Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Van Horstmann by Ben Counter

Van Horstmann Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 1 February 2013)

Series: Warhammer Fantasy

Length: 415 pages

My Rating: 4.75 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 my latest Throwback Thursday I review another awesome Warhammer Fantasy novel, the compelling and unique Van Horstmann by Ben Counter.

Another week, another Warhammer tie-in novel that I must review.  I have been really diving into this franchise over the last year; to be fair, there are some incredible books there, including the two 2022 Warhammer 40,000 releases that got a full five-star rating from me, Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! by Nate Crowley and Assassinorum: Kingmaker by Robert Rath.  Some of the best of these books are tie-ins to the now destroyed Warhammer Fantasy universe, including the novel from last week’s Throwback Thursday, Runefang by C. L. Werner.  Well, my current obsession with all things Warhammer continued again as I recently read the awesome Van Horstmann by Ben Counter.  Counter is a well-established author of Warhammer fiction, having made a ton of impressive contributions to the franchise, including his Grey Knights and Soul Drinkers series, as well as his entries in the massive Horus Heresy series.  I was really drawn to Van Horstmann when I picked it up, not only because it has a great cover (love a cover with a dragon on it), but because of its intriguing plot, which sounded extremely awesome.

In the human realm known as the Empire, magic has been feared and mistrusted through most of its history, with practitioners hunted down and burned at the stake.  However, following the Great War against Chaos, the elven mage Teclis was allowed to train various talented humans in the use of magic, establishing the eight Colleges of Magic that train scholars and battle mages to help the armies of the Empire.  Out of all the colleges that were formed, the most revered are the College of Light, whose powerful light magic can be used to push back the darkness of Chaos.

Years after its formation, a young wizard manages to find the College of Light, hidden behind a magical barrier in the Imperial capital, Altdorf.  This wandering wizard, Egrimm van Horstmann, is a talented young mage whose desire for knowledge and skill at manipulating the Wind of Hysh immediately impress his new teachers, and many believe that he will rise high in the order.  However, van Horstmann has a dark secret that burns deep within him, and knowledge, power and ambition aren’t the only reasons for his joining the Light Order.

As van Horstmann rises in the ranks of his order, it soon becomes apparent that he has a diabolical plan.  Working with dangerous forces, including daemons, cursed items and even the Chaos god Tzeentch, van Horstmann begins to manipulate his order, the other colleges, and even the emperor to get what he wants.  But the closer he gets to achieving the goal, the more enemies he makes, and soon factions within the Light Order and the greater Empire begin to move against him.  Can van Horstmann succeed in his mission before his dark purpose is discovered, or will his dastardly designs unleash the great and uncontrollable power hidden at the very heart of the College of Light?

This was an impressive and deeply captivating Warhammer Fantasy novel, and I absolutely loved the elaborate and clever narrative that Counter came up with.  Focusing on an intriguing villainous figure and crafting an addictive story around him that also explores key aspects of the franchise’s lore, Van Horstmann was an outstanding novel, and it was probably the best Warhammer fantasy novel I have read so far.

Counter has come up with an excellent and impressive narrative for Van Horstmann, which, as the name suggests, is completely focused on the character of Egrimm van Horstmann.  For those who don’t know, van Horstmann was a minor special character for the Chaos army in some of the earlier editions of the games, but he didn’t have that much background or lore surrounding him.  I personally knew him due to his name being associated with one of my favourite magical items available to Empire armies in the later editions, Van Horstmann’s Speculum, which is a very fun surprise for an unwary foe (I have fond memories of using Van Horstmann’s Speculum in a game to switch stats between my Master Engineer and my brother’s Manfred von Carstein in a duel.  The look on his face as his ultimate general was suddenly weaker than my minor hero was just hilarious).  However, Counter manages to take the short background summary of the character and uses it as the basis for this novel, expanding on the tale of van Horstmann and showing how and why he infiltrated the Light Order and ended up betraying them, which results in an epic story.

Van Horstmann has a bit of a slow start to it, as Counter takes the time to set up key parts of the story, including an intriguing prelude that examines the first wizards of the Empire and their darkest secret.  From there, the story introduces the main character, van Horstmann, and shows his entry into the Light Order and his start as a student.  The story gets quite interesting after this, especially as you see van Horstmann involved in a demonic exorcism, which quickly highlights just how ruthless and cunning he can be.  The story picks up pace from there as you begin to witness van Horstmann’s inevitable rise to power as the full scope of his desire and despicable nature become fully apparent.  Most of the middle of the book showcases the characters careful and evil manipulations, as he manages to fool everyone and become more and more powerful through deals with daemons and the Chaos gods.  There are some brilliant scenes here as you witness the full scope of his plans, from a great battle scene against the skaven, to organising several duels between the various magical factions, all in the name of gaining power.  Counter really does a good job of showcasing this viewpoint through multiple perspectives, and while much of the focus is on the gloating van Horstmann, you also see how his actions impact several supporting characters, many of whom start to get suspicious.  The entire narrative has a great dark fantasy edge to it, that occasionally borders on horror (especially when the character interacts with some of the daemons and their dark gods), and I found myself really getting drawn into this story once everything had been set up.

This leads up to the epic conclusion that sees van Horstmann’s master plan enter its final phase while his enemies begin to realise his evil nature.  This ended up being an extremely impressive conclusion, and it really becomes apparent just how much stuff Counter had set up in the first two-thirds of the book.  Everything comes together here, as compelling story elements such as van Horstmann’s long-term plans, his troubled past, all his terrible actions while part of the order, the revelations about the foundation of the Light Order, several great secondary character arcs, and the attempted investigation by van Horstmann’s enemies, all pay off.  I really appreciated the brilliant and dark way that these storylines worked out, and there are some great revelations, especially around van Horstmann’s motivations and the full scope of his careful actions.  I loved the deep and very personal reasons behind the events, especially as van Horstmann has some extremely fantastic revenge planned, which was pretty epic to behold.  The entire novel ends on a brilliant note that sets up the character for his future appearances as a special character in the tabletop game, while also stabbing home that van Horstmann isn’t the absolute master manipulator that he thought it was.  This clever conclusion was the perfect ending to this gripping plot about a conniving and dangerously intelligent villain, and it was so much fun to see how everything ended.  These final pages and the outstanding conclusion they contained, definitely increased the overall awesomeness of the entire narrative, and seeing just how well every great twist and turn was set up is incredibly awesome.

This ended up being an excellent addition to the overall Warhammer Fantasy canon, and Counter did a wonderful job of working this elaborate and impressive story into the wider universe.  As I mentioned above, Van Horstmann adapted basic character notes from an older game book, and I felt that Counter expanded on all these details extremely well, working them into the wider history of the Empire.  There are some great explorations of several key factions throughout this novel, particularly the Empire and some of the forces of Chaos, and the reader really gets an impressive view of the iconic setting of Altdorf, where much of the narrative takes place.  However, the most detailed and fascinating part of Counter’s dive into the Warhammer Fantasy world revolves around the exploration of the Colleges of Magic in the Empire.  Without a doubt, Van Horstmann contains some of the best explanations of how human wizards perceive magic that you are every likely to see in a Warhammer novel and Counter spends a ton of time examining this.  While some of the explorations surrounding magic do get a bit overly metaphysical for their own good, they are always pretty compelling to see, and I loved how there is a fun focus on the various different orders of magic, especially Light and Gold magic, as there are some awesome fights between these groups.  However, it is the Light Order that gets the most attention in this novel, as the main character is nominally a member of this group.  There is so much detail put into showcasing the Light Order’s elaborate, hidden headquarters, as well as how their particular brand of magic works, and you come away with a pretty intense understanding of this, which I deeply enjoyed.

Now, due to the sheer level of intriguing detail and Warhammer Fantasy lore contained within this novel, Van Horstmann is a book best enjoyed by those already a fan of the franchise.  Counter dives into some fantastic and occasionally obscure parts of the lore, and established Warhammer fans will really appreciate the clever touches and revelations featured within.  That being said, Counter also spends time ensuring that new readers will be able to follow the narrative rather easily, and a lot of the book’s exposition is spent establishing the history, magical elements, and some of the key factions for new readers.  As such, pretty much anyone who loves a good dark fantasy story can easily enjoy Van Horstmann as a novel, and I am sure that most people will have an excellent time with its very clever and intense narrative.  However, Warhammer fans are going to get the most out of it, and this probably isn’t the best first book for those readers interested in exploring the Warhammer Fantasy universe (the Gotrek and Felix novels, such as Trollslayer, would be my recommendation).  Nevertheless, this is an exceptional Warhammer Fantasy read that will appeal to a wide cadre of readers.

There is some great character work featured in Van Horstmann, which naturally focuses primarily on the titular character.  Counter really gets into the mind of van Horstmann in this book, and while most of the time you only see the supremely confident wizard who delights in manipulating men, wizards and daemons, there is a lot more under the surface.  This includes a tragic backstory that serves as the motivation that drives him to do all the terrible things he wants to do here.  While it would be rather easy to hate this character, especially with his inherent arrogance, I found myself getting drawn into his multiple plots and machinations, and you end up rooting for him just to see how all his plans unfold.  Despite that, it is also quite fun to see misfortune strike him, especially the fun twist at the very end of the book where his overconfidence comes back to bite him in a big way.  I had an outstanding time following van Horstmann in this fantastic novel and he proved to be a very fun central figure in this book.

Due to the massive focus on van Horstmann, Counter doesn’t spend a lot of time building up a lot of the side characters.  Despite that, there are a few interesting supporting characters and storylines that add a fair bit to the narrative and which have some compelling connections to the main plot.  Various members of the Light Order are featured throughout, and I liked the way that Counter portrayed them as mostly being quite full of themselves and unable to consider treachery from within their order.  Watching them get taken down a massive peg by van Horstmann is a little satisfying at times, especially when their fates are well deserved, although there are a few tragedies thrown in at the same time.  Other great characters include the manipulative Skull of Katam, a sentient magical skull who guides van Horstmann for its own reasons, and who served as an untrustworthy accomplice for a good part of the book.  Finally, there is also the interesting character of Witch Hunter Argenos, a rabid religious zealot who hunts agents of dark magic and the Chaos gods.  Argenos serves as a good counterpoint to many of the more magical characters, and his deep drive and desire for religious justice, helps to turn him into an excellent threat to van Horstmann.  These side characters, and more, have some interesting moments in the book, and I liked their excellent contributions that combined with Van Horstmann’s main tale in some fantastic ways.

Containing an addictive, powerful and brilliant story, Van Horstmann by Ben Counter is an incredible and awesome Warhammer Fantasy novel that follows a fantastic villain as he dives deep into the world of magic.  I loved the elaborate and captivating tale of revenge and dark power that Counter came up with here, and readers will swiftly get drawn into this amazing novel.  An excellent in the Warhammer Fantasy canon, Van Horstmann is an exceptional read that comes very highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Runefang by C. L. Werner

Runefang Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 24 June 2008)

Series: Warhammer Fantasy

Length: 413 pages

My Rating: 4.5 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 week’s Throwback Thursday I have a look at a classic Warhammer Fantasy adventure novel with the entertaining fantasy thrill ride, Runefang.

I have been reading an awful lot of Warhammer 40,000 novels lately, but deep down my heart will always belong to the Warhammer Fantasy franchise, as that was the game that I played back in the day.  Even though the Warhammer Fantasy game has ended (replaced by The Age of Sigmar), while it was going the Black Library invested a lot of time into creating some excellent novels in this setting, which I have also been enjoy recently.  This includes the awesome Broken Honour and some of the earlier entries in the iconic Gotrek and Felix series (including Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  Even after reading these, I am still in the mood for more fun Warhammer Fantasy adventures and so I just read Runefang by established Warhammer fiction author C. L. Werner.  Werner, whose other writing credits include the Witch Hunter, Thanquol & Boneripper and The Black Plague series, came up with a compelling idea for this novel which I had a lot of fun getting through.

As civil war, discord and political instability rock the human realms of the Empire, a far greater threat marches upon it from the south.  A massive horde of undead creatures has been raised from the grave and is  cutting its way through the heavily populated province of Wissenland.  As the forces of Wissenland gather to fight, they are disheartened to find that these are not the typical shambling herd of undead horrors, but a well-organised, highly disciplined force of relentless fighters with dangerous magic backing them up.  Worse, the leader of this force is a true monster, the wight lord Zahaak, an ancient general of the legendary dark necromancer, Nagash, who has risen from his last defeat to finally achieve the victory he promised centuries before.

After several devastating slaughters, it becomes apparent that the undead force before them is unstoppable and the only way to defeat it is to kill the unkillable undead general.  In desperate need of anything that will save his realm, the Count of Wissenland and his advisors come up with an unlikely plan: recovering the Solland Runefang.  Lost years before when an orc raid destroyed the former province of Solland, the stolen Runefang, one of the legendary 12 swords signifying rulership of the Empire’s provinces, is rumoured to be the only weapon capable of killing Zahaak.

The task of finding the Runefang falls to Baron von Rabwald, who pulls together a small expedition of soldiers, knights and adventurers and leads them to the Runefang’s purported hiding place in the Worlds Edge Mountains.  However, this is no easy quest, and the chances of success are low, especially as the Worlds Edge Mountains are a notorious haunt for monsters, orcs and innumerable other dangers.  Worse, they are not the only group seeking the lost Runefang, and the fell magic of Zahaak is never far behind.  Can the expedition recover the Runefang before it is too late, or will Wissenland fall at the hands of its greatest foe from the past?

This was an outstanding and extremely exciting Warhammer Fantasy novel that I had a wonderful time reading.  C. L. Werner did an excellent job providing readers with an amazing fantasy adventure, and Runefang has a lot of great elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

At the heart of Runefang lies a captivating and highly enjoyable fantasy narrative that quickly drags the reader in with its impressive action, enjoyable characters, intriguing examination of the Warhammer world, and exciting adventure narrative.   Starting off with a fantastic introduction that sees the Wissenland army’s first disastrous attack against the undead horde, you are swiftly brought into the middle of the conflict as you witness the aftermath of the defeat, which also introduces several of the main characters.  Following some compelling exposition about the enemy they are facing, the story splits into two parts, with Baron von Rabwald leading most of the supporting cast off to find the lost Runefang, while the rest of the story focuses on the Count of Wissenland’s attempts to delay the undead army to give the adventurers time.  This split works really well, and seeing the disasters unfolding in Wissenland heightens the stakes of the expedition’s adventures and ensures that the reader is even more invested in its outcome.  The expedition storyline encounters multiple obstacles throughout their adventure, including monsters, traps, and orcs and goblins.  They are also forced to deal with a rival force of humans who are also hoping to claim the Runefang, untrustworthy mercenaries, as well as a traitor within their ranks who is helping the enemy.

This all translates into a very good and action-packed adventure, and I loved seeing all the epic events unfold through the eyes of the varied characters.  The story chugs along at a quick and exciting pace, with a good combination of action, dark moments and some fun, if grim, humour that I quite enjoyed.  Werner also ensures readers are in for a wild ride by not being sentimental when it comes to character survivability.  This became really apparent around halfway through Runefang when several key characters, many of whom had been built up in a big way for most of the narrative, were very suddenly killed off, and one of the supporting cast took the reigns as lead protagonist.  While this was a little surprising, I think it worked rather well, and it added to the suspense and drama of the tale, as the new protagonist is forced to make some big choices and deals to keep the quest alive.  Following this, the story keeps advancing at a great pace, with new foes and dangers appearing the closer the protagonists got to their goal.  This leads up to the epic final sequences of the expedition narrative, and it was fantastic to see the surviving protagonists go up against all the villains that had been chasing them in a big, extended confrontation, and Werner kept continuously hitting the reader with twists, surprises and dangers.  The reveal about the traitor in the ranks was pretty good, especially as Werner threw in an excellent red herring character (although by the time it is revealed, there were limited potential characters who it could be).  Everything comes together extremely well, with all the storylines and character arcs reaching their natural end, and I felt that it was an excellent, if rather bittersweet, conclusion.

