Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora's End Cover

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

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Three

Length: 493 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The all-star team of Australian authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff present the third and final novel in their epic Aurora Cycle series, with the intense and clever young adult science fiction novel, Aurora’s End.

Over the last few years, I have been deeply enjoying the outstanding partnership of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.  Both Kaufman and Kristoff are accomplished authors, with several independent series to their name, such as Kristoff’s Lifel1k3 series (make sure to check out my review for the second book, Dev1at3).  However, I think that some of their strongest work has been together, as Kaufman and Kristoff have previously co-authored the acclaimed The Illuminae Files trilogy.  Their latest collaboration, The Aurora Cycle, has been a particularly amazing young adult science fiction series, and I have been really enjoying its cool story.

The Aurora Cycle novels are set in a far future when humans have expanded out into space and encountered a range of different alien species.  Peace between these species is kept by the Aurora Legion, an intergalactic collation of peacekeepers, made up of teenagers of various species (a slightly more hormonal Starfleet, slightly).  The series follows Squad 312, a group of misfits brought together thanks to the arrival of the mysterious Aurora O’Malley.  Auri is a girl out of time, who was awoken by the squad after centuries frozen in a colony ship and found herself gifted with dangerous psychic powers.  The first book in this series, Aurora Rising, introduced the squad and saw them thrust into the midst of a galactic conspiracy, as a race of plant-based aliens, the Ra’haam, who are plotting to assimilate all life, frame them as terrorists.  The second novel, Aurora Burning, expanded on the threats, the conspiracies, and the character drama, and ended with a massive cliffhanger, with all the surviving members of Squad 312 in great danger and the fate of the universe on the brink.

Following the terrible battle near Earth between the human and Syldrathi fleets, the planet-destroying superweapon was fired, but nothing turned out as expected.  Now, the various members of the galaxy’s last hope, Squad 312, have been flung throughout time.  Scarlett, Finian and Zila have been blasted back into the early days of Earth’s intergalactic travel, when there is no Aurora Legion, no friends, and a ticking clock of doom as the mysterious station they arrived at keeps blowing up.  Subsequently, Auri and Kal arrive years in the future, where the Ra’haam have won, and all hope seems lost.

Trapped in a time loop, Scarlet, Fin and Zila will initiate a desperate plan (again and again) with a new friend, but their mission may end up having unimaginable consequences.  While in the future, Auri and Kal are trapped with the only weapon that can end the Ra’haam threat, if they can get back to the present.  Forced to team up with the most dangerous being in existence, Kal’s genocidal father, Caersan, Auri and Kal embark on a dangerous mission through the Ra’haam controlled future with some unexpected help.

Back in the present, Squad 312’s leader, Tyler Jones, is also running out of time.  Still branded a fugitive by the entire galaxy, Tyler is the only person who knows that the Ra’haam are making their move to destabilise the various governments of the galaxy to start their invasion.  Forced to work alone and against the odds, Tyler needs to travel back to the one place he considers home, the highly secure Aurora Legion headquarters.  All three of these teams will need to survive impossible odds if they are to complete their missions and get back home.  But even if they succeed, can this ragtag team of teenagers really save the entire galaxy, or is the age of the plant-based parasite about to begin?

This was an outstanding novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that served as an excellent and captivating end to this impressive series.  Kaufman and Kristoff really went all out here with Aurora’s End, producing a complex and entertaining narrative that separates out the various characters and presents them with impossible temporal obstacles.  I deeply appreciate the clever narrative that the authors wove around these compelling characters, and it ended up being an exceptionally fun and enjoyable young adult science fiction book that I powered through in two days.

I absolutely loved the cool story of Aurora’s End, not only because it was really thrilling and fast-paced but because it was so ambitious.  I cannot think of another trilogy where, in the final entry, the authors decide to suddenly embark on massive time-travel adventure, with an intense narrative split across three vastly different time periods.  However, it works incredibly well, as Kaufman and Kristoff produced some epic and exciting storylines that remain mostly separate throughout the entirety of the book.  All three storylines are very distinctive, and all of them are pretty fun in their own unique way.  The storyline set hundreds of years in the past is an extremely entertaining event that sees three point-of-view characters trapped in a slowly devolving time-loop that ends every time one of them dies.  The characters are forced to work through an exploding, high-security station to find a way to travel back in time, with a substantial number of hilarious deaths and mistakes along the way.  The storyline in the present follows the Squad’s leader as he attempts to stop the entire alien invasion by infiltrating the most secure location in the entire galaxy without his squad.  Finally, you have the storyline in the future, which is an emotional and powerful post-apocalyptic narrative that sees Auri and Kal forced to contend not only with a hostile galaxy completely taken over by the Ra’haam but also with Kal’s insane and manipulative father.

I felt that all three of these storylines worked incredibly well, and each of them had their own appeal.  I honestly have a hard time faulting any of these distinct storylines, and it was one of those rare occasions in a split-storyline novel where there wasn’t a single character or timeline that I was a little less excited to read about.  If I had to choose a favourite, it would be the storyline set in the past, mainly because I loved the fun opportunities that only a time-loop story can present.  All three storylines were incredibly rich and compelling, and the authors did a good job of layering drama, excitement, character growth and humour through each of them.  While they were mostly separate from each other, the overlapping elements worked incredibly well, and the storylines ended up coming together perfectly towards the end.  The authors also do a good job wrapping up a lot of the unexplained story elements from the previous novels, with certain mysterious events and McGuffins finally revealed in their entirety.  This results in a big and epic finale where all the remaining characters are reunited to face the final threat of the Ra’haam.  It was extremely cool to see all the unique story threads finally come together.  I did think that the authors got a bit too meta-physical in the finale, especially when it came to dealing with the big-bad, but this didn’t really disrupt my overall enjoyment of the story.  I absolutely loved this wacky, clever, and well-planned out narrative, and I am still deeply impressed with how well the entire time-travel story worked.

I have really appreciated the cool and enjoyable writing style that Kaufman and Kristoff utilised throughout the Aurora Cycle, and it worked incredibly well once again in this final book.  Just like with the previous novels, Aurora’s End is told utilising six split perspectives, with each of the surviving squad members going into the final book getting multiple chapters.  Not only do these multiple perspectives help to present a rich and complex character driven narrative but it also helps the reader to really get into the heads of the main characters.  Each part of the book told by a different character has its own unique feel to it, and you really get the sense of each of the characters’ personalities and experiences.  I also love the way in which Kaufman and Kristoff layer in the action and humour throughout the entire novel, with various fun scenes featured throughout.  The action scenes are very intense, and the authors do a great job of highlighting the crazy battles that each of the characters get involved in, whether it be massive space battles, deadly close-combat fights, or sneaky attempts to move through an exploding space station.  The authors also have a great sense of humour, with many fun jokes and observations that made me laugh multiple times, especially around the fun time-loop storyline.  This made Aurora’s End a very easy novel to get through, as the natural narration and fast-paced scenes ensures that readers can power through it quickly, and with little hassle at all.  Due to this being the final entry in a series, readers are encouraged to check out the first two Aurora Cycle novels first before reading Aurora’s End.  However, those readers tempted to start and finish he series here should still be able to enjoy the story as the authors have a very inclusive writing style, and the book also features a highly detailed “stuff you should know” section at the front (very useful for both new readers and those who need a quick refresher).

Just like the previous novels in this series, Aurora’s End is marketed as a young adult read, and I would strongly recommend it to this audience.  Younger readers will deeply appreciate the use of multiple complex teenage characters kicking ass and saving the world, and I think that the authors did a good job of capturing the teenage mindset in their various protagonists.  This was also quite a mature and positive read, with multiple examples of romantic relationships, complex issues, and great portrayals of LGBT+ relationships that will be appealing to the younger audience, especially as the authors do not try to talk down to their chosen readers.  Due to some of these mature elements, I would suggest that this is a more appropriate read for older teens, and this is a series I would have really enjoyed when I was first getting into fantasy and science fiction.  Despite its marketing towards the young adult audience, this is a series easily enjoyed by older readers, and I think that most science fiction fans will have a great time with this series, if they don’t have any objections to following teenage protagonists.  Overall, I think this book will appeal to a wide range of readers and is a particularly good series for teenagers looking for a fun adventure with relatable heroes.

The last thing I want to highlight abut Aurora’s End is the excellent characters featured throughout, especially protagonists Aurora, Tyler, Kal, Scarlett, Finian and Zila.  Over the course of the Aurora Cycle, the reader has had a wonderful time getting to know all the protagonists, all of whom have grown throughout the series, while also experiencing loss, heartbreak, betrayal, and devastating revelations.  I have deeply appreciated the impressive and realistic character growth featured within, and the authors have continued this throughout Aurora’s End, with some major character moments that helped to define all of them and shown how they have grown.  Unlike the previous novels that have focused on a couple of the characters a little more, there was a much more even spread amongst the characters, with each getting their moment in the light.  Indeed, thanks to the cool time travel elements, you get to see multiple versions of one protagonist, with an older version of this character becoming a supporting figure in one of the other storylines.  I deeply appreciated the various character arcs featured throughout this novel, and Kaufman and Kristoff go out of their way to make you run the full emotional gauntlet here.  These arcs include a more comedic one surrounding the sarcastic Finian and the perhaps oversexualised Scarlett as they explore their new relationship while the world continuously explodes around them.  At the same time, the socially awkward Zila has a more serious experience in the time-loop, even as she embarks on a doomed relationship with someone who lived hundreds of years before she was born.

The other three characters also have some major and moving character arcs, especially Aurora and Kal, who are trapped in a future where the Ra’haam won, and everything has been infected by them.  This is a particularly dark storyline, and these two protagonists go through a lot, especially as they keep witnessing all manner of death and destruction around them.  Their arc is further complicated by Caersan, Kal’s father, who has similar powers to Auri and used them to destroy Kal’s home planet.  This results in some major emotional moments, as Auri and Kal are forced to work with an unrepentant Caersan, while also trying to work out their own complex emotions.  Finally, I must highlight the great development at occurred with Tyler, the team’s leader, who, after spending two novels turning Squad 312 into the ultimate team and family, ends up by himself, forced to face literal ghosts from his past with none of his established support.  Tyler really suffers in this book, and you must feel sorry for everything he goes through, even if he does start a passionate, if exceedingly violent relationship with a warrior alien princess.  All of these character arcs are really impressive, and you will be moved by everything these fantastic heroes go through, especially as not all of them will come out of it in one piece.

