Throwback Thursday – Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Iron by Graham McNeill

Storm of Iron Cover 2

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – July 2002)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 11 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday, I dive into some old-school Warhammer 40,000 fiction with the exceptional Storm of Iron by one of the most prolific Warhammer authors, Graham McNeill.

Readers of this blog will know that I have been really getting back into Warhammer fiction in the last few years, and I have had an outstanding time reading all the exciting and captivating reads the franchise’s extended universe contains.  I have been particularly impressed by the sheer number of talented authors who contribute to this extended universe, and I already have a few favourites due to how epic and complex their novels have turned out to be.  However, one of the main contributors to the current Warhammer canon I had not really explored yet is the superbly talented Graham McNeill.  McNeill has been writing Warhammer fiction for 20 years now, and he has produced multiple books for both the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy sub-franchises.  Best known for The Ambassador Chronicles, Legend of Sigma, Ultramarines and Forges of Mars series, as well as his entries in the massive Horus Heresy series, McNeill has produced some outstanding sounding books throughout his career (including several books I really want to read) and had an incalculable impact on Warhammer fiction universe.  I however, have not had too much experience with his works, although I do have several of his novels sitting on my shelf.  I am hoping to read more of his stuff in the future, but I ended up starting with one of his earlier books, the standalone Warhammer 40,000 novel, Storm of Iron.

The Adeptus Mechanicus Forge World of Hydra Cordatus is a barren and desolate place, garrisoned by Imperial Guard of the 383rd Jouran Dragoons and members of Adeptus Mechanicus, who rule from one of the mightiest and seemingly impregnable fortresses in the galaxy.  No-one ever expected that the many wars that plague the universe would ever come to a planet as seemingly inhospitable as Hydra Cordatus, but hell has descended upon the planet in the form of Chaos Space Marines from the feared Iron Warriors legion.

Under the leadership of the dread Warsmith Barban Falk, the Iron Warriors have arrived on Hydra Cordatus in substantial numbers, determined to destroy all the Imperial defenders and take the planet’s main citadel.  After a blistering landing upon the surface of the planet that cuts off all hope of relief, the Iron Warriors deploy their full force of warriors, slaves, labourers and even several corrupt Titans to assault the enemy.  But they have not chosen an easy target, as the citadel of Hydra Cordatus is no ordinary fortress.  It is an ancient and mysterious stronghold, whose walls are designed to stymy any attack, and few foes would have a chance of defeating its defences.

However, the Iron Warriors have long been considered the greatest siege warfare specialists in all the universe.  Having honed their bloody craft for millennia since their betrayal of the Emperor, the corrupt Iron Warriors soon embark on an ambitious and fast campaign that soon threatens to completely destroy the Imperial forces.  Only the arrival of members of the Iron Warrior’s greatest enemies, the Space Marines of the Imperial Fists, gives any hope to the defenders.  But can even the legendary Imperial Fists stand against the ancient fury of the Iron Warriors?  And what secrets truly lay hidden in the depths of Hydra Cordatus’s citadel?

Well, this was a pretty damn awesome Warhammer book.  McNeill did a remarkable job with Storm of Iron, producing an intense and action-packed novel that might be one of the best siege novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  Loaded with impressive battle-sequence after impressive battle-sequence, as well as a ton of intriguing and fun characters, Storm of Iron was an outstanding read, and I had so much fun getting through it.

I will admit that one of the things that really drew me to Storm of Iron is that it showcases a massive siege in the gothic future of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I have always deeply enjoyed books with sieges in them, and the Warhammer universe is naturally filled with some good examples of this, although these mostly occurred in the fantasy focussed books.  As such, I was quite intrigued to see how a science fiction siege would occur, and McNeill really did not disappoint, painting a powerful and captivating picture and using the Iron Warriors and Imperial Fists, both of whom are known for their siege craft, as central figures in the narrative.

McNeill starts Storm of Iron off with a bang, showing the Iron Warrior’s initial move as they launch a lightning-fast raid and landing upon Hydra Cordatus in the opening chapters.  From there, the siege of the citadel starts in earnest as the Iron Warriors deploy their entire army towards it.  Told from multiple character perspectives of both the attackers and defenders, you swiftly get to know all the key players of the book and see their various personal and military struggles as the siege unfolds.  The author sets everything up perfectly, and you are soon engrossed in the novel-spanning siege, which McNeill explores in intricate detail, examining the various moves and countermoves that the two sides are doing.  You get some awesome scenes throughout Storm of Iron, and it really has everything you could want from a siege book, including artillery barrages, trench warfare, sapping, sallies, reinforcements, counterattacks and desperate fighting in breaches.  The entire story moves pretty quickly, and there are barely any pauses in between battle scenes.  Any delays that do occur serve an essential part of the plot, showing the various personal issues impacting the participants, introducing new characters, or exploring some of the hidden intrigue going on within the besieged citadel.

The story picks up even further around the middle, with the arrival of the Imperial Fists Space Marines who give the defenders more of a fighting chance.  As such, you are never quite certain how the book is going to unfold, and the battle really could go any way.  I liked how McNeill balanced the book between the Chaos and Imperial characters (or the attackers and defenders), and I deeply enjoyed seeing how each side conducted their war, especially as both had to deal with internal dissension and setbacks.  I think that the narrative had a great blend of cool story elements, and the combination of action, intrigue and character work fit the story very well.  Naturally, the best part of the book is the exceptional battle scenes, and thanks to author’s detailed depictions, it is extremely easy to envision all the intense fight sequences that unfold.  There are some outstanding scenes here, and there is a little bit of everything, included destructive ranged warfare, brutal close combat fights, desperate last stands and even some over-the-top battles between the massive Titans (essentially intense mecha warfare).  This entire story comes together pretty well, and I really liked the fantastic and dark notes that McNeill left it on.  While I wasn’t too shocked by one of the book’s main twists, there honestly wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t entertained by Storm of Iron’s story, and I had such a fantastic time seeing this entire epic siege unfold.  I managed to power through this book extremely quickly, and I had so much fun seeing how this protracted battle unfolded.  As such, this is a must-read for all those who love a good siege book, and I really appreciate the awesome story that McNeill featured here.

I love all the cool Warhammer 40,000 elements that McNeill was able to fit into this awesome book, and fans of the franchise will appreciate his attention to detail and fun depictions of the various factions and their iconic regiments/toys.  While the Imperial Guard, Adeptus Mechanicus and Imperial Fists are all featured here, this book is mainly about the Iron Warriors, and it was fascinating to see them in action.  These traitorous and corrupt siege specialists have a rich history of hatred, and while the author doesn’t go completely into their fall from grace, you get a good idea of why they turned and some of the terrors they have inflicted.  Indeed, all the depictions of the Chaos side are extremely powerful, and you get an impressive view of just how twisted and dangerous they and their dark gods are.  That being said, you get a much more nuanced viewpoint of the Chaos side here than most Warhammer books have, and it was utterly fascinating to see their views on the conflict.  That, combined with some of the secrets that the Adeptus Mechanicus are hiding, continues to reinforce one of the key concepts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe: that there really are no good guys here, just winners and dead people.  Thanks to author’s ability to highlight key universe and faction details, this is one of those Warhammer 40,000 books that could serve as a great introduction to Warhammer fiction, and if a massive and bloody siege doesn’t get your attention and make you interested in this franchise, nothing will.  As such, you don’t need to come into Storm of Iron with too much pre-knowledge of the Warhammer 40,000 universe to enjoy this book, although established fans will naturally get a lot more out of it.  I am personally glad that, of all of McNeill’s books, I chose to start with Storm of Iron, especially as it apparently sets up some of his future Warhammer entries.  In particular, it introduces one of the key antagonists of his Ultramarines series, which has long been on my to-read list, and I look forward to enjoying more of McNeill’s epic Warhammer books in the future.

I also deeply appreciated some of the excellent character work that was featured within Storm of Iron.  Due to how McNeill writes the story, the book features a huge range of different point-of-view characters, broken up between the Iron Warriors and the members of the 383rd Jouran Dragoons who are defending the citadel.  While the quick-paced story and multiple character perspectives cuts down on development a little, you do get to know all the key characters very quickly, and McNeill fits in some absolutely fascinating character arcs that I deeply enjoyed.  Three of the most interesting characters are the Iron Warriors captains who are leading the assault on Hydra Cordatus, Honsou, Forrix and Kroeger.  All three are pretty interesting in their own right, with Honsou the true believer ostracised by his comrades due to his heritage, Forrix the disillusioned veteran, and Kroeger the mad berserker who is slowly going insane serving the Blood God Khorne.  Their personal storylines are all amazing, but the real fun is seeing their interactions, especially as they all hate each other and are vying for their master’s favour.  McNeill spends a lot of time with these three villains, and you really get a sense of whole Iron Warrior’s legion through their disparate viewpoints.  I will say that I didn’t think any of the Imperial characters quite measured up to these Chaos characters, especially as McNeill really worked to make them as compelling as possible.  I did deeply enjoy the character of Guardsman Julius Hawke, a slacker who finds himself alone in the wilds and serves an interesting role in the battle.  I was also quite intrigued by Lieutenant Larana Ultorian, a defiant soldier who is captured by the Chaos forces and slowly driven insane by her forced service to them.  These characters, and more, all help to turn Storm of Iron into a much more complex and powerful read, and I had a great time explore all their unique stories and histories here.

I doubt anyone is going to be too surprised that I made sure to grab the recently released audiobook version, which in my opinion is one of the best ways to enjoy a cool Warhammer book.  The Storm of Iron audiobook was a pretty good example of this, as I quickly got drawn into it, especially as the awesome action sequences became even more epic when they are read out.  With a run time of just over 11 hours, this was a decent length Warhammer audiobook, although I managed to power through it in less than a week, mainly because of how much I got caught up in the story.  I was also pretty impressed by the narration from Michael Geary, who really dove into the various roles contained within Storm of Iron’s story.  Geary clearly had a lot of fun telling this dark tale, and I felt his fast-paced narration really added the intensity and excitement of the story.  I also felt that he did a great job bringing the various characters of Storm of Iron to life, and each of the main figures is given a unique voice or accent to help set them apart.  While I liked all the cool voices he did, Geary’s take on the various Chaos Space Marines was very memorable, especially as he really captures the cruelty, hatred and dark demonic influences that affect them.  An overall excellent Warhammer audiobook, I had such an exceptional time listening to this version of Storm of Iron, and this format comes highly recommended.