I have to say that this was a particularly good and accessible entry in the wider Warhammer Fantasy canon, which is very well suited to this sort of immense and powerful story.  While Werner could have just phoned in Runefang with a generic adventure story set in the universe, he does a great dive into the lore.  This novel is set well before the events of most Warhammer Fantasy novels and takes place during the Age of the Three Emperors, where the Empire was split by a raging civil war.  As such, the province of Wissenland is on its own throughout the novel and must also deal with the substantial machinations of its neighbours as it fights to survive, which gives it a great additional edge of intrigue.  The author also spends a great deal of time focusing on the ruined province of Solland and the importance of its lost Runefang.  It was fascinating to see the ruins of Solland in Runefang, as it was still badly scarred by the orc invasion that destroyed it, and the impact of Wissenland’s absorption of it was quite interesting.  I also really appreciated the fantastic portrayal of the notorious Worlds Edge Mountains, the former realm of the dwarfs that is now controlled by orcs, bandits, and monsters.  The author did a really good job showing this to be a desolate and dangerous place, and he really did not disappoint when it came to featuring the variety of cool creatures and threats it contains, forcing the protagonists up against dangerous odds again and again.

Finally, I must highlight the author’s excellent use of the undead army in this book.  Rather than using the armies of the Vampire Counts or the Tomb Kings (which were the two undead factions at the time of Runefang’s release), Werner features a historic army of undead creatures who have risen after their defeat during the early days of the Empire to have their vengeance.  As such, they are a unique force of undead creatures, and I loved seeing them in action, particularly as you get some awesome reactions of terror from the human characters observing them.  Overall, I really loved the cool use of Warhammer Fantasy elements, history and settings in Runefang, and I felt that this was the sort of Warhammer novel that any fantasy fan could pick up and enjoy.

I also need to highlight all the impressive action featured throughout Runefang, and Werner has a clear talent for making fight scenes come to life in a big way.  There are so many battles throughout this book, and each of them is showcased to the reader in exquisite detail.  Whether it be a small skirmish, a one-on-one fight, a brawl against a giant monster, or a large pitched battle between armies, the author ensures that the reader gets the full sense of everything that his happening.  It was extremely cool to see all these fights unfold, and I was able to mentally see every sword swing, desperate charge and epic moment.  I liked how some of these fights emulated the battles from the table-top Warhammer Fantasy game, and you could really envision how they would have looked being played out on the board.  These action scenes combined well with the awesome and exciting story, and I think that they strongly enhanced my enjoyment of Runefang.

The final thing I want to talk about is characters, as Runefang features an excellent and massive cast of distinctive protagonists and villains.  Now, I am not going to go into too much detail about character arcs or development here, as to do so might ruin which key characters are killed off early.  However, I have to say that I was really impressed with the awesome way that Werner introduced each of the major figures in the book.  As such, you quickly grow to like many of the figures in Runefang, especially as Werner goes out of his way to feature a unique and often damaged group of protagonists to fit the story around.  I will say that I deeply enjoyed the Baron’s notorious and scarred champion, Kessler, who has some great moments; the dwarf Skanir, who serves as cantankerous guide; and the fantastic duo of the halfling Theodo Hobshollow and his ogre sidekick, Ghrum, who were an excellent and entertaining comic relief team.  There are also some really good villains in this novel, including the bandits who are also after the Runefang (featuring a brilliantly despicable leader and an entertaining pair of cowards), and an extremely dangerous orc warlord, Uhrghul Skullcracker.  Uhrghul was a particularly fun character, and I liked both his philosophical insights about being an orc leader as well as his effective way of questioning human prisoners (eating my legs in front of me probably would get me to talk).  I did think that the main villain of Runefang Zahaak was a tad underdeveloped, even if he was shown to be an epic badass with major historical cred to his name.  However, this might have been a deliberate choice by Werner to highlight the uncomplicated nature and motivations of the undead compared to the more insidious, evil, or animalistic plots of the humans and orc villains.  I had an amazing time following these characters, just try not to get too attached to any of them.

Filled with fantastic action, a compelling adventure storyline, fun characters and great use of the Warhammer Fantasy setting, Runefang was an outstanding novel from C. L. Werner that I had an amazing time reading.  Werner really went out of his way to create the most impressive and exhilarating fantasy adventure he could, and the result is really worth checking out.  A highly recommended Warhammer fantasy novel that you are guaranteed to have fun with.

Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Broken Honour by Robert Earl

Warhammer - Broken Honour Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 22 February 2011)

Series: Warhammer Fantasy

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 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 my latest Throwback Thursday, I look at a cool standalone entry in the Warhammer Fantasy canon with the 2011 novel, Broken Honour by Robert Earl.

Damn it has been fun getting back into Warhammer fiction over the last couple of years, especially as there have been so many amazing and epic recent additions to the franchise.  I have really been having fun with the huge variety of stories associated with these iconic tabletop games, and while I have been mostly focused on the science-fiction based Warhammer 40,000 novels, I have also been dabbling with the Warhammer Fantasy subgenre.  Set in a chaotic and war-ridden world filled with all manner of creatures from classic fantasy, the Warhammer Fantasy novels contain fun and dark adventures, such as the Gotrek and Felix novels (check out my reviews for Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  I was lucky to recently find several cool Warhammer books in a second-hand shop, and I immediately dived into a particularly fun fantasy novel, Broken Honour, written by a new-to-me author, Robert Earl, who had written various other interesting Warhammer novels.  Set before the 2015 destruction of this setting and the start of the Age of Sigma, Broken Honour was a fantastic and entertaining read with a great story to it.

Chaos has once again invaded the realms of man, this time in the Imperial state of Hochland.  The ravenous beastman hordes are emerging from their deep forest lairs to begin their annual raids of the human settlements to destroy, despoil and feast on the people within.  As the armies of Hochland gather to repel them, they find themselves outmatched and outsmarted at every turn.  A powerful and dangerously intelligent beastman lord has risen to command the herd, and his unusual tactics may spell the end for every human living in Hochland.

As the Hochland baron and his advisors attempt to withstand the new threat advancing towards them, they desperately seek out any fighting men they can find.  Sensing opportunity, mercenary Captain Eriksson, a veteran fighter for sale currently only missing a regiment to command, arrives at the capital.  Keen to take advantage of the current chaos, Eriksson buys the freedom of a large group of prisoners to form a new free company.  Promised freedom and pardons for their crimes if they fight, the prisoners form a reluctant and ill-trained regiment, the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who hope to avoid the brunt of the battle in the back.

However, Eriksson and his troops soon find themselves in the very thick of the fighting, as those above them seek to use his unit to in the very worst ways.  Forced to contend with ravenous monsters, political intrigue, and a villainous lord with everything to lose, Eriksson and the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig will need to come together and hone their skills if they are to survive.  Can this band of rogues, thieves and criminals regain their lost honour and find redemption on the battlefield, or will they find only death and destruction as humanities most bestial enemies come to claim them?

Broken Honour was an awesome addition to the Warhammer Fantasy canon that I had an amazing time getting through.  Earl produced an exceedingly exciting and action-packed read that is essentially The Dirty Dozen in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (it is also comparable to the Last Chancers series from Warhammer 40,000).  Obviously, with a plot like that, I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun with this book, and Earl really did not disappoint.  While the narrative is a tad by the numbers, it is a pretty cool military fantasy narrative that is worked well into the Warhammer Fantasy setting.  The entire story flows really well, with the antagonists introduced up front and the protagonist, Eriksson, and his unwilling soldiers brought in quickly after that.  From there you follow the paroled Free Company as they are dragged from one conflict to the next and forced to contend with overwhelming odds.  As such, the book is loaded with a ton of outstanding action and brutal fight sequences that are guaranteed to keep you entertained.  Earl makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a deep and wide-ranging narrative, and you soon get dragged into several different character arcs, including several surrounding the antagonists.  Not only do you get to see into the heart of the beastman camp, but there are several brilliant sequences told from the perspective of a villainous Hochland noble who is trying to kill the protagonists.  This all ends up being a pretty exciting and fantastic story, and I found myself getting really caught up in the novel, powering through it very quickly.  Everything comes together really well into a great self-contained adventure, although a couple of character arcs didn’t get the conclusions that they deserved, and some storylines are never revisited, despite Earl leaving the story open for a sequel.  Despite that, Broken Honour was an excellent, easy novel to check out, and you are guaranteed to have a great time reading it.

I really liked how well Broken Honour slotted into the established Warhammer Fantasy setting, and this was a great addition to the overall canon.  Earl focuses his narrative around two particularly intriguing factions from the game here, the villainous beastmen and the human armies of the Empire, specifically from the state of Hochland.  I loved the insight into both, especially the beastmen, and the author really brings them to life in exquisite detail.  You can really feel the monstrous power, the Chaos infused evil and the beast-like mentalities contained within these creatures, and they prove to be excellent and brutal antagonists for the entire novel.  At the same time, there are some awesome insights into the soldiers of the Empire, and I loved the various depictions of their battle tactics and the various regiments.  While Earl does dive into these various Warhammer factions throughout Broken Honour, readers don’t need to know too much about them to enjoy the series, as the author does an amazing job introducing them and explaining what they are, and any fan of fantasy or dark fantasy would have a great time with this book.  Indeed, Broken Honour would serve as an excellent introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy canon for those readers unfamiliar with its details, as the story encapsulates the constant struggles and battles that occur within it, as well as the fun and larger-than-life characters it focuses on.  As such, this is a really good and entertaining Warhammer novel that will really appeal to both established fans and potential newcomers.

I really must highlight some of the great characters featured within Broken Honour, as Earl has come up with a wonderful and compelling group of figures to set the story around.  Most of the plot naturally revolves around the members of the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who are formed to face the threat within it.  Made up of over 120 former criminals, you don’t get to know all the members, but most of the ones who are featured are extremely fun and very memorable.  The leader, Captain Eriksson, proves to be a canny veteran who can manipulate events and his superiors in his favour to field a force in the war and get a lot of money.  Despite his mercenary attitude, Eriksson proves to have a conscious and builds up a fair bit of loyalty to his men, and this character growth really helps endear him to the reader.  Most of the other named Free Company members are a rather interesting and cool.  The drummer boy, Dolf, for example, proves to be an excellent human MacGuffin in the narrative as political plots revolve around his survival.  Other members of the Free Company that stood out to me include the tired veteran Sergeant Alter, the possibly mad former warrior priest Gunter, and the wily quartermaster Porter, whose moneymaking schemes and remarkable survival ability rounds out the character dynamics extremely well.

While I had fun with these protagonists, the best characters within Broken Honour are easily the baddies, with several great antagonist figures really coming together perfectly throughout the book.  The most prominent of these is Beastlord Gulkroth, who leads the beastman armies in the book.  Empowered by dark magics which have enhanced him even further than the rest of his kind, Gulkroth proves to be an intimidating and compelling figure in the novel, especially as his grasp of strategy, tactics and patience are highly unusual amongst his race.  Gulkroth spends the bulk of the novel balancing this newfound intelligence against his bestial nature, and it proves extremely interesting to see both sides of his personality come into conflict, especially as it impacts how his army attacks.  While Gulkroth is a fascinating figure, the best antagonist is Viksberg, a cowardly noble who was the sole human survivor of the first battle in the book thanks to his spinelessness behaviour.  Despite this, he manipulates the situation to make him appear as a hero and gets promoted as a result, killing anyone who knows the truth of his actions.  This eventually forces him to contend with Eriksson’s regiment, as one of them is a witness to his crimes, and he tries to get all of them killed on multiple occasions.  Viksberg’s continued attempts to kill the protagonists through indirect means really adds to the intrigue and enjoyment of the entire novel, and it was exceedingly entertaining to watch his various plots unfold.  Earl really goes out of his way to make Viksberg as despicable as possible, and you end up really disliking the entitled bugger, especially as he gets better characters killed.  You end up rooting against Viksberg in the hope that he’ll get his just deserts, only to be disappointed when he manages to survive to fight another day, which is both frustrating and extremely fun.  These brilliant antagonists, and all the other characters, add so much to the overall plot of Broken Honour, and I really appreciated the work that Earl put into his various characters.

Overall, Broken Honour by Robert Earl was an awesome and deeply entertaining Warhammer novel that I had a delightful time with.  The straightforward story is very exciting and contains some impressive character arcs that unfold to produce a riveting tale, while also providing all the action and bloodshed I could ever want in the iconic Warhammer Fantasy setting.  While I am a little disappointed that Earl didn’t write any additional novels featuring the characters in Broken Honour, I still had an awesome time with this book and it’s a great read for both Warhammer fans and those general fantasy readers.  Highly recommended!

Throwback Thursday – Daemonslayer by William King

Daemonslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – October 2000)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Three

Length: 9 hours and 38 minutes

My rating: 4.75 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 Throwback Thursday, I am doing a bit of a double feature by reviewing two of the outstanding entries from the iconic Warhammer Fantasy franchise’s Gotrek and Felix series by the brilliant William King.  I have just published a review for the second book in the series, Skavenslayer, and, after some rapid audiobook listening, I have also pulled together a review for the third book, Daemonslayer.

After the epic conclusion of the battle of Nuln in Skavenslayer, Dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson receives a mysterious message and immediately sets out on the road, convinced that this missive may be the key to finding his much desired glorious death.  Accompanied as always by his companion, the former poet turned reluctant adventurer Felix Jaeger, Gotrek marches to the northern parts of the Empire to meet his destiny.

Arriving at their destination, Gotrek and Felix learn that a group of dwarfs are planning an expedition to find the lost dwarf stronghold of Karag Dum, and they want Gotrek to accompany them.  Destroyed in ages past, Karag Dum now lies in the middle of the Chaos Wastes, the most dangerous place in the entire world.  Wracked by the shifting winds of magic, marauding war bands, mutating warpstone and the foul essence of Chaos, no one can cross the Chaos Wastes and survive, and only death, madness or mutation awaits those who try.  However, expedition leader Borek Forkbeard has come up with an ambitious plan to fly over the Chaos Wastes in a giant, experimental airship, designed by an unstable engineer turned Slayer.

Determined to make up for previous failed attempt to reach Karag Dum, Gotrek agrees to accompany the expedition, with an inspired Felix accompanying him.  However, even with all the advantages that the airship provides, this will still be a perilous journey.  Many dangerous things lurk in the Chaos Wastes that will not hesitate to destroy the dwarven company for their dark gods.  At the same time, Gotrek and Felix’s old foe, Grey Seer Thanquol, plots from the shadows, determined to claim the airship for the Skaven cause.  But the very worst dangers will be found at Karag Dum.  A terrible foe lies within, waiting for revenge and determined to destroy all before him.  Can even the legendary Gotrek and Felix stand up to the wrath of a deadly Bloodthirster of Khorne, especially one who appears destined to kill Gotrek and destroy all who stand with him?

I am having so much fun getting through this cool series and I really wish I had checked it out many years ago.  Daemonslayer is another incredible read that continues the fantastic Gotrek and Felix adventures that started in Trollslayer and were continued in Skavenslayer.  William King has come up with a pretty intense story for this third entry in the series, and I loved the change in writing style featured within it.  An exciting and character-driven tale, this was easily the best entry in the series so far, and I deeply enjoyed the time I spent getting through it.

Daemonslayer contains an impressive and intense narrative that proves to be extremely addictive and a lot of fun to read.  Unlike the previous novels in the series, which featured a collection of short stories, Daemonslayer is actually a complete story with one continuous narrative.  This is an interesting change of pace, and one that I think works extremely well, especially as it cut down on some of the repetition that was an issue in Trollslayer and to a lesser extent in Skavenslayer.  King writes a fantastic story that quickly gets into the action and adventure as the protagonists embark on an epic and potentially lethal quest.  While not a collection of short stories, King does break the book up into several distinctive sections, each filled some unique plot points and antagonists.  These sections are pretty linear and flow into each other extremely well, resulting in a very cohesive and entertaining narrative.  Like the rest of the novels in the Gotrek and Felix series, readers do not need a lot of background knowledge about the Warhammer Fantasy world to enjoy this book.  While I would probably suggest reading Skavenslayer first, Daemonslayer can be read as a standalone book, and all readers are generally in for a good time with this novel.

