Relentless by R. A. Salvatore

Relentless Cover

Publisher: Harper Audio (Audiobook – 28 July 2020)

Series: Generations – Book Three

Length: 15 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore brings his latest trilogy of novels to an epic conclusion with his 2020 release, Relentless, the third and final book in the Generations trilogy.

War has once again come to the Forgotten Realms, as the Drow hordes of Menzoberranzan march to reclaim the soul of one of their own, the previously dead sword master Zaknafein Do’Urden.  Centuries ago, Zaknafein sacrificed his life to save his son, Drizzt Do’Urden, allowing him to become the greatest hero the lands had ever seen.  Thanks to the help of a mysterious Drow priestess, Zaknafein has been returned to life and finally reunited with his son.  However, their reunion has been far from perfect, as Zaknafein has trouble understanding some of his son’s choices, including his unusual companions and his marriage to a human.  Worse, Drow fanatics, utterly loyal to the dark god of Chaos, Loth the Spider Queen, have declared war on the surface, determined to capture and kill Zaknafein and Drizzt and everyone who stands with them.

A massive army of demons has invaded the dwarven kingdom of Gauntlgrym, trapping Zaknafein, the rogue Jarlaxle, Drizzt’s life-long friends and the legendary Companions of the Hall inside, while dark forces attack their allies on the surface.  At the same time, the massed armies of the Drow city of Menzoberranzan have been forced to war and now occupy the tunnels surrounding Gauntlgrym, cutting off any chance of escape.  However, all of this pales in comparison to the greatest tragedy that has occurred in the lands outside of Gauntlgrym, where a demonic device of great power tracked and disintegrated Drizzt as he tried to destroy the mechanical creature.

While things seem dire, the Companions of the Hall are far from defeated, and every man, dwarf, halfling and rogue dark elf is ready to fight.  As Zaknafein, Gauntlgrym’s dwarf king Bruenor and their allies attempt to hold back the hordes besieging them by any means possible, the barbarian warrior Wulfgar works to reclaim the city of Luskan with a small force of warriors.  As the battle begins in earnest, heroes will rise, empires will fall, and the world will change forever.  However, the fate of everyone involved in this battle may lay in Zaknafein’s secret history, as demons from his past come back to haunt him once again.

R. A. Salvatore has produced another incredible and wonderful fantasy read that takes several of his most iconic characters on a dark and dangerous journey. Salvatore is one of my favourite fantasy authors, having produced an immense and awesome collection of novels over the years. While he has written several series, such the novels set in his Corona universe (including his other 2020 release, Song of the Risen God), his main body of work is set within the shared Forgotten Realms fantasy universe and primarily follows the adventures of the Drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden and his heroic companions.  Relentless is the third entry in the latest Drizzt Do’Urden trilogy of books, known as the Generations trilogy, which includes the preceding novels Timeless and Boundless.  This series continues the adventures of Drizzt and his companions, but features an intriguing new angle in the return of Drizzt’s father, who died in the 1990 novel, Homeland.  This has so far proven to be an impressive and exciting trilogy from Salvatore that contains an intriguing new narrative and pays homage to his earlier novels in the overarching series.  I have been looking forward to Relentless for some time, especially after the really cool cliffhanger that Salvatore featured at the end of Boundless.

In this latest book, Salvatore tells a complex and action-packed story that makes use of multiple character perspectives to tell an epic and exciting tale, especially after establishing so many excellent plot points in the previous two novels.  As he did in the other entries in this series, Salvatore features two distinct timelines throughout this impressive book.  Relentless is broken up into four separate parts (not including the prelude), with two of these parts set during in the universe’s modern era, depicting the current day battle for Gauntlgrym and the lives of the author’s beloved protagonist, while the other two parts of the novel are set deep in the past.  These two parts of the novel are set hundreds of years before the current events and follow Zaknafein, Jarlaxle and several other Drow characters during their younger days.  Both of these distinctive storylines have their own appeals, and I had a fantastic time reading both of them.

I probably enjoyed the prequel storylines the most, as I really enjoyed the deeper look at Zaknafein’s past and its intriguing implications on the events of Salvatore’s earlier books.  These prequel storylines are loaded with fantastic depictions of life in the chaotic and evil Drow city of Menzoberranzan, and it was extremely entertaining to see all the backstabbing, politics and brutal battles for supremacy that are a distinguishing feature of day-to-day Drow life.  These prequel storylines also contain some of the best action sequences in the book, mainly because they focus on the character of Zaknafein, the greatest sword fighter in the world, and Salvatore always portrays his epic fight sequences in intricate detail, capturing the sheer majesty of the character’s fighting ability.  I also quite enjoyed seeing more of the young, up-and-coming version of the Drow mercenary and conman, Jarlaxle, as he manipulates the entirety of the city, and all of his scenes are extremely fun.  This earlier storyline in Relentless is a great continuation of the other prequel storylines that appeared in the previous entries in the Generations trilogy, and I really enjoyed how this entire expanded storyline concludes.  It was fascinating to see how the events of Zaknafein’s past impacted the main storyline, and I felt that this was an outstanding addition to Relentless’s story.

While I did prefer the prequel storyline, the contemporary story contained within the other two parts of the book is still pretty epic in its own right, as it features a desperate fight for survival against the antagonists of the series.  Salvatore goes big for these parts of the book, featuring massive battles for supremacy, major character moments and some universe-changing twists and turns.  Like the prequel storyline, this main narrative thread flows on extremely well from the previous Generations books, and the author provides a satisfactory conclusion to the war which was set up in the last two novels.  The author more strongly utilises multiple character perspectives in these parts of the book, which I felt helped to tell a richer and more exciting story, especially as you got to see the action unfold from the eyes of many established characters.  A lot of the plot points established in the prequel storylines were masterfully exploited throughout these main parts of the book, and I think that the combination of time periods worked extremely well to create a powerful and memorable narrative.  The major events that occurred at the end of Relentless were rather interesting, and it looks like Salvatore has some intriguing plans for any future novels set in this universe.  Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable tale filled with some great action, well-established characters, and an incredible combination of compelling and varied storylines.

While I usually find all of Salvatore’s books to be extremely accessible to general fantasy fans who are unfamiliar with his prior works, Relentless is book probably best enjoyed by people who have read the rest of the entries in the Generations trilogy and who have some decent knowledge of the other Drizzt Do’Urden novels.  This is mainly because Relentless serves as the conclusion to the connected storylines established in Timeless and Boundless, and the story has gotten quite complex at this point, especially with the prequel storyline focusing on the young Zaknafein, which was carefully cultivated in the prior two novels.  While new readers can probably still follow and enjoy Relentless, fans of Salvatore’s work are going to be the ones who get the most out of it, especially as this latest book ties into some of the author’s earliest works.  For example, the prequel storyline has some extremely strong connections to one of the author’s earliest books, Homeland.  The Generations trilogy’s past-based storyline has primarily served as a compelling prequel to Homeland, and this latest book contains several scenes that shed new light on this previous book.  Indeed, some of the best scenes in Relentless serve as a direct precursor to key events of Homeland or provide alternate viewpoints to them, allowing for some fascinating new context and information.  I personally have always had a lot of love for Homeland, which is one of Salvatore’s best novels, and I really appreciated seeing this new take on the plot.  As a result, this is a must-read for fans of Salvatore’s fantastic series and readers are in for a real treat.

Another great part of this book were the excellent characters featured throughout the various time periods.  As has been the case with the other books in the Generations trilogy, much of the character development revolves around Zaknafein, as both time periods have a fascinating focus on him.  Salvatore continues to explore various parts of Zaknafein’s character throughout Relentless, both in the past and present, and it was great to see how he has evolved throughout the course of the trilogy.  I particularly enjoyed seeing Zaknafein’s development in the prequel storyline, especially as you get several extra scenes discussing Zaknafein’s conflicted feelings when Drizzt was born.  Salvatore spends a lot of time establishing how Zaknafein became the person who would eventually sacrifice his own life for his son, and it was great to see this whole new side of this iconic and fantastic character.

Several other characters featured throughout Relentless really stood out to me.  Foremost of these is of course the rogue Drow criminal and conman, Jarlaxle, who is a prominent character in both timelines.  Jarlaxle is so much fun to see in action, whether he is manipulating someone or getting involved in a fight with his fantastic arsenal of insane magical weapons and tools.  Drizzt, who is nominally the main character of this trilogy, and indeed most of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels, was notably absent throughout this book, having been disintegrated at the end of Boundless.  Salvatore works his apparent death into the story extremely well, creating some emotionally deep moments as his friends mourn his passing and try to work out how to move on.  I think that Salvatore utilised his absence from the story to full effect, especially as it allowed other characters to have their moment to shine.  Drizzt’s eventual resurrection, which was so predictable it is not even really a spoiler, was set up beautifully and I really liked how it tied into some of the more mystical events of some previous Salvatore novels.  Aside from these Drow characters, the rest of the Companions of the Hall have major moments throughout Relentless, and each of them has a key storyline set around them.  Bruenor, Wulfgar, Regis, Catti-brie, Artemis Enteri and more are all utilised throughout the story, and it was great to see all of them in action.  Salvatore also focuses on several other side characters who have appeared in prior novels, and there are some notable storylines and character arcs scatter amongst them that will no doubt bear fruit in future Drizzt Do’Urden novels.  Overall, Relentless continues Salvatore’s exceptional character work, and it was fantastic to see all these complex personalities come to life.

Rather than grab a physical copy of Relentless I ended up getting this cool fantasy novel on audiobook, which was a fantastic way to enjoy Salvatore’s latest release.  The audiobook format of Relentless has a run time of just over 15 hours, which, while fairly substantial for an audiobook, is easy enough to get through once you become engrossed in the excellent narrative and is definitely worth the time investment.  I really enjoyed listening to this great book and I found that it was the perfect way to absorb all the unique fantasy elements and Salvatore’s intriguing twists.  Part of the reason why I enjoyed this format so much was the excellent voice work from narrator Victor Bevine.  Bevine is a veteran audiobook narrator who has provided his vocal talents to a huge number of Salvatore’s previous novels, including the other two entries in the Generations trilogy.  It is cool having the continuity of Bevine’s voice after enjoying so many Salvatore audiobooks, and I really enjoy the tone that he uses for this story.  Bevine moves Relentless along at a quick pace, and the listener never finds themselves stuck in a slow part of the novel.  I also quite enjoyed the excellent voices that Bevine utilised throughout the book.  Not only did these voices perfectly fit the characters they were assigned to, helping to bring them to life, but I loved all the fun accents he used for the various races featured within the book, such as the Scottish brogue that each dwarven character had.  All of this really enhanced my enjoyment of Relentless and this is a fantastic novel to check out on audiobook.

