All of Our Demise by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

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Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 30 August 2022)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book Two

Length: 470 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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After wowing the world with their first collaboration, 2021’s All of Us Villains, the superstar young adult fiction team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman return with the second book in their impressive duology, All of Our Demise, one of the most anticipated young adult fantasy releases of the year.

For generations, seven prominent families of the city of Ilvernath have each sacrificed one of their children to a legendary death tournament, the winner of which would secure the extremely powerful high magick for their family.  However, this latest tournament has not turned out like anyone expected.  Already exposed to the world thanks to a tell-all book, some of the champions, led by the seemingly heroic Briony Thorburn, are determined to break free from the bloody tournament that has long haunted their families.  But as they attempt to break the curse that binds the tournament to them by destroying the enchanted artefacts and locations associated with their families, their actions will have unexpected consequences on all around them.

For the first time in its history, the magical Blood Veil that physically separates the participants from the outside world has been broken and now everyone can witness the tournament unfold.  As reporters and members of the public swarm into the historic battleground as witnesses, the participants can return to Ilvernath and seek help from those in town.  The destruction of the Blood Veil seems proof that Briony’s plan is working, but not everyone wants the curse to end.

After the miraculous resurrection of his murdered brother, Hendry, Alistair Lowe believes that the only way he can keep Hendry alive is by winning the tournament.  After murdering his entire evil family and after being cursed by the girl he fell for, Alistair finds himself isolated with Hendry, unsure how to proceed.  However, he soon finds himself working with a surprising new ally in Gavin Grieve, the boy no-one expected to survive, and who has his own desperate reasons for working with the Lowes.  At the same time, the formerly glamorous Isobel Macaslan finds herself drawn to the mysterious Reid MacTavish, whose manipulation of the champions has brought nothing but trouble.  Determined to help Briony destroy the tournament, Isobel will break all the rules to survive, even if that means drafting Reid in against his will.

As the battle lines are drawn and the two groups of champions attempt to path their respective courses to victory, they find unexpected obstacles blocking their way.  Not only are the champions’ manipulative families attempting to sway events to their favour, but the media is determined to make all of them infamous in their own way.  Forced to battle each other both in the tournament and in the field of public opinion, the champions will face unbelievable tragedy and despair as they all try to survive.  However, the biggest threat to all of them may come from outside the tournament, and no-one is prepared for the evils waiting for them in the wider world.

Foody and Lynn Herman have delivered quite an impressive sequel here with All of Our Demise, which presents the reader with another epic and powerful story.  Building on the elaborate narrative and character arcs of All of Us Villains, All of Our Demise takes the reader on an exceptional emotional rollercoaster as they watch four extremely complex and distinctive point-of-view characters battle in impossible circumstances.  All of Our Demise ends up being just as good, if not a little better, than Foody and Lynn Herman’s first impressive outing, and it provides readers with an outstanding and memorable conclusion to this captivating young adult fantasy duology.

I’m still reeling a little bit about how All of Our Demise’s story turned out.  Foody and Lynn Hermann did a remarkable job with this sequel and the story continues seamlessly on from the events of the first book.  Told from the perspective of the four main characters, the death tournament focus of the story has evolved due to the events of All of Us Villains and the characters are now forced to contend with outside forces as they fight in an extended battleground.  The protagonists are now split down the middle as some fight to destroy the tournament for good, while they others try to keep it alive so they can win, either for their own survival or to save those closest to them.  All four protagonists have some brilliant character driven storylines around them, and each of them is fighting for something important to them, whether it be redemption, family, reputation, or respect.  In addition, the protagonists are still reeling from the events of All of Us Villains, and no-one has been left emotionally or physically untouched from the events of the first book.  This results in an emotionally heavy storyline, especially once everyone gets a taste of betrayal, either from the other champions or from other malign figures outside of the main group.  The story evolves at a great pace, and the authors chuck in some imaginative and clever twists as each group starts to get closer to their goal.  New relationships are built while others are torn down, and there are some very intense moments as scorned friends finally confront each other over past betrayals.  Everything leads up perfectly to the big conclusion, where there are some big sacrifices and some major changes in the lives of every protagonist as they reach their endgame.  I really appreciated how this impressive story came together, and you will be left shocked, moved and very satisfied with how this outstanding duology came to an end.

I think the excellent team of Foody and Lynn Herman did a remarkable job pulling All of Our Demise together, and this was an extremely well-written book.  As I mentioned above, this is a pretty epic sequel, and the authors strike off right after the cool cliff-hanger that All of Us Villains ended on.  All the great story elements from the first book are seamlessly continued here, and I really appreciated being able to jump straight into the narrative again.  While the authors do ensure that there is some exposition so that readers can remember what happened in the first book, I would say that All of Our Demise is a bit of a harder book to enjoy if you haven’t read All of Us Villains first.  There are some story and character gaps featured here that might be a bit hard to follow without having read the first book, so I would definitely recommend checking that out first.  Once you are into this story, there really isn’t a slow moment, as the characters are constantly engaged in some form of action, the enhanced intrigue surrounding the event, or a deep examination of their psyche and relationships, especially as they continue to examine the terrible events they have found themselves in.  While All of Our Demise is a bit of a brick, you honestly are never left feeling bored or stuck, and you frankly can’t help but move forward as you are drawn into this elaborate tale.  I really think that the split between the four protagonists is handled perfectly as well, and it ensures you get a well-balanced narrative and substantial time to dive into their respective and impressive character arcs.  This was one of those young adult novels that has a lot of appeal both for its target teen audience, and much older readers, as everyone will deeply appreciate its clever storylines and deeply relatable characters.  I felt that All of Our Demise came together exceptionally well, and this ended up being quite an outstanding and addictive read.

I must make special note of the cool death tournament that is such a fantastic feature of this amazing duology.  I love a great young adult death tournament scenario (who doesn’t?), and the one featured in All of Us Villains and All of Our Demise is particularly inventive, loaded with a unique history, fun magical features, and all manner of devastating tragedy.  I was really impressed with how the authors set up and featured this elaborate tournament in the previous book, and they continue to utilise it throughout All of Our Demise.  The constant fight to survive the lethal tournament becomes even more complicated throughout this second book, and it was fascinating to see how the characters deal with the pressure and the constant war they find themselves in.  There are some excellent features of the tournament that come into play in this second book, including the new magical artefacts and locations featured within that give them varying advantages.  These are generally short lived as the champions are determined to destroy them all, which not only requires them to learn more of their various family’s dark histories but forces them to engage in deadly challenges built into the tournament to destroy it.  These challenges are pretty epic, and it was great to see the protagonists involved in progressively more lethal encounters.

However, the most distinctive and entertaining change to the tournament that occurred in All of Our Demise was the sudden lack invasion of the public that occurred due to the breaking of the Blood Veil barrier.  The tournament has always historically been a private affair between the champions, but now the entire battle is a worldwide sensation being constantly reported on by the media.  It was quite fascinating and a little maddening to see the supposed sombre death tournament devolve further into a gaudy spectacle, equipped with baying fans, manipulative outsiders and a ton of paparazzi, all of whom have a very different view of the events occurring.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the ridiculous media coverage that occurred throughout this second part of the tournament, especially as various over-the-top and often blatantly false headlines and discussions of current tournament events appeared at the start of every chapter, replacing the quotes from the tell-all book that were featured in All of Us Villains.  This media coverage nearly always painted the complex characters in such a terrible light for the rest of world, which was a little hard to see, especially after you have become quite attached to the various protagonists.  However, I personally felt that it drew me into the narrative a little more, and it was a very entertaining and fun element that I had an amazing amount of fun with.  This media coverage had an interesting impact on the events of the narrative, as the characters are forced to conduct interviews and discussions with reporters to further their goals.  This entire change in the publicity of the tournament was a brilliant addition to this second book, and it altered the tone of the book in an impressive and amazing way, that really added to my enjoyment of the book.

