Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 January 2021)

Series: Inscape – Book One

Length: 426 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The future is a cyperpunk nightmare in Inscape, the fantastic and clever science fiction thriller debut from amazing author Louise Carey.

Years after an apocalyptic event, the world is now run by corporations who battle for control and influence.  One of the most powerful corporations is InTech, which sits on the cutting edge of a variety of technologies and advances and which does not take any prisoners in their war for dominance.  When a valuable piece of information is stolen, InTech sends a team of agents into the unaffiliated zone to retrieve them.  However, only one agent will return alive and unharmed.

Tanta has spent her entire life training to work and fight for InTech.  An orphan who was raised solely because of the company’s good will, Tanta is crushed when her first mission ends in near failure.  Attacked by a mysterious enemy agent with advanced weapons technology, Tanta is barely able to survive and is subsequently tasked with retrieving the information that the thief stole.  Teaming up with an unconventional technical genius, Cole, Tanta begins her investigation, only to discover that someone is attacking InTech’s interests around their city.

Believing the culprits to be working for a rival corporation, Tanta and Cole attempt a dangerous infiltration into their city.  However, their mission quickly runs into problems when their contact is captured and Tanta’s tech appears to be compromised.  Attempting to survive in enemy territory, the two InTech agents engage in a risky heist to find answers.  But with all evidence pointing to a traitor high up in InTech’s ranks, can Tanta and Cole survive their dangerous mission, or will secrets from both their pasts destroy them and everything they love?

I am really glad that I decided to check this cool debut out as it ended up being a pretty impressive science fiction read.  Inscape was the first solo novel from author Louise Carey, who has previously written several novels and comics with her father, comic author Mike Carey, and her mother, Linda Carey.  Carey has come up with an exciting and compelling read in her first novel, especially as it combines an excellent science fiction thriller storyline with some great characters and an inventive and unique cyberpunk setting.

At the centre of this fantastic debut is an outstanding narrative that combines an electrifying spy thriller novel with some compelling science fiction.  Carey starts Inscape off quickly, with Tanta and her comrades brutally attacked by a dangerous enemy agent out while trying to recover some stolen files.  After this great opening scene, which sets up most of the narrative perfectly, Tanta is chucked into the midst of a massive conspiracy which sees her beloved corporation under attack, and which requires her to find who stole the files and for what purpose.  The rest of the novel is captivating and clever, as readers become engrossed by Inscape’s fantastic thriller elements as the protagonists attempt to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, which includes an extended undercover sequence where they infiltrate a rival corporation’s city to discover what they know.  This entire awesome sequence, which takes nearly a third of the novel, is extremely exciting, as Tanta and Cole are forced to rely on the minimal of resources to not only survive but to also pull off a daring prison break.  I really fell in love with this novel during this part of the story, and Carey makes sure to end it with an amazing conclusion which sees some major secrets come out and significant developments moments occur for the main characters.  I felt that the author wrapped Inscape up perfectly and readers will deeply enjoy where the story leaves off, especially as there are some great hints as to where the series will go from here.

One of the key things that I really loved about Inscape was the amazingly inventive and distinctive cyberpunk themed world that Carey created as a background to her awesome story.  The world of Inscape is set several years after an apocalyptic technological event which left much of the world in ruins.  Most civilisation now revolves around massive corporations who manage cities and safe zones while monitoring their citizens and assigning resources to the most useful.  There were also some intriguing pieces of technology introduced in this novel, such as the communications and information devices built into everyone’s heads, known as scapes, which serve as a key part of Inscape’s story.  This was an impressive and well-designed science fiction setting, and I enjoyed the cool blend of advanced technology, changing social norms and predictions of future corporate control.  I felt that Carey did an amazing job of introducing information and key points about the setting and advanced technology as the novel progresses, and it proves to be an excellent backdrop to Inscape.  I also appreciated the way in which technology like the scapes are utilised throughout the story as the instantaneous communication and information they contain help to enhance some of the action orientated scenes as well as amp up the intrigue and connections between characters.  You also occasionally get the opposite effects where this technology is deactivated and the protagonists are forced to rely on their own senses, which can be rather jarring for them.  Carey works in some compelling discussions about over-reliance on technology, free will and corporate greed throughout Inscape, all of which adds a darker and fascinating edge to the entire story.  All of this makes Inscape a very intriguing read that fans of science fiction and cyberpunk will deeply enjoy.

Another wonderful aspect of Inscape was the fantastic characters featured within, particularly the three main point-of-view characters.  Carey makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives throughout the novel to provide compelling alternate viewpoints of key events and character actions, which I felt really added a lot to the overall narrative.  In addition, the author introduces several amazing characters, most of whom either have a compelling base to their unique personalities or who go through some substantial development throughout the course of the novel.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist Tantra, a young woman who was raised by InTech since she was orphaned and who has been training all her life to be an agent for them.  Tantra starts the novel as a particularly zealous and passionate character who is unquestionably loyal to her corporation and her handler, Jen.  A skilled survivor, fighter and intuitive investigator, Tantra serves as a great protagonist for the early part of the novel, as she swiftly and efficiently begins the hunt for the person who is attacking her beloved InTech.  However, as the novel progresses, Tantra goes through some substantial changes, especially after she discovers some harsh truths about InTech and herself.  While this turns her into a much more likeable and free-spirited person, it does raise certain questions about Tantra’s true self and her motivations, which is rather intriguing and captivating to see.  Tantra is a fairly badass character throughout the entirety of Inscape, and I deeply enjoyed her intensity, intelligence, capacity for violence and acting abilities, the last of which results in a couple of fun scenes.  I also enjoyed how Carey made her a lesbian character, and she has a nice and touching relationship with a fellow orphan, Reet, although certain aspects of the narrative make Tantra contemplate how and why their relationship occurred.  This was a fantastic central protagonist, and I am curious to see what happens to her in the future.

The next major character in the novel is Cole, an InTech scientist who finds himself partnered with Tantra on the case to find the missing information.  Cole is a great character, a brilliant man who has recently lost his memories due to a technological mishap.  As a result, he spends much of the novel attempting to work out who he is, which impacts much of his personality and motives.  Cole ended up being a rather fun and interesting addition to Inscape, and I loved the unusual team that he forms with Tantra.  In many ways, Tantra and Cole are complete opposites, as Cole has a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak and sees the other characters and corporations in a different light to his partner.  Cole is also far less trained as a corporate operative and finds himself extremely overwhelmed when out in the field.  In several great sequences he is shown to be very out of his depth and is forced to rely on Tantra’s skill and knowledge, which is particularly jarring for him as he is substantially older than her.  I very much enjoyed seeing Cole finding his feet throughout this book and getting a crash course in espionage and survival from his teenage partner, and I liked the fun and substantive friendship he formed with Tantra.  Several great secrets and reveals come out about Cole as the novel progresses, and it results in some great discussions about whether he is the same person that he was before he lost his memories.  These reveals are likely to have a major impact in some future novels and should result in some intriguing story arcs.

The final major point-of-view character in this novel is Jen, Tantra’s handler at InTech, who Tantra views as a mentor and mother figure.  Jen is an ambitious and driven woman who is determined to climb the InTech ranks, and who sees her control over Tantra as the way to do it.  I really liked the way that Carey portrays Jen through the various perspectives as you get a very different viewpoint of who and what Jen is.  For example, in Tantra’s eyes Jen can do no wrong, and is one of the few people that she loves and respects.  However, when Cole sees her actions, he realises just how manipulative Jen is and how little she actually cares for Tantra.  Jen’s true ruthlessness and uncaring nature is further explored in some of the scenes shown from her perspective, and it is fantastic to see the differing viewpoints about her motives and actions.  Jen serves a great role throughout the novel as Tantra’s motivation and as a dangerous controlling figure and I really enjoyed seeing the entirety of her storyline unfold.  Each of these three main characters were written pretty perfectly and I loved the fantastic development and exploration that Carey did with them in Inscape.

Inscape by Louise Carey was an incredible and addictive debut novel that ended up being a really fun and compelling read.  Carey did a wonderful job of blending an excellent thriller narrative with some great science fiction elements, amazing characters, and a clever examination about humanity’s over-reliance on technology.  I look forward to seeing how this series continues in the future, especially after this amazing first novel, and Inscape is really worth checking out.

Quick Review – The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

The Imitator Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Deception, divided loyalties and despair are all on offer in the debut novel of Australian writer Rebecca Starford, who presents a curious and captivating read with The Imitator.

Synopsis:

‘We trade in secrets here, Evelyn. There’s no shame in having a few of your own. Our only concern is for who might discover them.’

Out of place at boarding school, scholarship girl Evelyn Varley realises that the only way for her to fit in is to be like everyone else. She hides her true self and what she really thinks behind the manners and attitudes of those around her. By the time she graduates from Oxford University in 1939, ambitious and brilliant Evelyn has perfected her performance.

War is looming. Evelyn soon finds herself recruited to MI5, and the elite counterintelligence department of Bennett White, the enigmatic spy-runner. Recognising Evelyn’s mercurial potential, White schools her in observation and subterfuge and assigns her the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers working to form an alliance with Germany.

But befriending people to betray them isn’t easy, no matter how dark their intent. Evelyn is drawn deeper into a duplicity of her own making, where truth and lies intertwine, and her increasing distrust of everyone, including herself, begins to test her better judgement. When a close friend becomes dangerously ensnared in her mission, Evelyn’s loyalty is pushed to breaking point, forcing her to make an impossible decision.

A powerfully insightful and luminous portrait of courage and loyalty, and the sacrifices made in their name.

This ended up being a fantastic and enjoyable read from Rebecca Starford, who has come up with a really intriguing and unique story.  Starford is an Australian writer who is probably best known for her work on the Kill Your Darlings magazine, as well as her non-fiction book Bad Behaviour, which chronicled the author’s life at an elite country boarding school.  The Imitator, which was also released under the title, An Unlikely Spy, is an impressive and captivating historical drama that follows a young woman who becomes involved with British espionage at the start of World War II. 

