The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice Cover

Publisher: Viking/Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: The Thursday Murder Club – Book Two

Length: 12 hours and 30 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following on from his epic crime fiction debut last year, writer and television personality Richard Osman presents the second book in his Thursday Murder Club series, The Man Who Died Twice.

Richard Osman is an awesome comedic talent and personality who I have enjoyed for many years on Pointless, Would I Lie to You and other fun British panel shows.  Known for his clever wit and immense height, Osman has a great sense of humour, and I was pretty excited last year when I saw that he had written a crime fiction novel, The Thursday Murder Club, which followed a group of true crime loving retirees who investigated a nearby murder.  While I knew I was likely to have a great time reading The Thursday Murder Club, I was truly blown away and it ended up being one of the best books, audiobooks and debuts I enjoyed in 2020.  Due to this, and the fact that my review for The Thursday Murder Club received a lot of attention this year, I have been really looking forward to reading the sequel for some time and I was very excited when details about The Man Who Died Twice were finally revealed.  This awesome sequel was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021 and it did not disappoint, presenting another clever and impressive character driven mystery.

Welcome back to Coopers Chase, the sprawling aged-care community near the town of Fairhaven, England, where peace and serenity is guaranteed for all its residents, aside from the thrill-seeking members of the Thursday Murder Club, a small group of friends who spend their Thursdays investigating cold cases and gruesome murders.  Made up of the intrepid Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, the Thursday Murder club has already had great success solving the murder of the previous owner of Coopers Chase, and they are now looking for their next batch of excitement.

Their wish appears to be granted when former spy Elizabeth receives a letter from a man she thought was dead, her former colleague and ex-husband, Douglas Middlemiss.  Douglas has recently run afoul of a dangerous English mobster and an international criminal cartel after stealing a bag of valuable diamonds and securing them in a secret hiding place.  Reluctantly put into witness protection by MI5, Douglas is keeping a low profile in Coopers Chase while he plans his escape and new life in retirement.  But when an assassin breaks into his flat and tries to kill him, Douglas turns to Elizabeth for help. 

Rallying the Thursday Murder Club to her side, Elizabeth attempts to figure out which of Douglas’s enemies is trying to take him out and who knew he was hiding at Coopers Chase.  But when tragedy strikes and an unknown enemy appears to have made off with the diamonds, everything seems lost.  But this opponent is unprepared for just how relentless the Thursday Murder Club can be, as Elizabeth and her friends put an ambitious plan in place.  However, this time the Thursday Murder Club aren’t just going after a killer; now they are facing down hardened criminals and assassins with a substantially less compunction about killing senior citizens.  Will the Thursday Murder Club once again solve the unsolvable, or will this be their final case?

Wow, this was amazing novel from Osman that I had an outstanding time getting through.  Featuring another epic and captivating mystery set around a fun group of characters, and featuring Osman’s amazing subtle humour, The Man Who Died Twice was an excellent read that I powered through in a few short days, and which gets another five-star rating from me.

The Man Who Died Twice has an impressive and deeply compelling character driven narrative that follows its various protagonists as they attempt to unravel the compelling case of the twice murdered man and the stolen diamonds.  This second entry in the Thursday Murder Club series can easily be enjoyed as a standalone read, although fans of the first book will no doubt have an amazing time seeing how the various characters continue to progress throughout this second book.  Osman beautifully utilises multiple character perspectives to tell several fantastic stories throughout the book, with the protagonists also involved in several personal battles, as well as attempting to bring down a local crime lord and a vicious young thug.  All of these storylines are chock full of mystery, humour, emotion and personal tragedy, as the protagonists work through the issues and challenges in their own unique ways.  The author balances all the storylines perfectly throughout the novel, eventually producing a clever and very entertaining conclusion.  I loved how the entire narrative came together, and there are some very amusing and compelling moments featured throughout.  Thanks to Osman’s ability to provide a great wrap-up to a story, the readers are left feeling incredibly satisfied and happy, especially after every single twist and bit of character development is revealed.  Combine that with Osman’s subtle sense of humour, mostly relating to the more outrageous situations these unlikely heroes casually wander in and out of, as well as some amusing jokes about being out of touch, and the barrage of references to British pop culture, and you have a very entertaining and addictive story that proves near impossible to put down.

I really enjoyed the central mystery of The Man Who Died Twice as the Thursday Murder Club and their associates are drawn into the case of Elizabeth’s ex-husband, a MI5 agent who has stolen a bunch of diamonds from a crime lord and is now avoiding assassins in the Coopers Chase retirement community.  While the initial hunt is for the location of the hidden diamonds, it soon morphs into another murder when a mysterious killer gets too close to the prize.  This is a very interesting and well-crafted mystery, and I loved how Osman moved away from more traditional murder and into the world of espionage and international crime.  To help solve this crime, the Club are forced to work with MI5 agents and soon find themselves investigating an influential criminal middleman with ties to the Mafia, who are hunting for the diamonds.  However, the nature of the crime also suggests an inside job, and the Club are forced to investigate friends and supposed allies to figure out who is responsible.  I had a great time with this mystery, and I loved the clever misdirection and various suspects that Osman featured throughout the plot.  I was able to pick up one of the twists pretty early in, but the full scope of the conspiracy was a lot more complex than I realised, with some additional unexpected reveals that I didn’t see coming.  I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and entertaining final plan utilised by the protagonists to entrap their opponents, especially when it ends in such a comical and amusing manner.  An overall compelling and fantastic mystery, I cannot wait to see what intriguing case appears in the next book.

