Rage by Jonathan Maberry

Rage Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 5 November 2019)

Series: Rogue Team International – Book One/Joe Ledger – Book 11

Length: 17 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Well damn, now this was an impressive book.   Prepare for all manner of action, excitement and chaos as bestselling author Jonathan Maberry presents an incredible and outstanding start to a new series that features his long-time protagonist, Joe Ledger, with Rage.

The Joe Ledger books were a series of 10 military thriller and science fiction hybrid novels that ran between 2009 and 2018, which focused on a group of military action heroes as they faced off against a number of advanced, mad science threats. Maberry actually concluded the Joe Ledger series last year, but the stories and adventures of the titular character have been continued in the new Rogue Team International series, of which Rage is the very first book (although it could be considered the 11th Joe Ledger book). This sequel series focuses on some new circumstances for the protagonists while still maintaining the heart and soul of the original books.

People who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Joe Ledger books. Ever since I picked up the 10th and final novel, Deep Silence, last year, I have been really getting into this incredible thriller series and have already gone back and read the first six Joe Ledger books. Each of these books that I have reviewed so far has received a full five out of five stars from me, and it is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. As a result, I have been very keen to get a copy of the first instalment of this sequel series for a while now, and it has been very high on my list of books to read before the end of 2019. However, nothing was able to prepare me for how awesome this book was and for how much I was going to love it.

For years, Joe Ledger was the top field agent for the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a top-secret United States military organisation tasked with protecting America from the most advanced and devastating weapons that mad science can produce. However, the political situation in America has become untenable, with the DMS no longer able to effectively do their job under the current administration. Seeing no future working for the US government, the head of the DMS, Mr Church, has disbanded the department, and has instead formed a new organisation, Rogue Team International. Independently funded and controlled by no government, Rogue Team International is able to deploy anywhere in the world against the worst sort of threats imaginable.

However, their first major mission has some very high stakes. A mysterious group of terrorists have unleashed a new bioweapon on a small, isolated island off the coast of North Korea. This weapon drives those infected by it into a murderous rage, causing them to attack and kill anyone they see in a brutal fashion. Worse, whoever is behind the attack has gone out of their way to frame the United States and South Korea for the crime, creating a dangerous situation which could see these countries dragged into a devastating war with North Korea and China.

Deployed to the island, Ledger and his team attempt to identify who is behind the attacks and what sort of weapon they have unleashed. It soon becomes clear that they are up against a deadly and powerful organisation, that is determined to cause as much chaos as possible. As a second attack is unleashed in South Korea, Ledger must find a way to stop his opponents before it is too late and the world is engulfed in war. However, their new foes are clever and ruthless and bear a powerful grudge against Ledger and Mr Church. Can Rogue Team International save the day, or will the cost be too high to pay?

Rage is an absolutely incredible and outstanding new novel from Maberry, who has done an incredible job introducing the first book in his Rogue Team International series. Rage contains an amazing story that had me firmly addicted right from the very start. The reader is once again presented with a massive and elaborate villainous plot, as two familiar antagonists and their cohorts unleash a devastating and scientifically unique attack for their own nefarious reasons. We then get to follow our protagonists as they investigate and attempt to counter the attacks and plots that they uncover. The entirety of the book is written in Maberry’s signature style, with the story told from a huge range of different points of view and time periods, resulting in a much richer and complex story that allows the reader to see the thoughts of the protagonists, antagonists and innocent bystanders as the various events of the book take place. There are a huge number of twists and turns as the story progresses, and even though we get some insight into the antagonist’s actions and motivations, the entirety of their elaborate plan is left a mystery for most of the book, allowing for some enthralling suspense to build up. All of this ends in an explosive conclusion which not only features a major fake-out but also a massively significant tragedy that is going to be a huge part of the series going forward. This was a truly epic story, and I cannot wait to see where the author takes his new series next.

Despite Rage being part of the new Rogue Team International series, Maberry continues to utilise a number of his distinctive writing elements that made his Joe Ledger novels such a delight to read. This includes the cool multiple viewpoints I mentioned above, as well as the fantastic use of great action sequences, enjoyable characters and the fascinating antagonists. However, there are some exciting changes in this book that I think existing Joe Ledger readers are going to enjoy. For example, the protagonist is part of a whole new organisation, they have a new base (a very over-the-top secret lair in Greece), a new team name and new call signs for all the protagonists (for example, Ledger has gone from Cowboy to Outlaw), all of which is an interesting change of pace for those familiar with the original series. There is also a lot more of a focus on international politics, with only a small amount of the story taking place in the United States. While I quite liked some of the new directions that Maberry was taking with this new series, many of the story elements in Rage have made it clear that the Rogue Team International books are going to be very strongly associated with the original Joe Ledger series. There are a huge number of call-backs to the previous books, including a lot of discussion about preceding cases and the utilisation of many characters, including some of the major antagonists, who have previously appeared. While you would assume that the employment of all these elements might make Rage hard to get into for readers unfamiliar with the other Joe Ledger novels, this is really not the case. Maberry continues his practice of filling his story with some detailed summaries of the various characters and books, so that readers can understand the significance of all the reference to the previous cases. This means that new readers can easily jump into Rage without any prior knowledge of the other Joe Ledger books, although I can guarantee that most people will be keen to go back and get the full account of what has happened before.

One of the most interesting aspects of the new international focused formula of this book was that it allowed Maberry to examine the current political situation around the Korean Peninsula. There is quite an interesting analysis of both countries throughout the course of the story, and the various issues surrounding them and their differences are actually covered in a series of short chapters, made to resemble a political chat show, with experts voicing their thoughts on both Koreas, and the influence of countries such as China and the United States. Rage’s story features a fascinating look at what the author thinks would happen if a flashpoint event occurred in the region, and who could potentially benefit. I was very intrigued by Maberry’s analysis of the situation, and I liked how he featured several characters from both North and South Korea in his story. The author’s portrayal of the North Korean characters was particularly captivating, as he showed them as mostly good people who were trapped by political circumstances, and who aren’t seeking a war against the rest of the world. All of this examination of the current political situation in Korea made for a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and I am curious to see what area of the world he will explore in the next Rogue Team International book.

One of Maberry’s main strengths as a writer is his ability to create some truly enjoyable and memorable characters to populate his stories with. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the main protagonist of Rage and its prequel series, Joe Ledger. Ledger is an extremely complex and multilayered action protagonist, who serves as the book’s main character. Thanks to the fact that Ledger narrates all of the chapters told from his point of view (about two thirds of the book; the rest of the chapters are told in the third person), we get a real sense of his character. While he likes to project a cocky, confident and humorous persona to most people he meets, cracking all sorts of jokes to both other characters and the reader, deeper down his is a psychological mess. Due to some past trauma, Ledger has some major issues, and his career as a shooter for the DMS and Rogue Team International has not helped the situation. Ledger’s anger, despair and hopelessness are constantly bubbling towards the surface, adding a fascinating dimension to the character. I have always really liked how Maberry has gone out of his way to show an action protagonist who is actually impacted by the work they do and the lives they have taken, and it makes for a refreshing change of pace. Rage in particular contains some very dark moments for Ledger, and if the conclusion of the book is anything to go by, his character is going to undergo some massive emotional changes in the next few books.

