Engines of Empire by R. S. Ford

Engines of Empire Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: The Age of Uprising – Book One

Length: 22 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling fantasy author R. S. Ford starts off an intriguing and compelling new epic fantasy series with the powerful Engines of Empire, a great read that I had a wonderful time reading.

Ford is an author who has been writing some interesting books in the last few years.  His big works include the Steelhaven and War of the Archons series, both of which have some very intriguing plots.  While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of his previous work, I have heard some great things about his War of the Archons books, and I might have to go back and check it out at some point.  After reading some early positive reviews of Ford’s latest novel, Engines of Empire, I decided to check it out, grabbing an audiobook version, which proved to be extremely good.  This cool book serves as the first entry in Ford’s new The Age of Uprising series and sets the scene for a captivating and exciting new trilogy.

For generations, the nation of Torwyn has been ruled by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who provide the nation its food, weapons, transportation and invaluable devices that fuse magic with technology.  One of the most prominent Guilds is the Hawkspurs, an ancient and powerful family who have long held the empire together and ensured its position in the world.  However, the current generation of Hawkspurs are about to find that everything they thought they knew is about to change.

As the matriarch of the family, Rosomon Hawkspur, attempts to maintain her family’s status and standing in Torwyn’s capital, the Anvil, her children each head off to find their own destinies.  The oldest son, Conall, departs to the empire’s distant frontier to prove his worth as a military commander.  The rebellious and magical Hawkspur daughter, Tyreta, is sent to an important imperial holding to facilitate her training as the future head of the family business.  The youngest son, Fulren, a talented artificer, finds himself involved in foreign politics when he is tasked with guiding an emissary from a powerful rival nation.

However, forces of chaos, fanaticism and destruction are all around them, and soon all the Hawkspurs are placed in mortal danger.  At the frontier, Conall attempts to prove himself, but only finds rejection and hints at a rising evil.  Tyreta’s reckless actions place her in mortal danger, and her only path to salvation lies in understanding the people her nation has hurt the most.  Back in the Anvil, Fulren is framed for murder and is soon banished to a hostile foreign nation ruled by dark gods.  Rosomon, desperate to save her fractured family, finds herself thrust into the middle treachery and dark revolution, as unseen hands plot against the guilds.  As the entirety of the world changes all around them and dangerous forces reveal themselves, can the Hawkspurs endure, or will they, and the entirety of Torwyn, come to utter ruin?

Engines of Empire was a captivating and entertaining fantasy epic that transports the reader to intricate new world, filled with interesting characters, political intrigue, and intense action, and makes for an excellent and exciting read.

At the centre of Engines of Empire is a massive and complex narrative that fully explores the various main characters while also plunging the intriguing new setting into chaos and anarchy.  Ford utilises a great multiple perspective storytelling device that splits the overall book into some compelling, separate chunks.  The story initially has four distinctive storylines that follow the Hawkspur family members as they go off on their own separate adventures.  This results in an interesting blend of plotlines as you have a more military story with Conall, a survival/adventure storyline with Tyreta, Rosomon’s political intrigue narrative, and Fulren’s life-or-death struggle in a foreign land.  These storylines are mostly unconnected to each other and not only allow the point of view protagonists to grow and develop independently with their own group of supporting characters, but it also ensures that the reader gets to explore various aspects of the new fantasy realm and see the range of different problems affecting it.  These four storylines develop at a reasonable and compelling pace, and the reader soon is drawn into their individual storylines, as well as some of the overlapping conspiracies that are featured throughout.  A fifth point-of-view character is introduced about halfway through the novel, which mainly acts to bolster one of the existing storylines and proves to be an excellent feature filled with action and espionage.  This leads to the final stretch of the novel, where several big events and twists occur that shake the foundation of the novel and take it in an excellent new direction.  Several of the separate plot lines start to come together more closely towards the end, and there are some excellent moments as the characters reunite to face a common foe.  This leads to an exciting and intense conclusion that takes several of the character storylines in interesting direction and sets up the rest of the trilogy extremely well.

I really liked how Engines of Empire came together as Ford wrote an excellent fantasy tale that made sure to cover a vast range of people and places.  The entirety of Engines of Empire has a great combination of story elements that ensures there is something for all sorts of readers here, including massive world building, great action, clever political intrigue, dangerous adventures or interesting characters.  I particularly enjoyed the great use of five character driven storylines centred on different point-of-view protagonists.  Not only did they come together well to produce a great overall narrative but they also provided the reader with several unique adventures with their own appeal.  I particularly enjoyed Fulren’s story, as it featured an excellent blend of interesting world building in a rival nation ruled by dark magic and impressive character moments.  Tyreta’s jungle-based survival mission was also really cool, especially with the intriguing side characters and brutal combat, while the fifth storyline introduced halfway through the book was filled with some amazing sequences and intriguing international espionage.  Unfortunately, the remaining two storylines surrounding Rosomon and Conall were a little slower and I didn’t have as much fun reading them, even with their respective political intrigue and desert action elements.  I struggled a little to get through these specific storylines at times, especially towards the centre of the novel, and it slowed down my overall reading of Engines of Empire.  Still, both storylines end on interesting notes, and I think they might have more potential in the sequel.

Due to the narrative being focused on five specific central characters, Ford spends a lot of time in Engines of Empire exploring and building up some of the characters.  The main protagonists are the four members of the Hawkspur family, Rosomon, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, each of whom have their own skill.  Due to certain tragedies in their past, the family is a bit dysfunctional, and there is a noticeable distance between them.  I liked seeing each of them go on their own distinctive journey throughout the book, and each of them does develop to a degree, especially Fulren and Tyreta.  However, I did find myself getting rather frustrated with some of the protagonists as the book continued, especially as there is a lot of narrative stupidity and inconsistent character work.  This is particularly true for Conall, who comes across as a whiney idiot for most of the novel, while Rosomon, who is supposed to be a brilliant leader and tactician, is soundly outsmarted at every turn and can’t even see the most obvious of traps.  I felt these negative character traits deeply impacted their individual storylines, and it made them harder to care for.  On the other hand, I felt the fifth point-of-view character, Lancelin Jagdor, rounded out the main cast extremely well.  Lancelin is a master swordsman who has a very complicated relationship with the Hawkspurs.  He finds himself getting dragged into their issues about halfway through the book, and I think his interesting outlook and unique experiences help to balance out the less enjoyable protagonists and produce a better story.

Aside from these five main protagonists, Ford has also included a great collection of supporting characters.  These supporting characters are usually unique to one of the main protagonists’ storylines and are primarily shown through their eyes.  Many of these characters prove to be allies or friends of the protagonist, although there are a few good antagonists thrown in there as well.  Some of my favourites include Sted, Conall’s hard-drinking second in command, whose fun, no nonsense personality helps to enhance Conall’s storyline to a degree.  I also had fun with Kosma Khonos, a ruthless Torwyn spy in the kingdom of Nyrakkis, Saranor the Bleeder, an over-the-top barbarian war chief, and Wenis, a foreign witch who becomes both a jailor and love interest to Fulren, which ends up being one of the more interesting relationships in the entire novel.  This huge web of supporting characters really helps to enhance the overall story and I look forward to seeing some of these elaborate and distinctive figures again in the future.

I was deeply impressed with the amazing new fantasy world featured in Engines of Empire, and it appears that Ford spent a significant amount of time developing it.  The main setting for the novel is the fascinating nation of Torwyn, a former religious nation that has been taken over by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who now hold sway over the various industries.  Torwyn is built up beautifully by Ford, and you soon get the full sense of it, including its intriguing industrial aspects, magic-powered technology, dragon-based religion, and ruthless politics.  The arrangement of Torwyn leads to an intense civil war that looks set to shape the future of much of the novel and serves as a brutal and fantastic central setting for several storylines.  While Torwyn proves to be an exceptional area to explore, Ford goes above and beyond and takes the reader to several other intriguing locations within and without it.  Thanks to the adventurous characters, you see some of the more desolate and dangerous locations in the lands, such as the jungle-covered Sundered Isles, the war riven frontier, the snow-covered, barbarian-infested Huntan Reach, and the magical controlled nation of Nyrakkis.  While all these locations were pretty cool, I particularly loved the dive into Nyrakkis, which proved to be a very intricate location filled with intrigue and demonic magic.  The jungles of the Sundered Isles were also extremely awesome, and Ford provides an interesting examination of the tribes who were displaced by the Torwyn settlers, especially as Tyreta spends time amongst them and getting to know their culture.  Throw in an interesting blend of different magical practices and technologies, as well as a few fun creatures (giant war eagles and beast men for the win), and you have an extremely awesome world that I can’t wait to return to in the future books.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Engines of Empire, which ended up being a very enjoyable experience.  With a run time of just over 22 hours, this is a pretty substantial audiobook (it would have come in at number 18 on my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks list), and it did take a fair bit of effort to get through, especially in some of the slower parts of the story.  Despite its length, I think that it is worth the time to get through this audiobook, especially as it proves to be an excellent way to absorb Engines of Empire’s story.  I always find myself really connecting more to new fantasy settings and characters in this format, and this happened again with Engines of Empire, as I really found myself absorbing all the interesting details about this world.  I also loved how the Engines of Empire audiobook had several different narrators including Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve and Stephen Perry.  These narrators provide a rich and powerful audible tapestry, with one narrator assigned to voice all the chapters told from the perspective of a specific point-of-view character.  Not only do the narrators do a good job capturing the personalities of the main characters they are portraying but they also provide some fun voices for the various supporting figures and antagonists.  While it is occasionally odd to hear a narrator start voicing a character who had appeared in other chapters, this ended being a great collection of voices and I loved how well they all brought the characters to life.  An overall excellent audiobook, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check out Engines of Empire and I had a brilliant time listening to it.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with my first book from R. S. Ford.  Engines of Empire was an excellent read that takes the reader on an epic fantasy adventure.  Making awesome use of a big cast of characters, Ford transports his audience to a brilliant and elaborate fantasy realm filled with adventure, intrigue and betrayal.  I had an amazing time getting throughout Ford’s captivating narrative, and I loved the exception world building that he did.  While I didn’t enjoy all of the characters, Engines of Empire ended up being an outstanding read that does a wonderful job setting up his next The Age of Uprising novel.  A great fantasy novel that is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.

