The Pariah by Anthony Ryan

The Pariah Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 24 August 2021)

Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book One

Length: 19 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling fantasy author Anthony Ryan returns with the first book in an epic, brand new series, The Pariah, a massive and captivating tale of one young man destined to alter an entire kingdom.

Anthony Ryan is an impressive and highly regarded fantasy author who has been a leading figure in the fantasy fiction landscape for the last 10 years.  Ryan has already written several compelling series, including the Raven’s Shadow trilogy (succeeded by the Raven’s Blade duology), the Slab City Blues series, the Draconis Memoria trilogy and his Seven Swords series.  All these series sound pretty awesome, and I have been meaning to check out some of Ryan’s works for years, especially his Raven’s Shadow books.  Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to go back and read any of them, which I really regret.  So when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Pariah a couple of weeks ago, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it serves as the first book in the brand new The Covenant of Steel series, which I thought would be a good way to experience Ryan’s writing style.  I am very glad that I did as The Pariah was an outstanding and powerful fantasy read that I had a wonderful time getting through.

Alwyn is a young outlaw, trained by his band to steal, kill, spy and deceive.  Raised in the massive and forbidding forest known as the Shavine Marches, in the heart of the kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn serves the notorious Deckin Scarl, a feared and revered bandit king who rules the forests with an iron fist.  Following a deadly civil war, Deckin finds himself with an opportunity to eliminate a recently installed duke and his family and seize his power and lands.  However, before he can enact his ambitious and murderous plan, the bandit horde is betrayed, Deckin is executed and Alwyn is imprisoned, sent to work a lifetime in the labour prison known as the Pit Mines.

Determined to escape the mines and get revenge on the person responsible for the death of everyone he knew and loved, Alwyn finds himself under the sway of an inspirational cleric imprisoned alongside him.  Under her tutelage, Alwyn learns a subtler art and becomes a scribe of great skill.  However, his desire for freedom and revenge is never far from his mind, and he soon leads the inmates of the pit in an ambitious escape attempt, and so sets forth a series of events that will change Albermaine forever

Managing to escape from the prison and find sanctuary, Alwyn learns much and finds himself taking on many guises including that of scribe, scholar, advisor, and thief, as he attempts to find safety, wealth, and revenge.  However, fate never appears to be on Alwyn’s side, and his bad luck eventually forces him to join a military company serving a noble lady who believes herself touched by the gods.  Pledging himself to this company to save his life, Alwyn traverses battlefields and warzones across Albermaine, encountering some of the unusual people who inhabit this chaotic realm.  His adventures will place him at the centre of the formative events of the kingdom and the church, but how will this scribe of bastard birth rise to become one of the most infamous figures of the age?

This was an outstanding novel from Ryan and one that makes me really regret not checking out some of his previous novels earlier.  The Pariah contains an epic and comprehensive fantasy tale that sees a flawed protagonist traverse a compelling and well-established new fantasy realm.  I had an amazing time getting through this impressive novel and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Pariah has a really great story that I got pretty damn addicted to.  This latest book from Ryan is told in the chronicle form, as penned by its protagonist, Alwyn Scribe, who recounts his life story, including the early events which are the focus of this book.  Ryan dives right into The Pariah’s narrative extremely quickly, with details of the setting and history weaved in as the tale progresses.  The story has an intriguing start to it, showing Alwyn as the young member of a bandit crew with an ambitious leader.  However, the story goes in some very interesting and devastating directions fast, with a brutal massacre changing the entire status quo for the protagonist and forcing him onto a new path.  The rest of the story follows Alwyn as he becomes mixed up with a series of inspirational leaders, mysterious magic users, and fun side characters, whose plans and beliefs forces the protagonist into great adventure and intrigue.  This leads to some awesome and memorable scenes, including a dangerous prison break, some epic battle sequences, and innumerable mysteries and revelations, several of which are left open for the author to explore in the rest of the series.  This all leads to an intriguing and action-packed conclusion that showcases the protagonist’s growth, while also setting up the future entries in the series pretty well.

I deeply enjoyed the author’s impressive writing style in this novel, especially with the entire novel set out in the form of first-person chronicle.  Due to the cool stories that it can tell, I have a lot of love for the chronicle format, and I felt Ryan did a really good job of utilising it in The Pariah.  The post-examination of Alwyn’s story from his older self provides a unique and compelling view of the events unfolding around him, and I enjoyed the various notes from his older self that hint at future events and hidden secrets.  These discussions of future events help to add a certain amount of anticipation and suspense at various points at the novel, such as the early hints about the ambush at the bandit camp or mentions about future dark meetings with certain characters.  I also found the focus of this book to be quite interesting, especially as a large portion of the novel was more concerned with setting up future storylines, rather than moving the story along at a quicker pace.  This is a very classic epic fantasy move from Ryan, and it quite enjoyed the way in which he took the time to establish the protagonist, the supporting cast, and the settings, with a particular focus on some of the formative events of Alwyn’s life.  While I enjoyed this set-up, it does steal a little excitement and momentum from the narrative, although I think the sheer amount of interesting setting detail and the intriguing potential of several established, long-term storylines more than makes up for it.  All these interesting writing elements helped to turn The Pariah into a very exciting and compelling read, and I really loved the way in which they enhanced the already awesome narrative.

I also quite enjoyed the new setting that Ryan set up for The Covenant of Steel series, which has an interesting medieval European feel to it, equipped with knights, forest-dwelling bandits, and religious crusades.  The entire novel is set within the Western Duchies of Albermaine, a nation riven by civil war, invasion and religious instability.  This proves to be an outstanding and compelling background to the awesome story contained with The Pariah, especially as the protagonist finds himself visiting some of the more unique locations of this setting during major historical events.  I personally enjoyed the cool forest lair portrayed in the start of the novel, mainly because Ryan was trying to emulate a darker version of the Robin Hood tale, but there is also a deadly prison mine and an elaborate cathedral that serve as major settings which I thought were really good. 

There is also a great focus on the political and religious makeup of Albermaine, and this results in some fascinating storylines.  I really liked the focus on the martyr-based and corrupt overarching religious organisation that has substantial control of the kingdom, as that forms a driving point of the plot, with the protagonist becoming involved with several unorthodox clergy members, who bring down the wrath of the rest of the church for their actions.  Also, I am kind of curious to see if a prophesied end-of-the world event that multiple characters preach about actually occurs in future novels, especially as it would be a pretty fun story moment if it did.  The protagonist also seems drawn to several people with magical abilities considered heretical by the church, which offers an interesting counterpoint to his other threats, especially as each of these magical characters produce impressive mysteries and potential dark storylines.  I was impressed with how much time the author takes to imbue his setting with a massive amount of detail and after the quick start to the narrative, the reader is given a crash course in the history and politics of the realm.  Despite the level of detail, I think that Ryan spread the world building out to an acceptable degree, and I never felt too overwhelmed with the various explanations and world expansions.  I had a wonderful time traversing Albermaine with the protagonist and I look forward to seeing what additional developments and storylines occur within it in the future novels.

As I mentioned above, the novel is solely told from the perspective of protagonist Alwyn, later known as Alwyn Scribe once he takes up his profession, who is penning the events of his younger life.  Alwyn is an interesting protagonist to follow and thanks to the author’s use of the chronicle style, you really get a sense of the character’s personality, motivations, and intentions as the novel progresses.  Initially starting off as a young thief with immense loyalty to his chief, Alwyn goes through a lot as the novel progresses, forced to make hard decisions and encountering horrors, mistakes and a load of enemies as his tale progresses.  I found Alwyn to be a complex and compelling figure, and I didn’t always like him or his decisions, especially when he was reckless and rash.  However, he does grow as the novel progresses and, while he still has a lot more development to go, I felt that he was a better character at the end of the novel.  I liked the various talents that Alwyn develops throughout the novel, and it was fun to have a more complex and less noble figure, thanks to his past as a thief and conman.  I especially enjoyed his transition into a scribe, which the character soon sees as his primary profession, and it certainly is an interesting and compelling role for a fantasy protagonist.  I liked the way in which the older version of the character tells the story, especially as there are some great reflections about his actions and his personality during that time, and you can often hear the protagonist’s regret over what he did and what is to come.  I cannot wait to see what happens to this character in the future, and I kind of suspect that his tale is not going to come to a very happy end.

Aside from Alwyn, The Pariah is filled with a massive contingent of side and supporting characters who Alwyn meets throughout his adventures.  These characters are featured perfectly throughout the narrative and I loved the unique and compelling ways in which they influenced the overall story.  Ryan invests a lot of time into developing many of these characters, even some who had more minor roles, providing interesting personal histories and personality traits to make them stand out, and I appreciated how complex and compelling their storylines could turn out to be.  I found it interesting that there was a focus on inspiration leaders, with Alwyn falling in with three separate figures in this novel, each of whom commanded his loyalty through different means and whom he became close with in different ways (one is a surrogate father, another a teacher, while the third has a very complicated and constantly evolving relationship with the protagonist).  There were also some interesting antagonists featured throughout the novel, and while a couple died before their time, Ryan made sure to leave some of the better ones alive for the next entry in the series, and I am sure they will have an impact there.  Each of the characters featured in The Pariah added a lot to the plot, and I cannot wait to see what unique figures are featured in Ryan’s next entry.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Pariah, I decided to try out the audiobook format instead.  I am glad that I did as this was an excellent and enjoyable audiobook that was really fun to listen to.  Due to its massive story, The Pariah has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, although I managed to get through it in less than a week as I really got into the amazing story.  The audiobook moved at a great pace, ensuring that there were never any dull or slow moments for the listener to get bogged down in.  I also found that the audiobook format was a great way to absorb the intense amount of world-building, and it also lent itself to some of the exciting fight scenes extremely well.  I was also impressed by the narration of Steven Brand, who brought a wonderful energy to this format.  Brand has an amazing voice and he quickly leapt into the role of the narrator, telling the unique tale of the protagonist’s life and inhabiting the character seamlessly.  I loved the distinctive and well-fitted voices that Brand used throughout The Pariah, and he really helped to turn this format into something special.  As a result, the audiobook version of this book comes highly recommended and I will probably end up listening to the rest of this series in this format.