I was also really glad that Maberry continued to utilise so many of the great side characters that have been previously introduced in the Joe Ledger series. Pretty much all of the key DMS characters have moved across into the new book, and I was really glad we could continue to enjoy the fun dynamic that they have established over the course of the previous series. The enigmatic Mr Church continues to remain one of the best spy-master characters I have ever read and is probably one of my favourite people in the Joe Ledger books. While there are no major revelations about his past in this novel (my theory is that he is either an alien or some form of angel), there are some hints to his seemingly superhuman toughness and some of the previous missions he has engaged in. Mr Church also shows off some amazing diplomatic chops in this novel, utilising a network of level-headed members of various countries’ governments to work around blustering and incompetent world leaders. Most of the rest of the supporting characters remain the same, although several of them get some fun moments in this book, such as Bug unexpectedly receiving some fan-girl attention and Doc Holiday’s eccentric personality overwhelming people unfamiliar with her. There are also some great new characters in this book, many of whom appear set to become long-term recurring characters. If I had to make one complaint, it would be that there wasn’t enough of Ghost, Ledger’s attack dog, but I am sure we will see more of him in the future.

In addition to the fantastic protagonists, Maberry has also come up with a couple of conniving and evil antagonists to act as a foil to Joe Ledger and Rogue Team International. The main villains of the book are actually prior antagonists from two of the books in the Joe Ledger series, who have been reutilised to great effect in this new novel. While an exciting original major villain might have worked out well for the first novel in a new series, I think that using some existing antagonists was an excellent choice that really helped create a captivating story. Not only does this help reinforce the connection between the new Rogue Team International series and the Joe Ledger books, but it also allowed for some interesting character and story development. Both of these main two antagonists have been defeated in the past by Joe Ledger and Mr Church, so they each have very deep, personal grudges against them. Their new plan for domination, which is actually very interesting and quite complex, is also filled with elements of revenge, which helps ratchet up the intrigue and adds a whole new element. I loved the various interludes which show how these two bad guys escaped from prison and started their new team-up, and it was really cool to see what happened to them after their respective defeats in the previous books. It was also very interesting to see two antagonists, who previously had nothing to do with each other, had appeared in different novels and had very different motivations for their actions, come together as a cohesive unit with the new goals in mind. This was definitely a great use of two antagonists, and the damage that they caused was very impressive and memorable.

It is impossible to talk about one of the Joe Ledger novels without discussing all the intense action you can expect within. Maberry is a master of writing an electrifying action sequence, and the first book in the Rogue Team International series is absolutely chock full of action, fights and brutal violence. There are so many varied and thrilling battle scenes throughout the book, as the protagonist finds himself fighting in all manner of different situations. Whether the protagonist is engaging in a mass shootout against heavily armed opponents with his team backing him up, fighting by himself against a group of assassins or engaging in knock-out, throwdown fist fight against one of the antagonists, Maberry crafts some excellent and detailed sequences, allowing the reader to appreciate everything that is going on. The standout elements of this book are the victims of the new rage-inducing bioweapon that is this book’s unique science fiction element. Victims under the control of Rage attack anything they see in a frenzy, resulting in some crazy and vicious scenes. This also allows for some unique sequences where the protagonists must find a way to neutralise the victims without killing them, in the hope that they can be cured, all the while trying to avoid getting killed by either the Rage victims or some of the soldiers behind the attacks. All of the action scenes in this book are really impressive to experience, and it is impossible not to get excited as you read through them. However, readers should be warned in advance that the action can get quite brutal in places, and there are numerous examples of gruesome mutilation or torture, which might not be appealing to some people.

One of the main things that I love about the Joe Ledger series are the incredible audiobook versions of the previous novels, all of which feature the outstanding narration of Ray Porter. As I have stated in several of my previous reviews, Porter has some unbelievable vocal talents, and the life he breathes into all the characters in the Joe Ledger audiobooks is just fantastic. In particular, he portrays the voice and personality of the series titular character and protagonist, Joe Ledger, extremely well and he does a remarkable job of conveying all of the characters emotions, charm and humour to the reader. I was so happy when I saw that Porter was going to narrate Rage, and I knew I would have to grab the audiobook format of this book when it came out. I was in no way disappointed with this audiobook, as Porter has once again done a fantastic job of bringing all the characters to life and telling Rage’s amazing story. Porter still has such a fantastic handle on the book’s main character, and his portrayal of the Joe Ledger’s emotions is just superb, especially during some major scenes in the book. With a running time of 17½ hours, Rage is a somewhat substantial read, and dedicated listeners should be able to get through it in a few days. I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Rage to anyone who wants to read this book, and it still remains my favourite and preferred way to get my Joe Ledger fix.

In Rage, Jonathan Maberry has once again outdone himself producing a wildly entertaining and deeply compelling novel that I absolutely loved. In this first instalment of his new Rogue Team International series, Maberry has brought his fantastic characters from the Joe Ledger books into a whole new era, as the story goes in some great new directions, while maintaining the best parts of the original series. Featuring one hell of a story and a pretty memorable conclusion, Rage is Maberry at his best, and I have no choice but to award it a full five stars. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a high-octane read, Rage is an outstanding book guaranteed to pull you in and leave you an emotional wreck.

Spy by Danielle Steel

Spy Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 273 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From the mind of the fourth-bestselling author of all time, drama and romance novelist supreme Danielle Steel, comes an excellent and compelling story about life, war and espionage that is really worth checking out.

Alexandra Wickham is the youngest child of a well-to-do British family living out on their estate in the country. A beautiful and intelligent young lady, Alex appears to be set for a life of privilege and marriage. However, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 allows Alex to throw off the shackles of expectation, and she moves to London, volunteering as a nurse. However, her fluency in French and German attracts the attention of a new government organisation, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who are desperate to recruit her.

Suffering from personal losses and determined to do her part for her country, Alex joins the SOE and quickly becomes a skilled and valued agent. Trained in various forms of combat, sabotage and espionage, Alex makes several journeys into German territory to obtain valuable information. However, the hardest part of her new life is keeping her work secret from her friends and family, including her worried parents and the brave pilot she falls in love with.

Even after the war ends, Alex finds that she is unable to stop spying. When her husband, Richard, enters into the foreign service, Alex is recruited into MI6 and tasked with obtaining information from the various people she meets socially. As she follows her husband from one volatile end of the world to the next, Alex must reconcile the two separate parts of her life if she is to survive. But who is she? The loving wife and parent or the government agent who can never reveal her secret to those closest to her?

Now, I have to admit that before this year Danielle Steel was not an author that I really went out of my way to read. Steel writes a staggering number of novels each year (seven in 2019 alone), and most of them do not appeal to me (I think a quick perusal of some of the previous books I’ve read will give you a good idea of what my usual literary tastes are like). However, after enjoying Turning Point earlier this year (which I checked out because I do enjoy medical dramas), I decided to try Spy, as I was kind of curious to see how Steel would handle the historical spy genre. What I found was a captivating and enjoyable story which I was really glad I grabbed a copy of.

Spy is a historical fiction novel that follows the life story of the fictional protagonist, Alexandra Wikcham, who serves as the book’s point-of-view character. This was a rather full and exciting story that not only focuses on the main characters career as a secret government agent but also explores her personal life, such as her interactions and relationship with her family, how she fell in love, and how she become a caring wife and mother. Spy’s overall narrative is a fantastic blend of drama, historical fiction, spy thriller and romance novel, which proves to be quite addictive and rather enjoyable. I loved seeing the full progression of the main character’s life, and I found myself getting attached to several of the characters featured within.

