional connection between them and Padmé, making their use and inclusion in Queen’s Shadow a bit more impactful. It might also have made a bit more sense to have Queen’s Peril only focus on events before The Phantom Menace, have another book focus exclusively on what was happening with the handmaidens and Padmé during the course of the film (which would have ensured that Queen’s Peril did not feel as rushed as it did towards the end), and then release Queen’s Shadow. While I am sure that there is some reason why the order for these books was a bit off, probably at the publisher level, I think they could have planned this out a little better.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Queen’s Peril, and I had a great time listening to this book. Queen’s Peril has a short run time of just over six hours, so it is rather easy to get through this book quickly. Like all Star Wars audiobooks, this version of Queen’s Peril was a real auditory treat, due to the excellent use of the iconic Star Wars sound effects and scores from the movies, which are used to enhance each of the scenes. While it was great to once again hear all the fantastic music and intriguing background noises, Queen’s Peril’s greatest strength as an audiobook comes from its fantastic narrator, Catherine Taber. Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clones Wars animated television show, and, short of getting Natalie Portman in, is the perfect person to narrate a novel about the character. Taber also narrated the previous Johnston book about Padmé, Queen’s Shadow (indeed all of Johnston’s Star Wars books have featured the character’s voice actor as a narrator for their audiobook), and it was great to see her return. She naturally does a perfect voice for the character of Padmé, as well as for the handmaidens, who had similar speaking patterns due to their role as decoys. There are some great vocal scenes between these characters, especially when they are trying to perfect the Amidala voice, and they go through several variations throughout the book. In addition, because Queen’s Peril features nearly every major character from The Phantom Menace, Taber also had to voice several different people who were brought to life by some amazing actors in the original film. I felt that Taber did a fantastic job as imitating some of these voices, and it proved to be a real showcase for her skills as a voice actor. Overall, I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Queen’s Peril.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and exciting new young adult Star Wars release from E. K. Johnson that acts as a sequel to her previous awesome novel, Queen’s Shadow. Johnston comes up with another compelling story that explores the early life of Padmé/Queen Amidala and her loyal handmaidens. While it does have some flaws, it is a very good book, and it should prove to be a fun read for established fans of the franchise and younger readers who are interested in breaking into the expanded universe. I had an amazing time listening to this book and I look forward to seeing what sort of Star Wars story Johnston produces next.