The Pariah by Anthony Ryan is an epic and deeply compelling piece of fantasy fiction that is really worth reading.  Perfectly setting up Ryan’s intriguing new series, The Pariah was an awesome outing from this talented author, and I loved the brilliant story, complex characters and chaotic setting that was featured throughout it.  I cannot wait to see how this awesome series is going to turn out, and The Covenant of Steel novels look set to be one of the most iconic fantasy series of the next few years.

Throwback Thursday – Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Summer Knight Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 3 September 2002)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book Four

Length: 11 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In this week’s Throwback Thursday I continue to explore the incredibly fun Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher with the fourth book, Summer Knight.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my recent exploration of the epic Dresden Files series by the outstanding Jim Butcher, widely considered one of the best urban fantasy series out there.  After having an absolute blast last year with the latest book in the series, Battle Ground (one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020), I have spent a bit of time this year checking out the earlier entries in the series.  I have so far had the pleasure of listening to the first three Dresden Files novels, Storm Front, Fool Moon and Grave Peril, each of which got a five-star rating from me, and when I wanted a good audiobook to check out, the next entry in the series made the most sense.  The fourth Dresden Files novel is the impressive and compelling Summer Knight, which sets the protagonist against the fairest and most vicious opponents yet.

Following the events of Grave Peril, the White Council of wizards is at war with the Red Court of the vampires, and it is all Harry Dresden’s fault.  With vampire attacks increasing and his life consumed with finding a cure for the vampirism affecting his ex-girlfriend, Dresden is once again dragged into the conflict when the White Council arrives in Chicago.  Considered by many wizards to be a dangerous maverick, Dresden will need to find a powerful bargaining chip if he is to continue receiving the protection of the council.  Unfortunately for Dresden, the perfect opportunity has been given to him; he just wishes it were anything else.

Harry has been contacted by Winter Queen Mab, the powerful leader of the Winter Court of the Faeries, who offers him a dangerous bargain: in exchange for forgiving a previous debt, and for allowing certain concessions to the warring White Council, Harry must work a case for her.  The Winter Queen desperately needs Harry to find out who murdered a seemingly normal human, and with his life entirely in the White Council’s hands, he has no choice but to comply.  However, when it is revealed that the victim was the Summer Knight, the rival Faerie Summer Court’s mortal champion, Harry begins to realise that this will be no easy case, especially as a great deal of the Summer Court’s power was stolen after the murder.

With the Summer Court and the Winter Court gearing up for war in response to the Summer Knight’s death, Harry must quickly race to find the killer before Earth’s climate is destroyed by these powerful magical forces.  However, this is no simple case, and to solve the murder Dresden is forced to confront some of the most dangerous and malicious magical beings in existence.  Worse, the Summer Court have hired their own investigator, Dresden’s first love, Elaine, the woman who broke his heart and tried to kill him.  Can Dresden solve this murder before it is too late or will the entire world tremble at the destruction of an all-out war?

Summer Knight was another impressive and wildly entertaining release from Butcher, which did a wonderful job expanding his universe in some amazing ways.  Perfectly flowing on from the events of the previous novel, Summer Knight has an incredible story, some great characters, as well as some clever new fantasy inclusions that set up multiple future novels extremely well.  I had an absolute blast listening to Summer Knight’s audiobook format, and unsurprisingly it gets another five stars from me.

Summer Knight Cover 3

This latest entry from Butcher has a pretty amazing story that is extremely easy to enjoy.  Like the rest of the Dresden Files novels, Summer Knight can be easily read as a standalone read, although there are some compelling story threads that are continued from the prior books.  The novel starts with a damaged Harry Dresden dealing with hit squads, angry vampires and his own irritated wizard brethren.  After a fun and action-packed opening scene, Dresden soon gets drawn into another dangerous case as Mab, the Winter Queen, buys Dresden’s debt to his fairy godmother and uses it and the wizards war against the Red Court to trap him into investigating a case.  The subsequent magical murder investigation proves to be pretty fantastic, as Dresden is forced to dive into the murky magical underworld of the warring Fae courts.  After some deadly attacks, fascinating internal wizard politics, and an interesting side story about neutral half-Fae teenagers, Dresden soon uncovers the reason for the victim’s death.  I liked the twist surrounding who was responsible for murder as well as the revelation of their master plan.  Butcher did a really good job of disguising the people behind it and their methods, especially as most of the clues were often cleverly in plain sight.  This all leads up to a massive and epic conclusion, where Dresden and his allies find themselves fighting through two armies of rival Fae to try and stop the end of the world.  There are some awesome moments during this part of the novel, and Butcher throws together some epic clashes, interesting revelations, and a tragic death.  I had a particularly good chuckle at the surprising way in which the big bad was taken down, and it proved to be a great way to end this novel.  I felt that Butcher once again hit the right balance of action, drama, comedy, and character development throughout Summer Knight’s narrative, and this was another exciting and addictive read.

I really enjoyed the way in which Butcher expanded out the Dresden Files’ universe in Summer Knight, with several impressive inclusions turning this fourth book into a significant entry in the series.  Not only are events and inclusions from the previous three novels fit into this book seamlessly, but it also successfully introduces some elements that were a prominent feature of the 17th book in the series.  The most significant inclusions are those surrounding the rival Winter and Summer Courts of the Fae.  Butcher utilises a mixture of Faerie lore and his own pre-existing explanations of magical creatures to create a compelling group of characters, locked in a constant and balanced war between the Summer and Winter Courts.  The author does a good job introducing the various creatures, rules, and roles of these two competing groups of Faeries, which serves as a great basis for much of the narrative.  I also loved the fascinating examination of the differences between the two rival courts, with the Summer Court shown as caring and artistic sorts, while the Winter Court are colder and darker.  Of course, with Faeries, not everything is as it seems, and it was really intriguing the way the various plot reveals around them unfolded.  There was also a great focus on the White Council, the governing body of wizards that Dresden is a member of.  While the White Council has been mentioned in the previous novels, this was the first time that we get a deep look at their inner politics, especially as the more maverick Dresden has dragged them into a war with the Red Court of the vampires (so many Courts, so little time).  There was a particularly great council meeting towards the start of the book where Dresden and his mentor are forced to navigate the politics of the White Council to keep Dresden alive, and it was an interesting part of the book.  I really appreciated the detail that Butcher put into these expansions, and I look forward to seeing how else he expands on them between the fourth and 17th book.

As always, one of the best parts of this Dresden Files novel was the outstanding and well-developed characters, all of whom continue to develop and evolve as the novel continues.  This is particularly true with central protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  When Summer Knight starts, Dresden is still reeling from the events of the previous three novels, particularly Grave Peril, where his lover partially turned into a vampire and then left him.  This has left Dresden an emotional mess, especially as he has spent the intervening time ignoring some of the other dangers coming at him while he fruitlessly searches for a cure to vampirism.  Dragged into this case against his will, Dresden soon starts to regain his old personality as he slowly overcomes his grief thanks to his friends and the intervention of some magical beings.  It was great to see Dresden start to heal as the book progresses, and I really appreciated the way in which Butcher explored the trauma surrounding his protagonist.  Even though he is a bit emotionally compromised, Dresden continues to be the main source of the novel’s comedy due to his sense of humour.  It is always fun to see Dresden’s witty take on the insane events occurring around him and I found myself cracking up several times throughout Summer Knight.

In addition to Dresden, Summer Knight contains an excellent group of side and supporting characters, including a combination of existing characters and newer inclusions that were introduced in this novel.  I liked the return of the werewolf gang, the Alphas, who were previously featured in the second novel, Fool Moon.  The Alphas, particularly their leader, Billy, serve as backup to Dresden for most of the novel, and it was really fun to see how much they have grown since their introduction, turning into mystical vigilantes, while also remaining a pack of nerds.  It was also great to see more of police lieutenant Karrin Murphy, who serves as a compelling female opposite to Dresden for most of the novel.  Murphy, who has also gone through a lot in the last few books, is showing a fair bit of trauma in this novel, and she ends up having some deep discussions with Dresden about it.  Despite her lack of magical abilities, Murphy serves as some impressive backup for Dresden, managing to take down several foes, including an ogre with a chainsaw.  There were also more signs of the growing romance between her and Dresden which becomes a big part of the series later, and I like the way in which Butcher is slowly building it up.  I also must highlight the inclusion of Dresden’s first love, Elaine Mallory, who suddenly reappears in his life, working for the Summer Court.  Elaine has been mentioned several times in the previous books and is a cause for a lot of Dresden’s mistrust and romantic failures.  It was great to finally meet her and see the full extent of her complex relationship with Dresden.  Elaine naturally brings out a lot of emotional issues with Dresden throughout the book, and she serves as an interesting supporting character, especially as you have no idea about her true loyalties.  These supporting characters, and more, really add a lot to the overall story and I had a great spending time with them.