However, the best thing about All of Our Demise was the exceptional character work featured within.  Foody and Lynn Herman did such a brilliant job setting up the four complex protagonists in All of Us Villains, and these impressive character arcs are continued seamlessly in the sequel, with each of the protagonists forced to deal with some of the further traumas that were inflicted on them in the first book.  All of Our Demise maintains the same four point-of-view characters as before, and I found myself instantly connected to them again as I remembered their compelling history and the devastating events that occurred to them in the first book.  The authors continued to perfectly build these characters throughout All of Our Demise, subjecting them to further trauma, emotional concerns and hardships, and watching them try to deal with these as they fight for their survival is a key and impressive part of this epic young adult book.

Probably the most compelling character in the entire duology is Alistair Lowe, who simultaneously plays the role of the best antagonist and an intriguing and likeable protagonist.  Alistair is the oldest son of the Lowe family, who are generally considered to be the major villains of the tournament.  Despite being raised from birth to be a monster, Alistair was hesitant about his role in the tournament and was initially a reluctant participant, even though he knew it was his destiny.  Thanks to his romantic interactions with fellow champion Isobel and the murder of his brother Hendry by his family to boost his chances, Alistair had a brief brush as being a hero and destroying the tournament with the others.  However, the apparent resurrection of Hendry by the tournament at the end of All of Us Villains caused Alistair to abandon his allies and attempt to kill Isobel as he believes their plan would result in his brother dying again.  Now fatally cursed and having taken brutal revenge on his family, Alistair is forced to re-envision himself as the villain once again to convince himself to kill the other champions, all to save the most important person in his life.

It is very hard not to appreciate Alistair as character as the authors have done an incredible job creating him and turning him into the most complex figure in the novel.  The authors really did a number on Alistair in the last book, and watching him try and work through all these issues here is extremely powerful, especially as he keeps experiencing more setbacks and traumas as he proceeds.  There is so much tragedy and emotional turmoil surrounding Alistair in this book, and the authors write an excellent arc around him for this sequel.  Watching him try to balance his desires and true nature with everyone’s perspective of him as a monster is just so damn fascinating and moving, and you can’t help but feel sorry for this fictional character.  I am glad that Foody and Lynn Herman did work in a redemption arc for Alistair in All of Our Demise, and there are some surprising, but very heartfelt relationships surrounding him in this novel that help to keep him going.  I really think that the authors handled Alistair perfectly, and he is definitely the character that everyone will remember once they finish this book.

Another character who you fall in love with Isobel Macaslan, another person who has gone through absolute hell through the course of the books.  Forced into the tournament against her will, Isobel tried to use her sudden infamy to her benefit and projected an air of confidence before the tournament, despite being terrified and used by her family.  Since then, she had an unfortunate romantic entanglement with Alistair Lowe which resulted in him murdering her.  Resurrected by a dark curse that makes her more corpse than woman, Isobel is in a very bad place during this book.  Still controlled by doubt and despair, Isobel is uncertain about whether she believes in the plan her friends are proposing and spends most of the book coming to terms with her fears and her growing attachment to another dangerous character.  Throw in some major family issues, as she continues to struggle with her selfish family, and a hostile press who produce some typical paparazzi junk about her, and you some excellent and compelling moments around Isobel that are fascinating to see.  Isobel continues to experience quite a lot of tragedy in this novel and watching her power through them and try to fix all her damaged relationships is a great part of the plot.

The third point-of-view character is Briony Thorburn, who serves quite a key role in the plot.  Briony has seen herself as the hero her entire life and was the only person excited for the tournament.  However, after her younger sister was chosen in her place thanks to the machinations of the government, Briony illegally entered the tournament by incapacitating her sister and cutting her finger off.  Now determined to destroy the tournament, Briony leads the charge to destroy the artefacts and landmarks.  However, there are some major concerns about her actual motivations, as many assume this part of her manipulative hero complex.  Briony spends most of the book trying to redeem herself after the mistakes of the first novel, a task that is complicated by her own family, who have their own sinister plans for her and the other champions.  Mentally isolated and hated by the media, Briony has a terrible time in All of Our Demise, and the authors weave some powerful moments around her.  I honestly think that Briony had one of the best and most complete narratives in the entire series, and All of Our Demise brought her character arc together extremely well.  Like the rest of the cast, it is very hard not to grow attached to Briony as you witness her complicated physical and mental battles unfold, and I really appreciated the outstanding way it ended.

The final main character is Gavin Grieve, who proved to be one of the most surprising and captivating characters from the first book.  The chosen sacrifice of the one family who has never won the tournament, Gavin always knew he was destined to die.  Full of rage and resentment, Gavin chose to make a deal with the devil and accessed a dangerous form of magick that drained his own life to gain substantial power.  Made into a lethal contender but slowly dying, Gavin is convinced by outside forces that they can save him, but they require him to work with Alistair Lowe.  Forced to overcome his own prejudices, most of which revolve from the perceived disrespect of the other champions, Gavin grows close to Alistair, and they form an interesting team.  I was really surprised by the direction of Gavin’s storylines in this book, especially as there are some fantastic reveals and changes in personality.  The authors did a great job of explaining his changes in personality, and I felt that it was quite a natural transition, especially when you consider everything he’s gone through.  Gavin rounded out the central cast of damaged, complex protagonists, extremely well, and I thought that this was a brilliant combination of characters.  Their combined complex storylines and arcs are just superb, and while you might get a little more drawn in to one or two of the characters more than the rest, there is no perspective that you are actively wanting to avoid.  I cannot highlight just how impressive these four characters were, and Foody and Lynn Herman should be commended for the exceptional character work they did here.

The wonderful and insanely talented team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have come up with something truly special with All of Our Demise.  Perfectly finishing the brilliant story started in All of Us Villains, All of Our Demise lived up to all the hype surrounding it and ended up being one of the best young adult fantasy books of the year.  Featuring all the great characters from the first book, Foody and Lynn Herman weave an addictive and deeply personal narrative around them that takes the reader back into the midst of a constantly evolving and deeply traumatising magical death tournament.  Intense, captivating and very complex, All of Our Demise is a highly recommended read, and I cannot have envisioned a better end for the exceptional young adult duology.

All of Our Demise Cover

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Waiting on Wednesday – The Lake House by Sarah Beth Durst

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I check out a fantastic upcoming young adult thriller from impressive author Sarah Beth Durst, The Lake House.

The Lake House Cover

Back in 2020 I was lucky enough to get a copy of a clever fantasy novel, Race the Sands, from a then unknown author to me, Sarah Beth Durst.  While I was unfamiliar with Durst at that point, I had read some incredible positive reviews of this book, and some of her previous novels, and I was curious to check it out.  It helped that Race the Sands also had an extremely compelling plot that revolved around jockeys riding monsters in deadly races out in a dessert kingdom, which sounded pretty damn awesome to me.  Unsurprisingly, I had an exceptional time with Race the Sands, and it featured an epic and exceedingly clever narrative that I really got into.  Race the Sands ended up being one of the best books and audiobooks I enjoyed in 2020, and it pretty much made me an automatic fan of Durst and her writing.

Naturally I kept an eye out for more of the author’s intriguing novels, and I was not disappointed when Durst released another impressive fantasy novel in 2021 with The Bone Maker.  Following a group of retired adventurers years after their legendary defeat of a notorious necromancer, The Bone Maker was another outstanding read that combined an intense and action packed story with damaged characters and a cool new fantasy world powered by bone magic.  The Bone Maker was another great read from Durst, and I have been eager to see what cool book Durst is going to write next.

Well, I just found out some details about Durst’s next upcoming novel and I am very excited.  This book, which is set for release in April 2023, will take Durst back to her young adult roots with the deeply intriguing and awesome thriller, The Lake House.

Synopsis:

Yellowjackets meets One of Us Is Lying in this masterful survival thriller from award-winning author Sarah Beth Durst.

Claire’s grown up triple-checking locks. Counting her steps. Second-guessing every decision. It’s just how she’s wired-her worst-case scenarios never actually come true.

Until she arrives at an off-the-grid summer camp to find a blackened, burned husk instead of a lodge-and no survivors, except her and two other late arrivals: Reyva and Mariana.

When the three girls find a dead body in the woods, they realize none of this is an accident. Someone, something, is hunting them. Something that hides in the shadows. Something that refuses to let them leave.