With this fantastic final book, the team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff have brought their amazing Aurora Cycle series to an epic and impressive conclusion.  Aurora’s End was an outstanding novel that perfectly wrapped up this excellent trilogy with fun, flair, and exceptional action.  Featuring some amazing characters and a very clever time-travel based storyline, Aurora’s End was an incredibly fun novel that comes highly recommended.  I deeply enjoyed this epic novel, and I really hope that these two brilliant Australian authors team up again in the future for another compelling series.

Throwback Thursday – Heroes in Crisis by Tom King and Clay Mann

Heroes in Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2019)

Writer: Tom King

Artists: Clay Mann, Travis Moore, Lee Weeks, Mitch Gerads, Jorge Fornes

Colourists: Tomeu Morey, Arif Prianto, Mitch Gerads

Letterer: Clayton Cowles

Length: 234 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday article, I look at an interesting DC Comics crossover event from a couple of years ago, the deep and compelling Heroes in Crisis.

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Now I have to admit that I have been somewhat avoiding a lot of the recent DC crossover events, mainly because I think the universe is getting a bit too complicated, what with the multiple versions of characters and timelines.  However, I recently grabbed the Heroes in Crisis collected edition (containing all nine issues of the limited series), mostly because I had heard some conflicting reports about whether it was any good, and I thought that it would be worth seeing just what sort of comic it really was.  I was also drawn to this comic as I am major fan of Tom King and Clay Mann after the work they recently did on Batman, which featured some really cool and compelling storylines.  Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a rather fun and intriguing comic, especially as King came up with another fascinating narrative.

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After years of fighting and surviving against the very worst evils in the universe, even the greatest heroes will start to crack under the unreal pressures of their chosen lives.  Realising this and determined to help their fellow superheroes, the trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman designed Sanctuary.  Sanctuary is a hidden facility containing a cutting-edge artificial intelligence programmed to provide advanced therapy, support and counselling to any hero that needs it after harsh battles and traumatic events.  However, no sanctuary lasts forever, and after losing contact with the facility, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman arrive to find Sanctuary in shambles and several patients brutally killed.  As the world’s superheroes reel from the deaths of friends and colleagues such as Roy Harper, Red Devil, Commander Steel, Poison Ivy and Wally West, their thoughts swiftly turn to justice.  But who is responsible for the killings, and could the culprit be one of their own?

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The answer may lie with the only two survivors of the Sanctuary massacre, the greatest hero you have never heard of, Booster Gold, and the mad clown princess, Harley Quinn.  However, Booster and Harley are both convinced that they saw the other commit the crime, and are now out to stop the other survivor by any means necessary.  As the heroes attempt to uncover the killer lurking amongst them, their world will be further turned upside down when the confessions and therapy sessions recorded at Sanctuary are leaked to the media, casting a new light on them.  Can the killer be caught before they strike again, or will this case irreparably damage the world’s greatest superheroes?  Whatever happens, the DC universe will never be the same again.

This was a very unique and fascinating crossover comic which contains some notable flaws, but is something that I quite enjoyed.  King, Mann, and their artistic team produced a clever comic that really dives into the minds of the collected heroes of the DC universe.  Featuring a great story, some powerful character moments and some impressive artwork, Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a fun and heartfelt comic that I had a wonderful time reading and which has really stuck in my mind.

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Heroes in Crisis has an intense and powerful character driven narrative that presents the reader with an interesting mystery, while also attempting to dive into the minds of some of the most iconic comic book characters out there.  I very much enjoyed the excellent premise that King came up with for this comic, especially as he starts the narrative off by showing several iconic heroes brutally killed around the Sanctuary within the first several pages.  At the same time, two of DC’s most unique and complex characters, Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, are fighting to the death, with both claiming that the other is responsible for the crimes.  This proves to be an excellent start to the comic which really drew me into the book, and which quickly leads into a compelling investigation angle with Booster, Harley and the DC Big Three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) all working towards the same goal while also fighting amongst themselves.  At the same time, a mysterious opponent is manipulating events from the shadows, ensuring that the protagonists are distracted by the public revelations about their mental fragility.  All of this leads up to an interesting and heartfelt conclusion where the killer is finally revealed in an emotional confrontation.

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This was a rather intense and fast-paced narrative and it was clear that King was drawing a lot of inspiration from the iconic Identity Crisis crossover comic (another controversial comic that split the fan base, although I personally consider it a masterpiece).  However, unlike Identity Crisis, I think that Heroes in Crisis fell a little flat and I can see where a lot of the criticism surrounding it came from.  While this comic has a great start and the author sets up the whole mystery and characters perfectly, I felt that the ending had some major flaws to it.  The reveal of the killer, despite some hints throughout the story, is a bit of a letdown (admittedly, due to internet spoilers, I did know who it was in advance of reading this comic, but this didn’t massively impact my overall reaction).  While I could appreciate some of the motives surrounding the killer’s choices, especially as it ties into the psyche aspects of the comic, it was a bit of a weak choice that undermined an amazing and well-established character.  In addition, many aspects of the conclusion, such as the reveal, the killer’s motivations, and the eventual solution to some established problems, were unnecessarily complicated and required some major logic leaps.  I also did not quite get why King included a certain “bros before heroes” scene, as it proved to be a very odd inclusion for such a serious story.  While I did greatly enjoy the set-up, as well the impressive inclusion of flashbacks and character centric panels throughout the entire comic, this ending was a bit of a letdown that substantially affected how much I enjoyed Heroes in Crisis.

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While the flaws in the story were a little disappointing, I think that King’s excellent character work more than makes up for it.  As he has previously done with his recent run on Batman, King attempts to really dive into the heart of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis, highlighting their complex psyches and personalities to help to draw the reader in.  I also quite liked how this comic focuses on a very unique selection of characters, including several of my personal favourites.  While much of the story follows the Big Three, with some additional inclusions from the Barry Allen Flash, the major focus of the comic is on the fun duo of Booster Gold and Harley Quinn.

Booster Gold, unconventional time traveller and the greatest hero you have never heard of, is a character I have a lot of love for, especially as he is usually shown to be a bungling hero trying to do the right thing.  Booster ends up being an excellent character in Heroes in Crisis as he desperately tries to understand who is responsible for the deaths at Sanctuary, especially as he is a suspect himself.  While much of Booster’s appearance is comical, there is a deeper sadness to him, both before the killings and after them.  King does a masterful job showing off Booster’s inner thoughts in some of his therapy sessions while also presenting him as a damaged person potentially capable of committing the murders.  I loved seeing Booster used so prominently in the comic and I hope we see more of him in the future.  The appearance of Booster also ensures that we get to see some of his robot companion, Skeets, who has a fun relationship with Booster, often pointing out the stupidity of several of his plans, such as telling the Flash that he may be responsible for Wally West’s death and not realising it would get him punched in the face.

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Heroes in Crisis also strongly features Harley Quinn, who DC have been heavily promoting recently.  Harley is her usual fun, chaotic self throughout Heroes in Crisis, although like Booster, deep down she is hurting.  King makes sure to explore the various damages that she still bears from her abusive relationship with the Joker, while also focusing on her current, relatively healthier relationship with Poison Ivy (who has a very lethal idea about therapy).  However, when Ivy is killed, Harley snaps a little and is determined to hunt down the person she thinks is responsible.  King does a great job showing off Harley’s unpredictability, humour and inner turmoil, and I liked how he presents her as a real threat, even to the likes of Superman and Batman.  Harley has a number of great moments throughout this comic, including a dangerous standoff, some great character development and some fantastic lines.  Harley also serves as a great foil to Booster, and when they are not trying to kill each other their conversations highlight their similarities, as both consider themselves failures in one way or another.  I deeply appreciated the use of Booster and Harley as key characters, and they were an outstanding focus of this comic.

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Heroes in Crisis also features a fantastic array of supporting characters, and the creative team takes full advantage of their story to bring back some great underutilised heroes.  I loved how King spent time exploring all the various characters who were massacred at the start of the novel, especially as he examines why they were there seeking help.  While there is an obvious focus on the more prominent heroes like Wally West and Poison Ivy, I had a lot of fun seeing characters like Lagoon Boy, Commander Steel and Gnarrk the Last Cro-Magnon.  King did a lot with these very minor DC characters, using a few short sequences to build them up as sympathetic and likeable characters, ensuring that the impact of their death was a little more significant to the reader.  The inclusion of Wally West was also mostly well done and I appreciated the exploration of all the trauma and pain he has gone through in the last few years (being written out of existence for a few years is a painful experience).  Batgirl and Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) also show up as supporting characters for Harley and Booster respectfully, and I quite enjoyed the examination of the unique relationships between these friends.  All of these characters really add a lot to the story and I very glad that King took the opportunity to explore and highlight how complex some of these DC heroes can be.

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While Heroes in Crisis has many good and bad qualities, without a doubt the best thing about it is the examination of traumatised heroes.  A large part of this comic’s narrative revolves around the fact that all the superheros in the DC universe are deeply traumatised or emotionally damaged because of their heroic careers, requiring them to seek treatment at Sanctuary.  While I know that some readers really disliked this portrayal of superheroes being emotionally and psychologically damaged, I personally felt that it was a clever inclusion from King that added a lot of realism to the DC universe.  Of course these heroes are going to be traumatised!  Most of them have been fighting crime or dealing with crazy people for most of their lives, experiencing innumerable tragedies and losses along the way, including dying and coming back to life multiple times.  It is honestly rather refreshing to see this acknowledged within the comics, and I deeply appreciated that King decided to feature it so prominently in Heroes in Crisis.