The Imitator has an interesting and surprising story to it which is guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention all the way up to its final shocking twist.  Told from the perspective of protagonist, Evelyn Varley, the story is split into two distinct periods, with some of plot set shortly after the end of World War II, while the rest follows the protagonist during the early days of the war.  Most of the narrative is set during the earlier time and examines the protagonist during this period, including her recruitment into MI5 and her eventual work investigating Nazi sympathisers.  This proves to be quite a fascinating narrative thread, and I really enjoyed the great blend of historical espionage and the compelling drama surrounding the character and her personal relationships.  I was particularly intrigued by the parts of the book that explored Evelyn’s attempts to infiltrate a major group of Nazi sympathisers, especially as she is forced to alter her personality to fit into the tight-knit group of fascists.  Starford also includes several chapters set after the war which show Evelyn dealing with the aftermath and her actions during the conflict.  These post-war sequences compliment the rest of the story extremely well, and hint at tragic consequences to what she did after she is contacted by people from her past.  However, readers are in for quite a shock, as these later sequences are shown to be a major bait and switch.  Instead of the conclusion that you would generally expect in one of these stories, Starford puts in a particularly major and dramatic twist which really changes the entire tone of the narrative.  This twist was a brilliant master stroke from the author, especially as it switches around the implications for the post-war chapters and shines a whole new light on everything.  I was really impressed with this amazing narrative, especially once you realise how the author set up the clever ending, and this was truly an awesome and memorable story.

One of the things that I really liked about The Imitator was the fantastic historical setting of London during the early period of World War II.  Starford did a great job of highlighting what life during this period would have been like, from the early actions of organisations such as MI5, to the feelings of the populace, most of whom were convinced that the war would be fought far away or would not happen at all.  I was also really impressed by the author’s examination and dramatization of several intriguing real-life historical events that occurred during this period.  The character of Evelyn Varley is based upon the real life of MI5 operative Joan Miller, who infiltrated a major Nazi sympathiser movement, known as the Right Club, in London back in 1939.  Many details about the Right Club are fitted into the book and used as the basis for the Nazi group the protagonist infiltrates.  While there are several name changes, the fictional group closely matches what actually happened with the Right Club and MI5’s mission to infiltrate it.  I felt that Staford did an amazing job exploring this group and the mission of Joan Miller, and it proved to be an exceptional and clever base to this awesome story.

I also must compliment the compelling and intriguing protagonist of this novel, Evelyn, who serves as the main point-of-view character for the story.  Evelyn is a complex individual with a number of features formed during her harsh early life at a prestigious private boarding school.  Thanks to her less affluent parents, Evelyn does not really fit in with the richer students and is soon forced to adopt a much different persona, which is helped by the relationship she forms with the family of her one friend at the school.  This ability to change her persona becomes particularly important later in life when she begins her career in espionage and must show a false side to herself to people she is trying to take down.  Starford has written a fantastically complex character here in Evelyn, and I really appreciated the way in which the author examines what events or personality traits a successful undercover spy might need to have.  I also liked the way in which we get to see the character at different parts of her life as the book progresses, such as her innocent pre-war life, her experiences as a seasoned infiltrator and her reflections as a damaged survivor.  These various periods of her life and the different personalities are very dramatic and intriguing, and I found it fascinating to see how the author envisioned her changing personality.  Starford also writes in an extremely good storyline around the protagonist’s twisted loyalties, which forces her to choose between the safety of her country and the people closest to her.  These conflicting loyalties and friendships take Eveyln in some dark places and I really must applaud the clever and powerful narrative that Starford constructed around this great character.

Overall, The Imitator by Rebecca Starford is an exceptional and captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I really enjoyed this fantastic book’s clever blend of historical fiction, espionage and dramatic storylines, and I had a wonderful time getting through all of The Imitator’s compelling twists and revelations.  An outstanding read that is guaranteed to stick in the mind long after you have finished reading it.

Relentless by Mark Greaney

Relentless by Mark Greaney Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 16 February 2021)

Series: Gray Man – Book 10

Length: 15 hours and 39 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of the spy thriller genre, Mark Greaney, returns with the tenth epic book in his long-running Gray Man series, Relentless, an impressive and captivating read.

Mark Greaney is talented author who has been absolutely killing it over the last 10+ years ever since his 2009 debut.  While he has written some other books, including seven contributions to Tom Clancy’s iconic Jack Ryan universe (three cowritten with Clancy, and four written after Clancy’s death) and the military thriller Red Metal (cowritten with Hunter Ripley Rawlings, and one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), Greaney is probably best known for his awesome Gray Man series.  Starting with The Gray Man in 2009, this series follows Court Gentry, a disavowed CIA operative turned assassin known as the Gray Man.  I am a major fan of this series, having read the last few entries, Mission Critical and One Minute Out (the latter was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020), and I have been looking forward to this book for a while (indeed it was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021).

Around the world, several top intelligence agents are disappearing, and CIA deputy director Matthew Hanley wants to know why.  When a former American agent who was believed to be dead resurfaces in Venezuela under the protection of the local secret police, Hanley has no choice but to send in his most dangerous asset, Court Gentry, the Gray Man.  As the Gray Man, Gentry is feared around the world as a lethal assassin and rogue operative, but his real role is as a deniable hitter for Hanley at the CIA.  Journeying down to Venezuela, Gentry makes contact with the former agent, who spins a tale of conspiracy and espionage in the heart of Europe before being brutally murdered by a heavily armed team of assassins.

Barely managing to escape with his life and convinced of a larger conspiracy at foot, Gentry convinces Hanley to send him to Berlin to uncover the truth.  At the same time, Gentry’s fellow CIA agent and lover, Zoya Zakharova, is infiltrating a private German intelligence firm with connections to the dead man in Venezuela.  As Zoya attempts to find out who is really running the organisation, she finds herself once again in the crosshairs of her former masters in Russian intelligence, who send their most lethal assassin to kill her.

As Gentry and Zoya fight for their life in Berlin, they start to understand the full breadth of the conspiracy they have found themselves amid.  Someone is playing a dangerous game at a global level and they are willing manipulate the American and European governments to further their goals.  Can Gentry and his allies get to the bottom of this conspiracy before it is too late or will a terrible attack lead America into an unwinnable war?

The hits keep on coming from Greaney, as Relentless was a fantastic and incredible novel that is one of the best books of 2021 so far.  I loved the impressive and complex story contained within Relentless with all its twists and turns, and I swiftly became enthralled by the well-written and intense narrative.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this awesome novel is an intense and fast-paced narrative that readers will quickly become addicted to.  Set shortly after the events of One Minute Out, this multi-perspective narrative sends protagonist Court Gentry to South America on a dangerous mission that has connections to the main conspiracy.  After a not entirely unexpected destructive fire fight from a third party, Gentry heads to Europe where he seeks to back up his love interest, Zoya, who is undercover in Berlin following another connected lead.  At the same time, the narrative expands out to showcase other groups involved in the conspiracy, including a manipulative spy master, two separate teams of killers who are hunting different protagonists, and an Iranian sleeper agent, just to name a few.  All their various storylines and character arcs are extremely interesting and exciting, as the author has crafted together some compelling narratives for each of them.  Greaney throws in a lot of amazing surprises and twists throughout the novel, and while I was able to guess how a few things were going to turn out, I could not predict the amazing scale and complexity of the overarching conspiracy that the characters find themselves involved with.  There is a comprehensive and captivating focus on international espionage throughout Relentless which fits into the story perfectly, and I loved all the cool details that author included, including a recreation of a recent real-life espionage event of great significance.  All these storylines come together extremely well, ending with a massive and memorable conclusion that was a lot of fun, and I ended up loving every second of this cool story.  Greaney also sets up some intriguing storylines for future novels in the series and I am really looking forward to seeing what happens next.

In addition to Relentless’s epic story, I really enjoyed Greaney’s cool writing style, which complemented the narrative perfectly.  The novel can be easily enjoyed by people unfamiliar with the series, and I really appreciated the amazing amount of detail and excitement loaded into the book.  There a particular focus on trade craft with this latest novel, with some great explanations about the various spy techniques utilised by the various characters, and this pumped some real authenticity into the story.  I also really enjoyed all the incredible action sequences featured within this latest novel.  Greaney has always had a talent for writing explosive and powerful action scenes, and Relentless contains some impressive examples of this as the protagonists duke it out with a wide range of enemies across the world.  Every action scene is well-planned out, realistic and very intense, ensuring the reader is constantly on the edge of their seat.

I also absolutely loved the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives throughout the novel, which was a real highlight for me.  While there is an obvious focus on characters like Gentry and Zoya, nearly every other character, including many of the antagonists, have their side of the story shown.  I found this worked extremely well to tell a complex narrative, as the reader gets to see what everyone, from the mastermind of the conspiracy to members of the various kill teams hunting the protagonists, is doing and thinking.  Not only does this build up suspense, as you know in advance some of the dangers and threats coming towards the protagonists, but you also get to see the antagonists react to all of Gentry’s actions and watch them adjust accordingly.  This makes for a much richer and more impressive story, and it works particularly well in some of the combat sequences, as you get to see all the characters manoeuvring around the battlefield.  There are also some extremely awesome chapters where various characters are following each other throughout Berlin.  Watching several point-of-view characters engaging in surveillance and countersurveillance operations against each other, with some other interested parties thrown in for good measure, was very cool, and it ended up being one of the cleverest sequences in the novel.  I really loved how this awesome writing style enhanced the story and I think it worked really well.