Relentless is another exceptional and epic read from the master of fantasy fiction, R. A. Salvatore, as he wraps up another amazing trilogy with a remarkable and memorable bang.  Salvatore remains at the top of his game for Relentless, providing the reader with a complex, multifaceted storyline, studded with intense action, fantastic characters and some really clever story elements.  I had an outstanding time reading this awesome book and I cannot wait to see what magic and mayhem Salvatore comes up with in his next captivating read.  Highly recommended.

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Ascendancy - Chaos Rising Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 1 September 2020)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of Star Wars fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with a brand-new series that explores the early days of his most iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, with the first book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Chaos Rising.

A long time ago, beyond a galaxy far, far away…

Beyond the edges of the known galaxy, past the borders of the Republic, beyond even the backwater Outer Rim, lies the Unknown Regions.  The Unknown Regions are a chaotic and barely explored section of space, where hyperspace travel is difficult and dangers lurk around every corner.  Despite this, many species flourish in this region, fighting for their survival and forming civilisations hidden from the eyes of the Republic and the Separatists as they fight their bitter civil war.  However, out of all these races, none are more mysterious, secretive and dangerous than the Chiss Ascendancy.

The Chiss have long considered themselves to be one of the most powerful races within the Unknown Regions.  Boasting vast fleets of powerful vessels which can appear anywhere within the Unknown Regions thanks to their great secret weapon, the force-sensitive children who can navigate hyperspace in the Unknown Regions, known as Skywalkers, the Chiss believe themselves safe and secure.  However, a sudden ill-fated attack on their home planet by a mysterious fleet quickly shatters this allusion.  While many, including the Chiss ruling council, are convinced that the attacking ships are a precursor to an invasion and begin preparations to withdraw their outer fleets, Supreme General Ba’kif believes that there is more to this attack then what is apparent.  In order to explore his suspicions, Ba’kif calls upon one of his most talented officers to investigate, the young tactical genius Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known as Thrawn.

Many years before he became the Emperor’s most effective weapon as a Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn, served his own people as a member of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Already renowned for his rare tactical ability, as well as his disregard for the politics and rules of the Ascendancy, Thrawn begins his investigation into the attack and swiftly determines that it was merely a feint, designed to draw the Ascendancy’s attention away from a much more dangerous threat.  A new malevolent alien empire is building strength in the Unknown Regions, and its eyes are firmly fixed on the Chiss.  With his hands tied by protocol and with his political enemies within the Ascendancy trying to take him down, Thrawn may be unable to stop the upcoming attack before it is too late.  However, Thrawn always has a plan, and the Unknown Regions are about to understand just how dangerous he truly is.

This was another fantastic outing from Timothy Zahn, who has produced a cool and intriguing prequel novel to his previous series.  Zahn is one of the most experienced and highly regarded authors of Star Wars tie-in fiction in the world today, having written several impressive novels for both the current Disney-owned canon, and the previous Star Wars Legends canon.  While he has written various Star Wars novels, such as the fun standalone novel Scoundrels, Zahn is probably best known for his 1991 release, Heir of the Jedi, which is generally considered to be the start of a whole new era of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  While there are a number of interesting aspects to Heir of the Jedi, one of the most important things about it was that it introduced Zahn’s most distinctive and popular creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a rare alien officer in the xenophobic Imperial Navy who was revered as their ultimate tactician.  Thrawn proved to be a very popular character whose backstory and characterisation was later expanded on in a number of Zahn’s other Star Wars Legends novels.

Due to the Disney purchase of the Star Wars franchise and the subsequent removal of everything except the movies and the animated series from canon, Thrawn was temporarily erased as a canon character until the third season of the Star Wars Rebels animated television series, where he was reintroduced with an altered backstory and history.  As part of this reintroduction, Zahn was contracted to write several new Star Wars novels examining this new history of the character, and thus he wrote the Thrawn trilogy, featuring the excellent novels Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which are among some of the best pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction I have so far read.  This trilogy ended in 2019, but Zahn is far from done, having started a new trilogy, the Thrawn Ascendancy series, last year.  The Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, of which Chaos Rising is the first entry, is an intriguing and detailed series that serves as a prequel to the novel Thrawn and which show a younger version of the character as he serves the Chiss during the same time period as the Clone Wars.  Chaos Rising is an excellent and enjoyable novel which I read a few months ago, but which I have only just had a chance to review.  It was fantastic to see this complex and compelling character in action again, as well as more of Zahn’s impressive world-building.

This new novel from Zahn contains an amazing story that looks at the earliest adventures of Thrawn.  This is a very clever and layered tale that explores the main character in more detail while also providing him a new opponent to face in this book as he attempts to engage in battle against a dangerous enemy threatening his people.  Zahn builds a great narrative around the fight against this new antagonist, with Thrawn forced to engage in a number of intricate campaigns in order to obtain information and determine which points of weakness to exploit, whilst also have to contend with the machinations of members of his own race who are concerned with the reckless Thrawn’s actions.  At the same time, the author builds up a number of intriguing side characters who help to tell the tale of Thrawn in greater detail and with some interesting personal arcs.  This main storyline proves to be an extremely enjoyable and captivating read which flows at a great pace for most of the book, broken up with a number of cool and impressive battle sequences.  The main story is also supported by a fantastic collection of flashback sequences that depict an even younger version of Thrawn, showing some of his earlier encounters with many of the characters featured in the novel and highlighting how different the character has always been.  These flashbacks are used to great effect throughout the novel, not only building up the various characters’ pasts and personalities but also creating a great pace for the novel, with several key events from the protagonist’s life introduced where necessary to the main plot.  All of this helps to turn Chaos Rising, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series, into an intriguing prequel to the Thrawn trilogy as it begins to set up the various reasons why Thrawn was sent away by his people and recruited by the Empire.  One part of Chaos Rising even directly ties into the events of one of the books from the previous trilogy, Alliances, with the reader seeing an alternate viewpoint to Thrawn meeting with Anakin Skywalker that gives an entertaining context to the events of that previous book.  All of this results in a fantastic and clever story that is easy enjoy and which sets up some more intriguing adventures in the later entries in this series.

One of the things I always try to address while reviewing a Star Wars novel is what level of franchise knowledge a reader needs to have in order to fully enjoy the story.  While most Star Wars novels are generally fairly accessible to new readers or casual fans, I would say that Chaos Rising is one of those books that should primarily be read by major fans of the franchise.  This is because Zahn loads this novel up with a ton of Star Wars references and details, including details of obscure parts of Star Wars lore and characters.  While the author does do a good job of explaining all the relevant aspects of this extended universe through the book, I would say that having some pre-knowledge about some of these elements is important.  At a minimum I would suggest that the readers read Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy first, especially as Chaos Rising serves as a prequel to them, although fans with some basic knowledge of the character of Thrawn should be able to follow along without too much difficulty.  For new readers who do get through Chaos Rising, you are going to experience a huge amount of new information about the Star Wars universe as Zahn does a substantial amount of universe building throughout this book.  In particular, the author explores the legendary Chiss Ascendancy, a mysterious alien empire existing outside of the main Star Wars galaxy.  This is the first time that the Chiss planets and culture have been explored in any real detail in the current canon, and it proves to be a fascinating experience learning more about them and seeing the culture that produced such a unique character as Thrawn.  This novel contains a lot of detail about this alien race, as well as many other aspects of life outside the main galaxy setting of the Star Wars franchise, and while it is a tad overwhelming at times, I had a great time expanding my Star Wars knowledge and exploring this new, intriguing region.  It seems likely that Zahn will go into even more detail about this part of the Star Wars universe in future novels in the trilogy, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects he comes up with.

One of the best things about this book was seeing the return of the amazing and compelling character of Thrawn.  Thrawn is a very unique and enjoyable character, mainly because he has an unfathomable mind and is able to tactically outthink and outmatch any opponent that he comes across.  A highly analytical being who is able to discern fantastic insights about a person or species’ intentions, personalities and general mindsets from viewing some aspects of their creativity, mainly their artwork, Thrawn is easily able to predict actions and provide effective or crazy counters that shock and surprise everyone watching.  This makes him an incredibly fun character to see in action, especially as he makes some amazing and credible leaps of logic off the smallest details that Zahn features in his descriptions.  These analytical leaps then lead into a number of awesome and cool scenes where he outsmarts everyone around them, including in the book’s various battle sequences, which are awesome to read as there are some truly outrageous and clever tactical moves that no one can see coming.  Because of his way of thinking, Thrawn has a very closed off and odd personality that unnerves a lot of the people he deals with and makes many wary of his motivations and actions.

Just like he did in the previous novels, Zahn portrays Thrawn as a little less vicious and dangerous than he appears in Star Wars Rebels, with a little more humanity (or the Chiss version of it) added into his character.  Zahn also continues to explore the character’s lack of political awareness, a major flaw in his thinking that continues to cause him trouble as he constantly battles against the overarching hierarchy to take actions he knows will benefit or save his people.  I felt that Chaos Rising took a very interesting look at the character’s history, personality and backstory, and I quite liked the examination of his earliest trials and battles.  Thanks to the author’s use of flashback sequences, the reader gets a great view at different parts of his history, and you see the various steps that he takes rising up the military ladder and the various aliens and people he crossed or destroyed on the way.  All of this proved to be really cool to see, and Thrawn remains one of my favourite characters in the Star Wars canon, especially after this great outing from his past.

One of the most distinctive parts of any novel that follows Thrawn is the fact that none of the story is shown from his point of view; instead other characters tell his story.  This is mainly done to really highlight just how brilliant Thrawn is and to ensure that his eventual plans and insights come as a major surprise to the reader, much in the same way that a Sherlock Holmes novel is told from Watson’s perspective.  Chaos Rising features several different point-of-view characters, including one or two antagonists, who encounter Thrawn throughout the course of this novel and witness him utilise his tactical acumen.  I love seeing the various characters react to Thrawn’s impressive and clever schemes, and it is always fun when they realise that the impossible is happening right in front of them.  Several of these characters, particularly Thrawn’s allies, also provide a much deeper examination of the main character’s personality and mentality, and you see a different side to the character as a friend and mentor.

While these characters are primarily there to follow Thrawn, Zahn does take the time to explore each of these characters, with a particular focus on Thrawn’s impact on their life.  Many of these characters have some excellent and enjoyable backstories to them, and it was fascinating to see these great characters have their carefully planned out lives completely thrown around when they meet Thrawn.  While I failed to connect to some of these point-of-view side characters (for example, I just could not get invested in the arc surrounding the Skywalker Che-ri), others proved to be quite intriguing to follow.  Examples include Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s former classmate at the academy, who becomes a lifelong friend and constantly finds herself trying to protect the protagonist from himself, or Thalias (Mitth’ali’astov) a former Skywalker whose encounter with a young Thrawn inspired her to join his clan and gave her a new vision for the future.  I also rather enjoyed following Qilori, an Unknown Regions navigator-for-hire, who secretly serves the Nikardun Destiny while also taking jobs for other clients like Thrawn and the Chiss.  It was immensely entertaining seeing Qilori attempting to manipulate Thrawn on the orders of the main antagonist, especially as Thrawn sees through every single one of his tricks.  Each of these great side characters added their own edge to the story, and I really appreciated having so many varied and unique viewpoints of the fantastic main character.

