Throwback Thursday – Warhammer 40,000: Ghostmaker by Dan Abnett

Warhammer Ghostmaker Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – January 2000)

Series: Gaunt’s Ghosts – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 15 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I check out another Warhammer 40,000 novel with an epic entry from Dan Abnett’s classic Gaunt’s Ghosts series, Ghostmaker.

I have been in a real Warhammer 40,000 mood lately so I thought I would continue to explore some outstanding books from legendary Warhammer author Dan Abnett.  Abnett is one of the most prolific and highly regarded contributors to the extended Warhammer universe, having created a huge range of compelling series and unique standalone books, most of which are considered the gold standard of Warhammer tie-in novels.  One of his most significant contributions to the Warhammer 40,000 universe is the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, which follows a ragtag group of human soldiers as they are dragged from deadly battleground to deadly battleground.  Made up of 15 novels, a ton of short stories and some other intriguing inclusions, the Gaunt’s Ghosts is a very iconic series in Warhammer 40,000 lore, which has spawned some awesome spinoffs and stories.  I had an outstanding time reading the first entry in the series, First and Only, and I also recently read the prequel novel, The Vincula InsurgencyGhostmaker was another impressive early entry in this series, and I had a wonderful time listening to it last week.

Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and the men of the Tanith First-and-Only, also known as Gaunt’s Ghosts, are some of the toughest soldiers serving the Imperium of Man.  The only survivors of the now dead world of Tanith, the Ghosts bear a substantial grudge against the forces of Chaos, as well as a complex relationship with their commander who saved their lives by abandoning their planet.  Now deployed to the jungle world of Monthax, the Ghosts prepare for their next inevitable battle against the Chaos host.

As the Ghosts await their next confrontation, Gaunt walks the lines, reliving the events that made his regiment what it is, while also growing close to the unique individuals he commands.  Each member of the Ghosts has their own story, and all have been forged in the crucible of war alongside their fearless commander.  But when battle is joined again the Ghosts find themselves in a unique confrontation that pulls on their tragic history and forces them to relive the worst day of their lives.  Is this the event that will forge the Ghosts into a legendary regiment, or will the survivors of Tanith break when they are needed most?

Abnett once again showcases why he is one of the very best Warhammer authors out there with this brilliant second entry in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series.  Bringing together several fantastic narratives into one character-driven plot, Ghostmaker is a key and compelling entry in this wider series that I absolutely powered through in a couple of days.

Ghostmaker is a compelling and powerful Warhammer 40,000 novel that continues to explore the intriguing members of the Tanith First-and-Only regiment.  Abnett spins a unique narrative in Ghostmaker, as this book reads more like a short-story collection than a typical novel.  Broken up by several brief sequences in the present on Monthax, most of the book revolves around a series of self-contained, character-driven background stories that showcase the history of the regiment and its members.  This includes a dive into the tragic formation of the regiment and the death of the planet Tanith, and you also get a view of some of the earliest battles the Ghosts fought in.  As Ghostmaker continues, the next series of stories each contain a more focussed narrative that dive into specific members of the regiment.  These shorter stories usually showcase one of these focus characters’ key battles or moments as a Ghost, while also diving into their personality and personal histories.  This deep dive into the key characters really helps you bond with the cast of this series in a whole new way, and I liked seeing more of these unique figures.  Everything comes to a head in the final quarter of the novel, when the story is dragged back to the conflict on Monthax as the Ghosts advance into battle.  Several key plot threads and recurring characters from the previous short stories make a reappearance here, and I loved how Abnett was able to connect this storylines together to make a cohesive and captivating overarching plot.  The final sequences are loaded with some of the deadliest fights in the entire novel, while also resolving a ton of character arcs and personal storylines raised in the previous entries.  The end result is a powerful and compelling overall story that really drags you in while giving you additional insights into some of Abnett’s best characters.

I really appreciated how Ghostmaker came together, and Abnett really showed off his writing skill by combining these shorter stories together the way he did.  I especially enjoyed how the multiple short stories gave Ghostmaker various tones as the reader continued through it.  For example, while most of the stories featured battles and war, there were also some more subtle stories of politics and investigations.  Abnett also featured some dark psychological stories as well as some deeply personal and brutal survival tales.  This variation in narratives and settings gave the book an eclectic feel, but I think that was very appropriate considering the regiment that Abnett was writing about.  All the shorter stories contained within Ghostmaker were entertaining in their own way, although a few definitely stood out over the rest.  Each story was extremely well written, concise, and fast-paced, and any leftover narrative threads are clipped off in the final entry, so the reader isn’t left wondering about anything.  The book also features a ton of awesome battle sequences in nearly every chapter and Abnett has a great skill at showing the horrors the men face during their dangerous battles, especially when they go up against supernatural or horrific foes.  Abnett also presents this book as a gritty war novel, with many of the stories focusing on the damaged and traumatised common troops who have been dragged into a series of terrible situations.  I have often said that some of the very best Warhammer novels focus on the common human soldiers (for example Steel Tread or Krieg), and Ghostmaker was one of the better examples of this I have seen in Warhammer fiction.  You really can sense the characters pain through the various chapters, especially when reminded of their home, and this makes for quite an emotionally rich read at times.

As I have mentioned a few times above, one of the major strengths of this book, and indeed the entire Gaunt’s Ghosts series, are the outstanding characters that Abnett focuses his stories around.  Throughout the course of the series, Abnett has introduced a great core of complex central protagonists who you really grow attached to.  However, Ghostmaker perhaps gives the best look at these characters, as it showcases their histories while also chucking them into deadly and deeply personal situations.  You really grow attached to these protagonists as the book proceeds and Abnett crafts some outstanding and wildly entertaining narratives around many of the cast, which are really fun to read.

As with most books in the series, a lot of Ghostmaker’s plot is focussed on the central character of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, the Ghost’s commander.  Abnett continues to paint Gaunt as a caring and charismatic leader who recognises the sacrifice his men have made and is determined to keep as many of them alive as possible.  Most of Gaunt’s personal history before the events of Tanith was covered in the last book, and Abnett doesn’t rehash that in Ghostmaker.  Instead, you get to see Gaunt’s actions during and after the fall of Tanith, and I loved the examination of the guilt and responsibility he feels for abandoning the planet.  While the first chapter of this book primarily focuses on Gaunt, he also appears as a major figure in all the other protagonist’s stories, and it was fascinating to see the other Ghost’s opinions of him, especially as many have both resentment and respect for him.

Ghostmaker also spends a ton of time exploring several other key Ghosts, and Abnett does an excellent job of perfectly utilising all these great characters.  There are some brilliant tales surrounding these figures, and many also appear as supporting characters in other chapters, with some storylines crossing over.  Naturally, some of the characters stand out a little more than others, due to having personal plots that were particularly fun or intense.  Colm Corbec, the regiment’s second-in-command, is a major figure throughout most of the book, and I liked how Abnett expanded on him and focused on his different leadership style to Gaunt.  The story surrounding the seemingly stupid Trooper Bragg was extremely funny, especially with the slow-burn reveal of the character’s deep cunning, and you must love how funny and likeable Bragg is.  The story around the Ghosts’ medical officer, Tolin Dorden, was also very good, as it not only highlighted his position as the oldest Ghost, but also his refusal to sacrifice a life.  Other highlights include the trippy story of ace sniper Hlaine Larkin, who loses his mind during a mission, or the intense and compelling tale of elite scout Sergeant Mkoll, whose keen senses serve him well in the most hostile of environments.

However, I felt that the best two stories in Ghostmaker revolved around the characters of Major Rawne and Brin Milo.  Rawne is a murderous and slippery character who bears a great deal of hate and disdain towards Gaunt following the destruction of Tanith.  His story sees himself and Gaunt trapped together on an ice planet, which forces the two to work together.  Seeing the hateful Rawne trying to work out whether to kill Gaunt in cold blood or resolve their differences another time, makes for some compelling reading, and Rawne is probably one of the most complex and intense figures in the series.  Milo on the other hand is Gaunt’s young adjutant and the only civilian who survived the destruction of Tanith.  Milo serves a unique position in the Ghosts, and I really appreciated how Abnett explored how the rest of the regiment views him.  Milo’s story was particularly good, as politics sees him getting investigated by an Imperial Inquisitor for potentially having psychic abilities.  The scene where Milo manages to outplay the Inquisitor during his interrogation is one of the best scenes in the entire book and it really shows you just how clever he is, while also hinting at a potentially deeper secret.  All these characters, and more, help to turn Ghostmaker into a particularly enjoyable and fun read and I was very glad that Abnett gave us a closer look at the main supporting cast in this novel.

I felt that Ghostmaker was a great addition to the wider Warhammer 40,000 canon, as well as a great entry in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series.  While it is the second novel in the series, readers can easily get into Ghostmaker without any knowledge of the prior books, especially as Abnett spends so much time exploring the characters and the unit’s history.  While some of the narrative is set after the events of First and Only, Abnett does a great job reintroducing any relevant elements again in Ghostmaker and you don’t need too much pre-knowledge to enjoy the plot.  Ghostmaker would also serve as an interesting entry point for those who aren’t familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 franchise.  Abnett makes his novel very accessible to new readers, and I liked how he carefully and subtly introduced key elements of the wider universe, mainly those that concern the common soldiers.  The continued expansion of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade made for an interesting background to the book, and Abnett introduces or references several factions or regiments here that will go on to have a bigger role in later novels.  For example, Ghostmaker introduces readers to the Royal Volpone regiment (better known as the Bluebloods), who serve as rivals to the Ghosts and who recently got their own novel.  I had an incredible time diving back into the Warhammer 40,000 universe in Ghostmaker, and Abnett did a great job of expanding this already elaborate universe.

As with most Warhammer novels I enjoy, I chose to listen to Ghostmaker’s audiobook version, which was an excellent way to dive into this compelling read.  The audiobook format really allows the reader to get transported into the middle of the epic fights that are the hallmark of this fantastic series, while also ensuring that the reader absorbs all the key information about the surrounding universe.  Coming in at just over 10 hours in length, this is an easy audiobook to get through quickly, and I tore through the Ghostmaker audiobook in short order.  It helped that Ghostmaker was narrated by the very talented Toby Longworth, who voices most of Abnett’s Warhammer audiobooks.  Longworth has an excellent voice that fits the intense, character-rich tone of Ghostmaker extremely well, and he can move the plot along at a fast and compelling pace.  In addition, he has a brilliant take on all the key characters featured within the series and he provides everyone with a unique and fitting voice.  He also has the fantastic ability to capture the emotions and personality traits of the various characters with his tones, and you really get inside their heads when he talks.  This was an outstanding audiobook and I would strongly recommend it as the best way to enjoy this amazing novel.

Overall, Ghostmaker was a fantastic and impressive read by Dan Abnett and I am really glad I took the time to read another Gaunt’s Ghosts novel.  Featuring a distinctive format and some amazing character-driven stories, Ghostmaker beautifully expanded on the groundwork Abnett laid down in First and Only and this serves as an excellent and powerful addition to the series.  I deeply enjoyed this book, and I can think of no better way to illustrate this than to mention the fact that the moment I finished Ghostmaker I immediately started listening to the other Dan Abnett audiobook I had loaded on my phone, Xenos.  I really cannot recommend this series enough, and if you are interested in trying out some Warhammer 40,000 fiction, then the Gaunt’s Ghost series is the perfect place to start.

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Warhammer 40,000: Kasrkin by Edoardo Albert

Warhammer 40,000 - Kasrkin Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 22 October 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 11 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready for some high-concept action in the latest awesome and exciting Warhammer 40,000 novel by Edoardo Albert, Kasrkin.