As usual, Greaney comes up with an excellent selection of characters for Relentless, all of whom get explored in substantial detail throughout the book.  Most of Relentless’s focus is naturally on the series’ main protagonist, the titular Gray Man himself, Court Gentry.  Greaney continues to paint an interesting figure with Gentry, as a former official CIA operative who was forced to become an assassin with a conscience, before secretly re-joining the CIA in the Poison Apple program as a deniable asset.  Gentry has a great, action-packed story in Relentless, getting into all manner of dangerous situations, and I loved the cool ways he attempts to extricate himself from them, often by killing his opponents.  I also really liked how Greaney gave Gentry a significant handicap in this latest adventure, as he is suffering from a serious infection from a stab wound gained in One Minute Out.  This infection reduces his reaction speed and physical prowess throughout the book and forces him to seek continued medical care, all of which makes his mission even more dangerous and problematic, and which really raises the stakes for the entire book.  It was also great to see more of Zoya and Zack Hightower, the other two Poison Apple agents, both of whom were not featured that much in the previous novel.  Both these agents have some compelling and entertaining arcs in this book, and I always enjoy how well the former Russian knockout and the aging American special operator compliment Gentry as a team.  Interestingly, you also get to see a lot more of CIA deputy director Matthew Hanley, the man secretly running Gentry, as he even gets into the field for a particularly dangerous assignment.  Some big moments occur for Hanley in Relentless, and it will be interesting to find out what happens to him next.  I also quite enjoyed the wild Russian assassin, Maksim Akulov, a drunk lunatic with a death wish, who is assigned to kill Zoya, but eventually starts targeting Gentry, seeing him as the ultimate challenge.  All these amazing characters, and more, really added a lot to the story, and I look forward to seeing how the ones who survived are utilised in the future.

While I did receive a physical copy of Relentless, I ended up enjoying this book in its audiobook format instead.  I have had a lot of fun with Greaney’s audiobooks in the past and I generally find that the intense and epic action and espionage translates into this format extremely well.  Relentless was no exception, and I found myself really enjoying listening to all the cool sequences unfold and at times I almost felt like I was there witnessing it.  With a run time of 15 hours and 40 minutes, Relentless’s audiobook is pretty long and might take listeners a while to get through.  However, it is worth the time investment and you will find yourself quickly powering through it once you get caught up in the story (I personally listened to it for nearly five hours straight at one point).  This latest Gray Man audiobook also sees the return of Jay Snyder as narrator.  Snyder is an experienced and prolific audiobook narrator who has contributed his voice to a wide range of awesome audiobooks in the past, including all the previous entries in the series.  Snyder has a fantastic gruff voice that fits the tone of Relentless perfectly, and which he uses to great effect moving the story along and describing all the deadly action and chaos.  Snyder also produces some great voices for the various characters which I think encapsulate each person really well and proved to be very effective.  I was a little wary about a Minnesota accent that he had to do for one of the characters, but it grew on me as the book progressed and I think it was a decent attempt in the end.  All of this makes for an epic and enjoyable audiobook and this is definitely an amazing way to check Relentless out.

Relentless is another exceptional spy thriller from the always impressive Mark Greaney that comes very highly recommended.  The 10th entry in the always outstanding Gray Man series, Relentless contains another captivating and deeply exciting narrative, which, combined with Greaney’s impeccable writing and fun characters, makes for a truly excellent thriller.  I had such an awesome time reading Relentless, and this book is one of the best releases of 2021 so far.  I look forward to seeing how Greaney continues this series in the future, and I must really go back and check out some of the earlier Gray Man novels this year, especially as a movie adaption of The Gray Man is currently being made by the Russo brothers with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans set to star (I mean, talk about a movie with some real potential).

Film Review – Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Batman - Soul of the Dragon

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 40

Director: Sam Liu

Producer: Bruce Timm

Writer: Jeremy Adams

Length: 82 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into an intense and addictive DC Comics martial arts adventure with the latest entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range, Batman: Soul of the Dragon, an outstanding and deeply enjoyable film that explores several amazing DC characters in a very unique way.

While The Unseen Library is primarily dedicated to providing book and comic reviews, I have in the last year been experimenting with reviews and articles about another great passion of mine, animated superhero films.  I have always had a lot of fondness for this genre and I started focusing on it more last year when I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, and even further when I did an extended Top Ten Tuesday article listing my favourite superhero animated films, which primarily featured DC Universe Animated Original Movies.  DC continues their domination of the animation market with the very awesome Soul of the Dragon film, which serves as the 40th entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range.  I had an outstanding time watching this latest animated offering and it is definitely a new favourite film of mine.

Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner are four of the best martial artists on the planet, utilising their skills and training to become truly elite fighters.  While each of these renowned warriors are now on their own different paths, they shared a similar start on their journey as students at the secret monastery of Nanda Parbat.  Training under the legendary O-Sensei, these four, along with other notable students, not only learned the martial techniques that allowed them to become the fighters they are today but also became a close-knit family, until one terrible night changed everything for them.

Now their paths are about to cross again when Richard Dragon discovers that a fanatical organisation, the Cult of the Kobra, have stolen an ancient and dangerous artefact that Dragon and his fellow former students are intimately and tragically familiar with.  Travelling to Gotham City, Dragon recruits Bruce Wayne, who now fights criminals as the vigilante Batman, to help him stop Kobra and save the entire world.  Attempting to recover another artefact guarded by Shiva, now a feared Gotham crime boss, they soon discover just how long and deadly Kobra’s reach is.

With Shiva and Ben in tow, the four former disciples of O-Sensei prepare for the battle of their lives as they attempt to infiltrate Kobra’s island base.  However, nothing will prepare them for the dangers they will encounter, nor the horrors unleashed from their past.  Can these four dangerous fighters work together to save the world or will an ancient and deadly force be unleashed?

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is an excellent and amazing animated comic book film that proved to be an absolute treat to watch.  This is a standalone film which is directed by Sam Liu, written by Jeremy Adams and featuring Bruce Timm as an executive producer, and together these talented people have produced a fantastic and powerful feature.  Liu and Timm are the genius behind some of the best animated comic films that are out there, including Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay and the incredible The Death of Superman, and they have once again done an outstanding job with Soul of the Dragon, creating a unique and entertaining comic book tale.  Making excellent use of an exceptional narrative, a great group of characters and a very distinctive vibe, Soul of the Dragon is an outstanding and wonderful film that is really worth watching.

Soul of the Dragon has a particularly awesome and captivating narrative that follows its four iconic central protagonists on an epic quest to right the wrongs of their collective past.  This movie contains an original tale set in the 1970s that draws heavily from classic DC martial arts comics to create a fantastic film that not only dives into the origins of some amazing DC characters but which also presents an exciting character-driven adventure.  This movie starts off with a captivating bang with Richard Dragon discovering a sinister plot with ties to his time as a student.  The story then quickly starts to reunite the four major characters, with several impressive action set-pieces dominating the early part of this movie, all of which were a real treat to watch.  The story than takes the protagonists to an island fortress where they must face their enemy before he can unleash a terrible force of destruction.

Interspersed with the main story are a series of compelling flashbacks that follow the protagonists’ training under O-Sensei, which provide some excellent context to the main story.  I thought that the flashbacks were a particularly impressive part of the movie and I liked they expertly tied together main narrative with the past, creating a richer overall story.  I also felt that the narrative did an excellent job of introducing each of the characters while also highlighting the differences between their modern appearances and their former lives as students.  I did think that the main story was a little rushed and could have potentially used a little more plot in between the protagonists’ reunion and their arrival at the antagonists’ island.  Still, this did not impact my enjoyment of the movie too much, and the last third of the film is so damn epic and emotionally charged that you forget about this slight misstep of pacing.  All of this wraps up with a memorable and interesting ultimate conclusion, which will leave you wondering about what, if anything, is going to happen next.

Thanks to the standalone nature of this movie, potential viewers do not need to have watched any prior DC animated features to enjoy Soul of the Dragon, and indeed minimal knowledge of the various characters and comic elements is needed to follow along, as the narrative provides a fantastic and detailed introduction to all the relevant parts of the plot.  All of this makes for an epic and just plain awesome story that honours some classic DC characters and comics while also introducing them to a new generation of DC fans with this fantastic adventure.

In addition to the first-rate story, I was also impressed with how well this cool movie was put together.  It contains some outstanding animation, especially when it comes to the impressively exciting action scenes, with a particularly well-put-together car chase halfway through the film being an amazing example.  This proves to be a very action-heavy film, with a huge number of fluid combat sequences that perfectly captures the skill of the combatants and which successfully translates the style of the original martial arts comic.  Parents should be warned that this is not an animated feature for younger children, thanks to some of its over-the-top content, but everyone else is going to love seeing all the exciting fast-paced scenes unfold.  I particularly liked how this animated movie had such a distinctive and entertaining style to it, which really enhanced my enjoyment of the film.  As the story is set in to the 1970s, the creators attempted to replicate the feel and tone of the era in a number of different ways, such as the technology, locations and the animated appearances of the characters.  The creative team also made sure to include a ton of appropriate slang (you haven’t seen anything till you’ve seen Batman say: “Let’s get it on”) and an excellent instrumental musical score that is not only very 70s in its sound but which perfectly fits the movie’s distinctive narrative and tone.  Soul of the Dragon draws a lot of inspiration from classic kung fu films, especially those featuring Bruce Lee, and you can really feel the creators’ love of the genre with all the little details they chuck in.  There are also a number of fantastic allusions to classic James Bond films, including several very familiar musical themes, some entertaining lines from certain characters and even a dangerous car chase with a gadget-laden car that ends with a vehicle getting whisked away on an electromagnet attached to a helicopter (a very fun call-back to You Only Live Twice).  I absolutely loved how well this film came together, and all the exceptional animation and clever tonal shifts combine perfectly with the great story to produce an enthralling and memorable viewing experience.

In addition to have an amazing and entertaining narrative, Soul of the Dragon is backed up by a fantastic roster of characters from across the DC Comics canon, voiced by an exceptional and talented collection of actors.  While this movie contains several great supporting characters, the story is mostly set around Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner, each of whom are heavily featured in both the main narrative and the flashbacks.  While all four of these main characters are great in their own right, a lot of their appeal lies in fantastic connection they have with each other and with their master, O-Sensei.  These great protagonists have an excellent rapport, and it proved to be really great to see them interact with each other throughout the film.