This was the first historical fiction by Danielle Steel that I have read, and I have to say that I was impressed with the various periods that were explored. The first half of the book is set during the events of World War II, and Steel does an incredible job of portraying this iconic part of the 20th century. The story is primarily set in England during this part of the war, and the reader gets a real sense of the events that are occurring, the struggles facing normal citizens during the conflict and the various contributions that the English people were making during the war. Spy also explores the damage, both physical and emotional, that the war produced, as the main character experiences great loss and despair throughout the course of the conflict and sees the impact on people that she cares for.

In addition to the great portrayal of World War II, Spy also examines a number of other intriguing historical events, periods and locations. The second part of the book is set over a much longer period of time and follows Alex and her husband, Richard, as they travel the world as English diplomats. These diplomatic assignments place them in a number of different countries during significant periods in history. For example, Alex and Richard end up in India during the end of British rule, when India is split into two countries. Other countries they end up in include Morocco, Hong Kong, America and the Soviet Union. All of these visits are only for a short part of the book, but they offer some intriguing snapshots into the various countries during significant parts of history. These combined historical periods make for a truly captivating and enjoyable novel, and they really work well with the dramatic and espionage aspects of the book, enhancing these other story elements with the cool historical settings.

I really enjoyed the espionage parts of Spy, as Steel has come up with a fascinating underlying thriller plot for this book. The actions of the SOE during World War II have long formed a great basis for historical spy stories over the years, and Steel did a fantastic showcasing how their female agents were recruited, often from organisations such as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, trained, and then dropped into Europe for missions. The various missions that the protagonist undergoes in Europe are quite interesting, and range from various reconnaissance missions, to more complex information gathering exercises. The protagonist’s actions after the war are also quite intriguing, as she is recruited by MI6 to spy on the various people her husband comes into contact with as a diplomat, and this results in her getting involved in some major historical events. It was quite fascinating to see with both missions during and post-World War II, the importance of information obtained from gossip or a leading conversation with a beautiful woman, and the impacts such information could have. This espionage part of the book is also the part of the book that I personally found the most thrilling and entertaining, and it was really cool to see all the danger and intrigue that followed this central character.

As Spy is a Danielle Steel novel, there is of course a central romance storyline that dominates the course of the book. At the beginning of the war, Alex meets and falls in love with Richard, a handsome and charming English fighter pilot, and they form a great relationship that lasts over 50 years. This is a really nice and supportive relationship, which is able to overcome some rather substantial obstacles, mainly World War II and Alex’s career as a spy. Not only are the forced to put their relationship on hold during the course of the war, in fear that one of them might die, but Alex is required to keep all of her espionage activities a secret from Richard. Even when they are married, Alex is unable to tell him that she is a MI6 Agent or warn him that she might be putting their lives at risk in foreign countries. All this secrecy weighs heavily on the mind of Alex throughout the course of the book, and it adds a whole new dramatic edge to their relationship. However, I really liked the way it ended, and this was a fantastic and heart-warming romantic storyline that I quite enjoyed.

The latest Danielle Steel novel, Spy, proved to be a really compelling and moving story of life and love during the turbulence of the 20th century. Featuring a gripping story which followed the entire life of a female British espionage agent, Spy was an excellent novel that honestly has something for everyone in it. I was really impressed with this novel, and I am planning to check out more Danielle Steel novels in the future. Her next release, Moral Compass, sounds particularly intriguing, and I have already requested a copy of it.

Warrior of the Altaii by Robert Jordan

Warrior of the Altaii Cover

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 9 October 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 352 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a very unique fantasy read? Think about checking out the hitherto unpublished first novel from Robert Jordan, an author many consider to be amongst the best fantasy writers of all time.

The late, great, Robert Jordan was a highly regarded author who started writing in the late 1970s and found his calling several years later in the fantasy genre. His first published work was The Fallon Saga of historical fiction novels, which were made up of three books released between 1980 and 1982. Following this early work, Jordan was contracted to write several Conan the Barbarian novels, starting with Conan the Invincible and Conan the Defender, both of which were released in 1982. Jordan ended up writing seven Conan the Barbarian books between 1982 and 1984, and they are some of his earliest works of fantasy fiction. However, Jordan would find his greatest success later when he wrote his epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, which were some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read.

The Wheel of Time series is an epic fantasy series that started in 1990 with The Eye of the World. Made up of 14 massive novels, the series ran until 2013, and is considered one of the most creative, complex and enjoyable fantasy book series ever written. Not only did many of the books gain high critical praise but it is one of the bestselling fantasy series of all times, selling over 80 million copies. Unfortunately, Jordan passed away in 2007 and it fell to fellow author Brandon Sanderson to complete the final three books in the series utilising Jordan’s notes. Sanderson did a fantastic job finishing off the series, which concluded in 2013 with A Memory of Light, (make sure to check out my reviews for some of Sanderson’s other books, including The Way of Kings, Skyward and Starsight). The Wheel of Time series is probably going to get a lot of attention in the next year or so, as it is currently being adapted into a major television series by Sony and Amazon. Featuring Rosamund Pike in the leading role, and with a mostly unknown cast of young actors, this series has some real potential to dominate in the post Game of Thrones television landscape. The Wheel of Time books were some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read, and they served as an excellent and enjoyable introduction to the genre for me. Despite recently featuring several of The Wheel of Time books in my Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list, I do have to admit that it has been a substantial time since I have had the opportunity to read The Wheel of Time novels, and I am a little hazy on some of the series’ details. As a result, I am strongly considering trying to reread some of the books (probably the audiobook formats) before the first season of the television adaptation is released, although I will have to see how I go with time as each of the books are likely to be some of the longest audiobooks I will ever listen to, plus I also have a bunch of other series I want to get into.

Warrior of the Altaii is actually the first novel that Jordan wrote and attempted to get published. He apparently wrote it in 13 days back in 1978 but unfortunately no publishers picked it up at the time. By that point he was working on some of his other series, so the author shelved it and it remained unpublished until now. There is actually a rather fascinating and entertaining summary of this book’s publication history in the foreword that was written by Jordan’s wife and editor/publisher Harriet McDougal, which I am sure many fans of the author will find quite interesting.

Warrior of the Altaii is set on the vast and harsh lands known as the Plain. The Plain is home to all manner of terrors, obstacles and fierce warriors, as several barbarian tribes roam the cruel landscape. Amongst all the tribes of the Plain, none are more feared or deadly than the Altaii, fighters without peer, whose nomadic way of life and dedication to raiding has sustained them for generations. Life is always difficult on the Plain, but recent strange events are making it harder for the Altaii to survive. More and more ferocious beasts roam the land, dark omens abound, and some unknown group has been destroying the various water holes that keep all of the inhabitants of the Plain alive.

Amongst these chaotic events, Wulfgar, a leader of a troupe of Altaii, travels to the massive city of Lanta on the outskirts of the Plain on a trading mission. Arriving at the city, Wulfgar and his followers and comrades encounter great hostility and scorn from all they encounter, including the city’s twin queens. It soon becomes apparent that the queens of Lanta are conspiring against the Altaii with a rival barbarian tribe and the mysterious individuals known as the Most High. But what are their objectives, and why are they targeting the Altaii?

As Wulfgar attempts to understand the scope of the threat facing him, he receives a prophecy of doom and the destruction of the entire Altaii race. Their only salvation apparently lies in the hands of a traveller from another world, who will gift Wulfgar the knowledge needed to save his people. Can Wulfgar defeat the vast forces arrayed against him, or will he be overwhelmed by treachery, assassins and the vengeance of two scorned queens?