While I might be repeating myself a little, I must once again talk about the particularly amazing year I’m having when it comes to Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  There have been some outstanding Warhammer 40,00 books out in 2022, and I have done my best to listen to as many of them as possible.  Some of my personal highlights include The Wraithbone Phoenix, Outgunned, Assassinorum: Kingmaker, Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! and Day of Ascension, just to name a few.  All these have been a ton of fun, and so when I had an open slot in my reading schedule, I naturally chose another recent Warhammer 40,000 book, Kasrkin.  Written by a new-to-me author, Edoardo Albert, who has previously created some interesting pieces of Warhammer fiction, Kasrkin is an action epic that pits a band of elite warriors on a deadly mission into the dark heart of a desert planet.

Welcome to the deadly desert world of Dasht i-Kevar, an Imperial planet currently under siege by the advanced xenos, the T’au, who have turned the usually baren planet into a bloody battlefield.  But the war is about to get even more interesting as the T’au have succeeded in shooting down an Imperial Valkyrie containing an important Astra Militarum general, whose knowledge of the Imperial Guard strategy and disposition could cause the planet to fall.

Only one group of Imperial soldiers have a chance of journeying into the harsh desert of the planet, an elite squad of Cadian Kasrkin.  Led by Captain Bharath Obeysekera, the Kasrkin are tasked to travel deep into the Great Sand Sea behind enemy lines to find the general and either recover him or kill him to keep him out of enemy hands.  The best of the best, the Kasrkin are trained to operate in any terrain and face off against any enemy.  But none of them have every encountered anything as endless, hot, or deadly as the deserts on Dasht i-Kevar.

Cut off by sandstorms and forced to journey over impossible obstacles, the Kasrkin are firmly on their own and can only rely on themselves.  But the deeper they journey in the wastes, the more they begin to realise that they are not as alone as they thought.  Other hunters are searching for the missing general, and the mysterious locals have their own games to play.  However, none of them are prepared for an ancient evil lurking far beneath the desert sands, determined to kill everything it encounters.

Another week, another exceptional Warhammer 40,000 novel that I had so much damn fun listening to.  Kasrkin was an excellent, fast-paced read that follows a compelling group of characters on an epic adventure tale.  Loaded with action, compelling characters, and a story that makes perfect use of its setting and the fantastic lore of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Kasrkin in an epic read from Edoardo Albert that I absolutely powered through.

The story itself starts off pretty simply, with Albert introducing the reader to the Kasrkin squad and quickly setting them on their mission to find the missing general.  The early parts of the book are really focussed on allowing the reader to get their heads around the book’s premise, the characters, and the impressive desert setting, which honestly takes on a life of its own.  Initially a little slow going to build up tension and camaraderie amongst the Kasrkin, the book starts to get interesting about a third of the way in, when Albert introduces some unique world elements which show how cool and weird the Warhammer 40,000 universe can be.  From there, the story takes the protagonists closer to their objective, and I was initially a little surprised at how soon then managed to get where they were going.  However, this proves to be a bit of a ruse from Albert, as he chooses this moment to really shake everything up.

About halfway through, the entire structure of the book changes with the appearance of a new group of point of view characters, a kindred of Kroot aliens, determined to capture the general for the T’au.  This results in an awesome split in focus between the human and Kroot characters, and I loved the sudden introduction of an excellent rival group who appear equal to the Kasrkin in terms of combat ability.  However, this is not the only surprise that Albert has in store, as both the Kasrkin and the Kroot find themselves facing off against an even more deadly enemy in a fantastic new setting.  While I won’t go into too much detail about what happens next, it was a pretty epic move from Albert and one that I deeply appreciated.  The rest of the story is particularly intense and dark, and there some real horror vibes going for part of it, which fit in perfectly with the powerful narrative and darker setting.  Albert really layers on the action in the second half of the book, and I loved all the shocking and bloody places that he took his story, especially as there are several great twists and some truly engaging scenes featured throughout.  Everything comes to an excellent end, and this proves to be a particularly powerful and gripping Warhammer 40,000 read that really stands on its own.

I felt that Albert’s strong writing style helped to enhance the compelling narrative of Kasrkin and I really appreciated how the author’s style brought everything to life.  Like most Warhammer 40,000 novels, Kasrkin is a great standalone read that is very appealing for established fans of the franchise.  However, this book can also be easily enjoyed by most general science fiction or military fiction fans, especially as the author covers all the relevant lore details that you need to understand the world you are diving into.  Albert blends together some excellent storylines in this novel, and he keeps the pace steady, with a ton of brilliant action and dangerous occurrences.  I liked how the narrative kept morphing as the book progressed as what started as a compelling, if slower, desert adventure eventually turned into a high-octane war novel, before finally transforming into a desperate survival novel in a horror setting.  Albert manages these changes in style really well, and I think the constant alterations helped to keep the reader’s attention glued to all the craziness of the book. 

At the same time, the book remains a soldier’s story at heart, which is something that Warhammer fiction always excels at showing (good recent examples include Steel Tread, The Vincula Insurgency and Catachan Devil).  Watching these elite soldiers face impressive odds makes for an awesome read, especially as Albert also dives into their deeper concerns and features some deeper betrayals and intrigues.  I also cannot highlight enough how outstanding the combat sequences were in Kasrkin as Albert features some pretty hairy action scenarios.  I was particularly impressed with how well these combat scenes were enhanced by the book’s multiple character perspectives, especially once the Kroot were introduced.  Having the perspectives changed between the opponent groups as the firefights was ongoing was just brilliant, and it was amazing to see both sides of the battle, as well as the reactions from the rival teams.  All this, and more, really brought the best out of Kasrkin’s narrative and I deeply enjoyed how it was showcased.

Perhaps one of the most notable features of Kasrkin are the distinctive and memorable locations.  The reader is dragged to several great settings throughout the course of the plot, and the author takes particular pleasure in presenting them in exquisite detail.  The main location is the endless, featureless desert of Dasht i-Kevar, which the characters are forced to traverse for a good part of the book.  I got some great Dune vibes from this setting, and Albert makes this desert out to be a soulless, crushing place of shifting sands, massive unstable dunes, and intense heat, with the ability to strip the resolve and strength from the strongest of men.  Just listening to the characters traverse it made me thirsty, and you could really imagine the harsh journey they are going through.  At the same time, Albert also introduces some very unique aspects to the desert, including impossibly smooth patches of sand that move like water and mysterious water that lives deep under the surface which gives the planet some unusual life.  All these elements are very memorable, and you find yourself really feeling the intense desert surroundings as the characters push through it.  I think that Albert did a remarkable job of introducing and then utilising this harsh setting and it definitely stood out as a landmark part of the book.  A second, darker location becomes the key setting for much of the second half of Kasrkin and while I will again be brief to avoid spoilers, it was pretty damn epic.  Serving as the lair of a notable enemy, this location was a haunting and deadly setting, and one that the characters all struggled to survive in.  There are so many surprises and foes lurking in this location, and the strain of it really showed on the characters who find themselves with very little chance of survival.  I had such a great time with this location, and it, as well as the outside desert, helped to turn Kasrkin into a particularly noteworthy book.

On top of the new setting, I was also really impressed with the outstanding Warhammer 40,000 elements contained within this great book.  As I mentioned before, Kasrkin is a book a range of readers can enjoy, and part of the reason why is that Albert spends a lot of time exploring the unique lore elements of the Warhammer 40,000 universe that come into play during the plot.  Not only does this help to introduce the universe to new readers but established fans will appreciate how deep Albert dives into the subject.  As the name of this book suggests, quite a lot of the focus revolves around the Cadian Kasrkin, the most elite special forces group in the whole Imperial Guard.  Albert showcases them perfectly throughout the book, and it was so damn epic to see them in action, especially as they live up to all the hype and work together as a particularly effective unit.  The author dives into all their particularly quirks, training and operational preferences that sets them apart from the common Astra Militarum units, and you come away with a greater appreciation for who they are and what they can do.  In addition, there is a great underlying look at how the Kasrkin are doing following the destruction of their home world of Cadia, and I loved the deeper grief that they are all suffering after their failure and the hardships they have faced.

On top of the Kasrkin, Albert also spends a substantial amount of time examining and featuring other Warhammer 40,000 factions throughout the story.  The most prominent outside of the Kasrkin are the kindred of Kroot that become the protagonist’s opponents.  During their multiple scenes, Albert dives deep into the biology, beliefs and society of the Kroot, and the reader is soon given a crash course in who they are and what they can do.  There is a particular focus on their biological abilities, with Albert exploring their avian traits, their ability to communicate in different frequencies (giving off high-pitched whistles, which made several hunting scenes particularly cool) and more.  The real focus is on the Kroot’s ability to absorb the genetic traits of anything they consume, which is a big part of their society, as they live to hunt and consume prey that can give them a greater edge in battle.  Albert really examines this hunting and eating part of their culture, and it was fascinating to see how diverse the Kroot are after eating different creatures during their travels.  This ability plays a big role in the plot, with horrific consequences, and I loved having the Kroot featured so heavily in this book, especially as I haven’t seen them in too many other pieces of Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  I also loved how Albert did some fun contrasts between the Kroot and the Kasrkin and showed that they were very similar in their abilities and mentalities (and they both refer to their groups as kin).  Watching the two sides face off against each other is a thing of beauty and it results in some complex and exciting battle scenes.

On top of the Kasrkin and the Kroot, a third major faction from the Warhammer 40,000 universe are also featured, and they become an exceptional part of the books plot in the second half of the book.  Just like with the other groups featured within Kasrkin, Albert examines and features this group extremely well, and you get a good idea of who they are and what motivates them, even if they are a little more unusual then the general examples you see in Warhammer fiction.  I was particularly impressed with how Albert used one distinctive unit from this third faction throughout the course of Kasrkin, and they prove to be brutal and terrifying hunters that haunt the point of view characters in some epic and dark ways.  I cannot emphasise how well Albert featured all these different factions throughout Kasrkin, and fans of the franchise are going to have an outstanding time seeing them all in action and facing off against each other.

I had a lot of fun with the characters featured in Kasrkin as the author features some interesting interactions and character development in a short amount of time.  Most of the book focuses on the members of the Kasrkin team, including their leader, Captain Bharath Obeysekera, a veteran officer with a lot of regrets behind him.  Albert showcases this character a lot and Obeysekera proves to be a bit more of a radical thinker than your typical Imperial soldier, which I felt fit rather well in this unusual tale of survival, and it was heartbreaking to see him try and fail to keep his squad alive.  Other great characters include Sergeant Shaan Malick, the squad’s veteran NCO, who serves as a rock for most of the book, while also playing his own selfish game.  Watching him manipulate the other characters added a great edge to the plot, and I really appreciated his realistic and understandable motivations once they were revealed.  I was also very impressed with the character of Roshant, a newly minted Commissar with family connections who joins the mission and proves to be a bit of a pain for most of it.  Initially despised by the men and seen as a coward, Roshant goes through some real soul searching in this book, and it was fascinating to see this privileged character contrasted against the rough and tough Kasrkins, especially in some dangerous situations.  The rest of Kasrkin’s cast are also pretty impressive, and Albert does a good job of balancing the narrative around a large group of characters.  There is some excellent character work in this book, and I really appreciated seeing such a fun and damaged cast go to war against each other.