Irresistible and action-packed until the very final page, The Lake House will have readers glued to their seats as tension builds and danger mounts-and a final, shocking twist is revealed.

I really like the sound of this book!  The Lake House has an awesome and extremely intriguing plot to it, that feels like a combination of a teen thriller book and a classic horror film.  Having teenagers being hunted in the woods by a mysterious presence is a classic story idea for a reason, and I am very interested in seeing Durst’s take on it.  It wouldn’t surprise me if at least one of the surviving girls that the story is focused on is going to have some dark secrets and will probably end up being revealed as either the killer or their accomplice.  I look forward to finding out which and I have a feeling that this is going to be a very impressive and captivating mystery to work through.

The Lake House is currently one of the books I am most excited about for early 2023 and I extremely certain I am going to have an absolute blast getting through it.  I honestly would have tried to get a copy of this book from the synopsis alone, but I am double excited by the fact that Durst is going to write it.  Durst has definitely proven herself to be an exceedingly skilled and impressive author with her recent fantasy work and I have no doubt whatsoever that her young adult thrillers are just as good, if not better.  As such, I have very high hopes for The Lake House next year and will dive into it the moment I get my hands on a copy.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Midnight Horizon by Daniel José Older

Star Wars - Midnight Horizon Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 1 February 2022)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 10 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The first phase of The High Republic Star Wars novels continues to come to an intriguing end with the phase’s third young adult entry, Midnight Horizon, a deeply exciting and fun novel from the talented Daniel José Older.

Since the start of 2021, fans of Star Wars fiction have been granted a unique treat in the form of The High Republic books, a Star Wars sub-series set hundreds of years before the events of the films.  Set at the height of the Republic, the High Republic era is loaded with dangers for the Jedi, particularly that of the Nihil, dangerous raiders who seek to raid, pillage, and destabilise order, while their mysterious leader attempts a far more ambitious plan: the destruction of the Jedi.  Broken down into three phases, the first phase was pretty epic and set up the entire High Republic premise extremely well.  This phase has featured a great collection, including the three main adult novels, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, The Fallen Star; some intriguing young adult books; the audio drama Tempest Runner; two awesome comic book series; as well as some other media releases.  However, this first phase has come to an end, and I just managed to finish off one of the novels that served as its conclusion with Midnight Horizon.

Midnight Horizon is the third young adult fiction novel set within the first High Republic phase, and it is probably the best.  This book was written by Daniel José Older, who has authored several great Star Wars novels over his career, including Last Shot, which was one of the books that started my recent obsession with Star Wars extended fiction, and who has been one of the key contributors to The High RepublicMidnight Horizon is set around the same time as the last adult book of the phase, The Fallen Star, and continues storylines from some of the previous books, including the other two young adult books Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows, as well as the Star Wars Adventures comic series and the junior novel Race to Crashpoint Tower.

Following the devastating Nihil attack on the Republic Fair, the Nihil raiders are finally on the run from the Jedi of Starlight Beacon.  However, not everything is as it seems, and several mysterious events and attacks are beginning to occur around the galaxy.  One of the more alarming rumours of Nihil activity has been sent from the planet of Corellia, home of the galaxy’s premier shipyards, where a now missing diplomatic bodyguard was attacked by mysterious killers wearing Nihil garb.

Determined to ensure that the chaos of the Nihil does not spread to the core planets of the Republic, the Jedi dispatch the small team of Jedi Masters Cohmac Vitus and Kantam Sy, as well as Padawans Reath Silas and Ram Jomaram, to investigate.  All four Jedi have substantial experience dealing with the Nihil, but each of them is going through their own personal internal battles as they struggle to deal with recent losses.  Nevertheless, the Jedi embark upon their investigation into Corellia and soon find unusual help from young security specialist Crash, the employer and friend of the missing bodyguard.

While Cohmac and Kantam attempt to investigate through official channels, Reath and Ram work with the chaotic Crash and her unusual security specialists to infiltrate Corellia’s high society.  Crash believes that one of her elite clients has knowledge about the Nihil infiltrators and embarks on an ambitious plan to draw them out, setting up Jedi associate Zeen as a famous singer.  However, nobody is prepared for the Nihil’s plans, both on Corellia and at Starlight Beacon, and chaos is about to be unleashed upon the Jedi and all of Corellia.  Can the Jedi stand against their foe when all hope seems lost, or will the Nihil continue to sweep across the entire galaxy?

Midnight Horizon was an exceptional entry in the High Republic series, and I was particularly impressed with the cool and epic story it contained.  Older came up with a brilliant and powerful narrative that combines a fast-paced story with great characters and some interesting High Republic developments.

This entry in the High Republic range had a very distinctive and compelling young adult story that sees all manner of chaos and action befall its protagonists.  Older wrote a very fast-paced, character driven narrative that takes the reader to the world of Corellia.  Drawing in an interesting team of entertaining and chaotic protagonists, all of whom are going through some major issues, Older sets them on a path to a major confrontation, while all of them try to come to terms with their roiling emotions.  The author sets most of the story up extremely well at the start of the book, and the reader soon gets quickly invested in seeing the Jedi investigate the Nihil on Corellia.  The story goes in some very interesting directions as everyone tries to identify the Nihil plot, with the best ones following the two Jedi Padawans as they team up with young bodyguard Crash.  Crash has some elaborate and over-the-top plans that she drags them into, including tricking a rare species eating diva named Crufeela, and this proves to be a lot of fun, while also setting up the final act of the story.  At the same time, Older also throws in some intriguing flashbacks to one of the character’s pasts, as well as showing a few scenes outside of Corellia, all of which adds some greater context to the story as well as adding to the amazing emotional depth of the novel.

Everything comes together brilliantly in the final third of Midnight Horizon, where the Nihil plot on Corellia is revealed, simultaneously occurring at the revelation of the fall of Starlight Beacon (which you knew was coming).  I must admit that until this final third, I kind of found Midnight Horizon to be a bit by the numbers, although undeniably fun, but the way everything came about near the end was pretty awesome, as the characters are thrust into an all-out war.  There are multiple pitched battles, tragic deaths and surprise reveals occurring during this part of the book, and you are constantly hit with big moment after big moment as it continues.  I honestly couldn’t stop at this point in the book, as I desperately wanted to see what happened next, and I was sure that I was seconds away from bursting into either tears or cheers.  My determination to continue really paid off, as Older saved the best revelation for right near the end as there is a really big moment that changes everything and is sure to get every Star Wars fan deeply excited.  Older leaves everything on an exciting and powerful note, and readers will come away feeling deeply moved.  It will definitely keep them highly interested in The High Republic as a whole.

The author really worked to give Midnight Horizon an extremely fast pace, and it is near impossible not to swiftly power through this book as it blurs around you.  Shown from the perspective of all the key protagonists, you get a great sense of all the impressive events occurring throughout the book, while also getting some powerful and intense examinations into their respective heads.  Older presents the reader with an excellent blend of universe building, character work, humour and action throughout Midnight Horizon, and there is a little something for everyone here, guaranteeing that it keeps your constant interest and attention.  I do think that the story as a whole could have benefited from greater development of the book’s villains.  They honestly came a bit out of nowhere towards the end and you really didn’t get an appreciation of who they were (some of it is explored in some of Older’s other works).  I really wish that Older would have shown a few more scenes from the villain’s point of view, highlighting the establishment of their plans a little better, and I felt that really would have increased the impact of the book, but I still had a lot of fun with it.

Midnight Horizon also proved to be a pretty good young adult novel, especially as it shows multiple compelling and well-written teenage characters in dangerous situations, and I loved the powerful exploration of their unique issues, especially the constant uncertainty and doubt about what they are doing.  There are also some major LGBT+ elements scattered throughout this novel, which I thought were done really well, as you get a range of different relationships, orientations, sexualities and fluid genders throughout the book, and I loved seeing this sort of inclusivity in Star Wars.  I also liked the easier flow that Older featured in the novel, which I felt was associated with the younger characters, and it worked quite well to quickly and efficiently tell this book’s fantastic narrative.  While this is a young adult book, there are some great darker themes that all readers will appreciate, and I loved how it developed into a brutal and powerful war at the end.