This was a rather exciting and enjoyable read that was a lot of fun to check out. Warrior of the Altaii is a cool classic fantasy read that features an interesting and, at times, over-the-top story with a number of great action sequences and some rather cool fantasy ideas. The plot of this book is extremely fast-paced, and there is never a moment that is not exciting or filled with action or adventure. There are a number of really fun sequences throughout the book, including the siege of a major city, several large-scale battle sequences that feature some fantastic strategies and high body counts, as well as a few desperate and brutal smaller fight scenes that are bound to keep readers on their toes. Despite being ostensibly a fantasy novel, there are a few interesting science fiction elements in this book, as several beings with advanced weapons have apparently travelled across from an alternate world. This results in a cool blend of science and magic in places, which added a whole new layer to the story. Warrior of the Altaii is a good standalone novel with a mostly self-contained narrative that did not leave any major storyline elements open. This is probably for the best, as, for very obvious reasons, there is not going to be any sort of sequel. Overall, I felt that Jordan created an excellent and thrilling story within this book, which I believe will be appealing to most fantasy readers.

One of the major appeals of this book is the fact that it is the unpublished first attempt at a novel from an author who is better known for their later works, and as a result, fans of Robert Jordan’s later works can get a glimpse of his early writing style. One of the major things that I took away from reading Warrior of the Altaii was the fact that Jordan clearly had an aptitude for creating intriguing fantasy worlds even early in his career. Throughout this book, he described a dark and detailed world, of which we only saw a small part, filled with memorable characters, organisations, threats and locations. Several of the elements utilised in this book were clearly early versions of things that were later featured in The Wheel of Time novels, such as the inclusion of an all-female group of magic users, which are similar to The Wheel of Time’s Aes Sedai. In addition, the whole barbarian tribe-centric storyline he produced for this book is very reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian and it is very clear why his wife thought that he would be a good fit to write several of these novels. I think that major fans of Jordan and his existing series are going to find a quite a lot to enjoy in this book, and I would strongly recommend Warrior of the Altaii to anyone interested in seeing how this great author started out.

While I quite enjoyed this book, there are elements to Warrior of the Altaii that some readers might not enjoy. In particular, there are lot of examples of female enslavement by the barbarian characters of this book. While, to be fair, the main male character does get enslaved for a period of time, I can image that quite a few readers may not appreciate all the times that female slavery becomes a casual, recurring plot point. The way that it is used in this book does seem to be a bit more of an old-school fantasy inclusion such as would be seen in a piece of Conan the Barbarian fiction and is perhaps not as appropriate for a modern book. However, as this book was written in the 1970s, this is a somewhat understandable inclusion, and I don’t think you need to read too much into it. It honestly didn’t take too much away from the enjoyment of the story; it is just something people might need to consider before reading this book.

Warrior of the Altaii is an electrifying piece of fantasy fiction with a bit of an old-school feel to it that I quite enjoyed. I had a great time checking out this early work from a fantasy author I hold in very high regard, Robert Jordan, and it was a real treat to see his previously unpublished first novel. This is definitely an interesting read for fans of the fantasy genre and is well worth checking out, especially if you are in the mood for a fast-paced and action-packed fantasy adventure.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars (2015) Volume 1: Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron and John Cassaday

Star Wars (2015) Volume 1 Cover.jpg

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date: 6 October 2015

Length: 160 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

I think it is fair to say that I have been in a real Star Wars mood lately. Maybe it is because of the imminent release of the final movie in the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or perhaps it is because The Mandalorian is such an awesome TV show. Whatever the reason, I have been reading and reviewing quite a few Star Wars books and comics lately. For example, I am currently listening to Star Wars: Force Collector, I reviewed Tarkin last week and I recently read and reviewed Resistance Reborn and Vader: Dark Vision. As a result, I thought that this week would be a good time to do a Throwback Thursday on the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic book series, Skywalker Strikes, which did an outstanding job of introducing an extremely exciting ongoing comic series.

The Star Wars comic book series was started in 2015 and follows the adventures of the protagonists of the original Star Wars trilogy. Set shortly after the events of A New Hope, this series attempts to fill in the three years between the first film and The Empire Strikes Back. The Star Wars comics originally ran concurrently with the Darth Vader (2015) comic series until that series ended, and then proceeded to run alongside the Doctor Aphra comics. The Star Wars series ran for 75 issues and has only recently concluded. A sequel series with the same name is set to begin in early 2020, which will follow the events between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

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Volume One of Star Wars begins shortly after the destruction of the Death Star. With the Empire in turmoil following the destruction of such a major weapon, Rebel Alliance members Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 use the chaos to infiltrate a key Imperial weapons factory. While they are able to destabilise the factory’s reactor core and free its slave labour force, the Rebels are unprepared for the unexpected arrival of Darth Vader.

Attempting to complete their mission while also trying to kill Vader, the Rebels find themselves hopelessly outmatched by the Dark Lord of the Sith, who is determined to capture the Rebel who blew up the Death Star. Not even Luke, with his newly discovered Jedi abilities, is able to stand up to Vader, and the Rebels barely manage to escape with their lives.

Frustrated by his failures against Vader, Luke decides to take a leave of absence from the Rebel Alliance and returns to Tatooine to contemplate his future. Travelling to the house where Obi-Wan Kenobi lived in exile for years, Luke hopes to find something that will guide him. Instead he finds himself walking into a trap, as the bounty hunter Boba Fett is lying in wait. At the same time, Leia talks Han into a scouting mission for the Rebels, but their simple mission soon attracts the wrong sort of attention. Who is the mysterious woman hunting Han, and why is claiming to be his wife?

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Skywalker Strikes, which is made up of Issues #1-6 of the Star Wars series, contains an outstanding story, fantastic artwork and some of the most insane Star Wars action sequences that you will ever see. The team of Jason Aaron and John Cassaday, have done an amazing job on this comic, and this first volume does a wonderful job starting off this long-running series. While all the issues in this volume are connected together pretty well, I would say that there is a distinctive break between Issues #1-3 and Issues #4-6. Issues #1-3 focuses solely on the protagonist’s attack on the weapon facility, while the last three issues feature some more independent adventures from some of the series’ various characters, as each of them is searching for something.

The sequence contained within Issues #1-3 is just incredible, and it is easily my favourite part of the entire series. What starts as a fun infiltration of an Imperial facility quickly devolves into utter chaos as Darth Vader enters the mix. What then follows is nearly three whole issues of action, explosions, fantastic first meetings and all manner of destruction as the Rebels desperately attempt to escape the factory. While all the characters involved in this part of the comic are really good, I have to say that Vader steals the show as the indestructible villain. This was actually one of the first pieces of fiction in the new Disney Star Wars canon that shows off how amazing Vader could truly be, and it is pretty darn awesome. Pretty much from the first instance he appears, he shows off the full extent of his powers by throwing stormtroopers in front of a sneak attack from Chewbacca, and then by starting to crush an AT-AT with the force. He then subsequently survives a full-on blast from the AT-AT’s cannons and hacks it to pieces with his lightsaber. He also cuts through a bunch of escaping slaves and shows his intense displeasure to his subordinates in a number of destructive ways, including twisting a stormtrooper’s head 180 degrees with the force (to be fair, he did catch sight of Vader without his helmet) and choking a Star Destroyer captain from an insane distance. I can also not be the only person who cracked up at Vader very quickly destroying an Imperial Officer moments after he said “Lord Vader will have my….” (spoilers, he was going to say head, and Vader really did). All of this destruction and action was essentially pure awesome, and I loved every second of it.