Like most Warhammer 40,000 books, I chose to enjoy Kasrkin in its audiobook format, which was an absolute ton of fun.  Coming in at just over 11 hours, the Kasrkin audiobook was an excellent and quick way to experience this fantastic narrative, especially as all the many cool action sequences really seemed to pop in this format.  The real highlight of this audiobook was narrator David Seddon, whose work I previously enjoyed in the short production Dredge Runners.  Seddon did a remarkable job with the narration in Kasrkin, and I loved how he swiftly moved the book along and perfectly controlled the pacing of the audiobook.  I was also deeply impressed with the huge range of voices that he brought to the production, and he effectively captured all the characters featured in this book and gave them all distinctive and fitting voices that showcased their personalities and emotions.  Not only does he capture the various gruff and thoughtful human characters, but he also provides some great alternate voices for some of the alien characters contained within.  The avian-inspired voices of the Kroot characters reminded me a little of the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal, which was really fitting considering the Kroot’s evolutionary origins.  I also loved the deeper and more ancient voice that was used for another character, revealed later in the book, especially when combined with the various voices used for this character’s computer servant.  This outstanding voice work really helped with my enjoyment of this book, and I had a wonderful time listening to the Kasrkin audiobook.  This was easily the best way to enjoy this fantastic book, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested.

The Warhammer 40,000 universe continues to enchant and amaze me with this latest tie-in book Kasrkin.  Edoardo Albert wrote a powerful and deeply intense read that sees an iconic regiment from the game go up against all manner of trouble in some exceptional settings.  Extremely addictive, relentlessly exciting, and very clever, Kasrkin was an outstanding read that I am really glad I decided to check it out.  Highly recommended, especially for fans of Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  You are guaranteed to have a great time with this excellent tie-in book.

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The Martyr by Anthony Ryan

The Martyr Cover

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

Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Armored by Mark Greaney

Armored Cover (2)

Publisher: Sphere (Trade Paperback – 12 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling thriller author Mark Greaney presents one of the most exciting and action-packed novels of 2022, the high-octane thriller Armored.

Over the last few years I have been really getting into the awesome thriller novels of impressive author Mark Greaney, who is having a very big 2022.  Not only has he released two separate novels but he also has a film adaptation of his iconic series coming out later this week, The Gray Man.  I am really looking forward to this film, especially as I am now a pretty big fan of The Gray Man novels, having enjoyed both the first book, The Gray Man, and some of the latest entries, such as Mission Critical, One Minute Out, Relentless and Sierra Six.  However, Greaney’s year is far from done as the novel version of his 2021 Audible Original release, Armored, has just come out.  Converted into book format, Armored tells an impressive and over-the-top tale of survival and destruction that has already grabbed the attention of legendary director Michael Bay, who plans to adapt it into his next major blockbuster.

Joshua Duffy used to be one of the best close protection agents in the world, working with teams of private military contractors as security for elites in some of the most dangerous countries.  But after his fateful last mission in Lebanon cost him his team, his client and his lower left leg, Joshua finds himself suddenly and violently out of the game.  Forced to work as a mall cop to support his struggling family, Joshua’s future seems shot.  However, opportunity is about to come knocking with a deadly offer he cannot turn down.

Following a chance encounter with an old colleague, Joshua is given the opportunity to work one last job that promises to solve all his financial issues.  A violent and highly organised drug cartel has risen to power in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, and its recent actions have greatly infuriated the Mexican government and army.  To save the large civilian population living in the Sierra Madre Mountains, the United Nations is sending a peace mission in to ease tensions and attempt to negotiate a truce before it is too late.  However, the only way to reach the cartel’s base of operations is by road, and that means travelling through one of the most dangerous and lawless areas on the planet, the Espinazo del Diablo, the Devil’s Spine.

Joining up with the notorious Armored Saint company and hiding his injury, Joshua is recruited as a team leader in the convoy assigned to keep the UN dignitaries safe.  Even loaded up in advanced armoured vehicles and working with a team of elite operators, Joshua has no allusions that his chances of success are slim, but even he is unaware just how dangerous this mission is going to be.  The other Mexican cartels are determined that the peace talks fail and are willing to pay any price to see the UN team killed and their rivals destroyed in the aftermath.  Worse, someone else is working behind the scenes to manipulate events to their advantage, and they are willing to kill everyone in the convoy to get what they want.  Can Joshua and his new team survive the deadly onslaught about to be unleashed upon them, or will they end up another victim of the Espinazo del Diablo?

Greaney continues to shine as one of our leading thriller readers with this highly entertaining action saga.  Armored is pure pulse-pounding excitement from start to finish, and I ended up powering through this substantial novel in very short order, especially once I got lured into its amazing narrative and impressively written fight scenes.

Armored Cover

I had a lot of fun with the awesome story that Greaney came up for this impressive release that is based around an intriguing and epic premise of a small team of mercenaries caught up in the violence and backstabbing of the Mexican cartels in a remote and dangerous area.  Armored has a great start to it that sets up complex protagonist Joshua Duffy extremely well, showcasing his last mission as a conventional private security contractor in a massive and deadly confrontation.  After this action-orientated introduction, you see a very desperate Duffy as he attempts to get on with his life, only to be dragged into the main mission of the book.  Greaney sets up many key parts of Armored’s plot in the early pages, introducing the main characters, showing the desperation surrounding the central protagonist, and introducing all the substantial opposition that they are likely to face.  Thanks to the use of mysterious antagonist Oscar Cardoza, you see just how rigged the situation is against the protagonists as the villain manipulates and deals with multiple cartels to ensure that they are all set against the peace mission.  As such, you know pretty early on that you are in for a wild thrill ride later in the book and Greaney does not disappoint.

Once Armored’s main story gets underway, the book moves at an extremely fast pace to match the convoy of armoured cars it is following.  The protagonists immediately face opposition, obstacles and attacks as they continue on their way, ignoring the multiple warnings about the even greater threats to come (seriously, they get so many warnings).  After surviving an increasingly deadly barrage of ambushes, betrayals and personal dramas, the story takes a whole new turn as a big twist switches the entire narrative on its head.  This twist was a fantastic game changer that was well set up during the earlier parts of the book, and it was really cool to see it fully unfold, introducing some intense new problems and opportunities.  Thanks to this twist, the second half of Armored essentially becomes one continuous battle for survival.  There are some really awesome and over-the-top moments during this second half, as several key characters die, the odds become more and more stacked against the protagonists, some final twists come into play, and new players are drawn into the fray.  This all leads up to the big conclusion, which unsurprisingly contains more action and excitement, before bringing everything to an awesome end.  I came away feeling pretty satisfied with how the story came together, and I think that Greaney wrapped up everything really well.

I quite enjoyed how Greaney wrote Armored as he brought his typical style to this later thriller.  The story was expertly told using multiple character perspectives to show the various viewpoints of the key protagonists and antagonists.  Not only does this result in a much richer story with various intriguing characters, but Greaney ensures that it ramps up the novel’s tension, especially when the reader can see betrayals and traps being formed in advance of them being unleashed upon the characters you are rooting for.  The author uses these alternate perspectives to also hint at hidden motivations in some of the supporting characters and it does a good job mostly disguising who the culprits are, while ensuring that the reader knows something big is about to go down.  There are even some intriguing flashback sequences thrown in for greater context, which help to highlight the bond two key characters have.  The entire story is very well paced, with Greaney doing a good job evenly spreading out the big action moments and the intriguing character development to ensure a continuous story that never has any slow points.  I also liked the way in which Greaney adds in some intriguing commentary about certain real-world issues, including around private military contractors, the issues surrounding wounded veterans, and the current political and criminal situation in Mexico, especially regarding the volatile cartels.  All this comes together extremely well, and the reader has a very hard time turning away from the story as everything unfolds before them.

Unsurprisingly, the real star of Armored is the action sequences, as Greaney really goes all out to provide the reader with all the high-octane gun fights they could ever want.  This thriller novel is packed to the gills with battle scenes as every major character is dragged into a series of brutal and bloody fights as they attempt to achieve their goals and survive.  I have always been really impressed with how realistic Greaney can make his fight sequences in The Gray Man novels, and this awesome attention to detail and realism continues over into Armored.  Greaney clearly knows what he is talking about when it comes to gun battles, and you really get drawn into the intense battles, as well as the detailed descriptions of proper military tactics and strategies, especially in the first half of the novel.  However, I did think that Greaney went a little too far with some of the action scenes in the second half of the book, as the already over-the-top action started to get a little insane.  Greaney was clearly trying to set up some big Hollywood moments for the announced adaptation here (to be fair, Michael Bay is going to love bringing some of these sequences to the big screen), even though it was a little too much at times.  I was especially bemused by one scene that saw several characters shooting guns out the back of a small plane, which resulted in one of the most ridiculous things I have read about in a serious thriller read.  While these crazy moments honestly did not detract too much from my enjoyment of the novel, it did give Armored a bit of an unfortunate sillier edge that it really did not need.

Finally, I need to highlight the characters featured within Armored.  Greaney has a good knack for creating large groups of likeable and distinctive characters, and most of the protagonists and antagonists in Armored were extremely good, adding some great elements to the overall story.  I particularly liked main protagonist Joshua Duffy, the wounded veteran contractor who is dragged back in for one last dangerous job.  Greaney does a lot with Duffy in this novel, showcasing him at his emotional height, slamming him down hard, and then slowly building him back up through the course of the main story.  As such, Duffy serves as an excellent central figure for most of the story, and watching him try to escape the ghosts of his past and bring his new team together to complete the mission proves to be deeply captivating in many ways.  I really enjoyed watching him being a major badass, even with one leg, and Greaney wrote a fantastic storyline over his attempts to take on a leadership role in this mission, despite dealing with a group of disrespectful and arrogant soldiers.  A definite standout character for me, it will be very interesting to see who is cast to play Duffy in the movie adaptation, and whoever it is will have a great role to fill.

Aside from Duffy, Armored featured a pretty large and fun cast of characters, with a decent focus being on the team members in Duffy’s armoured vehicle.  Made up of six members, Charlie team proves to be a solid group of protagonists, and Greaney writes a good story about them slowly coming together as a team, despite being gradually picked off.  While I enjoyed them, I did find them to be a little stereotypical in ways, with most of them being classic disrespectful and uncontrollable soldiers.  This is especially true for the characters of Wolfson, the arrogant former seal; Frenchie, the weathered veteran acting as the voice of reason; Squeeze, the extremely angry African American former Marine; and Tony Cruz, the talented but token Spanish-speaking soldier.  All of the above filled overused action tropes to a degree, and it felt a little lazy, especially when compared to some of the other characters in the book.  Luckily, this group of soldiers were well balanced out by their final member, NASCAR, the team’s driver and the book’s comic relief.  NASCAR, a former race driver turned military contractor with a history of crashing his vehicles, was an excellent addition to the cast, and his entertaining antics helped to distract from some of the blander figures in the team.