Like I have with the rest of the Dresden Files novels, I made sure to grab the audiobook version of Summer Knight, a choice I am extremely thankful for.  The Dresden Files audiobooks are pretty damn awesome, mainly because of their excellent choice of narrator, actor James Marsters.  Marsters has an amazing voice, and he perfectly dives into the various characters featured within the novels, making these audiobooks an absolute treat to listen to.  I especially love the way he gets into the emotional head of the main protagonist, as well as the sheer enthusiasm he exhibits while yelling out spell conjurations.  I also enjoyed the fun voices that he assigns to some of the smaller pixies that appeared in this novel, as well as the very fitting voices that the rest of the cast received.  This voice work is pretty amazing and it ensures that readers can fly through the audiobook in no time at all.  Summer Knight’s run time was just over 11 hours, but it only took me a few days to get through due to how engrossed I got in the story, as well as the audiobook adaption.  As with all Dresden Files entries, Summer Knight comes highly recommended in its audiobook format, and I fully intend to check out the rest of the series in this same way.

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher was another exceptional entry in the awesome Dresden Files series and I had an incredible time listening to it.  With a captivating story, some complex characters and some awesome new fantasy inclusions, I deeply enjoyed this novel, and it is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.  Butcher continues to shine as one of the best authors of urban fantasy and look forward to working my way through the Dresden Files in the next few years.

Summer Knight Cover 2

Starlight Enclave by R. A. Salvatore

Starlight Enclave Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 3 August 2021)

Series: The Way of the Drow – Book One

Length: 14 hours and 49 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The icon of the fantasy world, R. A. Salvatore, returns with a new adventure set in the world of his acclaimed Drizzt Do’Urden novels, with Starlight Enclave, the first book in The Way of the Drow trilogy.

Salvatore is an absolute legend amongst fantasy writers, having been an impressive leading figure for over 30 years with a massive catalogue of more than 60 novels.  I have long been a fan of Salvatore, who has written some of my absolute favourite fantasy novels over the years.  While he has written several great series, the author is still best known for his iconic, long-running Drizzt Do’Urden novels, which are set within the shared Forgotten Realms universe.  Salvatore has had a particularly busy couple of years, simultaneously writing two separate series, including The Coven trilogy (Child of a Mad GodReckoning of a Fallen God and Song of a Risen God), as well as the three books in the Drizzt focused Generations series (TimelessBoundless and Relentless).  All six of these recent novels have been pretty incredible, with Song of a Risen God and Boundless being amongst some of my favourite audiobooks of 2019 and 2020 respectfully.  As a result, I was pretty excited when I saw that Salvatore had another Drizzt Do’Urden novel coming out and I made sure to grab a copy of Starlight Enclave as soon as I could.

Two years after the miraculous end to the Drow siege of Gauntlgrym, peace reigns throughout the Forgotten Realms.  However, while some revel in the hard-won tranquillity, others worry about the future.  Despite having cemented his rule over the pirate city of Luskan, the Drow rogue Jarlaxle is deeply troubled by the difficulties plaguing his people.  Despite the apparent magical miracle that showed her as a false gold, the demonic Spider Queen Loth is still worshiped in the dark Drow city of Menzoberranzan, and civil war appears likely as the powerful Drow houses battle for the city’s soul.

Determined that Loth be thrown down once and for all, Jarlaxle looks for every advantage and weapon he can get his hands on.  One of his more ambitious plans leads him to arm his closest friend, the recently resurrected Zaknafein Do’Urden, with two mighty swords of power, including the notorious blade Khazid’hea, better known as Cutter.  With a sly and dark intelligence of its own, Khazid’hea has corrupted many wielders over the years, and its last master, the half-Drow Doum’wielle, may prove to be the missing piece in Jarlaxle’s latest master plan.  Unfortunately, Doum’wielle was lost years before, thrown through a magical portal to the far north, and to find her Jarlaxle will need to embark on another dangerous quest.

Gathering three mighty companions in Zaknafein, the human priestess Cattie-brie and the former assassin Artemis Entreri, Jarlaxle leads them to the extreme far north, a place few have travelled.  However, they are unprepared for just how dangerous this northern land can be, with new foes and mysterious phenomenon they have no idea about.  But there are far great surprises waiting in store for them, ones that could change the very fabric of the world and alter the course of the upcoming Drow civil war.

Starlight Enclave is another compelling and fun fantasy novel from Salvatore who continues to expand and polish his iconic characters and settings with another great adventure narrative.  This latest book contains a fantastic story that not only takes the series back to its bold adventurous roots, but which also sets up a great new trilogy that will no doubt be some of my favourite books of the next couple of years.

This new book contains a distinctive and powerful narrative that starts off a couple of years after the events of the previous novel, Relentless.  The story starts off by setting the scene for a substantial amount of the plot while also recapping some key events of the previous novels in this very long-running series.  It took me a little while to initially get into this book, but once the story got to a fantastic and intense sea battle around 50 pages in, I was pretty hooked.  From there, the story diverts into two distinctive paths, the first following Jarlaxle and his companions as they venture out into the north, while a second following main series protagonist Drizzt Do’Urden, as he takes his daughter Brie to meet his martial arts master, Grand Master Kane.  While initially pretty evenly split, the Jarlaxle adventure storyline quickly becomes the dominant narrative thread, with Drizzt’s storyline stopping about halfway through.  I personally was fine with this; by this point, I was really enjoying the unique and cool tale being told around the four adventurers as they discover new lands and great dangers in the far north.  This second half of the novel is very intriguing, and Salvatore ensures that there is a great blend of action, character development and world building.  Just like with most of Salvatore’s novels, the fight scenes within Starlight Enclave are a thing of beauty and the author does an amazing job bringing the various fantasy battles to life, so much so the reader feels like they are in the room with them.  The narrative eventually ends a bit of a cliffhanger that places most of the characters in mortal peril and which serves as a pretty cool conclusion to this great tale.  I had a wonderful time getting through this story, and I am very intrigued to see how the narrative continues in the rest of the trilogy.

Due to Starlight Enclave being part of the long running Drizzt Do’Urden series, there is a bit of a question about how easy it is for new readers to enjoy this latest book.  I will admit that there might be some difficulties for those unfamiliar with the series.  Salvatore has built up quite a lot of background lore in the last 30+ years, and large amount of this comes into play throughout the book as there are a substantial number of references to previous adventures and characters.  In addition, new readers might not be familiar with Salvatore’s writing style, which is very similar to how he wrote the original novels back in the 1980s, and as a result, they have a more classic fantasy adventure feel to them.  As someone familiar with the previous adventures (although I could use a refresher) and the author’s style, I managed to get into this novel quite well, although I could potentially see new readers having a bit of a harder time breaking into them.  Salvatore does take the time to explain the relevant bits of lore, and readers that pay attention should be able to follow the story without any substantial problems.  I do think that, at this point, most of Salvatore’s novels are probably best read by his long-term fans, but newer readers will probably find something that they enjoy within them.

Unlike the previous trilogy of novels, which was set in more established settings, Starlight Enclave takes the reader on a big adventure into some brand-new areas of this massive fantasy world.  Most of the story takes place in the far, far in the north of the planet, where very few southerners have ventured.  This is a pretty unforgiving land of ice and snow, which proves a real challenge to survive in.  Salvatore does a really good job bringing this snowy landscape to life, and it proves to be an excellent and treacherous setting for the story, especially as the protagonists soon discover that their magic does not work the same way as it does in the south, severely weakening them.  Salvatore also does some major world-building in this book, as he introduces some big new civilisations and opponents.  While I won’t go into too much detail about them here, I will say that it is a pretty major new inclusion, and it is clearly one that is going to have some significant impacts on the Drizzt Do’Urden series going forward.  Some of the new major locations and races are extremely cool and Salvatore has successfully introduced some great and intriguing new entries into this wider world.  I look forward to seeing how these elements are expanded in the future novels, and I have a feeling they are going to produce a few great surprises down the line.

You can’t talk about one of Salvatore’s novels without mentioning the fun and compelling characters.  Starlight Enclave is a great example of this, as it includes a fantastic range of characters, with both intriguing new characters to beloved long-running figures from the overarching series.  Over the last couple of Drizzt Do’Urden novels, Salvatore has noticeably moved away from some of his classic protagonists and has started to focus on the unique combination of the Drow characters of Jarlaxle and Zaknafein.  I quite like these two great characters, especially the constantly manipulative and canny Jarlaxle, and together they form a fantastic pairing who play off each other’s personalities perfectly.  The inclusion of other main characters, Cattie-brie and Artemis Entreri rounds out the main quartet nicely and presents a great group of veteran adventurers who are each looking for something very different, whether it be hope, redemption or the long-lost joy of adventure.  Long-term fans of Salvatore’s books may be a little disappointed that some major characters, such as Regis and Wulfgar, are overlooked in this novel, but I was personally more than happy with the four main characters Starlight Enclave ended up focusing on.

The other character who got a bit of attention in Starlight Enclave is the overarching series’ main protagonist, Drizzt Do’Urden, who is the focus of the book’s secondary storyline.  Like some of the other major characters, Drizzt has not been as heavily featured in the last few books as Salvatore experiments with different protagonists.  This is still true in Starlight Enclave, with less than a quarter of the book given over to Drizzt’s adventure.  Drizzt still shines as a character, especially as he is going through quite a lot.  Drizzt is facing a bit of a crisis of faith and self-identity, brought on by his unique experiences in the previous trilogy when he ascended to a higher plain of existence to escape a deadly foe.  Brought back by the love of his family, Drizzt still isn’t all there, and it is quite fascinating to see the more distracted and spiritual version of the character.  Due to this development, Drizzt’s scenes tend to be quite philosophical in nature rather than action orientated, and there are several detailed discussions and debates about religion and the morality of the Drow.  While not as exciting, Drizzt’s scenes are pretty interesting and form a great counterpoint to the other storyline.  Salavatore is clearly building to something big here surrounding Drizzt, and I feel like there are going to be some other major changes around him in the coming novels.  Still, it was nice to see a somewhat more peaceful Drizzt in this book, and after all these years, I had a smile to see him as a father rather than a warrior.