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Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Lesser Evil Cover

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 16 November 2021)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book Three

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The undisputed master of Star Wars extended fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with final book in the Thrawn Ascendancy series, Lesser Evil, which brings this excellent prequel trilogy to a fantastic and dramatic end.

Out of all the awesome authors who have contributed to the Star Wars extended universe over the years, few are more talented or highly regarded than Timothy Zahn.  Zahn, who is one of the key architects of the original extended universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends), is probably best known for his original trilogy of Star Wars novels, which started with Heir to the EmpireHeir to the Empire served as the introduction of several major extended universe characters, such as Mara Jade; however, his most iconic creation is probably the legendary character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is an intriguing and complex figure considered the greatest tactician in the entire Star Wars canon.  Serving as a major figure in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn was the brilliant antagonist of Heir to the Empire and other major Star Wars Legends novels.  The subsequent popularity of Thrawn saw him eventually introduced into the Disney canon in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, as well as a future live-action appearance.  This also resulted in Zahn being contracted to write six new Thrawn-centric novels.  The Thrawn trilogy (made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason), detailed Thrawn’s introduction, rise and career in Imperial Navy and filled in some of the gaps of the show.  Zahn followed this up with the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, which served as a prequel to the original trilogy.

The Thrawn Ascendancy series is set during the Clone Wars period and takes place in the Chaos, the unexplored area of space outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars series, and focuses on Thrawn’s species, the Chiss.  As such, the series is primarily set in and around the Chiss Ascendancy and focuses on several threats to the Ascendancy that Thrawn attempts to overcome.  This series has so far consisted of Chaos Rising and Greater Good, both of which were extremely cool, filled with detailed battles, fun new characters, and some intense political machinations.  Now this brilliant trilogy comes to an end, with a final chapter telling the full story of Thrawn’s greatest victory and lowest moment.

For thousands of years, the legendary Chiss Ascendancy has been one of the greatest powers within the Chaos, keeping its people safe from the alien races who seek to conquer or destroy them.  Confident in its own power and determined not to interfere in the lives of its neighbours, the Chiss maintain their borders through the Expansionary Defence Fleet.  However, in recent months, the Ascendancy has found itself under attack from a dangerous and manipulative force that seeks to utterly destroy the Chiss.  After defeating a potential external invader and weathering an attempt to drag some of the Ascendancy’s powerful families into conflict, the threat to the Chiss appears to be over.  However, these were merely a precursor to a much more sophisticated and dangerous attack by a new alien race, known as the Grysk.  Led by the dangerous and manipulative Jixtus, the Grysk seek to unleash a deadly, multi-pronged assault against the Chiss to rip the ascendancy apart inside and out.

As Jixtus traverses the planets of the Ascendancy, manipulating the great Chiss families towards civil war, his powerful fleet lies just outside its borders, waiting to attack.  With the Chiss getting closer and closer to a devastating internal and external conflict, the fate of the Ascendancy lies in the hands of Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo (Thrawn), the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet’s most brilliant and unconventional commander.  Having defeated the previous attacks on the Ascendancy, Thrawn is the only person that fully understands the oncoming danger and he is determined to stop Jixtus and permanently end the threat he represents.  However, Thrawn has long worn out the patience of the ruling families, and he now finds himself hamstrung by politics and personal grievances.  To save his people, Thrawn will be forced to break all the rules he has sworn to uphold.  But just how far will Thrawn go to defeat his enemy, and what consequences will his actions have on himself and the future of the Chiss Ascendancy?

Lesser Evil was another brilliant and exceptional read from Zahn that did an amazing job of wrapping the complex Thrawn Ascendancy series to an end.  Containing some awesome and unique Star Wars elements, Lesser Evil fills in all the gaps between this trilogy and the sequel Thrawn trilogy, and I think it ended up being one of Zahn’s strongest recent novels.

This novel contains an amazing narrative that brings together all the elaborate and compelling storylines from the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels and provides a satisfying and fantastic conclusion to the trilogy.  The novel starts off right after the events of Greater Good, with several characters dealing with the aftermath of the near civil war and Thrawn’s latest unofficial mission.  The story quickly introduces the book’s antagonist, the master manipulator Jixtus, as he starts his grand plan to destroy the entire Chiss Ascendancy.  This brings out an impressive amount of intrigue, infighting and dissent, which forces many of the protagonists to attempt to slow it down.  At the same time, Thrawn engages in his own mission to try and identify the enemy’s master plan, which reintroduces several key storylines and settings from the previous novels and helps tie them into the plot of this book.  Zahn also throws in a series of flashback interludes that dive into key parts of Thrawn’s past and give some context to his current mindset and plans.  This all leads up to the big conclusion in which the great adversaries, Thrawn and Jixtus, finally meet in battle.  Lesser Evil proves to be a particularly exciting and intriguing read, and I loved the brilliant combination of world building, political intrigue, character development and fantastic battle sequences.  I had a lot of fun with this story, and it was one of the strongest in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.

I really enjoyed how Zahn told this final entry in the series.  The great use of multiple character perspectives not only allows for a richer story that examines all angles of the conflict but it also presents several impressive character driven storylines that were wonderful to follow.  In addition, Zahn once again lays onto the universe building by expanding the reader’s knowledge of the alien Chiss Ascendancy and their domain outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars universe.  This universe building excellently comes into play as the novel progresses, especially as the antagonist’s plan relies on manipulating the politics and history of the various ruling families.  I really appreciated this cool extended look into this intriguing setting, especially as it ties into some of Zahn’s prior work.  Due to the extensive and elaborate Star Wars lore contained within Lesser Evil, this book is probably best read by experienced fans of the franchise who will appreciate all the inclusions.  It is also highly recommended that readers check out the first two novels in this trilogy first, as the storylines of Lesser Evil are very strongly tied into them.

Lesser Evil contains some intriguing connections to the wider Star Wars universe and canon that long-term fans of the franchise will deeply appreciate.  These connections mainly revolve around Thrawn’s prior appearances and fills in many gaps that were left open from the Thrawn trilogy.  This includes the full reason why the original series began with Thrawn banished from his people and left stranded on an alien planet.  It has been pretty clear since the first Thrawn Ascendancy novel that this entire trilogy has been leading up to this moment, and Zahn did not disappoint, including a moving and complex reason for the banishment that played perfectly into the character’s personality and the events of the previous novels.  Zahn also layers in a ton of intriguing connections to his Star Wars Legends novels that fans will deeply enjoy.  For example, parts of Lesser Evil are deeply connected to Zhan’s previous novel, the now non-canon Outbound Flight, which also focused on a younger Thrawn.  Parts of Outbound Flight’s story and setting have been adapted into the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, such as some elements of Chiss culture and some supporting characters, and it was interesting to see Zahn retrofit his previous works for the new canon.  In addition, key flashbacks within Lesser Evil take place in a version of Outbound Flight’s narrative, and while I did think this was cool, Zahn did not include a lot of context, so readers unfamiliar with his prior book may be left a little confused.  Still, this was a clever homage to the author’s prior works, and I appreciated Zahn’s fascinating references to his now defunct novels.

One of the strongest things about Lesser Evil was the great array of characters featured throughout.  There is a very strong cast in this final book, with most of the key characters having been established in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels or re-introduced from some of Zahn’s Star Wars Legends novels.  All the major characters featured in Lesser Evil have some amazing story arcs and Zahn spends a lot of time fleshing out their personalities, motivations, and histories, which deeply enhances this brilliant narrative.

The most prominent of these characters is Thrawn himself, who has an epic showing in Lesser Evil after being somewhat underutilised in Greater Good. Lesser Evil proves to be a defining novel for Thrawn, especially as he encounters his true enemy, the Grysk, for the first time.  The reader is also given insights into certain previously unseen relationships that Thrawn had, namely with his adopted brother, Thrass.  It also finally reveals the reasons why he was banished from the Chiss and marooned on the deserted alien planet by the start of Thrawn.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character arc surrounding Thrawn in this book, and Zahn does a great job once again highlighting his unique personality and motivations.  Despite being a little less sinister in literary form than in Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn has a harsh edge here, and the reader gets some great insights into his constant motivation of protecting the Chiss Ascendancy.  Throughout the course of the book, it becomes deeply apparent that Thrawn will risk everything to achieve his goal, and I loved how heartless Thrawn can become when dealing with his enemies.  This motivation and background go a long way to exploring Thrawn’s actions while serving the Empire, and fans of this fantastic character will deeply appreciate this compelling story arc.  Zahn also answers several intriguing questions about Thrawn’s past in this book, and it proved incredibly fascinating to see this great character expanded even further.

I must once again highlight the great way in which Zahn displays his central protagonist.  As with his previous appearances in Zahn’s novels, Thrawn is one of the few characters whose perspective is not shown; instead all his actions and interactions are viewed through the eyes of his friends, allies, and even a couple of enemies.  I have always felt that this was a very clever technique from Zahn as it helps to highlight just how mysterious and distinctly complex his protagonist is.  Readers are only given glimpses into his brilliance, and it allows for increased suspense and surprise throughout the novel as the reader often has no idea what Thrawn is thinking or how he plans to get out of a certain situation.  The use of other observers also really helps to highlight the tactical ploys Thrawn employs, especially as he usually is forced to explain his insights, strategies, and the entire scope of his plans to the less tactically gifted people he is working with.  These elaborate explanations, coupled with the observations of the relevant side character, ensures that the readers get a much more detailed picture of Thrawn’s observations and subsequent tactics.  I have often compared this to how Watson amps up the deductive ability of Sherlock Holmes by having Sherlock explain everything to him, and the result is pretty much the same here.  I deeply enjoyed this fantastic use of perspective and I love everything that Zahn did with his iconic protagonist throughout Lesser Evil, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series.