I also need to mention Duffy’s wife, Nikki, a former Army officer who has taken to cleaning houses to support her family and wounded husband.  While initially just a supporting role to help motivate the protagonist, Greaney ends up bringing Nikki into the main story in a big way as she attempts her own rescue mission.  I deeply enjoyed the determined narrative around Nikki, and it was a fantastic addition to the plot, even if it resulted in more problems for the protagonist.  I also enjoyed the other major female character in the novel, Dr Flores, a Mexican anthropologist who is assigned to the peace talks as a cultural advisor and interpreter.  Despite being a bit of a preachy figure, Dr Flores is pretty much the only character that has any common sense or idea of what they are walking into, and her knowledge and passionate personality slowly bring the main cast around.  I really enjoyed Dr Flores’s scenes throughout the novel, and you really feel for her as she keeps trying and trying to talk some sense into the soldiers or diplomats, only to be knocked back by their arrogant and dismissive attitudes.  The final character I need to highlight is Oscar Cardoza, who serves as the book’s main antagonist.  Billed as a cartel consultant who works for the highest bidder, Cardoza is a mysterious and dangerous figure for most of the book, visiting the various cartel leaders and working them to his advantage, before getting closer to the action halfway through.  I instantly enjoyed Cardoza from his first scene, especially after some fun, if ineffective, small talk with some cartel guards, and it was fantastic to watch him flit around the various cartels and play them to his advantage.  He also serves as a great foil to the main band of protagonists, and once he gets involved in the hunt for them, he really shines as a villain, especially once some secrets about him are revealed.  The cast of Armored ended up being a fantastic and captivating band of character, and I ended up becoming really invested in their unique and powerful storylines.

I cannot emphasise how exciting and enjoyable Armored turned out to be and I am really glad that I got the chance to read it.  Mark Greaney obviously had a ton of fun turning his latest novel into the most action-packed adventure he could, and Armored really lived up to its plot potential, providing the reader with wall-to-wall fire fights and intense combat.  While the novel did get a little over-the-top in places, this was a solid and impressive read that is really worth checking out.  An excellent and fast-paced thriller designed to entertain anyone who reads it; the Armored adaptation is going to end up being a pretty awesome movie that Michael Bay will have a wonderful time making.

Armored Cover 3

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Warhammer 40,000: Krieg by Steve Lyons

Warhammer 40,000 - Krieg Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 9 hours and 33 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Death, dishonour and duty all collide as impressive author Steve Lyons returns to the epic Warhammer 40,000 universe with Krieg, which dives into the origins of one the most iconic regiments of Imperial Guard out there, the Death Korps of Krieg.

Damn this has been a good year for Warhammer fiction so far.  We may only be in March, but 2022 has already produced a great collection of awesome Warhammer novels, including Steel Tread, The Twice-Dead King: Reign and Day of Ascension.  I have deeply enjoyed all these cool books, and when another awesome sounding tie-in novel was released on audiobook, I just had to grab it.

This latest book is Krieg by veteran science fiction author Steve Lyons.  Lyons is a new author to me, but he comes with an impressive pedigree in tie-in fiction, having written several Warhammer novels and short stories, a ton of Doctor Who novels and audio dramas, and several other intriguing novels.  I knew that I was probably going to love Krieg and I turned out to be right, as this fantastic and dark Warhammer 40,000 novel contains an intense and captivating tale of a legendary regiment.

In the grim future of the universe, there is only bloodshed and death, especially near the system-spanning Octarius War, where two brutal alien races battle for supremacy, and Imperial forces fight to stop their conflict spilling out into the greater Imperium.  However, the latest round of fighting sees a massive orc ship break through Imperial lines and crash into the massive city of Hive Arathron.  As the desperate Imperial forces fail to contain the invading orcs, all hope looks lost until a new set of deadly reinforcements arrive: the Death Korps of Krieg.

The Death Korps of Krieg are a legendary unit of peerless soldiers who are utterly fearless in battle, fanatically loyal to the Emperor, and who seem to harbour an unnatural desire to die in battle.  But who are the men of Krieg under their gasmasks and coats, and why do they fight so hard to regain their lost honour?  The answer lies thousands of years ago when Krieg attempted to cede from the Imperium, thrusting the planet into a brutal civil war.  In the end, one man stepped forward to end the fighting, and his decision doomed Krieg to become a blasted wasteland where only soldiers are grown.

As the fighting around Hive Arathron continues, many of their fellow soldiers and inquisitorial observers begin to doubt the loyalty and sanity of the Death Korps, especially when their unusual habits and creeds keep them apart from the other members of the Astra Militarium.  However, a deadly discovery deep inside the Hive will show the Imperium just how invaluable the men of Krieg are, especially when history seeks to repeat itself.  Can the Death Korps succeed against the xenos, or will Hive Arathron and its planet soon share a similar fate to Krieg?

The Warhammer 40,000 hits just keep on coming as Krieg turned out to be a truly awesome read.  Steve Lyons has produced an epic and intense novel here, and I loved the brilliant story that not only showcased a dangerous alien threat but which also examined the past of an iconic and captivating faction.

I thought that Lyons came up with an exceptional and captivating narrative for Krieg, which takes the reader on several parallel journeys throughout the history of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I have said multiple times before that I think some of the best Warhammer stories out there focus on the common troops, and I was proved right again as Lyons does a brilliant dive into the mind of the average solider when they experience the very worst of circumstances.  The primary storyline is set in the modern era of the canon and shows a regiment of Krieg Imperial Guard dropped into the battle for Hive Arathron to fight the orcs.  This section, which is told entirely from the perspective of supporting non-Krieg characters, shows the Death Korps in battle, with a specific highlight on their unusual appearance and practices.  At the same time, another storyline dives back into the past and shows the civil war that occurred on Krieg and the events that led up to the destruction of the planet and the formation of the modern Death Korps.  Both these storylines take up about half the book and they present the reader with two unique and interesting tales which work to complement the story from the other timeline while also depicting their own brutal military actions.  The stories start to come together towards the end when the protagonists of the contemporary storyline discover nuclear weapons in Hive Arathron, which they need to recover.  This leads to an interesting conclusion that results in some clever parallels between the historical events and the current storyline.  All this leads to a satisfying, if grim, conclusion that reveals the various fates of the supporting characters and wraps up the remaining story elements.

I was really impressed with how Krieg was written, and I think that Lyon did a really good job here.  The story ended up perfectly toeing the line between examining the lore and history of the universe and providing the reader with all the necessary excitement and adventure.  I think the decision to split the book between the two separate timelines was pretty clever, and I had a brilliant time reading the unique storylines it produced.  Both timelines were really good, and I loved the grim and powerful plot points they contained, especially as the protagonists within both suffered defeats, setbacks and brutal character realisations.  If I had to choose a favourite it would probably be the historical storyline set on Krieg, mainly because it shows the more desperate situation and substantially more character development and tragedy.  The twin storylines also did a wonderful job complementing each other, ensuring that the reader gets two separate sides of the titular regiment.  It also results in a series of different battle sequences, and I loved the interesting comparisons between a protracted civil war and a short and brutal fight against orcs.  Krieg ended up being a good standalone read, with a concise, well-paced and beautifully set-up narrative that is pretty easy to get addicted to, especially once both storylines descend into the hell of battle.  This also proved to be an extremely accessible tie-in to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with Lyons ensuring that newer readers can easily follow what is happening with a minimal of explanation about the universe.  As such I would strongly recommend this book to a wide range of readers, and both experienced Warhammer fans and general science fiction readers will really appreciate the powerful and action-packed story contained within.

Unsurprisingly for a novel named Krieg, there is an extensive and fascinating examination of the Death Korps of Krieg in this book.  Lyons does a brilliant job of diving into this distinctive Warhammer faction, and this novel ended up being a very detailed and impressive love letter towards the infamous regiment.  Every aspect of the modern regiment is shown in exquisite detail, and you get an extremely powerful look at their design, uniform (which is based on the uniforms of World War I German trench fighters), fighting style, equipment, unique regiments, and more, including the iconic Death Riders (I was so very happy they were included, especially as you get several great fight scenes with them, including against orc bikers).  However, the real focus is on their unusual behaviour, including their determination to die in combat, their complete resolve and the fact that they never remove their masks.  Lyons really hammers home the unusualness of this regiment by only showing the modern Krieg soldiers through the eyes of regular soldiers or member of the Inquisition, all of whom are at a loss about what the Krieg are or why they fight so hard.

However, while these outsider characters are left wondering about many of these events, the readers get multiple insights thanks to the chapters that explore the historical civil war on Krieg.  Lyons does an incredible job of portraying this conflict, and it is fascinating to see the events that led up to it and the lengthy and costly war that followed.  Watching the opposing mentalities on Krieg during this time is really fascinating, and you soon get caught up in the dramatic battle that follows, especially as the situation continues to deteriorate over time.  I loved how the origins of the Krieg’s many idiosyncrasies are featured here, and you soon see what necessitated the use of certain equipment or behaviours.  The real highlight is the eventual destruction of Krieg and the subsequent formation of the modern version of the Death Korps.  The scenes that cover this destruction are pretty damn brutal, and watching the slow transition from typical soldiers to the eventual shrouded figures is extremely compelling and awesome.  I really appreciated the way in which Lyons showed off the various stages of the Krieg regiments, and the use of both the historical version of the regiment and its current formation really helped to highlight just how distinctive and cool they are.  While there are still a few secrets left hidden (what’s under the mask??), the reader leaves this book with an impressive appreciation for this awesome regiment, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it convinces several Warhammer 40,000 players to start using the Death Korps in their games.

A quick shoutout also needs to go to the fantastic characters featured throughout Krieg.  Lyons makes use of a large cast to tell this interesting story, and I liked the excellent mixture that this novel contained.  The characters featured in the contemporary line are primarily made up of non-Krieg fighters who serve as an interesting counterpoint to the nameless, faceless Death Korp soldiers.  This includes Inquisitor Ven Bruin, an older witch hunter who leads the search for the hidden weapons in Hive Arathron.  Ven Bruin is a lot gentler and less cynical that a typical Imperial Inquisitor, and he has some intriguing viewpoints on the situation, with his decisions tempered by experience and weariness.  Ven Bruin ends up holding multiple secrets throughout Krieg, and it is emotional to see him impacted by his multiple hard decisions and the lives they cost.  You also get the compelling viewpoint of Sergeant Renick, a Cadian soldier who fights alongside the Krieg.  Renick, who is a surprisingly good female character for a Warhammer novel, gives the common soldier’s viewpoint of events, and I loved seeing her slow opinion change of the Death Korps after seeing them in action against the orcs.

While there are some great characters in the Hive Arathron storyline, Lyons saves his best character work for the historical storyline on Krieg, which highlights the key people in the deadly civil war that destroyed the planet.  While there are several intriguing figures here, most of the focus is given to Colonel Jurten, the Imperial Guard commander who fights to keep Krieg in the Imperium.  Jurten is a weary veteran character who borders on the fanatical, especially when it comes to saving his home from himself.  Throughout the course of the book, you see Jurten fight a desperate war for his believes that culminates in him making a terrible decision that will impact his people for generations.  Watching Jurten’s substantial resolve slowly chip away throughout the book is very intense, and Lyon really shows the weight his beliefs and determination bear on him, especially after he makes the very worst of choices.  The other characters in this past storyline serve as an excellent support cast, and it was great to see their concerns and opinions about the battles being fought, especially compared to the resilient Jurten.  My favourite is probably the mysterious Adeptus Mechanicus tech-priest, Greel, who acts as the devil on Jurten’s shoulder, convincing him to make the tough decision about the future of Krieg.  I am still a little uncertain whether Greel was a hero or a villain (probably both; it is Warhammer), and I would be curious to find out more about him and his motivations in the future.  An excellent group of characters, I would be interested to see more of some of them in the future.