The action and adventure flies pretty fast and thick throughout Daemonslayer, with highlights including a lengthy battle against an army of Skaven towards the start of the novel, exploration in the dark tunnels of Karag Dum and the final epic fight sequence against the hordes of Chaos.  King is particularly skilled at writing exciting and powerful battle sequences, and I loved how he managed to bring the uniqueness of a large-scale Warhammer battle to life.  Part of this is because the author makes great use of multiple character perspectives throughout Daemonslayer, which allows for a richer narrative as you get to see many different angles of the same story.  This works particularly well in the first battle against the Skaven, as you get to see Grey Seer Thanquol controlling his forces, as he desperately tries to kill Gotrek and Felix.  I did think that some of the Thanquol scenes in the second half of the novel were a bit weak, especially as they were more concerned with setting up his appearance in the next novel, Dragonslayer, than influencing the plot of Daemonslayer.  Still, these scenes were great, and you are always guaranteed a laugh when dealing with this ruthless Skaven.  While there is a noticeable focus on action and death, King also works in some fantastic comedy and humour, which makes this book an absolute treat to read.  I also appreciated how dark and emotional several scenes became, especially when the protagonists are faced with the grim realities of certain terrible situation.  All of this is worked into quite an impressive adventure story, which ends up being extremely addictive and enthralling to get through.

I loved the great use of setting throughout Daemonslayer, especially as King features some of the darkest and most dangerous locations in the entire Warhammer Fantasy canon.  The most notable of these is the notorious Chaos Wastes, a dark and dangerous wasteland, completely corrupted by the Chaos gods and filled with all manner of mutants, monsters, beastmen, worshipers of Chaos and Daemons, who gather and fight throughout the wastes.  While the Chaos Wastes are primarily shown from above, King makes sure to produce some gruesome and disturbing depictions of the landscape and its inhabitants, and it proves to be a pretty horrific backdrop for a good part of the story.  I do wish that a little more of the story had been spent on the ground within the Wastes, but it was probably a wise choice to avoid, as the story could easily become bogged down there.  I also really enjoyed the lost dwarf hold of Karag Dum, where the last third of the book takes place.  King was clearly drawing some inspirations from Tolkein’s Mines of Moria when he came up with this location (Moria is also known as Khazad-dûm), with hidden doors, ancient treasures, despoiling opponent, and a giant fiery demon boss.  The scenes set within this hold are pretty claustrophobic, and King makes sure to use the dark location to its full advantage during fight scenes.  You really get a sense of the decay and destruction that has occurred within this setting over the years, and it is pretty easy to feel the despair of the various dwarf characters.  Both these major settings are really impressive, and they prove to be an excellent and fitting backdrop to a very fun and intense story.

A major strength of this book is its characters, as King continues to produce a range of complex and distinctive figures to populate his tales.  This includes protagonists Gotrek and Felix, who find themselves on their most dangerous mission yet.  Felix continues to be used as the novel’s primary point-of-view character, and it is fascinating to see his continued evolution from cowardly fop to dangerous warrior.  Despite his continued caution and reluctance to engage in fights, Felix is now regarded by everyone as a heroic figure, and he accompanies Gotrek on this latest quest with only a minimum of forbearance, despite being given an out by his friend.  King has really hit his groove when it comes to portraying Felix, and the character reigns supreme as a sarcastic, but loyal friend.  I have really grown to like Felix, and readers will become pretty invested in his tale.

After being overlooked a bit in Skavenslayer, Gotrek has a lot more focus on him in Daemonslayer, as he re-visits one of his old failures and reunites with some of his dwarf kin.  For most of the novel, Gotrek is his usual gruff and battle-hardened self, still searching for his doom while managing to kill anything that he comes across.  While this is always a lot of fun, King makes sure to feature some deeper character elements in this novel, by highlighting some of his inner feelings and giving hints at his past.  There are several compelling mentions of Gotrek’s pre-Slayer life in this book, as well as some early hints at the character’s true destiny and the dark fate surrounding him.  King also shows a surprising amount of emotion in the character for this book, and Gotrek has some moving scenes with Felix as he contemplates the mistakes of his past and his many regrets.  I really enjoyed seeing how the character’s friendship with Felix has developed over the course of the last few books, and there is even a scene where Gotrek admits he is apprehensive about journeying to the Chaos Wastes and even lets Felix know he does not have to follow him.  While all this character development is great, King also makes sure to continue to portray Gotrek as an absolute badass in Daemonslayer, as he goes up against a ton of different enemies and opponents.  The various fight scenes with Gotrek are so much fun, although I do worry that King is perhaps making Gotrek a little too overpowered, especially as he manages to defeat a Bloodthirster, literally the most dangerous creature in the entire Warhammer canon (admittedly Felix helps a lot).  I still really love this great character and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures he goes on in the future.

Just like his previous books, King loads Daemonslayer up with a great range of supporting characters, and several of the characters introduced in this novel end up becoming major recurring figures in the Gotrek and Felix series.  Probably my favourite was Snorri Nosebiter, a fellow dwarf Slayer, who has had way too many blows to the head.  Snorri proves to be a fun companion to Gotrek and it was interesting to see a character who makes the titular protagonist seem sane in comparison.  There was also a fun character in Varek Varigsson, who is essentially the dwarf version of Felix, except with a range of explosive devices.  In addition, you cannot overlook the dwarf engineer turned Slayer, Malakai Makaisson, and I had a good chuckle when the characters discuss the fates of his previous, unfortunately named ships.  I also really liked that King reused two of his most entertaining characters from the previous novel, the Skavens Grey Seer Thanquol and Lurk Snitchtongue.  Both serve as secondary antagonists in the story, and prove to be excellent comic reliefs, especially as their schemes constantly go against them.  It looks like King has some fun plans for Snitchtonuge in the future, and I liked the fun changes he went through.

As I did for Skavenslayer, I really need to point out the extreme lack of female characters in this book.  Daemonslayer literally had only one named female character, Ulrika Magdova, who naturally falls in love with Felix the first time they lay eyes on each other.  While this is pretty lazy writing on King’s part, at least Ulrika is a much better written character than the females featured in Skavenslayer.  Ulrika is a badass Kislev fighter, who proves to be a dangerous fighter (of course, Felix has to be just a little bit better).  Still, I have a feeling she is going to be a bit of a damsel in distress in some of the future novels, and I hope that King balances it out with some additional female characters in the future.  Overall, there are some great characters featured throughout Daemonslayer and I look forward to seeing the ones who survive in some of the other Gotrek and Felix novels.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook format of Daemonslayer, narrated by Jonathan Keeble.  With a relatively short runtime of 9 hours and 38 minutes, the Daemonslayer audiobook is an easy audiobook to get through, and I managed to finish it off quickly.  The audiobook format proves to be a great way to enjoy this excellent book, especially as it allows the fantastic and chaotic landscape and characters to come to life in all their ghastly glory.  Keeble continues to impress as the narrator of this series, and I love the amazing array of voices he brings to the table.  Daemonslayer really highlights just how varied his voice can be as Keeble produces a substantial number of different accents and vocal tones to capture the rich and unique cast.  This includes Scottish-sounding dwarfs, Russian-esque Kislev lancers, humans with cultured British accents and the mad, loud voice of Snorri Nosebiter.  Keeble also has to voice the various inhuman monsters that the protagonists encounter, from the great Skaven characters, to the monstrous daemons and warriors of Chaos, all of which prove very fitting and amusing.  He also brings an immense amount of passion to his narration that deeply enhances the experience of anyone listening to the book.  The way in which he gets into the various fight sequences is amazing, and you can hear the sheer excitement in his voice as he reads.  This is especially true in the final epic fight scene, and the listener soon finds themselves on the edge of their seat as Keeble works his way up to the conclusion.  This is really an impressive and amazing format to enjoy Daemonslayer in, and I cannot recommend this audiobook enough.

Daemonslayer by William King is an exceptional and amazing entry in the fantastic Gotrek and Felix tie-in series.  This awesome novel contains an epic and intense story, as its two iconic protagonists continue to explore the dark and deadly Warhammer Fantasy world.  Filled with action, adventure, comedy and some dramatic character moments, Daemonslayer is an outstanding novel that comes highly recommended for all Warhammer fans.  I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series turns out and I am really enjoying my current jaunt into the world of Warhammer tie-in fiction.

Daemonslayer 2 Cover

Throwback Thursday – Skavenslayer by William King

Skavenslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – December 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 30 minutes

My rating: 4.5 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.  The adventures of my two favourite Warhammer Fantasy protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, continues, with the second incredible and extremely fun entry in their series, Skavenslayer.

After their previous escapades throughout the Empire and beyond, wandering adventurer, outlaw, and writer Felix Jaeger is still reluctantly following the Dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson on his quest to find a glorious death.  After travelling to the Imperial city of Nuln, the two heroes attempt to make some money to support their travels.  However, danger is always around the corner, as the heroes find themselves thrust into the middle of a vast conspiracy when they take on a menial job.  The chittering and evil hordes of the Skaven are amassing beneath Nuln, determined to conquer the city by any means necessary.  Led by a dangerous and ambitious leader, the rat-men have several sinister plots to kill all the humans above and appropriate their city and technology for their own glorious purposes.  The only chance the city has to survive this chaos appears to be Gotrek and Felix, who are constantly dragged into the middle of the Skavens’ plots, thanks to fate, Skaven pettiness or terrible bad luck (both Felix’s and the Skaven’s).  Can the two heroes save Nuln from the Skaven hordes, or will Gotrek finally find the death he always seeks?

Wow, this is such a fun and entertaining series.  Skavenslayer is the second entry in the Gotrek and Felix series, which follows the two titular heroes as they journey throughout the Warhammer Fantasy world, battling all manner of monsters, demons and creatures.  After enjoying some of the excellent Warhammer 40,000 fiction out there (Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker and Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty), I recently dove into the first Gotrek and Felix novel, Trollslayer, which contained several exciting and compelling short stories.  I loved the fantastic mixture of action, world-building and fun characters featured within Trollslayer, and within a couple of weeks I had started listening to SkavenslayerSkavenslayer proved to be another excellent novel, and I honestly think it was a slightly stronger novel than Trollslayer, thanks to its much more connected plot.  This was an outstanding read that has many amazing elements to it.

Skavenslayer contains an outstanding and deeply addictive narrative that follows Gotrek and Felix as they attempt to stop the Skaven plot to destroy the city of Nuln.  Skavenslayer is made up of several short stories linked together by Felix’s journal entries.  Unlike the previous novel, all six stories and the epilogue are linked, forming one continuous narrative and resulting in a tighter and more comprehensive read.

Skavenslayer’s first short story is Skaven’s Claw, which sees Gotrek and Felix employed as sewerjacks, guards who patrol the vast catacombs underneath Nuln.  On patrol, they chance upon a clandestine meeting between a Skaven and a human noble, placing Gotrek and Felix in the middle of a conspiracy involving the head of Nuln’s secret police.  Skaven’s Claw is an excellent first story that does a wonderful job establishing most of Skavenslayer’s plot details and introducing several key characters, including recurring antagonist Grey Seer Thanquol.  I loved the combination of action, world building and intrigue that was contained within Skaven’s Claw, and it results in an awesome, fast-paced story.  The Nuln sewers prove to be a claustrophobic and memorable setting for most of the battles.  I also enjoyed the use of secondary antagonist Fritz von Halstadt, a fanatical human who has been manipulated by the Skaven, as his story arc was very well established and quite compelling.  This is an awesome entry that gets Skavenslayer off to an impressive start.

Next up we have Gutter Runners, which sees the Clan Eshin assassin, Chang Squik, lead a group of Skaven Gutter Runners on a mission to kill Gotrek and Felix at the inn where they are working as bouncers.  This was a quick and action-packed story which proved to be a lot of compelling fun.  The action is swift and deadly, as the protagonists are attacked on multiple fronts, and there are several great battle scenes throughout.  This is a fun story that you can easily power through in one short sitting, and I felt that it did a great job keeping the reader’s attention after the fantastic introductory story.

The third entry is the fantastic and funny Night Raid, which focuses on the members of Clan Skyre, the insane Skaven engineers and weapon designers.  The leader of the Clan Skyre contingent, Heskit One-Eye, plans a raid on the Nuln College of Engineering to appropriate the latest human weapons and technology and obtain glory.  However, the jealous Grey Seer Thanquol organises a significant roadblock in the form of Gotrek and Felix.  This is another outstanding entry in the novel, and I consider it to be the most comedic and entertaining of the bunch.  Not only do you get to see amazing examples of Skaven backstabbing and betrayal but you also have an extremely funny and exciting sequence at the college, where all hell breaks loose when a Skaven gets stuck in a Steam Tank.  This story also serves as an excellent introduction to the various Skaven side-characters, and a lot of elements from Night Raid have major impacts on the rest of Skavenslayer’s story.

Up next, we have the disgusting and captivating story, Plague Monks of Pestilens.  In this story, a brewing plague strikes quick with deadly consequences.  However, this is no ordinary plague; it is a deadly concoction dreamt up by the demented plague monks of Clan Pestilens, led by the terrible Vilebroth Null.  Warned again by Thanquol, Gotrek and Felix attempt to stop the plague monks before it is too late.  Plague Monks of Pestilens is an amazing middle story that is pretty memorable.  Rather than the pure hack-and-slash narrative of the previous story, King works in an interesting mystery element, as Felix tries to work out where the plague monks are attacking from.  Once battle is joined, you are in for a dangerous and gruesome fight, especially as the author goes into full horror mode when describing the grotesque plague monks and their malformed, diseased bodies.  This is an extremely intense and disturbing story which really enhances Skavenslayer’s overall narrative and gives it the more serious edge it needed.

The penultimate story of Skavenslayer is Beasts of Moulder, which sees Gotrek and Felix attempt to stop the master mutators of Clan Moulder, led by Izak Grottle, try to unleash their latest creation.  This was a decent addition, although if I am being honest, it was probably the weakest entry in the entire book.  Not only are the stakes a little lower, but it repeats the pattern of the previous two entries.  I did quite enjoy the scene where Felix visits the palace, especially as everyone there assumes he is some sort of master monster hunter, but the rest of the story fell a little flat, especially the Elissa subplot.  Still, it fits into Skavenslayer’s narrative well and does a good job setting up the final story.

The last entry in Skavenslayer is the major concluding storyline, The Battle of Nuln.  In this story, both the citizens of Nuln and the Skaven army hiding beneath the streets have been afflicted by plague and famine.  In order to achieve victory, Thanquol leads a daring raid on the Countess’s palace during a ball, while the rest of the Skaven army attacks the city.  With Gotrek and Felix stuck in the middle of several Skaven plots, can they save the city before it is overwhelmed by rats, disease and vile Skaven magic?  The Battle of Nuln is an incredible and captivating entry that serves as the action-packed conclusion to the entire book.  King brings together all his fantastic storylines, and the readers are rewarded with an intense and extended war sequence, as the full wrath of the Skaven force is unleashed.  I deeply enjoyed this final story, and it did an outstanding job of providing satisfying, if occasionally lethal, conclusions to all the character arcs and storylines.  There is so much action going on in The Battle of Nuln, and I loved seeing the consequences of all the previous short stories finally come to the fore for both sides in the war.  An excellent and exciting conclusion that will put you in the mood for even more Gotrek and Felix.

I had an outstanding time getting through each of the short stories above, and not only are they fantastic reads on their own but together they form an impressive and intense overarching narrative.  King did a wonderful job crafting together all six stories, and I felt that the use of a single location and overarching antagonists worked extremely well, especially once you are introduced to the four iconic Skaven clans.  While some of the middle stories do suffer from plot repetition, this is still a great book which is extremely fun to read.  King ensures each story has a great combination of action, character development and humour, and each of the stories can easily be read on their own without a lot of context from the others.  This is also a very good Warhammer Fantasy novel, and readers only need minimal prior knowledge of the franchise, especially as King provides a great amount of detail and self-contained lore.  I felt that it came together perfectly, and readers are in for an exceptional time when they check this novel out.