The lead of the film is probably Batman, who is voiced by David Giuntoli of Grimm fame, who provides a fantastic take on the character with his voice work.  I liked how there were two versions of Batman: the vigilante who featured in the main story and the younger student in Nanda Parbat.  This proved to be an interesting portrayal of this iconic character, as the writers attempt to explore Bruce’s determination, even as a young man, to do the impossible and fight evil no matter the cost.  It was also great to see him evolve from the student in the flashbacks to the vigilante in the main story, and there are some fun scenes that showcase him becoming a more focused and terrifying fighter when he puts on the mask.

While Soul of the Dragon is nominally a Batman movie, Bruce is somewhat overshadowed by some of the other main protagonists.  This is no fault of the character’s portrayal or characterisation; it is just because the other protagonists are just a little more exciting and enjoyable.  Part of the reason why this is the case is that Batman is the least skilled martial artist in what is essentially a kung fu movie, as it is established that his fellow students are better fighters than him (this is true in both the film and in the comics).  While this does mean that some of the other characters’ action sequences are a little more visually impressive, you instead get to see Batman fight in different ways.  There is a great focus on how Batman utilises trickery and fear to supplement his weaker fighting abilities, and there are some excellent scenes around this, including a key one towards the end of the film where he uses a combination of his gadgets, cunning, and even his own cape to defeat a superior foe.  I did think that the version of the character was a bit blasé about keeping his identity secret with his friends, and he didn’t seemed as opposed to people using lethal force as you would expect, but this was an outstanding take on Batman and I really enjoyed his appearance in this film.

One major character who was a true highlight of this movie was Richard Dragon, an iconic character who is widely regarded as one of the best fighters in the DC canon.  Despite his popularity in DC’s martial arts comics, this is the character’s first appearance outside of the comics (the Richard Dragon featured in Arrow is a different character altogether) and he voiced by The Chairman himself, Mark Dacascos.  Depicted as Asian in the film (the comic character is traditionally a red-haired Caucasian), this character looks a lot like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and is portrayed as an international super spy.  Despite this being a Batman film, in many ways Richard is just as much the main character of this movie, with much of the story revolving around him.  Richard grabs focus right from the start, where he engages in some amusing spy antics, which include outwitting a James Bond-esque character in a fancy casino, effortlessly and stylishly fighting off some goons, and parachuting onto a boat filled with beautiful women (a scene very reminiscent of The Living Daylights, Bond music included), before identifying himself as “Dragon, Richard Dragon”.  Each of Dragon’s subsequent scenes are really fantastic, from the fluid and exceptional action sequences to the fun interactions he has with other characters, including an entertaining scene with a pompous bouncer.  Dacascos does an exceptional job voicing this character and he provides Richard with a confident, intelligent and generally calm air that proves to be extremely easy to enjoy, while also including some vulnerability in several amazing scenes.  All of this helps to produce an exceptional character and I am extremely glad that the introduction of Richard Dragon to a wider media went so well.

The next major character in the movie is the dangerous and delightful Shiva, who was voiced by the talented Kelly Hu.  Lady Shiva, as she is better known, is one of the deadliest assassins and martial artists in the DC canon.  I felt the creative team did an outstanding job showcasing Shiva in Soul of the Dragon, as she is portrayed as a merciless killing machine and living weapon able to destroy her opponents with minimal effort and nothing but her bare hands.  The character has some of the most brutal combat sequences, which were not only beautifully animated but which proved to be extremely entertaining to watch.  I felt that Shiva went through some fantastic character development throughout the film as she transforms from a dedicated student to a ruthless crime lord who even Batman is afraid to deal with: “I’m working up to it…”  I also really loved the choice of voice actor for this character as Kelly Hu does a sensational job bringing Shiva to life.  Hu, who is known for her comic book roles in both animation (as Cheshire in Young Justice and Karai in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and live action (as Lady Deathstrike in X-Men 2 and China White in Arrow), has previously voiced Lady Shiva in the Batman: Arkham Origins video game, and it was great to see her return to this fantastic character.  She gives this version of Shiva a particularly deadly air; you can tell with every sentence just how confident she is in her own ability and lethal potential.  Not only does Shiva have some of the best fight scenes in the movie but she also has some of the best lines, such as when she chooses her opponent in one of the big boss fights: “I’ll take the girl, her look offends me!”  I also absolutely loved one scene which saw the voice of Karai from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles face off against three green-clad ninjas respectfully wielding sai, nunchaku and a bo staff.  The character’s casual comment of “You know how to use those?” followed by her effortlessly taking all three out was just perfect and it has me laughing pretty heavily.  I think that Shiva was probably my favourite character in the entire movie and I am really impressed with how she was written and portrayed.

The final member of the main four characters is Ben Turner, the angry and dangerous African-American fighter better known as Bronze Tiger.  Bronze Tiger is a major martial artist in the DC canon who is probably best known for his run in the Suicide Squad comics.  Bronze Tiger is voiced by Michael Jai White, who recently portrayed the live-action version of the character in Arrow.  I really liked Bronze Tiger throughout Soul of the Dragon, as the film captures a lot of his essence from his original comic appearances and subsequently turn him into a fantastic character in this movie.  Part of the reason why is that he goes through the most development out of all the main characters, especially as several flashbacks bridge the gap between his student days and his current character, showing several pivotal events in his life.  I absolutely loved his look in this movie, as they made the decision to model him on African-American actor and martial artist, Jim Kelly, with some elements of other 70s African-American characters like Shaft and Luke Cage thrown in.  There is a particularly fun joke around this character when Richard misremembers the character’s codename as Black Samurai, a reference to the Jim Kelly movie of the same name, and the subsequent approval of the team at his actual codename of Bronze Tiger was very entertaining.  White does some excellent voice work for Bronze Tiger in this film and he successfully showcases the character’s intense anger at the start of the story before evolving it into a more zen-like persona towards the end.  I would say that Bronze Tiger was a little overshadowed by the three other protagonists, but he was still a great addition to the movie and is a fun character to follow.

Aside from the main four characters, there is a particular focus on the mentor character of O-Sensei, who is voiced in this film by the legendary James Hong.  O-Sensei is a fantastic character with an intriguing history in DC Comics, being a major figure in the lives of Richard Dragon, Shiva and Bronze Tiger.  This is actually O-Sensei’s first named appearance outside of the comics, and he proves to be a fantastic and fun addition to the movie’s narrative.  Hong portrays the character as a wise but humorous kung fu master, offering deep insights and amusing jokes in equal measure to the younger characters, while also forming them into a close family.  O-Sensei proves to be an extremely likeable character, with some deep and powerful moments that ensure that the viewer appreciates and enjoys him.  I particularly loved Hong’s voice work throughout the movie and I felt that he really dived into the character and made him stand out, especially in some later scenes in the movie where there are some intriguing twists around him.  An overall outstanding and exceptional part of the cast, I am extremely glad they got Hong for this movie.

No comic book movie will be complete without some villains, and to my mind this is where Soul of the Dragon falls a little flat.  The antagonists of this film are the members of the Cult of the Kobra (essentially DC’s version of Hydra, both of which were created by Jack Kirby).  Kobra are led by their prophet, Jeffrey Burr (voiced by Josh Keaton), backed up by his henchmen Schlangenfaust (Robin Atkin Downes), Lady Eve (Grey Griffin) and King Snake (Patrick Seitz).  While all of these characters are voiced perfectly and have some cool moments throughout the movie, such as Burr’s creepy introduction, his belief in his prophesised destiny and Schlangenfaust’s hidden abilities, I honestly found each of these villains to be a little underwhelming.  None of them (with the possible exception of Schlangenfaust) really stood out to me and they were all very generic sort of villains to the story.  That being said, Soul of the Dragon did feature two hidden antagonists at different points of film who add some major twists to the tale.  Both of these villains were rather good and moved the story along in some intriguing and entertaining directions.  I particularly loved the appearance of one antagonistic character towards the end of the movie, and while his appearance was slightly predictable, it proved to be a major highlight of the film, resulting in some outstanding scenes.  As a result, it was rather easy for me to forgive some of the downsides of the Kobra villains as the overall antagonists of this film turned out to be extremely good.

Overall, I think that Batman: Soul of the Dragon was an exceptional animated film that was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.  Thanks to its combination of an epic story, captivating and well-written characters and a tone that is a fun nod to classic and campy kung fu movies, this movie gets a full five stars from me.  This is definitely a movie I will watch multiple times in the future, and it comes highly recommended.  I very much looking forward to seeing the next entries in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range (there is a Justice Society movie and an adaption of Batman: The Long Halloween coming out later this year), and I will have to have a go at reviewing them when they come out.

Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing by John Jackson Miller

Die Standing Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 14 July 2020)

Series: Star Trek: Discovery

Length: 12 hours and 15 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of media tie-in fiction, John Jackson Miller, returns with his second Star Trek: Discovery novel, Die Standing, an awesome and captivating read that follows the adventures of an excellent protagonist, the evil version of Michelle Yeoh’s Philippa Georgiou.

After the dramatic conclusion of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, Emperor Philippa Georgiou, former ruler of the Terran Empire, a power-hungry and xenophobic human interstellar empire from a twisted alternate universe, has been stranded in the main Federation’s universe.  Biding her time while trapped on the Klingon home planet of Qo’noS, Georgiou is finally given a the opportunity she has been waiting for when Starfleet’s covert spy organisation, Section 31, offers her a chance to work as one of their agents.  However, Georgiou is far more interested in gaining her freedom and plotting to use Section 31’s resources to flee beyond Starfleet’s control.

Georgiou’s plans change when she receives news about a mysterious attack on one of Starfleet’s military vessels by a malicious and dangerous cosmic entity, one that her counterpart in this universe may have seen years before.  Intrigued by the description of the attack, Georgiou decides to remain with Section 31, especially as it bears a striking similarity to a powerful superweapon that was kept from her when she was Emperor.