To enjoy this cool novel, I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Starlight Enclave, which was narrated by Victor Bevine.  This audiobook has a pretty decent runtime of just under 15 hours, which I was able to get through in around a week.  I really enjoyed this version of the book, and I felt that it helped me get more entrenched in the landscapes and detailed fantasy world that Salvatore produced.  Bevine, who has narrated a substantial number of Salvatore’s previous novels, does another great job here, and it was great to once again here his take on the various characters, especially as there is a bit of continuity from the previous audiobooks I have enjoyed.  Bevine does a good job portraying each of the characters contained within Starlight Enclave, and I like the fun accents he does for the various races, especially the dwarves, who get some fun Scottish tones.  Bevine ensures that this audiobook moves along at a fast and exciting pace, and I always enjoy hearing his narration of these exciting and compelling adventures.

In the amazing Starlight Enclave, the iconic R. A. Salvatore continues to expand his impressive and long-running Drizzt Do’Urden series with another bold adventure novel.  This great novel does an awesome job setting up the cool new The Way of the Drow trilogy with a unique and exciting story and some compelling world-building.  I had a wonderful time getting through Starlight Enclave and it is an excellent read, especially for those established fans of the author who will no doubt love to see another classic fantasy tale.  An overall outstanding book, I am extremely excited to see how the rest of this new series unfolds.

Throwback Thursday – First and Only by Dan Abnett

First and Only Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 1999)

Series: Gaunt’s Ghosts – Book One

Length: 10 hours

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the first entry in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, First and Only, by Dan Abnett, which proved to be a very impressive Warhammer 40,000 novel.

You only need to look through my recent Throwback Thursdays to see that I have been in a real Warhammer mood lately.  I recently got into the Gotrek and Felix series by William King, and quickly made my way through the first three books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer, all of which were incredibly awesome.  While I have got the fourth book, Dragonslayer, ready and waiting, I decided to take a break from the fantasy Warhammer novels and dive back into the science fiction Warhammer 40,000 universe.  While I only used to play Warhammer Fantasy, I have a great appreciation for the Warhammer 40,000 lore, and I have recently enjoyed two great books in this massive franchise, Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker and Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.

While there are several intriguing Warhammer 40,000 novels on my radar, I decided to listen to the very first entry in the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series by Dan Abnett, First and Only.  Abnett is an impressive and prolific author and comic book writer who has done a lot of work across several franchises and companies, including Marvel and DC.  While he has a massive back catalogue, Abnett is best known for his input into the Warhammer extended universe.  Abnett has written an immense number of novels for the franchise, including Warhammer Fantasy books, such as the Malus Darkblade series (on my to-read list).  Most of his work is in the Warhammer 40,000 range, where he has written several major series, including the Eisenhorn and Ravenor series, as well as several major novels in the Horus Heresy extended series.  However, the most iconic of these is the Gaunt’s Ghosts series.

The long-running Gaunt’s Ghosts series follows a regiment of Imperial Guard, the basic foot-soldiers of the Imperium of Man, a major faction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Starting back in 1999 with this novel, the Gaunt’s Ghost series featured 15 individual books, as well as several short stories, and only recently finished in 2019.  The Gaunt’s Ghosts series is one of the most iconic entries in the entire Warhammer 40,000 novel range, and I have heard many positive things about it over the years.  First and Only was one of the first books published by the Black Library, the Games Workshop publishing arm, and is a major feature of their catalogue.  So I felt that I was going to take the plunge and read more Warhammer novels, this would be a pretty good place to start, and boy was I glad that I did.

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war….

Throughout the entirety of space, the armies of the Imperium bring the fight to their enemies on every planet, battlefield and hellscape they can find.  One of the most deadly and destructive theatres of war is the massive Sabbat Worlds Crusade, where Imperial forces fight and die to defeat the armies of Chaos and bring an entire sector back into the Emperor’s light.  Many regiments of Imperial Guard have been recruited to battle in this war, but none have a background more steeped in blood and tragedy than the Tanith First and Only.

Formed to serve in the crusades from the once verdant world of Tanith, the first regiment of Tanith Imperial Guards could only watch in horror as their planet was destroyed by the forces of Chaos, with them the only survivors.  Now under the command of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, the men of the Tanith First and Only have taken to calling themselves Gaunt’s Ghosts, due to their superior stealth skills and in recognition of the pain they feel at being the only remnants of their planet.

Fighting in the latest phase of the crusade, the Ghosts find themselves where the fighting is thickest, using their unique skills and experiences to confound the enemy and bring about impossible victories.  However, the Ghosts are about to discover that not all battles are fought on the field, and not all enemies are in front of them.  A power struggle is brewing in the upper ranks of the Crusade’s high-command, and the Ghosts have fallen right into the middle of it.  Entrusted with a mysterious encrypted data transmission by an old friend, Gaunt soon finds himself targeted by the agents of an ambitious general.  After several devastating attacks, Gaunt is forced to choose a side, especially after he uncovers a deadly secret that could destroy everything his men have fought for.  His mission will lead him to the most dangerous battlefield in the crusade, where the lines between friend and foe have never been blurrier.

Now this was a really incredible and exciting novel.  Abnett has produced an outstanding story in First and Only, and I loved how he perfectly translated the unique feel of the Warhammer 40,000 universe into a captivating narrative.  Featuring some great characters, a dark setting, and a fantastic look at this great franchise, First and Only is a captivating and explosive novel and I had an amazing time getting through it.

Abnett has produced a pretty epic story for First and Only that not only serves as an excellent introduction to the characters and wider narrative but is also full of excitement, intrigue and action.  At its core, First and Only is a tough and gritty military action adventure, that follows the Tanith First and Only through several gory fields of battle.  The narrative is broken up into several distinctive sections, set across three separate planets and one massive spaceship, as well as several shorter scenes and flashback sequences that add context and strengthen character development.  These separate sequences flow together extremely well and form a tight and compelling overarching narrative.  I loved the way in which Abnett combined his fantastic military story with treacherous and thrilling political intrigue, as the protagonists are forced to deal with treachery from their friends and attacks from their own commanders.  The author really does a great job setting up the key plot points at the start of the book, and the entire narrative seamlessly flows on after that.  I was deeply impressed by all the amazing action sequences, and I loved the author’s use of multiple character perspectives to tell a complex and powerful narrative.  The entire narrative comes together extremely well into a big, explosive conclusion.  I really enjoyed some of the great twists that were revealed in the lead-up to the conclusion and I was pleasantly surprised by several fun turns and reveals.  An overall exciting and terrific narrative, I had an absolute blast getting through this awesome novel.

One of the best things about this fun novel is the author’s great use of the dark and gothic Warhammer 40,000 setting.  Abnett obviously has a lot of love for this universe, and he painstakingly recreates it in his novel in all its fantastic and gritty glory.  As a result, the reader is treated to some outstandingly portrayed background settings of destroyed worlds, bombarded warzones, and overpopulated Imperial worlds.  This proves to be really impressive to see, and the author makes sure to use this setting to full effect, enhancing the cool narrative and making it an excellent backing for the various fight scenes.  This attention to detail also comes into play perfectly during the book’s various action sequences, and I felt that Abnett perfectly captured the unique and chaotic feel of a Warhammer 40,000 battle scene.  I have to say that I also deeply appreciated the way in which Abnett introduced the reader to the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I personally found that very little pre-knowledge of this extended universe is needed to enjoy this book, and while those readers familiar with the game or other Warhammer novels will obviously get a lot more out of First and Only, this is actually a pretty good way to experience Warhammer 40,000 lore for the first time.

Another cool aspect of this novel was the insightful and intriguing focus on the Imperial Guard.  The Imperial Guard are the basic grunts of the Imperial faction and are often overshadowed by the flashier Space Marines in both the tabletop game and the wider extended universe.  As a result, it was cool to see a novel that focuses on a regiment of these troopers and shows them during a deadly and bloody war.  Abnett does an outstanding job capturing this faction in First and Only, diving into the psyche of the common soldier, while also showcasing their tactics, weapons, machines and motivations.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple character perspectives, you get to see various aspects of the regiment from commander down, and I loved the fascinating combination of perspectives from all the different types of soldiers and specialists.  I also really appreciated the way in which Abnett highlighted different regiments of Imperial Guard throughout the novel, which corresponds with the varied regiments and styles that can be fielded in the tabletop game.  While most of this novel focused on the Tanith First and Only, Abnett also strongly features two other regiments, the Vitrian Dragoons and the Jantine Patricians, who act as allies and rivals to the Ghosts respectfully.  It was extremely interesting to see the variations in mentality, uniforms, and tactics between these regiments, and I really enjoyed the way in which the author highlights their diverse backgrounds and planets.  This ended up being an incredible introduction to the Imperial Guard, and I imagine that quite a few Warhammer 40,000 players gained a new appreciation for this army after reading this novel.