Overall, I am extremely happy that I chose to read this fantastic Warhammer 40,000 novel, and it was one of the more interesting older entries in the franchise I have so far read.  The extremely talented Graham McNeill did a wonderful job on Storm of Iron, and I had such an amazing time getting through its elaborate and action-packed narrative.  This book featured such an impressive depiction of a siege in the gothic far future, and readers are in for an intense and captivating time as they see this complex battle between besiegers and defenders unfold.  Clever, compelling, and filled with pulse-pounding fun, Siege of Iron was an excellent book and I look forward to reading more of McNeill’s Warhammer books in the future.

Storm of Iron Cover

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Guest Review – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien (Audiobook)

For this Throwback Thursday we have a rare treat with a guest review from my awesome editor/wife, Alex.  Long-time readers of this blog may remember that Alex previously provided some guest reviews of books like The Power and The Testaments, although she hasn’t provided us with anything for a long while (don’t worry, I’ve judged her very harshly because of this, so much judgement!!!).  Alex recently endeavoured to read all three The Lord of the Rings books, and I of course convinced her into writing a review for them.  I think her review below is pretty awesome (I may be slightly biased), and it has made me interested in listening to the latest audiobook version of The Lord of the Rings novels.

Publisher: HarperCollins and Recorded Books – Audiobook

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Fellowship of the Rings

Amazon     Book Depository

First of all, this is not really a review of The Lord of the Rings. You don’t need me to tell you that these books are good, and Tolkien scholars have already built up mountains of literary analysis over the decades. This is instead a review of one particular way to enjoy the story: the audiobook edition recently published by HarperCollins and Recorded Books and narrated by Andy Serkis.

But I should say that this review is written from the perspective of someone who adores the Lord of the Rings movies but had never before read the books. I loved reading The Hobbit as a kid, and the cinematic masterpiece of The Fellowship of the Ring blew my 10-year-old mind. At that age, however, I found myself too impatient to enjoy the slower pace of the novel (not to mention the preliminary chapters on hobbit anthropology) but also too prideful to simply skip to ‘the good stuff’, so Fellowship was sent back to the library in frustration before Frodo had even reached the Prancing Pony. But recently watching The Rings of Power reminded me that I have been missing out on the full, glorious Tolkien canon experience.

The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers Cover

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Regular readers of The Unseen Library will know that the Chief Librarian is constantly praising audiobooks as the very best way to absorb a story, so when I heard that there was a new edition narrated by Andy Serkis, I had to have it. And of course I loved it, as I always knew I would. The world Tolkien created is beautiful, and the themes, histories, cultures, languages, characters and journeys within defined an entire genre. The story is epic in the truest meaning of the word, but you already know that. Here instead let me answer two things you will want to know about this particular edition of the story:

  • Yes, it is unabridged.
  • Yes, he does the voices.

The first thing I checked before starting this audiobook was that it was an unabridged edition; if I were to finally read The Lord of the Rings, I would do it properly! This audiobook is actually an extension of a charity project in which Andy Serkis livestreamed himself reading The Hobbit to raise money for the NHS in the early days of the pandemic. This was followed up by an official reading of The Hobbit published later in 2020, and then The Lord of the Rings in 2021.

The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King

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I can think of few more appropriate actors for this project than Andy Serkis. An audiobook demands a distinctive voice for each character, especially for a book with such an enormous cast of characters, and Serkis definitely delivers, seizing the opportunity to show off his acting talents. What’s more, he has made an effort to echo the voices of his fellow Lord of the Rings film alumni. For example, he affects a Scottish accent for Pippin, a West Country accent for Samwise and Merry, and a gruff Yorkshire brogue for Boromir. He gives Aragorn the same strong but quiet dignity Viggo Mortensen did, and he gives Frodo a higher, younger-sounding voice that echoes a 20-year-old Elijah Wood more than the 50-year-old Frodo of the books. And, of course, he reproduces the definitive portrayal of Gollum for which he has been so celebrated. As a fan of the films, I greatly appreciated these choices as it meant I didn’t have to recalibrate my imagining of the characters too greatly. It would have been rather distracting if, say, Merry sounded Scottish and Pippin didn’t, and I had to concentrate all the more simply to work out who was speaking. Instead I was able to relax and focus on simply enjoying the story.

Andy Serkis Picture 1

But while the voices are clearly based, for the most part, on those of the film actors, the performances are wholly informed by the text, and Serkis has made it his own. For example, whereas Ian McKellen almost whispered Gandalf’s final command, ‘Fly, you fools!’, Serkis performs the line as if shouted while falling from the great height of the Bridge of Khazad-dum. He brings the poetic prose and dialogue to life with amazing energy and passion. He uses a narrative voice that perfectly fits the text and adjusts the pacing of the telling according to each scene, keeping the story flowing and keeping the listener totally captivated. Each of the three books is a little over 20 hours long, but with the combined storytelling skills of Tolkien and Serkis mesmerising me I was never eager to hit the pause button and get back to real life, so it took only a few days for me to get through each book.

Andy Serkis Picture 2

Howard Shore’s brilliant film score sadly isn’t featured; instead, the audiobook relies wholly on the talents of Andy Serkis. The films were very sparing in their use of the songs Tolkien wrote, which made Pippin’s haunting ballad in The Return of the King all the more impactful. I was delighted that the songs are here performed in full and in the voices of their singers—no mean feat! I’m sure Serkis exhausted himself playing the boisterous Tom Bombadil in particular, whom I had always found quite tiresome, but Serkis gives him a mysterious charm. The songs are a core element of the books, giving us glimpses into Middle Earth’s cultures and histories that aren’t otherwise shared in the prose, and I’m so glad they’ve been given such a treatment.

Andy Serkis Picture 3

There are a few small drawbacks to an audio edition of these books. A few times I would have wanted to flip back a few pages to double-check my understanding of certain details (‘Hang on, was that the name of a person or a river?’), but that wasn’t all that easy to do without losing my place, at least not with the media software I was using. The other thing missing, because it could not possibly be reproduced in audio despite Andy Serkis’s considerable talent, is the maps of Middle Earth which usually feature in any Tolkien book. As a kid reading The Hobbit I would be constantly checking the map to trace the hero’s journey through the world. I can highly recommend the interactive map at lotrproject.com as a companion piece to this audiobook for those who wish to do the same.

The Lord of the Rings, as read by Andy Serkis, is the ultimate audiobook for fans of the films. I can highly recommend it to those who have never read the books before, and I’m sure it would be a similarly excellent experience for those who have and who would like to revisit the canon after watching The Rings of Power. I can only hope that Serkis completes the series with a reading of The Silmarillion and other supplementary works by Tolkien, because I am so in love with this telling of the story of Middle Earth that the 75-odd hours’ worth already recorded simply isn’t enough. I am so glad to finally say that I have read The Lord of the Rings; I only wish I had done it sooner.

Throwback Thursday: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Blood Rite Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 3 August 2004)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Amazon     Book Depository

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 keep diving into the epic Dresden Files urban fantasy series with the impressive sixth book, Blood Rites.

Last week, in my review for the outstanding fifth book in the Dresden Files series, Death Masks, I mentioned how I had also started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites.  I honestly had so much fun reading Death Masks last week (as I did with the rest of the Dresden Files series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Battle Ground and The Law), that I had to immediately dive into the next book as soon as I could.  The sixth novel in the series, Blood Rites, was another epic novel which had an impressive and captivating plot to it.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard and protector from the paranormal, continues to eke out a deadly living through his chaotic career of odd mystical jobs while also defending the city against the worst monsters lurking in the shadows.  However, his latest job may place him in the most uncomfortable spot yet, on the set of an adult movie, which finds itself under attack from a deadly and relentless curse.

Taking the case as a favour to his vampire friend and suspicious ally Thomas Raith, Dresden goes undercover on set and attempts to discover who is responsible for cursing the movie’s cast and crew, and why.  However, Dresden’s heroics on set make him a target, and he soon finds the curse striking at him, attempting to end his investigation before he can find the magical murderer.  Worse, enemies old and new are bursting out of the shadows, as two separate courts of vampires attempt to strike Dresden down.

As Dresden continues to search for the murderer wielding the curse, he is forced to fend off attacks from the lethal Black Court.  Led by a powerful elder vampire with a serious grudge against Dresden, the Black Court will stop at nothing to destroy him and any of his friends that gets in their way.  However, the greatest threat may reside in the White Court, to which Thomas belongs.  The White Court vampires are manipulative and subtle killers, using their alluring presence to suck the life out of everyone they touch.  Caught between warring members of the White Court family, Dresden must use all his wits to escape their wrath and uncover hidden truths if he is to survive.  But what secret from the past connects Dresden to the White Court and their machinations, and is Dresden really ready for the dark knowledge waiting for him?

Whelp, it seems that it is pretty impossible for Butcher to write a dud novel.  Blood Rites is an exceptional addition to the wider Dresden Files series, and it was another one that I have no choice but to give a full five-star review to.  Featuring an intense and deeply captivating narrative, Blood Rites was an incredible read and I quickly got sucked into its unique story, compelling mysteries and dark, damaged characters.

I just loved the elaborate, dark and powerful narrative that Butcher featured in Blood Rites, as the author comes up with a complex tale that expertly brings together a dark urban fantasy with a thrilling murder mystery storyline.  Like the rest of the Dresden Files books, Blood Rites exclusively follows protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden as he finds himself forced to face off against a series of dangers and threats at the same time.  The most prominent of these includes an investigation into a deadly curse aimed at the female employees of an adult entertainment studio, which sees Dresden go undercover on set to try and save the remaining cast and determine who the killer is.  This also leads him into a confrontation with the White Court of the vampires, especially when his vampire friend, Thomas Raith, requests his help.  At the same time, vampires from the Black Court are after Dresden for his actions in Grave Peril, which forces him to call in some major backup to take them on.  Unfortunately, this also leads him into conflict with his supposed allies, as well as his former mentor, when secrets from the past are revealed.  Dresden is also hit with a whole bundle of personal drama, especially when he discovers unfortunate truths about his long-dead mother, and there is an interesting growth in the relationship between him and several supporting characters.