Determined to use this weapon to regain her stolen power and take control of this weaker universe, Georgiou accepts Section 31’s proposal to travel to an isolated section of space where the creature was first witnessed.  Travelling with two mismatched minders who are already well out of their depth, Georgiou attempts to contact an old flame of this universe’s Georgiou, one who has a lot of influence in this quadrant of space.  Forced to conduct a subtle investigation amongst the secretive alien races of the sector, Georgiou and her companions follow the clues that will lead them to the entities they seek.  But what will happen when the former Terran Emperor has ultimate power within her grasp?  Will she ensure the safety of the Federation she despises, or will another universe bow before her might?

This was a fun and impressive new novel from bestselling author John Jackson Miller.  Miller is an interesting author who has a lot of experience writing tie-in stories, having previously written several pieces of Star Wars fiction as well as some notable Star Trek novels.  I have not previously read anything from Miller before, although I think that will have to change due to how much I enjoyed Die Standing.  Miller has written a couple of books that have been on my radar for a bit, including a previous Star Trek: Discovery novel, The Enterprise War, and the Star Wars: A New Dawn novel, which ties into the Star Wars: Rebels animated show.  This latest novel from Miller is an exceptional read, as he has come up with a wildly entertaining and clever novel based around the excellent character of Philippa Georgiou.  Backed up with an extremely compelling story, some interesting side characters and some wonderful universe-building, this is one of the better if not the best Star Trek novels of 2020, and ended up being an awesome read.

At the heart of this fantastic novel is a captivating and intense narrative that sees the protagonist and her companions venture into an unknown area of space in search of a creature with deadly potential.  This was an extremely clever and well-written character-driven story that features an excellent Star Trek narrative, filled with all manner of espionage, betrayal and war.  I really liked the way that the author blended together familiar Star Trek elements with a thrilling espionage narrative, especially one that was centred on a morally ambiguous protagonist who plans to betray everyone she encounters.  This makes for a number of great scenes, and I really liked the fascinating and clever places that the story went.  There are a number of particularly good twists featured throughout the book, and while I was able to predict where some parts of the story were going to go, I found myself pleasantly surprised and intrigued at some of the other reveals.  I also enjoyed the way in which Miller worked in some compelling comparisons between the two mirror universe, one mostly good and the other mostly evil, and it served as a clever and distinctive part of the book, especially as Miller does a lot with only one scene set in the Terran universe.  All of this makes for an exciting and powerful story that readers are going to have a wonderful time reading.  I really enjoyed the dark, thrilling and twist laden narrative and it honestly did not take me long to become hopeless addicted to this incredible Star Trek novel.

Die Standing is one of those tie-in novels that require some prior knowledge of its associated content to fully enjoy.  In this case, readers really do need to have a good understanding of the Star Trek: Discovery television show, as much of the story is derived from key events in the first and second seasons.  In particular, knowing the full tale around the character of Philippa Georgiou (both versions) is quite essential to fully appreciate the book’s story elements and character work.  At the very least, having some general knowledge of the Star Trek universe and the events of some of the shows would be useful, especially as the book is fairly dependent on some established story elements, such as the evil alternate universe.  That being said, Miller does do a really good job making this novel accessible to those readers whose knowledge of the genre might be lacking, and many of the key elements are explained in sufficient detail to follow the story and enjoy it.  However, this is definitely a novel most suitable for established Star Trek fans, especially as the author loads it up with a ton of fun or clever references to Star Trek: Discovery and some of the other television shows.  For example, this novel features the great inclusion of a younger version of the Dax symbiont (see more below), and I personally really liked how a major part of the book’s plot revolved around a key moment from Captain Kirk’s backstory (from The Original Series episode Obsession), not only showing the event from a different perspective, but also adding in some explanation for its origins and the reaction from Starfleet.  Die Standing also serves as a rather good bridge between the first and second seasons of Star Trek: Discovery, and it does an excellent job setting up the main character for her reintroduction to the show.

While this book did have an exceptionally captivating story and some cool Star Trek elements, the absolute highlight of this book has to be its wonderful protagonist (and occasional antagonist), the evil Terran version of Philippa Georgiou.  Die Standing features Georgiou in all her evil glory and she quickly makes an impression of the reader, especially after one particularly brutal and entertaining prison break sequence at the start of the book.  Pretty much every scene that features Georgiou is highly entertaining, and the snarky, arrogant personality she displays to anyone she meets proves to be spot on to how she is portrayed in the television show.  While I really enjoyed this character in Star Trek: Discovery (she is easily one of the best parts of the show) I personally felt that Miller actually helped to make Georgiou an even more compelling character throughout the course of this book.  The author really dives down into her personality and motives, showing just how twisted and self-serving she can be while also reflecting on all the things she has lost and the changes she is forced to deal with.  Georgiou goes through some fascinating self-examinations in Die Standing, especially when she is confronted with the legacy of her dead counterpart in this universe, and this serves as a fantastic emotional centre of the book.  The author’s impressive use of this fantastic character works extremely well, and it certainly helps Die Standing stand out from some of the other Star Trek novels of 2020.

Die Standing also features an excellent cast of side characters who add a lot to the story.  There are two characters who particularly stand out, Emony Dax and Sean Finnigan, who both serve as alternate protagonists, with significant parts of the book told from their perspective.  While Dax and Finnigan are nowhere near as dynamic as Georgiou, they are both distinctive in their own ways, and Miller does a good job at making them both likeable and compelling parts of Die Standing.  Emony is a young Trill gymnast who is the third host of the Dax symbiont.  This makes her an earlier incarnation of the Dax character who appeared in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine television in two different guises (Jadzia Dax and Ezri Dax).  Thanks to her youth, both as a symbiont and a host, this version of Dax is a little more unsure and scared then her later counterparts, but is determined thanks to the terrible things she witnesses at the start of the book.  While she is initially extremely cowed by Georgiou’s overwhelming personality, Dax grows throughout the book and is eventually able to influence Georgiou.  Deep Space Nine fans will no doubt enjoy seeing this earlier version of Dax, and I rather appreciated the excellent character growth she experienced.  The other main character, Sean Finnigan, is definitely one of the more entertaining characters in this book.  Finnigan is an unashamedly Irish character who serves as the book’s comic relief.  A wild and unruly former Star Fleet officer, Finnigan is drafted into the mission due to an interesting connection he has to Georgiou, as a murderous, brainwashed version of himself served as the Emperor’s assassin in the mirror universe.  While Finnigan is a mostly entertaining character, joking, drinking and socialising with all everyone he meets, there are some deeper elements to his character, especially as he spends a good part of the book trying to balance his real personality with the more insane version of himself that Georgiou tries to bring out.  Dax and Finnigan form a compelling team with Georgiou, and they ended up being an extremely good trio the anchor the story around.

I also quite enjoyed the intriguing Star Trek universe-building that Miller featured throughout Die Standing.  A key part of this book’s story is set within an isolated section of space that is home to three distinctive alien races who are attempting to stay separate from the Federation.  All of these species are quite intriguing and inventive, and include a race of giant living spindles, an intensely warlike species of living tanks and a group of gaseous psychics.  Miller does an exceptional job exploring each of the three new alien species throughout the course of the book and giving them each unique characteristics, histories, and personalities.  Not only are these aliens quite fascinating in their own right but each of their specific traits plays into the overall story extremely well, with some fantastic twists tied into them.  In addition, Miller also spends time exploring some of the differences between the main Star Trek universe and the mirror universe that contained the Terran Empire.  Not only is there an excellent opening sequence set in this mirror universe that showcases the brutal nature of this alternate reality, but there are a number of fantastic discussions that examine how different these universes could be.  Miller ensures that the protagonist Georgiou spends a good amount of time recounting some of the horrifying details of her universe to her companions (mostly to unnerve them), and it proves quite entertaining to hear all of her various stories, especially as most are apparently not exaggerated.  I also loved the fun way that Miller altered famous historical quotes to show how different the universes could be, with a number of classic lines twisted into something far more brutal and cynical, such as “Let them eat field rations” from General Antoinette.  The book itself is also broken up into five separate sections, based upon the Terran stages of grief (for coping with a loss of status): defiance, murder, plundering, destruction and vengeance, with each sections starting up with a quote from the Terran universe that describe its history.  Needless to say that Star Trek fans are going to love the cool additions that Miller works into the expanded universe in this novel, and I personally had a wonderful time seeing all the inventive and entertaining things that the author could come up with.

Like most of the Star Trek books I have had read in the past, I chose to check out Die Standing’s audiobook format.  This was, as always, an excellent way to enjoy this clever Star Trek novel, and I had a wonderful time listening to the story unfold.  Die Standing has a run time of 12 hours and 15 minutes, which is actually the longest Star Trek audiobook that I have so far listened to, but I was still able to breeze through it in relatively short order once I got hooked on the story.  In order to tell this amazing book, Die Standing makes use of the vocal talents of narrator January LaVoy.  This is the first audiobook I have heard narrated by LaVoy, although she did voice a minor character in Star Wars: Dooku: Jedi Lost.  She has also served as narrator for several books I have physically read, such as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire, Star Wars: Last Shot and The Night Swim, and she has also narrated a couple of books I am hoping to checking out in the future, including Star Wars: Phasma.  I have to admit that I was initially a little thrown to have LaVoy as narrator, as this was the first Star Trek audiobook I have listened to that was not narrated by Robert Petkoff.  However, it makes a lot more sense to feature LaVoy as narrator due to the female lead, and I really enjoyed listening to her narration of this book.  LaVoy did an incredible job bringing the characters to life throughout Die Standing and she ascribed some very apt and distinctive voices to each of them.  I was particularly impressed with the fantastic voice she utilised for Philippa Georgiou, and I felt it was very similar to how the character was portrayed in the television show.  LaVoy makes sure to channel all of Georgiou’s scorn and sarcasm to the reader, and it was an absolute treat to listen to her villainous rants throughout the book.  I also quite enjoyed the voice that LaVoy utilised for Sean Finnigan, Irish accent included, and it helped to enhance him as a fun and entertaining character.  All of this leads to quite an exceptional Star Trek audiobook and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Die Standing.

Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing is an amazing and impressive Star Trek novel from John Jackson Miller that was an absolute joy to read.  Miller has crafted together a captivating and clever narrative for this book that follows several excellent protagonists on a high-stakes adventure through all manner of intrigue and betrayal.  Featuring some compelling story elements, fantastic world-building and an awesome evil protagonist, Die Standing was an exceptional novel and it ended up being one of my favourite Star Trek novels I have so far had the pleasure to read.  A highly recommend piece of tie-in fiction, fans of the Star Trek: Discovery television show really need to check this fantastic book as soon as possible.

Star Trek: Agents of Influence by Dayton Ward

Agents of Influence Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 9 June 2020)

Series: Star Trek: The Original Series

Length: 11 hours and 41 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the leading figures in the Star Trek expanded universe, Dayton Ward, returns with another exciting and compelling novel about the Enterprise, Star Trek: Agents of Influence.

For years, the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire have been engaged in a dangerous cold war, with each side trying to gain an advantage over the other through any means necessary.  Starfleet Intelligence has launched an ambitious secret plan to infiltrate the Klingons with surgically altered spies.  Thanks to radical surgery, advanced technology and intensive cultural and linguistic training, these undercover agents have managed to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Klingon government, obtaining some of the most sensitive intelligence about Klingon technology, military plans and political ploys.

However, Starfleet’s three most highly placed agents have somehow been discovered.  With their cover blown, the agents manage a daring escape from the Klingon home world and engage their emergency extraction procedure.  The agents successfully make their rendezvous with the USS Endeavour at the edge of Klingon space before everything goes terribly wrong.  A Klingon warship suddenly engages them in combat while mysterious energy fluctuations ensure that both ships are destroyed.

With hostilities between the Federation and the Klingons building, Starfleet dispatches Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise to the crash site in the hope of salvaging the situation.  Forced to comb through some of the most dangerous territory in the entire galaxy, Kirk hopes to find the remnants of the Endeavour and any survivors of their crash.  However, mysterious events are occurring within the border zone and the Enterprise soon encounters unnatural conditions, pirates, Klingon warships and a top-secret weapons experiment.  Kirk and his crew must navigate through all these dangers carefully if they are to avoid another destructive war.  However, it soon becomes clear that Starfleet are not the only ones with highly placed spies and Kirk must find a way to uncover an enemy agent if his crew are to survive.

Dayton Ward is a veteran science fiction author who is easily best known for his work on the Star Trek expanded universe.  Ward has written a significant number of Star Trek novels over the years, which tie-in to several of the different Star Trek television series and movies.  I have so far only read one of his books before, Star Trek: The Next Generation novel, Available Light, which I really enjoyed.  This new novel from Ward, Agents of Influence, is a brilliant standalone novel that follows the Enterprise during the period that Star Trek: The Original Series was set.

One of the things that I really like with Star Trek extended fiction is the amazing range of different stories that the authors can produce within the expanded universe.  Agents of Influence is a really good example of this, as Ward has come up with an excellent story that highlights a very interesting aspect of life in this universe: espionage between the various alien races.  This proves to be a really cool plot basis which the author utilises to his full advantage by producing an exciting and action-packed narrative.  This is a fast-paced book that sees the various characters involved in all manner of danger and intrigue as they attempt to extract the spies and thwart the efforts of their Klingon opponents.  There are several excellent action sequences designed to get the blood pumping, including a couple of fights between starships and one particularly cool pitched battle between two large opposing forces in spacesuits in the bowels of an asteroid.  There is also a really compelling storyline that sees the protagonists attempt to locate a spy aboard their ship, with a number of potential suspects adding in intrigue and drama as a result.  The author makes effective use of multiple narrators to tell his story and this ensures that the reader gets to see every side of this exciting and enjoyable narrative, including from several antagonist characters.  This helps to really pump up the intrigue and action, and I really appreciated seeing the different sides of the conflict, especially as you get to see rival plans go up against each other.  The various character perspectives also helps to build up all the major side characters present throughout the book, allowing the readers to get a good idea of who they are and what their stakes in the plot are.  All of this comes together into an exciting and compelling overall read that is very easy to enjoy.

Agents of Influence was also excellent piece of Star Trek fiction, set during the events of Star Trek: The Original Series.  Ward once again does an incredible job capturing the tone and feel of the original Star Trek television series into this book and it actually felt like I was watching an episode of the original show.  The author is really talented at bringing iconic Star Trek characters to life in his novel and each of The Original Series characters featured in this book gets their chance to shine throughout the narrative.  Like most novels that tie in to a particular media franchise, Agents of Influence is a book that will mainly appeal to dedicated Star Trek fans, who will appreciate Ward’s latest contributions to the extended universe.  There are a variety of fun references to various episodes of The Original Series, including some of the episodes that featured characters using plastic surgery to alter their appearance and disguise themselves as members of other species, such as the iconic episode The Trouble with Tribbles.  Ward also makes several references to some of the other novels in the Star Trek expanded universe, especially those featured in the Star Trek: Vanguard series of books.  This includes the USS Endeavour and its crew, who previously appeared in these novels, with some of their previous adventures and their interactions with the Enterprise explored throughout the course of the book.  However, all of these references are really well explained to the reader and even people who have less familiarity with Star Trek and some of the expanded fiction should still be able to enjoy this novel without any issues.

I ended up checking out the audiobook version of Agents of Influence, which turned out to be an extremely fun and easy way to enjoy this fantastic book.  The Agents of Influence audiobook has a run time of nearly 12 hours and is narrated by Robert Petkoff.  This is a fairly typical length for a Star Trek audiobook, and I found that I was able to power through this one’s intriguing narrative in rather short order while getting a feel for the plot and the characters.  One of the main reasons for this is the exceptional narration provided by Robert Petkoff, who is easily the most prominent narrator of Star Trek fiction.  Petkoff is an amazingly skilled narrator whose work I have really appreciated in a range of previous Star Trek audiobooks, including The Unsettling Stars, Picard: The Last Best Hope, The Captain’s Oath and The Antares Maelstrom.  Petkoff has the amazing ability to replicate the voices of the various cast members of The Original Series (as well as the cast members from The Next Generation), and this is on full display in the Agents of Influence audiobook.  Petkoff once again did an outstanding job bringing all the key Enterprise crew members to life, and at times you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between some of the voices he did and the original crew.  This, combined with the amazing species specific voices that Petkoff produces, really helps to bring the reader into the story, and I had an awesome time listening to the story unfold.

Star Trek: Agents of Influence is a compelling and clever standalone Star Trek tie-in novel that takes the reader on a bold new adventure back with the cast of The Original Series.  Dayton Ward has produced a slick and enjoyable Star Trek novel chock full of action, intrigue and references, that I had an amazing time listening to.  A highly recommend read for those fans of the Star Trek franchise which will also appeal to more casual viewers and science fiction readers.

Execution by S. J. Parris

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 24 July 2020)

Series: Giordano Bruno – Book Six

Length: 484 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Conspiracy, betrayal and treason.  The heretic monk Giordano Bruno returns for another outstanding and exciting historical murder mystery with Execution, the latest impressive release from S. J. Parris.

England, 1586.  Queen Elizabeth I rules England as a protestant queen, but not everyone is enamoured with her rule.  Many people throughout the world, including the hidden Catholic population of England, wish her gone and replaced by her cousin, the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.  Into this hotbed of English conspiracy and treason returns Giordano Bruno, former monk turned heretic and occasional spy for Elizabeth.

Bruno has obtained troubling information about a potential conspiracy and travels to London to deliver it to the Queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.  His information confirms that a group of Catholic Englishmen are planning to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and liberate Mary.  However, rather than being shocked by the news, Walsingham reveals that he is aware of the plot and is hoping to use it to obtain proof of Mary’s treason, allowing for the removal of the greatest threat to Elizabeth’s rule.

Brought into this piece of espionage, Bruno is tasked with infiltrating the conspirators under the guise of a Spanish agent and ensuring that their attempted plot proceeds the way Walsingham desires.  However, Bruno’s mission becomes complicated when another one of Walsingham’s agents, a young woman, is brutally murdered, apparently due to her connection to the conspirators.  Was the victim’s murder related to the assassination plot that Bruno now finds himself in the middle of or are more sinister forces at play?  Can Bruno solve the murder before his cover is blown and will his actions save Queen Elizabeth from the assassin’s blade?  Either way, a queen will die!

Now this was an extremely enjoyable and incredible piece of historical murder mystery fiction.  Execution is the sixth novel in the awesome Giordano Bruno series which is written by S. J. Parris, the pseudonym of Stephanie Merritt.  This fantastic series follows the adventures of the titular Giordano Bruno, a real-life Italian monk, academic and heretical thinker, who roamed around Europe during this period and who did act as a spy for the English under the employ of Walsingham.  I have been a major fan of Parris’s series for a while now and I have really enjoyed several of the preceding novels in the series which deal with some fascinating and compelling conspiracies and murders that Bruno finds himself involved with.  As a result, I have been looking forward to this new novel for a while and I knew that I would have an awesome time reading Execution when it came out.

It turns out that my patience was well worth it as Execution proved to be an incredible novel that presented the reader with an exceedingly compelling and addictive historical murder mystery/thriller.  The story follows Bruno as he not only infiltrates a group of conspirators but also investigates the murder of a young woman.  These separate story points are strongly linked and Bruno’s success as a spy is tied into the result of the murder investigation, as the murderer may have the ability to blow Bruno’s cover or reveal to the conspirator.  I absolutely loved the resultant story as Parris produced a complex tale of betrayal, double dealing, espionage, political intrigue and murder.  Parris ensures that there are a huge number of twists and surprise reveals throughout the course of the book, and the eventual conclusion of the story is very well established and extremely compelling.  This all results in a powerful and thrilling narrative that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat as the protagonist is drawn deeper into the conspiracy and gets closer to revealing the villain’s true identity.  I loved the final reveal about the overall antagonist and their motivations, as it was both excellently foreshadowed and hard to predict with the story having the potential to go in several other intriguing directions.  This was a truly amazing story and I had a wonderful time working my way through it in order to see how it turned out.