If Thrawn was Sherlock Holmes, then I would say that antagonist Jixtus was the Professor Moriarty of the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  A member of the mysterious Grysk species, Jixtus has been a shadowy figure throughout the proceeding novels, influencing events from the shadows and sending out proxies to fight Thrawn and the Chiss.  This comes to an end in Lesser Evil as Jixtus takes a personal hand in attacking the Chiss Ascendancy.  Jixtus proves to be an excellent and brilliant counterpoint to Thrawn and it is fascinating to see the battle of minds between them, especially as both have alternate strengths.  While Thrawn is tactically brilliant, Jixtus is better at personal manipulation and politics, something Thrawn struggles with.  As such, there is a real battle of styles here in Lesser Evil and the result is pretty brilliant.  I also really appreciated how you also never see any part of the book told from Jixtus’ perspective, ensuring that he is just as mysterious and ethereal as Thrawn.  I loved how Zahn portrays Jixtus in this novel; he comes across as an incredibly dangerous and malevolent being, even though you never see his face.

The other new character I wanted to focus on in this book was Thrass (Mitth’ras’safis), Thrawn’s friend and fellow member of the Mitth family.  Thrass is an interesting character, initially introduced in the previous canon as Thrawn’s brother.  There have only been hints of him in the Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and this final book finally features in him to a degree, showing him in a series of flashback interludes set in Thrawn’s past.  Thrass is shown to be a Mitth politician who finds himself befriending and then partnering with Thrawn through a series of adventures.  The two complement each other extremely well, with Thrass serving as a bridge for the more unconventional Thrawn, while also supporting him with his political knowledge.  Thrass’s scenes proved to be a great inclusion to the novel and I felt the author did a great job re-introducing the character, even if only for flashback sequences.  I really appreciated the author’s examination about how this friendship, and later brotherhood, was vital to Thrawn’s growth and current abilities, and I particularly enjoyed the examination about how Thrass helped develop Thrawn’s flair for the dramatic.  Fans of Zahn’s Legend’s work will deeply enjoy the new appearance of this established character in Lesser Evil, and I think it was an interesting and fun choice from the author, that ended up working incredibly well.

I must also highlight how Zahn featured the other recurring characters from the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  Pretty much all the major characters from the previous two novels are featured strongly in Lesser Evil, and there are some remarkably good storylines set around them.  Thrawn’s crew aboard the Springhawk get a decent amount of focus throughout this book, particularly Samakro, Thalias and Che’ri, and each of their storylines are nicely concluded.  In addition, I loved the continued use of Ziinda, another Senior Captain, who, after barely averting a civil war in the previous book, finds herself subsequently vilified and forced into a new family.  Ziinda proves to be a vital part of the plot, and it was great to see how much she had developed since the previous novel, especially as Zahn starts her on the path to becoming as determined as Thrawn.  Zahn also makes great use of Roscu, a former member of the Expansionary Defence Fleet who had issues with Thrawn in Chaos Rising. Roscu is initially set up as a secondary antagonist, especially as her mistrust of Thrawn, his friends, and all the rival families, drives her to do some stupid things.  However, Zahn slowly turns her into a surprisingly sympathetic character as the novel progresses and you end up really rooting for her.  I also loved Qilori, a supposedly neutral Pathfinder with a grudge against Thrawn; and Thurfian, the Mitth Patriarch who views Thrawn and his actions as a threat to his family and the Chiss as a whole.  These two serve as interesting secondary antagonists to the story, and it was great to see their outraged reaction to Thrawn’s actions, as well as their own attempts to end him.  These characters, and many more, added so much to this book, and I loved seeing all their arcs conclude with the trilogy.

I cannot talk about a Zahn Star Wars novel without highlighting the amazing and exciting space battles featured within.  No one does a space battle in Star Wars fiction better than Zahn, who devotes an impressive amount of time and detail into making them as impressive, thrilling, and tactically awesome as possible.  The reader gets a detailed mental impression of the space engagements that occur, and you can practically feel every shot, roll, or manoeuvre.  Lesser Evil was a particularly good example of this, featuring several great battle scenes, including one massive and action-packed confrontation towards the end.  Each sequence was beautifully rendered and perfectly portrayed, with the reader getting the full sense of everything that happened.  Throw in the distinctive technology of the Chiss, as well as the tactical abilities of Thrawn, and you have some of the most unique and brilliant battles in all of Star Wars fiction, especially as there is a great focus on larger cruisers and battleships, rather than smaller fighter craft.  I deeply enjoyed every battle sequence in this book, and fans of fights in space are in for a real treat here.

Unsurprisingly, I ended up checking out the audiobook version of Lesser Evil, rather than reading a psychical copy.  I cannot overemphasise just how amazing the Star Wars audiobooks are, thanks to their usual amazing combinations of impressive voice acting, clever sound effects and moving Star Wars music.  Lesser Evil is a great example of this, and I had a wonderful time getting through this brilliant audiobook, even with its extensive 23+ hours run time (it would rank 17th on the current version of My Longest Audiobook I Have Ever Listened To list).  I must once again highlight the cool sound effects that were utilised throughout the audiobook to great effect.  These effects, most of which have been taken from Star Wars films and animated shows, add so much depth and power to the audiobook’s scenes, building up a strong atmosphere around the words.  Sounds like blaster fire or roaring engines really help to bring the listeners into the centre of the book’s climatic scenes, while even smaller scenes get a boost thanks to having crowd noises or computer sounds lightly running in the background.  The audiobook also makes good use of the iconic Star Wars score in various parts.  While not featured as heavily as other Star Wars audiobooks, in several places the amazing orchestral music from the films is utilised to give some major scenes a dramatic punch.  This is particularly true in some of the battle sequences, and the listeners are treated to some of the more exciting or moving tunes, which makes the battles or major moments feel bigger and more important.

In addition to this great use of sound effects and epic Star Wars music, Lesser Evil’s audiobook also benefited immensely from the narration of Marc Thompson.  Thompson is an amazing narrator (one of my personal favourites), who has contributed his voice to a huge range of Star Wars novels, including all of Zahn’s previous Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and other audiobooks such as Scoundrels, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, Dark Disciple and more.  Thompson has such a great range for Star Wars fiction, and he can produce some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters featured within.  Most of these voices are continuations of the ones used in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and I enjoyed the consistency from the previous two books.  I must also really highlight Thompson’s epic Thrawn voice, that perfectly captures the character’s essence, and which is incredibly close to Lars Mikkelsen’s voice from Star Wars: Rebels.  I also loved the voice that Thompson assigned to Jixtus, and the dark and sinister tones perfectly fit this awesome villain.  Thompson also cleverly modulated his voice for certain alien races to capture the unique characteristics Zahn assigned to them in his writing.  You really get a sense about how alien and strange these creatures are, which helped bring me into the zone.  This was another exceptional Star Wars audiobook, and this is easily the best way to enjoy this clever and impressive novel.

With the brilliant and captivating Lesser Evil, the legendary Timothy Zahn brings his awesome Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy to an end in a big way.  Loaded up with excellent universe building, an outstanding story, some excellent characters and some truly impressive space battles, Lesser Evil is probably the best entries in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.  I loved how Zahn brought the trilogy’s various storylines together in this final novel, providing an exciting and captivating conclusion that perfectly leads into the original Thrawn trilogy.  Thanks to all of this and more, Lesser Evil gets a full five stars from me and comes extremely highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  I have had an incredible time reading the various Thrawn novels over the last few years and I really hope that Timothy Zahn continues to explore his iconic protagonist in the future, especially once Thrawn gets his long overdue live action debut.

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The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

The Bone Maker Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 9 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 16 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the leading voices in fantasy fiction, the impressive Sarah Beth Durst, returns with another epic standalone fantasy read, The Bone Maker.

Sarah Beth Durst is an amazingly talented author who has been dominating the fantasy market for the last several years.  Initially debuting with several fun young adult and middle grade novels, such as the 2009 release Ice, Durst made the jump to adult novels in 2014 with The Lost, before writing her bestselling Queens of Renthia fantasy series.  I only recently started reading Durst’s work when I checked out her 2020 novel, Race the SandsRace the Sands was a gripping standalone fantasy read that featured a thrilling tale of adventure and redemption set around monster racing in a desert kingdom.  I absolutely loved Race the Sands, and it ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of last year, and Durst was easily one of the best new-to-me authors I checked out in 2020.  As a result, I have been really keen to see what Durst would write next, and I was excited when I heard about her new book, The Bone MakerThe Bone Maker was one of my most anticipated novels of 2021, and I ended up having a wonderful time reading it.

25 years ago, the nation of Vos was threatened by a terrible foe, the rogue bone maker Eklor, whose nightmarish creations of animal bone and mechanical components sought to overwhelm everything.  In the end, Vos was saved by five heroes who led an army to Eklor’s door to destroy him.  However, their victory came at a steep cost, as one of the heroes died a tragic death, and only four walked away from Eklor’s tower.

In the years that followed, the leader of the heroes, Kreya, has lived a life of exile, determined to resurrect her husband, Jentt, who died to stop the evil assailing their realm.  Using Eklor’s notes, Kreya has succeeded in cracking the spells needed to complete the resurrection, but bringing the dead back to life has a heavy cost.  Not only does Kreya lose a day of her life for every day that Jentt lives, but Kreya also requires human bones to complete the spell,. The bones of the dead are ritualistically burnt throughout Vos specifically to prevent bone workers using them for dark magic, so Kreya is forced to look elsewhere for her materials.  In her desperation, she decides to return to the one place she swore never to go back to: the plains outside Eklor’s tower, where the bones of those fought against Eklor’s monsters still lie.