One of the more entertaining and fun parts of this novel was King’s use of the Skaven as the villains of the story.  The giant rat-men known as Skaven are chaotic beings who, thanks to their spiteful nature, massive ambitions and weird array of abilities, weapons, magic and fighting techniques, are one of the most entertaining and recognisable races in the Warhammer Fantasy canon.  I think that King did a particularly good job bringing the Skaven to life in Skavenslayer, and they proved to be a very intriguing and memorable group of antagonists.  Not only does the author showcase several unique Skaven clans (each of them is covered in a short story), but he also captures the Skavens’ treacherous nature, speech pattern and insane pettiness.  While the Skaven have an elaborate plan, their own paranoia and self-serving mindset gets in the way of its success, and it is wonderful to see the various backstabbing, betrayals and plots that occur throughout the course of the book.  Despite this, they still prove to be a dangerous group of enemies, and they manage to hit the protagonists and the rest of the humans in Nuln in a big way.  I really enjoyed the way that King utilised the Skaven throughout this novel, especially as their duplicitous or cowardly actions are the catalyst for most of the book’s humour, and Skavenslayer is a fantastic and detailed introduction to this impressive Warhammer Fantasy faction.  That being said, there are only so many times you can hear a scared Skaven getting ready to “squirt the musk of fear”, and some different wording might have been better.

Another highlight of this book is its complex characters.  The most notable and prominent of these are titular protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, and it is still incredibly fun to see the unusual partnership of a doomed Dwarf Slayer and a former wealthy poet turned notorious adventurer.  Due to his position as the book’s main point of view character, much of Skavenslayer’s focus lies on Felix.  While there are still hints at his somewhat cowardly past, especially as he seems apprehensive before every single fight, Felix has become a much more fearless and dangerous being in this book, and he leads the way in several battles throughout Skavenslayer, proving himself a fantastic hero.  There are some interesting character moments for Felix throughout this book, especially as he encounters his brother, Otto, the first member of his family to reach out to him since his banishment.  There are some great comparisons between the wealthy Otto and the more adventurous Felix in Skavenslayer, and it was intriguing to see what Felix might have turned into if he was not bound to Gotrek.  I also liked how Felix developed more into his role as the sane straight man to Gotrek, and his dry humour really adds a lot of comedy to the books.  Overall, Skavenslayer is quite a strong outing for Felix, and he proves to be an outstanding central character.

Aside from Felix, the other main character is Gotrek, the mad, death-hungry Dwarf Slayer, who is constantly denied his desired doom in glorious combat due to his own unnatural skill.  Gotrek is his usual crude and disrespectful self throughout Skavenslayer, and it is an absolute joy to see him in battle, even if his portrayed as way too overpowered.  While he is a great character, Gotrek was underutilised in Skavenslayer, and he was mainly just a supporting player in the Felix-based stories, only appearing when there is a need for fighting.  Still, it was great to see him, and he does get a lot more attention in the next novel.

While Gotrek was a bit overlooked, King does a wonderful compromise by introducing an exceptional primary antagonist in the form of Grey Seer Thanquol, a powerful Skaven sorcerer who goes on to be a major recurring figure within the Gotrek and Felix novels and the wider Warhammer Fantasy universe.  Thanquol is an impressively entertaining character who represents the absolute best (or worst, depending on your point of view) of Skaven society.  He is insanely ambitious, arrogant, power-hungry and dangerous, and rose to power thanks to an unfortunate “accident” involving his predecessor, a loaded crossbow and an exploding donkey.  Due to his ambition and an unwillingness to share any glory, Thanquol spends just as much time plotting against his equally aspiring subordinates as he does attempting to conquer Nuln or kill Gotrek and Felix.  Indeed, several conflicts with the Skaven are due to Thanquol himself informing the protagonists about his rival’s plots, often through some hilarious letters which are clearly written by a Skaven (despite Thanquol’s own belief that they are masterful forgeries).  The sheer overconfidence, deluded self-belief and inability to take responsibility for his failings make Thanquol a particularly nasty antagonist, however, it is just so entertaining to see him strive and then fail, that you end up wanting him to live and succeed against his Skaven opponents.  Thanquol proves to be an excellent antagonist, and I really enjoyed seeing his alternative point-of-view which highlights the Skaven plans.  King really outdid himself coming up with this villainous rat-man, and he is one of the best things about Skavenslayer and the overall Gotrek and Felix series.

King has also filled Skavenslayer with an interesting collection of side characters who add a lot to the plot.  The author does a good job of introducing these major side characters throughout the various stories, and he manages to build them up and flesh out their personalities in a short amount of time.  There are great human supporting characters, such as Heinz and Doctor Drexler, and several fun and amusing Skaven.  The majority of these Skaven characters are leading members of the main clans who not only serve as secondary antagonists for the novel, but who are also cast as rivals to Thanquol’s rise to power.  I had a fantastic time seeing each of these Skaven characters in all their treacherous, self-serving glory, although my favourite had to be the aptly named Lurk Snitchtongue, who is a very fun and cowardly character.

If I had to make one major criticism, it would be about the complete lack of any decent female supporting characters.  While you can forgive some older fantasy books for their lack of gender diversity, it is a painfully obvious problem in Skavenslayer.  There are literally only two female characters of note within the novel, and both are badly written.  The first is Felix’s romantic partner, Elissa, who quickly becomes a major burden to the story by forming conflicts with Felix.  Their romance is thankfully over before the end of the book, and you cannot feel anything but relief as she leaves.  The other character is the ruler of Nuln, Countess Emmanuelle, who gets only a couple of lines at the end of the novel.  While her one scene does shine her in a good light, the rest of the novel hints that she is a vapid, lustful and incompetent ruler.  The underuse of female characters is probably going to be a major feature of Gotrek and Felix series in the future (for example, Daemonslayer only has one female character), however, I really hope that any who feature are written a lot better than the ones featured in Skavenslayer.

Just like I did with Trollslayer before it, I chose to listen to Skavenslayer on audiobook rather than grab a physical copy of the book.  I have a lot of love for the Warhammer Fantasy audiobooks, especially as they always perfectly capture the excitement, grim horror and elaborate fantasy of this franchise.  Skavenslayer was another great example of this, and I had a wonderful and thrilling time listening to this amazing novel in this format.  Much of the reason for this was the excellent narration by Jonathan Keeble, a brilliant narrator who has lent his voice to most of the Gotrek and Felix novels.  Keeble has an outstanding voice for dark fantasy stories such as this, and I loved the grim tone he gives to several of the characters, particularly Gotrek, as well as the sheer excitement that infects his tone whenever there is a fight sequence or dangerous scene.  Keeble also a lot of fun voicing the various Skaven characters, and he expertly mimics their high-pitched, whiney tones, which helps highlight their fickle and cowardly nature.  This excellent voice work helps turn the Skavenslayer audiobook into an absolute treat to listen to, and with a runtime of only 10 and a half hours, listeners will power through this in no time at all.

William King’s second Gotrek and Felix novel, Skavenslayer, was another outstanding and wildly enjoyable novel that I had an incredible time listening to.  Featuring a compelling connected narrative filled with intense action and fun villains, this is an amazing fantasy tale that is perfect for all Warhammer Fantasy fans.  I can think of no higher compliment for this book than to reveal that the moment I finished Skavenslayer, I immediately grabbed the next novel in the series, Daemonslayer, which proved to be just as much fun.

Skavenslayer 2

Throwback Thursday – Trollslayer by William King

Trollslayer Cover 2

Publisher: Games Workshop (Audiobook – August 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book One

Length: 9 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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.  In this latest Throwback Thursday article, I review a classic Warhammer Fantasy novel, the iconic Trollslayer by William King.

Over the last year or so, I have started to get back into the exciting and captivating extended universe that surrounds the Warhammer tabletop game franchise.  The Warhammer games are a lot of fun to play, but I have always deeply enjoyed the rich and extensive universe that has formed around it.  This is particularly true when it comes to the extensive literary world that has been created, with a huge collection of unique novels added every year.  I personally have barely scratched the surface of this franchise, having only recently read the exciting Space Marine novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker, and the fun crime novel Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.  For this review, however, I veer away from the science fiction based Warhammer 40,000, and instead look at a book in the Warhammer Fantasy universe.

The Warhammer Fantasy universe is set on a fantasy world where various races and factions fight for power, immortality, dark deities, and a general desire for bloodshed (Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne!) in both large-scale battles and smaller skirmishes.  I love the fantastic and thrilling world of Warhammer Fantasy, especially as I used to play (my preferred factions were the Empire and the Lizardmen).  While there are many great novels set in this universe, the most recognisable and well-established series are the Gotrek and Felix books.

The Gotrek and Felix novels are some excellent dark fantasy books that follow the titular heroes, Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, as they traverse their world, facing every single monster, demon or villain they can find.  Created by William King, this long-running series has also been authored by fellow writers Nathan Long, Josh Reynolds and David Guymer, the last of whom has just released the latest entry, Gitslayer.  I have always heard good things about this series over the years, and I have previously enjoyed some of the short stories featured online or in the White Dwarf magazine.  As a result, when I had the brainwave to expand my knowledge of the Warhammer canon, this is one of the main series I wanted to check out, and to do so properly, I had to start with the original novel, TrollslayerTrollslayer, which was originally released in 1999, is an interesting novel that features seven original Gotrek and Felix short stories, including Geheimnisnacht, which was originally written as a one-off in 1988.  These seven stories have been bundled together into one continuous narrative, which proves to be an excellent and entertaining fantasy adventure.

Trollslayer Cover

Felix Jaeger, the son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, used to live a blameless and dull life until he met the deranged Gotrek Gurnisson.  The son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, Felix’s life was changed forever when Gotrek saved his life.  Gotrek is a Slayer, a dwarf who, after committing a terrible crime, has sworn to seek out a glorious death in battle, and who now wanders the world to find a foe worthy of killing him.  After a particularly damaging night of drinking, Felix drunkenly swears to follow him on his adventures to compose an epic ballad about Gotrek’s glorious death.

Bound by his oath, Felix now reluctantly accompanies Gotrek wherever he goes.  Their latest adventures will take them far and wide, as they venture throughout the Empire and beyond, travelling to the notorious holdings of the Border Princes, the mountainous realms of the dwarves and even under the halls of the conquered dwarf city of Karak Eight Peaks.  While they experience many unique discoveries and locations, one thing remains the same: enemies lurk around every corner, and Gotrek and Felix are forced to battle against some of the most dangerous creatures in existence, including orcs, goblins, trolls, the undead, mutants, beastman and more.

However, the most dangerous foe they face may be something far more insidious and unknowable.  The fell powers of Chaos are gathering throughout the land, and Gotrek and Felix seem to constantly become wrapped up in their plots and vile missions.  With danger and deadly foes all around, will Gotrek find the glorious death he seeks, and will Felix be able to survive whatever might foe eventually manages to kill his companion?

Wow, that was a cool novel I really should have read years ago.  Trollslayer was a fantastic and exciting novel that does a great job exploring some of the more dangerous settings in the Warhammer Fantasy world with two amazing characters.  Featuring seven dark and compelling short stories, Trollslayer is an outstanding book, and I had an incredibly fun and entertaining time getting through its audiobook format.  Banded together by some journal entries which bring the separate stories together, Trollslayer has a fantastic joint narrative that presents the reader with a collection of epic adventures.

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The book begins with the original Gotrek and Felix short story, Geheimnisnacht (Night of Secrets).  The two companions are stuck out in the dangerous forests of the Empire during Geheimnisnacht, an auspicious night of the year.  After nearly being run over by a dark carriage on the road, Gotrek and Felix investigate the actions of a dangerous Chaos coven out in the woods, and find more than they bargained for.  This is a rather entertaining and short entry in Trollslayers that serves as a fun introduction to the main protagonists and their quest.  King does a great job setting up both characters and you soon get a fantastic glimpse into their compelling personalities.  The author presents a very dark story within this first tale, as the heroes discover and fight the true horrors of chaos.  An excellent and intense opening story that will get you pumped up for the rest of the book.

The next entry contained within Trollslayer is called Wolf Riders, which sees Gotrek and Felix at the very edge of the Empire with plans to venture to the fallen dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks.  After encountering a beautiful young woman, Felix convinces Gotrek to join the doomed expedition of a cursed, banished noble family as they journey to the Border Lands to set up their own settlement.  Hired on as guards, the two heroes are forced to protect the caravan against a ravenous Greenskin horde, who are determined to destroy every one of them.  However, the true threat may lie within the convoy, as it soon becomes clear that someone has their own nefarious plans to kill everyone journeying with them.  Wolf Riders is an incredible second entry in the collection of stories, and it is easily one of the best tales in Trollslayer.  Not only does it reinforce the likeability of the two protagonists, but it also contains its own compelling and impressive narrative.  King manages to achieve a lot in Wolf Riders, introducing a cohort of great characters, showing several intense action sequences, and even presenting a clever and malicious mystery.  The entire narrative comes together extremely well, and readers are soon wrapped up in the compelling tale of redemption and bloodshed, which culminates in a tragic and memorable ending that forever changes one protagonist.

The third story is The Dark Beneath the World, which follows on immediately after Wolf RidersThe Dark Beneath the World sees Gotrek, Felix and some new companions journey into the dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks, which was infamously conquered by greenskins and Skaven in ages past.  Seeking treasure, holy relics and a glorious battle, the adventurers will face untold horrors in the halls beneath the city.  However, nothing will prepare them for the true dangers of Karak Eight Peaks, as the restless dead are stirring in response to a monstrous presence.  This was another great story that really highlights have exciting and action packed one of these stories can be.  I love how King takes his great characters right into the heart of one of the most iconic and dangerous settings in the entire Warhammer canon, and it proves to be an amazing backdrop to this compelling story.  A brutal hack and slash epic with some very intense moments, this is an excellent and fast-paced addition to Trollslayer that was an extremely thrilling read.

From powerful action to great humour, the next entry is the slightly shorter The Mark of Slaanesh.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix return to the Empire, where they encounter some malicious cultists of the Chaos god Slaanesh in a small town.  Unfortunately for Felix, Gotrek is suffering from amnesia after a blow to the head.  Forced to shepherd a docile Slayer through the town’s many dangers, Felix takes drastic action to bring his friend back to his senses.  The Mark of Slaanesh represents a very intriguing change of pace, with more of a focus on humour, as a weary Felix is forced to contend with a pacifist Dwarf Slayer, an eccentric doctor, and comedic mutants.  There are several extremely funny moments in this short story, which helped to turn The Mark of Slaanesh into one of the most entertaining entries in the entire novel.  I particularly appreciate how King was able to craft together such a despicable central antagonist in quite a short period of time, and it was great to see his implied comeuppance towards the end of the story.

King again rapidly switches gears with the next entry in the book, Blood and Darkness, a grim war story set in the darkest forest in the Empire.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix come across a ravished village within the Drakwald Forest, which has been utterly destroyed by beastmen.  Finding a young survivor, Kat, Gotrek and Felix escort her through the woods to the next village.  However, a vengeful and ambitious champion of Chaos is close behind them, with unholy plans for Kat and anyone else she comes across.  Blood and Darkness is another exceptional entry in the series, which is probably my overall favourite Trollslayer story.  Loaded with action, fantastic new characters and a particularly gruesome premise, Blood and Darkness really stands out from some of the other stories in this book, and I was blown away by how dark King made the narrative.  I really loved the story’s complex antagonist, and the entire plot surrounding Kat comes full circle in a great way.  While it is a tad creepy to see just how young Kat is in this story, especially as Felix apparently falls in love with her in a future novel (she gets aged up like 20 years before this happens, but it is still weird), this was an impressive and powerful story that really showed how complex, powerful and mature a Warhammer story can be.

The penultimate story in Trollslayer is The Mutant Master, which again switches pace and has a more humorous tilt to it.  After being attacked on the road by a swarm of mutants, the protagonists arrive at a struggling village and soon discover that the mutants are being controlled by a sorcerer in a nearby tower.  Betrayed by the villagers, Gotrek and Felix find themselves as prisoners and soon must deal with an insidious sorcerer who shares a history with Felix.  This was another great short story that places the protagonists into a uniquely dangerous position.  King includes some excellent humour in this novel, especially in the scene where Felix and the sorcerer have a very entertaining encounter, which proves that everyone, even dark sorcerers, fall to pieces when encountering former classmates.  While much of this story is dedicated to humour, the author fits in a particularly dark moment towards the end of the novel, which pushes one protagonist further than ever.  Another awesome and memorable story, I powered through this one extremely quickly.