You can’t talk about a Thursday Murder Club novel without mentioning the outstanding and loveable characters the story is formed around.  The Man Who Died Twice follows an intriguing and eclectic mix of characters as they find themselves caught up in the events of the latest mystery.  Osman spent a great deal of time in the previous novel introducing these fantastic characters and ensuring that the reader would fall in love with them.  This enjoyment for the characters continues in The Man Who Died Twice, as each character continues to evolve, with some excellent new details revealed about them.  Osman really does a good job of utilising each of these character perspectives in the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which the tone subtly changes for each of the characters.

The main characters of this book are the two female members of the Thursday Murder Club, Elizabeth and Joyce, who have some excellent moments in this latest novel.  The first of these is Elizabeth, the former spy and investigator who is now retired and has formed the Club to keep her mind busy.  Elizabeth gets a lot of attention in this novel as the story focuses on her prior relationship with Douglas, which also examines her career in espionage.  Elizabeth is a great protagonist to follow, mainly because she is bold schemer even now as an old woman.  I always have a fun time seeing her manipulating and outsmarting everyone she comes across, especially now that most of the other characters know her game but still can’t help falling into her webs.  While there is a lot of focus on her abilities and unerring talent for danger and deception, you also get a good look at her somewhat tragic personal life.  Not only is she impacted by the return of Douglas, which raises a lot of memories from her past, but she is also still trying to hold onto her current husband, Stephen, who is suffering from dementia.  I really appreciated the complex storylines around Elizabeth, and I appreciated the way in which Osman did an intriguing dive into her past.

Joyce on the other hand is a pleasant and friendly former nurse who was the last member of the gang to join the Club.  Joyce seems like your typical, well-intentioned older lady, and I am sure that many readers will see a lot of parallels between her and their own parents or grandmothers.  However, Joyce is a brilliant thinker who uses her brain and her friendly personality to make everyone like her and then help her out.  Joyce forms a fantastic partnership with Elizabeth, and the two make an effective double team, with Joyce’s more subtle tactics and insights combining well with Elizabeth’s more direct approach.  It is a lot of fun to see Joyce investigating these brutal crimes, especially as she picks up on just as much, if not more, than the experienced spy Elizabeth.  I also really appreciate the way in which Joyce’s chapters are written, with her point-of-view shown in a series of diary entries.  This different storytelling technique helps Joyce stand out as a protagonist, especially as it highlights her entertaining personality, including the revelations and observations she has about modern technology and younger people (I had so many chuckles at her forays on Instagram).

The male members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron,  who are a little underutilised compared to Elizabeth and Joyce in this novel, but they both get their intriguing storylines which were really well-written and compelling.  This is particularly true for Ibrahim, the group’s shy intellectual, who is forced to deal with a brutal physical attack from a young criminal at the start of the book, a scene which really hit me hard due to how much I got to know this harmless character during the first book.  This attack leaves Ibrahim scarred mentally as well as physically, and he spends the rest of the novel feeling quite afraid and unwilling to leave Coopers Chase.  Osman does some deep and emotional character work on Ibrahim here, and readers end up getting quite invested in his recovery as well as his intense mental journey.  This attack on Ibrahim is also the primary catalyst for Ron’s storyline, which probably gets the least amount of attention out of all the main characters.  Ron, the former union leader, who always puts on a classic tough-guy persona, is deeply impacted by the attack on his best friend and spends the early part of the book constantly by his side.  However, once it becomes clear that Ibrahim is alright, he then leads the charge against his friend’s attacker, and uses Elizabeth’s contacts to bring the thug to justice.  I felt that Osman hit the right notes with Ron in this book, and I appreciated seeing both his emotional side and his vengeful side, and I loved how they both came from the same place of love.

The final characters I want to mention are the associated members of the Thursday Murder Club, younger characters who have been drawn into the orbit of the compelling senior citizens.  These include police officers Donna and Chris, both of whom had an entertaining introduction to the Club in the previous novel and are now firm friends with them.  Donna and Chris spend most of the book attempting to bring down a Fairhaven crime lord while also dealing with their personal issues.  Chris, who was a bit of a sad-sack character in the first novel, has been revitalised by his blooming relationship with Donna’s mother.  While happy and now health conscious, this results in a lot of soul-searching by Chris, who is unsure how to pursue the romance, especially once his girlfriend is threatened by the criminal they are hunting.  Donna, on the other hand, continues her unlucky hunt for love and purpose in this novel, going from one bad date to another while also being suitably horrified by her boss sleeping with her mother.  While Donna does not get as much focus in this novel as she did in The Thursday Murder Club, she still had some great character moments, and I deeply appreciated that touching scene she had with Ibrahim.  I also need to mention Bogdan, who, after being a major suspect in the first novel, has moved on to a supporting role in this book due to his firm friendship with Elizabeth and her husband.  Simply put, Bogdan is the coolest person in Fairhaven and a true friend, helping Elizabeth with her projects by doing all manner of unusual requests, from looking after Stephen to buying a large amount of cocaine.  He has some really good scenes in this book, and Osman sets him up as quite the bright, mysterious action man with a heart of gold.  Throw in some other well-established and explored side characters in addition to the above and you have an exciting and compelling cast with a great story around them.