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One of the reasons that this psychological plotline works so well is because Heroes in Crisis features a ton of panels and scenes highlighting the heroes as they discuss their trauma.  Not only do you get glimpses at several AI assisted therapy sessions, some of which are quite intense (Lagoon Boy’s one hurts to read at times), but there are a ton of “confession” panels, which show the various heroes sitting in a special room discussing their pain to a camera.  These confession scenes are cleverly scattered throughout the comic and are worked into the story extremely well, showing the raw psyche of some of the comic’s major characters or murder suspects and providing possible motivations for their actions.  At the same time, they work to show the reader just how damaged some of your favourite heroes can be.  While there is a focus on characters who were part of the Sanctuary massacre, nearly every DC superhero makes an appearance at some point in Heroes in Crisis, talking about their pain and their sorrow.  King ensures that each of these confessions, even the single-panel ones, are really emotionally rich and moving, and you get some amazing feelings out of all of them.  Highlights for me include a great sequence with Batman lamenting the death of his sidekicks, and another one with Commander Steel, who is pretty damn traumatised by his experiences of dying, being reborn as a zombie, having his corpse mutilated, and then coming back again.  Booster, Harley and Wally West also have some very intense, story driven confessions which both moved the story along and helped to get to the roots of their issues.  I found these scenes of trauma, healing and emotions to be particularly well written and very powerful, and they are one of the main reasons I enjoyed this comic as much as I did.

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Another major highlight of Heroes in Crisis is the exceptional artwork by a massive collection of artists who banded together to produce some iconic and powerful pieces of art.  All of the scenes within this comic are very well drawn, and there is a real sense of movement, purpose and intensity in every panel.  I loved all the cool action sequences, and the artists really did not pull any punches when it came to highlighting the tragic deaths of so many different heroes.  Some of the best artwork, however, lies around the amazing and wonderful background and landscape shots throughout the comic.  There are so many fantastic shots that superimpose the characters in front of some beautiful settings, whether they be fields, sunsets or other pieces of nature.  These shots are not only visually impressive but they really add to the dramatic feel of the entire comic, especially as they remind you of the hope that so many of the damaged characters want to feel, but cannot, either because of the events of this comic or some pre-existing trauma.  The artistic team also has a lot of fun bringing to life a host of heroes from various periods of DC’s history, including some obscure characters we have not seen for a very long time.  While some of them were brought back only to die a painful death, it was great to see them again and the artwork surrounding them turned out to be superb.  I also deeply appreciated the artists’ ability to portray emotion and sorrow on the faces of each of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis.  You get a real sense of the darkness and pain lying behind some of the characters’ eyes, especially in some unguarded moments, and it helps to enhance the emotion of the pages.  Overall, this was some impressive and memorable artwork that did a great job enhancing King’s intriguing tale.

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Heroes in Crisis was a very interesting and memorable comic which I had a great time reading.  While it does have some flaws, I think that the creative team behind it managed to create a very touching character driven narrative that succeeded in highlighting the vulnerabilities of several iconic DC superheroes.  I had an amazing time reading this comic and it is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are interested in exploring the damaged minds of some of your favourite heroes.

Doctor Who: Time Lord Victorious: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead by Steve Cole

Doctor Who - The Knight, The Fool and The Dead Cover

Publisher: BBC Books (Hardcover – 1 December 2020)

Series: Time Lord Victorious – Book One

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to follow the Tenth Doctor into one of his darkest adventures as he faces death itself in the early days of the universe with the first novel in the Time Lord Victorious multimedia series, Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, by bestselling author Steve Cole.

Shortly after the events of the 2009 television special The Waters of Mars, the Tenth Doctor attempts to outrun his guilt and his prophesised death by fleeing deep into the past to the Dark Times.  Near the birth of the universe, life flourishes and death is barely known.  Only a few rare people die, and most beings live for vast quantities of time.  That is until the Kotturuh arrive and turn the peaceful and bountiful planet that the Doctor is visiting into a dead world within seconds.

The Kotturuh are a vile and terrible race who are spreading throughout the cosmos dispensing death and destruction on an unbelievable scale.  Worshiping a mysterious equation, the Kotturuh view themselves as the arbiters of life and death, travelling to planets and dispensing mortality.  With each new species they encounter, they decree what that species’ lifespan will be, whether centuries or moments, and any who have lived beyond their set time are instantly killed.

Determined to stop the Kotturuh’s reign of terror, the Doctor and a small team of companions begin to work on a defensive strategy that will ensure life forms are immune to the Kotturuh’s power.  After travelling to the Kotturuh’s world and witnessing the equation that they follow, the Doctor begins to formulate a plan that will not only stop the Kotturuh for good but may even put an end to the Doctor’s greatest enemy, death.  Determined to change all of time and space so that life will win for all time, the Doctor will become more than just a Time Lord, he will be The Time Lord Victorious.

Now it will probably surprise no-one who is familiar with my blog that I am quite a fan of Doctor Who (just add it to the massive list of fandoms that I follow).  Despite my love of the televisions shows, I have not gotten into the Doctor Who novels, audio dramas or comics, although that may change in the future.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead is an intriguing and compelling Doctor Who tie-in novel that takes the reader on a fantastic and exciting ride with the Tenth Doctor.  Written by Steve Cole, who has written a huge number of Doctor Who novels and audio dramas among other intriguing works, this book is a vital entry in the Time Lord Victorious project.  Time Lord Victorious is a connected series of Doctor Who tie-ins told across multiple forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and various other formats, which sees various incarnations of the Doctor encounter similar foes and each-other in a massive adventure.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is a major part of this expanded tie-in series, introducing one of the main antagonistic species and producing some of the major connected moments.

The Knight, The Fool and The Dead had an intriguing and enjoyable narrative which places the Tenth Doctor in an interesting and deadly conflict.  I had an awesome time reading this amazing story and, in many ways, it felt like an episode of Doctor Who, with the Doctor being confronted by danger, recruiting a unique team of individuals, including an immortal, a mad scientist and a time travelling Ood hitman (a hitood??), before finding an inventive solution to the conflict.  This proved to be a fun and enjoyable adventure, although it does get somewhat dark towards the end, mainly due to the Doctor’s vulnerable mental state and the reckless course of action that he undertakes.  While the book mostly follows the Tenth Doctor and his companions, there are also some flashback scenes to some of previous Doctors, each of which show the Doctor telling one of his companions the same story in different ways.  These flashback scenes are very interesting, especially to fans of the franchise, and they have some clever connections to the main story and to the overarching events of the Time Lord Victorious.  Due to how short the novel is (only 178 pages), The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is extremely fast paced, although Cole does an amazing job setting everything up in a short period and then ensuring that the story that follows is cohesive with a good flow.  I found myself powering through this novel in extremely short order, especially once I got stuck into the excellent story, and I really enjoyed how the entire narrative turned out.  I particularly liked the intriguing and shocking cliff-hanger, which definitely makes me want to check out the next novel in the series.

This latest novel from Cole proved to be quite an enjoyable Doctor Who tie-in novel that really captures the tone and feel of the television show.  Like many pieces of tie-in fiction, The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is best read by fans of the Doctor Who franchise, especially those who loved the Tenth incarnation of the Doctor.  Due to it being part of the Time Lord Victorious project, The Knight, The Fool and The Dead has some intriguing connections to the wider universe, with several other significant figures and characters making appearances, resulting in a lot of references for eagle-eyed fans.  While some knowledge of the wider Doctor Who canon would be ideal for readers of this novel, I felt that the story contained within The Knight, The Fool and The Dead was accessible to newcomers who should have fun getting through this interesting science fiction adventure.  While this novel is connected to a huge range of other Doctor Who media releases, I felt that readers did not need to have enjoyed any of the other entries in the Time Lord Victorious series before this book to follow the story.  While The Knight, The Fool and The Dead is a major entry in this connected franchise and is necessary reading for people trying to enjoy the Time Lord Victorious as a whole, this book can easily be enjoyed on its own.  I am rather curious about some of the comics and other novels being created as part of this, and I might have to check them out at some point in the future.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the author’s portrayal of the Doctor.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead features the Tenth Doctor, who was played by David Tennant on television, as the central protagonist of this book, and I felt that Cole did an outstanding job of bringing this iconic character to life.  Cole captures so much of this Doctor’s personality, including the way he speaks and thinks, so much so that while I was reading through this novel my brain automatically read all of the Doctor’s lines to me in Tennant’s voice.  This helped turn The Knight, The Fool and The Dead into such a fun story, especially as Tennant’s Doctor is probably my favourite version of the character.  However, the real highlight of Cole’s portrayal of the Tenth Doctor is how the author brings a much darker and conflicted tone to the character.  This version of the Tenth Doctor is only shortly removed from the climatic events of The Waters of Mars, where the Doctor’s hubris led to the suicide of a woman he was trying to save.  Because of this, and because his own upcoming death has been foretold, the Doctor has fled back in time to try to outrun his problems.  I really enjoyed the way in which the author portrays a much more unpredictable and emotionally ragged Doctor throughout this book, especially one who is still getting flashes about what happened during his last adventure.  This somewhat damaged Doctor ends up making some rather rash and dangerous decisions, especially when an opportunity to end all death comes before him.  The way in which the author works this more damaged version of this fantastic character into the narrative is extremely cool and I really appreciate the way in which he brings the story back to the events of the television series.

Overall, Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead by Steve Cole is an excellent and compelling Doctor Who tie-in novel.  Thanks to its quick narrative and fantastic depiction of the Tenth Doctor, I had an absolute blast getting through this new book, which serves as a key entry in a captivating multi-media series.  This is a great book to check out, especially if you are a major Doctor Who fan, and I will need to get the next novel in this series, All Flesh is Glass, to see how this storyline ends.

Throwback Thursday – Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts Cover

Publisher: Audible Frontiers (Audiobook – 5 June 2012)

Series: Standalone

Length: 7 hours and 41 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of 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.

Prepare to dive into one of the most meta and entertaining novels you will ever read with Redshirts by John Scalzi, a fun and clever Star Trek parody that explores what it must be like to be a background character in a science fiction series.