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In addition to all the action in this part of the book, there are also some major moments in Star Wars history that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. For the one thing, it actually has the first face-to-face confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader. This scene is handled extremely well. Luke, still believing that Vader is the one responsible for the death of his father, jumps at the chance to get revenge. However, as Luke runs towards Vader’s location full of confidence, he hears the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to run. This is advice that Luke really should have taken; Vader, after berating Luke for his obvious lack of skill with the lightsaber, rather easily disarms him. While getting ready to kill Luke, Vader notices that the lightsaber he has taken off him is the very one he used to wield as Anakin Skywalker, which obviously raises some issues within him. As events at the factory spiral out of control, Luke is able to evade Vader, who starts to grow slightly more impressed by his skills. As Luke makes his escape, Vader realises that he is not only the pilot that destroyed the Death Star but also Kenobi’s last great hope. Still not fully realising the identity of the boy he just encountered, Vader rather vindictively promises to corrupt him to his purposes. All of these events are pretty incredible moments in Star Wars history, and I think that the creative team did an outstanding job introducing them in this new canon. The initial face-to-face showdown between the main protagonist and villain of the original Star Wars trilogy is a pretty significant moment, and I really loved how it was shown. The hints at the hidden history between the two are great, and the initial realisations from Vader that there is more to Luke than he realises are fantastic. I also liked how the creative team showed Luke as having no real skill with the lightsaber or the force. Considering that he only had about an hour of training with Kenobi, it really isn’t that surprising that he has no lightsaber abilities, so this is a pretty clever and realistic inclusion, especially as a good part of the following Star Wars comic series deals with some of the earliest days of his training. While these events are probably not the most significant to occur in this volume (more on that later), they are incredibly intriguing and any fan of the Star Wars franchise is going to love it.

The last three issues of Skywalker Strikes are also very entertaining, though less action-packed, since the creative team has opted instead for storytelling and showing off the state of the Empire and Rebel Alliance. While a despairing Luke sets off to find answers, Han and Leia set off to find potential locations for a new Rebel base, while Vader has a meeting with Jabba the Hut. There are some really interesting aspects to this part of the story, from the growing hopelessness in Luke as he begins to realise how far he is from becoming a Jedi, to Vader’s sudden obsession with capturing Luke, to the growing hints of romance between Han and Leia, disguised at this point as antagonism. However, I would say that it’s the newcomers to the comic series, Boba Fett and Sana Solo, that are some of the best parts of the last three issues of the volume. Fett, who has long been a fan favourite despite his complete underutilisation in the movies, shines as the badass bounty hunter as he scours Tatooine for Luke, eventually finding out all about him through some very violent means. This leads to a pretty fun showdown between Boba and Luke, as Boba ambushes him at Kenobi’s house and easily incapacitates him and R2-D2 with his cool array of weapons and tactics. It is only thanks to Luke’s first close-combat use of the force that he is able to escape, as he successfully blocks a blaster bolt while blinded (a nice homage to the training sequence from A New Hope) and moves an item with his mind. All of this was a pretty entertaining showdown, and I loved seeing Fett in action for once. We also have the mysterious Sana Solo, who has a pretty fantastic takedown of some Rodian thugs with a great piece of technology and a ruthless demeanour. She is later able to track down Han and Leia, absolutely terrifying Han before dropping one of the biggest bombshells of the book: that she is Han’s wife. While this is not explored in any great detail in this volume, it is an excellent introduction for this great character, who goes on to become a fairly major figure in the current Star Wars canon. As a result of all of this, the second half of the volume holds up pretty well to the action-packed first half, and there are plenty of major scenes, including the very big ending.

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While I did really like the second part of this volume, the best way to appreciate it fully is if you understand its connection to the Darth Vader (2015) series of comics. The Darth Vader series was launched right on the heels of the Star Wars comics and it is actually set in the aftermath of the first three issues of this volume. In the first issue of this concurrent comic, it is shown that Vader has actually started going rogue on the Emperor and is making his own deals with Jabba the Hutt, before the formal discussion he has with Jabba in Issue #4 of the Star Wars series. This actually clears up the somewhat cryptic discussion he has with Jabba later in the issue, where they talk about the bounty hunters he has hired, and also shows the point where he actually tasked Boba Fett with finding Luke. While none of this is absolutely vital when it comes to fully understanding the plot of Skywalker Strikes, it is interesting to see that some of the referenced events occurred in another series. However, the main reason why readers should try to understand the connection between this comic and the Darth Vader series is in the epic conclusion both of them share, where Vader learns the last name of the boy he has been hunting. Both Issue #6 of Star Wars and Darth Vader were actually released on the same day, so readers of both series were able to see this scene at the same time. The two scenes are shown in a slightly different light in each series. It is expanded a bit more in the Darth Vader series, as it plays into the feelings of resentment towards the Emperor that have been building in Vader through the series. However, I quite liked the simpler version in Issue #6 of Star Wars, as the slow-boiling rage and anger within Vader is pretty obvious, as he takes a whole page to fully react, cracking the glass on a Star Destroyer and simply whispering, “Skywalker”. As a result of this connection, the Star Wars and Darth Vader series complement each other extremely well, and I would strongly recommend reading both pretty close together. However, no matter which series you read, the sequence showing the moment where Vader realises that his son is still alive and a Jedi is pretty darn epic and really memorable.

It could be argued that splitting this volume into two separate storylines was an interesting choice from the book’s creative team. I imagine that six issues focused on the attack on the Imperial weapons factory would have been pretty epic (just imagine how much more destruction Vader could have wrought). However, I personally think they did the right thing by splitting the story and showcasing the aftermath of this action. This way you not only get the intense action of the first few stories but you also get to see the consequences of the mission, and all the implications this has for the wider Star Wars universe. In addition, there is also quite an intriguing set up for several key moments in the upcoming series as a whole, a whole new fight between Luke and another iconic Star Wars character in Boba Fett, and some amazing connections with a sister series. I really liked how the story of the entire volume came together, and I think it was an outstanding way to start this excellent series.

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I have to say that I was also really impressed with the awesome artwork that was featured in this first volume. The artwork was drawn by John Cassaday, and featured Laura Martin as the colourist. It is pretty amazing the way that Cassaday was able to capture the faces of the core original trilogy cast members with his artwork. Luke, Leia and Han all look really good to my eye in this volume, and the artist has also done some great renditions of other existing characters, such as Vader, Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt. In addition, I really enjoyed all of the marvellous and exhilarating action sequences that they artistic team portrayed throughout the volume. These action scenes, especially the ones featuring Vader at the start of the book are just incredible, and I really loved seeing all the fantastic and creative violence. In addition to all the action, there are a number of scenes where the artwork helps to enhance the emotions and hidden meaning of a scene, and I will always love the way that they portrayed the closing moments of this volume. This was some first-rate Star Wars comic book art that is really worth checking out.

As you can see from the above review, I really loved this first volume of the Star Wars (2015) comic book series. The amazing creative team behind this first volume did a fantastic job with the first six issues that make up Skywalker Strikes, producing an extraordinary story which is complimented by a connection to another series and some exceptional artwork. This volume is a fantastic introduction to the flagship comic book series of the Star Wars franchise, and it comes highly recommended. No great knowledge of the expanded Star Wars canon is required to enjoy it, and indeed this may prove to be an effective gateway to the greater Star Wars universe. This gets a full five stars from me, and I am so very glad I decided to check out the Star Wars comic book series this year.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

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Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Skyward – Book 2

Length: 461 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, Brandon Sanderson, comes Starsight, an outstanding and addictive young adult science fiction read which continues the wildly entertaining adventures of a young starfighter years in the future.