One of the key things about this series that I really appreciate is the way in which Osman attempts to champion the aging process and show how capable and interesting older members of the community can be.  The Man Who Died Twice is another great example of this, as it contains multiple amazing examples of older protagonists doing impossible things and manipulating people half their age in some elaborate and entertaining ways.  It was a lot of fun once again seeing these older characters taking charge, and Osman has a very unique and entertaining take on the aging process and the mindset of older people.  However, not everything is about the positives of aging, as the author once again presents some sad and dark elements that added some powerful drama to the narrative.  Throughout the course of the story, there are plenty of discussions about illness, living with regrets, and the growing realisation that death is just around the corner.  There was a particular focus on the vulnerability of the elderly, especially with Ibrahim’s storyline, as it shakes both the victim and all his friends.  There is also a compelling look at Stephen’s battle with dementia, which includes Elizabeth’s attempt to keep him in their apartment despite what may be medically best for him, resulting in some touching and emotional scenes, especially once the double meaning of the novel’s title becomes clear.  I really appreciated the author’s unique and compelling take on the aging process, and it was great to see more of the novel’s fun senior protagonists.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Man Who Died Twice, I decided in the end to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, which was a fantastic choice.  The Man Who Died Twice has a runtime of 12 and a half hours, although the last 40 minutes or so is an interesting interview.  I found myself getting through this audiobook extremely quickly, not just because of the amazing story but because the audiobook has a great pace to it and some excellent narration by actress Lesley Manville.  Manville, who also narrated The Thursday Murder Club, does another wonderful job in this second novel, and it was great to hear her impressive take on this fantastic story.  Manville has come up with some amazing voices for the various characters, with each person getting their own distinctive and fitting voice, with some great continuation from the first book.  Each of the character’s voices work extremely well, and I really appreciated the way in which Manville can ascribe age, emotion, and personality with her vocal work.  I had an outstanding time listening to Manville tell this cool story, and it was made even better by a fun discussion between Osman and Manville at the end of the book.  This nice and unique talk between author and narrator was an outstanding and fitting way to finish of this audiobook, especially as it offers some cool insights into the book you have just been enjoying.  I particularly enjoyed finally getting an explanation about why Osman doesn’t narrate his own novel, and I actually agree with his reasoning for it.  Overall, this was another exceptional audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone and everyone keen to check out The Man Who Died Twice.

With his second entry in the spectacular Thursday Murder Club series, Richard Osman continues to showcase he is just as talented at writing crime fiction as he is at comedy.  The Man Who Died Twice is an outstanding and wildly entertaining read that combines an impressive story with a clever mystery, some complex and likeable characters, and a brilliant sense of humour.  This was a spectacular read and I had an incredible time getting through this fantastic sequel, especially in its amazing audiobook format.  The Man Who Died Twice was one of the best books of 2021 and I cannot wait to see where Osman takes this series next.

The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: The Age of Madness – Book Three

Length: 23 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of dark fantasy, Joe Abercrombie, returns with the final book in his brilliant Age of Madness trilogy, the thrilling and deeply captivating The Wisdom of Crowds.

Joe Abercrombie is a particularly impressive author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last few years ever since I dove into his iconic First Law trilogy.  This great dark fantasy trilogy followed a group of complex and damaged characters who are thrust into a series of dangerous adventures in a corrupt fantasy world.  The original trilogy was pretty damn perfect, and I loved the outstanding story and universe that Abercrombie came up with.

Following his original books, Abercrombie wrote three standalone novels that continued the universe’s overall story in different ways before introducing his Age of Madness trilogy in 2019.  The Age of Madness trilogy is set around 20 years after the events of the First Law books and follows the children of the original trilogy’s protagonists as they are engulfed in additional chaotic events, including war, revolution, and lots of betrayal.  This trilogy has already featured two outstanding five-star novels, A Little Hatred (one of the best books of 2019) and The Trouble With Peace (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020).  Due to how awesome the previous novels were, I was deeply excited for The Wisdom of Crowds, and it turned out to be another exceptional read with an impressive story to it.

Following King Orso’s decisive victory over the rebellious young hero Leo dan Brock and his wife, Savine dan Glokta, Orso believes that he has finally gained control of the Union.  However, he is unprepared for the chaos and destruction that is about to befall the kingdom.  The revolution, known as the Great Change, has finally descended upon the Union, with the people rising up and overthrowing the hated nobles.  Led by former Arch Lector Pike, known by the masses as the Weaver, the rebelling Breakers and Burners soon take the capital, Adua, bringing hope and destruction in equal measure.

Imprisoned by the mob, Orso soon discovers that there is nothing lower than a deposed king.  The freed Citizen Leo and Citizeness Savine must adapt and find new ways to manipulate a mob that both loves and hates them.  The newly raised up Chief Inspector Teufel must soon decide where her loyalties lie as she begins to see the insanity of the new rulers, while former soldier Gunnar Broad once again finds himself causing trouble as a key citizen of the new regime.  At the same time, the magically prescient Rikke has taken control of the North, capturing the former King Stour Nightfall.  However, taking the North and keeping it are two very different things, especially as the forces of her family’s old enemy, Black Calder, advance towards her, determined to free Stour.  With enemies around every corner and even her closest allies beginning to doubt her, Rikke must implement a drastic plan and make use of every tool at her disposal, even notorious turncoat Jonas Clover.