The final entry in this book is the intense Ulric’s ChildrenUlric’s Children sees Felix trudging through a snowed-in forest, attempting to escape the cold and the wolves.  When they hear the sounds of a fight up ahead, Felix gets separated from Gotrek, and ends up getting captured by a dangerous group of soldiers.  The soldier’s leaders end up being revealed as cultists of the Chaos god Tzeentch, who are desperate to capture a mysterious family living nearby, who have strange powers and strengths.  Caught up in their conflict, Felix soon finds himself trapped in a manor house with two very different monsters and must try to overcome the powers of Chaos that threaten to consume him.  This was another fantastic story that serves as a great conclusion to the entire novel.  While I think that Ulric’s Children was one of the weaker stories in Trollslayer, it was still a compelling and thrilling tale which readers will enjoy.  I loved the inclusion of werewolves in this novel and it was fun to see Felix attempt to overcome a dangerous foe without Gotrek’s determined backup.  With some intriguing foes and an exciting story, this is a fun and fantastic entry in the book which will leave readers wanting more Gotrek and Felix in the future.

King really has loaded Trollslayer with an amazing range of different stories that highlight the gritty adventures of two memorable and loveable characters.  I had a great time getting through each of the short stories contained within this novel, and I think that the author did a good job combining seven shorter stories together into one cohesive tale.  I love how each of the stories has some impressive action set pieces, and readers are given an in-depth look at the true dangers and darkness that inhabits the Warhammer world.  King has also ensured that each tale contains a compelling blend of humour, dramatic character development and dark fantasy elements, all of which produce an outstanding overall narrative.  It was also very cool to see just how dark and gruesome King could make his narratives, and quite a few elements of this book closely bordered the horror genre.  Since the stories were originally published in instalments, readers are in for some repetition, especially as King rehashes Gotrek and Felix’s origin in every entry, and you also get quick summaries of their prior adventures.  While this and other pieces of repetition (for example, Gotrek runs his finger over his axe blade in every tale) can be a bit annoying at times, I personally thought it was a small price to pay for such an awesome and epic book.

One of the most impressive things about Trollslayer is the complex and distinctive characters.  Naturally, the main characters are series protagonists Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, both of whom prove to be really fantastic and exciting characters.  King has come up with an exceptional pairing in these two characters, and I absolutely love the combination of a doomed dwarf Slayer and a disgraced human with a penchant for poetry.

As the primary narrator of the separate stories in this book, Felix gets a great deal of attention, and you really get to grips with his superb character throughout the book.  I loved the depiction of a former arrogant dandy who finds himself in a situation well over his head, and Felix has a “fun” time facing off against all sorts of monsters in this book.  While most of the novel depicts him as a bit of a coward, Felix does manage to achieve some major heroics and you cannot help but sympathise with the terrible situations he finds himself in.  While the use of multiple short stories does tend to backslide Felix’s character at times (he reverts to a coward at the start of each story), I did enjoy seeing some of the excellent development that occurs around Felix.  Not only does he grow more confident in his own abilities, but he also becomes harder with each adventure, especially as he experiences tragedy and despair around every corner.  It was actually hard to see how some of the more tragic events of the book affected him, but I really appreciated the amazing character work that King worked around him.

The titular Trollslayer, Gotrek Gurnisson, is one of the most beloved figures in Warhammer Fantasy lore, and a magnificent character who I really enjoyed.  Much of Gotrek’s past is shrouded in mystery, and all you really know is that he is a mighty warrior who previously committed some great crime that still haunts him to this day.  Determined to find a glorious death, Gotrek willingly walks into the most dangerous of places, but always survives, much to his displeasure (even doomed dwarves are far too stubborn and proud to simply let an enemy kill them).  King mostly paints Gotrek as a crude, rude and bloodthirsty being, which is a lot of fun to see.  However, there is so much more to Gotrek than killing and fighting, and you see several glimpses of his true inner self in this book, especially when he thinks about the past.  I loved how King keeps Gotrek as a mostly enigmatic figure, mostly by not showing any of the story from his point of view, and the reader is never quite sure what he is thinking or planning.  All of this results in an excellent and memorable protagonist, and I am deeply intrigued to see what sort of adventures he has in the future, as well as any revelations about his past.

Aside from Gotrek and Felix, Trollslayer contains a range of interesting and compelling characters, several of whom act as point-of-view figures at various parts of the book.  King does a really good job of introducing and utilising so many unique figures throughout his various stories, and it is simply amazing how well he can develop and establish his character in such a short amount of time.  Even though you only see some characters for a few pages, you quickly become quite invested in their stories, which is the sign of a really good author.  However, readers are advised not to get too attached to anyone, as most of the side characters will come to a gruesome and tragic end.  Still, these supporting characters are really fun, and I look forward to seeing what unique figures are introduced in future Gotrek and Felix books.

Trollslayer also features the dark and well-established background setting of the Warhammer Fantasy world, with the protagonists adventuring through many iconic locations.  King makes excellent use of this fantastic background throughout his story, and I loved seeing all the cool locations, interesting factions and dangerous monsters contained within the story.  This actually serves as a really good introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy world, and readers unfamiliar with the various aspects of Warhammer will learn a lot here.  King can really craft together some dark and dangerous locations with his writing, and I love how spooking and claustrophobic some of his settings felt, especially the ancient dwarven catacombs and the haunted, monster infested forests.  I also loved the sheer range of different creatures and races featured within Trollslayer, as the author includes as many foes as possible.  It was extremely awesome to see Gotrek and Felix cut their way through various greenskins, monsters, and servants of Chaos, and there is something for all fantasy fans within this book.  I am extremely keen to see what other monsters and races are utilised in the future novels, and I am sure they will be pretty amazing.

I ended up listening to the Trollslayer audiobook format, which was an outstanding way to experience the awesome adventures contained within this book.  With a decent run time of just under 10 hours, I powered through this audiobook in a matter of days, especially once I got caught up in the fantastic depictions of intense action and dark creatures.  I was also really drawn in by the impressive narration of Jonathan Keeble, who has lent his voice to all the Gotrek and Felix audiobooks, as well as several other Warhammer projects and some of my favourite historical fiction novels, such as the Eagle of the Empire series.  Keeble has an epic voice, and the sheer passion that he brings to Trollslayer is immediately obvious, especially during the action scenes, where his excited voice captures the intensity and movement of the fights.  I also felt that Keeble did an exceptional job bringing all of the characters to life in an impressive way.  I particularly loved the gruff voice that he used for Gotrek, which fit the doomed dwarf warrior perfectly, and he also does a really good job voicing the often terrified Felix.  I also found some of the voices that he used for the supporting characters to be really fun and fitting, and I had a lot of love for a couple of the crazed sorcerers/alchemists they encounter, which were quite amusing.  All of this helps to turn the Trollslayer audiobook into an outstanding experience, and I think that this will be the format I check out the future Gotrek and Felix novels out in.  I might also have to consider listening to some historical fiction novels on audiobook in the future, especially as I know that Keeble will do a wonderful job narrating them.

Trollslayer by William King is an exceptional and clever Warhammer Fantasy novel that showcases the exciting and powerful adventures of the iconic Gotrek and Felix.  Serving as the main introduction to these two iconic heroes, Trollslayer contains seven outstanding and wildly entertaining short stories with some fantastic and wacky plots.  Readers who check out Trollslayer are in for a heck of a lot of fun and will swiftly become fans of this great duo and their outrageous adventures.  A highly recommended read, I suddenly have some major plans to check out more Gotrek and Felix novels in the future.

Star Wars (2020): Volume One: The Destiny Path by Charles Soule and Jesús Saiz

Star Wars (2020) - Volume 1 Cover

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Star Wars (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Charles Soule

Artist: Jesús Saiz

Colour Artists: Arif Prianto, Jesús Saiz, Rachelle Rosenberg and Dan Brown

Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The next stage of the Star Wars comic universe continues as Charles Soule, Jesús Saiz and their team of talented artists present the first volume of the Star Wars (2020) series, The Destiny Path.

Star Wars (2020) #1 Cover

Shortly after the Disney buyout of Star Wars and their subsequent creation of a whole new canon, Marvel Comics started to develop a new range of Star Wars comics.  While there were several great series, limited series and standalone comics set during various periods of Star War history, the main series were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  These key comics, which included the Star Wars (2015), Darth Vader (2015) and Doctor Aphra (2016) series, did a fantastic job of filling in the gaps between these two films and presenting readers with some clever and unique adventures.  All these series came to an end in late 2019, with their plots coinciding with the start of events from The Empire Strikes Back.  In the wake of their cessation, Marvel announced four new Star Wars comic series that would take their place (after suffering some pandemic-related delays), set in the aftermath of The Empire Strikes Back.  While I have already looked at some of these comics, including the first entry of the Darth Vader (2020) series, I think it is time that I explored the flagship series of this new run of comics, the Star Wars (2020) series.

The Star Wars (2020) series will explore what happens to the main cast of protagonists after the events of The Empire Strikes Back and is set in the year or so between that film and Return of the Jedi.  This looks set to be a long-running series that will not only tell its own tale but will tie in to the events of the other current comics, probably resulting in some crossovers.  This first volume, The Destiny Path, contains issues #1-6 of the Star Wars (2020) series and serves as an excellent and compelling introduction to the rest of the series.

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Following the battle of Hoth, the Rebel Alliance is in disarray.  With their fleet scattered around the galaxy and the might of the Empire reigning supreme, these are the darkest days the Rebellion has ever faced, especially as the Empire appears to have found a way to locate their ships and hiding places.  The hope of the entire Rebel Alliance may lie in the hands of its greatest leaders and heroes, but, after the events on Bespin, even these shining beacons of rebellion have been damaged beyond recognition.

With Han Solo captured by the Empire and handed over to the bounty hunter Boba Fett, those on the Millennium Falcon are dispirited and lost.  However, finding a Rebel cell under attack prompts them into action.  Despite missing the man she loves, Princess Leia is determined to rescue him and revive the Rebel Alliance by any means necessary.  At the same time, reluctant Rebel recruit Lando Calrissian attempts to make himself useful, despite mistrust from everyone around him.  Finally, Luke Skywalker, after losing a hand and finding out the horrible truth of his parentage is in shock.  Worse, his meeting with Vader appears to have damaged his connection to the Force, and neither of his masters will appear to talk to him.

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As the Rebel Alliance seeks a way to survive, each of these players, with the help of Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, begin the next stage of their journey.  As Luke seeks a lightsaber, Leia looks to find a way to save Han and Alliance, while Lando looks for redemption in all the wrong places.  All their journeys lead the back to the scene of one of the worst moments of their past, Bespin.  But how far will Luke, Leia and Lando go to achieve their goes, and will they be able to survive the dangerous enemies chasing them?

This is an outstanding and intense Star Wars comic that does a wonderful job of setting up a brand-new series of exciting adventures.  Charles Soule, who has written some of the best Star War comics out there, creates an exceptional and captivating tale that highlights the tragic consequences of The Empire Strikes Back.  Featuring some incredible artwork, amazing big moments, and a perfect portrayal of some of the iconic original trilogy cast, this is an outstanding and awesome comic.

Star Wars (2020) #3 Cover

For this cool first volume in the Star Wars (2020) series, the author has come up with an extremely compelling and clever multi-part narrative that I deeply enjoyed.  The Destiny Path has a strongly character-driven story, following Luke, Leia and Lando as they attempt to recover from the traumatic events of The Empire Strikes Back.  The narrative starts right after the heroes escape from the Cloud City at Bespin (technically before the closing scene of The Empire Strikes Back) and places the shell-shocked characters right in the middle of a firefight against an intriguing new foe.  The next stage of the story contains an intriguing couple of sequences aboard the Rebel medical frigate, showing off some new angles to the film’s final scenes, while also following Lando and Chewie as they head to Tatooine to scope out Jabba’s palace.  This part of the narrative is very clever and exciting, especially as it paints Lando as a bit of a wildcard, with unclear loyalties.  The next section of the comic takes Luke, Leia and Lando back to Bespin, each for a different reason.  There are some high octane and emotionally rich comic issues here, especially as all three of the characters are forced to face up to their recent mistakes and losses, while also taking on the Imperial garrison stationed there.  All of this leads up to the final part of the book, which is primarily focused on Luke, who journeys to several distant planets following a vision to find a new lightsaber.  There are some really cool sequences here as Luke continues to battle his own personal demons (and a real one, but we’ll get to that later), before eventually coming away with an unexpected prize.  All these disparate storylines work really well on their own, but their real strength lies in the way in which they tie together perfectly throughout The Destiny Path.  You end up getting a fantastic story as you follow one major event to the next, and I liked the unique tales contained within each section.  All of this serves as an awesome and powerful start to the Star Wars (2020) series, and there are plenty of hints of awesomeness to come as the Rebels bounce back while Luke continues to grow as a Jedi.  Epic Star Wars storytelling at its best!

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There is no way that I can talk about The Destiny Path without geeking out about some of the cool and memorable Star Wars elements and references featured within.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed seeing the intriguing and dramatic aftermath of The Empire Strikes Back that Soule envisions here, especially as he took the time to explore the various traumas and consequences of the events at Bespin.  This was a fantastic heart of the entire volume which is going to appeal to all fans of the Star Wars franchise.  Other cool Star Wars moments that fans will love include the mysterious events occurring around the Skywalker lightsaber.  This lightsaber, which disappears at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and reappears in The Force Awakens, is a major item throughout the Star Wars canon and I liked seeing Luke trying to find it in the bowels of Cloud City, only for it to slip into another mysterious person’s grip.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that in the future, and foresee it being a fascinating narrative thread throughout this entire series.

In addition to these elements from the films, Soule also fits in a lot of other cool references and call-backs to previous Star Wars comics, especially ones that he has had a hand in.  The most obvious of these was the appearance of Verla, who Luke encounters while trying to find a new lightsaber.  Verla is a Force-sensitive woman who first appeared in The Burning Seas volume of Soule’s Dark Lord of the Sith comic series.  It was great to see that Verla survived, and Soule does a good job working her into this story, portraying her as the damaged and cynical former Jedi student who is just trying to survive.  Verla’s inclusion allows Luke to learn more about Vader, both as a Jedi hunter and a Jedi named Anakin, and it was interesting to finally see him learn about the Jedi purges, Order 66, and the Inquisitors.  I also noticed a lot of mentions about the High Republic in this volume.  I really should not be too surprised about this, especially as Soule is one of the leading creative minds behind the High Republic range, having written the first novel in the series, Light of the Jedi.  It looks like Star Wars (2020) is going to rely on several events from the High Republic books, and I am intrigued about how Soule will work them into his cool story.  All of these Star Wars elements are extremely cool, and I think that they will deeply appeal to every fan of this franchise.  While mega fans are obviously going to love some of the more obscure references that Soule fit into this comic, this series is also very easy to enjoy if you have a more basic knowledge of Star Wars.

Star Wars (2020) #4 Cover

I do have to quickly highlight that one of my favourite parts of this entire comic is one of the final sequences in the volume.  In this sequence, Luke visits an abandoned Jedi temple which is filled with a mound of untouched treasures, including a lightsaber which he desperately needs.  However, it turns out that this entire building is a trap (Luke was warned, to be fair), as he is quickly attacked by the ghost of the Grand Inquisitor.  The Grand Inquisitor is an awesome character who served as the main antagonist of the first season of the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  Soule has previously utilised him in his Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, especially the first two volumes, Imperial Machine and Legacy’s End, but this current comic is set after his death in Rebels.  There are so many cool elements to the Grand Inquisitor’s return in this comic, including a fantastically drawn fight between him and Luke, where Luke encounters a double-bladed lightsaber for the first time, and I loved the Grand Inquisitor’s fiery, spiritual appearance.  However, the best part of this whole unique inclusion was the characters final interaction with Darth Vader.  Here it is revealed that Vader is the one trapping the Inquisitor’s spirit in this world, using him as a tool and a trap.  When the Inquisitor begs Vader for his release, Vader refuses, as the Inquisitor still has use to him.  The forlorn spirit starts to fade, but not before sadly uttering “there are worst things than death”.  This is an outstanding call-back to the character’s final words in Rebels, and it was so cool to see his morbid prediction come to pass.  This whole sequence really pushed The Destiny Path up a level for me, and I love how the creative team worked this into this fantastic and awesome comic.