I was also really impressed with the historical setting that Parris utilised for her story: Elizabethan London on edge as the plots to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne come to fruition.  I felt that the author did a fantastic job bringing this historical and dangerous version of London to life, and the protagonist ends up exploring several key areas of the city.  This included the notorious entertainment area of Southwark, which proved to be a significant area for the story and which is shown in all its sleazy glory.  I also liked how Parris was able to cleverly work her mystery and espionage story around a historical and well-documented plot to assassinate the Queen.  The author comes up with some great ways for the events of the real conspiracy to impact on the overall story while also doing a fantastic job of examining key elements of the plot, such as who the key players were, what they were up to and how Sir Francis Walsingham had spies in their midst the entire time.  I felt that Parris’s narrative synced up perfectly with this real-life conspiracy and I liked seeing the various interactions between Bruno and the various historical figures that he encounters, including Walsingham, his spies and the various conspirators.  This fantastic attention to historical detail really helped to make Execution a first-rate story and I look forward to seeing which events or conspiracies Parris bases her next Giordano Bruno novel around.

Perhaps it is because it has been a few years since the previous entry in the Giordano Bruno series, but I was particularly happy to read Bruno’s point of view.  Bruno is an excellent protagonist whose fictional adventures are only slightly more unrealistic then his chaotic real life.  The author once again does a great job exploring Bruno’s unique life experiences, including by expanding on his view on Catholicism and religion, as well as his unique obsession with the art of memory and other philosophical practices.  Parris has so far cleverly worked the series around the events of Bruno’s life, including his time in England, and this novel ties into Bruno’s work as an agent for Walsingham.  I liked the author’s portrayal of the character as a reluctant spy and misunderstood intellectual, and it was great to see his attempts to go undercover and infiltrate a band of fanatical Catholics, especially thanks to his own lapsed views on religion.  The story makes a number of references to Bruno’s past adventures and also reintroduces several friends and antagonists from the prior novels.  Despite this, you do not really need to have read any of Parris’s previous Giordano Bruno novels as the author makes Execution extremely accessible, with the reader receiving all the relevant details about the referenced adventures or characters.  It was, however, great to see these existing story elements continue throughout Execution, including the return of Bruno’s slippery and mysterious love interest, Sophia, and I cannot wait to see more of this character in the future.  Bruno has a lot of very interesting life events coming up in his future, so this serious has a lot of potential to continue in the future, something for which I am really grateful for.

Overall, Execution by S. J. Parris was an outstanding and captivating novel that serves as a fantastic sixth entry in the amazing Giordano Bruno series.  This novel contains an intelligent and truly addictive historical mystery narrative that works a compelling murder mystery into the chaotic politics and insidious conspiracies of the era.  This book is worth checking out as once you start trying to unwrap Execution’s intriguing mystery you won’t be able to stop reading it until the very end.  A highly recommended read, I really hope that the next Giordano Bruno novel comes out soon.

Last Survivor by Tony Park

Last Survivor Cover

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

Series: Sonja Kurtz – Book Four

Length: 401 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Survivor Back Cover

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 8 August 2019)

Series: The Last War – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Honour, loyalty, service and death! I finally get around to checking out one of last year’s hottest fantasy debuts with this review of We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle.

Generations ago, the nation of Jia was protected by powerful mages who wielded amazing magic that could shape the world around it. But when the magic faded, the people turned to the Shulka, their revered warrior caste, who held back the barbaric northern Egril tribes with their tactics, superior weapons and skills in combat. For hundreds of years the Shulka have successfully defeated the Egril raids, but their many victories have led to complacency.

During the latest raiding season, the Shulka are surprised when an organised and well-armed force marches upon them. Supported by demons and magic, the like of which has not been seen in an age, the Egril swiftly defeat the Shulka armies and conquer all of Jia in days. Their conquest is quick and brutal, and few are spared the bloody wrath of the Egril and their monsters. Those who do survive are forced in servitude and must worship the Egril’s terrible god or else suffer the consequences.

Now, six months after the invasion began, the country appears beaten, but there are always some heroes who are ready to fight back. In the capital city, Tinnstra, the disgraced, cowardly daughter of Jia’s greatest Shulka general finds herself drawn into a plot to save the royal family and soon finds the fate of the entire Kingdom resting in her hands. Elsewhere, a crippled Shulka warrior and his wheelchair-bound son attempts to lead an organised rebellion, but he soon finds that his greatest assets may be a young terrorist and a widowed mother who is trying to provide for her son. Can this unusual group of damaged heroes turn the tide against an all-powerful army or is it already too late to save their country from the control of a dark death god?

We Are the Dead is an intricate and impressive dark fantasy debut from talented new author Mike Shackle, which forms the first book in his The Last War series. This fantastic book came out last year, and it was one of the books I most regret not getting a chance to read in 2019, especially after I saw some of the very positive reviews being written about it. I really have been meaning to check this novel out for a while now, so I went out and grabbed the audiobook format of We Are the Dead a few weeks ago and started listening to it. I am extremely glad that I ended up reading this book, as I fell in love with this novel and its compelling character-driven story.

This novel contains an outstanding and exciting narrative that follows five unique and intriguing characters across eight days of rebellion and bloodshed in a conquered nation. We Are the Dead’s story starts off big; after a quick introduction to the world and a couple of the characters, everything soon blows apart as a destructive full-scale invasion occurs. The story than jumps forward six months and explores how the world has changed, and what has happened to the central group of characters. What follows is five intriguing and exciting separate storylines, each told from the perspective of a different character involved in various parts of the first major attempt from the Shulka resistance movement to strike back and restore their country. Each of these five storylines starts off by examining the unique adventures and experiences of that character and showing how they are brought into the latest round of fight. Each of the storylines starts off exclusively focusing on one point-of-view character, but they quickly start to connect as the plot of the book unfolds. All five separate storylines eventually come together exceedingly well into one extremely enjoyable and action-packed narrative that proves hard to put down. I really liked the way that all storylines all joined together, and it was fantastic to see the quicker narrative jumps between the various characters at the end of the book. I also enjoyed how the main story focused on eight days of conflict and adventure, with the various character arcs running concurrently with each other, as this allowed for a tight, powerful narrative. The various characters go through a lot of big and life-changing moments in the span of these eight days and there are some major cliff-hangers and surprising deaths that leave the reader in wild suspense. All of this makes for some great reading, and you will be on the edge of your seat for the entirety of this book.

Shackle chooses to tell his exciting story through the eyes of five separate point-of-view characters, all of whom have their own viewpoint and adventures within We are the Dead. Each of these characters have a fascinating character arcs, especially as most of the characters grow through adversity as they experience the horrors of war and learn the necessities of sacrifice, duty and loyalty.

The character who got the most focus within this novel was Tinnstra, the daughter of a legendary Shulka warrior who has a lot of high expectations weighing on her shoulders. Despite her heritage and her skill with a blade, Tinnstra starts the book dropping out of the Shulka academy, because she is a blatant and obvious coward. Managing to flee from the invasion, Tinnstra attempts to forge a new life for herself in the conquered capital, but eventually finds herself in the midst of the Shulka rebellion, with a particularly important package that could change the course of the war. At the start of this book, I really did not like Tinnstra, mainly because every second sentence in her chapters involved her pathetically doubting herself or calling herself a coward. Thankfully, this led to a rather good storyline about finding one’s courage and stepping up in a big way, and she eventually came across as a real badass with some fantastic and enjoyable chapters towards the end of the book.

Another great character is Jax, a former Shulka general who, after losing his arm during the initial invasion, becomes a determined resistance leader with his wheelchair-bound son. Jax is probably the most consistent protagonist throughout most of the book, serving as a steady and wise figure who is forced to face the reality of failing his country. Jax is an extremely likeable character, which makes it really hard for the reader when he goes through some incredibly dark moments that have the potential to break him.

Next up we have Dren, a teen terrorist who, after witnessing his family dying during the invasion, becomes a rabid killer, brutally attempting to take out any Egrils (or Skulls, as they are known, due to their distinctive helmets), not matter the collateral damage. Dren is a pretty unlikeable kid at the start of the book due to his overwhelming anger towards the Egrils, any Jian who associates with them and the Shulka resistance, who he hates just as much as the Egrils due to the way that they treated the peasants before the invasion and because of their failure in stopping the slaughter. However, as the book progresses, the reader gets more and more invested in Dren’s compelling story, especially when he starts spending time with Jax. Jax is a terrific mentor figure for Dren, who eventually learns the error of his ways and starts to take more responsibility for himself and the band of child terrorists he has recruited.

The final Jian character who the book focuses on is Yas, a single mother who attempts to earn a living working as a maid for the invaders. Yas is recruited as a spy by the Skulka resistance and ends up becoming more and more involved in their plots and schemes. Yas’s storyline is another fantastic arc, and there are some interesting similarities to Tinnstra’s arc, in that she finds her courage to fight back and do what is right. However, Yas’s story is more tied into the love of her family and her son, and how she wants a better world for her child to grow up in.

In addition to Jian characters, Shackle also tells a portion of the book from the perspective of Darus, an Egril Chosen, an officer who has been granted a magical ability by their powerful leader. Darus is a psychotic torturer with severe sister issues, who delights in causing pain and torment and who is determined to win glory and power. Darus’s powers are ironically that of healing, meaning that he is essentially an immortal antagonist who can also heal people that he comes into contact with. He uses this power throughout the book to heal his victims, bringing them back from the brink of death, so that he can torture them again and again in order to break their spirits. As you can probably guess, Darus is a rather reprehensible and unredeemable character, but one who offers an intriguing counterpoint to the protagonists. It is always cool to see something from the villain’s point of view, and I felt that Darus was a perfect antagonist for this dark and twisted novel.