As the Great Change starts to devolve into anarchy, the death toll starts to rise and no one is safe, least of all those who have profited in the past.  Soon hard choices will need to be made and only the strongest and most cunning will survive.  The Age of Madness is well and truly here, but who will live and who will die as the fires of anger, resentment and despair burn throughout the land?  No matter who survives, the Union and the North will never be the same again, especially with unseen hands manipulating events from the shadows.

How the hell does Abercrombie do it?  I knew in advance that this was going to be an awesome book, but I was yet again blown away by the author’s clever blend of captivating storylines, outstanding characters, and outstanding dark fantasy settings.  The Wisdom of Crowds served as an excellent conclusion to the Age of Madness trilogy, and I found myself absolutely powering through this amazing novel in no time at all.  This gets another five-star review from me as I had such an incredible time reading it.

Abercrombie has come up with an exceptional narrative for his latest novel, and I deeply enjoyed the captivating and extremely dark story contained within The Wisdom of Crowds.  This novel has an impressive and memorable start to it with the aftermath of the previous novel immediately giving way to the Great Change.  This uprising quickly overcomes the existing government and changes everything, with Orso imprisoned, Savine and Leo freed from captivity and incorrectly hailed as heroes of the people, and characters like Gunnar Broad and Inquisitor Teufel pushed to the fore due to their suffering under the previous regime.  After a great extended revolution sequence, Abercrombie spends a good chunk of the first act of the novel showcasing all the severe changes to the setting of the Union, including the impacts to the protagonists, as well as the nation’s quick decline after the initial glorious revolution.  At the same time, you have the events in the North occurring at the same pace, with Rikke trying to solidify her power in the face of a rising opposition.  Most of the novel’s major storylines are either set up here or transported over from the previous novels, and it moves at a great pace with some fantastic moments.  The novel really heats up in the second act, when a group of extremists take over the Union and Rikke’s war in the North gathers speed.  The storyline set in the Union during this section of the novel is filled will all manner of insanity and terror, and this is probably one of the darkest parts of the entire book.  While there is a noticeable focus on the craziness of a Burner revolution, there is also a lot of character development occurring here, with most of the protagonists starting their last bit of major growth here, with their big plans set up.  This second act is capped off with a massive battle in the North that changes the entire fabric of that setting and provides a great deal of fantasy action and bloodshed to keep the reader satisfied, while also featuring a pretty fun story twist.

All this leads up to an impressive final act which takes up the last third of the novel.  Most of this is set in the Union and showcases the protagonists making their moves.  There are some very good scenes here, with a mixture of big character moments, destructive fights, and a cool trial sequence, which help this part of the book really stand out.  All of this leads to a major change in the plot that occurs with roughly a quarter of the novel left to go.  While there are some great scenes involved with this big shift, I must admit I was a little surprised that the book didn’t end right there, due to the resulting significant change of pace, and I wonder if Abercrombie might have been better off using this final quarter in another novel.  However, the story is still extremely cohesive, especially as it leads up to some major reveals and big character moments that had me gasping with surprise.  I really did not see some of the big twists coming, even though they were really well set up throughout the trilogy (although I really should have known who was behind everything).  The book concludes on an interesting note, with some noticeable tragedy and some outstanding character moments as the surviving protagonists settle into their new roles.  I did think that Abercrombie may have spent too much time setting up events for his next trilogy, with multiple scenes containing open-ended events that will clearly get picked up in later books.  However, to be fair it did get me excited for the next novel like it was supposed to, and I don’t think it took too much away from the overall narrative.  This was such an awesome story, and The Wisdom of Crowds’ character focus had me hooked the entire way through.

Abercrombie has a real talent for writing awesome and complex dark fantasy novels, and I really enjoyed his outstanding and compelling style.  I deeply appreciated his excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a rich and vibrant tale, as the story seamlessly flicks between seven major characters throughout the book.  The spread of character perspectives has been an outstanding feature of all the author’s First Law novels, and it is extremely cool to see this complex tale told from various points of view.  Not only does it ensure you get a brilliant, multifaceted exploration of the setting and the progress of the plot, but it really helps the reader get into the mind of the characters and see their personalities, emotions and opinions.  I also really appreciated the two great extended sequences that were told through the eyes of multiple supporting or one-off characters, especially as it captured the chaos and destruction of both revolution and a major battle.  The author has quite a vivid and adult writing style, which works with the realistic characters and complex storylines extremely well.  Not only does this result in some particularly graphic and powerful action sequences, including one amazing and massive pitched battle, but it also works in some distinctive and very adult dialogue.  While some of the language gets a tad over the top at times, it does give the book a very realistic feel and is a lot of fun.  Readers should be warned that this is a pretty dark tale including torture, ultra-violence and a lot of brutal deaths.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with the changes to the major setting of the Union in this novel.  While the other significant setting, the North, remains pretty much the same (its always snow, death and blood there), the Union is majorly impacted quite early on as part of the revolution known as the Great Change, which Abercrombie had been expertly setting up throughout the trilogy.  The Great Change, which was brought on by rioting workers and peasants disenfranchised by the industrial revolution that was such an amazing and distinctive feature of this trilogy, hits the city with most of the nobles, the wealthy, the ruling Closed Council, and the King all arrested.  This initial overthrowing was done pretty perfectly, with several chaotic sequences, and it eventually leads to a whole new era for the nation.  This part of the novel was very clearly inspired by the French Revolution, and I deeply appreciated the way in which the author evoked the iconic imagery of destructive historical events into his fantasy novel.  I loved the initial set-up of the new democratic government that replaced the monarchy, and I had a good chuckle at the character’s glorious ideas of a utopian society with a pompous constitution.  However, the real fun occurs when these high ideals fail miserably and are replaced by a general purge where no-one is safe.  Abercrombie did a really good job here of capturing the terror, uncertainty and horrible human nature that accompanies these sorts of purges, with a series of one-sided trials and brutal executions in front of a cheering crowd.  This chaotic setting serves as an outstanding backdrop to novel’s various storylines, and it was an amazing and dark part of The Wisdom of Crowds that made it really stand out.