John Scalzi is a well-established and highly regarded science fiction author responsible for a number of impressive and expansive series.  Some of his best-known works include his Old Man’s War series, his Lock In novels and his The Interdependency series, the last of which I have been eying off for a couple of years now and have been meaning to check out.  Each of these series sounds really exciting and have received a lot of positive praise from readers and reviewers.  In addition, Scalzi has also written three standalone novels, each of which has a very fun concept behind it, including the focus of this review, Redshirts.  While I am extremely interested in some of Scalzi’s other works, the moment I found out that he had written a Star Trek parody novel told from the perspective of a redshirt, I grabbed myself a copy of its audiobook format and I have been looking for a chance to listen to it.  Last weekend I had a long car trip with my wife/editor Alex, and we decided that listening to Redshirts would be the perfect entertainment for the drive.

Redshirts takes place in humanity’s far future, aboard the flagship of the Universal Union, the starship Intrepid.  The Intrepid is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and exploration, containing only the most talented crew and scientists that humanity has to offer.  In all respects it seems like the perfect posting for newly commissioned Ensign Andrew Dahl, but it does not take long for Dahl to suspect that there is something seriously wrong aboard the Intrepid.  Not only does the lab that Dahl is assigned to have a magical box which solves every major problem that the ship runs into (with only seconds to spare, without fail), but the entire crew is terrified of the captain and his senior officers, actively trying to avoid them and the near constant away missions.  The crew has come to realise that the away missions are guaranteed to be lethal, with any crew member who joins likely to die while the senior officers constantly walk away without a scratch (with the exception of the unlucky Lieutenant Kerensky).  Now a great deal of energy is place into avoiding an away mission at all cost, with new transfers to the ship kept in the dark until it is too late.

As Dahl and his friends begin to realise the full extent of the terror that has engulfed the ship they attempt to find some sort of answers for what is going on.  However, the more deadly adventures that they go on the more obvious it becomes that some mysterious force is controlling their actions and causing their deaths.  With the lives of every crewmember aboard the Intrepid at stake, Dahl and his friends are left with only one crazy plan, to hunt down the beings controlling them and convince them to stop no matter the cost.  However, what happens when these expendable redshirts end up meeting their own creators?

I am going to say right of the bat that both Alex and I absolutely loved this book and we had an incredible time listening to it.  A good indication of how much we enjoyed it can be seen in the fact that we easily and eagerly powered through it during the two halves of our car trip without any breaks, laughing our asses off the entire time.  Redshirts is an extremely funny and clever novel that acts as both a parody of and a love letter to the Star Trek television show.  Scalzi has come up with a truly awesome and enjoyable novel that combines an amazing amount of humour and parody with a clever and heartfelt story.  This results in a memorable and addictive tale which you cannot help but enjoy, especially if you are a major fan of Star Trek.

For this great novel, Scalzi has come up with a very compelling and enjoyable story that acts in many ways like a unique combination of Galaxy Quest, The Cabin in the Woods and The French Mistake episode of Supernatural.  The story focuses on Ensign Dahl and his friends as they begin to work out the issues aboard the Intrepid.  This is a very fast-paced narrative and the reader is soon introduced to all the mysterious events occurring on the ship, from the terrified crew, the weird science, the exceedingly dangerous and improbable away missions and the strange characters who seem to have the answers.  All of this is shown to the reader in a very clever way, and while you are expecting many of these events occur, especially if you are familiar with Star Trek, seeing these characters react to the various odd occurrences with realistic shock and scepticism is a great source of entertainment.  Following the initial introduction, you get several chapters of the protagonists humorously traversing a chaotic ship full of self-aware redshirts desperately trying to avoid their fates.  The various attempts by the characters to understand what is going on and change their fates are amazing, if a little tragic in places, and this is a very comedic part of the book loaded with some of the best jokes at Star Trek’s expense.  The story then takes a very interesting change of direction as the protagonists undertake a desperate plan (inspired by a classic Star Trek film) to save the ship and prevent their upcoming deaths.  This third part of the book is exceedingly meta, and fans of both Star Trek and surreal, self-referential fiction will love where the story goes and various clever character interactions that occur.  These distinctive parts of the book come together extremely well and form an intricate and captivating overall narrative that fits a lot of story elements into a relatively short novel.  I had an amazing time listening to this complex story, as not only did it make me laugh, but it also made me care about the various characters who are introduced throughout the course of the book (something which the author is aware of and sadistically exploits at times, especially with that last joke at the end of the main story).

In addition to the main story, Scalzi also features three substantial codas at the end of the novel.  These codas are essentially short stories that follow side characters the protagonist meets during the course of the main narrative.  While I would normally be a little concerned about some concluding material taking up so much space from an already shortish novel, these codas are extremely well written and contribute a great deal to the book.  Titled Coda 1, 2 and 3, the codas are told in the first, second and third person narrative respectively, and contain some truly impressive and touching character-driven narratives.  These extremely clever codas really dive down into the psyches and emotions of their respective characters, showing their own complex histories and how their encounter with the protagonist had such a major impact on them.  Of the three, my favourite is probably Coda 1, which is easily the funniest, containing a very humorous series of blog posts, although Codas 2 and 3 are both emotionally rich and heart-warming.  While some readers may be tempted to skip these codas after the main story is finished, I would very strongly recommend checking each of these out as you are guaranteed to come away being extremely attached to each of these great side characters and also feeling a lot better after hearing each coda’s happy ending.

While Redshirts also has its own unique and captivating story at its heart it is an extremely funny parody of the iconic Star Trek television show.  Scalzi is clearly a fan of the series as he expertly works all manner of fun jokes and references to the show into the novel.  The Intrepid and its bridge crew are clear parodies of the Enterprise and the main characters of The Original Series, and Scalzi does an amazing job working his narrative around them, emphasising all their iconic character traits and showing just how ridiculous they and their actions are to the eyes of a normal person.  This includes the captain’s dramatic tone and way of over exaggerating events, and the poor junior officer with a Russian accent who gets the crap kicked out of him every single episode and yet is fully recovered by the next adventure without a hint of injury or PTSD.  Redshirts contains all manner of references or parodies to the over-the-top, badly written or ridiculous elements of the show, and Scalzi lovingly features and critiques them in an amazingly funny way; everything from the evolutionarily questionable alien monsters, the repetitive space battles (those poor people on decks six to twelve!) and the high death toll of the normal crew.  The highlight of the book has to be the terrified and disbelieving reactions that each member of the crew has to the events going on around them, and the fun and exaggerated attempts to survive them.  I also really loved the comedic metafiction elements of the book, which allowed Scalzi to take some humorous shots at the writers and creators of shows like Star Trek.  While this humour is obviously geared towards Star Trek fans, you really do not need to have a lot of in-depth knowledge of the series to appreciate the humour.  Anyone who has a passing knowledge of Star Trek and its tropes will find this book deeply amusing and hilarious and you are guaranteed to have a fun time getting through it.

While I absolutely loved Redshirts’ story, I did find that the dialogue was a little clunky in places.  While most of the conversation is quite fun and snappy, the overabundance of dialogue tags and the extreme overuse of the word “said” gets repetitive and distracting, especially in scenes where the conversations fly thick and fast.  In some heavy dialogue scenes, “character 1 said”, “character 2 said”, “character 3 said” repeats about 20 times in a minute, which is really distracting.  If Scalzi had used more variety in indicating which character said what, this book would have been pretty damn perfect.  But the story and the comedy were strong enough to overcome most of these issues, and I chose to focus on them instead.  However, I can easily see other readers getting a little frustrated with this, which would be a real shame as this is a very fun book.

The audiobook format of Redshirts ran for 7 hours and 41 minutes, although it is a closer to six hours if you decide to skip the codas at the end of the book.  This was an extremely easy audiobook to listen to quickly and we absolutely flew through it.  One of the main reasons that we were so interested in this book is because the audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton.  Now, there is obviously a lot of appeal to Wil Wheaton, or any cast member of a Star Trek television show, getting involved in a parody like this, but Wheaton did a pretty good job narrating this audiobook.  Wheaton had a great voice for this novel, and he was able to keep the audience’s attention through the entirety of the story.  While he did not really change his voice from character to character, the listener was generally able to tell when someone new was talking (ironically thanks to the author’s overuse of “said”).  Wheaton was, however, extremely adept at expressing the relevant emotions of the characters through his voice, and the fear, anger, frustration and sheer disbelief of the protagonist and the people he encounters really shines through.  I also really enjoyed his portrayal of the Intrepid’s senior crewmembers, each of whom is a parody of the main characters from Star Trek: The Original Series.  I particularly had a lot of love for the Captain’s “dramatic voice” that Wheaton did, which really captured the over-the-top tone Kirk had when he was excited or animated.  Overall, the audiobook format is a fantastic way to enjoy Redshirts and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in checking this novel out.

Redshirts by John Scalzi is a masterful and hilarious novel that presents the reader with a wonderful and clever parody to the classic Star Trek television series.  While there are some style issues associated with the dialogue, the story is loaded to the brim with all manner of great jokes, interesting characters, compelling plot elements and a whole lot of meta comedy.  An absolutely fantastic read that will appeal to all manner of Star Trek fans or people in need of a good laugh, Redshirts comes highly recommended and I can guarantee that Wil Wheaton’s audiobook format will serve as a great form of entertainment for a long road trip.

The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly

The Secret Runners of New York Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Format – 26 March 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The end of the world has nothing on the horrors of high school in this fast-paced and widely entertaining new book from bestselling Australian author Matthew Reilly.

When Skye Rogers and her twin brother, Red, are forced to move to New York city, they are enrolled in the prestigious The Monmouth School, learning institute of choice for the city’s ultra-wealthy and social elite.  Even among the children of the rich and powerful there exists a well-established hierarchy, and in The Monmouth School, the top of the social ladder are the friends and cronies of the Collins sisters, Misty and Chastity.  Despite only wanting a quiet existence in her new school, Skye finds herself drawn into their orbit against her better judgement.