While I did receive a physical copy, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of Chaos Rising, not only because it made my reading schedule easier but because Star Wars audiobooks are always so much fun to listen to.  I think that I made the right decision here, as the Chaos Rising audiobook was a very awesome experience and I had a great time listening to it.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, this is a somewhat longer Star Wars audiobook, although once you get wrapped up in the story you don’t really mind.  Everything about this audiobook is cool, from the classic Star Wars sound effects, which help to drag the listener into the story (it is so much easier to imagine a dangerous fight scene when you can hear the blaster shots), to the outstanding use of John Williams’ iconic musical score, which just makes everything epic.  This audiobook also features the superb narration of the amazing Marc Thompson, who does a wonderful job.  Thompson, who has a vast experience voicing Star Wars audiobooks (for example, all the previous Thrawn novels, Dark Disciple, and roles in the Count Dooku and Doctor Aphra audio dramas), has an exceptional range of different voices which he uses to full effect throughout Chaos Rising.  Each of the characters is given a distinctive and enjoyable voice which allows the listener to easily follow who they are, while also getting an impressive and comprehensive idea of the character’s emotions and passion.  However, his most impressive work is saved for the main character himself.  Thompson has an excellent Thrawn voice, which very closely matches the voice of Lars Mikkelsen, the actor playing Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated show, which helps to bring the character to life in vivid and impressive detail.  Thompson’s take on the character captures the character perfectly, and you get an amazing sense of the character’s deep analytical nature and constantly calm façade.  This was an exceptional bit of voice work from Thompson, and it really added so much to my enjoyment of the story to have this character’s words read out to me.  An overall exceptional and outstanding audiobook, this is the perfect format to check out Chaos Rising.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is another outstanding novel from amazing Star Wars author Timothy Zahn that provides the reader with a captivating look at the early life of the incredible character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Featuring a clever and intriguing tale set deep in an unexplored area of the Star Wars universe, this novel serves as a fantastic and addictive prequel to Zahn’s impressive Thrawn trilogy and adds new layers to the author’s most iconic creation.  The second entry in this series, Greater Good, is set for release in a few months and looks set to be one of the most intriguing Star Wars novels of 2021, especially with renewed interest in the character of Thrawn after the second season of The Mandalorian.  I am extremely keen to see how the next novel turns out, but if it as good as Chaos Rising, then we should be in for a treat.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 11

Length: 198 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.

It has been a while since I have done a Usagi Yojimbo Throwback Thursday, but after doing a Waiting on Wednesday for the next upcoming volume in this epic series, Homecoming, I was in a Usagi mood and decided to write something extra.  As a result, I check out the 11th Usagi Yojimbo volume by the legendary Stan Sakai, Seasons.

Seasons is a fantastic and spectacular entry in the series that presents the reader with a series of great Usagi Yojimbo adventures that follow the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he traverses his version of feudal Japan during the various seasons of the year.  This is a key entry in the series as it sets up a number of storylines for the next several volumes while also introducing some great new characters.  Needless to say, I had an incredible time reading this volume of the series and I have a lot of love for a number of the stories contained within it.  Seasons contains issues #7-12 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as stories taken from the Usagi Yojimbo Colour Special.  This results in 11 separate stories throughout the volume, made up of single-issue entries and a couple of shorter tales, all of which contain an impressive and deeply enjoyable story with beautiful artwork.

USagi #7

The first story featured within Seasons is The Withered Field, an epic story of samurai honour and the warrior’s way.  In this story, Usagi is visiting a famed fencing school with the hope of challenging some of its instructors to test his skill.  However, before he can issue his challenge, all of the school’s instructors are beaten by another ronin, Nakamura Koji, a skilled swordsman who demands a fight with the school’s master.  As he waits for his challenge, Usagi befriends him and discovers that he was once a famed sword master himself, who began the warrior’s pilgrimage after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a mysterious and unconventional swordsman.  Now determined to find this swordsman and rechallenge him, Nakamura Koji shows great interest in Usagi, especially when they must content with treachery from the fencing school.

The Withered Field is an outstanding story that serves as a compelling and powerful start to this volume.  I really enjoyed the amazing narrative that examined honour and martial prowess, with Usagi encountering a famed warrior who is even better than he is.  This great story does an excellent job of introducing the character of Nakamura Koji, who becomes a major figure in some of the future volumes in this series and who has an interesting connection to Usagi and his past.  The entire storyline around the two ronin facing off against the fencing school is extremely cool and action packed, and it appears to take a lot of influence from the second entry in the iconic 1950s Samurai film trilogy (which follows the adventures of Miyamoto Musashi, the historical samurai who serves as an inspiration for Usagi), Duel of Ichijoji Temple, with the students attempting to stop the wandering ronin from defeating their master.  There are amazing action sequences throughout this story, with Usagi and Nakamura Koji engaging in several awesome duels.  I particularly loved the opening sequence where Koji goes through the pre-fight forms before facing off in his sparring match against a fencing school instructor.  The eventual reveal that the samurai who defeated Koji when he was younger was Usagi’s mentor, Katsuichi, comes as little surprise, but it sets up an amazing story later in the series which makes this great story a must read for fans of Usagi Yojimbo.

Seasons’ second story is the thrilling but haunting A Promise in the Snow, which sees Usagi travelling through a snowy mountain pass during the height of winter.  As he trudges along, he comes across bandits attacking an innocent merchant and his servants.  Intervening, Usagi is able to slay all the bandits, but not before they severely wound the merchant.  Usagi finds the merchant’s young daughter and promises to save her father, carrying him back to his village.  However, the mountain passes are treacherous, and Usagi must contend with harsh weather, a pack of hungry wild tokage lizards and a dangerous avalanche.  But no matter what the mountain throws at him, nothing will prepare Usagi for the great shock awaiting him at the end of his journey. 

Usagi #8

This is a great entry in this volume that features a desperate struggle for survival in a dangerous location.  Sakai came up with an epic story for A Promise in the Snow, and I really love seeing Usagi power through great trials and tribulations to keep his promise to a young girl.  There are some beautifully drawn scenes throughout this story, and Sakai does a fantastic job bringing the snowy landscape to life in all its wondrous, deadly glory.  I also loved the way in which Sakai’s drawings highlighted Usagi’s struggles to get through the tough terrain; you can see him get more and more weary with each obstacle he encounters.  This story has a fantastic ending that is reminiscent of a lot of classic ghost tales, and looking back you see that Sakai set this twist up brilliantly, with tons of little clues.  Overall, this was an exceptional story which is a true highlight of this volume.

Next up with have the action-packed, intriguing story, The Conspiracy of Eight.  In this entry, Usagi is visiting the temple of his friend, priest Sanshobo, when an injured samurai wearing the crest of the notorious Lord Hikiji arrives at the gate.  The samurai bears a dangerous letter that names eight conspirators who are plotting against the Shogun.  As Usagi and Sanshobo debate what to do with the information, a large force of ronin arrives at the temple, determined to claim the injured samurai and kill all witnesses. 

This is another fantastic entry in Seasons that once again sees Usagi drawn into a major conspiracy impacting the realm.  There are a lot of cool elements to this story, such as Usagi and Sanshobo being forced to mount a defence of the temple from a dangerous siege.  This is a great, fast-paced story, and I really liked the unique battle scenes, especially the monks with staffs facing off against sword-wielding bandits.  Many of the plot elements contained within this tale come into play in several later Usagi Yojimbo stories, including one featured later in this volume, and I think Sakai did an exceptional job introducing them in The Conspiracy of Eight.  I also liked seeing the return of Sanshobo, the wise and noble priest and former samurai general.  Sanshobo serves as a good foil to Usagi’s more impulsive nature, cautioning him about acting in the affairs of great lords and counselling him that his proposed actions could lead to the death of many people.  While mainly a figure of wisdom, Sanshobo also serves as a great leader, utilising his experiences as a general to defend his temple and keep his monks alive.  The Conspiracy of Eight ends up being a very solid and enjoyable entry in this volume and I very much enjoyed seeing Sakai solidify a great new side character.

Usagi #9

Right after The Conspiracy of Eight comes another intriguing story that is primarily set within Sanshobo’s temple, Snakes and Blossoms.  In this entry, Usagi tells two short tales to Sanshobo: one that describes a crazy misadventure he had, and another that describes some important lessons from his past.  This two shorter tales work as sub-stories to Snakes and Blossoms and ensures that it is a distinctive entry in Seasons.  The first of the shorter tales is titled Hebi, which is set shortly after the events of the final story in Volume 7: Gen’s Story and sees Usagi and Gen once again lost following one of Gen’s shortcuts.  As the two ronin wander the unused paths, Gen saves Usagi from a wild snake that attempts to kill him.  However, Gen’s heroic actions has unexpected consequences when the two travellers are confronted by a mysterious nun at an abandoned temple later that night.  This was a rather cool horror story that exemplifies the sort of weird situations that Usagi can find himself in.  I loved the way in which Sakai plays Usagi and Gen off each other, and there are some very humorous interactions between this oddball pairing.  There is also some really insane artwork in this short story, and I loved the fantastic and scary sight of a giant snake emerging from its disguise to try and kill the protagonists. 

The other short story contained within Snakes and Blossoms is the cute tale, The Courage of the PlumThe Courage of the Plum takes place during Usagi’s childhood when he is training with his master, Katsuichi.  As the two walk through the snow, Katsuichi attempts to teach his student the various hidden aspects of nature around them, including the trees, each of which can represent human virtues.  The young Usagi is particularly intrigued by Katsuichi’s description of the humble plum tree as brave, and Katsuichi schools Usagi on how this smaller tree can be braver than the mightiest of oaks.  I always enjoy the depictions of Usagi’s unorthodox training under Katsuichi, as the student and teacher have a very amusing dynamic, and The Courage of the Plum turned out to be a delightful shorter entry with some intriguing philosophical discussion and some lovely drawings of the winter landscape.  Overall, Hebi and The Courage of Plum make for a fantastic combination of tales and I quite enjoyed seeing these two unique, short stories come together.