Easily one of the best parts of this entire comic is the creative team’s portrayal of the iconic Star Wars characters who serve as the main protagonists of this amazing first volume.  Soule has done an incredible job writing a character-driven narrative around these protagonists, and I love his in-depth examination of their psyches and actions following The Empire Strikes Back.  The author pulls together some great storylines around these characters, and I loved seeing what amazing adventures they went on between these two films.

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One of the main characters explored during this book is the original Star Wars hero, Luke Skywalker.  Now, Luke is going through a lot at this point, having just had his hand chopped off and learned that his father is Darth Vader.  Luke spends most of the first part of the novel absolutely traumatised by these events and ends up doubting himself while also concealing this revelation from his friends.  To compound his issues, Luke finds his connection to the Force somehow damaged or fractured, as neither of his masters, Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, are reaching out to him.  This results in a more scattered Luke, and I loved the way that Soule dove into his damaged mindset.  There are some great and powerful moments throughout this comic that show off Luke’s trauma, as well some dramatic moments when he lashes out uncontrollably with the Force.  After receiving some visions and engaging in a hunt for a new lightsaber, Luke starts to come to terms with the events surrounding him, and it is great to see him recover somewhat, including by learning more about his father.  This slight reconciliation with his identity enables Luke to regain his control over the Force, and there are some very cool scenes where he uses his powerful and advanced abilities against the Empire.  Overall, this was a pretty spectacular look at Luke, and I really appreciated the cool story that Soule spun around him.  It will be interesting to see what is going to happen to Luke in the future entries of this comic, especially as he continues along his journey to become a full-fledged Jedi.  It will also be cool to see more of Luke’s new yellow lightsaber, which was an intriguing decision by Soule which I think is going to really pay off.

Star Wars (2020) #5 Cover

In addition to Luke, a lot of the story focuses on Leia.  Like the rest of the characters, Leia is pretty traumatised, as she discovered her love for Han only to lose him in seconds.  While at times she seems in control, especially as she works to salvage the Rebels fleet, she is clearly still impacted by this loss.  As a result, she desperately attempts to find a way to save him from Boba Fett, even if that means risking herself and her friends.  Her recklessness leads her back to Bespin with the others as she attempts to find more about the carbonite freezing process.  While Leia’s arc is possibly the least interesting (which isn’t a criticism; it’s just the other two main characters have some outstanding stories), she does have some great moments in this comic, and I especially loved the visual of her also trapped in carbonite.  It was also great to see more of badass Rebel leader Leia in this comic as she steps up and takes charge to protect those around her.  I imagine that the creative team have some great ideas for Leia in the future and I cannot wait to see what they are.

The other main character of this volume was the flashy and charismatic rogue, Lando Calrissian, who finds himself stuck with the other protagonists after helping them flee from Bespin.  Despite his attempts to do the right thing at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Lando is still not trusted by anyone, as they blame him for his betrayal and the loss of Han.  As a result, Lando attempts to find some form of redemption with them, although he mostly comes across as a self-centred bastard.  Soule works a really intriguing storyline around Lando, and I loved seeing his meeting with Jabba the Hutt as he makes some initial inquiries into Han’s location.  Lando is able to talk his way out of a meeting with Jabba, although the reader is left wondering whether he plans to sell out the Rebels.  This nicely leads into his storyline on Bespin as he accompanies Luke and Leia back there.  It was great to see Lando returning to his city, especially as he manages to con his way through a range of different Imperial obstacles, and he was fully in his roguish element.  While Lando appears to return to Cloud City for selfish reasons, such as throwing a big middle-finger to the Empire, his jaunt does awaken his inner hero a little, and you get a glimpse of the person we eventually see in Return of the Jedi.  Lando is easily the most entertaining character in the entire comic and most of The Destiny Path’s humour is derived from his interactions with most of the other characters.  He is a very funny character, and it was great to see so much focus on him after barely featuring in the last stage of Star Wars comics.  I look forward to seeing what Soule and the creative team have for him in the future, and I think he is going to be the MVP character of the entire series.

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Aside from the three main characters above, The Destiny Path also includes a great range of other characters from various points in Star Wars history.  Like its precursor comic, Star Wars (2020) also follows Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, although I think these three great characters were a little overshadowed by Luke, Leia and Lando in this volume.  Chewie does have a bunch of fun moments throughout the comic, mostly in his interactions with Lando, and it is entertaining to see him be forced to deal with the cocky former friend.  R2-D2 does have a great sidekick time with Luke, and it was always fun to see him save the mighty Jedi’s life again and again.  There is also an interesting focus on a couple of new or lesser-known characters.  For example, it looks like Soule is going to spend a bit of time following Kes Dameron and Shara Bey, the parents of a certain Poe Dameron.  The Destiny Path also introduces an intriguing new antagonist in the form of Commander Zahra, a fanatical Imperial officer placed in charge of eliminating the remnants of the Rebel Alliance.  Zahra is tactical genius who I understand is going to have a major role in some upcoming comics.  This volume proves to be an excellent introduction to this cool new character, especially as it establishes her dangerous intelligence, murderous mentality and the insane grudge she bears against Leia, all while she commands the unique Star Destroyer, Tarkin’s Will, which still bears scars from being hit by wreckage of the original Death Star.  Zahra proves to be an outstanding antagonist, and I cannot wait to see what deviousness and insanity she brings to the rest of the series.

I definitely need to highlight the incredible and eye-catching artwork that was an outstanding and memorable feature of this awesome comic.  The artistic team behind this comic did an amazing job from start to finish, and every page was a visual treat for the eyes.  While all the art in this comic is great, there are a few things that really stood out to me, such as character design.  The artists do such an incredible job capturing the main characters throughout this comic, especially in the first issue where all their post-The Empire Strikes Back pain and emotion is on full display.  It was uncanny how similar these characters looked to their portrayal in the film, and it is a testament to the artists’ amazing ability.  There are also several awesome combat sequences scattered throughout the comic and I loved the way in which the art brought them to life.  A particularly good example of this was the opening space battle between the Empire and a small Rebel fleet.  The artists come up with an incredible background for this fight, which takes place between a sun and a concentrated barrage of green turbolaser bolts, which are being used to fence the Rebels in place.  This was so visually pretty, and it really enhanced the cool story and fighter combat that was taking place in front of it.  I also deeply enjoyed the way in which the artists have recreated several key scenes from The Empire Strikes Back.  These scenes, which include Luke losing his hand, finding out that Vader is his father and Han giving his iconic “I know” to Leia, are scattered throughout key parts of The Destiny Path.  Not only are these cool visually, but they are also clever from a writing point of view, dragging the readers back to the emotional impact of these events and driving how much they are still sticking in the mind of the protagonists.  I cannot overstate how awesome this art is and I had an absolute blast seeing every explosion, Force burst and clever flashback that they were able to fit in.

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Well, if the above multi-page rant above didn’t give it away, then I’ll say it clearly here: this comic is incredible!  Soule, Saiz and the other talented artists have done an amazing job with this first volume of the Star Wars (2020) series, and The Destiny Path is an epic and awesome read.  I loved the in-depth examination of these key characters after The Empire Strikes Back and there are so many cool Star Wars elements worked into the story.  This is one of my favourite Star Wars comics and it gets a full five-star rating from me.  I cannot wait to see what extraordinary stories and powerful artform this fantastic creative team comes up with next and I need to order the next volume in now.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 March 2021)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Three

Length: 16 hours and 19 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best Star Wars tie-in series comes to an epic and impressive end, as Alexander Freed presents Star Wars: Victory’s Price, the amazing third and final entry in the awesome Alphabet Squadron trilogy.

Since its inception in 2014, the current Star Wars extended universe has featured an amazing range of novels that tie into the various movies and television series.  One of the best has been the Alphabet Squadron trilogy from acclaimed author Alexander Freed.  Alphabet Squadron is a particularly compelling trilogy that follows a fantastic group of mismatched Rebel and Imperial pilots who continue to fight in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi.  This series has so far featured two excellent entries: the great introductory novel Alphabet Squadron, and the outstanding second entry, Shadow Fall, both of which I have deeply enjoyed.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the series ends and I think that Freed has left the best to last with this epic and powerful read.

The Emperor and Darth Vader may be dead, and the second Death Star destroyed, but the war is far from over.  Nearly a year after the battle of Endor, conflict still reigns in the galaxy between the forces of the New Republic and the remnants of the Empire.  In nearly every battlefield, the Empire’s forces are in retreat and disarray, apart from the notorious pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, better known as Shadow Wing.  Led by the dangerous Imperial TIE Fighter ace, Colonel Soran Keize, Shadow Wing continue to bring death and destruction to the Empire’s enemies, slipping away when their vile deeds are done.

However, despite their skills and strategies, Shadow Wing is in constant danger as New Republic forces, under the command of General Hera Syndulla, are pursuing them.  Syndulla is determined to end the threat of Shadow Wing utilising the ragtag pilots of the unique unit known as Alphabet Squadron, each of whom has a score to settle with Shadow Wing, to lead the fight against them.  However, the members of Alphabet Squadron, Wyl Lark, Chass na Chadic, Nath Tensent and Kairos, are still recovering from their last traumatic encounter with Shadow Wing on Cerberon, as well as the revelation that their former leader, Yrica Quell, was an active participant of Operation Cinder, the Emperor’s genocidal last order to destroy multiple disloyal planets.

As Hera and Alphabet Squadron attempt to find their prey, they begin to discover just how dangerous the cornered Shadow Wing has become, as their opponents begin to enact a new version of Operation Cinder.  Worse, Alphabet Squadron are shocked to discover that Yrica Quell is still alive and has re-joined her old comrades in Shadow Wing.  As the two forces engage in battle again, the loyalties of Alphabet Squadron will be tested like never before while Quell attempts to determine just whose side she is truly on.  The conflict will finally end above the skies of Jakku, as the Imperial and New Republic fleets engage in their final battle.  Can Alphabet Squadron finally put an end to the evils of Shadow Wing, or will Soran Keize’s master plan change the entire galaxy forever?

Now this is what all pieces of Star Wars fiction should be like.  Victory’s Price is an exceptional and impressive novel that had me hooked from the very beginning.  Not only does Freed do an amazing job of wrapping up the Alphabet Squadron trilogy but he also provides the reader with fantastic action sequences and some outstanding characters.  This is easily one of the best Star Wars novels I have read in ages and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

For this final book, Freed has come up with a powerful story set within the iconic Star Wars universe.  Starting right after the events of Shadow Fall, Victory’s Price sees the members of Alphabet Squadron separated and traumatised as their protracted and personal conflict with Shadow Wing begins.  This leads into a series of exciting encounters and battles in space as Alphabet Squadron pursues Shadow Wing during their latest mission, while the leader of Shadow Wing hatches a plan to end the war on his terms.  At the same time, each of the characters attempts to deal with issues or distress raised in the previous novels, whether it be Quell’s conflicted loyalties or Chass’s post-fight trauma.  All of this leads to some epic and impressive final confrontations as the two sides meet for the very last time.  This was an extremely good character-driven read, and I loved the very cool way that Freed finished off this amazing series. 

While it is an amazing Star Wars novel, Freed focuses more on the war part of the book, turning this into a gritty story of survival, loyalty and conflict, which makes for a powerful piece of fiction.  While obviously best enjoyed by those readers familiar with the rest of the series, Victory’s Price is a very accessible novel which new readers can follow without any trouble.  Thanks to the awesome use of multiple character perspectives, Victory’s Price has an excellent flow to it, and the readers are supplied with clever twists, cool action sequences and impressive character moments as the protagonists come to terms with their place in the universe and the constant fighting.  This ended up being quite an intense tale of war and life, which not only perfectly wrapped up the Alphabet Squadron series but which also had me engrossed from the very minute I started reading it.

One of the major things that I liked about this book was the way in which it added to the Star Wars expanded universe.  This series has always done a cool job of exploring what happened after Return of the Jedi, and it is always interesting and somewhat more realistic to see that the war did not end as soon as the Emperor died.  However Freed has painted this period as a particularly dark and deadly part of the war, and I love seeing how he envisioned what happened to members of the New Republic and Empire after Endor.  Victory’s Price focuses on the very end of the civil war, showing another side of the events that lead up to the battle of Jakku and fitting its original characters into this conflict.  This is a cool part of the book, and I loved seeing another version of the epic battle of Jakku, a major conflict that has been featured in several other novels and pieces of fiction.  Freed also takes the time to explore and answer several other intriguing questions, such as the mystery behind the Emperor’s messengers, the creepy red-clad droids who project holograms of the Emperor’s face, which sought out various Imperial commanders after Endor and ordered the various genocides of Operation Cinder.  The solution surrounding the messengers ends up being rather intriguing, and there are even some clever parallels to World War II in there.  Due to the intriguing elements of Star Wars lore featured within, Victory’s Price, like the rest of the Alphabet Squadron series, will probably be enjoyed most by major fans of the franchise, but there are a lot of compelling elements that readers of all knowledge bases will appreciate.  This was truly an exceptional piece of Star Wars fiction and I cannot wait to see what Freed adds to the canon next time.

I really must highlight the outstanding action scenes that Freed came up with for this book.  I am a man who likes his Star War’s action, and I have to say that Victory’s Price has some of the best sequences that I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying.  Due to the novel’s focus on fighter pilots, there are naturally a huge number of amazing combat scenes as the rival pilots engage in complex battles in space.  Freed has saved the best for last in this final Alphabet Squadron novel, as the opposing pilots find themselves fighting in a range of unique situations.  The battle scenes are extremely well crafted, filled with elaborate details and fantastic depictions of complex manoeuvres and clever tactics that are guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat with their intense action.  They are also quite emotionally rich, as you witness your favourite characters constantly face near-death experiences in this final entry in the series.  Highlights of these great battle sequences included two fantastic duels between the protagonists and the leader of Shadow Wing, which sees some fancy flying between some of the most skilled pilots in the series in some very distinctive landscapes.  I also really loved the final, elaborate battle set above Jakku, which proved to be a major part of the second half of the book.  Not only do you get the desperate and packed main conflict between the entire New Republic and Imperial fleets, which features destruction and death in every direction, but you also get a more private and quiet final battle between a group of Alphabet Squadron led New Republic fighters and Shadow Wing.  This smaller pitched battle between the two sides fits perfectly into the midst of the wider conflict and is filled with personal turmoil and antagonism as these two rival squadrons meet for a final time.  All these battles come out as being extremely epic and powerful, and I loved every second of the gritty and deadly fights they contained.

While I have a lot of love for Victory’s Price’s epic story, intense action, and clever Star Wars connections, easily the best thing about this book are the complex and well-written characters.  Each of the major characters featured in Victory’s Price have been introduced in the previous Alphabet Squadron novels with some complex and powerful storylines.  In Victory’s Price, all these great arcs reach a climax as the characters meet their final destiny and their stories comes to an end.  I really enjoyed the satisfying conclusions that Freed came up with for his outstanding characters, although in many ways it was sad to see their stories finish.  Still, I really appreciated all the great character arcs contained in this final novel, and Freed ensures they go through the emotional wringer before they go.

At the forefront of these outstanding characters are the five members of Alphabet Squadron who have served as the focal point for the entire series.  The pilots in Alphabet Squadron, so named for their use of a different Rebel Alliance fighter (A-Wing, X-Wing, B-Wing, U-Wing and Y-Wing), are layered and complex individuals, each of whom has experienced their own trauma or betrayal throughout the course of the lengthy war.  All five of these original characters have gone through significant development throughout the course of the previous two novels, and Freed does an exceptional job continuing their journeys in this final book.

The main protagonist of this series is Yrica Quell, a former member of Shadow Wing, who joined Alphabet Squadron in the first novel to help neutralise her former Imperial comrades.  However, it was eventually revealed that Quell, despite claiming she defected from the Empire after refusing to participate in Operation Cinder, aided in the destruction of a planet.  This revelation caused a massive rift in her relationship with the rest of Alphabet Squadron, and she ended up reuniting with Shadow Wing at the end of the second novel.  In this final book, it is revealed that Quell has infiltrated Shadow Wing to bring them down from the inside.  However, upon spending time with her Imperial comrades, she begins to experience doubts about her plan, especially as she sees that the Imperials are just as damaged by the war as she and the New Republic pilots are.  Her plans are further complicated due to her relationship with the leader of Shadow Wing, Soran Keize, her former mentor and the person who initially convinced her to defect to the New Republic.  Quell still has an immense amount of respect for Keize, and strongly believes in several of his plans.  This re-remembered loyalty to Shadow Wing strongly conflicts with her friendships with Alphabet Squadron and the guilt she feels for her role in Operation Cinder, placing Quell in a major quandary for most of the book.  This uncertainty and inner conflict is a really clever part of Quell’s story, and the reader is deeply impacted by her struggle and conflicted loyalties.  This was easily one of the best and most powerful character arcs in Victory’s Price and I really appreciated the outstanding character story that Freed set around Quell.