As a result, there are many plot elements scattered around Blood Rites, which makes for quite an elaborate overall story.  Luckily, Butcher does an excellent job of introducing all these separate narrative threads to the reader, and you swiftly get drawn into all of them.  After a good and necessary bit of setup, the story roars off at a quick and captivating pace, and the reader has a great time jumping from storyline to storyline.  Everything starts to come together near the middle of the book, where you get some excellent action scenes, including a particularly funny death sequence involving a vampire and a frozen turkey, and the fallout of these scenes leads to some great dramatic moments with big personal revelations.  Following this, the story zooms along, and you soon find a partial and problematic solution to the murder case, while the protagonist is also forced to deal with an all-out assault on the Black Court, while also dealing with dark secrets from his allies.  The attack on the Black Court was one of the best sequences in the book, and the surrounding drama results in some major revelations that fans of the series will lap up.  The remaining storylines then come together perfectly for the finale, as Dresden solves the murder and faces off against its overall architect in a brilliant and extended dark sequence.  I loved how this entire narrative unfolded, and some of the concluding notes will leave you wanting to dive into the rest of the series to see what happens next.

To bring Blood Rites’ great story to life, Butcher utilises his typical style and techniques, which I always immensely enjoy.  The entire narrative is paced perfectly, and you quickly get drawn into the various plotlines, especially with their great combination of characters, intriguing plots, fantasy elements, and dramatic moments.  All of this is overlayed with Butcher’s distinctive humour, most of which is expelled through his cocky point-of-view protagonist, and it helps to enhance the overall powerful and entertainment of the book, especially when the protagonist tries to deflect from his many issues with comedy.  The narrative pretty much goes non-stop, and you get bounced through multiple excellent and powerful scenes, all of which are very fun to see.  I loved how the author balanced out action, character growth, universe building and more in each of the sequences, and there is something quite entertaining and fun for all manner of readers.  I wasn’t as keen on Butcher’s continued attempts to spice up the story with more adult themes, such as the adult film set or the lust-inducing White Court vampires, although it was pretty tame compared to some of the scenes in the last book (that bondage scene, yikes!), and Butcher wove some very compelling narratives around all of them that I deeply enjoyed.  I did enjoy how inclusive Butcher made this novel to new readers, and anyone could easily jump into Blood Rites and enjoy it, even if they haven’t read a Dresden Files book before.  However, there is also a lot to appeal to established fans of the series, especially as there are multiple major reveals and secrets featured here, many of which will lead to big story moments down the track.  As such, I deeply appreciated how this story came together, and pretty much everyone will have a great time getting through it.

I really enjoyed some of the cool fantasy elements featured throughout Blood Rites as Butcher seeks to expand on the lore and magic of his unique universe.  There are some great and intriguing fantasy inclusions here, with the obvious focus being on the various Vampire Courts.  The three main factions of Vampires have all been featured in previous books, although most of the focus has been on the Red Court, whom Dresden is at war with.  Blood Rites, however, has a far bigger spotlight on the two of the other courts who have major differences in powers and appearances.  Most of the focus is on the White Court, who are essentially this universe’s version of succubi, extremely beautiful and seductive creatures who feed off the life energy of those who desire them.  The White Court go on to become a major faction in the Dresden Files series, but this is one of the first books that fully explores them in substantial detail.  As such, you quickly get across their unique abilities, strengths, weaknesses and powers throughout this book, and they come across as quite a distinctive group as a result.  You really get to understand their entire society and worldview, as well as seeing some very different members of the factions, and Butcher writes some compelling storylines around them, while also putting in some very vivid depictions of their powers in action.  I loved how sinister and villainous members of the White Court appear at times, and there is something quite insidious about their abilities that creeps out the protagonists and reader.  A truly complex and excellent group that I had a lot of fun exploring.

Almost in direct comparison to the White Court is the Black Court.  The Black Court are a completely different group of living dead, portrayed more like the classic vampires from Bram Stoker’s novel (indeed, the Dracula novel was an elaborate propaganda attack by their enemies).  Shown as ugly, decaying, blood-hungry creatures that are more monsters than their original human forms, the Black Court are a much more obvious threat with much clearer motives.  There are some brutal and powerful scenes featuring the Black Court in this book, and it was really interesting to see Dresden and his allies go up against them with some classic vampire-hunting weapons, albeit with some fun modern twists to them.  I also deeply appreciated the fantastic parallels between the Black Court and the White Court vampires featured in the Blood Rites; whilst they are both extremely dangerous, their diverse methods and powers troubled Dresden in different ways.  These cool vampires, plus some other great new supernatural threats, added a lot to the complexity of the narrative and I loved the excellent detail and lore that Butcher imbued them with.

As usual, one of the highlights of this Dresden Files book is the compelling and impressive characters the story revolves around.  Butcher features an intriguing and fantastic group of characters in this book, with a compelling blend of established supporting characters and several new figures, many of whom will go on to have substantial roles in the rest of the series.  I had a brilliant time with all these characters, especially as Butcher endeavours to write some outstanding and distinctive storylines around them.

As usual, the most prominent character is Harry Dresden, the wizard protagonist and point-of-view character of the series.  Like most of the recent books, Blood Rites is an emotionally damaging book for Dresden.  Not only is he forced to deal with another harrowing case that racks his sanity, but he also finds out some long-buried secrets that prove quite damaging to behold.  In particular, there is a deep dive into his past and his missing family, both of which are hard subjects for him, and he finds himself with some unexpected connections that he has long been missing.  It was truly fascinating to see this long buried and painful part of Dresden’s past explored, and Butcher ensures that the reader gets struck in the feels with some of the powerful scenes that are explored.  Other interactions and reveals see Dresden re-evaluate some of his relationships in this novel, and there were some intriguing and harsh discussions between him and other characters as a result.  I did think that Butcher is over-playing the whole chivalrous-to-a-fault aspect of Dresden, as he continues to be a tad sexist and constantly underestimates woman, usually to his own detriment.  It’s honestly getting a little old, and I hope it gets phased out a bit in future books.  Still, I deeply enjoyed the fantastic development around Dresden in Blood Rites, and it greatly enhanced the narrative.

This book also featured a great appearance from previous supporting characters Karrin Murphy and Thomas Raith, who both play a major role in Blood Rites.  This proved to be quite a pivotal novel for both characters, and I really appreciated the way that Butcher built on their previous appearances and used them to write some impressive and powerful storylines around them.  This proves to be one of the more intriguing looks at Murphy so far in the series, especially as it dives into her complicated family life, and I liked the early hints here about the future relationship between her and Dresden.  Murphy gets dragged far further into Dresden’s magical activities than ever before here, and she is forced to balance her responsibilities as a cop with the necessity of killing monsters, something she has great difficulty with.  An overall badass character, Murphy has some brilliant and action-packed scenes in Blood Rites, and I love how well she serves as a foil to the more ridiculous Dresden.

Thomas, on the other hand, gets quite an intense and deeply personal storyline here as you get the most in-depth look at this elusive and compelling vampire character.  Not only do you get a great look at the rest of his family as the book explores the White Court, but you finally find the reasons why he is always helping Dresden, which leads to some emotional and compelling scenes.  A lot of time is also spent exploring the battle between Thomas’s humanity and the monster within, especially when it comes to feeding on those around him.  This comes to a head when his need to feed and survive hurts someone close to him and he has trouble coming to terms with what he’s done, especially when Dresden harshly confronts him.  Throw in his complicated family and intense daddy issues, and Thomas goes through the emotional wringer in this book, which proves to be very illuminating.  Butcher sets Thomas up as quite a substantial supporting character in this book, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.

Aside from these main characters, there is also a great collection of supporting characters who add a lot to the story, and there are some awesome appearances here.  I really enjoyed seeing more of mysterious mercenary Kincaid in this book, especially after his fun appearance in Death Masks.  Kincaid is a badass killer who is hired by Dresden to kill the Black Court, only to end up being a bigger threat to Dresden when the wizard lacks to money to pay him.  Kincaid has some excellent and action-packed scenes, and I was intrigued by his backstory, especially the hints at his dark, dark past.  I also loved the use of Dresden’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, an older wizard who raised him and taught him magic.  Butcher writes some amazing scenes around McCoy, especially once Dresden finds out just how many secrets the old man has been keeping from him.  Throw in a batch of great vampire characters (including the sinister Lord Raith and the compelling Lara Raith), some entertaining members of the adult film industry (including the fantastic diva Trixie Vixen), and the first appearance of Mouse, Dresden’s puppy, and you have an amazing cast of characters here that Butcher gleefully and impressively wraps the story around.  Each of these characters is very fun and intriguing in their own way, and I loved the elaborate and moving scenes that they star in.

Naturally I chose to check out Blood Rites on audiobook, which I maintain is the absolute best way to enjoy the Dresden Files books.  The captivating story and excellent characters really fit into this format extremely well, and I find myself absorbing the narrative and the author’s fantastic style a lot better this way.  With a runtime of just over 13 hours, Blood Rites is the noticeably longer than the previous books in the series (they get progressively longer and longer as the series goes, with some later books like Cold Days reaching nearly 19 hours in length).  Despite the increased run time, I still found myself knocking this audiobook off in no time at all, especially once I got stuck into the excellent and powerful story.  I must also highlight the incredible voice work of the always awesome James Marsters, who did another spectacular job narrating this fantastic novel.  At this point in the series, Marsters has really hit his stride when it comes to narrating, and he voices each audiobook with some impressive passion, effortlessly bringing the dark events and complex characters to life and ensuring that everything sticks in the listener’s mind.  All the characters are voiced extremely well, with the highlight again being protagonist Harry Dresden, who Marsters inhabits effortlessly.  He really understands the character’s anguish, pain, and dark humour, and this comes across in his narration perfectly.  Thanks to his epic performance in Blood Rites, and the other Dresden Files audiobooks, Marsters remains one of my favourite audiobook narrators, and I cannot recommend the Blood Rites audiobook enough as a result.

My dive into the early Dresden Files novels continues to be incredibly epic, as I once again fell in love with one of Jim Butcher’s unique reads, Blood Rites.  This fantastic novel has so much going for it, and I had a brilliant time exploring the powerful urban fantasy/crime fiction based narrative.  Featuring a deeply compelling mystery, a ton of intriguing parallel storylines, and some impressive and emotionally charged character development, Blood Rites is another exceptional book that is so much fun to get through.  Honestly, if I didn’t have such a backlog of awesome recent audiobook releases, I would probably be diving into the seventh Dresden Files novel right now, but hopefully I will get a chance later this year.  If you haven’t checked out the Dresden Files books after my previous glowing reviews, then you really need to get your butt into gear and start reading them now!