Making the arduous and forbidden journey to Eklor’s tower, Kreya makes a terrifying discovery that threatens everything she fought for all those years ago.  With the dangers of the past threatening to overwhelm her, Kreya has no choice but to reunite her comrades 25 years after their famous victory.  But will these damaged heroes be enough to face the evil threatening to overwhelm them, or will an evil long thought destroyed arise again to finish off what it started?

Wow, Durst definitely does not disappoint as she has created another impressive and powerful fantasy novel.  I had an absolute blast reading this fantastic new book and I managed to finish it off relatively quickly, especially once I got wrapped up in the outstanding story, clever setting and the lives of her amazing protagonists.  I really enjoyed this awesome standalone fantasy read and I have to give The Bone Maker a full five-star rating.

For her latest amazing fantasy novel, Durst has come up with a very complex and powerful story that dives deep into the hearts of her fantastic characters while also taking them on an epic journey of redemption.  I have to admit when I read some of the early descriptions of The Bone Maker I assumed it was going to be the central protagonist, Kreya, going up against her old companions as they tried to stop her from resurrecting her husband.  Instead, Durst works in a very different narrative that sees Kreya encounter the enemy from her past, which forces her to bring her friends back together herself.  Durst sets up this narrative really well, and the reader gets a sense of the tragedy of Kreya and the lengths she is planning to go to reunite with Jentt.  You also get a fantastic idea of the trauma from the protagonist’s past battles with Eklor and how this has shaped their lives.  There are some great moments in the opening half of this book, including several amazing and magically charged action sequences as the protagonists go up against a range of different foes, as well as some intense drama as the five are gradually reunited and come to terms with their past failures.  I loved how the narrative gradually morphed into a bit of a political thriller in the second half of the book as the protagonist encounters an old foe in a different setting.  The flow from the various sections of the story works extremely well, and Durst weaves together a really comprehensive and powerful standalone story.  I liked the excellent blend of action, fantasy elements and intense emotion exploration, which helped to produce a very comprehensive narrative, and The Bone Maker turns into quite an epic and exceptional read.

Easily the highlights of this book are the complex and damaged central characters that the story follows.  The five main characters are heroes who previously saved Vos from a great evil, and I loved this exploration of renowned fantasy heroes years after they saved the world, the usual climax of a story.  The central character of the story is Kreya, the group’s leader, who disappeared after ensuring their previous victory, mourning her dead husband.  Kreya performs multiple attempts at resurrection at the cost of her own life, and I really appreciated the author’s interpretation of this character’s grief leading her to risk it all.  Kreya has a rough and powerful journey throughout this book as she comes back to lead her team and is forced to deal with the expectations of all those around her.  Despite the immense amount of guilt, grief and regret that Kreya experiences throughout this story, Kreya proves to be a talented leader, directing them through several unique fights, and is the only person that can hold this ragged group of characters together.  The counterpoint to Kreya’s toughness and leadership is her deceased husband, Jentt, who, after his resurrection, proves to be the heart and light of the group.  Despite his more buoyant personality, Jentt has to deal with the consequences of his resurrection, especially when he finds out the cost of his continued life, and this leads him to several harrowing mental places.

The next member of the heroes of Vos is the bone wizard Zera, who specialises in creating the best magical talismans in the world.  Zera is the only member of the group who cashed in on her fame after their victory and has grown rich off her skills and reputation.  Zera is a fantastically sarcastic and entertaining addition to the cast, as she revels in her wealth and privilege, while also providing some of the best lines in the entire novel.  Despite a sense of intense betrayal at Kreya’s abandoning of her all those years ago, Zera agrees to help her with her mission, but finds herself constantly conflicted by her feelings of resentment, her own well-hidden damage, and her changed vision of what Kreya’s relationship with her was.  As a result, she has quite a journey throughout The Bone Maker and I loved her inclusion in this novel.

The other two major protagonists are the bone reader Marso and the warrior Stran, both of whom survived the battles with Eklor in very different ways.  While Stran is reasonably mentally healthy, having chosen to live a simple life with his wife and children, Marso has been broken by both his powers and the events of the past.  These two are a great contrast to one another, and both add some intriguing elements to the overall narrative.  I quite enjoyed seeing Marso slowly rebuild his sanity throughout the book while also coming to terms with a magical power he no longer trusts.  Stran’s apparent normality and stable family life is so amazingly different from the other characters in the book that it really stands out, and I liked seeing how each character was just a little bit different.  Overall, all five of these awesome protagonist really help to make The Bone Maker a powerful and impressive read and I am extremely glad that Durst took the time to build each of these great characters up.

One of the things I really must discuss is the outstanding setting that Durst created for this great book, especially as the author did such an impressive job coming up with yet another unique world.  The land of Vos is an amazing fantasy realm, loaded up with its own blend of troubles, culture and magic, which is living in the shadows of the tragic bone wars 25 years prior.  Durst sets this new landscape up perfectly in the early stages of the novel, and the reader gets a great sense of the people and mentality of this realm, especially when it comes to the trademark bone magic.  As the novel progresses, Durst visits several fantastic and compelling parts of this land.  This includes the gigantic and wealthy capital city where many terrible events take place, the hilly landscape that makes up the majority of Vos, a mist-shrouded valley loaded up with a collection of dangerous, gigantic monsters, and the plains surrounding Eklor’s tower, where deadly secrets lurk.  These landscapes are a lot of fun to explore, and Durst works them into her narrative perfectly.  I really enjoyed all of the major locations that the protagonists visit, although my favourite has to be the valley of monsters, as some intense and action-packed sequences take place there.

In addition to the amazing setting, I also really appreciate the rich and distinctive bone magic that Durst came up with for The Bone Maker.  This type of magic features three distinctive types of bone workers, including bone readers who can use animal bones to read the future, bone wizards who create powerful bone talismans, and bone makers who inscribe bones to animate a range of constructs.  Each of these magical disciplines is explored in great detail by the author and are all strongly utilised in the plot.  I loved seeing these magical elements at work throughout the action sequences in the book, and Durst uses them to great effect, with the characters gaining flight, stealth, strength and speed in every epic fight sequence.  The various examples of bone making are also pretty cool, and you get some great magical constructs.  I liked how there was a fun contrast between the protagonists’ cuter, yet still effective constructs, and the antagonists monstrous figures, and it makes for some great combat scenes, especially when the protagonist goes big towards the end of the book.  All of these magical elements are really exceptional, and I think it is an absolute testament to Durst’s sheer imagination and creativity that she is so effectively able to come up with a brand new style of magic and a new magical realm for every single one of her standalone fantasy reads.

I ended up enjoying The Bone Maker in its audiobook format, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience Durst’s epic story.  The Bone Maker audiobook has a decent run time of 16 hours and 35 minutes, which I ended up getting through rather quickly and is not too much of challenge for dedicated listeners to finish off.  One of the best things about this great audiobook is the amazing narrator, Soneela Nankani.  Nankani is a veteran audiobook narrator, but despite her prevalence as a narrator of fantasy fiction, I have not previously had the pleasure of experiencing Nankani’s vocal talents before, although she has worked on several other fantasy novels that I am keen to check out.  Nankani was an outstanding narrator whose voice really enhanced this already amazing novel.  Not only did Nankani provide a quick and exciting tone for the entire novel, moving the story along at a brisk and enjoyable pace that continuously kept the reader’s attention; she also provided several fantastic voices for the various protagonists.  All the voices that she used were pretty impressive, and I felt that they fit the damaged and dark personalities of each of the main characters very well.  As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone interested in checking out The Bone Maker as it is an amazing way to check out this compelling novel.

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst is an exceptional and captivating standalone fantasy novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Durst has produced an epic and elaborate tale of life, death and magic, which follows five damaged and broken heroes years after their supposed great victory.  There are so many awesome elements to this fantastic book, and readers are going to fall in love with The Bone Maker’s addictive narrative, powerful characters and cool magical elements.  While I did enjoy Durst’s previous novel, Race the Sands, a little more, this was still an outstanding read, which comes highly recommended.

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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

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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!

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Cover

Publisher: Scholastic Audio (Audiobook – 19 May 2020)

Series: The Hunger Games – Book 0

Length: 16 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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It is time to return to Panem as bestselling young adult fiction author Suzanne Collins presents the thrilling prequel to her acclaimed The Hunger Games series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

It has been 10 years since the third and final book in The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Since then the series has gone from strength the strength, thanks to the four films that converted these books into an ultra-popular franchise. Like many, I jumped onto The Hunger Games bandwagon after the first film was released, and I ended up listening to all three of the novels in quick succession. This of course turned me into a pretty major fan of the franchise, and I eagerly watched the next three films as they were released. As a result, I was extremely intrigued when I heard that Collins was writing a prequel novel, and I have been looking forward to it for some time. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes right after its release, and it proved to be an extremely interesting book that I rather enjoyed.

It has only been a decade since the Capitol won the war that ravished Panem, defeating the Districts and forcing them back under Capitol control. As punishment for their crimes, every year two children from each of the 12 surviving Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal fight to the death from which there is only one survivor. While many in both the Capitol and the Districts view the Games as distasteful, for one young man it represents an invaluable opportunity.