Up next in Seasons is an amazing shorter entry, Return to Adachi Plain, which sees Usagi journey back to the site of his greatest defeat, Adachi Plain, the battlefield where his lord Mifune (named after actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in multiple classic samurai films that Sakai references in his works, including as Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai trilogy), was killed in front of him.  Flashing back to tragic events that started his wandering lifestyle, Usagi remembers the battle in greater detail and the reader sees not only the role he played in saving the head of his lord from mutilation but also the first time he came directly in conflict with the villainous Lord Hikiji. 

Usagi #10

Return to Adachi Plain is a fantastic entry in this series as it is essentially one big war sequence, showing Usagi amid a violent battle from his past.  This story expands on the war sequence that was shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was really cool to see more of this battle, especially the combat scene between Usagi and Hikiji, which serves as the origin for Usagi’s distinctive forehead scar.  A fantastic shorter story that provides greater depth to Usagi’s role in this major defeat, this battle sequence was later reused in colour in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories, and the events disclosed within is likely to come up in the upcoming Volume 35: Homecoming.

The next story in this volume is a relatively short entry called The CrossingThe Crossing is set aboard a small passenger ship where a group of rowdy peasants sing and dance to a fun folk song on deck.  However, during the climax of the performance, one of the peasants accidently bumps into an arrogant samurai who takes offence and moves to kill the transgressor, until a fellow passenger intervenes.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Good Samaritan isn’t Usagi; instead it is the demon spearman Jei. 

This is a captivating darker story that once again highlights just how dangerous and deranged Jei, one of the best antagonists in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, is.  Sakai has written an extremely clever tale here that does a wonderful job showcasing Jei’s compelling nature as both a defender of the innocent and a raging psychopath who views nearly everyone as evil in form or another.  It’s fantastic watching the expressions on the peasants’ faces turn from relief to absolute terror as they slowly realise just how crazy Jei is, and you have to love that entertaining ending with the unsuspecting dock worker.  The Crossing serves as an excellent follow-up to several other shorter Jei stories that appeared in recent volumes, including The Nature of the Viper (which appeared in Volume 9: Daisho) and Black Soul (which appeared in Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death), and this ends up being an impressive and compelling filler story in this volume.

Usagi #11

The shorter entries keep on coming! The Patience of the Spider introduces a new compelling character, General Ikeda.  Ikeda is a famed warrior and general who led a revolt against the Geishu Clan years ago (when the clan was ruled by the father of Usagi’s friend Lord Noriyuki).  When his revolt fails and his army is vanquished, Ikeda and two of his retainers flee to an abandoned farm and determine that their next course of action is to hide and wait.  Using a patient web-building spider as inspiration, Ikeda and his comrades show fortitude and restraint by disguising themselves as peasants and farming the land as they wait for the opportune moment.  However, as the years pass and Ikeda gains a family and faces the many harsh trials and dangers that await a peasant farmer, he begins to see the world differently, until the once notorious general is a completely new person, one with very different desires and dreams.

The Patience of the Spider is an outstanding example of how Sakai can quickly build up an intriguing and powerful character and ensure that the reader is utterly transfixed by their tale.  While this entry is relatively short, it is very impactful and may be one of the best stories in Seasons.  The tale of General Ikeda, as he faces the many different hardships of peasant life, including drought, bandits, floods and great personal loss, while also experiencing great joy and community, is extremely well written.  It proves to be extremely captivating to see this resolute man slowly change his nature as life overcomes him.  This also proves to be an excellent introduction to the character of Ikeda, who will go on to have a substantial role in the two big Grasscutter storylines, and his amazing character arc has an exceptional start here.  A very impressive and powerful tale, The Patience of the Spider is an amazing character-driven narrative from Sakai that is an absolute treat to read.

The next story featured in Seasons is the curious tale, The Lord of the Owls, which sees Usagi encounter a strange fellow traveller.  As Usagi stops at an inn, he witnesses a group of ruffians follow after a mysterious hooded samurai walking the road with the intention of robbing him.  Following them, Usagi witnesses the figure quickly kill the bandits after first startling him with his hypnotic and powerful gaze.  This man is eventually introduced as Oyama Tadanori, the mysterious Lord of the Owls, who reputedly can see the future and who claims that his destiny is intertwined with Usagi. 

Usagi #12

This was an interesting story that presents the reader with a lot of curious and unanswered questions.  While the main story is rather good, especially when it comes to the fate of the greedy bandits, the reader is left extremely mystified by the Lord of the Owls and his powers of prediction.  This entry opens up a rather fascinating storyline that is still not complete; despite an appearance in a later comic, Usagi is still waiting to uncover more about this figure and their combined destiny.  While I am hopeful that this story will pay off somewhere down the line, but in the meantime this particular entry has some great action sequences, a fun new character and some stunning landscape shots, which makes it really worth checking out. 

Up next with have a clever story, The First Tenet, which deals with the machination and inside politics of the Neko Ninja clan.  In this entry, Kagemaru, the second in command of the Neko Ninja, makes a move to betray his commander, Chizu, by reporting some of her recent personal missions to Lord Hebi, Lord Hikiji’s chief advisor.  Hebi, who is enraged by the news that Chizu is moving the Neko Ninja against the interests of Lord Hikiji, considers supporting Kagemura but is reluctant, especially as “deceit is the first tenet of the ninja”.  However, Kagemaru has subtle ways of getting what he wants, and soon Hebi finds himself in a dangerous situation that will change the future of the Neko Ninja forever. 

The First Tenet is a great story that masterfully shows of the duplicitous internal politics of the Neko Ninja and the supporters of Lord Hikiji.  The storyline started here will eventually have some interesting implications for major side character Chizu, and Sakai does a fantastic job setting it up.  I loved all the plotting and subterfuge that appears in this story, and it proves to be a fun and clever read.  I also love the massive battle scene that occurs in the middle of the tale, and it was particularly cool to see Lord Hebi, a massive snake, finally get into a fight.  Hebi is a terrifying figure to behold in combat, and it is worth reading this story just to see that.  An excellent and exciting addition to Seasons, I really enjoyed The First Tenet, especially as it leads to a lot of outstanding ninja storylines down the road.

Usagi Colour Special - Green Persimmon

Seasons’ penultimate story is The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan, a chilling supernatural tale that sees Usagi and his companions face off against a malignant spirit.  As Usagi draws closer to the lands of his friends in the Geishu Clan, he stops outside a ruined mansion where he suddenly recalls the last time he was there.  Flashing back to shortly after the events of Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, Usagi, Gen and Tomoe are travelling back to Geishu lands and attempt to seek shelter at a beautiful mansion.  The mansion belongs to the Lady Takagi, a mysterious woman who provides them with rooms and food and seems quite happy for the company.  However, as the night continues, Tomoe grows suspicious with their host and attempts to investigate, eventually revealing that Lady Takagi is a demon who is determined to kill and eat her guests. 

This was a very fast-paced and exciting tale that provides an awesome horror edge to the stories contained with Seasons.  I love it when Sakai features iconic Japanese supernatural monsters in his tale as they always prove to be outstanding and fearsome opponents for the protagonists.  The monster featured within The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan is no exception, and I loved the freaky tale based around her and the desperate fight for survival that Usagi and his friends are forced to undertake.  While Sakai mostly focuses on the horror aspects of this story, I liked how he included a few humorous moments, such as including a great reference to Sakai’s prior comic, Groo the Wanderer: “did I err?”, as well as the funny concluding moment that sees Usagi fleeing in terror from a couple of woodcutters.  This was a really fantastic supernatural tale and it is always cool to see Sakai’s amazing depictions of these inventive Japanese monsters.

The final story in this excellent volume is the intense and action-packed Green Persimmon.  In this story Usagi, who is on his way to the Geishu lands, comes across a dying Geishu retainer who entrusts Usagi with delivering a mysterious package to his lord.  Opening the package reveals a simple and seemingly unremarkable ceramic green persimmon.  However, moments after receiving the persimmon, Usagi is attacked by a band of armed samurai who are desperate to reclaim it at all costs.  Managing to defeat his attackers, Usagi continues along the rough and windy coast road to the Geishu lands, but he encounters even more men determined to reclaim the persimmon and is soon forced to fight for his life as his attackers employ ruthless means to kill him.

Usagi-Yojimbo-Book-11-Seasons-Print-

Green Persimmon is an awesome and fantastic story that I deeply enjoyed, and which holds a great deal of significance for me.  This was actually the first Usagi Yojimbo story that I ever read, as a colour version of this story appeared in a magazine aimed at younger teens down here in Australia when I was a lot younger.  This story really stuck with me over the years due to the exciting story and cool action sequences, and it was one of the main reasons (along with Usagi’s appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons) that I decided to check out the Usagi Yojimbo comics in later life.  Needless to say, I am still very impressed with Green Persimmon years later; it is an enjoyable and memorable story to end this 11th volume.  I love the fluid combat sequences in this issue, including Usagi throwing the persimmon into the air and killing all his opponents before deftly catching it, and there are also some great banter scenes between Usagi and his attackers.  I also enjoyed the epic scene where Usagi finds himself trapped within a field of flame thanks to a flurry of fire arrows around him.  Not only is it cool that Usagi successfully survives by utilising the lessons of the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru and the Grass-Cutting Sword (the full events of which are drawn by Sakai in the next volume), but when he emerges from the ground covered in soot and dirt, he looks particularly demonic and enraged as he faces his opponents, making for an epic and amazing scene.  All of this is set to a fantastically drawn background of the rugged coastal landscape, which proves to be a fantastic setting for the various combat scenes.  If I had to offer any criticism about this story, it would be that the conclusion and reveal of the purpose of the ceramic persimmon did not really go anywhere and there were no mentions of this victory over series antagonist, Lord Hikiji, ever again.  However, I still really love this entry as Green Persimmon has so many cool and impressive elements to it and it is a great end note for this volume.

Seasons is another fantastic and incredible comic by Stan Sakai that sees Usagi engage in some captivating and intriguing adventures.  Featuring a cool mixture of different Usagi Yojimbo tales, Seasons is an amazing entry in the series.  I absolutely love a lot of the stories contained within this volume, which are once again anchored by outstanding character and breathtaking artwork.  This volume gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.  On a side note, I am very glad that I decided to do another Usagi Yojimbo comic in a Throwback Thursday article as I have a lot of fun reviewing them.  I might have to skip ahead a volume for my next Throwback Thursday, as I cannot find my copy of Volume 12, Grasscutter.  However, I will either find it or get a new copy soon, as Grasscutter is too major a storyline to miss.  I hope you enjoy the review and make sure to check out some of the other reviews I have done of this epic and amazing series.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.

Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders.  Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world.  The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls.  However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned.  With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves.  However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.

Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose.  As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict.  A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.

Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it?  Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels.  I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last.  However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones.  I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019.  Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020.  Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.

For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world.  Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal.  While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are.  After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them.  At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events.  All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released.  While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.