Throwback Thursday – Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Death Masks Cover

Publication: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 1 August 2003)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Five

Length: 11 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I highlight another excellent entry in Jim Butcher’s iconic Dresden Files series, with Death Masks.

Fans of this blog will know that I have been having a magical time (pun intended) discovering and getting into the long-running Dresden Files series by acclaimed fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Set in Chicago, the Dresden Files novels follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, wizard for hire and protector of the city against any supernatural threat that comes its way.  This has been Butcher’s major series for years, but I only got into it back in 2020 when I checked out the 17th entry, Battle Ground.  Due to its exceptional plot and the all-out magical war for Chicago that it depicted, this was a pretty epic novel that was not only one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020 but also an excellent recruiting tool for new Dresden Files fans.  It didn’t take me long after reading Battle Ground to check out some of the earlier entries in the series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, as well as the novella, The Law.  I have had such an epic time with this series that when I felt like a guaranteed five-star book, I immediately decided to check out the next book in the series, with the fifth Dresden Files entry, Death Masks.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident professional wizard, is once again thrust into the middle of far more trouble than he ever dreamed of when a television panel show introduces him to an array of people who want something from him.  Not only does he find himself forced into a duel against a powerful Red Court vampire noble but he is also hired by a Vatican priest to recover a revered stolen holy relic, the Shroud of Turin.

Determined to make the most of these new events, Dresden takes the case and begins to search for the shroud while also preparing for his upcoming fight to the death.  However, many people are interested in obtaining the shroud for their own use, and Dresden finds himself under attack by hitman, gangsters, criminals, and far, far worse.  The Denarians, an ancient and despicable group of fallen angels, have designs on the shroud, and not even Dresden’s most powerful and holy allies, the Knights of the Cross, may be enough to save him.

As Dresden attempts to recover the shroud, he finds that the Denarians and their deadly leader, Nicodemus, have a nefarious plot for the shroud that could destroy everything that Dresden holds dear.  Working with allies old and new, Dresden must overcome the Denarian threat before it is too late, while also managing to defeat the Red Court vampire gunning for him.  With everything on the line, has Dresden finally bitten off more than he can chew?  And what happens when the lost love of his life returns to town, battling her own demons?

Wow, Butcher just cannot strike out!  This is yet another book from him that I have no choice but to award a full five-star rating to.  Death Masks has a deeply addictive narrative that grabs your attention from the very first page and refuses to let go, and some complex and entertaining characters to match.

Death Masks has a pretty awesome story to it that got really addictive very quickly.  Starting off a few months after the events of Summer Knight, Death Masks contains several, great layered storylines, all of which are pretty exciting and intense in their own way and which cross over well to create a complete and powerful narrative.  The first of these immediately places Dresden in the path of several dangerous enemies and opponents as he is dragged into a new case, recovering the stolen Shroud of Turin.  Despite being warned off by his allies, the Knights of the Cross, Dresden naturally pursues, which sets him against established foes, like Chicago’s gangster king, and a powerful new cadre of enemies, who represent one of the biggest threats that Dresden has gone up against at this point in the series.  At the same time, the protagonist is forced to accept a formal duel to the death against a powerful vampire lord, as part of the ongoing storyline about his war with the Red Court, and he also helps the police investigate a disfigured corpse that seems to have been simultaneously infected by every disease known to man.  These events are further complicated by the re-emergence of Susan Rodriguez, his former love interest whose romance was crushed when she was partially turned into a vampire, and who he still holds a massive torch for.

Each of these storylines is quite interesting on its own, and Butcher writes some interesting scenes around all of them, with the primary focus being on the search for the shroud and the fight against the Denarians.  These storylines start pulling together about hallway through the book, and Butcher really raises the stakes for the protagonist, especially when he experiences some major and heartbreaking setbacks.  I really loved the unique blend of character development, fantasy and urban crime that is utilised throughout most of this story, and it is always so much fun to see the protagonist attempting to understand the complex plots arranged against him as he tries to save his friends and city.  Everything leads up to an extremely exciting final third where Dresden and his allies are thrust into a series of battles with massive stakes involved that leave them broken and nearly beaten.  I honestly could not stop listening to the final few hours of this book, and I pretty much powered through the entire second half in less than a day.  There are some epic and very moving moments featured in the big conclusion, and Butcher did a brilliant job of bringing everything together and ensuring that the reader will come back for future instalments of his work.  I particularly loved the final little twist that saw the book’s major villain get one over the protagonist, and I am extremely keen to see what happens with that storyline going forward.

I have so much love for Butcher’s writing style when it comes to the Dresden Files novels, and Death Masks was a particularly good example of this.  Like the rest of the series, Death Masks is told exclusively from the perspective of its central character, Harry Dresden, and this places you right into the midst of all the action and investigations, and you see all the steps as Harry tries to outwit his various foes.  This use of Dresden as the central figure also ensures that the reader gets quite a lot of humour in the story, and the continuous jokes and funny insights really help to make the story that much more fun to enjoy.  There is a great focus on character development and introductions in this novel that I deeply enjoyed, and this works really well with the mystery elements and established fantasy setting to create an excellent narrative.  Butcher keeps the pace of the book sharp and fast here, and all the big events quickly and effectively fall into place where needed.  I liked how the protagonist dealt with multiple problems and cases simultaneously, and Butcher did a good job of balancing and combining these initially separated storylines and threats where necessary.  I did think that Butcher did go over the top in places when it came to the romance sequences, and some of the scenes were a little questionable at times.  Still, this didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of the Death Masks, and I had a blast seeing everything unfold.

Death Masks proved to be a particularly significant entry in the Dresden Files series, and it is a must-read for all fans as a result.  Butcher perfectly sets up several ongoing storylines here while also successfully continuing some established character arcs and introducing a whole new batch of great and interesting characters.  There are so many key events and interactions going on in Death Masks, many of which will be vital for the rest of the series, and I know it helped to give some additional context for some of the events in the later books I have read.  However, like most Dresden Files novels, Death Masks is extremely accessible to new readers, and Butcher always makes a point to expand on the existing storylines and characters in a way that new readers can understand and follow without boring the existing fans.  As such, this is a book with a lot of appeal to many readers, and all fantasy fans can dive in extremely easily.

Death Masks is also a major book for character work, and readers who love the impressive and exciting Dresden Files cast are in for a great time here.  I felt that Butcher presented a great balance of established and new characters in this novel, and there is an excellent focus on development and the emotional issues impacting the protagonist.  Many of the new characters will become major recurring figures in the series from now on and deeply enjoyed seeing how their story started.  Most of the character work hinged on protagonist Harry Dresden, who is the true heart and soul of the book.  I always enjoy quirky and rebellious protagonists in novels with a first-person perspective, and the Dresden Files are a great example of this.  Dresden was his usual funny and disrespectful self for the entirety of Death Masks, and it was so much fun seeing him sass every person he encountered, especially when it enrages the villains.  There is also a great emotional component to Dresden in Death Masks that I enjoyed, as he is still going through a lot of issues.  His already complicated feelings about his past failed romance come full circle here when the girl that got away (well, got turned into a vampire) returns and he is forced to finally confront his repressed feelings for her.  There are also some major moments where Dresden is forced to confront the consequences of his mistakes, especially when they cost other characters, and I loved some of the interactions that occurred as a result.

One of the big returns for Death Masks is the character of Susan Rodriguez, Dresden’s love interest who has been missing for a couple of books.  Susan was partially turned into a vampire during her last appearance and left Dresden as a result.  This book sees her return, and there is a complete change of character because of her transformation, being a lot more confident as well as some more notable abilities.  I liked most of the Susan storyline in this book, not only because fans finally get some closure for the romance between her and Harry but also because she now has some mysterious connections and is working as a covert anti-vampire agent.  There are some great moments with Susan in the book, although I did find one scene to be pretty ridiculous, even though it was supposed to be the sequence that served as the climax of the Dresden/Susan romance arc.  Who knew that all you needed to cure vampiric thirst was a bondage session (I’m barely joking here, that happened).  I mostly ignored this awkward scene (try listening to it whilst on your lunch break at work) from my overall grading of Death Masks, just because it was so much of an outlier, but it was a little weird.  Still, I’m glad we got a return from Susan, and it was interesting to see how much she had changed since the last book.

I also enjoyed the use of the Knights of the Cross in Death Masks, and they served as excellent comrade characters for Dresden.  The Knights of the Cross are three modern day crusaders who wield legendary holy swords and serve as God’s fist on Earth.  We had previously met one of them in Grave Peril, Michael Carpenter, and I loved seeing him again, especially as he is essentially a badass Ned Flanders with a sword and a mission from God.  His mentorship of Harry is a key part of his character arc in the series, and it is really interesting to see him serve as a conscience to the rebellious and faithless Harry.  The two other knights introduced in this book also add a lot to the plot.  The rookie knight, Sanya, was really fun, and I liked his more refreshing take on the role and responsibilities he wields.  However, the best of them was Shiro, the elder knight who acts as the group’s guiding light and who has stood against evil for decades.  I love the depiction of this Japanese badass who literally has fallen angels quaking in their boots, and he was a wise and brilliant character that did a lot in a few short appearances.  Shiro was probably my favourite of the three in this book, and his fantastic dialogue with Harry, especially that description of how he became a Christian, was some of Butcher’s best writing.

Finally, I must talk about the villains, who added a great deal to the story.  Readers are spoiled for choice in Death Masks when it comes to villains, as there are several different groups and individuals who turned up looking to kill Dresden throughout the book.  The first of these is Don Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire who seeks to end the war between his people and the wizards of the White Council by killing Dresden in a duel.  Ortega appears to be a mostly reasonable and honourable figure despite his desire to kill Dresden, and I liked the fun banter he had with the protagonist.  I was also glad to see more of Chicago gangster Johnny Marcone, who is one of the best recurring figures in the series.  Marcone always serves as such an excellent foil to Dresden, and their constant sparring and back and forth is a lot of fun to see.  It was particularly interesting to see Marcone become even more involved in the mystical world in this novel, mainly due to the respect he has for Dresden’s abilities, and this serves as a major step towards his current incarnation later in the series.