As with the rest of Abercrombie’s books set in this connected universe, one of the absolute best things about The Wisdom of Crowds was the exceptional and complex characters.  Just like the previous two novels in the Age of Madness trilogy, the story is primarily shown from the perspective of seven unique and well-established point-of-view characters.  Each of these characters is extremely complex and layered as Abercrombie has been setting up some fantastic storylines around each of them throughout the course of the series.  These characters include:

  • Orso – the son of King Jezal, a point-of-view character from the original trilogy, and current High King of the Union, for whatever that title is worth. Orso is a very fun character who has probably grown the most out of all the characters featured in this series, going from a foppish, unmotivated prince, to a decisive, competent and victorious king in the second novel.  Despite his victory over his rival Leo and his secret half-sister (and former lover) Savine, Orso soon finds himself a prisoner when the Great Change leads to a people’s revolt.  Despite being imprisoned and constantly mocked by everyone, Orso keeps most of the confidence he built up in the previous novels and is a constant figure of comedy, especially with his great sarcastic observations of the events around him.  Abercrombie has done a masterful job with Orso over the last three books, and I really appreciated his growth and humour, making him one of my favourite characters in this trilogy.  Due to this it is pretty hard to see him get taken down and condemned by his people, especially as he is a much better ruler than everyone thinks he is.  I once again found myself really pulling for him in this novel, and I think he was the character I wanted to survive and win the most.
  • Savine dan Brock (formerly dan Glokta) – a formidable businesswoman and adoptive daughter of Arch Lector Glokta (the best character from the original series). Savine has been an awesome character in this trilogy, experiencing some massive highs and significant lows.  After marrying Leo and organising a revolt against her half-brother Orso in the previous novel, Savine starts this novel in chains.  However, once the Great Change occurs, she is quickly freed and must find her place amongst the revolutionaries.  Rightly terrified of being tried for her ruthless business practices, and changed by motherhood, Savine engages in charity works and tries to save herself through generosity.  I quite enjoyed Savine’s storyline in this latest novel and it had some awesome moments.  While I do think she was a bit underutilised in the middle of the book, she eventually emerges in full form and shows everyone why she is the most dangerous person in the Union.  There are some outstanding scenes surrounding her, especially that awesome court sequence, and I quite liked where her story ended up.
  • Leo dan Brock – the former governor of Angland and shining hero of the Union, before he had an arm and leg blown off during his big battle against Orso in the previous book. Leo starts this novel a shell of his former self, full of regret that his recklessness and arrogance caused his injuries and the death of his friends.  However, this regret soon turns to anger and ruthlessness as he uses his hero status to become a key part of the Great Change, attempting to manipulate it for his benefit.  I must admit that Leo was always my least-favourite character in this series, and I liked how the features I disliked about him led to his downfall in the previous book.  Abercrombie perfectly follows this up by making him a much more unlikable character in this novel, and I deeply appreciated the realistic way his personality was twisted and darkened by anger, jealousy and frustration, giving him a new ruthless edge.  Out of the characters in The Wisdom of Crowds, Leo probably goes through the most development in this novel, and it was pretty captivating to see where his new hate and frustrations led him.
  • Rikke – a Northern protagonist and the daughter of the Dogman, Rikke has had a very interesting story arc within this series due to her magical Long Eye, which allows her to see into the future. Rikke was able to outsmart all her opponents in the previous novel, taking the Northern capital and capturing her opponent, Stour Nightfall.  Now Rikke is forced to lead her people against Stour’s father, Black Calder, while also trying to balance the concerns and treachery of her allies.  I have been really impressed with Rikke’s storyline throughout The Age of Madness, and I liked the great transition from scared girl to effective leader.  This book continues to showcase her skills, even if she still appears a bit rash and too clever for her own good.  She ends up being forced to make some hard and heartless decisions, which really highlights just how far she has come.  There are some outstanding movements with Rikke in this novel, and I particularly loved the good twist around her that occurred at the big battle scene (I did see it coming, but it was still a lot of fun).  I also loved the fantastic scene where she confronts Bayaz, the First of the Magi, as it was one of the first times that you see the master manipulator of the series appearing rattled and impotent.  Rikke was a really well set up character and I really appreciated the epic and compelling storylines around her.
  • Vick dan Teufel – a Union inquisitor and protégé of Arch Lector Glokta, Vick is a master spy and investigator. Despite all her skills, Vick was taken by surprise by the revelation that Pike is the Weaver and is forced into supporting the Great Change against her will.  Falling back on her old survivalist mentality to support the winners, Vick is eventually shaken into action by the destruction caused by the Burners and finds herself supporting the losing side.  After being a little underused in the previous novel, Vick has a very strong outing in The Wisdom of Crowds and her character changers are quite essential to the plot.  Like Leo, Vick goes through a fair bit of development in this novel, although her development is a lot more positive as she tries to do what is right rather than what will keep her alive.  Vick also experiences some very crushing moments, and it was fascinating that out of all the characters, she maintained the moral high ground the best.
  • Gunnar Broad – a former Union soldier with a gift for extreme violence, who has been both a Breaker and a servant to Savine as an enforcer and bodyguard. Imprisoned after the last book, Gunnar is freed with Savine and Leo and once again finds himself drawn into the fight, despite his desire to stay out of trouble and get back to his family.  While he once again tries to be a good person at first, he is eventually seduced by the dark appeal of the Burners and truly loses himself, giving into his inner violence and anger.  While he does do some redemptive actions, Gunnar remains a bit of a lost cause, which is pretty tragic to see.  Gunnar proved to be a great character throughout this series, despite a lack of any real development, and I enjoyed his darker scenes and compelling personal insights.
  • Jonas Clover – the cunning and treacherous veteran Northern warrior who, after spending the last two books serving Stour Nightfall, betrayed him at the end of The Trouble with Peace and sided by Rikke. However, he soon finds his loyalty divided between Rikke and Black Calder, with both sides aware of his tendency to turn on the losing side, and he must finally decide who to support.  Due to his very entertaining personality and cynical viewpoint about the world, Clover was my favourite character in the series, and I love all the clever insights and subtle jokes that are characteristic of his scenes.  I really appreciated his mindset of patience, self-restraint and picking your moment, which is mostly unheard of amongst the other Northerners, and which usually sees him through most conflicts.  Despite this, Clover is finally forced to face the music in this novel after his various betrayals come back to bite him.  While he doesn’t always make the best decision, his entertaining and canny attitude ensures that the reader is constantly amused by his antics, and I am really glad that Abercrombie included him in this series.  It will be interesting to see how he is utilised in the future, especially as the author tried to evoke some similarities between his journey and that of original character Logan Ninefingers.