Victory’s Price also spends a significant amount of time following Quell’s fellow Alphabet Squadron members, Wyl Lark and Chass na Chadic, both of whom have compelling arcs that highlight different aspects of warring soldiers.  Wyl Lark is the young, optimistic member of the squadron who took over leadership at the end of the second novel.  Lark has developed a significant amount throughout the course of this series, and it is great to see him come into his own as a leader and pilot.  However, despite his apparent ease at the role, Lark is plagued by doubts and concerns about the morality of this fight, especially as it conflicts with some of the teachings of his race.  He spends a great deal of this final book coming to terms with his morals, and even attempts to once again contact the members of Shadow Wing to try and find some common ground or a way to end the conflict.  His actions go a long way to humanising the antagonists of the novel and his hope is a refreshing beacon of light in this darker Star Wars book.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the way in which Lark attempts to change the outcome of the war his way, and it was a fascinating addition to the story. 

Chass, on the other hand, is easily the most damaged character in the entire series.  A music-loving veteran pilot who is more afraid of the end of the war and her inevitable slide into irrelevance and despair than her own death, Chass has always been on edge throughout the series.  However, in Victory’s Price, Chass is even more traumatised, especially after learning of the betrayal of her love interest, Quell (which is an intriguing LGBT+ relationship for a Star Wars novel) and has since turned to the teachings of a cult to gain some clarity.  Despite this, Chass is still driven by her anger and her rage and is constantly lashing out at everyone around her, with her death wish a constant anchor around her neck.  Freed has written a complex and moving story around Chass and her suffering, and I deeply appreciate the portrayal of her as a troubled veteran.  I think that Chass’s story comes to a fantastic end in this final novel, especially as she gets closure with several important people in her life.  Both characters are incredibly well written and are fantastic examples of Freed’s exceptional writing ability.

Next up are the final two Alphabet Squadron pilots, Nath Tensent and Kairos.  While both characters have been somewhat overshadowed throughout the series, Freed has developed some intriguing storylines around them which come full circle perfectly in this final novel.  Nath Tensent, a pilot who served both the Empire and the Rebels during the war, has an enjoyable and likeable personality and is the sort of guy who quickly becomes everyone’s best friend.  However, despite the easygoing façade he projects to the world, even Nath is feeling the effects of the war and the constant worry and responsibility is getting to him.  This is particularly exacerbated in Victory’s Price when he becomes a decorated military hero with greater responsibilities and is forced to balance his own selfish goals with the lives of people who look up to him, as well as his very strong concerns for Wyl Lark.  This results in a particularly clever and enjoyable arc, and it was great to see him finally take some responsibility in this war.  I liked the way in which Freed ended Nath’s storyline, especially as it potentially opens another series in the future. 

The final member of the squadron is the mysterious Kairos, an alien of unknown origin with a strong hatred for the Empire and terrifying combat skills.  Despite her intriguing introduction in Alphabet Squadron, Kairos was somewhat left out of the second book after receiving an injury.  However, this is more than rectified in Victory’s Price, as Kairos is featured more prominently and we finally get to see some of her backstory.  Freed comes up with quite the intriguing, if tragic, story for Kairos, and it was fascinating to see her unique alien beliefs and culture, as well as a powerful story of renewal and redemption that accompanies her.  Kairos becomes quite close to two characters in this book, especially after the closest people in her life died in the previous novel, and it was great to see her finally connect, even if only for a short while.  Freed did a fantastic job setting up Kairos’ story in the previous two novels, and I personally loved finally getting some answers regarding this curious character’s identity.

Aside from the members of Alphabet Squadron, several other characters are also shown in great prominence throughout this book.  The one I liked the most was Hera Syndulla, the New Republic general commanding Alphabet Squadron.  Hera is one of the few characters in this novel who Freed did not come up with, as Hera originated in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series and serves as a bridging character to the larger franchise.  Due to how much I love Star Wars: Rebels, I have really enjoyed seeing more of Hera in this series, not only because I am very curious about her post-Rebels life but because she also serves as a great mentor character to the members of Alphabet Squadron.  Hera features a lot more prominently in this final novel and her perspectives are shown nearly as much as the members of Alphabet Squadron.  This extra perspective really added a lot to the story as a whole and I personally really enjoyed seeing Hera take charge and attempt to hunt down Shadow Wing, while also attempting to determine the course of the entire war.  I also really enjoyed the fact that this book shows Hera’s role in the battle of Jakku, which as the largest space battle in the entire civil war, you had to assume she would be a part of.  Hera is naturally a bit of a badass in this battle, as you would expect, and I appreciated that Freed featured more of her in this novel.

The other major character featured within Victory’s Price is Colonel Soran Keize.  Keize is a fantastically complex character who serves as the leader of Shadow Wing and Quell’s Imperial mentor.  Despite nominally being the antagonist of this book, Keize is portrayed as a more of a tragic and misunderstood figure, one who is sick of war and who only has the best concerns of his men at heart.  As a result, Keize is running his own game throughout Victory’s Price and works to get the best result for the members of Shadow Wing.  His convictions, sense of honour and understandable motivations make him a hard character to dislike, and his role in mentoring Quell ensures that she is extremely conflicted when it comes to betraying him.  Keize is also probably the best pilot in this entire series, as he is regarded as the Empire’s ace of aces, and Victory’s Price is where you get to see him soar as he engages in several great battles and duels.  Thanks to this, and his curious character development, Keize is a great character to follow, and I really enjoyed the unique tale Freed told through him. 

Freed also focuses on some of the other pilots on both the New Republic and Imperial sides.  This results in a great combination of complex side or minor characters, each of whom have their own reasons for fighting in the war.  Freed attempts to show that, despite fighting on different sides of the war, these characters really are not that different.  Instead, all of them are soldiers, with several similarities, including their own trauma, PTSD and issues with the war that they are fighting in.  I think it is a testament to Freed’s writing ability that he was able to get me to care about members of the Imperial navy, and it was pretty spectacular the way in which he attempted to show the humanity buried deep within them.  It does mean that the action sequences more emotionally loaded and potentially devastating as you end up not wanting to see some of the pilots dying, but I really appreciated the way in which Freed took the time to explore these compelling side characters.

While I have previously enjoyed the first two Alphabet Squadron novels in their paperback format, circumstances required me to check out Victory’s Price as an audiobook instead, which was pretty damn awesome.  Not only did Victory’s Price feature the usual blend of iconic sound effects and music that makes all Star Wars audiobooks such a treat to enjoy, but I found that the story flowed incredibly well in this format.  With a lengthy runtime of 16 hours and 19 minutes, I absolutely blasted through this book as I became so engrossed in the awesome story and the way in which it was performed as an audiobook.  I also thought that the use of the iconic Star Wars music in the Victory’s Price was particularly impressive, and not only did the music make several of the extended space battle sequences even more epic, but they also really highlighted some of the most emotional scenes in the book and made them strike my soul even more emphatically.  I also really enjoyed the amazing narration from January LaVoy, who has previously provided her voice to the other Alphabet Squadron books.  LaVoy is a particularly skilled narrator whose work on the Star Trek: Discovery tie-in novel, Die Standing, I really enjoyed.  Not only does LaVoy present the awesome details of Victory’s Price in a quick and exciting manner, making each of the action scenes sound particularly cool, but she also provides some great voices for the various characters.  Each of the main characters gets a unique voice which fits them perfectly and which really helps the listener get to grips with their personalities and inner thoughts.  While all of the character’s voices were done extremely well, the best voice that LaVoy did was probably Hera Syndulla’s, which sounded extremely close to the character’s voice in the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  All of this helps to make Victory’s Price’s audiobook an immensely enjoyable experience and I would highly recommend this format to anyone and everyone.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price is an exceptional and powerful novel from Alexander Freed that is one of the best books I have so far read in 2021.  Featuring a dark and gritty war story set during a fascinating period of Star Wars history, Victory’s Price perfectly wraps up the impressive Alphabet Squadron trilogy while also providing some cathartic conclusions to outstanding character arcs that Freed has built up during the previous book.  I absolutely loved this final novel (hence the massive review), and I think that this was probably the best entry in the entire series.  A highly recommended read, especially if you have already enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, this was a truly epic Star Wars novel.

Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume One: Dark Heart of the Sith

Darth Vader - Dark Heart of the Sith

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: Darth Vader (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Greg Pak

Artist: Raffaele Ienco

Colour Artist: Neeraj Menon

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the first entries in a new set of Star Wars comics is here and it is pretty damn awesome, as Greg Pak, Raffaele Ienco and Neeraj Menon present the first volume of the 2020 Darth Vader series, Dark Heart of the Sith.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains issues #1-5 of the Darth Vader (2020) comic book series which takes place right after The Empire Strikes Back.  The Darth Vader (2020) series is part of a new range of Star Wars comics which include the Star Wars (2020), Doctor Aphra (2020) and Bounty Hunters series, all of which are set in the year between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  These comics follow on from earlier series which were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  This latest round of comics attempts to provide details about what occurred between the events of the second and third films, as well as create some new and exciting adventures.  All of the comics in this range sound fantastic, and I have been eagerly anticipating all of them, especially Darth Vader (2020) due to all the potential for action and drama that it has.

To tell this unique tale, Marvel have utilised the fantastic team of author Greg Pak, artist Raffaele Ienco and colour artist Neeraj Menon.  Greg Pak is a film director and author who has written several amazing comics in his career, with a particular focus on the Hulk and Hercules series for Marvel.  I am somewhat familiar with Pak’s work, enjoying his current run of Firefly comics for Boom!.  I am a little less familiar with Ienco and Menon (although Menon did work as a colourist on the Target Vader limited series), but both are experienced artists who have worked on some intriguing-sounding projects in the past.  This is an intriguing team, and they came together to produce an excellent and powerful Darth Vader story.

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During the climatic events of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader revealed that he was Anakin Skywalker to his son, Luke, and offered him a chance to rule the galaxy by his side.  However, Luke refused to join him out of fear and disgust, choosing instead to plunge to an unknown fate beneath Cloud City.  Now, rejected and betrayed, Vader finds himself full of rage and determined to seek revenge on anyone who kept his son from him and made him weak.

Tracing Luke’s life before the Rebellion, Vader attempts to find anyone he can take his frustrations out on.  But with everyone in Luke’s past dead and beyond his wrath, Vader decides to investigate what happened to his wife, Padmé Amidala, after their final confrontation on Mustafar.  Investigating a listening device left in Padmé’s apartments on Coruscant, Vader travels to a hidden Rebel base where he makes the startling discovery of a woman with a shocking resemblance to an older Padmé.

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Despite the initial shock, Vader is soon able to determine that this is not his dead wife returned from the grave but the Queen’s Shadow, Sabé.  Sabé was once Padmé’s most loyal friend, handmaiden, bodyguard and double, and her death has haunted Sabé for years.  Determined to use Sabé to find the answers he is looking for; Vader decides to work with the former handmaiden to find out the truth of Padmé’s last moments.  The information that they need apparently resides on Naboo, and Vader is forced to relive the ghosts of his past life as Anakin Skywalker to find the truth.  However, more treachery awaits Vader on Naboo as a secret organisation waits to kill him.  The Handmaidens of Amidala know who truly killed their mistress, and they are finally ready to take their revenge.

What is it about Darth Vader that makes it impossible for someone to create a bad comic about him?  I mean, seriously, all the previous Darth Vader comics in the current canon have been absolute masterpieces, from the epic 2015 Darth Vader series (check out my reviews for Volume One: Vader, Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets and the crossover comic Vader Down), the impressive prequel series Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (check out my reviews for Volume Two: Legacy’s End and Volume Three: The Burning Seas), the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars series, Skywalker Strikes, or the fun limited series, Dark Visions.  Each of these comics has been impressive in its own way, and in each of them Darth Vader shines as the ultimate badass.  This first volume of the new Darth Vader series is no exception as it follows Vader through a harrowing journey of discovery that takes him back into his tumultuous past and explores the consequences of his actions at the formation of the Empire.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains an epic and emotional narrative which follows one of fiction’s greatest villains after he encounters one of the biggest setbacks in his life.  Set mere moments after Vader’s final appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Lord of the Sith embarks on a deeply personal mission that is half rampage and half voyage of discovery.  After some initial setbacks, Vader eventually finds Sabé, the Queen’s double, whose appearance in the final panel of Issue #1 was a major selling point for the series.  Sabé’s introduction to the plot leads Vader to revisit some of the most important locations from his life as Anakin Skywalker, before an inevitable run-in with Padmé’s former followers, who hold Vader responsible for her death and the death of Anakin Skywalker.  This entire arc is extremely well written, and I absolutely loved the ambitious and clever story that Pak came up with.  The author does an awesome job of combining an exciting narrative made up of several epic and impressive moments and with a deep dive into Vader’s mind, and this results in a captivating and powerful read that serves as a particularly distinctive chapter in the history of Darth Vader.  I really enjoyed where Pak took Dark Heart of the Sith’s amazing story, and while certain elements lose their impact in the internet age of freely available spoilers, there are some big and impressive moments in here that all Star Wars fans need to see.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this comic was the way that the creative team brought in elements from the Star Wars prequel films and inserted them into a story set right after The Empire Strikes BackDark Heart of the Sith takes the reader back to several key locations from the prequel films and reintroduces several minor characters who appeared in them, including Sabé, one of the pilots from The Phantom Menace and Captain Gregar Typho, Padmé’s security guard in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  This use of these elements from the prior movies works extremely well in the context of this comic’s story, as Vader is forced to revisit his past at a point when he is the most vulnerable in the present.  This makes Dark Heart of the Sith quite an interesting comic for Star Wars fans, who will greatly enjoy the inclusion of elements from two distinctive eras of the franchise.  I felt that Dark Heart of the Sith was a very accessible comic for readers with limited familiarity with Star Wars fiction, and readers only need to check out some of the films to get a good understanding of what is happening. 

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However, as an established fan of the franchise, I was quite overjoyed to see that this comic had an interesting connection to some interesting pieces of Star Wars extended fiction, namely two recent novels by E. K. Johnston, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow and Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.  These two novels, which serve as sequel and prequel to The Phantom Menace respectively, are set around the lives of Padmé and her handmaidens and provide added details about how they came into her service and the loyalty that they felt to her.  The narrative contained within this comic serves as a sequel to an arc set up in Queen’s Shadow, where Sabé swears to find justice for the death of Padmé, with several of the unique characters who were either introduced or sufficiently fleshed out in these novels also appearing.  This results in several awesome scenes, including one particularly epic sequence in which Vader is confronted by Padmé’s surviving handmaidens, who engage in an all-out brawl against him.  I found all of this to be immensely cool, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the elements from these books concluded in this comic, especially as Dark Heart of the Sith serves as a definitive conclusion to these character arcs.

Unsurprisingly, the standout character of this comic is Darth Vader himself, who goes through a lot during Dark Heart of the Sith.  Pak really turns this first volume into a deep exploration of Vader’s complex psyche, and there is an interesting examination of how Vader is feeling in the immediate aftermath of Luke rejecting him.  Without his usual determination and dedication to the Dark Side, Vader is lost in this comic, acting out of impulse and searching for someone or something to take his rage out against.  The introduction of Sabé and the return to several key locations from his past only adds to his confusion and emotional instability, and it is blatantly obvious that this is not the same Vader we have come to fear and admire.  Instead, this Vader hesitates to do some of his usual acts of destruction.  Certain memories from his past suddenly spring to the forefront of his mind, turning him away from his desired actions, such as sparing Sabé after revisiting his memory of killing Padmé.  Vader is also continually thrown by the return of several figures from his past, each of whom had a connection to both Padmé and Anakin Skywalker, and it proved to be quite fascinating to see Vader interact with them differently, especially as none of them are aware that Vader is Anakin. 