However, the best villains in the story are probably the group known as the Denarians, a collection of fallen angels possessing desperate or evil humans.  The Denarians are some of the most dangerous beings in the entire Dresden Files, and Butcher gives them an impressive introduction in this novel, showing them as agents of chaos determined to cause as much grief as possible.  Their leader, Nicodemus, is probably one of the most intriguing and sinister figures I’ve yet see Butcher write, and he pretty much always had Dresden on the ropes.  I particularly loved his first major interaction with the protagonist, especially as he was able to completely rattle Dresden, who could barely do anything in response.  The characters were barely able to survive his machinations throughout the book, and he truly showcased how much of a threat he could and would be.  A masterful villain, I cannot wait to see more of him in some of the future books.  All these characters, and more (future superstar Butters has an interesting introduction this book), really add to the captivating story, and I loved how well Butcher developed and featured them in Death Masks.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to enjoy Death Masks on audiobook, which was another excellent and impressive experience.  I really love the Dresden Files audiobooks and Death Masks was another good example of why.  Not only does the format really capture the essence of the story and help the listener become immersed in the urban fantasy world, but it also features some of the best voice work you are likely to find in an audiobook.  That is because Death Masks is narrated by actor James Marsters, who always does a spectacular job brining this series to life.  After providing narration for the first four books in the series, Marsters really knows what he is doing when he gets to Death Masks, and he swiftly dives in and gives the epic narrative everything it needs.  All the characters are voiced perfectly, with some extremely fitting and powerful voices given to them that expertly portray their personalities, ethnicities and mentalities.  Due to the great range of characters in Death Masks, Marsters is required to play a range of figures, from an evil fallen angel, three ultra-good holy knights, a gangster, multiple vampires and more, all of which come out really well.  However, the best work is saved for protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  Marsters perfectly inhabits the role of Dresden, and you get the full breadth of his complexities, inner pain, and weird sense of humour, as Marsters narrates the book through his eyes.  You really get the best understanding of Dresden through Marsters’s voice work, and that really adds to the quality of the entire read.  As such, this format comes extremely highly recommended, and you need to try Death Masks’ audiobook as soon as you can.

Another Dresden Files book down, another five-star rating from me.  Death Masks was another epic and exceptional entry in this amazing series, and I continue to be impressed by how well Jim Butcher writes these great books.  Thanks to its excellent and utterly addictive narrative and brilliant character work, Death Masks is probably one of the best Dresden Files novels I have read so far, and I had such a great time with it.  I can think of no higher compliment than to say it made me so happy, I instantly started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites, the moment I finished Death Masks.  Make sure to come back next week to check that Throwback Thursday out.

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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

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I 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.

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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

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I 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.

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Throwback Thursday: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 14 May 2013, originally published 12 September 2006)

Series: Standalone

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday review I take a look at the zombie horror classic, World War Z by Max Brooks, a truly epic and outstanding read.

One of the biggest novels that I have been meaning to read for ages was the highly regarded zombie novel, World War Z, also known as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.  Written by Max Brooks as a follow-up to his first book, the non-fictional The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z is a unique novel that fully examines a zombie apocalypse from multiple perspectives.  I had heard some great things about this novel, and I even enjoyed the movie adaptation when it came out (more on that later).  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to read it and I kind of figured for a while that it might stay in my to-read pile for a while.  However, it moved much higher up my list of books to check out after I read Brooks’s 2020 novel, Devolution, which was one of my favourite novels of 2020 (as well as one of my favourite all-time horror novels).  I had also heard a lot of praise for World War Z‘s awesome audiobook edition, so when my wife and I needed some entertainment during a recent cross-country road trip, this was our first choice.

Plot Synopsis:

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

Ranging from the now infamous village of New Dachang in the United Federation of China, where the epidemiological trail began with the twelve-year-old Patient Zero, to the unnamed northern forests where untold numbers sought a terrible and temporary refuge in the cold, to the United States of Southern Africa, where the Redeker Plan provided hope for humanity at an unspeakable price, to the west-of-the-Rockies redoubt where the North American tide finally started to turn, this invaluable chronicle reflects the full scope and duration of the Zombie War.

Most of all, the book captures with haunting immediacy the human dimension of this epochal event. Facing the often raw and vivid nature of these personal accounts requires a degree of courage on the part of the reader, but the effort is invaluable because, as Mr. Brooks says in his introduction, “By excluding the human factor, aren’t we risking the kind of personal detachment from history that may, heaven forbid, lead us one day to repeat it? And in the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’?”

Note: Some of the numerical and factual material contained in this edition was previously published under the auspices of the United Nations Postwar Commission.

Holy hell, that was an exceptional book!  I loved the powerful and expansive narrative contained within World War Z as Brooks attempts to fully encapsulate the entire experience of a zombie apocalypse in impressive detail.  Literally all the good things I heard about this book were true, and I loved his unique and very captivating way of capturing the horrors of this sort of experience, both from the zombies and other humans.  An exceptional and impressively inventive read, World War Z gets an easy five-star read from me.

I cannot get over how awesome and distinctive World War Z was as a concept.  Rather than a traditional novel, Brook’s masterpiece is written as an epistolary novel, written as in-universe oral history anthology of a zombie apocalypse.  The book, which was compiled by this universe’s version of Max Brooks, contained multiple testimonials and interviews, as Brooks seeks out and talks to multiple people who experienced the apocalypse and pulls together their various unique stories.  This book contains around 40 individual stories set out across five chapters which look at the various stages of the zombie war, from its origins all the way up to the postwar ‘new normal’.

At this point I need to make a quick note about the version of World War Z that we checked out.  There are a couple of different World War Z audiobooks out there, but for our trip we listened to the World War Z: The Complete Edition, which combines two separate audiobook adaptations of the novel, and contains all the stories from the original book.  I did look over a paperback edition of World War Z before I started this review, and it looks like our audiobook version covered the full stories well, although I did notice that some of the stories were shortened or missing minor parts.  In addition, the audiobook version did not feature any of the paperback’s footnotes, which contained technical details and notes from the author.  However, I don’t think I lost out on too much of the plot from some of these missing gaps.

I really fell in love with the various individual stories contained with World War Z as Brooks went out of his way to produce the most unique and moving tales that he could.  These are mostly standalone tales, although there are a few interesting crossovers as the book continues, with some character’s mentioning events or supporting figures from other stories in their interviews.  However, as you follow the stories within these five chapters (made up of Warnings, Blame, The Great Panic, Turning the Tide, and Good-Byes), you get a full sense of the entire war, and it quickly comes apparent how cleverly Brooks was crafting everything here.  I personally deeply enjoyed both the individual shorter tales and the much larger connected story of World War Z, and I was deeply impressed with the excellent writing style behind it.  Brooks is a true master of writing deeply personal, character-driven tales of survival, and you swiftly become attached to the various protagonists as they tell their unique stories.  The action within is gruesome, fast-paced and deeply terrifying, and there are multiple over-the-top descriptions of zombie and human violence that will stick with you forever.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have read in terms of storytelling and action, and everything about this tale is so damn compelling.

As I mentioned, there are roughly 40 separate stories contained within this anthology, each of which contains its own unique protagonist, supporting characters, settings and unique circumstances.  Naturally, with so many stories you have a bit of a range in terms of storytelling, with some being substantially better than others.  However, I felt that Brooks did a very good job of writing each of these stories extremely well, and there were none that particularly dragged the novel down.  There is a real mixture of narratives here, with particularly gruesome horror stories mixed in with more human-focused narrative, political plotlines, military thrillers, stories that balance on the edge of science fiction, and everything in between.  The spread of these stories works pretty well, with Brooks providing an entertaining mixture of storylines throughout the book so readers aren’t constantly bombarded by tales of horror or tragedy.  Instead, there are often fascinating, humorous and humanising stories thrown in amongst the horror.  This works to make the entire novel flow at a fantastic pace.

While pretty much all these stories are fun and tell some outstanding tales of the zombie apocalypse, there are a few that stood out to me as being a cut above the rest.  I had some early fun with the Stanley MacDonald storyline, which showed an amoral illegal surgeon in Brazil unwittingly transfer a zombie heart into a patient, which led to one of the earliest outbreaks in South America.  The Jesika Hendricks plot showed a brilliant, if very dark, take on ordinary citizens trying to flee the zombies only to experience the other dangers of surviving the winter in a desperate community.  There are several amazing and cynical storylines, such as the Breckinridge Scott and Grover Carison testimonies that showcase the capitalist opportunism that surrounded the initial outbreaks.  I also really liked the South African focused storyline around Paul Redeker, which showed a former Apartheid strategist using his stark and brutal plans to save the country from the undead hordes.  I loved the particularly inventive and clever testimony surrounding the character of Arthur Sinclair Junior, which focuses on how America was reorganised after the initial stages of the war, with the country setting its sights towards industry, construction and warfare, which really highlights the author’s impressive insights into the world.

Two other fantastic World War Z storylines set in Japan focus on two unique individuals, one an “otaku” (a computer-obsessed outsider who tried to live entirely online), and a blind “hibakusha” (a person affected by the atomic bombs used in WWII).  Both characters were outsiders in Japan before the zombie war, but the zombie invasion changed their entire lives and led to them becoming renowned warriors and survivors against all the odds.  These two storylines are extremely compelling, and I loved the way that the author utilised unique subsections of Japanese society and tried to imagine how those sorts of people would survive the zombies.  There was also a really intense storyline, told by Admiral Xu Zhicai, that details a Chinese submarine’s attempt to escape the zombies with their families, which turns into a brilliant, powerful and occasionally disturbing tale of survival, loyalty and family.  I also must mention the Terry Knox testimony that details the actions aboard the International Space Station and the Darnell Hackworth story that looks at the US army’s canine units that helped scout and herd zombies (yay for mini dachshunds, the real heroes of this book).  However, out all the testimonies featured within World War Z, my favourite had to be the ones focussing on soldier Todd Wainio.  Todd battled the zombies at multiple stages of the war, and his multiple entries paint a pretty grim picture but are easily some of the best depictions of the horror of the zombies and the challenges faced by the armed forces.  His first testimony about the army’s initial inability to combat the zombies is very chilling, and it was fascinating to hear about the changes to his training and equipment as the military adapted to fight this new and strange enemy.  I am honestly just scratching the surface of these testimonials here, as pretty much all of them were great in their own way.  However, the ones I mentioned here were my personal favourites, and I had a blast listening to them and seeing how they fit into the wider narrative.