Midnight Horizon proved to be an interesting entry in the wider High Republic series, as it served as one of the last books in the first phase.  Since it is set alongside The Fallen Star, the readers get a whole other side of this key tragedy in Midnight Horizon, as the established characters all witness the fall of Starlight Beacon and the corresponding changes to the galaxy.  At the same time, it does some interesting exploring of the key planet of Corellia during this period, gives some hints about some events that will appear in the upcoming second High Republic phase, while also setting up some other key moments for the future.  However, the most significant thing that Midnight Horizon does for the High Republic is continue and conclude multiple key storylines and character plot lines that were started in other bits of work, such as the other High Republic young adult books.  It also provides an intriguing sequel to Older’s junior fiction novel, Race to Crashpoint Tower, and actually serves as the conclusion to The High Republic Adventures comic series, also written by Older.  The High Republic Adventures was one of the major comic lines for this phase of the sub-series, and fans of it really need to check this book out as it details the fates of several of its main characters.  I had a great time seeing how some of these storylines continue in Midnight Horizon, and Older did a great job of bringing everything together in this novel, while also making it quite accessible to newer readers who haven’t had a chance to read the comics.  That being said, good knowledge of the preceding High Republic works is probably a good thing to have for this novel, although Older does make sure to give as much background as possible as he goes.

As I have mentioned a few times throughout this review, Midnight Horizon was highly character focused, as the author brings in an interesting collection of main characters to base the story around.  All the major point-of-view characters have been featured in previous pieces of High Republic fiction before (mostly in Older’s work), and the author ensures that they all get detailed and compelling storylines in this novel that not only revisit their complex appearances in previous books, but also brings all their storylines to an intriguing close for this phase.  Older also spend a substantial time diving into the minds of these protagonists, which added some impressive emotional depth to the book, as all the characters experience deep traumas or regrets, especially after fighting the Nihil for so long.  This resulted in quite a moving read, and while I do think that Older might have used a few too-many supporting characters, this ended up being an exceptional character focused novel, and I really appreciated the clever way the author explored his protagonists and showed the events of this book through their eyes.

The best two characters in this book are the two Jedi Padawans, Reath Silas and Ram Jomaram, who serves as Midnight Horizon’s heart and soul.  I was particularly keen to see Reath Silas again, as he has been the constant protagonist of the High Republic young adult books and is a pretty major figure as a result.  Older is the third Star Wars author who has featured Reath as one of their main characters, and I do like how consistent the various authors have been while showcasing his growth and emotional damage.  Reath is going through quite a lot in Midnight Horizon, as he continues to try and balance his duty as a Jedi with the mass trauma he has experience in the last two books, his conflicted emotions, penchant for personal connections, and general uncertainty about what he is doing.  Despite this, he proves to be a steadfast and dependable character, and it is hard not to grow attached to his continued story, especially as he has developed so much from the first book from scholarly shut-in to badass warrior.  Reath’s narrative comes full circle in Midnight Horizon, and fans of this character will really appreciate how Older features him in this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Ram Jomaram, who was such a joy to follow.  Ram is an eccentric and unusual Padawan who first appeared in the concurrently released The Rising Storm and Race to Crashpoint Tower.  A mechanical genius with poor social skills and who is always accompanied by a group of Bonbraks (tiny sentient creatures), Ram brings most of the fun to the book with his antics and complete lack of situational awareness.  While I initially didn’t like Jam (mainly because I found out he was the Jedi who first came up with calling cool things “Wizard”), he really grows on you quickly with is exceedingly perky personality.  It was so much fun to see him in action throughout the book, and he gets into some unusual situations as a result.  Despite mostly being a friendly and cheerful figure, Ram is also going through some major emotions in Midnight Horizon, as he witnessed his home planet get ravaged by the Nihil in The Rising Storm, and he is now very uncertain about the emotions he feels while getting into battle.  This sees Ram form a great friendship with Reath throughout the book, and the two play off each other extremely well, bringing not only some fun humour but an interesting mentor-mentee connection.  Ram ends up showing everyone just how much of a badass he is towards the end of the book, and I honestly had an amazing time getting to know this character.

There is also an interesting focus on the two Jedi Masters, Cohmac Vitus and Kantam Sy.  Both go through some interesting and major moments in Midnight Horizon, and you really get some powerful insights from both.  Cohmac’s story is an intense and intriguing examination of trauma as you see this Master continue to struggle with his history and inability to process emotion.  These issues have been building within Cohmac since his introduction in Into the Dark, and it was fascinating to see them continue to impact him here, especially once he discovers what happened at Starlight Beacon to one of his closest friends.  Kantam Sy is a nonbinary character who has been primarily featured in The High Republic Adventures comic.  You get a much more in-depth look at Kantam in this book, especially as Older spends time developing several flashbacks around him that examine his complex past as one of Yoda’s students.  Kantam’s team-up with Cohmac proves to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, and it was compelling to see the more balanced Kantam witness Cohmac’s building anger and frustration.

The final two major characters are Zeen and Crash, both of whom have some interesting storylines in this book.  Zeen, a Force-sensitive teen who assists the Jedi, is one of the main characters from The High Republic Adventures comic, and many of her storylines are finished off here a little abruptly although in some interesting ways.  Most of her storyline is focused around her growing romantic relationship with Padawan Lula Talisola, who she has been close with during the series, and the resultant internal conflict as she tries to decide whether to act on it.  There are also some more damaging emotional moments for Zeen as she comes to terms with the actions of her old friend Kamerat and the tragedy of Starlight Beacon.  The other character is Alys Ongwa, better known as Crash, a diplomatic protection officer who specialises in protecting Corellia’s fractious and deadly political elite.  Crash is an interesting character who was first introduced in a one-shot comic written by Older, Crash and the Crew Do What They Do, and it was interesting to see her brought back here.  A skilled bodyguard and leader, Crash is an intense and highly motivated figure who enacts multiple crazy schemes to get what she wants, while also trying to be a good friend and boss.  Crash hits some major crossroads in Midnight Horizon, especially when she is forced to balance her oath as a bodyguard against justice for her friend and the safety of her city, and she is constantly forced to keep her own intense emotions in check.  I found Crash to be one of the most entertaining and enjoyable figures in Midnight Horizon and watching her and her chaotic crew of bodyguards in action is a lot of fun, especially when she plays of all the other protagonists really well, bringing out the recklessness in all of them.  However, Crash is also quite emotionally vulnerable, and it was nice to see her try to become a better friend while also working on her romantic attachments to a beautiful alien singer and lifelong friend.  I had a wonderful time with all these major characters in Midnight Horizon, and Older did a remarkable job highlighting them and ensuring the reader was aware of their many issues.

As with most Star Wars novels I read, I chose to grab a copy of Midnight Horizon’s audiobook format, which was the usual exceptional experience.  Featuring a short run time of just over 10 hours, Midnight Horizon is a quick and fun audiobook to get through, and I loved the various ways this format enhanced the fantastic story.  As usual, Midnight Horizon features all the amazing Star Wars sound effects for lightsabers, blasters and ships, which are used to punctuate the story elements being described and perfectly bring listeners into the moment.  It also made good use of some of the classic Star Wars music, which, even though it was used a little more sparingly in Midnight Horizon, deeply added to the atmosphere of the book and perfectly enhanced the emotional impact of several key scenes.

While the sound effects and music where as cool as always, the thing that really impressed me about the Midnight Horizon audiobook was the great choice of narrator in Todd Haberkorn.  I didn’t realise that Haberkorn was going to narrate this book until I started listening to it, and I was pretty blown away the second I realised that I got to listen to an audiobook read by Natsu himself.  I am a massive fan of Haberkorn’s work as the English voice actor for dubs of awesome anime like Fairy Tail and Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, so it was really cool to have him narrate this audiobook.  Not only that, but Haberkorn did an outstanding job bringing the various characters to life in Midnight Horizon and moving the story along at a blistering and fantastic pace.  Haberkorn’s voice perfectly fit the frenetic energy of this story, and I loved the distinctive and very fitting voices he gifted to the novel’s eccentric characters.  He also had a lot of fun voicing some of the unique alien creatures featured in the book, such as the Bonbraks, and he got to do a particularly good Yoda voice as well.  I had an absolute blast listening to Haberkorn narrate this awesome audiobook, and when combined with the great music and impressive sound effects, this was an exceptional way to listen to Midnight Horizon.  I would highly recommend this format as a result, and it probably added a few points to my overall rating because of how impressive it was.