I deeply enjoyed each of these impressive characters, with each one bringing something very memorable and entertaining to the table.  While a couple of these characters were a bit underutilised in previous novels, I think that Abercrombie struck the right balance in The Wisdom of Crowds, with each of them shown in pretty much equal measure.  All seven character arcs are pretty awesome in their own right, but the real strength is the way that they come together to tell the overall story.  It was pretty cool to see multiple character perspectives of the same events, especially as each of these complex characters have very different views on what has happened.  I think that each of the arcs ended extremely well, with each of the characters going in some very interesting and surprising directions.  I was a bit surprised by who was left standing and in control at the end of the novel, and I must admit that I really did not foresee the fates of several of the characters.  Abercrombie sets up each of these events incredibly well, and there were some very fitting endings or transformations here.  It was interesting to see how some of these characters ended up mirroring the cast of the First Law trilogy, which seemed fitting as some were inspired by these prior characters, while others tried to escape becoming them.  I also really appreciated the way that barely any of the primary characters end up being portrayed as good people by the end of it.  While all of them initially tried to do the right thing, even the best of them is forced to make some terrible compromises which shatter their morality and impact their personality.  As a result, the reader is left with little sympathy for some of the surviving characters, and it was once again really amazing to have such morally ambiguous and naturally selfish characters.  It looks like Abercrombie might strongly feature the remaining characters again in his next trilogy, and I cannot wait to see how their various story arcs are continued.

Aside from the seven focal characters above, The Wisdom of Crowds also featured a vast collection of supporting and side characters, each of whom added a ton to the novel.  Most of the supporting characters where previously introduced in the first two novels of this trilogy, as well as a few holdouts from the original trilogy, and there weren’t too many new characters in this final novel.  The author ensures that the reader has a pretty good idea of these characters’ feelings and motivations, and it was fascinating to see the complex and powerful storylines told around several of them.  There are some really good twists around a few characters in particular, and I have to admit that I did not see most of them coming, with Abercrombie doing some masterful writing to set up these reveals throughout the entire trilogy.  Many of these side characters inspired some excellent and moving storylines, although readers should be aware that, as this is the final novel, quite a few of these characters did not survive, and I was particularly cut up by the death of one major supporting character near the end.  It will be very interesting to see what happens to the survivors in the future, and I am especially curious about a couple of key characters from the original trilogy who are set for some major events in Abercrombie’s next outing.

While I did get a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the audiobook instead, which proved to be an awesome decision.  The Wisdom of Crowds has a substantial runtime of 23 hours and 36 minutes (it would have placed 17th on my latest longest audiobooks list).  However, despite its length, I was able to power through it in about a week, especially after I got pretty damn hooked on the awesome story.  I found that this format moved the story along at a pretty fast pace, and it was a great way to absorb the fun and compelling details of this dark and epic tale.  It also works extremely well thanks to the outstanding voice work of the incredible Steven Pacey, who is one of my absolute favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.  Pacey, who has narrated all the other books in the First Law and Age of Madness trilogies, does another outstanding job with The Wisdom of Crowds.  Not only does he ensure that every aspect of the narrative comes across in a fun and compelling way; he also ensures that every character is perfectly brought to life.  Pacey brings back all the fun and fitting voices that were featured in Abercrombie’s previous novels, which proved to be a lot of fun, especially as he perfectly captures the unique personalities and characteristics of these fantastic figures.  Pacey makes a lot of effort to portray all the emotion and intensity of the characters, and you really get a sense of the heartbreak and darkness that surrounds all of them, especially by the end of the story.  This results in another incredible audiobook which I had an outstanding time listening to; at one point I managed to listen to it for over five hours straight and was not bored in the slightest.  As a result, I would strongly recommend The Wisdom of Crowds’ audiobook version, and it is easily one of the best audiobooks I have listened to in 2021.