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This comic also contains some key moments of history for Vader; not only does he finally visit Padmé’s tomb but he also admits to her murder, all of which have major emotional implications for him.  I quite enjoyed this dive into Vader’s psyche and I really appreciated the way that the creative team tried to show just how complex and conflicted the character can be.  Based on how Volume One ends, this is probably going to be a recurring theme of the Darth Vader (2020) series and it will be interesting to see the many different changes in the character’s psyche.  I should mention that even though this is a focus on Vader’s mind and his innumerable regrets, the creative team do go out of their way to show just how much of a badass he is and there are several impressive sequences where he doles out death and destruction on an epic level, including killing some of the biggest and most dangerous creatures on Naboo.  All of this results in a deeply impressive Darth Vader comic, and I love the creators’ take on this amazing villain.

Aside from Vader and the returning characters from the prequels, Dark Heart of the Sith also features a fun new posse for Vader in the form of three Death Troopers (the elite Stormtroopers introduced in Rogue One) and the forensics droid Zed Six Seven, who accompany Vader throughout this mission.  While the Death Troopers do have a key role in this comic as Vader’s bodyguards and backup, they are mostly just background characters, without any major defining characteristics or moments.  Zed Six Seven, on the other hand, does a lot of talking, commenting on every event and revelation that occurs within the course of the narrative.  This extra commentary is essential, as Zed Six Seven provides nearly all the necessary exposition within the narrative, as Vader has less dialogue than a typical comic protagonist.  Despite primarily being an exposition machine, Zed Six Seven does prove to be an entertaining character, and I quite enjoyed his reactions to certain revelations or the events, even if his inability to keep his robotic mouth shut does cost him in the end.  Overall, I really liked all the character inclusions and development featured within Dark Heart of the Sith, and it helped to make an epic and powerful story.

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I really must highlight the exceptional art featured within this volume as the two artists, Ienco and Menon, do an amazing job bringing this captivating narrative to life.  I absolutely loved all the art contained within this comic and I felt that each of the scenes was drawn very well, with the various featured characters representing their film counterparts in impressive detail.  I particularly enjoyed the excellent way that the artists recreated a ton of key events from the prequel movies and featured them throughout the comic.  The recreated shots from the films were done with a distinctive red filter and were utilised as Vader’s flashbacks to key events from his life.  These flashback scenes help to highlight just how muddled and conflicted Vader’s thoughts are, and they are utilised to great effect throughout this first volume, often shown side-to-side with current events for some amazing contrasts.  I felt that this excellent artwork really helped to enhance Pak’s clever story, especially as the artwork provides the reader with some fantastic visuals of Vader’s emotional range.  It is a real testament to their drawings that you constantly have an idea of how Vader is feeling even with the mask on, and a lot of this is down to the way that the artists portray his body language and reactions.  I also loved several sequences that recreate Luke’s fall to the bottom of Cloud City at the end of their duel in The Empire Strikes Back.  These sequences are featured multiple times throughout the comic, with Luke replaced with several other characters, including various iterations of Vader himself, reflecting just how fractured or lost Vader feels.  This comic is also filled with some action-packed and explosive moments that see Vader attempt to kill everyone and everything in his path.  These action sequences are an exciting treat at several key points throughout the narrative and it is always fun to see Vader kick ass and take names.  Highlights included several sequences where Vader faces off against the megafauna of Naboo, including one massive leviathan (whose introduction is one of my favourite panels in the entire comic).  There is also a particularly brutal fight sequence towards the end of the comic where Vader releases years of anger and frustration in one destructive flurry.  All this awesome art adds so much to the comic and I cannot compliment it enough.

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Dark Heart of the Sith, the first volume of the Darth Vader (2020) series, is an absolute triumph that may be one of the best pieces of Star Wars fiction this year.  Featuring an outstanding combination of exciting narrative, compelling character development and eye-popping artwork, Dark Heart of the Sith was an absolute treat to read from start to finish.  I loved the way in which the creative team dived into the mind of my favourite Star Wars character, and it proved to be a gripping and powerful read.  This was one of the best things I read all year and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra written by Sarah Kuhn and performed by a full cast

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Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 21 July 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Script: Sarah Kuhn

Cast: Emily Woo Zeller, Jonathan Davis, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Sean Kenin, Nicole Lewis, Carol Monda, Euan Morton, Catherine Taber and Marc Thompson

Length: 5 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The most brilliant and conniving archaeologist in the entire Star Wars canon gets her own audio drama as author Sarah Kuhn and an exceedingly talented cast of audiobook narrators present Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, the audio drama.

Throughout the galaxy Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra is renowned as a criminal and bringer of chaos without peer, but in her own eyes she is simply an archaeologist and technology enthusiast, albeit one willing to sell her findings to the highest bidder.  However, her latest venture is about to get her into the worst type of trouble, the sort that will haunt her for the rest of her incredibly short life.  Attempting to steal a dangerous weapon from a restricted alien vault, Aphra finds herself surrounded and slated to die, that is until Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and overall badass suddenly appears and saves her. 

Vader is engaging in a high-risk power play against the Emperor and Aphra has just become his most useful pawn, whether she likes it or not.  Working as his agent, Aphra must utilise her skills as a con-woman, genius technician and criminal mastermind to help Vader achieve his goals: depose the Emperor and find his new obsession, the pilot who blew up the Death Star, Luke Skywalker.  Determined to stay on Vader’s good side, Aphra, with the help of her two friendly murder droids, Triple-Zero and BT-1, helps her new master engage in all manner of shenanigans across the universe, including kidnappings, torture and elaborate heists.  However, Aphra knows that all it will take is just one mistake or slip-up to earn her new employers’ deadly wrath.  To avoid her inevitable appointment with Vader’s crimson lightsaber, Aphra will need to pull out every trick in her impressive arsenal if she is to survive.  But can even the great Doctor Aphra outsmart Darth Vader and the entire Empire, or has the smartest woman in the galaxy finally met her match?

Well this is an exceedingly fun and entertaining entry in the Star Wars expanded universe which provides a new angle to the tale of Doctor Aphra.  Doctor Aphra is an incredible and complex character who has only been recently added into the canon.  Introduced in the opening issues the 2015 Darth Vader comic book series, Doctor Aphra served as a major supporting character for much of the series run, entertaining readers with her antics and ability to survive working for Darth Vader.  Aphra proved to be an extremely popular character, and this resulted in the character getting her own comic book series (which ironically lasted more issues than the Darth Vader series she was introduced in).  The Doctor Aphra series ended up being an amazing hit thanks to some exceptional writing and it is one of my favourite pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction (make sure to check out my reviews for the last two volumes in the series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon and A Rogue’s End), and there is even a second Doctor Aphra series on its way.  It seems that Aphra’s popularity has continued to grow as earlier this year this Doctor Aphra audio drama was released, written by talented author Sarah Kuhn.  This proved to be an exceptionally impressive audio release that does an amazing job bringing this fantastic character into an entirely new format.  This audio drama has a run time of around five and a half hours, which listeners are able to breeze through in no time at all.

The Doctor Aphra audio drama contains an intriguing and captivating story that follows the character as she engages in all manner of adventures in service to Darth Vader and her own survival.  Told entirely from the perspective of Aphra as she makes a series of recordings to an unknown person, and set shortly after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, this story follows Aphra through the entirety of her ill-fated association with Darth Vader.  This employment places her in all manner of danger, as she completes a series of tasks important to Vader, including an elaborate heist; gets in the middle of a deadly conflict between Vader, one of his rivals in the Empire, and the protagonists of The Original Trilogy; and finds herself a prisoner of the Rebel Alliance before eventually attempting to manipulate the Emperor for her own ends.  At the same time, Aphra is constantly balancing on a knife’s edge, as her beloved boss has made it abundantly clear that he will kill her the moment she displeases him.  This forces Aphra into a number of tense and dangerous situations as she needs to convince Vader to keep her alive throughout the entire book.  This struggle to stay alive adds a substantial amount of suspense to the audio drama, as the listener really wants this entertaining character to survive, and it eventually leads to an outstanding and epic conclusion.  All of this proves to be an exceedingly captivating adventure, and listeners are in for an exciting and hilarious time, especially with Aphra’s entertaining and over-exaggerated narration of the events occurring. 

While I did really enjoy the story contained within this audio drama, I do need to point out that it is not actually an original tale; instead it is an adaption of several canon comic book series, namely the comics that featured Aphra’s early adventures.  The first part of the audio drama adapts most of the first two volumes of the 2015 Darth Vader comic series, Volume One: Vader and Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets.  From there the story follows the course of the crossover limited series, Vader Down, before moving on to the events of the fourth volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic, Rebel Jail.  Finally, the story returns to the Darth Vader comic, utilising parts of the fourth and final volume, End of GamesDoctor Aphra proves to be an exceptional adaptation of these comics although they only show off the events that Aphra herself witnessed or was a part of.  I had an amazing time listening to this adaptation and I really enjoyed seeing several of the amazing events that originally occurred on the page being brought to life by this enjoyable performance. 

People interested in listening to this audio drama do not need to have read the adapted comics first, as Kuhn provides Aphra with a great deal of narration that explains her role in the story and all the events leading up to the comics.  As someone who has read the comics before listening to this audio drama, I found that there was a lot in this production for fans of the comic.  I personally really enjoyed seeing these events from Aphra’s perspective (as the original comics mostly followed main characters such as Vader, Luke, Leia, and Han), and it was extremely interesting to see her thoughts on the various events occurring.  The author also comes up with a lot of additional backstory that helps to enrich Aphra’s involvement in the narrative, which fans of the character will really appreciate.  While I had a great time listening to this audio drama, I did notice that several events were glossed over, mainly because Aphra did not witness them occur in the comics.  For example, you have no idea who is behind several of the battles or attacks that Aphra finds herself in the middle of, with Aphra herself giving limited explanations for them.  While I knew full well what was going on, people who haven’t read the comics are going to be full of questions and this may make the audio drama a little confusing at times.  That being said, this was still an outstanding and deeply enjoyable production, and perhaps it will encourage listeners to check out some of the adapted comics (trust me, they are awesome).

One of the best things about this audio drama was the way in which the narrative explored the complex and exceedingly likeable character of Doctor Chelli Aphra.  Aphra is a clever, impulsive and chaotic rogue archaeologist who is obsessed with ancient technology, particularly unusual droids and dangerous weapons.  Aphra is a wildly entertaining character who is essentially an amoral version of Indiana Jones that has no problems cheating or betraying people who she encounters, as long as she gets to hold onto the valuable antiques or can sell them for vast amounts of money (none of her loot belongs in a museum!).  Aphra appears to have a relentlessly positive personality, providing the listener with a string of continual jokes and funny observations with an infectious amount of enthusiasm.  However, deep down Aphra is actually a deeply damaged individual who has suffered a number of losses and betrayals that impact her current outlook on life and other people. 

Despite the fact that Aphra is the very definition of an unreliable narrator (she literally deletes or edits the parts of the story she does not like to suit her agenda), I felt that this audio drama does an amazing job exploring this wily protagonist.  Having Aphra’s inner monologue about the events occurring during this story proved to be not only entertaining but also very enlightening, and it showed some fascinating glimpses of her inner personality and emotional state.  While much of Aphra’s story was previously explored in the comics that Doctor Aphra is based on, this adaptation does go a little further, pulling in some backstory that was introduced in the later Doctor Aphra comics and expertly working it into this narrative.  Kuhn also comes up with some additional history that is unique to this production, including a number of scenes that explore her previous romantic relationship with Sana Starros.  While this relationship has been mentioned and discussed in several of the comics, this is probably the most in-depth examination of it in the canon and it becomes an important part of the overall plot.  I really enjoyed the way in which Doctor Aphra examined its titular protagonist and I felt that the story really captured her essence and outrageous personality.

This audio drama sports an amazing voice cast and each of them does a fantastic job in this production.  However, I really must highlight the performance of Emily Woo Zeller, who portrayed the titular character.  Zeller is an experienced and talented narrator who has contributed to a huge raft of audiobooks, including several I am quite interested in checking out, such as Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas.  Due to how the audio drama is written, Zeller’s voice is the one we hear the most throughout Doctor Aphra, as she recounts all of the characters dialogue and the overall narration of this book.  I really loved the way that Zeller portrayed the character of Aphra in this audio drama and I thought she got all the aspects of the character down perfectly.  Zeller gives a particularly energetic performance throughout this adaption, and listeners get a real sense of the mischievous and over confident outer shell that Doctor Aphra portrays to everyone she meets.  However, Zeller also captures the vulnerable nature of this complex protagonist, showing off the character’s full range of emotions when she is scared, angry or contemplating her many regrets.  This rich and amazing performance from Zeller really helps to make this audio drama something special, and I am really glad that she was able to bring Doctor Aphra to life in such an exceptional way.

Doctor Aphra also makes use of several other impressive voice actors throughout this audio drama, each of whom are portraying major Star Wars characters who Aphra interacts with through the course of this adventure.  This audio drama features a who’s who of Star Wars audiobook narrators, many of whose works I have previously enjoyed in a range of productions including the previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.  These additional narrators include Jonathan Davis (who I previously enjoyed in Star Wars: Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith), Sean Kenin (Death Troopers), Euan Morton (Tarkin), Catherine Taber (Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow), Marc Thompson (Thrawn, Thrawn: Chaos Rising, Dark Disciple and Scoundrels), Sean Patrick Hopkins, Nicole Lewis and Carol Monda.  Each of these voice actors did an exceptional job of bringing their various characters to life throughout Doctor Aphra.  I particularly enjoyed Marc Thompson’s Darth Vader and Euan Morton’s Emperor, as both voice actors brought some realistic menace to these iconic villains.  Catherine Taber, who is best known for her portrayal of Padme Amidala in The Clone Wars animated series, does an excellent Princess Leia in this production, and I really appreciated the choice to cast her.  Sean Patrick Hopkins does a really cool Luke Skywalker, and I was really struck by how close he got to a younger Mark Hamil’s voice.  I also really enjoyed Sean Kenin’s Triple-Zero, and I felt he really captured the essence of this crazy character.  Each of these side characters added a lot to the production as a whole and, while they were not as heavily featured as Aphra, each of them had their own entertaining moments and interactions.  I particularly loved the threatening aura that Darth Vader exhibited towards Aphra, and there is also a very entertaining interaction between Aphra and Han Solo that results in some of the best jokes in the entire production.  You also have to love the fact that Aphra ends up with a posse that essentially reflects the main characters from The Original Trilogy, with a protocol droid (Triple-Zero), an Astromech (BT-1) and a Wookie (Black Krrsantan).  Of course, Aphra’s friends are all dangerous killers, which makes for some extremely entertaining and deadly encounters.

In addition to featuring an impressive voice cast, Doctor Aphra also features the full range of iconic Star Wars sound effects and musical scores that were made famous in the movies.  Pretty much every action that occurs within the book is accompanied by a sound effect, whether it be blaster fire, the sound of engines or even a susurration from other people in a crowded room.  I always love how these sound effects helped to create an atmosphere throughout the course of a Star Wars novel, and I felt that they were particularly useful for this audio drama format due to the lack of narration that a standard audiobook would have.  I also have to talk up the excellent use of the incredible Star Wars musical score that features during several key scenes of the novel.  Hearing this music during some of the most pivotal, dramatic or action-packed sequences makes the narrative seem that much more epic, and I absolutely loved hearing this music throughout this production.  The use of the sound effects and music enhances the story in immeasurable ways, and it helps to turn this audio drama into an exceptional treat for the ears. 

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra is an impressive and deeply enjoyable audio production that brings fan-favourite character Chelli Aphra into a whole new light.  Cleverly adapting several amazing Star Wars comics, the Doctor Aphra audio drama features an interesting story from author Sarah Kuhn that shows the events from the perspective of the chaotic and duplicitous titular protagonist.  Featuring an exceptional voice cast, Doctor Aphra proves to be an extremely entertaining and exceedingly addictive listen that I had a very hard time turning off.  I personally think this was one of the best audio productions of 2020 and it comes highly recommended both to general Star Wars fans and to those who have read the adapted comics.  I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama and I hope that they think about adapting the later Doctor Aphra comic book series next as there are some impressive storylines featured in there.