First and Only features a fantastic collection of characters that serve as the heart and soul of the narrative.  This book follows the adventures of the Gaunt’s Ghosts regiment, and you get to see various members of this squad in action, as well as some antagonist characters.  Abnett ensures that each of the characters featured within the novel have intriguing and well-established backstories and traits, and you quickly understand their motivations.  Much of First and Only’s focus is on the leader of the Ghosts, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, who serves as the main protagonist. Gaunt proves to be an excellent and enjoyable main character, who serves as both the regiment’s leader and its inspirational political officer.  Abnett really develops Gaunt’s personality and backstory, and all of the flashbacks focus on his past, setting up his relationship with several of the characters featured in the novel and showing how several rivalries were formed.  Other fascinating and complex characters included Colonel Corbec, who was the main secondary antagonist; Major Rawne, an officer with a hatred for Gaunt who has a pretty traumatic time in this novel; Brin Milo, Gaunt’s adjutant with extreme perception (they are obviously setting up something there); and Colonel Flense, a guardsman from a rival regiment who bears a great grudge against Gaunt.  All these characters, and more, are really fun to follow, but readers are advised not to get too attached, as this is a brutal war story.  I will admit that I initially had a little trouble connecting to several of the characters and I lost track of who the different protagonists were.  However, once I got a further into the story, I grew to know each of the distinctive characters, and I appreciated their fun characteristics and capacities.

As I have tended to do with all Warhammer recently, I grabbed the audiobook version of First and Only.  This proved to be a fantastic decision, as the First and Only audiobook was an excellent and fun production that I was able to power through quickly.  First and Only has a decent run time of 10 hours, and features some amazing voice work from veteran narrator Toby Longworth.  Longworth, who has previously narrated a swathe of Warhammer audiobooks, does an outstanding job with this novel, and he moves the narrative along at a swift and exciting pace.  I love the range of great voices Longworth brings to First and Only, and each character is given a distinctive voice that fits their personality and background perfectly.  There is a certain grim nature to the voices of many of the main characters, which reflects the dark, gothic nature of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  He also utilises a series of different accents for some of the various Imperial Guard regiments, which helps to distinguish their divergent backgrounds and the influence of their home world.  This amazing narration turns the First and Only audiobook into an absolute treat, and this was an incredible way to enjoy this excellent book.  As Longworth provides the narration for the rest of the Gaunt’s Ghosts audiobooks, I will probably check out the rest of this series in this format, and I already know that I will have an awesome time doing so.

First and Only by Dan Arbnett is an outstanding and fantastic novel that takes the reader on an exciting journey to the heart of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Featuring an incredible and epic war story that makes full use of its dark setting and amazing characters, First and Only serves as a captivating first entry in the Gaunt’s Ghost series.  I had a wonderful time listening to this book, and this was one of the best Warhammer tie-in novels I have so far had the pleasure of reading.  This novel comes highly recommended, and I full intend to check out the other entries in this series in the next few years.

First and Only Cover

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe

State of Fear Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia (Trade Paperback – 22 July 2019)

Series: John Bailey – Book Two

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the fastest-rising Australian thriller writers, Tim Ayliffe, follows up his impressive debut with an excellent second entry in his John Bailey series, State of Fear.

Tim Ayliffe is a talented author who debuted in 2018 with The Greater Good, the first John Bailey book.  This novel explored political corruption and international interference in Australia and made excellent use of the author’s experiences as a journalist.  I really enjoyed this first book and was rather interested when I received the second novel from Ayliffe, State of Fear, in 2019.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read State of Fear when it first came out, and it has been in my to-read pile for a while, until I received a copy of the third John Bailey novel, The Enemy Within, a few weeks ago.  I rather liked the sound of the third book’s plot, and I really wanted to read and review it.  However, before checking out The Enemy Within I thought it would make more sense to read State of Fear first, and boy am I glad that I did.

Throughout his long career as a journalist and war correspondent, John Bailey has faced many dangers and been in several terrible situations.  However, his worst encounter was with the notorious terrorist mastermind, Mustafa al-Baghdadi, who kidnapped Bailey while he was reporting on the invasion in Afghanistan and relentlessly tortured him mentally and psychically.  Following his release from the terrorist group and a retirement from working in active war zones, Bailey thought that his days of dealing with terrorists was over, but he was wrong.

Speaking at a conference on Islamic terrorism in London, Bailey is horrified when a radicalised terrorist murders a woman in front of the convention centre.  Rattled, Bailey returns home to Sydney, only to find his troubles have followed him there.  The son of his former driver in Bagdad has gone missing, and Bailey has been implored to help.  Investigating, Bailey finds that the son has been in contact with some dangerous men with connections to Islamic terrorist cells.  Worse, it appears that they are planning to launch a massive attack in Sydney.

Desperate to save his friend’s son from making a terrible mistake, Bailey attempts to make sense of the terrible events unfolding in Sydney.  However, the deeper he goes, the clearer it becomes that Mustafa al-Baghdadi is back, and he is targeting Bailey personally.  As Bailey and everyone he loves comes under attack, Bailey is forced to turn to his old friend, CIA agent Ronnie Johnson, to find Mustafa and take him down.  But will they be able to stop Mustafa before it is too late, or will the world’s most dangerous terrorist destroy everything that Bailey holds dear?

State of Fear was an excellent and powerful novel that takes its great protagonist on a rough and dangerous journey through hell and back.  Ayliffe has definitely grown as an author since his first novel, and this second book is a compelling and intense novel with a well-crafted narrative.  Starting off with an intense beginning, the protagonist is swiftly shoved into his latest harrowing adventure, as the terrorist he thought he escaped violently bursts back into his life.  This is a very captivating novel, and despite its longer length I found myself powering through it in a very short amount of time.  The protagonist goes through a real wringer as he is forced to visit the ghosts of his past while trying to stop his foe’s latest plot.  Featuring a sprawling and deadly investigation through the suburbs of Sydney, the story eventually journeys back to London, where the protagonist and his friends engage in a deadly and dramatic fight to stop a deadly attack.  There is so much going on in this story, and the reader will experience outstanding action, powerful drama, and some major tragedy, especially in the novel’s dramatic conclusion.  This is a fantastic book which stands on its own and can easily be read by people unfamiliar with the other John Bailey novels.  I had an exceptional time reading State of Fear and it is really worth checking out.

Ayliffe works a lot of fun elements into this novel that make it quite a unique read.  Perhaps one of the most prominent of these is his experience and knowledge as a journalist which helps to produce a very Australian centric view of the events that are being depicted.  For example, Ayliffe includes a very detailed and compelling look at radical Islamic terrorism and how it is occurring both in Australia and in the wider world, particularly England.  Using several real-life Australian cases as basis, Ayliffe manages to expose and explore the heart of the issue, and he paints a fair and captivating picture of how individuals are lured into radical Islam as well as the consequences of their actions.  There are some very intriguing and powerful discussions included within this novel, especially around how the Islamic and migrant community in Australia feels isolated and prejudiced against, and I really appreciated the compelling inclusion in the novel.

Other intriguing elements contained within State of Fear include Ayliffe’s experiences with modern media and how journalist stories are produced and distributed.  There are some fascinating and fun journalistic scenes contained within this novel, and you have to assume that the protagonist’s extremely negative views about the swing to online social media based journalism has to reflect some of the author’s personal feelings.  Another great feature of this novel was the way in which Ayliffe once again used his novel to highlight the city of Sydney.  While a good portion of this novel is set in London (which Ayliffe also does a great job portraying), the scenes set within Sydney are a particular highlight.  The author really dives into showcasing this city, with the protagonist visiting several real-life suburbs and locations throughout the course of the book, distributing local knowledge as he goes.  As a result, this book is filled with some fun references that locals and Sydneysiders will really appreciate, and I enjoyed how Ayliffe spent the time to write a love letter to his city.

In addition to a fantastic story and excellent setting, Ayliffe also ensures that State of Fear is loaded with some complex and memorable characters.  The most prominent of these is series main protagonist and primary point of view character John Bailey.  Bailey is an outstanding veteran reporting character, and Ayliffe portrays him as a broken older news hound who is trying to balance his addictive career with holding onto his family.  This protagonist is the very definition of a damaged character, as he has experienced great trauma, both psychical and emotional, over the years thanks to his work as a war correspondent.  Despite this trauma, Bailey has experienced some major growth since the first book in the series, mainly thanks to the actions of major people in his life, and he is now a much more functional human being, allowing the reader to really connect with his struggles and damage.  Unfortunately, the events of this novel really hit him hard, as he experiences fresh pain while also revisiting his traumatic past through a series of dark flashbacks.  Despite this, Bailey keeps moving forward trying to solve the case, and it was great to see his determination and resolve, even under the worse of circumstances.  The ending of the novel is pretty bad for Bailey, and he goes through some tragic moments that will no doubt rock him for the rest of the series.  All of this makes for an incredible central protagonist, and readers will fall in love with this damaged and compelling character.

Aside from Bailey, State of Fear also contains several great supporting characters, most of whom are holdovers from The Greater Good, and who find themselves in all sorts of trouble in this book.  The most prominent of these is Bailey’s romantic partner, Detective Chief Inspector Sharon Dexter, who serves as a secondary point-of-view protagonist for parts of the book.  Dexter is a tough, no-nonsense cop whose past with Bailey led to a romantic relationship in the first book.  Despite having a very complex and unusual relationship with Bailey, Dexter proves to be an excellent supporting character, acting as the sensible and official support to Bailey who tries to keep him out of trouble.  While she has a bit of a cold exterior, especially when Bailey stuffs up or lies to her, Dexter is another character the reader can easily get attached to, and her involvement in the story is quite essentially the overall powerful narrative.