Starsight is the second book in the Skyward series and follows on from the 2018 release of the same name. Skyward was a fantastic young adult science fiction book that told a compelling tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie in humanity’s distant future. Skyward was an amazing read, and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2018. As a result, I have been looking forward to Starsight for a while now, and it was one of my most anticipated releases for the second part of this year.

The Skyward series is set on the planet of Detritus, a desolate world that houses a population of humans in the caverns beneath the surface. The humans on Detritus are the remnants of a once great intergalactic human civilisation that has been destroyed in a war with a superior alien civilisation. Forced into hiding within the planet for hundreds of years, humanity eventually returned to the surface utilising scavenged starfighters to escape and build a military outpost to fight back against the alien ships who continue to harass the planet.

In Skyward, the reader is introduced to Spensa Nightshade, a young woman determined to become a pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), the military organisation that fights the alien invaders. While talented, Spensa faced opposition to being accepted into the military due to an apparent act of cowardice by her father years before. Despite the odds, Spensa was accepted in the DDF and was trained to become a skilled pilot, fighting in a number of actions against the enemy, while also trying to find out what actually happened to her father. Along the way, Spensa discovered an ancient but advanced human ship that had crash-landed on Detritus. Upon repairing the ship, Spensa discovered it had an AI installed in its computers, which she called M-Bot. After stopping an extremely destructive alien attack with the help of M-Bot, Spensa was compelled to fly through Detritus’s atmosphere, where she made several startling discoveries, the first of which was that Spensa and her family are powerful cytonics, beings with mental powers who are capable of traversing vast distances through space with their ability. The second discovery she made was that the aliens attacking Detritus were not simply mindless aggressors determined to wipe out humanity; instead they are members of an interstellar conglomeration called the Superiority, who are attempting to contain humanity within the planet. The Superiority hold a great fear of humans, who they see as an extremely dangerous and violent species, and Detritus is actually a prison planet/wildlife preserve where humans can live without disrupting the rest of the galaxy. Unfortunately, the actions of the DDF in reclaiming the surface and utilising spaceships have forced the Superiority to reconsider their approach, and they are now working to kill all the humans.

Usually this is the part of the review where I would give a brief plot synopsis of the new book and then go into an analysis of what I liked about it. However, this is going to prove a little hard to do without revealing some spoilers. While I don’t typically avoid talking about plot points that occur around 50-100 pages into book (I don’t particularly consider something happening that early to be a spoiler), I am a little more wary with Starsight. This is mainly because the plot of the book features some immediate substantial changes from the story that appeared in Skyward, none of which are really hinted at in any of the official online plot synopsis or book blurbs. As I am publishing this review a week before Starsight’s official release date, I think it is best that I put up a spoiler alert below, before I start going into the book in any real detail.

For those readers who do not want to risk any spoilers, I will say now that Starsight is an incredible book that I really, really enjoyed. Sanderson tells a wildly entertaining and highly addictive story that features some memorable characters, high-stakes events, some of the best science fiction action I have ever read and a ton of inventive world building. I honestly think that this is one of the best releases of 2019, and it easily gets a full five-star rating from me (if only I could go higher). I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an epic science fiction read, and if you loved Skyward, you are going to love this book.

Anyway, if you are not interested in learning any more details about this book’s plot or characters (which I do explore to a substantial degree), I would suggest you stop reading now, as everything below this paragraph has a spoiler alert in effect.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

 

Starsight is set a few months after the events of Skyward, and humanity has been busy. Thanks to Spensa and Skyward Flight, as well as the advanced technology contained with M-Bot, the DDF has managed to capture several of the planet’s ancient orbiting defensive platforms, which have allowed them to push the Superiority forces out of Detritus’s obit. However, despite these successes, humanity is still trapped on Detritus, and the eventual Superiority mass retaliation will likely wipe out everyone on the planet. Their only chance at survival is to flee from Detritus and find a new planet to make their home, somewhere the Superiority cannot find them. However, the only way to do this is with some form of hyperdrive, which humanity lacks access to, and Spensa’s cytonic teleportation abilities are too restrictive for mass use.

The crash-landing of an unknown alien spacecraft on Detritus may provide the solution that will ensure humanity’s survival. The pilot of this craft is a member of a non-Superiority species who has been invited for diplomatic reasons to enlist in a new Superiority fighter squadron, and she is able to pass on the cytonic coordinates to the squadron’s base to Spensa. Disguised with M-Bot’s holographic technology, Spensa travels to the Superiority space city, Starsight, in order to infiltrate the Superiority military and find and steal a working hyperdrive.

Joining the new Superiority squadron, Spensa discovers that she and her fellow recruits are being trained to fight the delvers, titanic inter-dimensional beings that dwell in the nowhere, who are capable of devastating planets if they are drawn into our dimension by an over-use of cytonic ability. But as Spensa attempts to complete her mission, she finds herself caught amidst the politics of the various Superiority races, many of whom wish for the complete and utter destruction of her people. Can Spensa navigate the strange new world she finds herself in, or will her actions result in the destruction of all she knows?

As you can see from the above synopsis, Starsight goes in some very interesting and unpredictable directions. I personally loved all of these new story elements, and the idea of Spensa having to infiltrate a mostly unknown alien society was a really clever and intriguing central plot idea that I think worked extremely well. The subsequent narrative is a fantastic blend of different story elements, which includes some great new characters, settings and plot directions, as well as some of the best parts of Skyward. For example, not only do you get to see a whole new take on the excellent space fighter training plot point that made the first book so amazing, but you also get a science fiction spy thriller story filled with all manner of political intrigue. This was a fantastic book to get into, and Sanderson has made sure that the plot is accessible to readers who did not get a chance to check out Skyward last year. However, I would strongly recommend reading Skyward first, not only because it will give you a better idea of the characters and certain plot elements, but because it is such an awesome book in its own right.

One of my favourite things about the first book in the Skyward series was the excellent group of characters that Sanderson focused on, including Spensa, M-Bot and the members of Skyward Flight. Throughout Skyward the reader got to know and care for these characters, and it was actually a little bit distressing when bad things happened to them. Skyward continues to look at several of the characters from the first book, although readers who grew attached to Skyward Flight might be a tad disappointed as Sanderson shifts the focus away from them and introduces the reader to a whole new group of alien characters.

Spensa is still the main point-of-view character for this second book and serves as a fantastic central protagonist. In many ways, Spensa is still the same impatient and reckless pilot that was such to see in the first book. However, it soon becomes obvious that the experiences, relationships and life lessons that she has faced since joining the DDF have tempered her in many ways, especially as she has to deal with the intense responsibility of being her people’s greatest hope for survival. I really enjoyed watching Spensa as she was forced to assimilate into the alien cultures on Starsight, and it was interesting to see how she reacted when she realised not everyone there is as evil as she believed. The opinions and support she gives to her alien friends result in some emotional moments, and it was really heart-warming to see how far she has progressed since the last book.