Skye soon discovers that hanging out with the Collins sisters is very different from the usual high school cliques.  The social group is probably the most exclusive in New York, and it comes with certain privileges.  Thanks to an ancient family secret, the Collins sisters are able to activate an ancient tunnel beneath Central Park that allows teenagers to run through an alternate version of New York: a post-apocalyptic nightmare littered with ruined buildings and filled with crazed survivors.

When Skye and her fellow runners find evidence that the New York they are visiting is actually a future version of their own timeline, they need to find a way to come to terms with the end of the world, especially as the apocalypse appears to be only days away.  As society starts to crumble and the poor rise up against the rich, Skye tries to find a way to use her knowledge of the future to save everyone she loves.  However, Skye is about to learn that her new friends are far more concerned with revenge and are planning to use the end of the world to take her down.

Matthew Reilly is a veteran author of weird and electrifying fiction, having written a number of intriguing books in the last 20 years, many of which fall within the techno-thriller or science fiction genres.  In addition to a number of fun sounding standalone novels, Reilly has also published two substantial series, the Shane Schofield series and the Jack West Jr series.  Matthew Reilly is one of those authors that I have been meaning to check out for some time, as a number of his novels sound absolutely bonkers and really creative.  I am particularly drawn to his 2014 release, The Great Zoo of China, which essentially sounds like Jurassic Park with dragons; his 2013 historical thriller The Tournament; and the books in the Jack West Jr series, which features secret organisations fighting for control of ancient artefacts with world-and universe-ending potential.

I was therefore very excited to get an advanced copy of The Secret Runners of New York, due to its intriguing time travel and armageddon concepts.  I actually really enjoyed The Secret Runners of New York and had a lot of fun reading it.  The book features a surprisingly entertaining use of over-the-top high school drama that actually combines really well with the interesting science fiction elements mentioned above.  The result is an unpredictable and amusing overall story that I had a very hard time putting down and which I powered through in very short order.

The book revolves around the students at The Monmouth School (you have to say the “The”; it’s that type of place), New York’s premier high school for the rich and snooty.  Please remind me to never send any of my theoretical children to any school thought up by Reilly, as the author creates a learning institution that is essentially a viper’s nest of bitchiness, enforced social hierarchy and petty revenge, all of which is enhanced by the fact that the characters are all ultra-rich or have massive superiority complexes.  The quote below from main character Skye, one of the few well-adjusted characters in the book, shows her experiences within the first few minutes at The Monmouth School:

“In the space of a few minutes I’d seen a taunt about sluttiness, a threatened punch to the uterus, some humble bragging by the Head Girl about the school’s social status and a dose of good old-fashioned mean-girl passive aggressiveness from Misty.  School, I reflected sadly, was school no matter how high the tuition fees were.”

I have to admit I did find Reilly’s portrayal of most of the rich teenage girls in this book to be a tad extreme and unrealistic (yes, in a book featuring time travel, that’s what I am finding unrealistic).  I have never been and never will be a teenage girl, but I hope that teenage girls in high school couldn’t possibly be as petty and vicious as the girls portrayed within this book, even if they are the daughters of the uber-privileged.  That being said, I found this over-the-top viewpoint of high school life to be extremely entertaining and it was a fantastic element throughout the book.  Watching the level-headed and somewhat cynical protagonist have to deal with this insanity was a lot of fun, especially when you would imagine most people would be more concerned with the end of the world than with who made out with which guy.  An unbelievably amusing part of the story, these high school elements are great, just try and avoid thinking about it too much.

In addition to the look at the mean girls of high school, I did quite enjoy Reilly’s critique of the ultra-rich and powerful in New York City.  The protagonist finds herself drawn into the world of debutant balls, society politics and the other classy responsibilities of being rich in New York.  Again, this is an interesting part of the story, and the rich characters with their extravagant lifestyles do offer a nice disconnect from reality.  I liked Reilly’s examination of how the rich would be targeted during apocalyptic events such as the one portrayed within this book, and it played nicely into some of the current protests and perceptions of the 1%.  it’s another glorious over-the-top element for this book that provides the reader with a lot of entertainment and a real dislike of most of the privileged characters.

The science fiction parts of this book are incredibly well done and are an excellent part of this book.  Not only is there a devastating cosmic storm that will wipe out most of humanity in hours, but there is an unrelated magical tunnel that the protagonists can use to visit the future.  Reilly does an amazing job creating a devastating and crazy post-apocalyptic New York City for the readers to explore.  I was really impressed with all the brutal descriptions of how the city was in ruins and had been dramatically reclaimed by nature as the infrastructure falls into disrepair, and the whole thing is an amazing setting that Reilly uses to full effect.  I really liked how the author uses the time travel elements within the book.  Watching the protagonists slowly work out that this world is a future version of their own timeline is amazing, and it was great seeing them see all the testimonials and letters from their families describing the events that are yet to happen in their future.  The various time travelling shenanigans used by both the protagonists and antagonists of this book helped enhance this already exciting story, and I loved the way that the characters are able to see the consequences of their actions in both timelines before they actually happen.

The author has also utilised some eye-catching visual elements throughout the book to enhance the story being told.  There are a number of maps used to show the key locations of the book, and there are even a couple of diagrams used to explain the potential time travel issues in this book.  I personally liked the way that the font changed to signify the characters going into a different timeline and thought it was a nice touch.  A range of other text techniques are used to signify angry or desperate messages on different locations, such as walls or the entirety of buildings, often conveying the emotion behind these messages.  All these visual treats are great, and they really make this book stand out.

The Secret Runners of New York is currently being marketed to the teen and young adult audiences, but this book is really on the edge of what young adult fiction is.  While it is focused on teenage characters in high school, there are a significant number of very adult inclusions throughout the book.  It is interesting to note that in an interview at the back of the book, Reilly himself indicates that he does not see this story as being as a piece of young adult fiction, and I think that is shown in the way that he wrote this over-the-top story.  There is a high level of violence, drug use, coarse language and sexual references featured throughout this book, and as a result, I would say it is not really appropriate for the younger audiences and is probably more suited for older teenage readers.  This is definitely one of those young adult marketed books that adult readers can really enjoy, and there is no upper limit on enjoying this crazy tale.

This was an incredibly entertaining and captivating book that I had a lot of fun with.  Matthew Reilly pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the book’s petty and vicious teenage rich girl antagonists, which turns an already intriguing science fiction book into a wild thrill ride of revenge, betrayal and insanity.  I have to say that I quite enjoyed my first taste of Matthew Reilly’s writing and I am extremely keen to check out some of his other works in the future.  At the moment The Secret Runners of New York is a standalone book, although the author leaves a number of storylines open for sequels or prequels, and I would be interested to see where he takes the story next.

Runaways Volume 2: Best Friends Forever by Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka

Runaways Volume 2 Cover.jpg

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Recently reunited and still coming to terms with being a family again, the adventures of Marvel Comics’ favourite group of misfit youths continues in Best Friends Forever, the second volume of young adult author Rainbow Rowell and artist Kris Anika’s run on Runaways.

The Runaways, Chase, Gert, Karolina, Nico, Victor, Molly and Old Lace are finally back together and living in one of their parents’ old hideouts.  While most of the team have grown up since the last time they were all together, this does not mean that they have their lives together.  Each of the Runaways has their issues to deal with, be it Gert’s recent return to life after several years of being dead, Karolina’s relationship problems or Victor’s current existence as a disembodied head.  The only one who appears to have their life even remotely together is the team’s youngest and at times wisest member, Molly, who is enjoying her time in middle school.  But even Molly is having problems, as she is faced with a hard choice and must consider whether she actually wants to grow up.

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As Molly deliberates over the dilemma presented to her, a barrage of other arrivals impact on the Runaways.  Karolina’s girlfriend, Julie Power of Power Pack fame, is in town, which causes significant drama for Karolina and Nico, while Dr Doom has apparently appeared on their doorstep, determined to find Victor.  Can a team rife with squabbles, drama and internal strife come together to face the problems before them, or will their significant changes be too much to bear?

Runaways is still one of my favourite Marvel series.  After the revamp earlier this year, previously reviewed here, these fantastic characters are still going strong.  In this second volume, Rowell, Atkins and their creative team continue to produce some outstanding and emotional stories that are based more on the relationships between the main characters than the traditional crime-fighting storylines contained within other comics.  While they do go up against a couple of superpowered opponents within this story, none of these antagonists is truly evil, and their motivations and history are a lot more morally ambiguous than some of the previous Runaways stories.  The creative team do a fantastic job of blending highly emotional storylines with a bunch of fun and heart-warming sequences, filled with random and funny elements, such as an errant Doombot.  This all comes together into one fantastic overall story that hits all the right buttons.  This second volume contains issues #7 – #12 of this new run on Runaways.

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One of the main aspects of this second volume of Runaways is the continued focus on the relationships between the series’ main characters.  Most of these characters are still coming to terms with being back together after all of them attempted to live lives outside of their team.  Quite a bit of Volume 2 involves the characters trying to determine what roles they have within this surrogate family, and the fact that they are not as close as they used to be.  What I liked is the way that Chase, usually the most immature member of the team, attempts to become the father of the group, matching up with the traditional female leader of the team, Nico, as the team’s mother.  This new parental role is highlighted in a funny couple of scenes where Chase and Nico use magic to become Molly’s legal guardians, a shortcut way that “seems totally legit and great”.  A lot of this volume is also focused on the romantic relationships between several of the group’s characters, including the relationship between Gert and Victor and the new romantic feelings between Nico and Carolina.  I thought the lead-in to both these relationships worked out very well and sets up some interesting potential in future volumes.  I am also very curious to see how the friendship between Victor and Chase is going to be impacted as a result of this new relationship in future volumes of this series.  I liked the way that the relationships and romantic considerations that featured between Carolina and Julie and Carolina and Nico were handled very well and with great sensitivity, and showed great representations of LGBT+ relationships.