Unsurprisingly, I made sure to grab the audiobook version of Krieg, which ended up being another excellent and enjoyable experience.  I deeply enjoy Warhammer audiobooks, especially as they tend to enhance the grim and brutal stories, while also highlighting all the cool details about the Warhammer universe.  I had amazing time with the Krieg audiobook, and with a runtime of only 9 hours and 33 minutes, this was a pretty easy audiobook to get through.  The audiobook did an excellent job capturing the grim battles and blasted warzones featured throughout this awesome novel, and I could easily envisage every fight and every brutal decision.  I was also really impressed with the voice work of narrator Timothy Watson, who brought a ton of gravitas and intensity to this book.  Watson’s voice fit perfectly into this grim universe, and he did an outstanding job of capturing the various larger-than-life characters featured within, while also providing great Germanic accents to all the characters who originated from Krieg.  You really get a brilliant range of voices throughout Krieg, and I loved Watson’s ability to showcase the devotion, despair and weariness of all these great figures.  Another brilliant and wonderful Warhammer audiobook, this is easily the best way to enjoy this amazing tie-in book.

Overall, Krieg by Steven Lyons was another awesome Warhammer 40,000 novel that did a wonderful job of examining one of the game’s more unique and enjoyable faction.  Containing an action-packed narrative that highlighted the fantastic Death Korps of Krieg and showcased the events that made the soldiers they are today; Krieg was an addictive and clever read.  I loved the excellent use of a split timeline narrative, especially when it dove back into the civil war on Krieg, and the result was a grim and haunting tale of regret, duty and honour.  Highly recommended to all fans of Warhammer 40,000, you will love this beautiful and moving love letter to the iconic Death Korps and their tragic origins.

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Quick Review – Resistance by Mara Timon

Resistance Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: City of Spies – Book Two

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive into the intricacies of World War II espionage with a second fantastic historical thriller from Mara Timon, Resistance.

Timon is a brilliant author who debuted in 2020 with her intriguing novel, City of Spies, which followed a British agent sent to infiltrate neutral Portugal and encounter all manner of dangers and deceit.  Timon has now followed up this impressive debut with an intriguing sequel, Resistance, which follows the protagonist of City of Spies as she is sent to German-occupied Normandy days before the Allies invade.

Synopsis:

Three women. One mission. Enemies everywhere.

May 1944. When spy Elisabeth de Mornay, code name Cécile, notices a coded transmission from an agent in the field does not bear his usual signature, she suspects his cover has been blown– something that is happening with increasing frequency. With the situation in Occupied France worsening and growing fears that the Resistance has been compromised, Cécile is ordered behind enemy lines.

Having rendezvoused with her fellow agents, Léonie and Dominique, together they have one mission: help the Resistance destabilise German operations to pave the way for the Normandy landings.

But the life of a spy is never straightforward, and the in-fighting within the Resistance makes knowing who to trust ever more difficult. With their lives on the line, all three women will have to make decisions that could cost them everything – for not all their enemies are German.


Resistance
was an impressive and clever historical spy thriller that proves to be extremely addictive and exciting.  Set several months after the events of City of Spies, Resistance sees the protagonist and point-of-view character Elisabeth sent to infiltrate occupied Normandy under a new cover identity to assist the local French Resistance as a wireless operator.  Simultaneously gathering intelligence and investigating a potential mole in the French organisation, Elisabeth works with several other female spies in the area and is forced to contend with traitors, radicals and the Gestapo.  This story gets even more intense the further it goes, not only because a figure from the protagonist’s past comes into the picture and complicates events, but because the last third of the novel features the D-Day landings at the nearby Normandy beaches.  This forces the protagonist and her friends to encounter several attacks and betrayals amid the chaos of invasion and it leads to an incredibly exciting and captivating final section that is honestly impossible to put down.  While I did think that a couple of character arcs were a bit underdeveloped and unnecessary to the plot, this was an overall epic story and I really appreciated the complex and powerful narrative that Timon came up with.

I felt that new readers could easily get into Resistance with having read the preceding novel City of Spies.  Timon does an excellent job of explaining all the key events of the first novel, and readers are quickly informed of everything that would impact that plot of this sequel.  That said, fans of City of Spies will find this to be a pretty good sequel as several intriguing storylines are continued throughout the plot of the book.  Not only do key characters make significant reappearances but you also have a continuation of the fantastic romantic arc between Elisabeth and German officer Eduard Graf, who got married in the first novel.  Despite being an unusual relationship, this was an excellent storyline to continue and it was great to see the two interesting characters continue their forbidden love in the midst of war and intrigue, especially as both have major secrets (one is a spy, the other is planning to assassinate Hitler; it’s complicated) and are trying not to expose each other to their enemies.  I will be really intrigued to see where this series goes next, especially if Elisabeth is dropped into Germany either during Operation Valkyrie or the dying days of the war

One of the things that I most liked about Resistance was how this book ended up being a particularly solid and compelling historical thriller that emphasised its gritty and realistic spy elements.  Timon strives to strongly emphasise all the historical espionage aspects of the plot, and it was fascinating to see all the cool details about spy craft and being an undercover radio operator.  There was also a great focus on the abilities of Britain’s legendary female operatives, and Timon ensured that this book felt as realistic and compelling as possible.  Throw in some cool historical characters, such as members of the SOE and key German soldiers, like Erwin Rommel, and you have a particularly good historical thriller that was a lot of fun to explore.

With her second book, Resistance, impressive author Mara Timon continues to shine as a bright new figure in the historical thriller genre.  Perfectly combining realistic espionage elements with an iconic and dangerous historical setting, Resistance serves as an excellent sequel to Timon’s debut, City of Spies, and proves to be extremely addictive and compelling.  An awesome and highly recommended read.

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The Enemy Within by Tim Ayliffe

The Enemy Within Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2021)

Series: John Bailey – Book Three

Length: 353 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s fastest rising crime fiction authors, Tim Ayliffe, returns with another impressive and brilliantly relevant novel, The Enemy Within.

Ayliffe is a great author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last couple of years as he sets some fantastic stories around contemporary Australian subjects.  Debuting in 2018, this journalist wrote a compelling and intriguing first novel with The Greater Good, which looked at political corruption and the growing influence of China in Australia.  He followed it up in 2019 with State of Fear, which looked at Islamic terrorism and featured a dramatic and impactful story.  Now Ayliffe checks out the complete opposite end of the political spectrum in The Enemy Within, which features a look at growing right-wing radicals.

As the smoke from devastating January 2020 bushfires covers Sydney, investigative reporter John Bailey is covering a far more dangerous threat in the suburbs.  Barely recovered from the traumatic events that took the love of his life from him, Bailey is now working for a news magazine.  His first story will cover the re-emergence of right-wing nationalists and white supremacist groups in Australia.  Attending one of their meetings, where a controversial American social media star whose entrance into the country has gained much political opposition and protest, Bailey attempts to gain the pulse of this movement, only to face violence and an anti-media mentality from the crowd.

Working on his story, Bailey has no idea of the chaos that is about to rain down on his life.  After he meets with an old contact and informant, Bailey’s house is raided by the Australian Federal Police.  The police are investigating him for a story he ran back while he was a war correspondent that highlighted the alleged war crimes Australian soldiers committed in the Middle East.  Armed with a warrant granting them access to his phone, computer and all his files, the police tear through Bailey’s life and throw him in gaol for attempting to impede their search.

With the entire nation’s media covering his plight, Bailey is released from prison and soon discovers that someone orchestrated the police raid to delete evidence from the rally.  Attempting to investigate further, Bailey is shocked when his contact ends up dead in mysterious circumstances and the police fail to investigate.  With Sydney on the verge of a race war, Bailey continues his investigation and soon uncovers proof about a dangerous conspiracy that aims to shake the very foundations of Australian life.  With only his old friend CIA agent Ronnie Johnson as backup, Bailey attempts to stop this plot before it is too late.  But with a seemingly untouchable enemy targeting him from the shadows, has Bailey finally met an opponent even more determined than he is?

This was an awesome and captivating novel from Ayliffe who once again produces an intense, character-driven narrative.  Set around some very relevant and controversial topics, The Enemy Within is a powerful and exciting novel that takes the reader on a compelling ride.  I had a fantastic time reading this clever book and I loved the fascinating examinations of one of the more insidious threats facing Australia.

Set in the blistering, smoke covered streets of early 2020 Sydney, this story starts with protagonist John Bailey engaged in a controversial story about the rising far-right wing.  After a predictably violent confrontation, the narrative takes off like a shot, with the protagonist investigating a series of concerning events, including several murders, racial attacks, and a re-opened investigation into an old story of his that sees the AFP raid his house.  Each of these separate investigative threads are drawn together as the book progresses, and the reader is treated to an impressive and deadly conspiracy with several clever allusions to real-world issues and events.  This was a very exciting and captivating novel to get through, and I found myself reading it extremely quickly, nearly finishing it off in a day.  The story leads up to an awesome and intense conclusion, where Bailey uncovers the entire scope of the plot and races to stop it.  While the identity of some of the participants is very clear since the character’s introductions, their full plan, methods, and reach are more hidden and it was great to see the protagonist uncover them all, especially as several were cleverly hidden in innocuous moments earlier in the novel.  There is even an excellent twist towards the end of the book that reveals a well-hidden antagonist, which I particularly enjoyed as it was so skilfully inserted into the story.  I ended having an excellent time getting through this amazing narrative, and this might be one of the best stories that Ayliffe has so far written.

One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the John Bailey novels is the way in which so much of the amazing story was tied to how extremely damaged the titular protagonist is.  John Bailey is a veteran reporter whose previous life as a war correspondent has left him extremely broken, especially after being tortured by a dangerous terrorist leader.  This eventually led to him becoming an alcoholic, which ruined his career and separated him from his family.  However, since the start of the series, Bailey has shown some real character growth, although this is usually accompanied by some traumatic events or tragic moments.  In The Enemy Within, as Bailey is still recovering from the loss of his lover at the end of State of Fear.  Despite making some strides to recover, Bailey is still reeling from the loss, and this becomes a major aspect of his character in this latest book.  This is especially true as Ayliffe does an outstanding job of highlighting the grieving process and showing Bailey’s feelings of despair.  It was really moving to see Bailey in this novel, and I was glad to see him continue to recover from all the bad events of his life, including stopping drinking and getting a dog.  However, Bailey still has an unerring knack to annoy the subjects of his stories, and he ends up getting into all sorts of danger.  It was great to see him getting to the root of this story by any means necessary, and I continued to appreciate his impressive development.

I also love the way that the each of Ayliffe’s novels feature some fascinating contemporary issues facing Australia or the wider world.  In The Enemy Within, the main issue is the rise of Australian right-wing and white supremacist groups in recent years.  Like in the rest of the world, these groups have been becoming a bit more prominent recently in Australia, and Ayliffe does an excellent job analysing this issue throughout his novel.  The author does a deep examination of the movement as the story progresses, and the reader is given a good insight into their concerns, motivations, and the reasons why the movement has been gaining progress in recent years.  There are some clever parallels between the events or people portrayed in the novel and real life, which was interesting to see.  Examples of this include the government allowing controversial right-wing figures into the country despite protests, and the reactions of certain right-wing media groups.  I liked how Ayliffe once again featured the character of Keith Roberts, a right-wing commentator who is a pastiche of several Australian radio personalities.  It was also quite fascinating to see how the concerns and motivations of the right-wing groups were extremely like some of the Islamic terrorists featured in State of Fear, with both groups feeling disconnected from and attacked by mainstream Australian society.  Not only is this extremely fascinating and thought-provoking but it also serves as an amazing basis for Ayliffe’s narrative.  The author does a fantastic job of wrapping his thrilling story around some of these elements, and it makes the overall narrative extremely relevant.