While Spensa is a great central protagonist, to my mind the best character in the entire book is still her sentient ship, M-Bot. M-Bot is the snarky and hilarious artificial intelligence that Spensa discovered crashed on Detritus, and together they form an efficient and enjoyable team. M-Bot honestly has all the best lines in the book, and nearly every interaction with Spensa results in some excellent jokes or banter. Despite the humour, M-Bot is a pretty complicated character, especially as in this book he is attempting to work out the full limits of his consciousness and code. He is continuously attempting to prove that he is actually alive, and these attempts result in safeguards in his system attempting to shut him down. I really enjoyed the way that Sanderson continues to utilise M-Bot. Even though he is a ship, he is still a fantastic and highly enjoyable character to focus on and we even get a reason for his mushroom obsession in this book.

Spensa’s new flight of Superiority comrades features an eclectic bunch of aliens, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. These include a figment called Vapour, who is essentially a sentient smell that can take control of ships and pilot them. Vapour is the ultimate spy and requires Spensa to be constantly on her toes. There is also the dione draft, Morriumur. Dione are a race of non-violent aliens high up in the Superiority hierarchy, who have a unique breeding system that combines the parents into one new being. This is a process that can take several goes, as the family of the newly bred dione may choose to reform a young dione so that they have an ideal personality. Morriumur is a draft, spending the first few months of their life testing out their personality to see if they are an ideal member of the species. Morriumur, who has slightly more violent tendencies than most of their species, is trying to prove that they belong as a starfighter, but the combined expectations of their family and the inner thoughts that they are not worthy, are a constant hindrance to them as a pilot.

While both of the above characters are pretty cool, and Sanderson spends a good amount of time exploring them, two members of Spensa’s new flight really stood out. The first of these is Brade, a human from another prison world who has been recruited as a cytonic enforcer by one of the book’s central antagonists. Brade, after being taken from her parents as a child, has essentially been brainwashed all her life to consider humans as evil and inferior, and this has a major damaging effect on her psyche. The interactions between her and Spensa throughout the book are quite fascinating, and she proved to be one of the most complex characters in this book. My favourite new character, however, had to be Hesho, who is totally not king of the kitsen. The kitsen are a race of tiny gerbil-like aliens who have recently converted from a monarchy to a democracy in an attempt to become a Superiority race. Hesho leads a group of around 50 kitsen who pilot one heavily armed fighter in Spensa’s squadron like it’s a capital ship. Hesho and the kitsen are really hilarious characters, mainly because Hesho is attempting to convince the Superiority that he is no longer ruling his people as a king, and instead the kitsen have embraced democracy. Unfortunately, despite Hesho insisting he is no longer a monarch in every interaction he has, his people continue to worship him, which kind of undercuts this message. I also found the similarities in the personalities between the kitsen and the Spensa we first encountered in Skyward to be very amusing, as the kitsen attempt to compensate for their size with extreme confidence and boasting like Spensa used to (for example, the first ship we see the kitsen flying is called Big Enough to Kill You).

All of the above characters are great, and I really loved the way that I was once again drawn into their various personalities and histories. It was a bit of a shame not to see too much of the characters I liked so much from the first book (although we do get an idea of what various members of Skyward Flight are up to), but I think the new characters that Sanderson introduced more than made up for it.

In addition to the fantastic character work, one of the other best features of Starsight is the epic and fast-paced action sequences that punctuate much of the book. Just like in Skyward, Sanderson presents a huge number of different scenes where Spensa is fighting or training in a fighter. The sheer amount of detail that goes into these various action sequences is pretty amazing, and I was able to picture all the flying and manoeuvres perfectly. The author comes up with a number of clever new scenarios in this book, including the fancy flying and combat required to fight a delver, or having Spensa fly in the type of craft she has been fighting against for her entire military career. All of the action in this book is first-rate, and I can guarantee that you will get lost in some of the incredible action sequences.

I have always been impressed by the elaborate worlds that Sanderson can create for his stories. Whether it is the vast fantasy world that he came up with for The Stormlight Archive, the supervillain dominated alternate version of Earth that appeared in The Reckoners trilogy, or the fantastic science fiction planet of Detritus that was the main setting for Skyward, Sanderson always delivers complex and intricate settings for his story, complete with huge amounts of backstory. In Starsight, Sanderson once again produces a huge and detailed new setting for his outstanding story. The alien civilisation that is living on Starsight is very impressive, and I love all the different alien races that he has come up with for this story. Many of the aliens have some very complex and fascinating history, a great deal of which featured in the story. I really look forward to seeing how Sanderson expands this universe even further in the final book in the trilogy, and I cannot wait to see what new aliens or civilisations he comes up with.

As you can see from this rather lengthy review, there is a lot to love about this book. Sanderson does an impressive job of combining the intriguing new story direction, the amazing characters, intense action and fascinating new setting into one concise narrative, and the end result is a perfect book. While Starsight is being marketed as a young adult book, and indeed it would prove appropriate for most young readers, it is really a novel that can be enjoyed by any reader of any age. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series (which seems to be 2021 at this point, so far away!).

Boundless by R. A. Salvatore

Boundless Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 10 September 2019)

Series: Generations – Book 2

Length: 13 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the world’s leading writers of fantasy fiction, R. A. Salvatore, comes an exciting and captivating new adventure that focuses on the author’s best-known protagonists, the Drow (dark elf) ranger Drizzt Do’Urden, his father Zaknafein, the rogue Jarlaxle and the Companions of the Hall.

Centuries ago, one Drow warrior was feared and respected above all others in the dark elf city of Menzoberranzan, the legendary weapon master Zaknafein. Even before the events that would eventually force him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved son Drizzt Do’Urden, Zaknafein was never content with his life in Menzoberranzan. Sickened by the evil matriarchal system that rules the city in the name of the dark goddess Lolth, Zaknafein found himself trapped in the service of the ambitious Matron Malice Do’Urden. His only solace is his friendship with Jarlaxle, the charismatic leader of the mercenary band Bregan D’aerthe, with whom he forms a close bond. However, even this friendship is not immune to strife, as influential forces within Menzoberranzan attempt to turn the ranks of Bregan D’aerthe against Zaknafein.

Years later, Zaknafein has been mysteriously returned to life, finding himself in a strange new world, living within the dwarven kingdom of Gauntlgrym. Despite being reunited with his son, Drizzt, Zaknafein is once again lost; his inherent Drow distain for all non-dark elf life is making it hard for him to fit in with Drizzt’s dwarf, halfling and human friends and family. But as Zaknafein, with the help of Jarlaxle, attempts to find a new path, he is once again beset by dark and powerful opponents.

An ambitious family of human nobles from Waterdeep has combined forces with the ruler of Neverwinter, Lord Neverember, and a minor clan of dwarfs, in an attempt to topple Gauntlgrym’s king, Bruenor, and claim the elemental magical powers the great dwarven kingdom safeguards. While normally such foes would prove little threat to King Bruenor and his allies, these new enemies command a massive and ever-growing army of demons capable of overwhelming even Gauntlgrym’s substantial defences. In addition, their opponents are supported by a noble Drow House from Menzoberranzan whose matron, in a bid to become Lolth’s most favoured servant, is determined to be the Drow who finally captures Zaknafein and Drizzt. As father and son fight for their lives against their new enemies, they soon find themselves pursued by creatures far more sinister and destructive than anything they have seen before. Can the Companions of the Hall prevail, or will evil finally defeat the last bastion of light in the Forgotten Realms?