Coriolanus Snow is a young academy student whose family has fallen on hard times after the war. Coriolanus’s one chance to get into the Capitol university and have a chance at wealth and prestige is to successfully mentor one of the tributes in the annual Hunger Games and ensure that they win. The odds seem to be against him when he is given the female tribute from District 12, generally considered the lowest tribute with the worst odds of surviving. However, when his tribute, the wild and alluring Lucy Gray Baird, sings on stage at the reaping, Coriolanus’s hopes rise, as her antics capture the attention of everyone in the Capitol. Determined to succeed no matter the cost, Coriolanus soon finds his fate entwined with that of Lucy Gray. But as he gets closer and closer with his tribute, just how far is Coriolanus willing to go, and how will his decisions now affect the future of Panem forever?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a captivating and entertaining read that serves as a fascinating prequel to the original Hunger Games novels. Collins comes up with a fantastic, character-driven story that focuses on the main antagonist of the first trilogy, President Snow, while also diving back into the past of her unique dystopian future, showing the early days of the Hunger Games. I have to admit that I had rather high expectations going into this novel, and I ended up being a little disappointed at times with how it turned out. This was a rather less exciting read than the previous Hunger Games books, as Collins spends a lot of time exploring society, human nature and the psyche of the villainous protagonist. It was also way too long, and I think it could have been shortened down a little. Despite probably being my least favourite Hunger Games novel so far, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is still a really good book that I had an amazing time listening to it.

This book contains an intriguing plot that follows the protagonist as he becomes involved in the events of the 10th annual Hunger Games. The story is broken up into three distinctive parts, each of which takes up about a third of the book’s narrative. The first part deals with the lead-up to the Hunger Games, the second part follows the actual Hunger Games as Snow watches from the outside, while the last third of the book details the aftermath of the games, and features a new adventure for the protagonist. Each of these three parts proved to be enjoyable in their own right, and together they formed a rather compelling overall narrative. I was a little surprised that the actual Hunger Games ended about two-thirds of the way into the story. When the novel suddenly jumped to a post-Hunger Games storyline with third of the book still to go, I honestly thought that Collins had made a mistake, and would have been better off portraying an extended Hunger Games. However, this third part served as a rather good conclusion to the entire novel, and I actually really liked some of the major plot elements that occurred there, especially as they were the most transformative part of the novel for the main character. There are a lot of cool moments within this story, as well as a bevy of supporting characters, many of whom Collins is able to give a bit of depth to with a few short paragraphs. I actually really enjoyed where this story went, and while I did envision it going in a different direction, I think that Collins did a good job with it in the end.

One of the key things about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that it serves as an origin story for President Snow, the main antagonist of the original Hunger Games trilogy. It features an 18-year-old Snow as the main character and is told completely from his perspective. I understand that quite a few people were not exactly thrilled that President Snow was the focus of this novel, and many did not want to see a book that followed a young version of him. While I can understand their feelings about this, I personally enjoyed seeing something that focused on Snow and his early history. I have read and enjoyed many stories in the past that focus on a villain, or which features them as a major protagonist, and it can often be quite fun to see their perspectives and motivations. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a good example of this, and I found it fascinating to see a younger Snow and watch his involvement in his first Hunger Games.

Collins has an interesting take on the character of the young President Snow, and presents the reader with some key moments from his life, as well as some of the people who helped shape him into the villain we know in the later books. The author spends time exploring elements of his childhood, such as showing how he suffered during the war, not only losing both his parents, but also nearly dying from starvation as the Districts besieged the Capitol. There are also some intriguing examinations of his family, such as the grandmother who gifted him his love of roses, and the revelation that the character of Tigress, who appeared in the third book (fourth movie), is actually Snow’s cousin and closest living relative. However, despite these more humanising elements, Snow is shown to be a truly irredeemable person even before the transformative events of the novel. From the very start of the book, Collins portrays him as a manipulative and conceited individual, constantly sucking up to people in order to get what he wants, resentful of those around him who have more than he does and concerned most of all with status. While there are some intriguing nature versus nurture elements to his early behaviours, Snow is shown to be just an unpleasant person. This of course makes him a hard protagonist to get behind for this book, and for most of the story you really were not rooting for him to succeed. Despite this, I found his story to be rather compelling and I enjoyed seeing this mostly amoral teenager attempt to succeed, while presenting the reader with various, weak or selfish justifications for his actions in his mind.

While he is already a pretty despicable person, it is the events of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes that truly turn him into the cutthroat person that takes control of the Capitol in the future. Thanks to a combination of his experiences and some perceived betrayals (which are always worse from his point of view), as well as the mentorship of the Capitol’s sadistic head gamemaker, Doctor Gaul, Snow becomes much more ruthless and ambitious, and some of his actions towards the end of the book show just how evil he has become. It was also cool to see him embrace the philosophy around the Hunger Games, as well as developing a hatred of District 12 and certain other symbols and songs, all of which the character would carry with him to the main trilogy 60 years in the future. All of this analysis of Snow’s character formed a captivating heart to the story, and I liked the more villain-centric novel, even if this great antagonist did come across as a winy child at times. I will be intrigued to see more of the events that influenced Snow in the future, although I can appreciate that many others would prefer stories based around Collins’s protagonists.

The other major character that I have to discuss is Snow’s tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray is an entertaining and likeable character who steps off the page right at the moment of her introduction and sticks in the mind. Lucy Gray is a very different tribute to that of Katniss from the main trilogy, being a singer and rebellious entertainer who effortlessly makes everyone fall in love with her, and who relies on cunning and underhanded tactics to survive rather than martial prowess. She also serenades both the reader and the other characters with a variety of different songs, and I quite enjoyed seeing several of the musical numbers she came up with, especially as you find out the origins of one of the musical pieces that appear in the original trilogy. Lucy Gray is the character who the reader is most drawn to, and you find yourself even hoping that Snow succeeds, as this will ensure Lucy Gray’s survival. Snow and Lucy Gray end up having a bit of an awkward romance, which on the surface seems nice, although you only see it from Snow’s point of view, and he becomes rather possessive of her in his own mind. I would have been interested to see Lucy Gray’s thoughts on Snow, as it could have really changed the whole dynamic of their relationship. Overall, though, Lucy Gray is a great new character, and the way her arc in this book ends really helps drive home how terrible Snow can be.

The thing that I think most people, especially established fans of The Hunger Games novels, will enjoy about this prequel novel is the substantial world building that Collins does. The author does an outstanding job showing off an early version of Panem, which is still recovering from the impacts of the war, and where control over the Districts is not yet complete. This is a rather different Capitol to what you see in the other The Hunger Games books, as there are no elaborate costumes, outrageous styles, strange cosmetic surgery or excessive luxuries. Instead it is a far more subdued Capitol, with less food, traumatised people and rubble still in the streets. This made for a curious contrast to what we see in the future books, and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities. There are also some exciting flashbacks to the war itself from the memory of Snow, and it was cool to learn a little more about that. Naturally, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes contains a lot of foreshadowing to the events of the original Hunger Games trilogy, and fans will enjoy seeing historical views of certain key events, locations and people.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this world building is the author’s exploration of the early Hunger Games and how they took place. These Games are very different to the elaborate affairs shown in the original trilogy. Up until this point the Hunger Games are rather basic, with the tributes simply thrown into an abandoned sports arena with a bunch of weapons. There are some great comparisons between these more basic games and the games that we are more familiar with, such as the way that the tributes are treated, as rather than the luxurious train with all the fancy food that Katniss and Peeta travelled in, the tributes for these Hunger Games arrive starved and injured in a livestock train. This is also the games where they start to experiment with some of the elements that are recognisable from the main games, such as having a mentor, brief interviews with a Flickerman (in this case, Lucky Flickerman, the local news weatherman and amateur magician), gambling and sponsors. It was really cool to see the origins of these ideas, and why they were implemented, and it makes for a truly fascinating addition to the book. Collins also really dives into the philosophy behind the Games, and why the leaders of the Capitol were so eager for them to succeed and why they believed that they helped control the Districts. The origin of the Games is also revealed, as well as some of the key players, and I think it served as an invaluable piece of this universe’s lore. I quite liked learning more about the early days of the Hunger Games, and I imagine that a lot of readers will love to find out how such a terrible event came to pass.

The actual Hunger Games that took place in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a shorter and more barebones affair than what we have seen before. The tributes are fighting in an actual sporting arena, rather than a terraformed zone, and most of them spend the time hiding in the tunnels. Due to the fact that we are seeing it from Snow’s point of view, and because the arena only has a couple of cameras that only cover a fraction of the area, there are a lot of periods of inactivity and blank time, where the reader has no idea what is going on. This made for a much more disrupted experience, and while it was interesting to see the games unfold from the outside (something we saw a little bit of in the movie, but not in the books), it was nowhere as exciting as it could have been. That being said, there are still some really cool moments of child murder, and I did like seeing the mentor’s role in winning the games. The way in which the games came to an end was also rather clever, and it played into the events occurring outside with Snow. While it could have been longer, more exciting and perhaps more intense, this was still a fun part of the novel, and I look forward to seeing more fights to the death in any future Hunger Games novels Collins writes.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes rather than grab a physical copy, and I am rather glad that I did, as it proved to be a great way to enjoy this book. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes audiobook is narrated by Santino Fontana and has a run time of just over 16 hours. This was a rather extensive run time for a Hunger Games novel; it was around five hours longer than any of the previous audiobooks in the series. That being said, I was able to get through this audiobook in a rather short period of time, and I found myself really engaged by this format, as it helped explore all the elements of this earlier version of Panem. Santino Fontana proved to be a very good narrator for this novel and he does an excellent job bringing the book’s large host of characters to life. The various voices he does fit the characters rather well, and I thought that his narration helped to highlight how horrible Snow could be at times. I also liked how Fontana’s narration worked with the multiple songs that Collins featured throughout the novel, and his spoken version of them sounded rather cool. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes to people interested in checking this book out, as it was a wonderful format to enjoy this great story with.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a curious and unique new addition to The Hunger Games franchise, which I thought turned out to be a rather good read. Collins ended up writing an intriguing, character-based narrative that showed a new side to the main antagonist of her original trilogy. While this book is not without its flaws, I had a wonderful time reading it, and once I got into its plot I had a hard time putting it down. Ideal for those fans of the previous Hunger Games novel, this book should make for an interesting movie in the future, and I am planning to grab any future novels from Collins set in this universe.