All five of these characters proved to be extremely interesting to follow, and I really liked where all of their arcs went. Shackle does an impressive job making their portrayals and emotions seem realistic, and you can almost feel the fear, anger and hatred that several of the characters exude. I appreciated how none of the protagonists were perfect heroes, and most of them are victims or products of the war and the circumstances they find themselves in. I found it rather interesting to see how the various characters saw each other throughout the course of the story, such as when some of the characters viewed Tinnstra for the first time and mistake her expressions of terror and apprehension for looks of determination and impatience to get towards the enemy. I also have to highlight the raft of cool and likeable side characters featured throughout the course of the story, many of whom steal several scenes from the point-of-view characters. These are a fun collection of side characters, although readers really should not get too attached to them, as they tend to have a rather short lifespan within the course of the book. Overall, We are the Dead contains some excellent and enjoyable characters, and I really appreciated the complicated and captivating storylines that Shackle wove around them.

In addition to the impressive story and excellent characters, Shackle has come up with an awesome new fantasy world for We are the Dead. The entirety of the story is set within the nation of Jia, a cultured land with a proud warrior tradition, which is somewhat reminiscent of feudal Japan. Shackle does a fantastic job of setting up this landscape in the initial couple of chapters, before everything changes thanks to the invasion. The new Jia, six months after the brutal conquest, is a vastly different place, filled with hunger, fear and desperation as the survivors are forced to adapt to their new way of life. Shackle did an amazing job portraying a nation completely under enemy occupation, and I was put in mind of Nazi-occupied France, due to the round up of civilians, the inclusion of collaborators and snitches, retaliations against the populace and the careful resistance movements relying on help from a nation across the sea to survive. The Egrils also proved to be a great antagonistic nation for the plot of this book, and I loved how they were able to fool the conceited Shulka warriors by pretending to be tribal savages for years, before invading with an organised and advanced army, utilising magical and demonic assets to perfection. There were some distinctive Nazi elements to the Egrils, such as the way that they swiftly conquered all of Jia in a few days with Blitzkrieg-like tactics, their absolute devotion to their anointed leader (who is totally going to turn out to be the lost brother of the mage Aasgod, right?), their stormtrooper-like appearance and tactics, as well as the fact that the narrator of the audiobook format gave all the Egril characters a distinctive Germanic accent. All of this proved to be an excellent background for We are the Dead and I loved seeing the story unfold in this recently conquered fantasy nation.

Those readers who like some action in their stories will be extremely satisfied with We are the Dead, as Shackle has loaded his book with all manner of fights, battles and gratuitous violence (the best type of violence). This is an extremely action-packed novel, and I personally enjoyed all the cool fight sequences, from the small-scale battles between trained warriors, the brutal hit-and-run tactics of Dren’s fighters, and several larger fight sequences between opposing forces. Shackle proved to be very adapt at bringing these action sequences to life, and I found myself quite pumped up as a result of reading this book. Readers should be warned however that We are the Dead does feature a number of vivid and disturbing torture sequences, which are made even worse by the fact that the torturer, Darus, can heal his victim and keep inflicting pain, over and over again. As a result, if intense torture scenes make you uncomfortable, then you are probably better off avoiding this book.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to an audiobook version of We are the Dead, rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format has a run time of just over 18 hours, and it is narrated by Nicola Bryant. This is a lengthy audiobook and it took me a little while to get through it. Part of this is because the story is a tad slow at the start of the book, although I did end up absolutely powering through the last six hours extremely quickly in comparison to the first two thirds of the novel. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and I found it to be an incredible way to absorb We are the Dead’s clever and detailed narrative. I was also impressed with Bryant’s narration, as she brought some real passion to the audiobook. You could hear the intense emotions in Bryant’s voice as she narrated the story, and you can tell that she was trying to emulate what the characters were feeling with her narration. Bryant also utilised a fantastic and distinctive set of voices for the various characters featured within the novel, and I think that she had an excellent grasp of their personalities and emotions. This proved to be an exception audiobook, and I would definitely suggest checking out this format of We are the Dead.

We are the Dead is an outstanding and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel from Mike Shackle, who really hit it out of the park with his debut novel. I had an amazing time listening to this book, and I loved the blend of compelling story, fantastic setting, complex characters and intense action sequences. This book comes very highly recommended, and I am regretting not picking up a copy of this book last year. I will not be making the same mistake later this year when Shackle’s sequel book, A Fool’s Hope, comes out in December, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Hitler's Secret Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book Four

Length: 420 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of bestselling author Rory Clements comes another captivating historical spy thriller in Hitler’s Secret, the fourth book in Clements’s excellent Tom Wilde series.

In 1941, Hitler’s Germany is at the height of its power, with England under constant bombardment, Europe under German control and the powerful Nazi army smashing aside all resistance in Soviet Russia. At this point in history, Hitler seems unbeatable, and desperate measures are needed if the Allies are to succeed.

In Cambridge, American expat and history professor Tom Wilde attempts to do his bit for the war effort and becomes an intelligence officer. While America is still officially staying out of the war, an upcoming fight with Germany is inevitable. Wilde finds himself enlisted into a top-secret mission that could change the entire course of the war.

Smuggled into Germany under a false identity, Wilde is tasked with recovering a package and delivering it safely back to England. This package is the key to undermining Hitler’s image and influence, as it reveals a terrible secret about the Führer, one that even Hitler himself was unaware of. Trapped deep behind enemy lines, Wilde must use every trick at his disposal to complete his objective and escape the deadly forces closing in on him. However, the more he learns about his mission, the more he is convinced that this is a secret that needs to stay buried, no matter the cost, and he soon must contend not only with the Nazis but with members of his own intelligence agency.

Wow, now that was a really good historical spy thriller. Clements is a fantastic author, and I have been a fan of his for a while now. Clements started writing back in 2009 with Martyr, the first book in his John Shakespeare series of Elizabethan thrillers. I read a couple of the books in this series, and quite enjoyed the fun stories that they contained, but I really started getting into Clements’s work with the Tom Wilde series. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the first book in this series, Corpus, back in 2017, and I absolutely loved the fantastic story that it contained. I ended up sticking with the story in the following years and I managed to read and review the next two books, Nucleus and Nemesis, both of which were rather good reads. I was very happy when I received my copy of Hitler’s Secret, as I thought that the plot sounded pretty cool. It did not disappoint, as Clements has come up with a fantastic and thrilling new read that might be my favourite Tom Wilde book since Corpus.

At the heart of this book lies a truly great thriller storyline, which sees the protagonist journey into Nazi Germany in order to retrieve a special package while also contending with the interests and machinations of several different groups and nations. This turned out to be a fantastic central story element, and I loved all the action, intrigue and danger that results from this mission. Wilde and his allies end up getting hunted throughout the breadth of German occupied territory by some vile and unrepentant villains, including an insane English expat who is having a fun time living in Nazi Germany (which pretty much tells you just how evil he is). Even when Wilde reaches relative safety, he must contend with being hunted by Nazi agents while also trying to avoid supposedly friendly operatives with whom he has a moral disagreement. I loved the constant hunting and running that resulted from this awesome story concept, and the characters engage in a pretty impressive game of cat and mouse. Clements makes good use of multiple character perspectives to show the various sides of this battle of spies, and it was great to see the hunters and the hunted attempt to outwit each other. It was also interesting to see the perspective of the various antagonists, especially as Clements used these scenes to show how evil they are, ensuring that the reader is determined that they fall. All of this led to an impressive and compelling thriller story that made this book extremely hard to put down.

I have to say that I liked Clements’s choice of MacGuffin for this book, which in this case was the titular secret of Hitler. I won’t go into too much detail about what this is, although the secret is revealed rather early in the story, but I did think that it proved to be a fantastic story element. Not only does Clement use this MacGuffin as an excellent centre to his story, but it was also rather interesting to see what secret the author envisions that could have potentially taken down Hitler. Clements made a unique choice regarding that, coming up with something that could have impacted Hitler’s most fanatical base of support. I thought it was quite a clever story element, and I liked how it allowed the author to come up with a couple of exciting conspiracies with multiple sides involved. I also appreciated the moral implications that the MacGuffin inspired, and it made for some great scenes where Wilde was left to choose between the war effort and what he thought was right.

I also really enjoyed Clements’s choice of setting for this book, as most of the story takes place within Nazi Germany in 1941. Clements has come up with some excellent historical settings for the Tom Wilde series in the past, and I have always liked his central setting of Cambridge in the pre-war period, as it serves as an amazing location for the series’s espionage elements. However, I think that Clements outdid himself by setting Hitler’s Secret in Nazi Germany. This proved to be an incredible and thrilling backdrop to the story, especially as Wilde is forced to navigate vast swathes of the country to get to freedom, contending with patrols, enemy agents who are actively hunting him and even a troop of Hitler Youths. Clements does an amazing job exploring what life would have been like in Germany during this period, showing off the fear and resentment of some of the citizens, the control and surveillance that the Nazis and the Gestapo had over everyone, the brainwashing of German children at school, how the country was locked down and the growing cracks as the invasion of the Soviet Union started to stall and America began entering the war. I also really liked that Clements dived into the complex relationships and rivalries amongst the Nazi high command, especially as part of that rivalry played into the overall story. I particularly appreciated the extensive look at the role of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, who achieved great power in the Nazi regime. Bormann is a little underutilised in historical fiction, so it was fascinating to see him used in this book, and he proved to be a despicable overarching villain for the story. Clements use of Nazi Germany as a setting for Hitler’s Secret was a brilliant move, and I felt that it helped take this story to the next level.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements was an outstanding fourth entry in the author’s thrilling Tom Wilde series. I loved the complex and captivating story that Clements came up with for this book, and he managed to produce an impressive historical thriller. Hitler’s Secret is a highly recommended book, and I had a wonderful and electrifying time reading it.