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I also appreciated the way that Rowell and Anika continued to focus on the emotional and mental damage that the team’s exploits have had on these characters over their entire comic book history.  In this second volume, there is a significant focus on Victor, who was mentally and physically damaged during his previous appearances in Vision.  Chase and Doombot’s attempts to rebuild Victor during this volume prove to be a particularly vivid trigger for Victor, and leads to some significant emotional moments.  There is also a look at Victor’s fear of vibranium because of its addictive and mind-altering impact on him, which drove him to commit terrible acts in a previous series.  The creative team also take a look at the life of old team member Klara, the young powered girl the team rescued from abuse back in 1907 during a time-travel adventure.  It was previously revealed that Klara had been taken away from the team by the state and is now in a loving household.  A brief section of this volume is dedicated to the team finding her and attempting to bring her back into the fold, but Klara refuses to come back, as she is happy in her new life.  You have to appreciate Klara’s sound reasoning for not wanting to come back to the team, due to the death and multiple problems experienced in the previous adventures.
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One of the most significant issues that the character’s experiences have had on them is based around their negative opinions of adults.  Most of the truly terrible things in their lives have been the result of the plans of the adults they encounter, and their distrust of most adult characters has been a long-running aspect of the series.  It is interesting to see that this carries through to the new series, even though several of the characters are now actually adults.  This viewpoint is most prevalent in Gert, whose death during one of the previous run of this series means she still shares the beliefs these characters had while they were fugitives.  However, the rest of the team also have a hard time trusting other adults, such as when they assume Klara’s new adopted parents have to be evil, as every adult they have previously dealt with in similar circumstances were also evil or abusive.  This viewpoint has significant plot impacts in this second volume, as Molly, given the opportunity to stay young forever, talks to several of the other Runaways in an attempt to subtly work out their thoughts on growing up.  Most of the characters, including non-team member Julie Powers, talk somewhat negatively about their current lives and regret growing up, which tempts Molly to accept the chance to stay young.  The final message of this storyline strongly implies that growing up isn’t so bad, as even the antagonist, a young girl who has stayed 13 for 50 years, does not always want to be young.  It was also interesting to see Klara try to correct the team when they say that no adults can be trusted; having had a loving family relationship, she no longer believes that.

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The second volume of this run of Runaways continues to make use of some fun artwork throughout the various issues.  The character designs continue to be fun, and it is interesting to see some new looks and some constantly changing character designs, especially for the trendy Nico.  The art is often used for comedic affect.  Victor has a fun use throughout the book, and it is pretty humorous to see the head floating around in a number of scenes, even in a middle of a fight scene.  I also loved how throughout the course of the volume, he was given more and more advanced mobility upgrades in each scene that he appeared in, each more comedic than the last.  For example, at the start of the volume he is mostly transported in other character’s hand, his own momentum or in a backpack.  However, as the volume continues he is variously attached to a Roomba, a small tracked rover, several helium balloons (so he can get the feeling on flight back again) and eventually a new drone.  All of these are slightly ridiculous and fun, but they do not take away from the emotional nature of several scenes, and I must point out some of the awesome drawings that hint at the issues Nico is having with her magic.

The second volume of this new series of Runaways, Best Friends Forever, is another strong and emotional addition to this new version of this young adult superhero comic.  I really appreciated the creative teams continued focus on the character relationships and the emotional aspects of the characters’ lives.  Best Friends Forever is another fantastic addition to this powerful new run of Runaways, and I am excited to see what happens to this great group of characters next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Runaways Volume 1: Find Your Way Home by Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka

Runaways Volume 1 Cover.jpg

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 8 May 2018

 

From bestselling young adult fiction author Rainbow Rowell and exciting Marvel artist Kris Anka comes the revival we have all been waiting for, with the return of Runaways.

Years ago, six young friends found out a terrible truth: their parents were members of a supervillain group known as The Pride and were working towards the destruction of the planet.  Uncovering their hidden powers and strengths, these friends, genius Alex Wilder, the sorceress Nico Minoru (Sister Grimm), alien Karolina Dean (Lucy in the Sky), mutant Molly Hayes (Princess Powerful/Bruiser), mad scientist offspring Chase Stein (Talkback) and proud dinosaur owner and daughter of two time travellers Gertrude Yorkes (Arsenic with her deinonychus, Old Lace), became the Runaways to escape their parents’ evil plans.

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After the death of Alex and all of their parents, the surviving Runaways become family and even brought in new members, including the cyborg Victor, the Skrull Xavin and the time displaced mutant Klara.  While the team’s plans to live in peace were often disrupted by their forced heroics, for a time they were happy.  But even the best families have a hard time staying together in the Marvel Universe, and following the death of Gert, Xavin’s forced departure for the stars, the events of Murderworld and the elevation of several members to the Avengers, the Runaways have gone their separate ways.

However, one former Runaway has had a hard time letting go of the past.  Stealing a time machine, the team’s wildcard member, Chase, has gone back in time to fix his biggest regret: the death of his girlfriend, Gertrude.  But being brought back to life several years in the future is tough, and all Gertrude wants to do is reunite with her friends, even if they are now older than her.  Chase is his old goofy self, but Nico and Carolina have moved on with their lives, , Victor is now just a head and Molly has moved in with her grandmother.  Will the Runaways get together again, or have their subsequent adventures affected their relationships too much? And who is the evil scientist stalking them from afar?

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Runaways was a ground breaking series originally released in 2003 that focused on a fresh new group of heroes with no previous connections to other characters in the Marvel Universe.  Created by Brian K Vaughan of Y: The Last Man and Saga fame and artist Adrian Alphona, Runaways represents some of their most significant work with Marvel.  Runaways was an exciting tale of teenage rebellion which was amplified by the superhero elements.  Featuring some incredibly iconic characters, the initial series of Runaways featured a fantastic enclosed story about crime and heroics in Los Angeles with only minimal inclusions from the outside Marvel Universe.  Featuring characters who acted in a contrary way to the other superheroes by actively avoiding fights, making fun of costumes and team names (they never actually referred to themselves as the Runaways) and only using superhero monikers ironically, this was a fun series with some clever new ideas.

Following this initial run, the story became a more traditional superhero series, focusing on the adventures of the titular heroes as they fought crime and other threats in LA.  There were a series of great adventures during this period, which included memorable events such as the tragic loss of Gert, Xavin’s sacrifice, several team-ups with the Young Avengers and involvements in the Civil War and Secret Invasion crossover events.  The series would abruptly end in 2009, and readers would have to wait years to see a significant follow-up.  The characters have appeared in several other series, including Daken: Dark Wolverine and Avengers Academy.  However, the characters would not significantly return until Avengers Arena, where Nico and Chase found themselves trapped in Murderworld, and Avengers Arena’s follow up series, Avengers Undercover, which saw the return of Alex Wilder.  At the same time, Victor would join the cast of Avengers A.I.  An alternate version of the Runaways got their own series as part of the 2015 Secret Wars crossover even, and Nico would eventually become a member of the female Avengers team in A-Force.
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With the release of 2017s Runaways television show, a new comic series of Runaways was announced by Marvel which saw the first run of the original characters in nearly nine years.  This new series is helmed by acclaimed young adult fiction author Rainbow Rowell and dedicated Marvel artist Kris Anka.  Volume 1 of their run of Runways, Find Your Way Home, contains issues #1-6 of the series, with a second volume to be released in October 2018.

Runaways has long been one of my favourite series, and is probably one of the best comic examinations of young teenage characters that Marvel has ever produced.  As a result, I was very excited to get my copy of Find Your Way Home, and headed into this new series with high expectations.  I was not at all disappointed by the result and really enjoyed this new series.  This first volume expertly captures the heart and soul of the original series, reunites several fan favourite characters, and skilfully addresses all the tragic events that have impacted this team over the last few years.

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The first thing that can be seen in this series is the extreme emotional damage that most of the characters have experienced over the last few years and the strain this has placed on the team.  Because of all the pressures in their lives, the Runaways have disbanded and each have gone their separate ways.  This appears to have affected team members Nico and Chase the most because of their traumatic experiences in the Avengers Arena series.  Nico comes across as very emotionally compromised from the very first scene, while Chase is still obsessed with his greatest tragedy, the sacrifice Gertrude made to save his life.  The other Runaways are just as damaged in their own separate ways.  Karolina is apparently trying to live a normal life, but while she seems unhappy, she is the most reluctant to re-join the team, and her eventual return results in emotional upheaval between her and Nico.  After dying, Gert finds herself alive again in the future with older versions of her friends, as well as an adult boyfriend.  She spends most of the volume trying to deal with these significant changes, the fact that her only real family fractured after her death, and the emotional trauma she experienced dying.  After his death in Vision, Victor spends the entire series as a disembodied head, and keeps his status hidden for most of the volume as he tries to work out if he wants to remain online and re-join the team.  Of all the characters, Molly seems to be the most together, as she is being looked after by her grandmother and is her usually bubbly and high-energy self.  However, her behaviour disguises the fact she knows about some of the deep problems happening around her, and her emotional breakdown at the end of the volume is quiet heartbreaking to behold.  Overall, the creative team handle these deep emotional issues well, and I really appreciated the fact that they did not deny or shy away from the trauma that these characters experienced in other Marvel series.

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Despite the high level of emotional trauma, there are quite a few very nice moments within the book that fans of the original Runaways series will really appreciate.  The team coming together at the end of the volume to save Molly and Gert is an amazing moment.  After viewing all of the above trauma, it was also great to see the team decide to get back together to become each other’s emotional support.  I also challenge anyone not to get emotional during the scene where Gertrude is reunited with Old Lace, as the two mentally connected friends are finally reunited for the first time in years.  Once again, the youngest Runaway, Molly, is the heart and soul of the team, and it is great to see that despite her age, she is still one of the most emotionally mature, giving sage advice and actually being the only person to notice the threats around them or the fact that Victor’s head is rolling his eyes at the events around him.  I also love that she still has the same Marvel fangirl attitude that she had in the original series, as she spends time wearing Captain Marvel inspired leggings.  Here’s hoping she gets to have some fun interactions with the rest of the Marvel Universe as she did before (the issue she spent running around with Wolverine is one of the funniest bits in Runaways’ previous run).