For me, one of the main highlights of World War Z was Brooks’s incredible inventiveness and insights when it came to envisioning a potential world-wide zombie apocalypse.  Thanks to his amazing range of stories, Brooks showcases a vast global catastrophe that impacts everyone no matter where they are.  I loved his depiction of how the apocalypse emerged, and rather than a continuous attack that pretty much destroys everything in a single day, Brooks imagines a gradual catastrophe that is initially ignored and mishandled before it spreads uncontrollably.  This is covered in the early chapters of the book with some substantial skill, and you really get to see how and why everything falls apart, with appropriate zombie violence included.  While there is an understandable focus on America, I found it fascinating to see how Brooks imagined different countries would deal with this crisis, with different culturally informed strategies, and there are even some compelling references to real-life figures (the Nelson Mandela facsimile reacts in a very different way than you’d expect).  The author really dives into all the details of a zombie attack and examines all the pros and cons of various strategies humans could utilise, from fleeing, staying in defensible positions, or fighting back.  There are some brilliant testimonies that cover all of them, and Brooks’s dark depictions of unprepared or overconfident humans failing to understand the threats in front of them and paying the price for it are shocking, bleak and captivating.  Brooks also comes up with some truly unique and clever problems or impacts of the zombies, many of which are referenced or experienced by multiple characters, including floating zombies, marine zombies, feral children who survived without their parents, looters, civil wars, and even crazed humans pretending to be zombies.

These intriguing insights from Brooks’s imagination are further expanded on in the later chapters of the novel, where the author explores how the world order changed because of the zombie war.  Again Brooks dives into multiple countries here, and it was fascinating to witness which countries the author imagines will be destroyed by the zombies and which would thrive.  I really enjoyed his examinations of the way that America needed to reorganise itself and its subsequent battleplans, which were perfectly covered by several of the best characters.  Seeing countries likes Russia, China, Japan and more change in drastic ways a result of this apocalypse was really cool and compelling, especially as the author covers it in such a reasonable and logical manner.  Countries like Cuba and the West Indies thriving due to their isolation was pretty fascinating, and they stood as an interesting contrast to more prominent countries that were disadvantaged or never stood a chance thanks to their socioeconomic issues or unsuitable landscapes.  I loved some of the unique issues that some countries experienced, such as the infested Paris catacombs or the mystery around North Korea, and they leave some intriguing afterthoughts as a result.  Brooks also cleverly examines other unique impacts that the zombies are having on the world, such as extinctions (goodbye whales), changes in global relations, and long-term problems, and I was deeply fascinated and enthralled by all this impressive thinking.  All of this compelling insight and imagination really enhances the stories being told by various characters, especially as they all impact humanity’s potential survival, and I really lost myself in the author’s powerful and impressive vision of a zombie apocalypse.

While World War Z is primarily about survival and the wider impacts of a zombie apocalypse, Brooks also takes the time to cover a few interesting themes.  In particular, he uses this novel about zombies to examine humanity.  While there is a certain overlying theme about the indomitable human spirit and our ability to triumph no matter the odds, there are some very noticeable depictions of the worst parts of human nature.  I found his initial depictions of most people ignoring or ridiculing the slow rising zombie threat to be pretty realistic (keep in mind that this was written 14 years before COVID).  There are also some major critiques about corruption and government incompetence in the face of disaster that I also found to be very intriguing and insightful.  Many of the early chapters that talked about military attempts to fight back had some interesting parallels to the wars in the Middle East, and I really appreciated the author’s clever critiques of these conflicts through the medium of a zombie war.  I felt that Todd’s testimony about the first major battle of the zombie war was a great example of this, as he regales the reader with how politically motivated leadership and incompetence led to a massacre.  All of this added a thought-provoking and entertaining edge to many of the storylines in the novel, especially the earlier testimonies, and I felt that Brooks did an amazing job bringing some of his own insights and critiques into his writing.

As I mentioned a few times above, I listened to the extended audiobook adaptation of this novel, which I personally felt was the absolute best way to enjoy this epic read.  Running at just over 12 hours in length, we absolutely powered through the World War Z audiobook during our road trip, and it served as an excellent entertainment for a long drive.  I often find that having a story read out to you really helps you to absorb everything about the story, and this was particularly true with World War Z.  Not only did the narration allow you to focus on all the details of the testimonials, but the horror elements and action felt a lot more intense, especially when you were dragged into some of the more gruesome scenes.  I also feel that the audiobook version of World War Z had a better flow than the paperback novel.  The testimonials with the audiobook are a lot more separated out, treated as a new chapter each time the narrator changes.  This is very different from the paperback version, which throws multiple testimonials in a quick fire manner, with everything crammed together into the five chapters.  As such, I really felt the audiobook helped to highlight the uniqueness of each testimonial and you really got to focus on each story a lot more.

However, easily the best thing about the World War Z audiobook was the truly impressive voice cast that were featured within.  Brooks, a voice actor himself, recruited a crack team of international actors to fill out his cast, including several A-listers, who give some outstanding and amazing performances.  All these actors really dive into their various roles here, conveying the emotion, fear and insights of their protagonists, and their great voice work definitely enhanced the already cool stories of their characters.  I deeply enjoyed all their voice work throughout the audiobook, and I know that I enjoyed several testimonies even more because of the talented actors voicing them.  This cast is led by Brooks himself, who voices the interviewer, asking all the questions and meeting all the various figures the novel is set around.  Brooks does a really good job here, and his calm, collected interviewing style and additional narration helps to set the scene for the entire novel and moves the other character’s stories along at a great pace.

Aside from Brooks, there are a good 40 or so voice actors featured in the World War Z audiobook, and I was pretty impressed with all their performances.  Some standout early performances include a brief appearance from Nathan Fillion as Canadian soldier Stanley MacDonald; Paul Sorvino, who gives a very fun performances as the sketchy doctor Fernado Oliveira; and Martin Scorsese, who gives an unrepentant portrayal of corrupt businessman Breckinridge Scott.  Other great performances include Kal Penn as Sardar Khan, an Indian soldier who serves an excellent witness to an act of heroism; the late, great David Ogden Stiers, who brings Ukrainian solider Bohdan Taras Kondratiuk to life perfectly as he watches a great act of evil from his government; Common as dog trainer Darnell Hackworth; and Rob Reiner as “The Whacko” a radical politician/former Vice President who shares his strong opinions in a very fun outing.  I really need to highlight some intriguing voice performances from Simon Pegg, who does a pretty good Texan accent in the role of Grover Carlson; and Alfred Molina, whose Australian accent was pretty accurate (a rare talent).

The performances of Masi Oka and Frank Kamai really brought to life the two Japanese characters I mentioned above, as does Ric Young for Chinese Admiral Xu Zhicai’s elaborate testimony.  I also really need to highlight the brilliant work of Alan Alda in this book as he voices pivotal administrator Arthur Sinclair Junior.  Alda, whose voice I have loved since M*A*S*H, perfectly inhabits the role of this intriguing figure, and I loved hearing his narration of how America’s economy was changed.  However, out of all the voice actors in World War Z, my favourite was the always impressive and remarkable Mark Hamill, who voiced standout character Todd Wainio.  Hamill was one of the main reasons why Todd was such a great character, and I loved his outstanding performance as a former ground soldier recounting all the horror of the front line of the zombie war.  There is so much weariness, trauma and cynicism in Hamill’s voice as he narrates Todd’s testimony, and you really feel the character’s resentment and anger.  The way that Hamill describes all the gruesome gore and zombie violence was just so great, and his impressive range and tone helped to really enhance the insanity and horror of the moment.  These voice actors, and the rest of the impressive cast, are extremely epic here, and they turned this production into something extremely impressive.

A quick final note about the World War Z film.  Until I read this book, I really did not appreciate how wildly off-book the film adaptation was.  None of the true magic from the original story appears in the film at all, as they turned it into a generic action flick rather than a clever analysis of how a zombie apocalypse would change the world.  While I did enjoy the World War Z movie on its own, it is a terrible adaptation, with only small elements from the book appearing in the film.  While I can appreciate that this is not the easiest book to turn into a film, they didn’t even try.  I really do hope that someone does a proper adaptation of World War Z at some point, as it frankly deserves a lot better than what it got (perhaps a television series with each episode recreating one of the testimonies).

As you can clearly tell from the massive essay above, I deeply enjoyed World War Z by Max Brooks.  This was easily one of the best zombie novels I have ever read, and it definitely deserves its epic and highly regarded status.  Brooks’s distinctive and brilliant story was just plain amazing and I loved the outstanding combination of smaller testimonies coming together into one connected and thought-provoking tale.  The author cleverly examines every single aspect of a potential zombie apocalypse, and you find yourself not only loving the insane horror elements, but the fascinating political and social impacts that come with such an invasion.  Best enjoyed in the full audiobook format which features so many impressive voice actors, World War Z comes extremely highly recommended and I cannot hype it up enough!

World War Z Cover 2

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Throwback Thursday: Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf by William King

Space Wolf Original Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Ragnar series – Book One

Length: 266 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday I dive into the world of the Space Wolves chapter of Space Marines with the classic Warhammer 40,000 novel, Space Wolf by William King.

The Warhammer 40,000 expanded universe is truly blessed with the sheer range of unique stories that it contains.  From pulse-pounding crime novels (Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty), deeply fascinating novels about aliens (Ruin, Reign and Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!), haunting horror tales (The Bookkeeper’s Skull), and even brutal war stories by common soldiers (Steel Tread and First and Only).  However, at the end of the day, most of the more intriguing stories focus on the iconic and awesome Space Marines.  These genetically enhanced and over-armoured warriors are often the true MVPs of the Warhammer canon, with some great series based on them (for example, the 50+ book Horus Heresy series).  There are a ton of great Warhammer 40,000 series around the Space Marines that I am exceedingly keen to get into, and I was recently lucky enough to find a copy of the first book of one of them which I immediately dived into.

That book was Space Wolf by William King, who I best know from his epic work in the Warhammer Fantasy franchise with his Gotrek and Felix series (check out my reviews for Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  Space Wolf is the first book in King’s six-part Ragnar series (also known as the Space Wolf and Wolfclaw series).  Focused on the character of Ragnar, a legendary member of the Space Wolves chapter, this series sounded really cool, especially as I have been really enjoying King’s writing lately.  I ended up having a great time with this novel which contains an awesome and very fun story.

In the far future, humanity is constantly at war with aliens, daemons, traitors, and heretics, all of whom wish to tear the massive and fragile Imperium of Man to shreds.  Humanities best and often last line of defence are the mighty Space Marines, the Emperor’s angels who fight the very worst xenos and spawns of the Chaos Gods.  Out of all the Space Marine chapters, one of the most respected, feared and honoured chapters are the Space Wolves.  Born from the genetic material of their legendary founder, Leman Russ, and bearing the touch of the wolf, the Space Wolves have stood tall time and time again.  But how does a mere man become a bestial and lethal Space Wolf?