Boundless is another outstanding and incredibly enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction from one of my all-time favourite authors, the legendary R. A. Salvatore, who is easily one of the top fantasy authors of all time. This is actually the second novel from Salvatore this year, with the second book in his The Coven trilogy, Reckoning of Fallen Gods, having come out in January, and the final book in this trilogy, Song of the Risen God, is set for release in January 2020. In Boundless, Salvatore has once again returned to the iconic Forgotten Realms universe to produce another excellent story set around the character of Drizzt Do’Urden.

The dark elf ranger, Drizzt Do’Urden, is easily the most iconic and popular character that Salvatore has ever created. One of the few moral dark elf characters in all of the Forgotten Realms (the large-scale interconnected universe which has been the setting for a huge number of fantasy novels over the years), Drizzt has been one of Salvatore’s main recurring protagonist for over 30 years, ever since Salvatore’s debut novel, The Crystal Shard. I have long been a fan of Drizzt, mainly because of Salvatore’s amazing second trilogy of books, The Dark Elf trilogy, which told a captivating tale of a young Drizzt Do’Urden. Boundless is the 35th book to follow the adventures of Drizzt and his companions (if you include The Sellswords trilogy) and is the sequel to last year’s exciting fantasy adventure, Timeless. Boundless is also the second book in Salvatore’s current trilogy that focuses on Drizzt, known as the Generations trilogy, which is set to conclude next year in the final book, Relentless (a synopsis of which is already available online).

Boundless was an absolutely fantastic read which takes the reader on an epic thrill-ride through a demon invasion, the dark political underbelly of Menzoberranzan and into the heart and mind of one of Salvatore’s more complex and intriguing characters. Making exceptional use of two separate timelines, Salvatore tells a compelling and intricate story that combines a desperate battle for survival in the present with adventures in the past. Filled with action, adventure, amazing fantasy elements and an epic conclusion, this was a first-rate read that I greatly enjoyed.

This book was essentially impossible to put down from the moment I started listening to it, as Salvatore starts it off with an action packed prologue that sees a large force of halflings, dwarves and Drizzt face off against the horde of demons that were unleashed in Timeless. After this action-packed introduction, the book is then split into four parts, two of which follow the resulting battle for Gauntlgrym and the surrounding lands in the present (the present being Dalereckoning 1488), while the other two parts go back years before the events of the first book in The Dark Elf trilogy, Homeland, and tell a story of a younger Zaknafein and Jarlaxle in Menzoberranzan.

The parts set in the present offer a pretty exciting range of action and adventure as the story is split between several of the fun characters that Salvatore has introduced in all of his Forgotten Realms books. For example, throughout these parts you get to see the destructive siege of Gauntlgrym from the perspective of Bruenor, Zaknafein, Jarlaxle and the Bouldshoulder brothers (who originated in The Cleric Quintet, another one of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms series). At the same time as Drizzt is being pursued throughout the land by a powerful magical construct, Wulfgar is caught up in an invasion of Luskan by a powerful fleet of monsters, and Regis teams up with Dahlia and Artemis Enteri to investigate their demonic opponents in Waterdeep. This was a fantastic blend of storylines in the present-day parts of the book, and I really enjoyed seeing the various adventures and perils assailing this great group of protagonists. All of the storylines in this part of the book were a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the larger narrative that they were telling. These modern-day storylines end with a major cliff-hanger which is going to make me really want to check out the next book in this trilogy.

While the parts of the book set in Dalereckoning 1488 are pretty awesome, I have to admit that I much preferred the half of the book set back in the past. This part of the book was set over a period of several years and follows a younger Zaknafein and Jarlaxle as they navigate the highs and lows of their original friendship in the darkness of Menzoberranzan. I really liked this storyline, as it not only contained the politics, backstabbing and casual murder that makes all the stories set in Menzoberranzan so much fun, but it also explores Zaknafein’s psyche and starts to explain why he was a different Drow to the other members of his race when he was first introduced in The Dark Elf trilogy. It was also interesting to see the early days of Jarlaxle’s rise as a mercenary leader, and there is also a number of intriguing scenes that feature other Drow characters, such as Drizzt’s mother, Matron Malice, who have been dead for a while. As a result, these parts of the book serve as an excellent prequel to The Dark Elf trilogy, of which I am a massive fan. In addition, these chronologically earlier parts of the book serve to introduce some of the Drow antagonists who are threatening the characters in the present day, and it really interesting to see how the actions of Zaknafein and Jarlaxle hundreds of years in the past are impacting on the future.

I really loved this combination of the two separate timelines in the book and felt that it helped create a fantastic overall narrative. The earlier storyline of Drow house politics, friendships and small-scale grudges contrasts well with the intense war and near constant peril that makes up the 1488 storyline and helps to create a much more compelling book. I also really enjoyed how story elements, such as the exploration of Zaknafein and Jarlaxle’s friendship, or the examination of the cruel dynamics of Drow society, continued on from one part of the book to the next, and it was interesting to see how relationships and minds can change over time.

If there is one guarantee in life, it is that a Drizzt Do’Urden novel is going to feature some fancy swordplay and a ton of action. Boundless is no exception to this rule, as Salvatore has once again furnished his story with all manner of intense and detailed action and battle sequences, as his protagonists fight a variety of opponents. This makes for an exciting and really enjoyable read, as it always fun to see the various ways the Companions of the Hall engage in battle, especially since they have built up quite an impressive array of magical weapons and abilities after 35 books. In addition, Salvatore has come up with some unique and powerful opponents for this book, including two powerful magical constructs that are all but invincible and require extreme measures to combat. The parts of the book set in Menzoberranzan’s past also feature a wide array of dazzling duels and battles from Zaknafein, as he is forced to prove that he is the best weapons master in the city. The author shows off some truly impressive fight sequences in the parts of the book focusing on Zaknafein’s earlier life and Salvatore does a fantastic job providing the reader with a blow-by-blow account of what is happening. I also really liked how the author included several scenes that showed Zaknafein training for future battles in which he attempts to work out the best way to perform some elaborate or near-impossible combat move, which of course would then be utilised in a later fight. Needless to say, those looking for their next dose of fantasy action should look no further than Boundless, as Salvatore has once again provided one hell of a hit.

While I did read a physically copy of the previous book in the series, Timeless, for Boundless I ended up listening to the audiobook format instead. Boundless’s audiobook is narrated by Victor Bevine and runs for just over 13 hours, which only took me a few days to get through. I ended up having a great time listening to Boundless, especially as listening to a blow-by-blow of the amazing action sequences really helped bring these scenes to life for me. Bevine did a fantastic job of breathing life into the book’s various characters, and I really enjoyed the way that he captured the personalities of several of the characters with his performance. I also appreciated the way that he was able to emulate a number of very different characters and species throughout the course of the audiobook. Not only did he come up with sly and calculating voices for the various Drow characters, but he was also able to affect an impressive brogue for the various dwarven characters in the book. This is a fantastic range, and I quite enjoyed all of the voices that Bevine came up with. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of Boundless to anyone who is interested, and I think that I will try to listen to next book in the trilogy.

Overall, Boundless is an outstanding and incredible new release from Salvatore, and I loved every second that I was reading it. Featuring a ton of action and some really cool plot elements, Salvatore tells a clever and intricate story that sets some high stakes for his beloved characters. Not only am I excited to see where the story goes in the next book, but I also have a very strong urge to go back and check out Salvatore’s The Dark Elf trilogy, where some of the fantastic characters explored in this book were first introduced. With this latest novel, Salvatore continues to show why he is one of the biggest names in fantasy fiction, and it is thanks to books like Boundless that I will continue to grab every new Salvatore release I can get.