I also quite liked the inclusion of Bailey’s editor, Gerald Summers, another aging newsman who serves as Bailey’s emotional rock and best friend and who has an amazing run in this book.  Gerald is an outstanding and loveable character, which of course means he is going to suffer a little bit, so prepare yourself for that.  You also have to like Ronnie Johnson, the maverick CIA agent who spends most of his time living on Bailey’s couch, but who proves to be an effective and very dangerous operative when he needs to.  Ronnie has been a favourite character of mine ever since the first book (I mean, he kills an Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt style), and he does some cool things in this second novel.  Finally, I felt that Mustafa al-Baghdadi was a pretty good overarching antagonist for State of Fear.  Ayliffe did a good job portraying a manipulative religious zealot with grand plans for vengeance and the advancement of his cause.  Despite being hidden for most of the book, this character contains a great deal of menace, and I really enjoyed the sinister flashback sequences that featured him and Bailey.  I did think that some of his reasons for vengeance on Bailey were a bit weak (I mean, he had to know that the first thing Bailey was going to do when freed was to share what he knew with the Americans), but he was an overall great villain with major impacts on the narrative.  Each of these characters were well written and established, and I felt that their combined narratives really improved this fantastic novel.

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe was an outstanding and captivating read that presents a powerful and moving adventure of journalist John Bailey.  Containing an intense narrative about terrorism, some unique elements and amazing characters, State of Fear is an excellent read which swiftly grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let them go.  I had an incredible time reading this novel and I am still kicking myself for taking so long to check it out.  I have already read the third entry in the John Bailey series, The Enemy Within, and I am hoping to get a review out for it soon.

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Blackout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 424 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, breaks new ground in a thrilling and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.

Berlin, December 1939.  As the citizens of Berlin worry about a potential upcoming conflict with Britain and France, the Nazi party continues to sink their claws into every aspect of German society.  But as a bleak winter sets in and enforced blackouts plunge the city into darkness, a far more sinister threat begins to stalk the streets of Berlin.

A young woman has been found brutally murdered near a busy set of train tracks.  The victim is a former famous actress with a powerful husband.  Due to her marital connections, as well as a scandalous past with various high-ranking Nazi figures, including Goebbels, her case has dangerous political implications.  To that end, her case is assigned to Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kriminalpolizei, the Kripo, one of the few police officers not to join the party.  Due to his apparent disregard for the party and the importance of the victim, Horst is under intense pressure from the head of the Gestapo to solve this case.  However, what begins as an easy murder case swiftly devolves into something far more dangerous when a second body is found, and Horst is forced to face the reality that he is chasing a serial killer.

As the bodies of more young women are discovered, Horst rushes to find a killer before the government attempts to hush up the fact that a killer is loose within their perfect Nazi society.  But with the Gestapo interfering at every step and key suspects protected by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, this case proves difficult to solve.  When a survivor is found, Horst thinks this may be the opportunity to find the killer.  However, when the witness is revealed to be Jewish, Horst is forced to find a way to protect her from both the killer and the Gestapo.  Can Horst find the killer before it is too late, or will he discover that disloyalty to the Nazi government is considered a far worse crime?

This was another amazing novel from one of my absolute favourite authors.  Scarrow is best known as a Roman historical fiction author due to his long-running and impressive The Eagles of the Empire series, which I am a particular fan of (see my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, and The Emperor’s Exile).  However, Scarrow has also branched out into other historical periods with his Revolution quartet, the standalone novels The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone, and a modern crime novel he wrote with his colleague Lee Francis, Playing with Death (which I really need to check out).  His latest book, Blackout, is an interesting change of pace from some of the previous Scarrow novels I have enjoyed, presenting a compelling murder mystery story with the dark historical setting of Nazi Germany.  Blackout, which was unfortunately delayed from last year, proved to be an excellent read, and I loved the complex and powerful story that Scarrow came up with.

Scarrow’s latest book has an outstanding narrative that starts with a Nazi social party scene quickly leading to the brutal murder.  This shocking opening in the dark of a blacked-out Berlin sets the scene for the rest of Blackout perfectly, and lets the reader know that they are in for an intense and dark tale.  The narrative then advances to the next day, with a great introduction to central protagonist Inspector Horst Schenke, who gets to showcase his deductive ability while also covering his personality and feelings about the Nazi government.  Once the case proper begins, Horst and his team are thrust into a lethal hunt for a serial killer, while also having to contend with the vicious politics and intrigue of the Nazi party.  Horst finds himself caught between the Gestapo, German Military Intelligence, and other influential Nazis, each of whom are attempting to manipulate the situation for their own ends.  This blend of mystery and dangerous political intrigue makes for a fantastic read, and I enjoyed the compelling balance that Scarrow produced.  The mystery itself is well crafted, with the author ensuring there is a complex and tangled web to unravel, with several promising suspects.  There are some very cool twists added into the plot, and I quite enjoyed the exciting conclusion and eventual reveal of the killer.  This is also a very effective standalone mystery, which would serve as a great introductory novel if Scarrow ever wanted to revisit this setting and characters in the future.  A series set around this book could go in some interesting directions, and I for one would be quite keen for that.

Easily the most captivating and fascinating part of this novel is the amazing historical setting that Scarrow used as the backdrop to his amazing mystery.  While several great mystery series have used World War II Germany as a setting before (the Bernie Gunther series by the late, great Philip Kerr comes to mind), I think that Blackout was a particularly good example of how it could be done, with Scarrow making sure that it really enhanced this already incredible story.  Scarrow skilfully works several fantastic and intriguing elements of this iconic setting into his narrative.  This includes the blacked-out winter streets and train lines of 1939 Berlin, which serve to hide the killer’s actions and ensures an easy hunting ground.  I also appreciated the air of worry and uncertainty that inhabited many of the characters as they are constantly left wondering if their country is heading towards a bigger war with Britain and France, not knowing of their government’s master plan.  There is also a certain amount of nationalism, patriotism and casual racism/anti-Semitism on the streets, which is a confronting and concerning aspect that the protagonist has to deal with.  There is also a fascinating focus on the way in which the Nazis infested all aspects of the German government and administration, particularly the police.  Inspector Horst is constantly butting heads with other members of the police force who were only promoted due to their party allegiances, rather than any skill or ability, which impacts the protagonists to successfully investigate his crime.  Add in the compelling depictions of German politics and Nazi interference that I mentioned before, and you have a very impactful and distinctive setting, which really helped to turn this crime novel into something very special.

Scarrow has a knack for creating some interesting and likeable characters, and this is certainly true for Blackout.  Inspector Horst is a fantastic protagonist, a former famous race car driver who experienced a traumatic crash several years ago.  He has since reworked himself as a talented police investigator and a rare man of honour in troubled times.  There is a lot to like about Horst, including his brilliant investigative skills, his courage in the face of danger, and his complete disregard for the Nazi leadership.  As one of the few senior police officers who has not joined the Nazi party, Horst is a bit of a black sheep amongst the ranks of his organisation, especially as he barely contains his disdain for the Nazis and what they are doing to his country.  This invariably leads him into a whole mess of trouble, which sees him in the crosshairs of the Gestapo and other Nazi figures, who seek to use his neutrality and skill for their own advantages.  I had a lot of fun following Horst throughout this novel, and it was great to see how a non-Nazi supporter would survive amongst the authoritarian ranks of German police in this period.  There are several great storylines surrounding this character, including about the trauma he is experiencing from his crash, as well as guilt at his failure to save the people closest to him.  I really enjoyed this character in Blackout, and it seems likely that Scarrow would have some very compelling storylines in place for this character if he ever revisited this series.

Aside from Horst, there are several other compelling side characters in this novel, which include a mixture of fictional characters and real historical figures.  One of the better characters is Ruth, the only apparent survivor of one of the serial killer’s attacks.  Ruth is a feisty and combative character, made so by her position as one of the few Jewish people still remaining in Berlin.  Despite being threatened by the entire German apparatus as well as a serial killer, Ruth remains strong throughout the book and is a very inspirational character to follow.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Liebwitz, a Gestapo agent assigned to Horst’s unit to spy on him and report back to the Gestapo commander.  However, Liebwitz proves to be a rather unusual Gestapo agent, more concerned with facts and analysis, rather than Nazi internal politics, and it was fascinating to see an honest and non-sociopathic member of the Gestapo.  While there is a lot of mistrust for Liebwitz in the beginning, he soon becomes a major part of the investigation, and Scarrow sets up some very interesting storylines for him.  Finally, I also quite enjoyed the killer of the story.  Several sequences in Blackout are shown from his point of view, although his identity is kept hidden towards the end of the book.  Scarrow paints an interesting picture of this killer’s mental state, and it was interesting to see his motivations run parallel to the goals of the Nazi party, which he uses to justify some of his actions, and indeed his actions are something that the Nazi leadership might approve of.  I felt that the author did a good job setting this antagonist up throughout the novel, and I rather liked the twist surrounding their eventual reveal.

Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the leading authors of historical fiction with the outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.  Breaking into a whole new historical period and setting, Scarrow produces a fantastic and powerful murder investigation which makes amazing use of its complex characters and detailed historical setting.  Featuring all manner of twists, political intrigue and devious Nazi characters, Blackout was a compelling and intriguing read that comes highly recommended.  I cannot wait to get my next hit of Scarrow, and luckily I don’t have to be patient for long as the next Eagles of the Empire book, The Honour of Rome, is out in a few months time.

Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright

Small Acts of Defiance Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive debuting Australian author Michelle Wright transports the reader back to the horrors and struggles of occupied Paris with the moving historical drama, Small Acts of Defiance.

May 1940.  Following the tragic death of her father, Australian teenager Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are left without any means of supporting themselves in Australia.  Reaching out to the only family they have left, Yvonne’s estranged brother Gerard, Lucie and her mother are convinced to journey back to Yvonne’s home city of Paris to live with Gerard in his apartment.

Despite having reservations about leaving for a Europe rocked by the early stages of war, Lucie is quickly enchanted by the beauty and culture of the city.  However, shortly after their arrival, disaster strikes and the French army suffers a catastrophic defeat, allowing the Nazis to invade France and occupy Paris.  Forced to adapt to the new regime, Lucie and her family attempt to survive as well as they can.