Overall, Midnight Horizon was an excellent High Republic young adult novel that was a real treat to read.  Daniel José Older came up with an outstanding and fun story that was both exciting and powerful as he dives into his various fantastic and damaged protagonists.  Loaded with some awesome moments and epic developments, this was a great addition to the Star Wars canon, and I loved every second I spent listening to it.

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Waiting on Wednesday – The Winter Soldier: Cold Front by Mackenzi Lee

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this latest Waiting on Wednesday, I highlight a fantastic upcoming comic book tie in with the anti-hero focused The Winter Soldier: Cold Front by Mackenzi Lee.

The Winter Soldier - Cold Front Cover

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Back in 2019 I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of a fantastic young adult tie-in novel, Loki: Where Mischief Lies, by the talented Mackenzi Lee.  Where Mischief Lies was an intriguing read that followed a young Loki and showed one of his unique adventures in 19th century London, where his lies, tricks and morality where strongly tested.  This was a fantastic book and it served as a great first entry in a new Marvel young adult tie-in series from Lee, with all the planned entries looking at conflicted anti-heroes and villains from the Marvel universe.  This series was followed up last year with the intriguing Gamora and Nebula: Sisters in Arms, which looked at the two fan favourite characters from Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora and Nebula, as they worked a complex mission for their father.  While I have not had the pleasure of reading Sisters in Arms yet, it sounded really fun and I have been meaning to check it out for a while.  Luckily, due to the standalone nature of these series, I don’t have to read it before getting excited for the next Marvel novel from Lee, as there is a third book in the series coming out early next year with The Winter Soldier: Cold Front.

Synopsis:

1954: The Winter Soldier is the Soviet Union’s greatest weapon. Assigned the most dangerous covert missions from the USSR’s secret military branch, and guided by a handler who knows him better than he knows himself, he has only one purpose: to obey orders.

But he wasn’t always the Winter Soldier . . .

1941: As World War II begins, sixteen-year old Bucky Barnes is determined to enlist in the US army—if only the local commander will stop getting in his way. When Bucky is offered enrolment in a training program with the British Special Operations Executive—the UK’s secret service—he leaps at the chance to become a hero. But Bucky has hardly touched down in London when he finds himself running from a mysterious assassin and accompanied by an English chess champion fond of red lipstick and double crosses. She’s in possession of a secret every side is desperate to get their hands on. If only they knew what it was . . .

Decades later, the Winter Soldier struggles to solve the same mystery Bucky is just beginning to uncover. As their missions intersect across time, their lives collide too—in a way that neither of them would have expected, and that will change the course of their respective wars.

In The Winter Soldier: Cold Front, on-sale on February 7, 2023, New York Times best-selling author Mackenzi Lee explores the youth of one of Marvel’s most compelling characters, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes—and the enemy soldier he is forced to become.

Now, I first have to geek out a little about there being an upcoming book about the Winter Solider.  I love this cool character (pun intended) and have been a massive fan of the unique way they brought back Bucky ever since his appearance in the comics.  His brilliant use in the MCU movies has only increased my love of this character, and there are honestly few anti-heroes in the Marvel canon more conflicted than the Winter Soldier.  As such I am very excited to read a whole novel about him, especially one that sounds as great as Cold Front.

I am deeply intrigued by the amazing synopsis featured above, especially as it looks like Lee is going to use multiple time periods to tell a complex and interlocking story.  The plan to focus on various points in Bucky’s life, including his time in the army before meeting Captain America, as well as his early days as the Winter Soldier in the 1950’s Soviet Union sounds extremely awesome, and something I am very keen on.  Watching the various phases of this character’s life is going to be great, and I am particularly keen to see how the author portrays the brain-washed version of the Winter Solider in comparison to the carefree teenager.  I am also interested in seeing how the storylines interlock, and it sounds like the two time periods are going to come together in some fantastic ways.

I honestly was keen to check this book out the moment I heard that Mackenzi Lee was writing anything about the Winter Soldier.  However, Cold Front has a great plot to it, and it sounds like it is going to spend a lot of time diving into the mind of the titular character and show multiple key parts of his life.  Set for release in February 2023, Winter Soldier: Cold Front, is going to be epic, and I reckon that I am going to have an outstanding time reading this upcoming read.

Waiting on Wednesday – All of Our Demise by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday I highlight an awesome upcoming sequel that I am extremely keen to check out, All of Our Demise by the dream team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman.

All of Our Demise Cover

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Last year, established authors Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman came together for the first time to produce an intriguing and unique young adult fantasy novel that followed several great protagonists into a magical death tournament with All of Us Villains.  Set in a world where access to extremely powerful high magick is determined by a death tournament featuring the children of ancient families, this novel closely followed four of the seven participants and showed the dangerous and epic personal and magical struggles they went through.

I had an incredible time reading All of Us Villains, which really lived up to all the hype surrounding it, and Foody and Lynn Herman ended up being some of my favourite new authors of 2021.  This first book was loaded with intrigue, clever magical sequences, an intriguing media angle, complex teenage characters who are forced to make intense, life-altering decisions, as well as some outstanding shocks and betrayals.  The novel ended on an excellent and heartbreaking note that left readers desperately wanting more.  Well, we do not have to wait much longer as details about the next book, All of Our Demise, have just been released and it sounds pretty damn awesome.

Synopsis:

“I feel like I should warn you: this is going to be absolutely brutal.”

For the first time in this ancient, bloodstained story, the tournament is breaking. The boundaries between the city of Ilvernath and the arena have fallen. Reporters swarm the historic battlegrounds. A dead boy now lives again. And a new champion has entered the fray, one who seeks to break the curse for good… no matter how many lives are sacrificed in the process.

As the curse teeters closer and closer to collapse, the surviving champions each face a choice: dismantle the tournament piece by piece, or fight to the death as this story was always intended.

Long-held alliances will be severed. Hearts will break. Lives will end. Because a tale as wicked as this one was never destined for happily ever after.


All of Our Demise
will be set immediately after the events of All of Us Villains and will act as the conclusion to the fantastic duology.  Currently set for release on 30 August 2022, All of Our Demise will continue the intriguing storylines set up in the first novel as some of the participants fight to destroy the tournament for good, while others set out to win for power, glory and revenge.  However, with the mystical barrier that usually separates the participants from the rest of the world coming down and a mysterious individual manipulating events from the shadows, there are going to be a lot of compelling elements here that should add a great edge to the story.  I am extremely excited for this impressive upcoming young adult fantasy sequel, and I cannot wait to see how the cool story comes to an end.  All of Our Demise is easily one of the books I am most looking forward to in the second half of 2022, and it should be extremely epic.

Waiting on Wednesday – Friends Like These by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this latest Waiting on Wednesday I take a look at a cool upcoming young adult thriller from a very talented author that I already know I am going to love, Friends Like These by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez.

Friends Like These Cover

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Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, a brilliant young adult thriller that saw a group of friends forced into an impossible situation when they accidently start a wildfire that destroys their town, forcing them to lie to save themselves from legal retribution.  This was an incredible read that perfectly blended character arcs with an intense narrative and some major twists, and it was easily one of the best debut novels of the year.  I had so much fun reading this cool novel that I have been keeping an eye out for any detail about the author’s next novel, and I was very happy when I saw she had another intriguing young adult thriller coming out later this year.

This book is Friends Like These which is currently set for release in November 2022.  Friends Like These is another intriguing and cool young adult read that will set teenage protagonists against each other as they attempt to navigate a terrible situation.  This time the new protagonists will have to uncover a killer and hide their involvement in a crime when a body is discovered at their beach party after they pull off a video prank.  Sure to be filled with some intense moments and exquisite storytelling, I am already extremely excited for Friends Like These and I am exceedingly confident that this is going to be one of the best young adult books of 2022.