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House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

House of Earth and Blood Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Audible Studios (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: Crescent City – Book One

Lenght: 27 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to meet your new obsession! One of the world’s top young adult fantasy fiction authors, Sarah J. Maas, breaks into the adult fantasy fiction genre in a big way with the first book in her brand-new Crescent City series.

Sarah J. Maas is an author that needs very little introduction. She is one of the most highly regarded young adult fantasy authors in the world today, having written two major bestselling series and a couple of standalone young adult novels. Maas debuted in 2012 with Throne of Glass, the first novel in her acclaimed seven-book long Throne of Glass series, and she has since gone on to write a second major series, A Court of Thorns and Roses. I have been meaning to check out some of Maas’s main series for a while now, especially Throne of Glass, as I have heard some very good things about them. Unfortunately, the only book of Maas’s that I have so far read was her DC Comics tie-in novel, Catwoman: Soulstealer, which I really enjoyed, especially as Maas had an amazing understanding of some iconic comic characters. As a result, I was interested when I heard about her new book, House of Earth and Blood, and I was curious to see how her first adult fiction novel would turn out. This is the first book in the Crescent City series, which presumably will be the author’s main body of work for the next few years. I received a physical copy of this book to review, although I eventually decided to listen to the audiobook format to fit it into my reading schedule, and I have to say I was rather impressed.

Welcome to Crescent City, a bustling metropolis where magic and technology meet in a world ruled over by all-powerful godlike creatures. Bryce Quinlan is a half-Fae, half-human, party girl at the low end of her world’s magical hierarchy, content to live her days clubbing and celebrating with her best friend, the powerful werewolf Alpha Danika Fendyr. All that changes the night Danika and her entire wolf pack are brutally slaughtered while Bryce is out partying. Bryce arrives home just in time to encounter the demon that committed the act, chasing it out into the streets before it escapes, never to be seen again.

Two years later, Bryce is a shell of her former self. Still reeling from the death of the closest person in her life, Bryce finds herself without direction or purpose. However, the revelation that a fresh wave of killings that mirror the bloody way Danika and her pack were taken out quickly changes that. Due to her experiences with the unknown species of demon and her intimate knowledge of Danika’s movements and history, Bryce is tasked by the governor of Crescent City to find who or what is summoning the destructive demons and unleashing them upon seemingly random members of the populace. However, Bryce will not be working on this case alone, as she finds herself teamed up with the governor’s personal assassin, the brooding, dangerous and surprisingly attractive fallen angel, Hunt Athalar.

Begrudgingly agreeing to work together, Bryce and Hunt start to scour the dark underbelly of their city, attempting to find any leads to who summoned the demon. However, they soon run afoul of many of Crescent City’s inhabitants, some of whom do not want the pair to uncover the truth. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a terrible conspiracy with terrible connections to Bryce’s traumatic past and which threatens all of Crescent City. However, the closer they come to the truth, the more pain and torment the two damaged souls uncover, especially as both of them try to fight the intense feelings blooming between them. With the fate of Crescent City hanging in the balance, can Bryce and Hunt get to the bottom of these killings, or will they be overwhelmed by all the hurt that is about to come their way?

Well damn, that turned out to be one hell of a book. I do have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of major romantic subplots in the novels I read (I know, typical male, Bryce would probably be calling me an Alphahole), and I was a little apprehensive that the romantic angles described in the book’s synopsis would overwhelm the fantasy story. However, any doubts I had about whether I was going to enjoy House of Earth and Blood were quickly blown away in the early stages of the story, especially once I hit the major plot development about 70 pages in. From there I was absolutely hooked on the story, as Maas kept piling on revelations, shocking moments, character development and an impressive murder mystery. I ended up really loving this amazing novel, and I ended up giving it a five-star rating.

I really enjoyed the way that Maas told this story, and this book contained an expansive and deeply addictive narrative that proved hard to put down at times. House of Earth and Blood is told from several character perspectives, most notably Bryce and Hunt, although quite a bit of the story is shown from the perspective of Bryce’s half-brother, Ruhn Danaan. Having these three main point-of-view characters results in a much more expansive story, as each of them has their own contributions to the plot, although there is a huge amount of crossover between each of their storylines. While Mass tends to focus most of her character development and storylines around Bryce, Hunt and Ruhn, there are a number of additional supporting characters, some of whom have some rather interesting roles throughout the book. Maas also includes a huge amount of foreshadowing throughout the book, hinting at several things that are to come further along in the narrative. While it is obvious where some of this foreshadowing is going, some of it was only noticeable in hindsight, and some of these more subtle inclusions made me really appreciate the author’s clever writing style.

One of the best things about this book was the incredible and intriguing new fantasy world. The Crescent City series is set on a version of Earth called Midgard, which was invaded thousands of years ago by vast armies of various magical creatures, ending humankind’s dominance of the planet. The modern world of Midgard is a chaotic and fascinating place, filled will all manner of magic and creatures who live in a hierarchal system, with all-powerful beings at the top and humans at the very bottom. There are so many cool elements to this world, from the unique magical systems, the different factions and organisations, and a vast multitude of different magical creatures with their own traits and characteristics. Maas dedicates a substantial amount of time exploring all these different elements of her new world, and the result is an impressive and vast setting which serves as a fantastic backdrop to this exciting story. I also liked the rather fun similarities between this fantasy world and the modern world, and it was interesting to see fantasy creatures running around with modern technology such as phones and guns. I also had a rather good laugh at some of the television shows that the author featured in the book, including a rather trashy-sounding True Blood inspired television show, which was made fun of relentlessly for its sexual content (which is kind of ironic considering how much sex was in this novel). Maas is clearly a master of universe building, and she has come up with a really great fantasy world that holds a lot of potential for future novels in the series, as well as opening up the possibilities of spin-off stories around some of the fantastic side characters introduced. I personally would love to see a novel based around the character of Fury Axtar, the mysterious assassin friend of Bryce, who has a minor role in the book.

In addition, Maas has also come up with a rather clever murder mystery storyline that I had an outstanding time unwrapping. The vast majority of House of Earth and Blood’s plot revolves around the murder of Danika Fendyr and her pack, as well as the similar murders that are occurring in the modern day. The subsequent investigation by Bryce and Hunt turned into a rather captivating storyline, as they explored the underbelly of their fascinating city, trying to find leads and uncover who had a motive to kill Danika. This whole mystery storyline goes to some very interesting places, and Maas comes up with a number of red herrings, alternate suspects, potential leads and side mysteries (a missing magical horn and a new street drug), all of which come together into a pretty incredible and clever narrative. I was actually rather surprised about who the culprit turned out to be, although Maas does set up the reveal rather well, and there are some rather clever hints in hindsight. That being said, while I didn’t know who the culprit was in advance, I totally knew where the final showdown with them was going to take place, and how the whole confrontation was bound to go down (there was a literal Chekov’s gun there). Still, it turned into quite a good confrontation scene, and I had a good laugh at the over-the-top way that the villain was taken down for good. This was a rather impressive element of the story, and I hope that Maas includes some more clever mysteries in her future books.

While I really loved the fantastic story, incredible world building and captivating mystery, the true centre of this book are the two compelling and exceedingly damaged main characters who Maas sets the story around, Bryce Quinlan and Hunt Athalar. Maas does some outstanding work setting these characters up, exploring their pasts and developing their personalities and emotions throughout the book. Bryce starts House of Earth and Blood as a seemingly carefree party girl with major daddy issues. However, the loss of Danika in the book’s first act severely changes her, as she has to deal with an extreme amount of guilt, isolation and social hatred in the following two years. This really alters her as a character and turns her into an extremely vulnerable person with a real emotional investment in the case, who hides all her true feelings behind a sassy and angry façade. Hunt, on the other hand, is a powerful fallen angel who lost his freedom and the love of his life in a failed rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet, and has spent the last several decades being tortured and used by the victorious archangels, and is now the personal assassin of the governor of Crescent City. Now known throughout the city as the Umbra Mortis, the Shadow of Death, Hunt is a simmering pot of anger who is resentful of how he has been treated all his life, and who is determined to be set free. Like Bryce, he is deeply invested in solving the case, as its resolution will allow him to take a serious step towards freedom, and on the surface he is the more serious of the duo. However, also like Bryce, Hunt has some major vulnerabilities and he is hurting deep inside. Both Bryce and Hunt are incredibly interesting protagonists, and I am really impressed with the layers that Maas was able bring to their characters, which added a significant amount to the story.

While Bryce and Hunt are amazing characters in their own right, the real magic comes when they are paired together. It is obvious from the start that these two are going to hook up at some point, but the journey to get there was written extremely well. The combination of these two exceedingly vulnerable and complex characters in the story is great, and it makes for some incredible and dramatic story moments, as Bryce and Hunt slowly work out all their issues and history. The way they slowly go from dislike to mutual respect to lust/romance is accompanied with a slow exchange of secrets, facts and personality reveals, and I had an amazing time seeing them come together as a couple. This turned into quite a good romantic subplot, although the two of them have some major bumps and betrayals along the way. Still, there are some rather nice moments in their relationship, from the way that they take care of each other after traumatic events, to funny reveals and mutual moments of protecting one and other. Bryce and Hunt make for a great pair, and I am really impressed with the way that Maas portrayed them and the complex story she wove around them. It looks like there are more secrets and backgrounds about both coming up in the future books, and I am looking forward to seeing where Maas takes them in the future.