One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story.  Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it.  Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships.  This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences.  In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them.  Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story.  I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine.  All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.

While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner.  At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination.  But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission.  Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel.  However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy.  Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination.  However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc.  A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour.  Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character.  The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.

In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew.  These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative.  The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly).  Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility.  Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience.  She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory.  Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature.  The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series.  The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew.  The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters.  However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader.  A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.

I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing.  I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him).  I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative.  Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations.  All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.

The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format.  I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison.  The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series.  I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel.  Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book.  Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do.  All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years.  This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world.  The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.  If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!

Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas

Cyber Shogun Revolution

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: United States of Japan – Book Three

Length: 10 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

If you like the sound of a gritty spy thriller set in an alternate version of America filled with destructive mechas, then you really need to check out Cyber Shogun Revolution, the third novel in Peter Tieryas’s outstanding United States of Japan series.

The United States of Japan novels are a fun and inventive series that is routinely described as a combination between The Man in the High Castle and Pacific Rim.  This series is set in an alternate history in which the United States lost World War II after Japan invented mechas to defeat the Allies.  Following the end of the war, the United States was split between the Japanese Empire and the Nazis, who subsequently engaged in an extended and brutal Cold War against each other.  This latest novel is set in 2020 and features an intense and thrilling new tale that is separate from the stories told in the previous two entries in the series.

Following the end of the latest war against the Nazis, the United States of Japan is facing a crisis as their corrupt governor appears to be a Nazi sympathiser, secretly doing their enemy’s bidding.  Seeking justice after a brutal Nazi attack in Kansas, mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa joins a secret organisation of high-ranking soldiers, mecha pilots and politicians, known as The Sons of War, who plot to assassinate the governor and replace him with one of their own.  While their initial plan to kill the governor goes awry, their target is still killed thanks to the intervention of the mysterious assassin and feared Nazi slayer, Bloody Mary.

However, Bloody Mary has a whole different agenda and swiftly turns against The Sons of War, assassinating key members of the organisation in a brutal strike that leaves Reiko as the only survivor.  Determined to find out why Bloody Mary betrayed them, Reiko teams up with Bishop Wakan, an agent of Japan’s secret police, the Tokko, to hunt her down and stop her plot.  Tracing a shipment of black market mecha parts to Nazi America, Reiko and Bishop travel into enemy territory to find answers and soon find themselves in the midst of a massive conspiracy.  Bloody Mary has plans to change the entire United States of Japan forever, and she does not care who dies to achieve her goal.  Can Reiko and Bishop stop her before it is too late, or will the entire world feel Bloody Mary’s wrath?

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an exciting and compelling new novel from Tieryas, which serves as the third entry in the United States of Japan series.  I have a lot of love for this series after powering through the second novel, Mecha Samurai Empire, when it came out a couple of years ago.  I have been meaning to check out this latest entry for some time now, and I was glad I was able to get around to it before the end of 2020.  This latest book was really cool, and I loved the bold new story that Tieryas was able to come up with, especially as he once again makes excellent use of his unique and captivating alternate world.

This latest entry in the United States of Japan series proved to be a fun and fast-paced novel, which sees two intense protagonists forced to investigate a lethal conspiracy in an inventive and clever setting.  Told from the alternating perspectives of its two main characters, Reiko and Bishop, this story gets off the ground quick and does not slow down one bit throughout the entire book as the protagonists quickly find themselves in the midst of all manner of intrigue and suspense.  This was a deeply exciting novel, and I liked how the author changes focus from the previous novel, writing Cyber Shogun Revolution as more of a spy thriller with alternate history and science fiction elements.  I really liked the impressive pace of this novel and I was quickly drawn in by the compelling and complex thriller that Tieryas weaves for the reader, especially as it makes great use of its setting and unique world elements to tell the entire story.  The author throws in a few good twists and turns throughout the narrative, and I quite enjoyed seeing the story unfold in all its action-packed glory.  Readers do not need to have any pre-knowledge of the United States of Japan series to enjoy this book as the narrative is mostly unrelated to the events of the previous novels, although fans of the series will no doubt enjoy seeing the various changes to the universe.  Overall, Cyber Shogun Revolution had a fantastic and exhilarating story that is guaranteed to keep the reader wildly entertained throughout the entire run of the book.

A major highlight of Cyber Shogun Revolution, and indeed the entire United States of Japan series, is the inventive and unique alternate version of the world that the author has created.  The Japanese-controlled America featured within this series is an intriguing blend of Western and Japanese culture, mixed with advanced technology and an entirely new history.  I really enjoyed seeing all the clever combinations of culture that the author featured throughout his story, and there are quite a few amusing references and ideas featured throughout.  There is a particular focus on cuisine, and Tieryas once again enthrals the reader with descriptions of intense and interesting-sounding fusion foods, many of which I would love to try out.  These descriptions of the United States of Japan are really cool, and it proves to be a rich setting for the narrative to run through, especially as it is not the shiny utopia that it appears on the surface.  The country is instead a dangerous and oppressive regime ruled over by fanatical thought police, where even a momentary slipup is enough to condemn you to a horrible fate.  Tieryas spends time really highlighting this darker side of his universe in Cyber Shogun Revolution and it ends up become a major part of the plot.  The author also takes the reader on a brief tour of Nazi-occupied America, which proves to be a particularly horrible experience (strangely enough, the Nazis are just as bad, if not worse, in this reality), mainly due to the Nazis’ reliance on bioengineering rather than machines, which results in a number of disturbing and disgusting creatures, such as their bimorphs (giant organic mechas).  The comparisons between the Japanese and Nazi controlled parts of America are really fascinating, and I am really glad the author based a bit of the story there.  Needless to say, I absolutely loved the setting for Cyber Shogun Revolution, especially as it helped create a clever and complex narrative, and I cannot wait to revisit it in some of Tieryas’s future novels.

Now there is no way that I can talk about Cyber Shogun Revolution without mentioning the mechas, the giant and powerful human-controlled battle machines which won the war for the Japanese.  Mechas are a distinctive and exciting pop culture creation, especially in anime, and Tieryas uses them to great effect throughout the entire book.  While this latest entry in the series has a definite focus on conspiracies and espionage, Tieryas still slips in several mecha fights and combat scenes.  Indeed, the entire last third of the novel sees the protagonists go up against a series of different and powerful mechas in some intense and epic sequences.  The author has clearly had some creative fun in this book as Cyber Shogun Revolution features a raft of new mechas, each with some unique or advanced piece of technology that gives them an edge over their opponents, including mechas with magnet guns, a mammoth-shaped mecha with a chainsaw trunk, and a mecha that has super speed.  This naturally leads to some fantastic and distinctive sequences, as the protagonists need to find a way to defeat the varied opponents around them.  I particularly enjoyed one sequence that saw one of the characters fighting against a rival mecha, while the other protagonist assists from the outside while riding a jetpack.  Needless to say, if you love mecha combat and fantastic battle scenes (who doesn’t?) then you are going to have a lot of fun with Cyber Shogun Revolution.

In order to tell this fantastic novel, Tieryas utilises two excellent, if damaged, point-of-view protagonists in the duo of mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa and secret agent Bishop Wakan.  After both have separate run-ins with Bloody Mary in which they are the only survivor, the two team up in order to get to the bottom of why she betrayed their nation and what her end goal really is.  Both characters are extremely interesting, mainly because they both have complex and tragic pasts which drive them towards their goals.  Tieryas does an amazing job diving down into these characters’ inner psyches, creating some truly complex characters with major flaws who the reader are inexorably drawn to.  In addition, both characters also have some intense history with Bloody Mary and some of her co-conspirators, resulting in some emotionally charged moments throughout the novel.  These two characters are also a little anti-authoritarian, having seen the dark side of their nation firsthand, which alters the way that they deal with events, and also ensures that they are a little more susceptible to their enemy’s manipulation.  I really enjoyed these amazing characters and I thought that they made for a great duo of central protagonists.

While I had initially planned to grab a paperback version of this book, I ended up splashing out and getting Cyber Shogun Revolution’s audiobook format.  This audiobook has a relatively quick runtime of just under 11 hours and was narrated by the talented Emily Woo Zeller.  Zeller, who I recently enjoyed in the Star Wars: Doctor Aphra audio drama, did an exceptional job narrating Cyber Shogun Revolution and I had an outstanding time listening to it.  Zeller came up with some fantastic and distinctive voices for the various characters featured within this novel, and the entire audiobook quickly flew by thanks to her fast-paced narration.  I also loved having the cool mecha fights being narrated to me, as hearing the action being described made it pop a lot more for me than simply reading it on a page.  Because of this, Cyber Shogun Revolution comes highly recommended in its audiobook format, and I really enjoyed hearing all the awesome action and excitement contained within this amazing novel.

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an epic and captivating novel from the amazing Peter Tieryas that serves as the third entry in his fantastic United States of Japan series.  Containing an intense story laden with action, intrigue, and treachery, all set with a clever alternate version of America, Cyber Shogun Revolution is a ball of excitement that readers will have an incredible time reading.  An excellent and fun read to check out, I look forward to exploring more of Tieryas’s outrageous universe in the future.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

The Kingdom of Liars Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 7 May 2020)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 37 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Impressive new fantasy author Nick Martell presents The Kingdom of Liars, an outstanding fantasy novel that is easily one of the top debuts of 2020.

Welcome to The Hollows, the slowly disintegrating capital of once-great kingdom where magic costs memory to used.  Once a shining beacon of culture and nobility, the city is now a shadow of its former self, surrounded by firearm-wielding rebels while petty nobles fight for scraps within and a corrupt prince plots for power.  While the people suffer under the rule of a grieving king, their only hope of survival may lie in the hands of the son of the kingdom’s most despised traitor.

Michael Kingman was only a child when he was branded a traitor for the crimes of his father.  Once the King’s loyal right-hand man, Michael’s father, David Kingman, was convicted and executed for the murder of the King’s nine-year-old son, and his family was cast out into poverty and infamy.  Now, 10 years later, Michael makes a living running petty cons on minor nobility while desperately trying to escape the legacy of his family.  However, after a devastating rebel attack rocks the city and kills someone close to him, Michael is determined to change his destiny.

Accepting employment with an eccentric and powerful noble, Michael is given a chance to re-enter noble society and find evidence that proves that his father was framed for the prince’s murder.  Participating in the Endless Waltz, the social highlight of year, Michael needs to gain influence and supporters in the court in order to gain an invitation into the king’s palace, where he believes the evidence he needs to vindicate his father can be found.  However, nearly everyone in the Endless Waltz has their own agenda and no-one wants to see a traitor’s son succeed.  Can Michael prove his father’s innocence and restore his family’s place in the kingdom, or is he doomed to share his fate and be executed as a traitor?