Synopsis:

Twisted secrets that will have readers guessing with every flip of the page. Perfect for fans of GONE GIRL and Karen M. McManus.

Tegan Sheffield’s annual end-of-summer beach party is the only way to start their senior year. At least that’s what Jake Healy tells his girlfriend Jessica Sanchez.

But when a video prank from the party goes viral and a body is discovered at the beach, Jake and Jessica find themselves at the centre of a national media storm and a police investigation.

It’s a race to uncover the truth before the killer strikes again.

All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

All of us Villains Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book One

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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The writing team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman presents their first awesome joint novel, with the impressive and dark young adult fantasy book, All of Us Villains.

Foody and Herman are both established authors, having previously released cool-sounding novels and series, such as Foody’s bestselling The Shadow Game series and Herman’s The Devouring Gray novels.  While I have not had the opportunity to check out either of these authors’ previous books, I was very interested by All of Us Villains when I first heard about it a few months ago.  I loved the unique and compelling plot synopsis, and I was also intrigued by all the buzz from other reviewers.  I instantly jumped on it once I received my own copy and I was very impressed with its clever and compelling story.

In a world still powered by spells and curses, nothing is more precious than high magick, which can super-charge any spell and provide its wielder with insane amounts of power.  The only reliable source of high magick left in the world can be found in the remote city of Ilvernath, a dour and depressing settlement whose prosperity and fame can be traced to seven ancient families.  The ability to see and manipulate this high magick can only belong to one family at a time, and control ensures their prosperity for an entire generation.  However, to gain this right, each family must make an unbelievable sacrifice.

Every generation, when the Blood Moon starts to rise, a magical tournament is enacted that pits the very best of the families against each other.  However, this is no gentle tournament of magick; it is a brutal, curse-created fight to the death, with each family forced to nominate a young champion to represent them.  Only one champion can survive the tournament, and no-one ever emerges unscathed.

Twenty years after the last competition, a new Blood Moon starts to rise, and the families make ready for the latest battle for supremacy.  However, this tournament will be very different than any before.  Someone from the seven families has published a tell-all book, detailing every aspect of the tournament and informing the world of the hidden atrocities that have been committed in the name of power.  With the world now obsessed with every aspect of the tournament, all attention is now focussed on Ilvernath and the seven champions.

Thrust into the public spotlight, all seven champions must now deal with the intense infamy the tournament produces as they prepare to fight.  Forced to balance their own feelings on death and survival with the intense pressure placed upon them by their families and tradition, none are truly ready for the horrors they will be forced to endure.  However, this tournament also offers its competitors a chance to survive and end the curse that has blighted their families for centuries.  But not all the competitors are willing to give up the chance of ultimate power and are prepared to pay any price to win.  Let the games begin!

Damn, now this was a really great novel.  The brilliant new writing team of Foody and Herman produced an outstanding book in All of Us Villains, and I really got stuck into its story incredibly quickly.  The authors did a wonderful job of utilising a new version of the always popular teenage death tournament to fit into a brilliant and moving narrative.  Filled with complex characters and intense personal moments, All of Us Villains is an awesome and powerful book that I deeply enjoyed.

All of Us Villains has an excellent narrative that is a lot of fun to get into.  Focused on four of the seven participants of the latest death tournament, this is an amazing character driven story that really dives into the protagonists’ psyches as they prepare for the ultimate challenge.  The authors do an awesome job setting the scene for this fantastic story, and the readers are quickly hooked by the four complex main characters and the interesting scenario.  Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to the setup before the tournament begins, which I think ensured the perfect balance between development and bloodshed.  You come away from the first half appreciating each of the characters and deeply caring about the outcome of the upcoming battle.  I was particularly impressed with one great early twist that surrounded one main character’s family preparations, and it added some major impact to his storyline.  Once the tournament begins, readers are in for a whirlwind of emotions and excitement as all the characters enact their strategy to win while all bearing a heavy emotional weight or magical handicap.  There are some intense and captivating sequences here and the readers are constantly on the edge of their seat, especially with some unique interactions, alliances and motivations, including one character who attempts to destroy the entire tournament from the inside.  This all leads up to a devastating and powerful conclusion, filled with death, despair, betrayal and complete emotional devastation, as all the characters make their choices and everything crumbles around them.

I really loved this cool narrative and I found myself getting really caught up in the constant heartbreak and bloodshed.  I am a massive fan of the teenage death tournament premise, and the authors do a great job of working this established story elements into their setting extremely well.  While there isn’t as much intense violence in the actual tournament as some readers would probably hope, I think that the authors’ choice to focus on the characters and their intense emotions about being forced into this fight by their families turned All of Us Villains into a better book. The authors’ use of multiple character perspectives works extremely well here, especially as it forces you to choose between your favourite characters as you try and work out who you want to survive, while also ensuring a really in-depth look at the setting and the tournament.  While I did find the final twist of this novel slightly predictable, the rest of the reveals and unpredictable actions were really cool, and I was shocked and surprised multiple times while reading.  This was also a great first entry, with the story ending on a compelling final note that will ensure that I will be coming back for the next book.  This was a deeply accessible and enjoyable read that has a lot of appeal to a vast array of varied readers, especially its intended young adult audience who will really love the complex story, clever setting and fantastic characters.

I had a lot of fun with the captivating and inventive setting and scenario that the authors have come up with for All of Us Villains.  While the world itself is a bit of a familiar alternate world with magic, the town of Ilvernath and the tournament it hosts more than makes up for it.  The authors spend a substantial amount of time establishing the setting, showcasing how the participants live, the vile history surrounding their families, as well as the tournament which plays a major role in their existence.  The people of Ilvernath, especially the seven families, are explored in detail, and it was fascinating to see the various opinions and expectations surrounding them.  This becomes even more apparent as a clever media saturation element is worked into the narrative as the tournament has been exposed to the public and has gained substantial attention, changing the entire nature of the tournament.  Excerpts from the tell-all-book that caused this attention are featured at the start of each chapter, which I deeply enjoyed.  Not only is it fascinating to see an inside perspective on the events, the families, and the tournament history, but it helps to expand the lore of this world in a fun way.  I also quite enjoyed the cool magical system of this novel, which is channelled through spell-laden rings powered.  The authors spend a lot of time exploring this magical system, especially as they show off various aspects of it, including spell/curse crafting and the subsequent casting.  You get a real sense of how this system works in a very short amount of time, and there are some unique and intense spells that get chucked into the mix, resulting in some big story moments.

The highlight of All of Us Villains is the death tournament, which gets a lot of attention and development.  The authors perfectly explain the lore, rules, and quirks of the tournament, and it is fascinating to see it unfold once the characters are thrown into it.  Cut off from the rest of the world by a magical barrier, the participants need to kill each other within a set period or else everyone left alive will die.  There are some fantastic rules and inclusions set into this tournament, including seven artefacts with their own unique benefits and seven strongholds that the champions can hold up in.  These items and strongholds have their own significance and connections to the seven families, and it was interesting to see their impact on the events of the tournament.  The authors’ clever use of excerpts from the tell-all book works extremely well to highlight elements of the tournament, and I loved all this crucial part of the book.  There are also some new elements introduced for this specific tournament, as parts of the curse start to break apart due to the unpredictable actions of the participants.  This opens new opportunities and possibilities that were quite fascinating to see.  I look forward to seeing what happens around this tournament in rest of this series, especially as more bloodshed and destruction is inevitable.

As I mentioned multiple times above, the best thing about this cool book is the fantastically complex and compelling central characters.  The focus of All of Us Villains is on the seven participants of the tournament, with a particular emphasis on the four main characters.  The authors really dive into these four characters, highlighting their personalities, emotions, and their thoughts on the tournament they are about to embark on.  Each character is very well established, and there are some extremely complex and powerful storylines and character arcs set up around them.  It is a testament to the authors’ writing that I tended to enjoy each separate perspective about equally, and there were none that I disliked more than any of the others, which is a real peril in novels with a lot of narrators.  I will say that this intense focus on only four of the main characters does detract a lot of attention and interest away from the rest of the supporting cast, especially the three other family champions, but I think it is worth it for the impressive development put into the central protagonists.