While wishing to remain safe and unnoticed by the Nazis, Lucie is drawn into the conflict when she befriends several people around Paris who resent the German occupation.  Encouraged by their strength and determination, Lucie experiments with using her artistic talents to engage in small acts of defiance against the Nazis and the puppet Vichy French government.  However, when she witnesses the Nazis’ increased attacks against Paris’s Jewish population and the attitudes of her authoritarian uncle, Lucie is drawn even deeper into the fight.  How far will Lucie go to save her new home, and what difference can even a few small acts of defiance truly have?

Small Acts of Defiance was a fantastic and moving novel from a promising new author that did an excellent job highlighting the horrors and troubles of occupied France.  Author Michelle Wright, an Australian who has spent considerable time in Paris, has written an outstanding novel with a story that is both beautiful and devastating, as she tells the intriguing and intense tale of Lucie and her experiences during the war.

Wright has produced a fast-paced and deeply moving narrative for Small Acts of Defiance.  The author swiftly sets the scene for the main characters of Lucie and her mother, who move to Paris right before the invasion while still dealing with the traumatic aftermath of Lucie’s father’s death.  It really does not take long for the historical horror to occur, as Paris is swiftly conquered by the Nazis, although Wright ensures that there is just enough time for Lucie, and the reader, to become enchanted with the city before its occupation.  Following the invasion, you are introduced to several great supporting characters who help Lucie to fully see how evil the Nazis and their French collaborators are, especially as some of her new friends are Jewish.  This centre part of the novel is great, and it was fantastic to see Lucie find her feet while also starting her initial acts of defiance.  However, while all appears mostly right, you know that tragedy is on the horizon, especially as the Jewish characters you become close to slowly have more and more restrictions placed upon them, which can only lead to disaster and despair.  Once the inevitable happens, the story really intensifies, as the protagonist witnesses true horrors and atrocities which slowly costs her some people she is really close to.  Readers will not be prepared for how dark and tragic the book becomes, although you cannot help but keep reading, especially as there is a little bit of hope for some characters.  The conclusion of Small Acts of Defiance is pretty intense and satisfying, especially as the protagonist achieves several great things while there is some good news for the other supporting characters.  This entire narrative very well written, and I loved the dramatic and powerful tale that Wright created here.  There is so much amazing and moving character development, especially around Lucie, which really grounds the novel and helps keeps the readers glued to the pages.  Wright has a real talent for writing hard and dark scenes, and I was utterly enthralled by this powerful story.

I was deeply impressed by the sheer amount of historical detail that Wright put into her debut novel, which is no doubt a side effect of all the time she spent in Paris.  The author covers the entirety of the Nazi occupation, from the French defeat, to the chaos of the invasion and the subsequent control of the city by the Germans.  There are so many interesting details and facets of history contained within the story, and I found myself getting really engrossed in the spectacular portrayal of this key historical location.  Wright spends time focusing on the various attitudes and reactions of the citizens of Paris, which ranged from outrage to acceptance or even outright support of the new regime.  The depictions of the puppet Vichy government and its actions was particularly intriguing, especially as the author examines the reason it had some support from the French.  This is particularly shown by Lucie’s uncle, an authoritarian former solider who respected the military general put in charge of the country, and who felt disenfranchised by the previous free French government.  There was also a lot of focus on the gradual crackdown and eventual deportation of the city’s Jewish population.  Due to the protagonist befriending several Jewish characters, you get to see the various restrictive laws come into effect, and the way that the Jewish population was dehumanised and destroyed one step at a time.  All of these proved to be deeply fascinating, and I loved how Wright was able to work it all into her intense and excellent story.

One aspect of this historical detail that I found extremely intriguing was the storyline surrounding the protagonist’s attempts at defying the Nazi and Vichy governments.  Unlike most historical fiction protagonists who fight back with guns, political speeches or brazen heists, the hero of Small Acts of Defiance at first uses art to subtly push back against authority.  This is achieved by drawing pamphlets or subtle symbols of French freedom in the postcards that she sells, small things that could still get her in trouble.  As the war progresses, the protagonist gets involved in other small ways, such as helping to pass information to the Allies or assisting the city’s remaining Jewish population.  I found these small acts of resistance to be a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and it was rather interesting to see the effect that even these minor actions could have on the character’s moral.  It also resulted in some compelling comparison to some of the more radical members of the French Resistance, especially some of Lucie’s friends, who take more drastic actions and face several physical and moral consequences as a result.  While Lucie does become more involved later in the book, I felt that it was really intriguing to see the various small, non-violent ways that French citizens could have helped in the war effort, and I think that it was a fantastic part of this captivating narrative.

Small Acts of Defiance was an incredible debut from Australian author Michelle Wright that does an amazing job capturing the tragedy, division and defiance that occurred during Nazi occupation of Paris.  Featuring a moving and captivating tale that surrounds one girl’s small attempt to help her friends and her new city, Small Acts of Defiance is an outstanding historical drama that comes highly recommended.  I am very intrigued to see what additional novels Wright creates in the future, and I am extremely glad I got the opportunity to read her fantastic first novel.

Throwback Thursday – Daemonslayer by William King

Daemonslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – October 2000)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Three

Length: 9 hours and 38 minutes

My rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this Throwback Thursday, I am doing a bit of a double feature by reviewing two of the outstanding entries from the iconic Warhammer Fantasy franchise’s Gotrek and Felix series by the brilliant William King.  I have just published a review for the second book in the series, Skavenslayer, and, after some rapid audiobook listening, I have also pulled together a review for the third book, Daemonslayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daemonslayer 2 Cover

Throwback Thursday – Skavenslayer by William King

Skavenslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – December 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 30 minutes

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  The adventures of my two favourite Warhammer Fantasy protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, continues, with the second incredible and extremely fun entry in their series, Skavenslayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skavenslayer 2

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Homecoming

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 13 April 2021)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 35

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is that time of the year again when I absolutely gush about the latest volume of the epic and outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic series by the infinity talented Stan Sakai.  This time I look at the 35th volume in this incredible long-running series, Homecoming, which presents the reader with a rich and emotional tale of regret and loyalty as Usagi returns home.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time reading my blog will already know of my deep love for the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series.  Following the adventures of the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, this series is set in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, and features incredible stories about samurais and honour.  Homecoming, which contains issues #8-14 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, is the second volume printed completely in colour, and features the work of colourist Tom Luth in addition to Sakai’s writing and drawing.  This latest volume follows on shortly after the events of previous volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, and continues three intense and powerful unique stories.

The first story in this volume is the two-issue entry TatamiTatami sees Usagi return to the lands of his former master, the late Lord Mifune, now ruled over by nefarious series villain, Lord Hikiji.  Journeying through a now hostile countryside, Usagi finds himself following an armed procession who are transporting high-quality tatami mats to the castle of one of Lord Hikiji’s rivals.  Usagi finds the caravan under attack by the Neko Ninja, who are determined to destroy the tatami.  When Usagi’s long-time ally and former Neko Ninja head, Chizu, appears, it soon becomes apparent that Hikiji has dispatched the ninja to destroy the tatami in order to damage his rival’s reputation.  Determined to defy Hikiji, Usagi and Chizu travel with the caravan to help guard the tatami from attack.  However, Chizu soon comes into conflict with her rival, Kagemaru, as they fight for leadership of their clan.  Can Usagi and Chizu disrupt the plans of Hikiji and Kagemaru, or will the dark lord continue to reign supreme?

Anyone who thinks it impossible to write a compelling story with death, politics and ninja around tatami mats has clearly never had the joy of reading one of Sakai’s stories before.  Throughout the Usagi Yojimbo series, Sakai has written some thrilling and intense stories around unique elements of Japanese culture, including seaweed farming, pottery making, sake brewing, and giant kite making, just to name a few.  This latest example, Tatami, is no exception to this, as Sakai crafts together a fascinating story that not only highlights the importance and prestige of tatami mats but which also perfectly ties into the wider Usagi Yojimbo universe.  Tatami starts strong, with a fantastic and exquisitely drawn sequence that shows the crafting process behind the tatami, from harvesting the reeds, to the lengthy weaving process.  The story then introduces Usagi to the narrative, also providing some key background for the main storyline in the Homecoming volume.  The action swiftly follows with the tatami caravan under attack from cunning ninja, and Usagi is convinced to help guard the tatami with the help of Chizu.  This all leads up to an epic night fight as Usagi and his allies face off against a horde of ninja.  This fight scene is particularly well drawn and features some great examples of sword play, a beautiful scene of fire and intensity as Usagi appears to stand alone in front of a swarm of ninja, and several massive explosions as the ninjas detonate black powder bombs.  This all leads up to a rather poignant finale, as Usagi suffers from a rare and moving defeat and people he respects are called upon to sacrifice everything for their samurai sense of honour.

In addition to the main story surrounding the tatami, there is also a rather interesting side-plot surrounding Chizu and her battle with Kagemaru for control of the Neko Ninja.  This has been a long-running conflict going back all the way to 11th volume, Seasons, and it was great to see some more progress on it, especially as it ties Tatami into some of the wider Usagi Yojimbo storylines.  This subplot proves to be pretty damn cool, as Chizu works to manipulate Kagemaru and her former followers, using the catspaw of Usagi and the other tatami guards.  This ends up in a fun ninja duel, as Chizu faces off against Kagemaru and another ninja, Kimi, above the plain where Usagi is fighting.  This is a fast-paced and deadly fight which makes use of several different ninja tricks and weapons, and which proves to be an exciting and cool addition to the plot.  There are a couple of intriguing, if slightly predictable, developments within this narrative, although it does hint that we are getting closer to a conclusion of this long-running Neko Ninja plot line.