While this book had some amazing elements, I did find this novel to be a tad trashy at times. As I mentioned above, this is Maas’s first foray into non-young adult fiction, and she certainly did not shy away from adding all manner of adult content into her book. While I can certainly appreciate Maas wanting to differentiate this book from some of her young-adult fiction work, I honestly think she overcompensated. This book is filled with a huge amount of adult language and sexual content, as pretty much every character in this book is crude, rude, oversexed and incredibly thirsty. While some of this served a purpose, such as showing what sort of party-girl character Bryce was before the traumatic incident, the sheer amount of stuff that Maas included was a bit over the top, and I found it to be somewhat distracting at times. This book also introduced me to the brand-new term, Alphahole. In the context of this book, an Alphahole is the term that Bryce gives to any magical male who thinks that their abilities and power give them the right to control women and run their lives, especially those women with less magical power than them (i.e. humans and half-humans like Bryce). Unfortunately, in this book pretty much every male that Bryce encounters is an Alphahole in her opinion; even the more redeemable characters like Hunt or Ruhn are deemed Alphaholes at the start of the novel, especially once they venture an opinion about her behaviour or actions. While I appreciate that this dislike for domineering men is part of Bryce’s character due to her father, and controlling guys really aren’t that cool in either fiction or real life, I do think that Maas kind of overdid their inclusion just a bit and I was honestly getting sick of hearing Alphahole as a descriptive term by the end of the book (although it became less apparent as the story progressed).

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of House of Earth and Blood. This audiobook has a runtime of 27 hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by Elizabeth Evans. I am rather glad that I decided to check out this format of the book. While I probably would have finished it off faster if I had read a physical copy (it took me a few weeks to get through the audiobook), I always feel that I absorb more of the novel when I listen to it, especially with longer books. This proved to be really useful when listening to House of Earth and Blood, as Maas packed so much plot and world building into this immense novel, and I think I ended up getting more out of this book by utilising this format. I have to say that I was also immensely impressed with Elizabeth Evans’s narration. Evans did an incredible job bringing the story to life, and her steady and emotional dictation of the story really helped me get to the end. I really loved the cool voices that Evans was able to come up with for all the characters, and I think that each of them matched the distinctive personalities of each character. Evans produced a huge range of different voices for these characters, and I really liked how she was able to alter them to reflect the ethereal or magical nature of some of the characters featured in the book, as well as hint at how powerful some of these creatures were by modulating her tone and adding a commanding quality to it. This was an impressive and deeply enjoyable audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in enjoying House of Earth and Blood. That being said, be careful where you listen to this book, as it can be a little awkward to hear some of the steamy sex scenes when you are out in public. I somehow managed to be out shopping during two separate and particularly graphic scenes, and it proved very hard to keep a straight face while I was trying to grab groceries.

House of Earth and Blood is an incredible adult fiction debut from Sarah J. Maas, who has produced another outstanding and captivating read. There are so many excellent and enjoyable story elements in this book, and I absolutely loved every second I spend listening to it, even though some parts were a little over the top at times. This was an awesome start to Maas’s new Crescent City series, and I cannot wait to see what impressive and addictive story the author comes up with next. This novel comes highly recommended, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

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Guest Review – The Power by Naomi Alderman

After reviewing some of 2019’s most intriguing reads with Pan’s Labyrinth, The Testaments and The Fowl Twins, my amazing editor/wife Alex (editor is the important part there) attempts to muscle in on my Throwback Thursday territory in her latest Guest Review by checking out The Power by Naomi Alderman.

The Power Cover

Publisher: Penguin (Trade Paperback – 27 October 2016)

Series: Stand Alone/Book One

Length: 341 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’m on a mission to conquer my habit of buying more books than I can read. I picked up The Power because I recognised Naomi Alderman’s name from one of my favourite apps, Zombies, Run!, for which she is the lead writer. Zombies, Run! is primarily an exercise app, but its best feature is its compelling and immersive narrative about a community of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. So when I stumbled upon a copy of one of Alderman’s books I was immediately keen to check it out. Unfortunately, my reading of it was interrupted and it has been sadly shelved for the last year and a half. When I resolved to tackle my collection of unread books this year, I knew The Power had to be first on the list.

The Power chronicles a world in which young women develop a biological power to create and manipulate electricity. There are four main threads in the story, following a small collection of key characters on their adventures during the first decade of the change. The first is Roxy Monke, the child of an English gangster, who uses her power with devastating effect to build and control a vast criminal empire. Tunde Edo is a young Nigerian man who discovers a passion for photojournalism when he happens to capture video of an early attack using the power. He travels the world documenting the great upheavals and rebellions that the power inspires. Margot Cleary is an American politician, and through her we see how the change affects government. Allie is a young American runaway with perhaps the greatest control over her power of any woman in the world, which she uses to establish herself as a respected and feared cult leader of women. There is also an extensive cast of excellent side characters, including Margot’s daughter Jocelyn, who struggles as a young woman without a fully developed power, and Tatiana Moskalev, the wife of the president of Moldova.

What I always enjoy most about speculative fiction with several narrators is the way that readers get to experience so much of the world that has been created. This is particularly true in The Power, since each of the characters (especially Tunde) is very well travelled, and as a result we get a glimpse of how the power affects societies all over the world, as well as how the world changes over the 10 years covered in the book. We see the initial scepticism of women spontaneously evolving the power to emit and control electricity. We see the fear set in as it becomes clear how dangerous the power can be, both when it is used as an attack against individuals and when women band together to challenge misogynistic and oppressive regimes and governments. We see how cults and societies develop as the status quo is forever changed and the new power imbalance between men and women becomes firmly established. The events that unfold in Moldova are particularly fascinating. All in all, there’s not a dull moment in the whole book, and though it is at times brutally violent it is always deeply compelling.

I really loved the way the narrative is framed as a dramatisation of historical events, in a fashion similar to that of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. The book begins and ends with correspondence between Neil, who appears to be a budding historian and author, and Naomi, who is surely his mentor or perhaps his publisher. Neil and Naomi speculate on the accuracy of the story, given that they are removed from these events by several hundred years and have only the archaeological record to guide them. I was also very pleased to find chapters interspersed with illustrations and interpretations of artefacts from the time of the change, such as idols, grave sites and internet forum threads. These elements in particular made the archaeologist in me very happy.

The Power is a fantastic exploration of a world suddenly and dramatically shaken to its core. I’m going to have to check out some more of Naomi Alderman’s work, and I’m only sorry I hadn’t read this one sooner.

Throwback Thursday – The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings Cover.jpg

Publishers: Tor Books

                       Macmillan Audio

Publication Date – 31 August 2010

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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.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday I will be reviewing one of the best pieces of fantasy fiction from the last decade: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  I listened to this book for the first time earlier in the year and have been seeking to review it for some time.  However, I just finished reading the latest Brandon Sanderson book, Skyward, which I will be reviewing next week, and decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to finally get a review of The Way of Kings together.

Brandon Sanderson is one of the best writers of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, with several iconic series created by him.  These include the Mistborn series, the Wax and Wayne series, the Warbreaker series, The Reckoners series and his latest book, Skyward, which serves as the first book of his new Skyward series, just to name a few.  Perhaps the biggest indication of how highly regarded Sanderson is the fact that he was the author chosen to finish off Robert Jordan’s iconic Wheel of Time series of fantasy books, generally considered one of the most important fantasy series ever created, and the second bestselling series since The Lord of the Rings.  Following Jordan’s death, Sanderson put several of his series on hold to write the final three books in the Wheel of Time series, finishing off these epic fantasy novels with the help of Jordan’s notes.

The Way of Kings is the first book in Sanderson’s most iconic series, The Stormlight Archives, an epic fantasy series set in gigantic fantasy world.  The Stormlight Archives is a massive series from Sanderson with at least 10 books currently planned.  The first three of these books have already been released, with a fourth planned for 2020.  Each of these books is a massive undertaking to read, each totalling over 1,000 pages.  I chose to listen to The Way of Kings in its audiobook format, read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading.  At over 45 hours in length, it does take a while to get through, but it was well worth it for the epic adventure within.

The Stormlight Archives is set within the world of Roshar, which has seen much chaos and bloodshed and is constantly beset by powerful storms, known as highstorms.  Centuries ago, a recurring event, known as the Desolation, unleashed the demonic Voidbringers upon the lands, devastating all before it.  To counter these creatures, the legendary Knights Radiant were formed.  They were powerful warriors with magical powers who wielded the epic magical armour and swords known as Shardplate and Shardblades.  After years of fighting, the Desolation was stopped and the Voidbringers defeated.  With their task complete, the Knights Radiant abandoned their weapons and disappeared.  Centuries later, when the main story is set, these events have become myths and legends, with many doubting that they ever existed.  However, the remaining pieces of Shardplate and Shardblades have become valuable commodities to the warring nations that have sprung up since the end of the Desolation, as they allow normal men to become the mightiest of warriors.

The main story of The Way of Kings begins with the assassination of the powerful King of Alethkar, Gavilar Kholin by Szeth-son-son-Vallano, apparently on the order of the Parshendi, a recently discovered race of humanoids who Gavilar was seeking peace with.  This killing results in a war between the Alethi and the Parshendi on the Shattered Plains.  After years of fighting, the war has mostly stymied, with neither side gaining a significant advantage, as the two armies compete for magical resources on the Plains.

This book has three distinctive main plot lines that lie mostly unconnected throughout the course of the novel.  The first plot follows the brother of the slain King Gavilar, Dalinar Kholin, and his sons, as they serve the new king on the Shattered Plains.  After years of fighting, Dalinar has grown weary of war and the competitive and caste based Alethkar way of life and attempts to find solace in the ancient book The Way of Kings, a volume that his brother became obsessed with before his death.  Questioning the merits of his people’s current ways of life, Dalinar attempts to find a way to unite the squabbling highprinces in a final strike against the Parshendi, while also dealing with visions of the past that affect his ability to lead.