The first of these characters is Alistair Lowe, the powerful scion of the Lowe family.  The Lowes win most of the tournaments and are generally considered the villains of Ilvernath and its history due to their monstrous personalities.  Alistair has been raised his entire life to win the tournament by any means necessary and has fully accepted his role as the monster of the story, even if he isn’t as evil as everyone assumes or wants him to be.  However, an interesting and unexpected romance soon starts to change his mind and he is convinced that changing his ways and saving the others might be a good idea.  However, a particularly vicious twist towards the end of the novel completely alters the entire trajectory of his character arc and will leave you reeling in shock while it loads up the epic feels.  I felt that out of all the characters, Alistair had the most moving and complex storyline as well as the most substantial development, and he swiftly becomes the character you bond with the most.  I am deeply intrigued to see what happens to him in the next book and I have a feeling that there is both great tragedy and great evil in his future.

The next central champion is Isobel Macaslan, a bright and powerful magick user from a highly resented family.  I loved the great work that the authors put into developing her.  At first Isobel appears to be one of the most confident and enthusiastic figures in this book, especially as she is the one leaning into the publicity surrounding the tournament the most.  However, it soon becomes apparent that she was forced to be champion thanks to the machinations of her uncaring family and her former best friend, who threw her to the press.  Isobel has a lot of issues going into the tournament, with the mass attention and the unfair expectations placed upon her forcing her to take some big risks which severely disadvantage her as she enters the tournament.  Isobel ends up developing some unique connections throughout All of Us Villains, and the friendships and relationships she develops form the emotional heart of much of the narrative.  The reader sees Isobel go to some dark places in this book and it is hard to see all the heartbreak and despair she experiences.

I was also a major fan of the underdog Gavin Grieve, who has an amazingly complex and relatable story arc.  Gavin is the champion from the Grieve family, who have never won the tournament and are generally looked down upon by everyone in town.  Gavin is a sad and angry character since everyone underestimates him and his chances, while also showering him with scorn as it was apparently a Grieve who wrote the tell-all expose about the tournament.  This anger leads to him making a dangerous deal that provides him with impressive power at a great price.  This was an amazing story inclusion, especially as it turns Gavin into a bit of a beast due to finally having power and an advantage over the other families.  This leads him to do some reckless and cruel things, and it was fascinating to see the events of the tournament and its bloody legacy slowly corrupt this character before your eyes.

The final point-of-view character was Briony Thorburn, the confident wildcard.  Unlike all the other major characters, Briony wants to compete in the tournament and has spent her entire life getting ready for it, going as far as to dump her boyfriend, one of the other competitors, so she would feel less guilty about killing him.  However, events outside of her control impact her participation and she is forced to take some drastic actions.  This leads to her significantly reconsidering her position and gives her a fantastic arc about trying to save all her fellow participants and try to break the tournament once and for all.  Watching her attempt to make up for all her past mistakes while also convincing the other champions to change hundreds of years of tradition is pretty brilliant, and I found it to be a compelling arc that fleshed out the story perfectly.

In their first collaboration, the brilliant team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have produced one of the best young adult fantasy novels of 2021 with All of Us Villains.  This amazing novel contains an excellent story set around an intense magical teenage death tournament that takes the reader into some incredible directions.  Filled with tragedy, impressive character development, and a ton of impressive twists, All of Us Villains is an exceptional read that comes highly recommended novel.

All of us Villains Cover 2

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Cytonic by Brandon Sanderson

Cytonic Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 23 November 2021)

Series: Skyward – Book Three

Length: 14 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today continues his incredible and brilliant Skyward young adult science fiction series, with the third epic instalment, Cytonic.

This was another incredible book from the amazingly talented Brandon Sanderson, who I would say is one of the top authors in the world today.  Debuting back in 2005, Sanderson has written many brilliant and complex fantasy and science fiction novels and was personally selected to finish off Robert Jordan’s iconic The Wheel of Time series.  Sanderson has since written a great collection of books, most of which have been part of his interconnected Cosmere universe.  This includes his groundbreaking The Stormlight Archive series, which started in 2010 with The Way of Kings, as well as his bestselling Mistborn series.  While the extremely prolific Sanderson is constantly adding to his Cosmere novels, he has also been working on several other series, such as his Skyward books.

The Skyward series are an excellent young adult science fiction series that follows the character of Spensa Nightshade, a misfit who rose to become a fighter pilot to defend her planet from alien invaders.  Made up of Skyward and Starsight, this great series has proven to be truly fantastic, and these first two novels were amongst the best books of 2018 and 2019 respectfully.  The first book detailed Spensa’s training as a pilot, which saw her save her planet and discover that her people were intentionally trapped on their planet in a penal colony.  The second book, Starsight, followed Spensa as she infiltrated the alien capital in disguise to discover what the aliens wanted, and what plans they had for her planet.  However, after being betrayed, Spensa learns that the Superiority government want to use the mysterious interdimensional beings known as the Delvers as weapons against the humans.  This third book in the series, Cytonic, follows on immediately after the events of Starsight and continues Spensa’s adventure, showing what happened to her after she dove into a Superiority interdimensional portal at the end of the second book.  Sanderson also released several novellas around the same time as Cytonic, including Sunreach, Redawn and Evershore, which add context to the universe and focus on some of the side characters from the previous novels.

Following her dive into the mysterious portal in the middle of Starsight to escape the Superiority, Defiant Defence Force pilot and amateur spy, Spensa Nightshade, finds herself in all manner of trouble when she arrives in the realm known as the Nowhere.  The Nowhere is a unnatural and chaotic dimension outside our universe that hosts the Delvers, destructive creatures that are being manipulated by the Superiority into destroying humanity, especially the psychically empowered beings known as Cytonics, such as herself.

Determined to find out more about both the Delvers and her own Cytonic abilities, Spensa remains in the Nowhere to find the clues that will uncover the history behind her own power and that of her enemies.  However, the Nowhere is a weird and mysterious place, made up of floating fragments of multiple planets and filled with all manner of creatures, alien pirates and Superiority forces.  Worse, the very nature of the Nowhere slowly changes the people within it, draining their memories and making them forget everything important to them.

Alone except for her unhinged ship AI, M-Bot, and a forgetful intergalactic explorer, Spensa begins her quest.  As Spensa hunts down fragments from the past, she soon finds herself under attack from the Delvers, who are desperate to destroy her and the threat she poses to their entire race.  With mysterious monsters, dangerous physics and hostile aliens closing in on her, Spensa is thrust into the great adventure she always wanted.  However, the closer she gets to the truth about herself and the delvers, the more she begins to realise just how high the cost of knowledge and power can be.

This was an exceptional and addictive read from Sanderson, who once again takes the reader on a complex and powerful ride.  Cytonic was an excellent continuation of the unique story started in Skyward and then expanded on in Starsight, and I love the powerful journey contained in this novel.  Featuring a brilliant combination of a clever narrative, a unique new setting and some amazingly entertaining characters, this was an exceptional read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed this incredible narrative, especially as it continues the cool plot from the previous two novels.  One of the best things about this series is the amazing amount of variance in storylines, with the first book reading like a flight academy story (teenage Top Gun), while the second book was an espionage book set in the heart of alien territory.  This third book turned out to be a wild and epic adventure novel, which places the protagonist in a unique and dangerous new setting and requires her to complete a great quest to save her friends and escape.  This great change of tone really made for a compelling read, and I loved the inventive pivots featured in this book.

Cytonic starts right after the events of Starsight, quickly resolving the cliffhanger from the second book, while also placing Spensa immediately in danger yet again.  Once the new main character, Chet, is introduced, Cytonic’s story quickly sets the protagonist on her mission, travelling to one location after another to learn the past of the universe and her enemies.  There are some brilliant sequences set throughout this part of the book, as Spensa gets to grips with the strange new dimension she has found herself in, while also enjoying the cool adventure she is having.  Around halfway through the book, several key new characters are introduced, as Spensa is forced to join an alien pirate gang to advance any further into the Nowhere.  What follows are some brilliant character moments as Spensa starts to find her place in this dimension, while also worrying about her friends back home.  After some intense and exciting space fighter fights, Spensa and her companions eventually get towards the end run of the book, learning everything they came to while trying to escape the Delvers.  The final major sequence of the book is loaded up with an intense amount of action, drama and major twists, as everything you think you know is changed around, and some big events occur that will rock you right in the feels.  This was a brilliant and extremely fast-paced narrative, with the protagonists never sitting still for long as they encounter danger and adversity around every corner.  Despite the intense pace, Sanderson also works a lot of character development and emotional encounters throughout the book, and you get an extremely well-balanced story that is very easy to get addicted to.