So, this is a book I have been meaning to read for quite some time.  Despite it coming out in May this year, I only managed to get around to listening to it a couple of weeks ago and I instantly realised I made a mistake in not reading this one sooner as The Kingdom of Liars was an epic and deeply impressive novel that I had an outstanding time listening to.  This was the debut novel from new author Nick Martell, which serves as the first entry in his planned The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series (which is a cool series name btw).  This amazing novel from Martell contains a deeply captivating and complex story that proved incredibly irresistible to me, especially when you throw in the great characters and inventive new fantasy world that the author came up.  The end result is an exceptional and powerful read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this awesome book is a first-rate story that sees the protagonist, Michael Kingman, attempt to navigate his treacherous city in order to find the truth behind the death of his father.  Martell starts his narrative off with an impressive opening sequence that sees Michael being found guilty of the murder of the king, a charge he does not refute.  The story then backtracks a few weeks and the full story of Michael Kingman and his adventures is revealed to the audience through the first-person narration of Michael in a way that is reminiscent of a historical chronicle and shows how the protagonist goes from street hustling to regicide in a short period of time.  This proved to be an extremely epic tale loaded with conspiracy, political intrigue, lies, deceit and dark magic, as Michael primarily battles through a series of intense social occasions while also attempting to outwit or survive the machinations of jealous royals, betrayed friends, dangerous mercenaries, fickle nobles and scheming rebels.  At the same time, he also has to work out the motivations for the various people he encounters, most of whom have deep secrets or interesting connections to Michael and his family, as well as diving down into the history of The Hollows and the Kingman family.

There is quite a lot going on in this book, and the readers get to witness a series of different storylines and character arcs, all of which are loaded up with surprise twists and intriguing revelations.  All these storylines prove to be quite entertaining and very cleverly written and I had a great time seeing how each of them unwound.  These separate story arcs come together extremely well, and it results in a deeply compelling overall narrative which proved very hard to stop reading.  I loved all the narrative surprises that Martell came up with throughout The Kingdom of Liars and he added in some great twists which did an outstanding job keeping my attention.  While I was able to guess some of the reveals that Martell was telegraphing, several others caught me completely by surprise, which is something I deeply appreciate in a novel.  I was particularly impressed by the eventual reveal of the main antagonist and I thought that the choice of character was a real masterstroke from Martell.  I was immensely annoyed with myself for not picking up on it sooner, especially as I missed an obvious clue.  I cannot emphasise how I much loved this clever narrative, and I look forward to seeing how Martell continues this captivating tale in the future.

Because he serves as the central protagonist and only point-of-view character, most of The Kingdom of Liars is spent examining the character of Michael Kingman.  Michael is a complex and damaged protagonist who finds himself burdened with the legacy of his great family and the deeds of his traitor father.  At the start of the novel, Michael is a rather self-destructive being, who attempts to find redemption from random and pointless acts of heroism and by skimming some cash off the nobles he despises.  However, after a series of personal losses, Michael begins the path to redeeming himself and his family by attempting to prove his father’s innocence and he starts to reconnect with figures from his past, including several he had forgotten.  I quite enjoyed the character of Michael and it proved to be quite fascinating to see his constant internal battle to determine his identity and his place within the world.  Do not get me wrong, at times Michael proved to be a frustrating protagonist to follow due to his stubbornness and anger, but I think this examination of his damaged emotions helped to make him a stronger character who the reader could emphasise with more.  Thanks to the various events and revelations that become apparent to Michael as the story progresses, the protagonists develops substantially throughout The Kingdom of Liars and by the end he is a vastly different character who is placed in an interesting position for the next novel.  I look forward to seeing how Michael’s story continues throughout the rest of The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series and I am sure it is going to be suitably dramatic and enjoyable.

In addition to the central protagonist, Martell includes an impressive supporting cast of characters who guide, befriend, manipulate, or try to kill Michael throughout the course of the narrative (sometimes they try to do all four at once).  I really enjoyed the various supporting characters that the author included in The Kingdom of Liars, especially as he ensures that each of them has a substantial and compelling backstory that is somehow interwoven with Michael’s past.  It proves to be extremely fascinating to see how each of these characters play into the larger picture of the narrative, especially as everyone has an alternate motive when it comes to dealing with Michael.  While each of the characters is suitably complex, there are a couple I need to particularly highlight.  This includes the other Kingman children, Gwen and Lyon, both of whom have been impacted by their father’s execution in a similar way to Michael, but who both deal with it in alternate ways, either by running from their family’s name or by subtly investigating it through their own means.  These two prove to be a dramatic counterpoint to Michael’s inner struggle about being a Kingman and it was fascinating to see the various, high-tension discussions they have with the protagonist on the subject.

There is also the excellent character of Trey, Michael’s best-friend, who, thanks to a tragic event early in the novel, ends up becoming more of an antagonist due to major feelings of betrayal that emerge between the two.  Trey ends up become a fantastic part of the book’s plot, as Michael is forced to constantly worry about his former friend attempting to kill him, while also attempting to do what is best for Trey’s well-being.  The various sequences with Trey are amongst the most emotional and powerful in the novel, and they add a real dramatic kick to the overall story.  The end of The Kingdom of Liars hints at a dark future for Trey in the rest of the series and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for him.  I also had quite a liking for the mysterious mercenary, Dark, a dangerous and shadowy being who Michael becomes inadvertently entangled with.  Dark is a fun and ultra-powered figure throughout the novel, and he had some great interactions with the protagonist.  However, out of all these characters my favourite is easily Charles Domet, the rich and powerful drunkard with innumerable secrets.  Domet serves as an excellent mentor character for Michael, while also being one of the most entertaining members of the cast.  I loved every scene that Domet appeared in, especially as he had a particularly intriguing backstory.  Each of these characters, and more, added substantially to The Kingdom of Liars, and it will be fascinating to see how each of them evolves in the future.

On top of the outstanding and clever story and the complex characters, Martell also invests in a captivating and highly inventive new fantasy realm, primarily set around the city of The Hollows.  This is a dark and dangerous world, with the major feature being a fractured moon hanging in the sky with occasional pieces falling to world below and causing substantial damage, while also offering cryptic remarks to those people who hold the shards.  The Hollows itself serves as an excellent setting for the novel, thanks to its dangerous politics, oppressed people, besieging rebels and withering monarchy.  Watching the scion of a once powerful house that was renowned as a force for good attempt to navigate the avenues of power throughout The Hollows proves to be extremely compelling and I really enjoyed it.  There are also some intriguing examinations of the city’s history, and each revelation about the past added a new layer to elaborate story that Martell came up with for The Kingdom of Liars.  The author has also come up with an intriguing magical system which allows people to wield substantial power at the cost of their own memories, ensuring that each magic user must work hard to maintain control.  I found this memory factor of this magical system to be very clever and it added a lot of great elements to the overall story, especially as several characters, including the protagonist, experience memory losses throughout the novel, which hinders them, and by extension the reader, from seeing the full picture.  There is also a rather intriguing comparison between magic and firearms throughout the story, as the nobles wield arcane power, while the rebels have guns.  This results in some thrilling sequences and it should be fun to see more elaborate fight scenes in the future.  Overall, this was a deeply enjoyable and compelling new setting and Martell really showed off his creativity in this first novel.  It seems likely that Martell is planning to massively expand this world in the future The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings novels and I am confident there will be some fantastic new inclusions in the future (like who actually fractured the moon).

As I mentioned above, I ended up buying The Kingdom of Liars’ audiobook format rather than grabbing a physical copy of the book.  I am extremely happy that I chose to do this as the audiobook was particularly good and it proved to be a fantastic way to enjoy this awesome novel.  I had an amazing time seeing the cool fantasy world that Martell came up be bought to life in this format and I found myself really getting into the story details as I listened to it.  The Kingdom of Liars audiobook has a relatively substantial run time of 15 hours and 37 minutes, although I found myself powering through it extremely quickly due to how much I enjoyed the story.  The audiobook features the narration of Joe Jameson, who I recently talked about in my review of King of Assassins by R. J. Barker.  Jameson’s narration in The Kingdom of Liars is pretty amazing and he does an incredible job inhabiting the various characters featured within the novel.  I think his voice and narration style really fit the way that this novel was written, and I felt that the point-of-view protagonist really came to life in his hands.  All of this results in a captivating and deeply enjoyable audiobook and this is the format I would recommend to anyone who wishes to check out The Kingdom of Liars.

The Kingdom of Liars is an incredible, compelling, and deeply exciting novel that I had an absolutely wonderful time listening to this year.  Debuting author Nick Martell really outdid himself with this first novel in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series and this superb book comes highly recommended.  I loved everything about this book, including the two different but equally awesome covers that it was released with (see above and below), and I know I am going to have an amazing time following this series in the future.  The next The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings novel, The Two-Faced Queen, is set for release in March next year, and it looks set to be one of the top books of 2021.

The Kingdom of Liars Cover 2

Quick Review – Dark Forge by Miles Cameron

Dark Forge Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 24 January 2019)

Series: Masters & Mages – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After finally getting around to doing a quick review of King of Assassins by R. J. Barker the other day, I thought I would take this opportunity to do a quick review for the exceptional 2019 fantasy novel, Dark Forge, the second entry in the Masters & Mages trilogy by Miles Cameron.

Miles Cameron is an interesting and talented author who has written several amazing fantasy novels over the last couple of years.  I am a little more familiar with Cameron under his main writing name, Christian Cameron, which he uses for his enjoyable and detailed historical fiction novels, such as last year’s The New Achilles.  However, I really got into his fantasy fiction last year when I read the first Masters & Mages book, Cold Iron, which proved to be a particularly captivating and impressive novel that is really worth checking out.  After enjoying Cold Iron I also decided to have listen to its sequel, Dark Forge, late last year, and while I had a fantastic time reading it, I completely failed to write a review for.  This is a shame because Dark Forge was a really great read and I actually considered it to be one of the best books (and audiobooks) I read in 2019.

Synopsis:

Only fools think war is simple.
Or glorious.

Some are warriors, some captains; others tend to the fallen or feed the living.

But on the magic-drenched battlefield, information is the lifeblood of victory, and Aranthur is about to discover that carrying messages, scouting the enemy, keeping his nerve, and passing on orders is more dangerous, and more essential, then an inexperienced soldier could imagine . . . especially when everything starts to go wrong.

Battle has been joined – on the field, in the magical sphere, and in the ever-shifting political arena . . .