The second plot line follows Kaladin, a former solider to an Alethi lord.  Kaladin was betrayed and has been sold into slavery.  Transported to the Shattered Plains, Kaladin is forced to become a bridgeman, carrying the heavy bridges into battle that the armies require to cross the canyons and broken landscape of the Shattered Plains.  Bridgeman have low life expectancies and are usually targeted first by the Parshendi in the battles that dominate the plains.  Determined to survive, Kaladin attempts to form his unit of bridgemen into an effective team in order to minimise casualties in each battle.  But the lord he serves has no interesting in having his bridgeman survive, and Kaladin must utilise newly discovered magical abilities if he is to keep his unit alive.  A part of this storyline also follows a younger Kaladin and shows how he gained his skills and abilities, and the events that resulted in his enslavement.

The final storyline follows Shallan Davar, a minor noblewoman and scholar who seeks the patronage of Jasnah Kholin, the current king’s sister, who is Dalinar’s niece.  While Shallan succeeds in becoming Jasnah’s apprentice, she is really plotting to steal an item of great value from Jasnah that will ensure her families survival.  But as she makes her plans, she finds herself embroiled in a series of plots while also uncovering her own powerful magic.

In addition to these three main storylines, there are a series of interludes that help build up the world in which The Stormlight Chronicles is set, while also briefly introducing a number of characters who are likely to become major players in future volumes of this series.  Each interlude also features an extended sequence that focuses on Szeth-son-son-Vallano, the assassin forced to kill King Gavilar, as he finds himself controlled by a mysterious organisation that appears to be behind many of the books more mysterious events.

Quite frankly, there is so much going on within The Way of Kings.  Not only are there several substantial storylines that combine together into one massive and captivating overall narrative, but Sanderson also creates a massive and detailed new fantasy world with significant history and character backstories to form the basis of this massive series.  It is actually quite amazing that Sanderson has managed to combine so much together into one book without it getting away from him, but The Way of Kings is proof that it is possible.

Without a doubt, the most impressive thing about The Way of Kings is the sheer amount of world building that Sanderson is able to cram into one book.  There is so much that forms the basis of The Stormlight Archive’s universe, from its magical based technology, to the iconic weapons and armour, the unique battle tactics, the creatures found within, the caste system based upon eye colour and this world’s history.  Every different nation appears to have its own unique and fascinating culture, all of which come into play within the plot of the story in some way or another.  For example, the Shin culture results in the character of Szeth-son-son-Vallano becoming a servant to whoever holds his Oathstone, while the Alethi culture produces quite a lot of backstabbing and conflict due to the competitive nature of its citizens.  There are some really fun cultural details added into these world cultures, such as women being the sole scholars of this world, while men do not even learn to read, or several cultures requiring all the women to wear gloves on one hand.

In addition to the culture, the world of Roshar is pretty impressive in itself.  One of the most distinctive and defining features of Roshar is the continuous gigantic storms, known as high storms, that devastate the land on a regular basis.  As a result, the people have had to adapt to these conditions, and there are a number of interludes where the protagonists have to shelter for periods from the storm.  I loved the way that Sanderson was able to come up with a range of impacts that these destructive storms would have on this world, such as the way that plants would grow and become reactive in response to constantly being hit by storms.  A large portion of the story is set around the landscape known as the Shattered Plains, which, as the name suggested, is a shattered landscape made up of a series of massive canyons and gaps between plateaus, haunted by giant monsters and prone to flash floods during high storms.  There are a number of massive battles and smaller explorations occurring in this landscape throughout the book, and it serves as a distinctive background which quite a number of fantastic plot points build up around.

All of this world building is quite incredible, but it is also impressive in the way that Sanderson has linked this world to some of the other series he has created or is currently planning to create.  This shared universe, known as The Cosmere, is made up of a number of worlds where some of his fantasy books are set.  The books in The Cosmere share several characters who travel from world to world, as well as some overarching themes and plot points.  For example, some of the chaos that the characters explore is the result of a massive conflict that affects all the books within The Cosmere universe.  There are several aspects of this explored within The Way of Kings, and it results in some interesting storytelling.

In addition to the massive world in which this book is set, Sanderson has filled The Way of Kings with a series of incredible storylines.  I really enjoyed each of the storylines, as each of them added something different to the book.  The storylines that focused on Dalinar Kholin and his family provide the reader with large-scale battles and a deep look at the culture, history and lifestyle of one of the main nations on Roshar, while also exploring the mystery of the disappearing Knights Radiant.  The storylines that are mostly told from the point of view of Shallan Davar are a bit slower paced, but contain an intriguing storyline of research, teaching, ethical deliberations, various plots and even a planned heist of a magical item.  Without a doubt however, my favourite storylines focused on the Kaladin and his attempts to turn his bridgemen into a cohesive unit.  These storylines contain some great scenes of comradery, friendship and training, while also allowing for some intense and clever battle sequences.  The storylines focusing on Kaladin’s youth were among my least favourite in the entire book, but they were still intriguing as they allowed the reader to see how Kaladin gained his complicated personality, his hatred for the world’s noble class and his determination to save lives.  In addition, I have no doubt that all that backstory will serve an important part in a future book in the series.  All three of these main storylines, as well as the shorter stories contained within the interludes, come together perfectly to form a complex narrative that interweaves subtly for most of the book.  While there are some brief mentions or crossovers for the majority of The Way of Kings, Sanderson does not focus too much on bringing these characters together until the very end of the story.  This allows Sanderson to set up each of these main characters and their associated minor characters in more detail, and allows them to be defined on their own terms.

I really loved how each of the main point-of-view characters within The Way of Kings is incredibly complicated.  For example, Dalinar Kholin is a person who spent years becoming the most feared warrior in the world.  Nicknamed the Blackthorn, his skill in battle and bloodlust helped unite Alethkar under his brother’s rule and he was considered the epitome of Alethi warrior culture.  However, after the death of his brother, Dalinar is weighed down with guilt, and his desire to follow ancient codes of conduct and the teachings of The Way of Kings causes him to doubt everything he previously knew.  Szeth-son-son-Vallano, is a killer without peer, but he is not in control of his own actions, due to becoming Truthless.  Forced to obey whoever holds his Oathstone, Szeth is constantly forced to kill for a rotating string of masters, and he despairs at the death he deals around him.  Finally there is Kaladin, a man so full of regret and despair for the friends and family he has lost, he is constantly drawn to the brink of sanity.  He is brought out of his stupor by his desire to help the men on his bridge crew and his relationship with the spren Syl, and is a fantastic character to follow, especially when Sanderson spends time simultaneously examining his past and previous tragedies.  Each of these storylines also features a huge number of intriguing side characters, and the reader can get quite attached to a number of these, especially the members of Kaladin’s bridge crew, who unfortunately have a short life expectancy.

Those people who like a healthy dose of action with their incredible storytelling will not be disappointed with The Way of Kings, as it features an incredible number of battles and warfare throughout its various storylines.  There are so many different and unique action sequences throughout this book for the reader to enjoy, and the inclusion of the epic magical weapons and armour, Shardblades and Shardplate, in many of these scenes provide some truly awesome moments.  There are a number of fantastic large-scale battles throughout the book, often with the character of Dalinar leading the charge.  However, I always quite enjoyed the sequences where Kaladin and his bridge crew are forced to carry a massive bridge at the front of the army.  These scenes are always extremely intense as the bridgemen come under intense fire and many die in the attempts to cross the gorges that make up the Shattered Plains.  As the book continues, Kaladin and his crew experiment with a number of different techniques and strategies to try and stay alive during these assaults, with varied and intriguing results.

While all the above scenes are pretty epic, nothing can top the sequences where Szeth-son-son-Vallano unleashes his full potential.  Szeth has unique magical abilities and wields a powerful Shardblade so is quite a powerful opponent, even against Full Shardbearers (those wielding both a Shardblade and Shardplate, essentially indestructible warriors).  There are two great scenes where Szeth unleashes his abilities against his opponents.  The first time is one of the best opening scenes in fantasy fiction as he storms the palace of King Gavilar, taking out a number of opponents with his abilities.  Quite frankly, if this scene were to be the first thing that was shown in an adaption of this series, it has the potential to be one of the most epic opening moments in movie or television history.  This is actually topped later in the book, when Szeth falls into a trap against one of his targets, who utilises a number of Shardbearers against him.  This scene is great not only because it has a number of additional opponents for the assassin but because Szeth unleashes his full rage when he realises how many people his opponent has sacrificed to trap Szeth.  All of these action sequences are fairly epic, and are enough to make any action junkie extremely happy.

At this point, I have not had the chance to read any additional books in The Stormlight Archive, mainly as I have not had time to dive into such a big book with so many other great reads coming out this year.  That being said, I fully appreciate how much of a great introduction to this series The Way of Kings is.  It sets up so much of the universe and starts each of these major storylines and introduces several fantastic main characters.  I have no doubt that future books in these storylines will be awesome, and I really appreciate how well Sanderson introduces his series.  I fully intend to read the next books in this series soon, and my goal is to get through the second and third book in The Stormlight Archive before the fourth book is released in 2020.

I listened to the audiobook version of The Way of Kings and have to say it was an incredible way to enjoy this incredible book.  The publishers utilise two separate narrators, Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, who split the book between them.  Kramer reads the chapters told from male characters’ point of view, while Reading does the same for chapters told from a female characters’ point of view.  Both of these narrators are pretty epic and do an amazing job portraying their various characters and bringing them to life.  I would mostly recommend using the audiobook version of The Way of Kings because I find it helps the reader remember all the insane amount of information, detail and lore that the author has crammed into this book.  I also loved the way that the narration dragged me into the centre of some of these epic battles, and it is definitely one of the best ways to enjoy The Way of Kings.

Overall, The Way of Kings is an incredible piece of fantasy fiction and really lives up to the hype.  This is the perfect book to start exploring Sanderson’s work, and readers can expect a massive read, chock full of intricate and detailed world building, intense and unique action and a series of outstanding characters.  This is some of the best fantasy fiction you will ever read.  Clear out your calendar and make room to read this book.

My Rating:

Five Stars

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