On the planet of Fenris, Ragnar Thunderfist is a young warrior, content to work on his father’s ship and contend with the many dangers of his fierce and low-tech home world.  During a raid upon his village by a rival tribe, Ragnar is killed in a mightily duel after felling many enemies.  However, this is not the end of Ragnar’s journey; instead he finds himself waking up healed, resurrected by one of the mysterious Wolf Priests who watch over the planet.  Taken from the ruins of his village with other worthy aspirants, Ragnar learns that he has been chosen to become a member of the next generation of Space Wolves.

However, earning the right to join the Space Wolves is no easy task, and Ragnar soon embarks on a gruelling and lethal training regime that will test him to his very limit.  Working to hone himself into a living weapon, Ragnar will face trials, monsters and deadly rivalries as he attempts to prove himself.  But even if he is found worthy, the greatest trial involves the final transformation into a Space Marine.  The Canis Helix, which is implanted into all Space Wolves, bears a dangerous curse, which may turn even the strongest of wills into wild beasts.  Can Ragnar overcome the bestial rage that comes with this awesome gift, or will he lose his mind before he can serve the Emperor?  And what happens with the legions of Chaos arrive upon Fenris?

Space Wolf Cover 2

This was another exceptionally exciting and compelling read from William King, who perfectly starts another epic Warhammer series.  Space Wolf had a very different tone and structure to some of King’s other books that I have enjoyed, and I found myself getting really invested in this intriguing story of survival, self-discovery, and destiny.  Starting with an intriguing glance at the present, Space Wolf jumps back into the protagonist’s past, showing Ragnar’s formative years and the events that led to him being chosen by the Space Wolves.  Primarily told from the perspective of Ragnar, with a few sections told by an antagonistic alternate narrator, Space Wolf quickly turns into a fascinating examination of the intense training faced by potential Space Wolves recruits.  Most of the story follows the various stages of this intense military training and eventual genetic modification, and it was absolutely fascinating to see the changes the protagonist goes through.  While there is a lot of focus on expanding the lore and the character changes associated with it, King tells a concise and powerful story that really dives into the mind and personality of its protagonists.  This extended and brutal training sequence and initiations eventually leads up to the protagonist’s first mission as a Space Marine, which sees him and his team, many of whom you have also come to know, face off against an insidious foe on their own home world.  This last part of the book provides a ton of action, some intriguing horror aspects, and the introduction of a compelling antagonist who will likely show up in future entries in the series.  This final section really brings the entire narrative together extremely well, showcasing what the protagonist has been working towards, while also resolving some great character arcs.  I had a really fun time with this entire novel, and it has definitely made me keen to check out the rest of the series when I get a chance.

One of the most intriguing parts of Space Wolf was the way that it fits into the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Specifically, this novel serves as a particularly good introduction to the legendary Space Wolves Space Marines chapter, who are one of the more popular factions in the extended universe.  King chooses to look at them from a rather unique direction, showing them purely from the perspective of the protagonist Ragnar, an inhabitant of a Norse-esque society with no concepts of space travel, advanced technology, or the wider universe outside of their lands, and whose understanding of the Emperor, the Chaos Gods, the Space Marines and more comes purely from myths and legends.  As such, for much of the novel Ragnar and his fellow initiates have no idea who the Space Wolves are, or what they have been chosen for.  The snippets they continue to get slowly inform them of the wider picture, and it was fascinating to see their blind faith that they were working towards something greater.  Their eventual initiation comes as a great shock to them, and seeing these previously simple warriors become elite Space Marines with knowledge of the wider universe results in some awesome and intriguing scenes.  I found it really fun to see the similarities and differences between the characters when they were normal and when they were Space Wolves, and it was fantastic to witness how their harsh roots results in Space Marines with some major Viking vibes to them (it’s one of the things that make them such a cool chapter).

However, King also ensures that the reader is given some intense insight into the dark side of the Space Wolves.  While their training is often harsh and lethal, and their treatment of the tribes of their home planet is very manipulative, there is something far more worrying lying beneath the surface.  The genetic manipulation that goes into creating them awakens a beast within them, with many losing their sanity or even their humanity entirely, reverting into beastlike creatures known as the Wulfen.  King does an awesome job highlighting the various ways in which the characters are changed, body and mind, throughout the course of Space Wolf, and there are some powerful scenes where they are forced to battle to control their new inner nature.  This really ends up being a particularly fascinating and well-balanced examination of the Space Wolves chapter, and I honestly could not think of a better introduction to this faction.  This cool lore, as well as the Norse-inspired aspects and Nordic-like wild settings, serve to beautifully enhance the entire narrative, and King’s choice to show all events from an uninitiated character’s perspective was just brilliant.  The use of Ragnar as a narrator also ensures that readers unfamiliar with the Warhammer franchise can also easily enjoy this novel, as they can learn about the wider universe at the same time as the protagonist.  Established fans, on the other hand, will get a lot of joy out of seeing the Space Wolves in this much detail, and they will no doubt have fun viewing the myths and unique interpretations that the various Fenris tribes place on the Space Marines and other elements of Warhammer lore.  As such, this is a novel that will really appeal to a lot of different readers, and anyone with interesting in fantasy, science fiction, or even historical fiction, will probably have a great time reading Space Wolf.

Finally, I must highlight how good Ragnar was as a point-of-view protagonist.  Not only do we get the great insights into Space Wolves initiatives that I mentioned above, but there are multiple intriguing personality and mental aspects to his character that come across extremely well in the narrative.  Ragnar starts the book as a young warrior whose life is changed in a single day as his tribe is destroyed by a rival clan, his family is killed, and he himself is killed and then resurrected by the Space Wolves.  Worse, he is resurrected alongside the man who killed him, Strybjorn Grimskull, and is forced to train and work with him, despite their hatred for each other.  This results in a great deal of inner struggle for Ragnar as he is constantly torn between his honour and new responsibilities to the Space Wolves and his desire for revenge against Strybjorn.  Watching these two constantly circle each other through the training parts of the novel is awesome, and their issues get even more intense once they undergo the genetic change and become Space Wolves with bestial urges.  These intense inner issues and rivalries proved to be an excellent central plotline for much of the novel, and I felt that they dramatically enhanced the entire narrative very well, adding in some much need drama, comradery, and character development.  I cannot wait to see more of Ragnar and his fellow Space Wolves in the future, especially after how his first mission turned out.

Overall, Space Wolf was just as impressive and awesome as I hoped it would be.  William King did an exceptional job writing a fantastic introductory Space Wolves tale, and he continues to remain one of my absolute favourite Warhammer authors, especially with the excellent range he showed here.  Readers will love this outstanding dive into the Space Wolves and the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe that this novel contains, and Space Wolf is a highly recommended novel to anyone looking for an action-packed and exciting read.

Space Wolf Cover

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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

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I 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!

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Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 27 August 2013)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 13 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take another look awesome book from the Star Wars Legends range, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller.

As I mentioned last week, I have been going out of my way to read some of the older Star Wars Legends tie-in novels, especially after all the fun I had recently reading and reviewing Darth Plagueis.  Despite no longer being considered canon since the Disney buyout, the Star Wars Legends range contains some cracking reads, including the awesome horror read Death Troopers, the brutal prison novel Maul: Lockdown, and the fun heist novel Scoundrels.  I have been meaning to check out some other great Legends novel for a while, but the one that I have been particularly excited to read is the 2013 novel, Kenobi.

Kenobi, which was one of the last novels released as part of the Legends line, is an intriguing read that follows Obi-Wan Kenobi in the aftermath of Revenge of the Sith and follows his early adventures on Tatooine.  Not only does this book have an intriguing plot, but the upcoming release of the new Obi-Wan Kenobi television series has got me more curious about this novel and I really wanted to see what differences occur between it and the show.  I was also drawn to fact that Kenobi was written by the supremely talented tie-in author John Jackson Miller.  Miller is a great author, who has written not only some intriguing Star Wars books but also some fantastic Star Trek novels, including Die Standing, which was particularly awesome.  As such, I was pretty sure I was in for an outstanding time reading Kenobi, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 2

These are dark days for the galaxy.  The Republic and the Jedi have fallen, and the Empire, along with its Sith masters, has risen in its place.  All hope looks lost, except for an orphaned baby boy, now living on Tatooine, and watched over by a solitary protector, former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.  After failing to save his fallen apprentice, Obi-Wan has retreated to the wilds of Tatooine, determined to hone his abilities, protect his charge, and wait for the day that hope is ready to return to the galaxy.  Sticking to the outskirts of the planet, Obi-Wan has taken on a new persona of Ben, a mysterious bearded and robed stranger, living alone in the desert and hiding from his past.  However, despite all his attempts to blend in, Ben is still a Jedi, and trouble follows him wherever he goes.

A deadly conflict is brewing in the deserts of Tatooine as enterprising moisture farmers clash with desperate Tusken Raiders.  The settlers are terrified of a new and ruthless Tusken war chief who has leading raids against their farmsteads, resulting in series of brutal retaliatory attacks.  When the fight seeks to engulf some of Ben’s new friends, he is again dragged into a war he never asked for.  Discovering a grave injustice as innocents are killed for a matter of greed, Ben will once again call upon the powers of the Force to ensure justice is done.  But can he achieve his goals without revealing to the entire planet that he is a Jedi, or will his greatest secret be uncovered along with the galaxy’s last hope?

Wow, this was a pretty impressive and captivating Star Wars novel from Miller that does a wonderful job showing a unique period in an iconic character’s life.  Featuring a brilliant and surprising story, set in the iconic backdrop of Tatooine, Kenobi is an excellent read that I had an amazing time getting through.

I must admit that I was a little surprised with how this story turned out.  With a name like Kenobi, you would assume that the narrative would be primarily told by Obi-Wan as he tried to settle in and survive on Tatooine.  However, Obi-Wan isn’t even a point-of-view character in this book, instead the story revolves more around some of the local people of Tatooine as they encounter Obi-Wan (or Ben, as he is known to them).  While on paper this might sound weird, it actually works really well and Miller tells a taught, powerful and compelling narrative that perfectly utilises its titular character as a mysterious and somewhat unknown figure.  Focusing on a growing battle between Tatooine settlers and the Tusken Raiders, the story shows the impact of the arriving Ben on these long-standing communities.  Miller does a great job of introducing several excellent and impressive new characters who become connected to this early version of Ben Kenobi.  Their story soon devolves into a fast-paced, character-driven adventure as Ben finds himself caught between the opposing sides.  The growing war between them takes some interesting turns, including monsters, gangsters and hidden Jedi, and introduces a fantastic villain with some clever motivations.  Miller does a great job of working the desolate setting of Tatooine and the excellent characters into this story, and you soon become attached to both as they enhance the overall the story.  Everything comes together into a captivating and moving conclusion that is exciting, emotional, and a little dark in places, bringing everything together in a satisfying way.  This intriguing story proves to be exceeding addictive and I really love the distinctive tale that Miller came up with.