I also must highlight another significant contemporary inclusion that was featured in The Enemy Within, and that was the Australian Federal Police’s raids on Bailey’s house.  This police raid is a direct reference to a series of controversial raids that occurred on several media organisations, including ABC News (who Ayliffe works for), in relation to articles they published.  Ayliffe uses these real-life examples to really punch up what happens within The Enemy Within, and he produces some realistic scenes that were comparable to this.  The subject of the articles that prompt the raids are also very similar and feature another topic that is quite controversial in Australia in the moment, that of alleged war-crimes by Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East.  Just like with the other divisive topics featured in this novel, Ayliffe did a fantastic job re-imagining these events in his novel, and it produces some excellent inclusions that will particularly resonate with an Australian audience.  I deeply appreciated the way in which he was able to work these events into his story, and I think that it made The Enemy Within a much more compelling and distinctive read.

I have to say that I also really loved the author’s use of setting in The Enemy Within.  This latest book is set in early 2020, when Sydney was surrounded by some of the worst bushfires in Australian history and the entire city was covered in smoke for months.  Ayliffe does an excellent job portraying these terrible conditions, no doubt drawn from his own personal experiences, and the reader gets a good idea of how difficult life was under those conditions (it certainly brought me back to that time, although we didn’t have it quite as bad down in Canberra).  Ayliffe uses this unique setting to full effect throughout the book and it provides some fitting atmosphere for the narrative, especially as the landscape reflects the simmering tensions flaring up within the city.  This was one of the more distinctive features of The Enemy Within, and I really appreciated the way the author used it to enhance his great story.  I also quite enjoyed the throwaway references to COVID-19, with none of the characters particularly concerned about it considering everything else that was happening, and I have no doubt that Ayliffe’s next novel will make great use of the pandemic in some way.

With his latest novel, The Enemy Within, Tim Ayliffe continues to showcase why he is one of the best new writers of Australian crime fiction.  The Enemy Within had an awesome and incredible story that perfectly brings in amazing contemporary Australian issues and settings, which are expertly worked into a thrilling novel.  I had an outstanding time reading this fantastic read and it comes highly recommended.

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Relentless by Jonathan Maberry

Relentless Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Rogue Team International – Book Two / Joe Ledger – Book 12

Length: 18 hours and 29 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of my absolute favourite series returns with an absolute bang as Jonathan Maberry produces another incredible, intense and thrilling Joe Ledger novel with Relentless, the second novel in the Rogue Team International series.

Readers of my blog will be well aware of how much I love Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series.  This science fiction thriller series, which follows the titular protagonist and his team of elite soldiers as they fight all manner of crazy scientific and supernatural threats, is so much fun and is one of my favourite series.  After reading one of these fantastic books a few years ago, I sat down and listened to the entire series, from Patient Zero, all the way to the final entry, Deep Silence.  It also led me to some of Maberry’s other novels, including last year’s excellent horror novel, Ink, which was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020.  The author also started the Rogue Team International series in 2019 as a sequel series to the original Joe Ledger books, featuring the same characters and universe.  The first entry in this sequel series, Rage, got a five-star rating from me and was one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  Due to Rage’s epic conclusion, as well as how much I enjoy Maberry’s writing, I have been eagerly awaiting Relentless for some time now and I ended up being blown away by how awesome it was.

During Rogue Team International’s (RTI) first mission, Joe Ledger and his team faced off against the dangerous pairing of criminal mastermind Kuga and his fearsome enforcer Rafael Santoro, barely managing to stop their insidious, world-changing plot.  However, their victory came at a terrible price, as Santoro delivered fiery vengeance on his foe by killing every member of Ledger’s family in a revenge attack at Christmas.  Santoro and Kuga hoped that their destructive blow would mentally destroy their hated enemy forever; instead, it unleashed their worst nightmare.

After returning to the field, Ledger leads an RTI team to an advanced laboratory where terrible genetic, biological and cybernetic experiments are being performed.  While the mission begins as a textbook RTI operation, everything changes when Ledger comes across a room full of deformed lab subjects and their cruel tormentors.  With his already fragile psyche pushed to the limit by the death of his family, Ledger finally snaps and lets something dark and dangerous from deep within take control.  With blood and bodies trailing in his wake, Ledger abandons his team and goes truly rogue.

Accompanied only by his loyal combat dog, Ghost, Ledger rampages across Europe, killing and destroying anything related to Kuga’s operation and questioning anyone who knows where he and Santoro are.  Even more concerning for the villains, Ledger is also beginning to get close to their next major operation.  Utilising cutting edge technology, Kuga’s group have developed biologically enhanced super soldiers, equipped with some of the most destructive weapons available.  Their next plan will unleash a devastating attack within America that will change the political and social landscape for generations to come.  However, not even their most advanced troops may be enough to stop the dark thing that Ledger has become, and Kuga is soon forced to make a Faustian deal with someone, or something, whose evil eclipses Ledger’s insanity.  Can Ledger defeat his hated foes and save his own soul at the same time, or will he finally be overwhelmed by his own inner darkness?

Once again Maberry shows why he is one of the most exciting and impressive thriller writers out there as Relentless was another epic and wildly captivating novel.  This latest Rogue Team International novel contains a complex and thrilling narrative that sets its already complex main character into a horrific quest for vengeance and redemption.  Throw in an incredible amount of action, a very clever and well-written story, and some memorable characters, and you have an outstanding novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

In Relentless, Maberry produces an extremely intense and fast-paced novel that is both character driven and loaded with some of the best action you will ever read.  Following up from the dramatic conclusion of Rage, Relentless is one of the darker and more inventive books in the Joe Ledger franchise, presenting the reader with a brutal revenge story as the protagonist puts the rogue in Rogue Team International to kill anyone associated with his foes.  Maberry once again makes great use of the unique writing style that has been such a hallmark of this series, with the novel made up of shorter chapters told from a vast number of different perspectives, including several interludes set in the past, to produce a more complex and multifaceted tale and showcase the elaborate plans of the antagonists.

However, the author also tries something new in this book, with a noticeable change of focus away from the protagonist for a good portion of the early novel to highlight some major character developments.  This results in a bit less humour during the first part of the book, but this is more than made up for with a darker and more powerful storyline.  The story focus does eventually revert to the series’ usual form about halfway through the novel, just in time for the protagonist to find himself with information about a complex and intriguing evil plot that only he can stop.  This leads to a pretty epic conclusion with some fun twists and several major moments of worry and surprise, especially as you get some massive concurrent scenes as Ledger and his allies battle the enemy in several destructive and dangerous battles.  The action throughout Relentless is typical Maberry, with some very detailed and graphic depictions of the techniques and damage done, and it is near impossible not to get sucked in the combat as the powerful scenes unfold.  Readers should be warned that parts of this novel can get a little dark and gruesome as Maberry pulls no punches, but it is very much worth sticking through the blood and guts to see the captivating narrative unfold.  I quickly became sucked into his awesome story, and I loved every second of it, managing to finish it off in extremely short order.  It looks like Maberry has some intriguing plans for the future of this series, and I for one am extremely excited for that.

Like most of the Joe Ledger/Rogue Team International novels, Maberry has made Relentless extremely accessible to new readers.  While I personally would suggest reading Rage first, due to the tragic ending that plays into the events of this novel, people unfamiliar with the preceding books can jump in here and still have an excellent time reading this book.  Maberry does an amazing job recapping all the key events of the prior novels, including character bios, descriptions of technology and summaries of various cases.  As a result, the reader is never left in the dark about what is happening and who is being talked about, although the certain significance of some characters or revelations might be slightly tempered until the protagonist describes them.  One thing I would note after having read all the Joe Ledger books in the last couple of years is that Maberry tends to reuse the same phrases and terms when it comes to describing certain characters or events.  While this was fine the first few times, by book 12 in the overall series, it is very noticeable and slightly detrimental to the flow of the story.  However, this was an overall incredible novel with more than enough unique features to make it really stand out from the rest of the books in the series.

One of the best parts of any of Maberry’s novels are the complex and likeable characters featured within them.  Over the years Maberry has produced some truly great and memorable characters for the Joe Ledger novels, and it was great to see so many of them return for Relentless, especially as most of them go through some major development.  The most prominent of these is titular protagonist Joe Ledger, who has one of his most significant roles here in Relentless.  Ledger has always been an extremely troubled and damaged protagonist, which has grown more and more apparent as the series progressed as he is forced to deal with additional traumas.  However, this is the book where he truly snaps, as he is dealing with the brutal death of every member of his family.  While Ledger starts the book mostly fine (by his already low standards), it doesn’t take him long to lose the plot.  Fans of this series will understand Ledger’s mind is already broken up into three distinct personalities, the Cop, the Modern Man, and the Killer, which together form his mostly balanced psyche.  However, the events of Rage have resulted in a fourth personality, the Darkness, which subverts Ledger’s mind and leads him to commit acts of terrible violence and destruction while massively freaking everyone out.  The Darkness completely takes over Ledger, ensuring that you don’t see into his head for a good portion of the novel, which is an interesting change considering that Ledger is the only character in the series with a first-person perspective.  While this really changes the tone of this novel, it perfectly highlights just how far-gone Ledger is.  Even when he regains control of his mind and becomes a prominent point-of-view character again, the Darkness is still there, and he has to fight hard to control it.  All this makes for quite a fantastic and deep read, and it was captivating to see the protagonist deal with the traumatic events of a previous novel in such a dramatic and destructive manner.  Maberry really amps up how dangerous Ledger can be in this novel, and there are some truly disturbing and concerning scenes when the Darkness takes over.  It will be really interesting to see how Ledger comes back from the events of this book in the future, and I am extremely curious to see what happens to the character next.

In addition to the outstanding central protagonist, Maberry fills up Relentless with great supporting characters, most of whom have been introduced in previous Joe Ledger novels.  Maberry really likes a wide spread of characters throughout his novels, resulting in an interesting group of perspectives as the various supporting characters and minor inclusions experience the events of the narrative.  It was great to see many long-running side characters return in Relentless, especially as they are severely impacted by Ledger’s walk on the dark side.  While a couple of usually major characters only have a couple of scenes in this book, the usual DMS/RTI mainstays are all there.  Ledger’s squad mates, Top and Bunny, have a particularly intriguing storyline in this novel, which sees them go undercover to infiltrate Kuga’s operation while being conflicted about Ledger’s actions.  It was also great to see more of mysterious RTI leader, Mr Church, the guy who totally isn’t some sort of avenging angel or benevolent god (those are my two top guesses at this point).  While Church doesn’t get as much focus as he has in previous books, he is still a major presence, and there some more hints at his past with one of the antagonists.  There are also a couple of fun new unique characters introduced who Ledger meets up with as he pursues his quest for vengeance.  Several of them are cool, and I look forward to seeing if they show up again.

Out of all the many supporting characters, there are two that I particularly want to focus on as they had some very strong arcs within this book.  The first is Alexander Chismer, better known as Toys, the former villain who is seeking redemption and is now a close friend of Ledger’s partner Junie.  Toys goes back into the field to find Ledger, even though they really dislike each other.  Toys is a pretty smooth operator, and it was fun to see him go back to his criminal roots, even though it was for a good cause.  When he eventually catches up to Ledger, their meeting doesn’t go amazingly well (someone gets shot), but they do end up having a rather fantastic and entertaining heart-to-heart.  The comparison between their respective paths to redemption is rather deep and fascinating, and it was very intriguing to finally see these two characters interact in an extended way.  The other character I absolutely must talk about is Ledger’s dog, Ghost, the bestest boy in all of fiction.  Ghost has a pretty rough time in this novel, as he is Ledger’s only companion during his master’s dark spells and ends up getting into some very violent confrontations.  Maberry is extremely good at writing canine characters, and most readers will find it next to impossible not to fall in love with this savage, sassy cuddle monster.  Due to the many bad circumstances that Ledger and Ghost finds themselves in, I found myself feeling a lot of worry for Ghost, especially as Ledger seemed crazy enough to hurt him at times.  The fact that I felt strongly anxious for a fictional dog should tell you all you need to know about Maberry’s ability to write likeable characters, and readers should be warned that they will be experiencing feels in this novel.