With another incredible and powerful story, filled with outrageous and complex characters, impressive settings and clever twists, Joe Abercrombie brings his latest trilogy to end with the brilliant The Wisdom of Crowds.  This final book in the Age of Madness trilogy was an exceptional read, and I deeply enjoyed the dark and clever places this amazing book went.  An epic and captivating dark fantasy experience, readers are guaranteed to power through The Wisdom of Crowds in no time at all, especially as they become more and more engrossed with the excellent central protagonists.  A must-read for all Abercrombie fans, this was easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 so far and I cannot wait to see what madness and destruction are unleashed in the author’s next awesome series.

The Wisdom of Crowds Cover 2

Throwback Thursday: The Gray Man by Mark Greaney

The Gray Man Cover

Publisher: Audio Studios (Audiobook – 29 September 2009)

Series: Gray Man – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday I check out the debut novel of impressive thriller author Mark Greaney, The Gray Man.

Over the last few years, I have been really enjoying some of the latest novels from the amazing Mark Greaney, one of the leading authors in the spy thriller genre.  Having previously worked with Tom Clancy on his Jack Ryan series, Greaney is probably best known for his awesome Gray Man series.  I have managed to check out the last three novels in this great series, which have been some pretty awesome reads, including Mission Critical, One Minute Out (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020) and Relentless (one of the best books and audiobooks I have so far read this year).  I also really enjoyed the outstanding military thriller he did with H. Ripley Rawlings, Red Metal, which ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of 2019).  I have long been meaning to go back and check out the earlier books in the Gray Man series, especially as there is a big Netflix adaption coming out soon (directed by the Russo brothers and starting Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans).  I finally got the chance a few days ago to read the first Gray Man novel, which was also Greaney’s debut book, and I am extremely gad that I did as The Gray Man proved to be an exceptional novel with boundless action.

Court Gentry was the very best operative the CIA ever had, and for years he helped take down vital targets the world over.  However, his career in government espionage came to a violent end when Gentry was set up and burnt, becoming one of the most wanted men in the world with a shoot-to-kill order on his head.  With the entire intelligence community gunning for him, Gentry disappeared into the shadows, becoming a private assassin.  Despite his murky profession, Gentry keeps his humanity by only accepting contracts on those people he believes deserve to die.  After years of taking out the very worst gangsters, war criminals and terrorists in impossible situations, Gentry has gained a legendary and is known throughout the business as the Gray Man.

However, after his latest job sees him assassinate a high-ranking member of the Nigerian cabinet, Gentry suddenly finds himself under attack like never before.  The outgoing president of Nigeria now wants the Gray Man dead, and with a powerful French company on the hook for a billion-dollar contract, he has the perfect tool to get his vengeance.  Led by former CIA officer Lloyd, the French company have organised for a team of hitters to take Gentry down for good, but when their first strike fails, they must get inventive.

Taking Gentry’s handler and his family hostage, Lloyd gives Gentry an ultimatum, travel to their compound in Normandy within the next day or he will kill the hostages, including two young girls.  Determined to save his friend’s family, Gentry is forced to traverse the entirety of Europe to get to his target.  However, between him and his destination are 12 elite kill teams from around the world, each of them competing for a massive bounty on his head.  With every eye on the continent watching out for him and no possible backup, Gentry will need to fight his way through more than 100 killers if he is to succeed.  For most men this would an impossible task, however, the Gray Man is anything but ordinary and he is about to show the world why he is the absolute best.

Well damn, now this was an incredible thriller.  I actually managed to power through the audiobook version of The Gray Man in two days especially once I got stuck into the incredible story.  Loaded with a ton of action of spy thriller excitement, this was such a fun and action-packed read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed The Gray Man’s exciting and compelling narrative, which takes the reader on a wild ride through death and destruction.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of how the book started, as the slaughter of Taliban soldiers in Iraq seemed a tad over-the-top for an introduction scene, it honestly does not take long for the rest of the story to get incredibly addictive and fun.  The moment that the antagonists start targeting Gentry, all bets are off and what follows is an incredible blend of action, adventure and spy tradecraft that is very hard to put down.  I loved the central story concept of Gentry forced to fight his way across Europe, and Greaney did a great job setting this entire scenario up.  This results in an awesome central section of the novel, where Gentry slowly moves through Europe towards his goal, with everyone in the way trying to kill him.  The action and intensity of these scenes are first rate, and I loved the slow, deliberate war of attrition that the antagonists wage against Gentry, with the protagonist forced to contend with a lack of equipment, allies, and later in the book, blood.  This exceptional story eventually leads up to a massive conclusion, with a wounded Gentry storming the castle and facing off the people who have expended a lot of effort into killing him.  The entire story is wrapped up extremely well, and readers are left very satisfied and happy with how everything turns out.  I had a fantastic time getting through this outstanding story, and there was honestly not a single second that I wasn’t amazingly entertained.