Dark Forge is an excellent novel which takes the reader on a vast and complex adventure through Cameron’s detailed fantasy world.  The book follows the life of its protagonist, student Aranthur Timos, who, after getting involved in some intense espionage and intrigue in the previous novel, now finds himself on the battlefield as his city state goes to war to stop a dangerous and tyrannical new empire gaining power and destroying the current, benevolent status quo.  There is a lot going on in this book, and the authors sets the reader on an impressive and extensive adventure which proves extremely hard to put down.  Cameron starts this book off in impressive fashion, with the protagonist and many of the key side characters from the first novel involved a brutal and elaborate battle sequence that sees magic, gunpowder and troops utilised to a destructive degree.  From there, the story follows Aranthur as he engages in an extended scouting mission, where he attempts to work out the origin of his enemies and the full extent of their plan.  This is followed up with a particularly desperate siege before Aranthur finds himself back in the city that served as the main setting of Cold Iron, where political shenanigans see him branded a traitor and force him to sneak around the city in order to save his friends.

The author blends a lot of different story elements together into this book, which I felt came together well and helps to produce an extremely enjoyable narrative.  The author continues to utilise his distinctive, detail-orientated writing style which fits the scope and tone of the series and helps to produce a fun read with the feel of a classic fantasy novel.  I ended up having an outstanding time seeing the various fun and compelling places where Cameron took this great story, and it ended up being quite an enjoyable book.  It also leaves open some compelling storylines for the final entry in the series and it will be interesting to see how the author ends him impressive overarching plot.  I do think that readers who are interested in checking out Dark Forge should really read Cold Iron first.  While Cameron did do a good job of examining some of the key events that occurred in the first novel, Cold Iron contained an immense amount of story detail, and I personally feel that readers would be well suited to have this story fresh in their mind before getting into Dark Forge.

One of the things that I like the most about the first entry in this series, Cold Iron, was the way in which it served as a coming-of-age story for the protagonist, Aranthur.  Cameron continues this in Dark Forge, as the protagonist once again goes through a lot of growth.  Not only does he begin to become a key player in the fight against the Master (the antagonist of the series), but he also starts to come into his own as a magical user, a swordsman and a leader.  While he is somewhat reluctant to become a warrior and a killer, despite his clear aptitude for it, he eventually becomes more confident in his role, especially after seeing all the dangers and darkness out in the world.  All this great growth continued to endear me to Aranthur, and it was a lot of fun to see the author portray a normal character who has vast responsibilities and adventure thrust upon him and must either adapt or crumble as a result.  Dark Forge also continued to showcase several of the amazing side-characters who were initially introduced in Cold Iron.  Each of these characters gets their own intriguing arcs throughout the book and it was fantastic to see them, and their relationships with Aranthur, evolve over the course of their extended adventure.  Several new compelling characters were also introduced in this novel and their unique narratives helped to enhance Dark Forge’s story.  All of these excellent characters are a lot of fun to follow and I look forward to seeing where they end up at the end of this series.

I also have to highlight the impressive world-building that Cameron featured in Dark Forge.  The author continues to dive down deep into the lore and history of his new realm, particularly as the characters spend most of the novel exploring a new continent that was mentioned but not featured in Cold IronDark Forge’s narrative spends significant time expanding the reader’s knowledge of this new continent, mainly because the protagonists engage in an epic and lengthy trek throughout it, and it was fascinating to see the cool new landscapes that Cameron describes.  In addition, I really enjoyed the expansion of the awesome magical system featured throughout the series.  Much of this is because of a world-changing event that increases the importance and power of magic, but it is also because Aranthur is becoming much more proficient with his magical abilities.  Not only does this result in a deeper understanding of this universes magic systems work, but you also get to see some much more destructive and elaborate displays of magical ability, which results in some very impressive sequences throughout the book.  I personally found the authors inclusion of a series of magical roadside booby traps to be particularly clever, and I also had a lot of love for one of the scenes at the start of the book where the protagonist speeds up his own body in the midst of a battle, ensuring that everyone, except a few opponents, is fighting in slow motion in comparison to him.  I found all of this to be extremely cool and I really appreciated all the amazing new features that Cameron was able to fit into Dark Forge.

Like the first book in this series, I ended up checking out the audiobook version of Dark Forge, which is narrated by Mark Meadows.  The Dark Forge audiobook has a run time of just under 17 hours, which is a couple of hours shorter than Cold Iron, making for a quicker listen, and dedicated listeners can get through it in a short amount of time (I know I did).  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I really think I followed this novel a lot more closely by listening to it.  I was also really glad that Meadows returned to narrate this second novel in the series.  Meadows’s voice serves as a perfect match for Cameron’s unique writing style and he did a fantastic job moving the story along and bringing the various characters to life.  As a result, I would really recommend the audiobook format for anyone interested in checking out Dark Forge and it ended up being an excellent way to enjoy this outstanding book.

Dark Forge by Miles Cameron is an impressive and captivating fantasy read that presents the reader with an intense adventure that follows a relatable and likeable protagonist.  Filled with all manner of action, great side-characters and clever world building, Dark Forge serves as an amazing second entry in the Masters & Mages series, and I had an exceptional time listening to it.  This book gets a full five-star rating from me and I really need to check out the final entry in the series, Bright Steel, next year.

The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow

The Emperor's Exile Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 19

Length: 434 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with the latest exciting novel in his Eagles of the Empire series, The Emperor’s Exile.

Rome, 57 A.D.  Following their adventures in Parthia, Legionary veterans Tribune Cato and Centurion Marco return to Rome with the remnants of their Praetorian Cohort.  Thanks to the ever-shifting politics of Rome and the fickleness of Emperor Nero’s court, Cato faces a hostile reception from some of Nero’s advisors, who hold him responsible for the military disasters experienced in the Parthian campaign.  Soon Cato has his command taken away from him, while Marco decides to resign from the Legions in protest, determined to live out his retirement in Britain.

Isolated in Rome, Cato is forced by one of Nero’s advisors to take on a new and dangerous mission.  Nero’s mistress, the beautiful Claudia Acte, has risen too high too quickly, and Nero’s political enemies have manipulated him into sending her into exile.  Travelling with a select group of Praetorian officers and his new advisor, the spy Apollonius, Cato must escort Claudia to the location of her exile, the island province of Sardinia, where he has another mission to accomplish.

Sardinia has long been plagued by tribes of bandits living wild in the centre of the island.  These proud decedents of the original inhabitants of Sardinia have been causing problems in recent months, raiding the local villages and ambushes caravans.  Taking command of Sardinia’s entire garrison, Cato begins to work out a strategy to defeat the locals and regain his position in Rome.  However, this proves harder than originally anticipated as Cato needs to contend with a disorganised military force, a dangerous plague that is beginning to overwhelm the island and a surprisingly competent group of bandits with unparalleled knowledge of the local landscape.  Worse, Cato begins to have dangerous feelings for Claudia, feelings which his enemies will exploit and which could set the entirety of Rome against him.  Can Cato pacify Sardinia before his entire force is decimated, or have his adventures finally come to an end?

This was another fantastic and highly enjoyable historical fiction novel from one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow, who has produced an impressive new entry in his long-running Eagles of the Empire series.  The Eagles of the Empire books are easily among the best Roman historical fiction series out there at the moment, and I have had an amazing time reading every single entry in this series, including the last two novels, The Blood of Rome and Traitors of RomeThe Emperor’s Exile is the 19th Eagles of the Empire book and the author has produced another impressive story, featuring great historical elements and some fantastic character work.  I had an awesome time reading this book and it is definitely worth checking out.

The Emperor’s Exile contains an extremely fun and captivating narrative which follows Cato work to defeat a new enemy in a new historical setting.  Scarrow sets up an exciting and fast-paced story for this latest book, with the protagonist forced to deal with all manner of politics, intrigue and various forms of deadly peril in rather quick succession as he is assigned his mission and attempts to complete it.  This naturally results in all manner of impressive action sequences which are a lot of fun to watch unfold, including one particularly good extended siege sequence.  It is not all action, adventure and historical undertakings, however, as the book also has an intriguing focus on its central protagonist, Cato.  Cato, who has been evolving as a character over the last 18 books, continues to develop in The Emperor’s Exile in several dramatic and emotionally rich ways.  Not only does he have to adapt to a major change in his personal circumstances with the retirement of a great friend but he continues to question his role in the Roman army and whether he wants to remain a brutal killer.  Throw in an ill-conceived romance, his continued regrets about his past actions and his disastrous first marriage, as well as a certain major change in his appearance for the future, and this becomes quite a substantial novel for Cato which also opens up some intriguing storylines in the future.  I had a wonderful time reading this book and, once I got wrapped up in the story, I was able to power through the book extremely quickly.

In addition to having a great story, The Emperor’s Exile also serves as a key entry in this impressive, long-running series.  While readers who want to check out this book do not particularly need to have read any of the previous Eagles of the Empire books, mainly because Scarrow does an excellent job of revisiting story aspects and characters from prior novels, those established fans of the series are going to find this book particularly significant and memorable.  This is because one of the main protagonists of this series, Centurion Marco, who has been a major part of all 18 previous novels, retires from the Legions 100 or so pages into the book then subsequently disappears off to Britain, leaving Cato to his own adventure in Sardinia.  Scarrow has been telegraphing Marco’s plans to retire for the last couple of books, and it is a natural consequence of the author realistically aging his characters (15 years have elapsed within the series at this point).  While it was somewhat expected, it was still weird and a bit sad not to have Marco fighting along Cato in this latest adventure, especially as their comradeship is one of the defining aspects of this series.  That being said, Cato has grown a lot over the last 18 books and the natural progression of Cato and Marco’s dynamic as characters did necessitate them splitting off at some point.  It will be interesting to see how Scarrow features Marco in the future, especially if he plans to continue the Eagles of the Empire series for several more books (I personally would love it if he goes all the way into The Year of the Four Emperors, as it would wrap up the Vitellius and Vespasian storylines from the earlier books quite nicely).  Based upon how The Emperor’s Exile ends, it looks like Marco is going to appear in the next book, but it is uncertain whether he will continue on as a central protagonist, become an occasional character or go down in a final blaze of glory.  I personally think that Scarrow is planning to permanently retire Marco as a character soon, potentially replacing him with new character, Apollonius.  Apollonius is the dangerous and insightful spy who Cato teamed up with during the previous novel, and who followed Cato back to Rome in this book.  Apollonius served as Cato’s aide, scout and confident during The Emperor’s Exile in place of Marco, and it looks like he will be a major character in the next book as well.  I quite liked Apollonius as a character and it will be interesting if he ends up as Marco’s replacement, especially as he shares a very different dynamic with Cato than Marco did.  All of this makes The Emperor’s Exile quite an intriguing entry in the overall series and I am extremely curious to see what is going to happen to these amazing protagonists next year in the 20th book in the series.