It wouldn’t be a Maberry book without some impressive and complex antagonists, and this novel is chock full of villains with an intriguing master plan.  The main antagonists of Relentless are the same as Rage, with the fun combination of Kuga and Rafael Santoro.  Both Kuga and Santoro are recurring Joe Ledger antagonists (Kuga was the main villain of Kill Switch under a different name, while Santoro was a significant antagonist in The King of Plagues).  As a result, they have an amazing amount of history with Ledger and the RTI, which makes them quite dangerous foes.  Both are a bit more unhinged in this novel, especially once it becomes clear that a deranged Ledger is on their tail, and it was great to see them slowly become a little more desperate.  Despite this, they have a pretty intense and detailed plot to make a large amount of money through the sale of their advanced weapons, technology and enhanced mercenaries.  Their master plan for destruction and manipulation is very clever and takes a while to fully become apparent to the protagonist and the reader.  Maberry lays the groundwork for this plan perfectly throughout his narrative and the eventual reveal of what they are hoping for is pretty cool and leads to several amazing scenes that play off current events really well.

In addition to the antagonists that appeared in Rage, Relentless also features one of Maberry’s most mysterious and sinister villains.  Going by the name of Mr Sunday in this book (which I assume is a fun little nod to Mr Church’s fake name), this antagonist is a very creepy and dangerous being who has had some impressive appearances before (Assassins Code, Predator One and Dogs of War for example).  The moment he appeared in this book, I knew that I was going to be in for a good time, as this character is essentially the devil incarnate (there is a strong chance he is the devil).  Maberry does an incredible job building him up once again in this novel, and he ends up terrifying his potential allies just as much as his enemies.  This character’s appearance has some major implications for Ledger and Mr Church, and it is highly implied that his appearance is causing some of Ledger’s instability.  While he is mostly just coasting off Kuga and Santoro’s plans in this book, he also has his own sinister plans which come into fruition perfectly.  As a result, he is a pretty fantastic addition to the plot, and I loved the entertaining interludes that featured his elaborate sales presentations.  It looks like Maberry has some big plans for this character in the future, and I am very excited to see what chaos he has in stall for the world next.

Aside from the main villains I mentioned above, Maberry also utilises some great supporting antagonists who act as assassins and henchmen.  This includes the deranged Eve, who was introduced in Rage and who lost her partner and lover, Adam, to Ledger.  This loss has driven her even more insane, and there are several crazy chapters shown from her perspective, and she represents the typical sexual degenerate antagonist that Maberry likes.  There is also a new henchman character in Michael Augustus Stafford, a hired gun considered one of the best assassins in the world and is often referred to as the anti-Ledger due to his similar appearance to the protagonist.  Stafford leads Kuga’s hunt for Ledger throughout Europe and America and is a dogged tail for much of the book.  There are some very intense cat-and-mouse scenes occurring between the two as they attempt to get the upper hand on each other.  I really appreciated the way in which the author took the time to building up these less prominent antagonists throughout the novel, and you get a great sense of their personalities and abilities.  I would say that they don’t live up to their full potential at the end of the novel, but it was still fantastic to see their entire storyline unfold.

Another hallmark of a great Maberry book is some of cool technology featured in the story, especially as it results in some excellent and over-the-top fight scenes.  The villains get some impressive and over-the-top toys in this novel, including biological enhancements, advanced body armour that has a lethal kick to it and massive armoured exoskeletons loaded with giant guns.  Maberry has some fun building up the capability of these devices through several of the interludes, and they do not disappoint, causing all manner of chaos and destruction around the world.  That ensures that when the protagonists encounter them they are in for a real fight, as it gives their enemies an edge against RTI agents who usually have the most advanced tech.  It was really cool to see this technology in action, and Maberry dreams up some outstanding scenes around them.  All the fight sequences featuring them in Relentless are ultra-impressive, and readers are in for some great scenes, especially as many of them involve the less destructive and sleeker RTI technology versus the purely destructive Kuga weapons.  I really enjoyed seeing these advanced weapons in use, and it helps to give some of the action scenes a major boost.

Just like I have with every other Jonathan Maberry book I have enjoyed, I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Relentless.  I have a lot of love for the Maberry audiobooks, and in my opinion it is the best way to enjoy these cool novels.  The main reason for this is the amazing recurring narrator, Ray Porter, who has lent his voice to the audiobook versions of nearly every single one of Maberry’s novels.  Porter is one of my absolute favourite narrators, and if he is voicing something, I know I am going to love it.  This narrator always manages to deftly drag the listener in and keep their complete attention throughout the entire production.  He really dives into the various characters, ensuring every one of them has an appropriate voice, with cool accents and relevant speech patterns.  He is also extremely good at portraying emotion, and he always goes out of his way to highlight a character’s feelings in their speech patterns, whether it be excitement, grief, anger, or something darker.  This is particularly noticeable with protagonist Joe Ledger.  I have noted before at how effortlessly Porter inhabits the role of this complex character, ensuring that the reader gets his full range of feelings, including his boundless rage and outrageous sense of humour (he really gets Ledger’s sarcasm).  Porter does another amazing job in Relentless, and it was really cool to hear his take on the more unhinged Ledger, and he really helps to add an extra sense of menace and anger during the scenes where Ledger is out of control.  Each of the voices used in this book are extremely good (I would critique the voice of one Australian character, but it’s a fairly minor role), and it was an absolute joy to once again listen to his narration.  With a run time of just under 18 and a half hours, this is a rather long Joe Ledger novel, although I powered through it in less than a week due to how much fun I was having.  This version of Relentless comes highly recommended, and it is already one of the best audiobooks I have listened to all year.

Well, that was a damn impressive novel.  As you can see from my rather long and happy review above, I had an outstanding time reading Relentless by Jonathan Maberry, and I found it to be an incredible read.  The Rogue Team International series continues to be one of the most thrilling series out there, and I loved the complex damaged characters and intense storyline this latest novel contained.  Easily one of my favourite books of the year, Relentless gets a five-star rating from me and is highly recommended to anyone wanting guaranteed action, fun and comprehensive darkness.

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Throwback Thursday – First and Only by Dan Abnett

First and Only Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 1999)

Series: Gaunt’s Ghosts – Book One

Length: 10 hours

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the first entry in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, First and Only, by Dan Abnett, which proved to be a very impressive Warhammer 40,000 novel.

You only need to look through my recent Throwback Thursdays to see that I have been in a real Warhammer mood lately.  I recently got into the Gotrek and Felix series by William King, and quickly made my way through the first three books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer, all of which were incredibly awesome.  While I have got the fourth book, Dragonslayer, ready and waiting, I decided to take a break from the fantasy Warhammer novels and dive back into the science fiction Warhammer 40,000 universe.  While I only used to play Warhammer Fantasy, I have a great appreciation for the Warhammer 40,000 lore, and I have recently enjoyed two great books in this massive franchise, Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker and Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.

While there are several intriguing Warhammer 40,000 novels on my radar, I decided to listen to the very first entry in the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series by Dan Abnett, First and Only.  Abnett is an impressive and prolific author and comic book writer who has done a lot of work across several franchises and companies, including Marvel and DC.  While he has a massive back catalogue, Abnett is best known for his input into the Warhammer extended universe.  Abnett has written an immense number of novels for the franchise, including Warhammer Fantasy books, such as the Malus Darkblade series (on my to-read list).  Most of his work is in the Warhammer 40,000 range, where he has written several major series, including the Eisenhorn and Ravenor series, as well as several major novels in the Horus Heresy extended series.  However, the most iconic of these is the Gaunt’s Ghosts series.

The long-running Gaunt’s Ghosts series follows a regiment of Imperial Guard, the basic foot-soldiers of the Imperium of Man, a major faction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Starting back in 1999 with this novel, the Gaunt’s Ghost series featured 15 individual books, as well as several short stories, and only recently finished in 2019.  The Gaunt’s Ghosts series is one of the most iconic entries in the entire Warhammer 40,000 novel range, and I have heard many positive things about it over the years.  First and Only was one of the first books published by the Black Library, the Games Workshop publishing arm, and is a major feature of their catalogue.  So I felt that I was going to take the plunge and read more Warhammer novels, this would be a pretty good place to start, and boy was I glad that I did.

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war….

Throughout the entirety of space, the armies of the Imperium bring the fight to their enemies on every planet, battlefield and hellscape they can find.  One of the most deadly and destructive theatres of war is the massive Sabbat Worlds Crusade, where Imperial forces fight and die to defeat the armies of Chaos and bring an entire sector back into the Emperor’s light.  Many regiments of Imperial Guard have been recruited to battle in this war, but none have a background more steeped in blood and tragedy than the Tanith First and Only.

Formed to serve in the crusades from the once verdant world of Tanith, the first regiment of Tanith Imperial Guards could only watch in horror as their planet was destroyed by the forces of Chaos, with them the only survivors.  Now under the command of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, the men of the Tanith First and Only have taken to calling themselves Gaunt’s Ghosts, due to their superior stealth skills and in recognition of the pain they feel at being the only remnants of their planet.

Fighting in the latest phase of the crusade, the Ghosts find themselves where the fighting is thickest, using their unique skills and experiences to confound the enemy and bring about impossible victories.  However, the Ghosts are about to discover that not all battles are fought on the field, and not all enemies are in front of them.  A power struggle is brewing in the upper ranks of the Crusade’s high-command, and the Ghosts have fallen right into the middle of it.  Entrusted with a mysterious encrypted data transmission by an old friend, Gaunt soon finds himself targeted by the agents of an ambitious general.  After several devastating attacks, Gaunt is forced to choose a side, especially after he uncovers a deadly secret that could destroy everything his men have fought for.  His mission will lead him to the most dangerous battlefield in the crusade, where the lines between friend and foe have never been blurrier.

Now this was a really incredible and exciting novel.  Abnett has produced an outstanding story in First and Only, and I loved how he perfectly translated the unique feel of the Warhammer 40,000 universe into a captivating narrative.  Featuring some great characters, a dark setting, and a fantastic look at this great franchise, First and Only is a captivating and explosive novel and I had an amazing time getting through it.

Abnett has produced a pretty epic story for First and Only that not only serves as an excellent introduction to the characters and wider narrative but is also full of excitement, intrigue and action.  At its core, First and Only is a tough and gritty military action adventure, that follows the Tanith First and Only through several gory fields of battle.  The narrative is broken up into several distinctive sections, set across three separate planets and one massive spaceship, as well as several shorter scenes and flashback sequences that add context and strengthen character development.  These separate sequences flow together extremely well and form a tight and compelling overarching narrative.  I loved the way in which Abnett combined his fantastic military story with treacherous and thrilling political intrigue, as the protagonists are forced to deal with treachery from their friends and attacks from their own commanders.  The author really does a great job setting up the key plot points at the start of the book, and the entire narrative seamlessly flows on after that.  I was deeply impressed by all the amazing action sequences, and I loved the author’s use of multiple character perspectives to tell a complex and powerful narrative.  The entire narrative comes together extremely well into a big, explosive conclusion.  I really enjoyed some of the great twists that were revealed in the lead-up to the conclusion and I was pleasantly surprised by several fun turns and reveals.  An overall exciting and terrific narrative, I had an absolute blast getting through this awesome novel.