This proved to be a particularly good entry in the Star Wars Legends canon, and Miller does an outstanding job of tying this story into the wider universe.  Set right after the final scene of Revenge of the Sith, you get some intriguing views of the new galaxy under the Empire, as well as Kenobi’s early attempts to settle into obscurity on Tatooine (including the answer to the question: why did he keep the last name Kenobi? The answer may surprise you).  Thanks to Miller’s excellent writing and the close relationship to the third prequel film, Kenobi is an easy novel to get into for anyone who has seen the films, and most readers will really appreciate the cool story it contains.  There are multiple references to all three prequel films and A New Hope in this book, and I know a lot of people will appreciate seeing how several of these events impacted the wider Tatooine community in surprisingly ways.  Miller also makes sure to provide a ton of compelling references to some more obscure Star Wars Legends elements, including multiple characters and events from certain comics, such as Outlander arc of Star Wars: Republic and the Star Wars Legacy series.  Some references are pretty ingrained in certain part of the Tusken Raider character’s backstories and motivations, although readers can probably get away without knowing too much about them as Miller does summarise the most relevant details.  As such, there is a lot here for the hard-core Star Wars and Legends fans to enjoy with this book, and most readers will enjoy seeing how it ties into the former canon.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 3

I have to say that I was quite impressed with how Miller utilises the barren and desolate planet of Tatooine as a setting in Kenobi.  This book serves as a particularly good guide to Tatooine in the Legends canon, and you are soon immersed in the various cultures and landscapes of this deadly planet.  Not only are there multiple breathtaking and powerful depictions of the unforgiving desert landscape that the characters are forced to survive on but there are some fantastic looks at some of the creatures, monsters and threats that exist in the desert, most of which are encountered by the protagonists at some point.  The readers are also treated to an intensive look at some of the main groups of people living on Tatooine, particularly the moisture farmers and the Tusken Raiders.  I loved the depictions of these two different groups, with Miller amping up the resemblance to old West settlers and Native Americans in their cultures, disbursement, and conflict (the phrase “dancing with Tuskens” was used at one point).  I learnt a surprising amount about moisture farming in this novel, which was pretty fun, and it was really interesting to see some of the outcasts and settlers who take up the hard lifestyle.  However, the best depictions involve the Tuskens, who are featured pretty heavily thanks to the use of supporting character A’Yark.  You get some fascinating looks at the tough and often unexplained Tuskens throughout Kenobi and end up coming away with some compelling looks at their culture and lifestyles, as well as some mentions about their most distinctive members in the Legends canon.  I really appreciated the way that Miller portrayed them as a desperate people, thanks to several distinctive events from the films and the comics, and this becomes a major part of their motivations for fighting the settlers and coming into contact with Obi-Wan.  You really get a deep look at this entire setting and its people throughout the course of the story and I am extremely glad Miller featured them so heavily

Unsurprisingly, considering the title of this novel, the reader gets quite an intriguing look at the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  This version of Obi-Wan is recently arrived on Tatooine, only just removed from delivering baby Luke to his aunt and uncle, and now trying to find his place in the new, darker universe.  I really enjoyed how Obi-Wan was portrayed in this novel, especially as Miller made the interesting choice not to use him as a point-of-view character.  Instead, you see him purely through the eyes of the rest of the cast as the mysterious and weird hermit, Ben.  This actually works really well on many levels, providing at times a distant view of the protagonist that is reminiscent of Ben’s initial introductions in A New Hope.  I really enjoyed the other character’s impressions of Ben, especially as the character is trying to hide his Jedi abilities, and the fun reactions to his apparently odd actions are quite entertaining at times.

Despite Kenobi not being a point-of-view character, you do get some quite detailed impressions of his current state of mind, and it soon becomes apparent that Obi-Wan is emotionally raw after the events of Revenge of the Sith.  The other characters are quick to notice his apparent sadness, especially through certain noticeable reactions to particular topics, such as his past or the state of the galaxy.  While these other characters may not understand their significance, the reader certainly does, and Miller does a good job of showcasing his deep pain.  This troubled emotional state is also highlighted by several interludes that feature Obi-Wan’s attempted conversations with Qui-Gon Jinn in the Force, which summarise some of the recent events from Ben’s perspective while also examining his state of mind.  As the novel continues, certain events and revelations start to push Kenobi’s buttons, especially the actions of the book’s antagonist.  This eventually leads up to a big emotional outburst from Ben as he talks to one of the other characters about his failings in his past.  Watching him beat himself up for Anakin turning to the Dark Side, as well as the fall of the Jedi and the death of all his friends, is pretty heartbreaking, and it makes for the best scene in the entire novel.  I found it fascinating to see all these emotions unfurl as the plot continue, and the use of other character’s as the primary witnesses and interpreters of this, did a surprisingly good job of exploring the character’s mental state and showcasing just how alone and damaged he truly was.

While Obi-Wan does get a substantial amount of focus throughout Kenobi, the story is primarily told through the eyes of three separate point-of-view characters who Obi-Wan interacts with in different ways.  All three characters are pretty fascinating in their own right, and Miller sets up some brilliant and clever storylines around them.  My favourite of these is probably rancher and businessman Orrin Gault, who has an impressive and captivating character arc in Kenobi.  Initially portrayed as a compassionate, generous and ambitious moisture farmer who has set up the settler militia to oppose the Tusken Raids, Orrin appears to be a decent and noble figure.  However, Orrin has a dark side brought on by hidden motivations and dealings, and it soon becomes clear that many of the issues impacting the other characters are the result of his machinations.  Miller slowly reveals the full extent of Orrin’s misdeeds throughout the course of Kenobi, and he eventually turns into quite a conniving and distinctive antagonist.  The author provides some outstanding and powerful moments for Orrin throughout the book, and there are some interesting similarities between his fall and that of Anakin Skywalker.  I deeply enjoyed the full extent of his powerful arc in Kenobi, especially as Miller comes up with a particularly dark end to his story, and his inclusion really added to overall impact and strength of this book’s narrative.

The other major human character is Kallie Calwell, a store owner who runs the local watering hole and supply shop with her children and who has a close relationship with Orrin Gault.  Kallie ends up becoming one of the leading figures of the book after she and her daughter are the first settlers in the area to encounter the mysterious Ben and are instantly enthralled by his mysterious persona.  Kallie serves as a good narrator for a large portion of the novel and ends up being the central point of view figure for most of the interactions with Ben due to her romantic interest in him.  While I must admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kallie’s character (she was a bit too one-note and her constant family issues got tiring), she did have some intriguing scenes, especially when she interacted with Ben.  She ended up getting the most out of him emotionally, and her connection got him to open up at times to discuss his issues.

The other major point of view character was the deeply fascinating figure of A’Yark, the leader of the Tusken Raiders who have been raiding the local settlements.  Given the title of Plug Eye by the locals due to only having one mysterious red eye, A’Yark stands as a hard and uncompromising figure, determined to save their dying tribe without losing their traditions and sense of honour.  Thanks to A’Yark’s powerfully written scenes, you get a real sense of what it is to be a Tusken Raider, and they serve as captivating figure in comparison to the other characters in the book.  A’Yark has great story arc in this novel, and the intriguing growth, as well as their ability to adapt to certain situations, made them particularly fun to watch.  They also have some interesting connections to Obi-Wan and the Jedi Order, thanks to their former brother-in-law, and this results in some compelling scenes as A’Yark knows what Kenobi is and what he can do.  All these characters, and more, add some fascinating elements to the Kenobi novel, and I really appreciated the powerful and complex story that Miller wove around them.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 4

I doubt anyone would be surprised that I checked out Kenobi’s audiobook format, as I have a great love of the Star Wars audiobook format.  Naturally this worked out very well for me as the Kenobi audiobook was pretty damn awesome.  With a run time of just over 13 and a half hours, this was a relatively easy audiobook to get through and I managed to power through it over the course of several days.  Like most of the Star Wars audiobooks, Kenobi featured a great selection of iconic Star Wars sound effects and music with which the producers use to produce an atmosphere and help listeners visuals all the cool things going on.  Both were really good throughout Kenobi, with the sound effects in particularly being put to great use.  I did think that the use of John William’s epic score was a little more subtle here than in other books, but it still ended up enhancing some key scenes throughout the novel and giving them some extra emotional power.

I was also very impressed by the narration of the Kenobi audiobook, especially as the producers made excellent use of one of my favourite audiobook narrators, Jonathan Davis.  Davis is a brilliant narrator who has lent his epic voice out to multiple Star Wars productions over the years, including Master & Apprentice, Lords of the Sith and the Dooku: Jedi Lost audio drama.  He does another exceptional job with Kenobi, perfectly portraying all the characters of this novel with real aplomb.  He does a pretty good job with Obi-Wan, making himself sound as much like Ewan McGregor as possible, and I loved how intense he became during some of his more dramatic scenes.  Davis also provides distinctive voices for all the new characters in the novel, which I felt did a great job portraying their relevant personalities.  I particularly loved the scratchy and coarse voices of the various Tusken Raider characters, such as A’Yark, and you got a real sense of their rage and despair they have at their current situation.  This epic voice work really added to the quality of the Kenobi audiobook, and when combined with the usual awesome Star Wars sound effects and music, ensured that this was an absolute treat to listen to.

Overall, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller is a brilliant and powerful Star Wars novel that did an outstanding job of examining this complex and pivotal figure.  Perfectly examining the early days of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life on Tatooine, this impressive Star Wars Legends novel contains an intriguing, character driven novel that provides an interesting perspective on this hidden Jedi master which I deeply enjoyed.  Making full use of some great new characters and the desolate desert setting, this was a compelling and addictive narrative that is really hard to put down.  Highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, Kenobi is a great entry in the Star Wars Legends range and I look forward to seeing if any elements from it are used in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi television show.

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