Due to its status as the initial novel in the series, The Gray Man has a very self-enclosed narrative, which ensures that all the main storylines are wrapped up by the final page.  While it does serve as a really good introduction to the protagonist and his unique situation, I found The Gray Man works well as a standalone novel, and it does not rely too heavily on details revealed in the later novels.  There are a lot of great features to this book, and I must highlight the incredible action sequences.  The intense violence and powerful fight scenes are beautifully written, and the reader gets a good sense of the characters interactions with his foes.  I also really appreciated the author’s depiction of tradecraft and spy skills, with the characters using all manner of intelligence tricks and assets to try and win.  Greaney makes really good use of multiple character perspectives throughout The Gray Man to highlight the battle of wits between the various players, and I liked how it also increased how impressive and brutal some of the action scenes were.  While I could have probably done without the sections told from the perspective of one of the eight-year-old granddaughters, the rest work extremely well to create a detailed and richer spy thriller.  I loved seeing the opposition put their plan into action to hunt down Gentry, and it was really great to see all the sides of this adventure.  It was particularly fun to see the antagonist’s reactions as Gentry continues to survive against the odds, and the added note of desperation was pretty entertaining.

I also must highlight the great characters featured within The Gray Man, which really helped to enhance this already awesome story.  They are led by impressive action hero Court Gentry (a great name, BTW), who is perfectly built up throughout the novel as a superhuman spy, thanks to his skill, intelligence, and pure stubbornness.  Gentry has a hell of an ordeal in this novel, forced to fight against impossible odds while being hunted by literally everyone in Europe.  Greaney does a good job introducing the key parts of his protagonist’s personality and history throughout the novel, and you really get a good sense of who Gentry is.  I also loved how Greaney showed Gentry slowly getting worn down as the novel progressed, which felt pretty realistic, especially after all the opponents who try to kill him.  These various injuries slow him down and make him sloppy as the narrative progresses, so much so that he is barely standing by the time he gets to the final showdown.  It was fun to see the other characters debating the truth behind Gentry’s previous missions, especially as he has built up a reputation for impossible tasks.  The constant discussion about what he achieved is really entertaining, especially as it causes several antagonists some major apprehensions.  While substantial parts of his history, such as why he was betrayed by the CIA, are not examined here, you still get some great details about him, and I look forward to seeing what else is revealed in the books I haven’t read yet.  In some ways Gentry was a little one-dimensional in The Gray Man and could have used some more depth, especially around his motivations and his feelings about his betrayal from the CIA.  However, this was a great introduction to this ruthless killer with a heart of gold, and readers will enjoy this first great adventure.

In addition to Gentry, Greaney came up with an excellent group of supporting characters who serve as alternate point-of-view characters throughout the novel.  Due to the plot being about Gentry being hunted by everyone in Europe, most of the alternate perspectives are antagonists, and I had fun with the cool group of villains that Greaney featured in this novel.  Each of these antagonistic characters are well utilised and introduced, even if they have a short shelf-life, and I appreciated some of the time put into building them up.  My favourite, or least favourite, of these is central antagonist Lloyd.  Lloyd is a former CIA analyst turned private-sector lawyer who, after stuffing up and forcing his company to work for the Nigerians, sets his company after Gentry.  Greaney went out of his way to make Lloyd as unlikeable as possible, with the character being extremely arrogant, petty, insecure, and vicious, especially as the novel proceeds and he faces setback after setback.  Every scene he is in is a lot of fun, mainly because he is such an annoying figure in them, and this ensures that the reader is constantly barracking for Gentry, hoping that he wins so that he can punch Lloyd in the face.  I had a wonderful time hating Lloyd throughout this book, and I cannot wait to see Chris Evans’s take on him in the upcoming film adaption.

As I mentioned above, I ended up checking out The Gray Man on audiobook, which proved to be an awesome way to enjoy this excellent book.  The Gray Man audiobook has a decent run time of just over 11 hours, and I found myself flying through it in no time at all.  This audiobook format proved to be the perfect way to enjoy this great book, especially as the many intense action sequences come to life extremely well while being narrated.  I absolutely must highlight the book’s amazing narrator, Jay Snyder, who has since narrated all Greaney’s Gray Man novels.  Snyder has an amazing voice for thrillers, and he ensures that the plot of this book moved along at a quick and exciting pace.  I also deeply enjoyed the various voices that he produced, as every character featured within this novel had a very fitting and distinctive voice.  I particularly appreciated the slimy and cocky voice that he gifted to main antagonist Lloyd, which gave the man a cowardly, bureaucratic voice (it honestly reminded me a little of Cyril from Archer), and really helped to make him even more unlikeable.  Snyder also does some fantastic accents for the various international characters featured in the novel, and each of them worked extremely well.  Overall, this was an exceptional way to check out this book, and I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone interested in this novel.

The Gray Man is an incredible and deeply entertaining debut from Greaney and it is one that I had an outstanding time listening to.  This great book had an awesome narrative, loaded up with a ton of action, mayhem and fun characters, and it swiftly turned into an intensely addictive and thrilling read.  Greaney sets up a lot of elements for his future series, and I am really glad that I went back to see where this fantastic series started.  This book comes highly recommend, and if you are a thriller fan, you will love this book.  I am definitely going to have to check out the rest of the Gray Man novels I am missing, and I am looking forward to seeing what over incredible stories that Greaney has in store for me.

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.