One of the best things about this fun novel is the author’s great use of the dark and gothic Warhammer 40,000 setting.  Abnett obviously has a lot of love for this universe, and he painstakingly recreates it in his novel in all its fantastic and gritty glory.  As a result, the reader is treated to some outstandingly portrayed background settings of destroyed worlds, bombarded warzones, and overpopulated Imperial worlds.  This proves to be really impressive to see, and the author makes sure to use this setting to full effect, enhancing the cool narrative and making it an excellent backing for the various fight scenes.  This attention to detail also comes into play perfectly during the book’s various action sequences, and I felt that Abnett perfectly captured the unique and chaotic feel of a Warhammer 40,000 battle scene.  I have to say that I also deeply appreciated the way in which Abnett introduced the reader to the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I personally found that very little pre-knowledge of this extended universe is needed to enjoy this book, and while those readers familiar with the game or other Warhammer novels will obviously get a lot more out of First and Only, this is actually a pretty good way to experience Warhammer 40,000 lore for the first time.

Another cool aspect of this novel was the insightful and intriguing focus on the Imperial Guard.  The Imperial Guard are the basic grunts of the Imperial faction and are often overshadowed by the flashier Space Marines in both the tabletop game and the wider extended universe.  As a result, it was cool to see a novel that focuses on a regiment of these troopers and shows them during a deadly and bloody war.  Abnett does an outstanding job capturing this faction in First and Only, diving into the psyche of the common soldier, while also showcasing their tactics, weapons, machines and motivations.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple character perspectives, you get to see various aspects of the regiment from commander down, and I loved the fascinating combination of perspectives from all the different types of soldiers and specialists.  I also really appreciated the way in which Abnett highlighted different regiments of Imperial Guard throughout the novel, which corresponds with the varied regiments and styles that can be fielded in the tabletop game.  While most of this novel focused on the Tanith First and Only, Abnett also strongly features two other regiments, the Vitrian Dragoons and the Jantine Patricians, who act as allies and rivals to the Ghosts respectfully.  It was extremely interesting to see the variations in mentality, uniforms, and tactics between these regiments, and I really enjoyed the way in which the author highlights their diverse backgrounds and planets.  This ended up being an incredible introduction to the Imperial Guard, and I imagine that quite a few Warhammer 40,000 players gained a new appreciation for this army after reading this novel.

First and Only features a fantastic collection of characters that serve as the heart and soul of the narrative.  This book follows the adventures of the Gaunt’s Ghosts regiment, and you get to see various members of this squad in action, as well as some antagonist characters.  Abnett ensures that each of the characters featured within the novel have intriguing and well-established backstories and traits, and you quickly understand their motivations.  Much of First and Only’s focus is on the leader of the Ghosts, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, who serves as the main protagonist. Gaunt proves to be an excellent and enjoyable main character, who serves as both the regiment’s leader and its inspirational political officer.  Abnett really develops Gaunt’s personality and backstory, and all of the flashbacks focus on his past, setting up his relationship with several of the characters featured in the novel and showing how several rivalries were formed.  Other fascinating and complex characters included Colonel Corbec, who was the main secondary antagonist; Major Rawne, an officer with a hatred for Gaunt who has a pretty traumatic time in this novel; Brin Milo, Gaunt’s adjutant with extreme perception (they are obviously setting up something there); and Colonel Flense, a guardsman from a rival regiment who bears a great grudge against Gaunt.  All these characters, and more, are really fun to follow, but readers are advised not to get too attached, as this is a brutal war story.  I will admit that I initially had a little trouble connecting to several of the characters and I lost track of who the different protagonists were.  However, once I got a further into the story, I grew to know each of the distinctive characters, and I appreciated their fun characteristics and capacities.

As I have tended to do with all Warhammer recently, I grabbed the audiobook version of First and Only.  This proved to be a fantastic decision, as the First and Only audiobook was an excellent and fun production that I was able to power through quickly.  First and Only has a decent run time of 10 hours, and features some amazing voice work from veteran narrator Toby Longworth.  Longworth, who has previously narrated a swathe of Warhammer audiobooks, does an outstanding job with this novel, and he moves the narrative along at a swift and exciting pace.  I love the range of great voices Longworth brings to First and Only, and each character is given a distinctive voice that fits their personality and background perfectly.  There is a certain grim nature to the voices of many of the main characters, which reflects the dark, gothic nature of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  He also utilises a series of different accents for some of the various Imperial Guard regiments, which helps to distinguish their divergent backgrounds and the influence of their home world.  This amazing narration turns the First and Only audiobook into an absolute treat, and this was an incredible way to enjoy this excellent book.  As Longworth provides the narration for the rest of the Gaunt’s Ghosts audiobooks, I will probably check out the rest of this series in this format, and I already know that I will have an awesome time doing so.

First and Only by Dan Arbnett is an outstanding and fantastic novel that takes the reader on an exciting journey to the heart of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Featuring an incredible and epic war story that makes full use of its dark setting and amazing characters, First and Only serves as a captivating first entry in the Gaunt’s Ghost series.  I had a wonderful time listening to this book, and this was one of the best Warhammer tie-in novels I have so far had the pleasure of reading.  This novel comes highly recommended, and I full intend to check out the other entries in this series in the next few years.

First and Only Cover

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The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond

The Paris Collaborator Cover

Publisher: Echo Publishing (Trade Paperback – 4 May 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Amazing Australian thriller author A. W. Hammond presents his first historical read with The Paris Collaborator, a clever and exciting novel set in occupied Paris.

August 1944.  With Allied forces advancing towards Paris, the Nazi occupation of the city seems to be nearly at an end.  But just because the Germans are poised to leave does not mean that the city is any less dangerous, especially for those whose loyalties are in question.  Since the Germans arrived, former teacher Auguste Duchene has taken on a whole new profession to survive: finding missing children.  With his impressive observational skills, Duchene has proven to be a keen investigator, but his talents are about to get noticed by all the wrong people.

Despite his desire to only help reunite lost families, Duchene is forced into working for a violent faction of the French Resistance after they threaten the safety of his collaborating daughter, Marienne.  Recruited to find a missing priest and the cache of stolen weapons he was hiding for them; Duchene reluctantly begins his search.  However, hours after he begins working for the Resistance, he is approached by a senior Nazi officer who blackmails him into finding a missing German soldier.

Caught between two dangerous masters, Duchene has no choice by to comply with both if he and Marienne are to survive.  With only 48 hours until both groups will deliver on their deadly threats, Duchene scours Paris for both the missing men.  However, the more he discovers, the more he begins to realise that the cases may be connected, and that he may be only able to satisfy one of his employers.  Worse, the Gestapo have taken an interest in Duchene’s investigation and are determined to interfere for their own ends.  Can Duchene find his targets before it is too late, or will everything he love be taken away from him?

This was an awesome and fantastic novel from an impressive author who I was not too familiar with before I picked up this outstanding read.  A. W. Hammond has previously written two Australian thrillers under the name Alex Hammond.  These books, 2013’s Blood Witness and 2015’s The Unbroken Line, were intriguing legal thrillers that focused on his Will Harris protagonist.  The Paris Collaborator is the author’s first foray into historical fiction, and he did an exceptional job producing a clever and addictive historical thriller.  I had an incredible time reading The Paris Collaborator and I ended up finishing it off in a few short days once I got drawn into its cool and memorable narrative.

Hammond has come up with an excellent thriller storyline for The Paris Collaborator that is exciting and clever, and which also makes great use of its historical backdrop.  This is a very fast-paced story, and it really does not take long for it to take off, as unconventional missing child investigator Duchene is drawn into the conflicting webs of radical French Resistance fighters and an influential Nazi officer.  Forced to work on both cases on a very lean timeline, the protagonist conducts a hurried investigation, trying to find hints of two different missing persons while also trying to survive in the middle of a chaotic and failing city.  With the interference of the Gestapo, Duchene is trapped in the middle of a three-way battle for his loyalties, as each of these very dangerous groups threatens to kill him and his daughter unless he complies.  This results in a very epic final third of the book, as the protagonist runs around Paris, which is in the middle of overthrowing its German occupiers, trying to find the last pieces of the puzzle with everybody trying to kill or capture him.

This was a very captivating and high-stakes story, and I loved all the thrilling intrigue, action and suspense as the protagonist jumps from one bad situation to the next.  The overall investigation had some rather intriguing twists to it, many of which took me pleasantly by surprise, although they were very well set up in hindsight.  I absolutely lost it when the final twist was revealed, as it was so outrageous and surprising that I ended up laughing for several minutes.  This reveal, while a little hilarious, did fit nicely into the dark tone of the novel, and I felt it was an outstanding way to wrap up this novel, especially as it is guaranteed to stick in the reader’s mind.  I deeply enjoyed The Paris Collaborator’s clever story, and this ended up being one of the more entertaining and unique thrillers I have read all year.

While readers will definitely remember the amazing thriller story, I also must highlight the exceptional historical setting that was featured in The Paris Collaborator.  Hammond chose to set his clever story amid the final days of the Nazi occupation of Paris, which I really enjoyed.  The author does an outstanding job of portraying this intriguing historical setting, and I loved the exploration of an occupied city on the edge, with minimal resources, a thriving black market, a near-rebelling populace, nervous soldiers starting to pull out and a dangerous resistance movement planning their next strike.  Hammond makes great use of this unique setting throughout the story, and I really appreciated the way he featured historical elements like the Resistance, the Gestapo and the German army throughout the story.  The final part of the book is set during the French uprising to free Paris from the Nazis, and I loved how the protagonist had to overcome all the obstacles this put in his way, from tanks attempting to put down dissent, to crowds determined to kill any Germans they could find.  This was an outstanding depiction of occupied Paris and I felt that Hammond perfectly utilised it throughout this amazing book.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the historical setting of The Paris Collaborator is the compelling focus on the French mentality of collaboration and resistance.  Throughout the novel, the protagonist encounters a wide range of different characters who have survived the Nazi occupation by working for, engaging with, or falling in love with German soldiers, much to the disgust of their fellow French citizens.  The protagonist himself is considered by some to be a collaborator, not only because he has helped wealthy French collaborators find their children but because he finds himself working for various Nazis throughout the course of the book.  This forces the protagonist to walk a thin line, as he must appear to be a patriotic Frenchman disgusted with the occupiers while also making sure that he does not enrage any of the Nazis who are employing him, something he does not do particularly well.  As a result, Duchene, and several supporting characters, encounters dangerous reactions from some French characters and Resistance members, and this really adds to the tension and danger that he encounters.  I think that Hammond did an excellent job examining and portraying this mentality of anti-collaboration throughout the novel, especially as it is cleverly layered into nearly every interaction the protagonist has.  Some of the actions of French characters who were actively resisting against the Germans were also pretty intriguing, including one particularly over-the-top one that is definitely going to stick in my mind.  It was also fascinating to see what some people would do to avoid being labelled as a collaborator, even if that means completely changing who they are.  I really enjoyed the author’s examination of how collaborator would have been viewed during this turbulent period of history and it ended up being an excellent and compelling addition to The Paris Collaborator’s narrative.

The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond is an outrageous and impressive historical thriller that comes highly recommended.  Hammond has written a fantastic fast-paced story that is heavy on action, intrigue, and amazing twists, all set amid Paris in the final days of the Nazi occupation.  I had a lot of fun getting through this awesome novel, and thanks to some outstanding reveals and exciting moments, The Paris Collaborator is really going to stick in my mind.  Readers are guaranteed a thrilling and clever time with this book and will power through it in no time at all.

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