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One of the more interesting parts of this volume is that it focuses more on the character interactions than on action or adventure.  There really is not too much violence until the end of the book, and even then their biggest fight is against a group of psychic cats whom they do not actually want to hurt or kill.  I think that this is a good choice for the first volume, as this allows them to really focus on the characters, while also showing off the difference this series has to a classic comic book story.  Despite the lack of action, the series starts with one of the best scenes in the entire volume, when Chase appears in the middle of Nico’s apartment with a mortally wounded Gert.  Nico, despite her shock and the implications of what Chase has done, tries to use her magic to try to save Gert.  While Nico is a powerful magic user, all her magic is tied up in The Staff of One, her parent’s magical staff that has bonded to Nico’s body.  The Staff of One can bend reality to what Nico requests, however, it will only do the specific spell once.  This far along in their adventures, Nico has used a lot of spells already, including ‘heal’, and must use a range of more obscure or very specific statements to try and achieve her goals.   The first sequence where she uses a huge range of different spells really shows off the unique and in some ways limited nature of Nico’s powers and really shows emotional depth right off the bat as the characters get more and more desperate in their attempts to save Gert, and there is palpable relief when they manage to save her.

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This series of Runaways has a new artist at its helm, Kris Anka, and as a result the art style of Find Your Way Home is slightly different from the previous series.  It still works well to show off the story, and the depictions of the characters’ superpowers being used are pretty cool.  The new character designs are interesting, as Nico, Chase and Karolina are each given a different design to reflect how they’ve aged up since the last series.  Nico looks particularly worn and sad at the start of the comic, and is definitely showing off the strain of her adventure.  Anka has created an interesting look for Chase, and he now looks like a cross between a beach bum and a mad scientist.  The other characters, Molly, Victor, Gert and Old Lace retain similar styles to those they had in the previous series.  These similarities make a lot of sense, as Gert has time-travelled from the previous series, Victor is a cyborg head and Old Lace is a dinosaur.  The artist has also chosen not to change Molly’s age too much, and thankfully she retains her distinctive looks and hats.  One of the highlights of Anka’s work is the dinosaur Old Lace, and quite a lot of the book’s humour can be seen in her funny reactions and antics.  Overall, I really enjoyed the new art style of the book and found that the new character designs suited the book’s necessary changes.

Runaways return in top form with this fantastic first volume, which sticks true to the core of the beloved original series while also going off in some interesting new directions.  Rowell has created an intense narrative that expertly plucks at the heartstrings and examines all the problems and horrors that this group of young heroes have experienced since their initial run.  This is a superb new start to an excellent series.  I’m so happy to have my Runaways back, and I can’t wait to see how they resolve some storylines from the original series.  This is definitely a must-read for fans of the original series, but this is also the perfect chance for new readers to find out about this awesome superhero family.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Low Chicago Edited by George R. R. Martin

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Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

From of eight of the world’s leading science fiction and fantasy writers comes the latest addition to the superhero-filled Wild Cards universe, edited by fantasy legend George R. R. Martin.

Wild Cards is one of the more interesting series currently running in the world today due to its distinctive anthology format and the unusual way the series came into existence.  The stories that would eventually form the Wild Cards books were originally written as part of a lengthy Superworld role-playing game campaign that had Martin as gamemaster.  Martin and the other players, all of whom were science fiction writers, created elaborate backstories for the campaign and characters, which were eventually incorporated into the first book in the series, a dark and gritty superhero based anthology also called Wild Cards.  The following entries in the series, despite routinely changing authors, tended to follow the same format as the original book by combining together a series of short stories into a connected narrative.  Low Chicago is the 25th Wild Cards book to be released since the 1987 debut, with two other entries due to be published later in 2018.

The Wild Cards books are set in an alternative universe where an alien virus, known as the Wild Card virus, was released in 1946 above New York City.  This virus affected thousands throughout the planet, killing most of the people it came into contact with and altering the DNA of the survivors.  The vast majority of the infected who remained alive were mutated physically and are now referred to as Jokers.  However, a small percentage gained superhuman abilities and powers and are referred to as Aces.  The stories that followed have been set between 1946 and a time period that usually corresponds to the book’s real world publication date.

In Low Chicago, Martin continues to serve as editor.  The book includes input from two long-running Wild Cards contributors, John J. Miller and Melinda M. Snodgrass, who authored stories in the original Wild Cards.  There is also input from previous contributors Paul Cornell, Marko Kloos, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Kevin Andrew Murphy, as well as newcomers to the series, Saladin Ahmed and Christopher Rowe.

Low Chicago starts in 2017, where a high-stakes poker game has been set up in the city’s famous Palmer House Hotel by a prominent mafia boss.  Each of the seven players has a one million dollar buy-in, and is allowed to bring two attendants including bodyguards.  However, all hell breaks loose when a mysterious assailant targets one of the players, causing the other players and attendants, many of whom are powerful Aces, to unleash their abilities throughout the room.  In the middle of the chaos one of the bodyguards unleashes his own mysterious power and accidently scatters everyone in the room back in time.

Now with history changing outside the hotel, it falls to John Nighthawk and the Sleeper, Croyd Crenson, to travel back to various points of Chicago’s past and find the people trapped there before the present unravels.  But among those who have been sent back are some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, who have decided to change time for their own benefit.  Stuck throughout key points of Chicago’s history, can the time travellers be recovered before the present is permanently altered?

Like many of the books in the franchise, Low Chicago is an anthology featuring several short stories that have been combined together into one overarching and interconnected narrative.  Each of the short stories is unique and features one or more of the characters sent back in time, or inhabitants of the timeline they encounter.  Whilst these short stories all have the same starting plot point, they all have different focuses thanks to that story’s specific characters or time periods.  As a result there are several varied stories, each with their own unique features.  For example, the story Stripes, by Markos Kloos, features a fantastic narrative about the half-human, half-tiger character Khan being trapped in Chicago in 1929 and getting involved in the events surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Not only is the narrative about an obviously powered individual attempting to influence such an iconic moment in a mob war fun and exciting, but Kloos also includes some significant and heartfelt ethical and emotional decisions that really make you feel for the character of Khan.  At the same time, the story Meathooks on Ice is a complex and emotional story from Saladin Ahmed that focuses on a young and troubled Ace, Meathooks, as he attempts to find redemption and his place in the world back in prehistoric times.

In addition to the overarching time travel plot feature, each of these short stories is also connected together by the characters of John Nighthawk and Croyd Crenson, who could be considered the book’s main protagonists.  Nighthawk and Crenson either appear in the stories themselves or later interact with a story’s central character in order to resolve the specific storyline.  Nighthawk and Crenson are also the main characters of the book’s central storyline, A Long Night at the Palmer House, written by one of the founding authors of Wild Cards, John J. Miller.  This central storyline, told from the viewpoint of John Nighthawk, a character created by Miller in a previous book, is broken up into 11 parts and spread between Low Chicago’s other stories.  The first part of this storyline features the initial poker game and shows the events leading up to the other characters being sent back in time, while the reminder of this storyline focuses on the protagonists’ attempts to find them.  Large portions of this storyline directly tie into Low Chicago’s other short stories, but there are also some sections where they hunt down characters not featured in any of the other short stories.  Miller has included some great scenes in this central storyline, and they get particularly compelling when they encounter the results of the other characters meddling in time and they have to discuss the ethical implications of resetting the timeline.  One particularly outstanding example of this is a sequence that requires the characters to navigate through and fix up a messed up dystopia caused by one of the runaway Aces.

Despite the different authors and the varied content of Low Chicago’s stories, many of the entries complement each other and fit together really well as a result.  Nearly all of the stories contain links to the Wild Cards universe, make full use of Chicago’s rich history, have a comparable dark humour, feature intense action sequences, tell the story in the third person from point of view characters, and have a very similar pace.  There is however, one story that doesn’t follow this trend.  A Bit of a Dinosaur, by Paul Cornell, stands out from the rest of the entries in Low Chicago, as it breaks from third person narration that the other authors utilised, and is instead written in the first person.  Cornell capitalises on this by ramping up the humour in the story and making it a little lighter in tone than the other stories in the book.  The first line of A Bit of a Dinosaur, “I think it’s important to say, immediately, that I am no way responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs” really sets the tone for this whole short story and it only gets better from there.

One of the most enjoyable parts of Low Chicago is the rich history of the book’s titular city, Chicago.  Throughout all of the short stories, the reader is transported to various periods of Chicago’s history in order to witness several of the most significant events in the city’s past.  These include The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the opening of the first Playboy Club, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  All of the authors take significant pains to explore the significance of these events and the impact they had on Chicago and the rest of America.  The reader is given a crash course in the history of these proceedings, and also experiences the author’s interpretation of several key historical figures.  Many of these events occurred before the 1946 release of the Wild Card virus which removed the Wild Cards universe storyline from real world history, and it is fun to watch these events get altered due to the inclusion of several super-powered beings.  It is also extremely fascinating to see the various authors’ interpretations of the historical occurrences that happened after 1946, as they occur in a world where superpowers and mutations are rampant.  As a result, the authors have provided some inventive and captivating alterations that will prove to be highly enjoyable for the reader.

Fans of the Wild Cards universe will also love the deep connections that Low Chicago’s stories have with the rest of the franchise.  In addition to some interesting and complex new characters, Low Chicago features a huge range of characters who originated in the previous Wild Cards books.  There is a deep focus on the history of many of these characters and the readers get to see them placed in a range of unique and compelling situations.  In addition, the authors make full use of the overarching time travel storyline as they visit a range of characters who were killed off in previous books or whose main adventures occurred in storylines set many years before 2017.  Long-time fans of this series will love the inclusion of or nods to these early characters, especially as several have significant roles in the narrative.