As always, this novel is chock full of fantastic historical detail and storytelling as the author sets his story in some intriguing parts of Roman history.  Not only does the reader get a great view of Rome under the control of Emperor Nero (whose chaotic rule as described in this novel has some interesting modern parallels) but the main story takes place in the island province of Sardinia, off the Italian coast.  Sardinia is a fascinating province that I personally have never seen used before in Roman historical fiction novels and which proved to be a fantastic setting for most of this book’s story.  Scarrow really dives into the history, culture and geography of the island, explaining how it became a Roman province, examining some of the key towns and ports and highlighting the difference between the locals and the Roman settlers.  There is a particularly compelling focus on the tribes who controlled the centre of the island and it was rather interesting to see how a group of rebellious barbarians managed to survive so close to Italy during this period.  Scarrow also provides the reader with his usual focus on the Roman legions/auxiliaries, providing impressive details and depictions of how the Roman war machine operated and what their usual tactics and strategies are.  All of this really helps to enhance the novel and I had an amazing time exploring Sardinia with the Roman protagonists.

Another intriguing aspect of The Emperor’s Exile was the plague storyline that saw the inhabitants of Sardinia, including Cato and his soldiers, have to contend with a deadly infectious sickness.  This plague added an excellent edge to the storyline, serving as a hindrance to the protagonists and ensuring that they constantly have to change their plans while dealing with their enemy.  Not only does this serve as a clever handicap for the Romans but readers cannot help but make some comparisons to modern day events.  While I could potentially be reading a little too much into this and it is possible that Scarrow always intended to feature a plague in this book, I cannot help but think that this was a deliberate choice by the author.  Either way, it proved to be an extremely fascinating part of the book and it was fun to compare the reactions of these historical characters to the actions of people in the real-world.  While this story inclusion may potentially prove to be a little tiring for readers sick of any mentions of disease, infection and quarantine in their day-to-day lives, I thought it was a great addition to the novel, especially as it raised the dangerous stakes of this exciting novel.

With his latest novel, The Emperor’s Exile, Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today.  This latest novel serves as a key entry in his amazing Eagles of the Empire series and it takes the reader on an outstanding, action-packed adventure, loaded with some great character moments and some impressive historical settings.  I had a fantastic time reading this book and I cannot wait to see how Scarrow continues this epic series next year.  Luckily, I only have to wait a few more months for my next dose of this author’s work as his World War II crime fiction novel, Blackout, is set for release next March.

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Tower of Fools Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 October 2020)

English Translation by David French

Series: Hussite trilogy – Book One

Length: 549 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From legendary Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski comes the first English translation of his 2002 release, The Tower of Fools, an intriguing and exciting fantasy/historical fiction hybrid novel that takes the reader on a weird and entertaining adventure.

1425, Silesia (South Western Poland and parts of Czechia).  War is brewing as the Catholic Church fights against the Hussites in a brutal religious struggle.  As the entire region begins to degenerate into conflict and chaos, a young doctor and amateur magician, Reinmar of Bielau, known as Reynevan, finds himself in all manner of trouble when he is caught in bed with the beautiful wife of a knight.

As Reynevan makes his escape, a member of the knight’s family, the powerful Stercza clan, is unintentionally killed, and the rest of the Stercza’s swear vengeance upon him.  Worse, Reynevan’s forays into magic have made him a target of the inquisition, who wish to have an extended and unpleasant chat about his arcane hobbies.  With a massive price on his head, Reynevan is forced to flee into the wilderness to survive as bounty hunters scour the countryside trying to find him.

Calling upon old friends, Reynevan looks for anyway to escape from his pursuers while also attempting to ‘rescue’ the knight’s beautiful wife.  Teaming up with an odd group of comrades, Reynevan makes his way throughout Silesia while attempting to outfox his pursuers.  However, his adventures have inadvertently placed him in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy, one that could change the entire fabric of the region and which threatens everyone he loves.  As Reynevan attempts to work out just what he has become involved with, his path leads him to the infamous Tower of Fools, an asylum for the insane and the heretical.  Can Reynevan escape the danger he finds himself in, or will his adventures cost him his life and his mind?

The Tower of Fools is a compelling and unique novel from veteran author Andrzej Sapkowski, who is best known for his iconic The Witcher novels.  This novel is the first entry in Sapkowski’s Hussite trilogy, which is the main series he has authored outside of The Witcher books.  The Tower of Fools was originally released back in 2002 under the original title Narrenturm, and while it has previously been translated into several other European languages, this version represents the first English translation of the book.  The translation of The Tower of Fools was done by David French, who has previously translated several Witcher novels, and no doubt we can expect the next two novels in the series (previously published in 2004 and 2006) to be translated and released in the coming years.  While I really enjoyed The Witcher television series, I must admit that I am not too familiar with Sapkowski’s writing, having so far only read the 2018 translation of The Witcher standalone novel Season of Storms.  However, due to the inevitable interest that was going to surround The Tower of Fools, I was quite keen to check out this book, and I ended up really enjoying it due to its captivating narrative, outrageous characters and excellent use of some distinctive historical fiction elements.

This novel from Sapkowski contains a fantastic and enjoyable narrative that proves surprisingly hard to put down at times.  The author has done a fantastic job blending together interesting historical fiction and fantasy elements that come together to create a distinctive adventure story.  The Tower of Fools is mostly told from the perspective of its central character, Reynevan, although several other perspectives are occasionally used throughout the novel.  What I liked about this book was the fact that it was a fast-paced, event-laden narrative that showered the reader with all manner of action and intrigue.  Reynevan and his companions essentially run into a different dangerous obstacle, major historical event or dastardly opponent every chapter, which they are forced to overcome or escape from in short order.  This ensures that the reader is constantly on their feet as they are never certain what new trouble or adventure lies on the horizon.  In addition, there is also a subtle line of intrigue that sees a sinister conspiracy begin to unfold around the protagonist as he finds himself in the midst of a series of murders and political manoeuvrings.  While this seems like a lot of elements for one book, it comes together surprisingly well into a cohesive and exhilarating narrative that I quite enjoyed, and which serves as an impressive start to the entire Hussite trilogy.  There are a lot of fun elements to this book, and I particularly want to point out the rather entertaining introductions that occur at the start of each chapter, giving the reader a humorous heads-up of what is to come throughout the series.  I did find it interesting that the titular Tower of Fools, which is referenced strongly throughout the official synopsis for this book, does not show up until really late in the book and is only a setting for a relatively short period.  While this book does contain several great and dark scenes in this location, this novel might have been more interesting if more of the story was featured in this asylum.  Still, I had an awesome time getting through The Tower of Fool’s cool story, and it was an absolute thrill ride from start to finish.

One of the major things that I liked about The Tower of Fools is the way in which Sapkowski complimented his entertaining narrative with a huge selection of distinctive characters.  This includes the main protagonist of the novel, Reynevan, the foolhardy student doctor and magician who serves as the main point-of-view character.  While he is the driving force for most of The Tower of Fools’ narrative, I actually found Reynevan to be a little annoying, especially as his impulsive nature, which is mostly driven by unrealistic ideas of heroism and romance, continues to get him into trouble.  This becomes especially annoying when his stupid decisions endanger his friends, whose determination to point out Reynevan’s mistakes help to make them more likeable.  Despite being a typical foolish young male protagonist, Reynevan does grow on you a bit as the book progresses and it proves hard not to relate to some of his impulses at time.  While his actions did occasionally exasperate me, I really did enjoy him as a character, and his keen insights and fun antics ensure that the reader has a great time following him throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to Reynevan, the main two side characters of The Tower of Fools are the fun duo of Scharley and Samson, two very different men who become Reynevan’s travelling companions.  Both of these characters are extremely entertaining in their own right, and Sapkowski weaves some great narrative threads around them.  Scharley is a crude, belligerent and surprisingly dangerous priest who leaves his imprisonment in a monastery to assist Reynevan.  Scharley serves as the main voice of reason and caution for much of the book and proves to be an interesting counterpoint to the youthful and impulsive Reynevan, whom he often has to threaten with violence in an attempt to get him to do the logical or sane course of action.  Their other companion is Samson, a giant of a man with an intense intelligence, who may or may not be possessed by a demon.  Samson is a really fun addition to the group, and I really enjoyed him as a character thanks to his unique demeanour and characterisation.  These two companions are quite intriguing in their own way and it was a lot of fun to see them interact with Reynevan and the other characters they come across.  This book also contains a multitude of extra characters, many of whom have their own intriguing storyline or character trait.  While many of these characters are entertaining and interesting additions to the plot, I think that Sapkowski might have slightly overdone it with the side characters.  While I did my best, there were honestly way too many supporting cast members to keep track of at times, especially as a lot of characters appeared or reappeared out of nowhere with very little explanation.  Still, this chaotic use of characters fits in very well with The Tower of Fool’s event-laden narrative, and it did not have too severe an impact on my enjoyment of the book.  The more distinctive characters proved to be quite entertaining and I had a good time seeing where some of their arcs ended up.

Sapkowski also makes impressive use of some cool historical fiction elements to tell his unique story.  The Tower of Fools is set in the early 15th century in an area of the world that is experiencing a lot of turmoil, Silesia.  Much of the book’s plot revolves around the major conflict of the period between the Catholic Church and the Hussites, a religious offshoot that was declared heretical and which the Church launched several Crusades against.  This proves to be a fascinating background to the main story, and Sapkowski features a lot of interesting Eastern European historical inclusions throughout his book.  This includes a range of references to key elements of regional history and politics that were quite intriguing, as well as the use of several major historical figures in varying roles, including some cameos from people like Gutenberg and Copernicus.  The author does a pretty good job of explaining these historical elements to the reader, although I did have to do some independent research to answer a few questions and fill in a few gaps.  A lot of this was due to my somewhat lacking knowledge of Eastern European medieval history, and those readers with a little more appreciation for the location will no doubt follow along a little better.  I did think that The Tower of Fools contains a rather excellent depiction of the landscape and the people that would have existed during this bleak period.  The various bits of intrigue, plots and war that occur throughout the book really fit into Sapkowski’s impressive and dark, setting, and it definitely helped to enhance part of the book’s story.  This was also the perfect setting for the various magical elements that occurred throughout the book, as their darker aesthetic matched the location to a tee, especially as there are a number of scenes set out in the dangerous and monster-filled woods.  All of this makes for a great setting, and I had an excellent time seeing this historical setting be put to amazing use throughout The Tower of Fools.

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski is an enjoyable and fun novel that takes the reader on an epic adventure back to a dark version of historical Eastern Europe.  Filled with some great characters, intriguing historical features and a fantastic story, The Tower of Fools turned out to be quite a captivating read.  I look forward to seeing how the rest of the Hussite trilogy unfolds and I imagine I will be in for an exciting ride.  The Tower of Fools comes highly recommended and it should prove to be an excellent read to any fans of Andrzej Sapkowski and The Witcher novels.