The real highlight of the Chizu subplot, and indeed the entire story, is the outstanding epilogue where Kagemaru meets with Lord Hikiji’s main advisor, the giant serpent Lord Hebi.  While Kagemaru is initially expecting praise for his actions, it becomes apparent that Hebi and Hikiji are displeased that Chizu continues to disrupt their plans when Kagemaru is offered unique sake, brewed using poisonous serpents.  There is an incredible amount of menace in this entire sequence, especially once Hebi pours out the dead serpent from the sake, and then proceeds to eat in front of Kagemaru (nothing is more intimidating that some light cannibalism).  Hebi’s simple warning: “Do not ever fail us, Kagemaru,” is an amazing way to end this scene, and the mighty ninja leader is left absolutely shaken as he leaves Hebi’s presence.  This epilogue was perfectly written and drawn, and it proves to be an outstanding way to end this story arc, while also hinting that the Chizu-Kagemaru rivalry is about to heat up.  I absolutely loved this great first story, and Tatami proves to be an exceptional start to the entire volume.

The next story in this volume is the moving and intriguing Mon, which also follows Usagi’s travels through the land of his former lord, Mifune.  However, Usagi soon encounters much fear and resentment from the people he encounters, many of whom try to avoid his attention.  He soon discovers that they are shunning him because he still wears the mon (crest) of his former lord on his clothes, reminding people of the costly war that Mifune fought and lost against Lord Hikiji.  The tense situation gets even worse for Usagi when several Hikiji soldiers notice him and attempt to take their anger and resentment out on him, which does not go well for them.  Further, when a desperate innkeeper and former Mifune soldier works out who Usagi truly was, various ambitious Hikiji soldiers gather to claim the substantial bounty of Usagi’s head.

This was another fantastic entry, and one that proves to be rather touching and dramatic.  Sakai does a wonderful job setting up the main story around the Mifune mon and why it is currently feared and hated throughout his former lands.  The impeccably loyal Usagi is forced to deal with unexpected hatred and concern from those he encounters, which once again makes him think about the past with great regret and concern, especially as he continues to battle with his own conflicted loyalties about whether he should continue to serve a dead master.  There are several fantastic references to Usagi’s role in the war’s final battle, as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was interesting that there is still fallout after all these years.  It was also great to learn more about mons and the importance that they can have to the people wearing them.  This is explored to a degree within the story itself, but Sakai also includes a detailed author note at the end of Mon which describes the history behind mons in general and their current role in Japanese society, while also discussing Usagi and the Sakai family mons.  I particularly liked the story surrounding the innkeeper, who, after years of desperation, finally loses his loyalty to the Mifune cause by informing on Usagi.  The final encounter between Usagi, the Hikiji troops and the bartender is also amazingly drawn, and the dramatic cliffhanger helps turn this into a pretty impressive story.

The final story in Homecoming is the powerful tale, The Return, which finds Usagi in the one place he has been trying to avoid the most, his old home village.  After the conclusion of Mon, Usagi washes up in his village and soon finds himself in the care of the love of his life, Mariko, and her husband, Kenichi.  As the usual feelings of regret, anger and resentment quickly grow between the childhood friends once more, Usagi finds himself forced into a far more serious conflict.  A cadre of former Mifune samurai have arrived in town and captured all the villagers.  Led by the fanatical Kato, these samurai seek vengeance for their lord and plan to destroy Hikiji’s influence and power by attacking an emissary of the Shogun as he travels through the village.  Torn between loyalty to his dead lord and the survival of his village, Usagi must work with Kenichi if there is any chance to save the people they love most in the world.

The Return is an exceptional and moving story which serves as the centrepiece and main entry of the Homecoming volume.  There is a lot going on in this final story, and Sakai manages to craft together an outstanding narrative that continues the dramatic and touching arc surrounding the failed love between Usagi and Mariko and the multiple complications accompanying it, and which also places Usagi and everyone he loves in great danger.  The Return continues immediately after the events of Mon, and Usagi is quickly engulfed in both the drama surrounding Mariko and Kenichi and the overall danger of the former Mifune samurai.  This soon results in a conflicted Usagi forced to bluff his way through the encounter in order to try and save his village from the samurai’s deadly revenge plot.  Working together with Mariko and Kenichi, Usagi’s plan eventually results in a bloody, extended battle against the invading samurai.  This proves to be a pretty epic and intense narrative, and Sakai really amped up the action and the stakes of the entire story by setting Usagi up against some of his former comrades.  There are so many great elements to this story, although you have to love the extended battle sequence at the end, especially once recurring characters Katsuichi and Jotaro make their appearance.  The final parts of this entire story are pretty touching, as the various characters say their goodbyes, and Sakai leaves this entire volume on an intriguing note, as for the first time it hints at another fencing master Usagi trained after, and which makes me eager for the next volume in this series.

The most intriguing elements of the entire story are the complex antagonists that are former comrades of Usagi who are willing to commit atrocities in the name of their dead lord.  For years, the former followers of the late Lord Mifune are seen in a bit of a tragic light, with most of them, especially Usagi, portrayed as extremely honourable men, much in the vein of their deceased lord.  As a result, it is extremely jarring to see former Mifune samurai engage in such vile actions, especially as they justify as part of their oaths to their lord: “A samurai cannot live under the same sky as the killer of his lord!”  There are some clear 47 Ronin inspirations here, with former samurai gathering after many years to achieve a final vengeance, even if this story is a little darker than the classic Japanese tale.  There are also some deep and compelling discussions about honour and loyalty throughout The Return, especially as Usagi is forced to balance his loyalty to his late lord against his own personal honour, feelings about his childhood village, and his own memories about Lord Mifune’s character.  The inevitable confrontation between Usagi and his former comrades is pretty harsh, and it was interesting to see a fight between two different groups of Mifune supporters who believe that their way is the right way.  I felt that the use of colour was particularly effective in The Return, as it made the final battle sequence really pop.  It was also very memorable to see Usagi face off against samurai dressed in the same Mifune clothes and colours that Usagi has worn in every comic.  Seeing a group of similarly coloured and clothed characters facing off against Usagi makes for a very different battle sequence, and it was really interesting to see.

Easily the thing I was most looking forward to in this volume was the emotional fireworks that would occur when Usagi eventually returned to his home village.  This has previously happened in two separate occasions, in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles, both of which proved to be utterly heartbreaking.  Much of this revolves around the complicated love triangle between Usagi, who is still deeply in love with Mariko, who is married to his old rival, Kenichi.  While Mariko still has great feelings for Usagi, she is bound to Kenichi by her honour, and will not leave them, especially as it will shatter her whole family.  At the same time, Kenichi, who has always resented Usagi for his talent and luck, knows that Usagi and Mariko have feelings for each other, which breaks his heart, as he has also always loved Mariko.  All this is further complicated by the fact that Mariko and Kenichi’s son, Jotaro, is really Usagi’s child, who Kenichi willingly raised as his own son.  This has resulted in much conflict and despair amongst the three in the past, and it honestly does not take long for the anger and resentment to build up once more in The Return, especially as Kenichi is angry that Usagi encouraged Jotaro to seek out his old fencing master rather than go to the school Kenichi learned from.  While there are several great sequences where Usagi and Mariko once again display their unspoken love, much of the focus of The Return revolves around the intense rivalry between Usagi and Kenichi.  The story starts with their usual resentment and anger towards each other, but the two eventually start to work on their differences, especially as they prepare to save their villages.  There are several fun flashbacks to some of their adventures as children, which showed their early rivalries, as well as the two of them achieving great things together.  This comes to the fore as the story progresses, and the two are once again able to set aside their differences for the greater good.  This was an amazing thing to see, especially as they have been mostly antagonistic to each other throughout the entire series, and I liked how Sakai worked to resolve their conflict.  There were also several touching scenes between Jotaro and both of his fathers, which really represented one of the most important things the two former rivals have in common, and I loved that Sakai included Jotaro in this story.

There were some amazing moments in The Return, and I was deeply impressed with the incredible story that Sakai used as the centrepiece of this volume.  I really liked how Sakai successfully blended together so much action and intrigue with a powerful character-driven narrative, and I loved the cool examinations of honour and loyalty as a formerly bitter rivalry started to come to an end.  This final entry really delivered on all the potential of Homecoming and Sakai has done an exceptional job here crafting this story together.  I also really appreciated the way in which the other stories within Homecoming served as prequels to The Return, with key plot elements introduced in the earlier entries in the volume.  This was some extremely clever storytelling, and it really helps Homecoming to stand out as an exceptional and fantastic volume in this epic series.

As usual, the art of this Usagi Yojimbo comic was absolutely exquisite, and Sakai has worked his typical visual magic, creating several striking and powerful sequences throughout the entire volume.  In addition to some of the impressive action sequences and scenes I have mentioned above, Sakai produces some outstanding shots of the iconic Japanese landscape, with some incredible drawings of forests, mountains, towns and plains.  Each of these is pretty breathtaking, especially now that they are in colour, as the recently introduced colour work of Tom Luth really adds some new depth to the already awesome drawings.  I absolutely love the way in which Sakai matches his simple yet beautiful drawings with the complex storylines contained within Homecoming, and readers are in for a fantastic visual treat when they check this volume out.

Even after 35 outstanding volumes of the Usagi Yojimbo series, the amazing Stan Sakai continues to show why he is one of the best comic creators in the business with the incredible Homecoming.  Featuring several touching and powerful stories, which are backed up with some exceptional character work and stunning artwork, Homecoming is another superb collection of Usagi Yojimbo tales.  Fans of this long-running series are going to have an absolute blast reading this latest volume and it is very much worth checking out.