Readers unfamiliar with this series may be slightly overwhelmed at the start of the book, but all of the authors contributing to Low Chicago do an amazing job of providing the relevant exposition and explanation for all the characters and the overall history of the Wild Cards universe.  Indeed, Low Chicago might be a perfect book for first time readers of the Wild Cards franchise, as the huge range of characters and the focus on time travel provides the reader with a huge amount of backstory and history that the previous books did not need to contain.

Low Chicago is an outstanding new release that is a sensational and memorable inclusion to one of the best science fiction series currently on the market.  It makes incredible use of its distinctive anthology format and the overarching time travel storyline throughout Chicago’s history that is an inspired and marvellous in its execution.  Low Chicago really stands out from the rest of the books in the Wild Cards franchise and readers will not be disappointed by this latest offering.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

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Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 8 February 2018

 

A classic and complex murder mystery in a English manor combines with ingenious elements from fantastic genres to create one of the best new releases of 2018.  Reading like the outrageous combination of Groundhog Day, Inception, Downton Abby and Sherlock Holmes written by Agatha Christie, The Seven Deaths of Eveyln Hardcastle is the triumph debut from outstanding new author Stuart Turton.

In a turn-of-the-century country manor, Blackheath, a group of distinguished family guests have gathered for the first time since a terrible incident many years ago.  Before the end of the weekend’s masquerade, a terrible crime will be committed.  A young woman will be killed, and no one will realise that her death was the result of murder.

Inserted into the middle of all this chaos is Aiden Charles, who awakens with no memory of who he really is.  Aiden thinks at first that he is a cowardly doctor with amnesia until a man wearing a plague mask reveals that nothing is as it seems.  Aiden is an outsider, inhabiting and controlling the body of the doctor through unknown means.  The plague doctor reveals that Aiden has been trapped within the manor and is being forced to repeatedly relive the same day again and again, awakening each morning in a different host and living the entire day in their body.

There is only one way Aiden can earn his freedom: solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, the estranged daughter of the manor’s owners.  If Aiden can solve the murder by the end of his eighth day, he will be able to leave.  If he fails to solve the murder his memory will be erased and the cycle will start again.

Using the abilities and connections of his eight very different hosts, Aiden must navigate the halls of Blackheath and the various guests who have arrived for the party.  However, Blackheath has a dark history of murder and betrayal that still casts a shadow to this day.  Every one of its inhabitants has a secret, and many of the guests would willingly kill to protect theirs.

Aiden is also forced to overcome several unnatural problems associated with his circumstances.  While the bodies he inhabits all hold the means to solving the crime, he is forced to balance the varied personalities of his hosts, each of which causes him to act or think in a very different way.  The longer he remains trapped in Blackheath, the more powerful the personalities are.

It also soon becomes apparent that Aiden is not as alone as he thought.  Two other people like him have also been trapped in Blackheath, but only one of them can solve the murder and earn their freedom.  One of his competitors appears to be trying to help him, but Aiden may not be able to trust the mysterious Anna, even though her name is the only thing from his past life that he can remember.  The third competitor has taken on the persona of a murderous footman and has no qualms about killing all of Aiden’s hosts to remove him from the competition.  Can Aiden solve an unsolvable crime before all his hosts are killed, or will he be trapped forever within Blackheath?

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a fantastic read that features a unique and imaginative combination of genres.  The basis of the story is a complicated murder mystery placed within the setting of a British manor house.  However, there is a certain and mysterious fantastic element that makes the narrator relive the day over and over again within a new host.  The murder mystery, the manor house setting and the time travelling body swapping, combine together perfectly into a tremendously addictive narrative.

At the heart of the story is an intense and compelling mystery that quickly becomes the main draw for the reader.  Solving the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle requires the protagonist to discover and expose every single secret and lie within the manor.  The sheer amount of details and enigmas that Turton has included with the book are so immense that it takes nearly eight different perspectives of the same sequence of events to get them all together.  Even then, the reader will be amazed by every single twist and turn that it takes to get to the final reveals.  The time travel and body  switching elements of the plot cleverly tie in and enhance the book’s mystery elements.  These elements allow the reader to see multiple versions of the same event, provide a wide variety of different perspectives on the clues, and pull together different testimonies from the same characters as they are questioned by the various hosts.

In addition to enhancing the murder mystery elements, the time travel and body switching aspects of the novel also help to increase the pacing and suspense throughout the book.  The transition between the main character’s various hosts is not as linear as it first appears.  Not only does the narrator switch to his next host once a day is over, he can also switch back to a previous host when he one of his hosts is knocked out, falls asleep or is killed.  This allows the reader to flip through these hosts when a lot of action is occurring, especially when the narrator’s various hosts are targeted in quick succession.  Additional suspense is also introduced due to many of the incidents within the story being out of sync with the narrator.  Various events have been put into place by either future hosts of the narrator or by characters from different points of the book’s timeline.  As a result, the reader has no idea why some events are happening, especially at the start of the book, and it is cool when the various causes of these events are revealed throughout the later parts of the book.

An appealing part of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the eight unique hosts for the main character to possess.  Each of these hosts has their own strengths and weaknesses, and it is intriguing watching the main character try and work out what they are.  They also have their own distinctive personalities that affect the main character in different and subtle ways.  The hosts also have their own way of dealing with people or situations, and this affects how the main character reacts and goes about his investigation.  It is intriguing to see how he changes from host to host.  In addition, there is no certainty about who the main character’s future hosts are going to be.  While there are hints, the reader doesn’t know until the narrator wakes up in the body, so the reader can’t help but examine the other characters with whom the narrator interacts in case they are a future host.  There are also some interesting scenes in which the narrator attempts to find and interact with a future version of himself.  Turton’s use of multiple hosts for his narrator is an important and distinctive part of this book that cleverly adds additional mystery to the narrative while also providing suspense and a changing array of personalities and challenges for the protagonist.

Representing a masterful combination of crime fiction and otherworldly attributes, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is pure enthrallment that is guaranteed to transfix all eyes to its pages.  As one of the best releases of 2018, I cannot recommend this book enough.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Vallista by Steven Brust

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Publisher: Tor

Australian Publication Date – 28 November 2017

World Publication Date – 17 October 2017

 

One of fantasy’s most iconic heroes returns in Vallista, the latest book from acclaimed fantasy writer Steven Brust.

In the world of Dragaera powerful and long-lived humanoids known as the Dragaerans are the planet’s dominant species, while humans, called Easterners, are second-class citizens.

Vlad Taltos is a rare anomaly, being an Easterner with a title, money and influence.  Having made his name as an enforcer and assassin, Vlad was a respected member of House Jhereg, the Dragaeran clan in charge of the Empire’s organised crime.  However, Vlad’s relationship with the Jhereg has deteriorated.  Having betrayed his clan, Vlad has spent the last few years on the run, hunted day and night by ruthless assassins.  Luckily, Vlad has friends in very high places, including the Empress, some powerful sorcerers, a necromancer and even a Dragaeran god.

Throughout his travels, Vlad has had several meetings with Devera, a small Dragaeran girl who is the daughter of one of his many powerful friends.  Devera is a mysterious creature of considerable power, an overabundance of enigma and a casual relationship with the rules of time.  Devera has once again appeared to Vlad, requesting his help and leading him to a mysterious manor that has suddenly materialised by the sea.

Despite the fact that the manor should not even exist, Vlad enters, only to find himself trapped with the manor’s mysterious inhabitants.  The inside of the manor is a weird collection of rooms and corridors altered by magic and no longer obeying the rules of reality.  Mirrors teleport people from room to room, mysterious portals lead to the ancient past, and a certain door leads to the Halls of Judgement, the Dragaeran afterlife.

The more Vlad explores, the more he understands that the manor is home to many lies and death.  The overly helpful servants are determined to keep the manor’s past a secret.  No one will explain how an unused and empty kitchen keeps providing Vlad with warm meals.  On top of this, Vlad encounters a ghost unaware of how she died, a mutant deformed by magic, and a powerful demon determined to kill him.

In order to escape, Vlad must uncover the manor’s bloody history and reveal all of its inhabitants’ dark secrets.  With his sarcastic familiars and a sentient sword to aid him, Vlad must use every trick at his disposal to survive while trying to interpret some beguiling visions of his own past lives.  If only Devera, his only guide, would stop disappearing in the middle of every conversation.

Vallista is the 15th book in Brust’s iconic Vlad Taltos series, and is set before the 14th book in the series, Hawk.

One of the most appealing features of Brust’s books has always been their trademark combination of fantasy world-building, action, adventure and fun comedic undertone.  Brust continues this trend in Vallista, creating a fast-paced book that delivers several exhilarating action scenes and a good amount of comedy without compromising the fantasy elements of the plot.  Fans of the Vlad Taltos series will be excited to see an in-depth look at Devera, a minor character who has long mystified readers, as well as visions into several of the titular character’s past lives.

Brust also has an enjoyable habit of combining elements of other genres into his stories.  This ensures that many of the books in the Vlad Taltos series are transformed into different genres, such as murder mysteries, political thrillers or heists contained within the fantasy setting.  Vallista continues this trend with its interesting and unique fantasy mystery.  The main character is forced to uncover the secrets of the mysterious manor in which he is trapped in order to escape.  As a result, Vallista reads a lot like a typical mystery, which is enhanced by the book’s various fantasy elements.

Vallista also borrows several elements from classic haunted house tales.  The main character is trapped and imperilled, the house is filled with servants reluctant to reveal their secrets, and ghosts, monsters and strange events are around every corner.  However, as this is a fantasy book, our hero has far more experience in dealing with such things, and quite a lot of the book’s humour revolves around Vlad responding to the manor’s various challenges.

Unsurprisingly, this book will appeal greatly to those readers who enjoyed the previous instalments of the Vlad Taltos series.  At the same time, this is one of the most inclusive fantasy series that I have ever read.  Burst is very good at succinctly explaining the universe’s lore so that new readers will easily be able to enjoy Vallista every bit as much as any seasoned veteran of the Vlad Taltos series.

Overall, Vallista is fun fantasy adventure that will appeal both to Brust’s established fans and to casual fantasy readers.

My Rating:

Four stars