I deeply enjoyed Sanderson’s excellent writing style which helped to make Cytonic particularly accessible and fun to read.  Told exclusively from the perspective of Spensa, the reader gets a detailed and upfront examination of all the events occurring in front of her in addition to her own hilarious observations and reactions.  I find that the Skyward novels have a very different tone from some of Sanderson’s other works, and I appreciate the cool and perfect combination of intense science fiction elements, with compelling character development, impressive action sequences and outrageous and exciting humour that was featured in Cytonic.  The various fighter combat sequences are particularly good, and while they aren’t as plentiful as some of the other Skyward novels, there are still some exciting and elaborately written scenes that pit Spensa against other pilots or entities in high-stakes combat.  I will say that Cytonic does, at times, seem like a bridging novel in the series, setting up events for the big finale and sidelining several supporting characters.  However, I still really liked this great read, and I had an amazing amount of fun with its clever adventure framing.

Before starting Cytonic I was a little worried about how easy it was going to be for me to follow, especially as it had been nearly two years since I read Starsight, and I might have forgotten a lot of detail.  I was also concerned because I did not have a chance to read any of the novellas that Sanderson released around Cytonic, which some readers claimed were vital to the plot.  I personally felt that I was able to read this book without a refresher as Sanderson ensured that certain key details were summarised within the text extremely well, and I was swiftly able to remember anything that might have slipped my mind.  I also found that my enjoyment didn’t suffer from having not read any of the novellas, mainly because it was such a Spensa focused story.  The novellas detailed events that occurred back on Detritus and the Superiority during Spensa’s absence, and they only have minor impacts on the plot.  As such, readers can manage without them, although I think I will read them soon to find out what else has been happening in the wider universe.  One of the other things that I really appreciated about Cytonic is that it is extremely appealing to a wide range of readers.  While it is marketed as a young adult novel to teenagers, I honestly think that readers of most age ranges can really enjoy this book.  Older readers will deeply appreciate the complex characters and intriguing science fiction elements, while younger fans will love the cool action and hilarious humour.  Combined, this makes for an awesome read that I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in a great science fiction read.

I really must rave about the fantastic setting and universe building contained within Cytonic.  Sanderson really went all out expanding the Skyward universe in this latest novel, and the reader gets a ton of information as key elements from the previous novels are finally explained in full, such as Cytonics and the Delvers.  While readers may occasionally feel overwhelmed by all the new inclusions and background information that Sanderson shoved into this novel, I personally found it really fascinating and I appreciated having several questions answered.  There are some great scientific and character elements built into who and what Cytonics, Delvers, and the Nowhere are, and I think they were woven into the exciting plot extremely well.  Established elements from the previous two novels are also reintroduced expertly throughout Cytonic, and it was great to get some updates on the history, disputes and characters that were such a cool feature of the first two novels.  I particularly loved the fun reimagining of key parts of human culture that have been warped by years of retellings and misunderstandings.  Spensa’s love of stories ensures that several of these are featured throughout Cytonic, and it was always amusing to hear distorted version of well-known movies and books, such as Spensa’s epic and hilarious retelling of The Lion King.

I also need to gush about the incredible new setting of the Nowhere, which serves as the primary location for the entire narrative.  The Nowhere is a weird and haunting dimension outside of real space that is filled with all manner of wonder and danger.  Revolving around a faux-star containing Delvers, the rest of the Nowhere contains a ton of floating fragments of land and soil, containing all manner of elements from the planets they originated from.  This makes for a brilliant and shifting landscape which was really fun to explore and even more cool to fly over.  However, the real brilliance of this setting lies in the impact it has on the characters’ minds.  People stuck in the Nowhere, which includes pirates, miners, outcasts and anyone the Superiority wants to get rid of, are slowly having their memories, personality and sense of time sucked away by the weird space, with only certain figments of reality slowing the process down.  This naturally has some substantial impacts on the plot and the characters, with Spensa constantly trying to hold on to what is important to her.  This exceptionally clever and inventive setting is a great backdrop to this amazing narrative, and it was extremely cool to see Spensa and her friends try to navigate and overcome the various elements of the Nowhere.  Sanderson is a true master of creating unique and captivating universes, and I cannot wait to see what happens in this one next.

There is no way that you cannot talk about one of Sanderson’s novels without highlighting the many exceptional and complex characters featured within.  Cytonic, and the Skyward series in general, is a perfect example of this, as the readers are treated to a range of unique and entertaining protagonists, each of whom add an incredible amount to the overall story.  Due to the events of the plot, there is a much more limited range of characters in this novel, although the three main characters more than make up for it with their bold personalities and captivating backstories.

The most prominent of theses is point-of-view character and main protagonist Spensa Nightshade.  Spensa is a great character who has gone through an amazing amount during the trilogy, transforming to loner weirdo child who was reviled as the daughter of a traitor, to a heroic pilot, then to a daring spy.  In this third book, she becomes a wilderness adventurer on a quest to save her people, which plays perfectly to her personality, which has been warped by her youth of listening to wild stories.  As such, Spensa has a great time in this book, and it is deeply entertaining to see her adventure around and become a space pirate.  While there are a lot of fun moments with Spensa, Sanderson also takes the time to once again dive into her personality, showing how much she has grown since the start of the first book, as well as the unique relationships she has formed.  Spensa is faced with some hard choices in this book as she attempts to return home, and there is an impressive examination of her damaged psyche, especially surrounding all the responsibilities that have been thrust upon her.  This makes for a complex and compelling portrayal in this novel, and while you may laugh at Spensa’s antics you know that there is a lot going on within her head.  There are some interesting developments around Spensa in this book, particularly when it comes to her Cytonic powers, and it will be fascinating to see how she further develops in the next novel.

I also deeply enjoyed the character of M-Bot, the silly and distracted artificial intelligence who Spensa discovered in a crashed ship in the first book.  After being disassembled by the Superiority in Starsight, M-Bot now flies around in a tiny cleaning drone and finds himself going through some big changes.  In particular, he has gained full sapiency in this book, and he immediately goes on an emotional bender, trying to understand the complex feelings he is now experiencing, while also dealing with his sense of betrayal after Spensa abandoned him in the previous book.  This dive into sentience adds some really entertaining layers to M-Bot in Cytonic, and he is even more amusing and charming than before, which I didn’t think was possible.  Readers will swiftly fall in love with M-Bot again, and it was so much fun following him around, especially as he continues to develop his unique friendship with Spensa.  M-Bot has some amazing moments and ridiculous dialogue in this book, and you will not be prepared for everything that occurs with him.

The other major character of this book is new protagonist Chet Starfinder, a human Cytonic explorer who lives in the Nowhere and decides to help Spensa achieve her goals and escape back to her universe.  Chet is an eccentric being who combines aspects of all the famous literary explorers into his personality, thanks to his love of stories and his inability to remember life outside of the Nowhere.  Readers will enjoy getting to know Chet, and it was fascinating to see the cool dynamic that grows between him and Spensa as they take on a fun partnership to traverse the Nowhere.  Sanderson opens some big questions surrounding who Chet is at the start of Cytonic, and it was a lot of fun finding out who exactly he was and what his motivations for helping Spensa are.  I deeply enjoyed Chet’s unique and compelling storyline and he proved to be a brilliant addition to the novel.

Aside from these main three characters, Cytonic also features an interesting supporting cast.  Most of these characters are new, with characters from the preceding novels barely featured here (they appear in the accompanying novellas).  These new characters are the trapped inhabitants of the Nowhere who find Spensa and become part of her journey.  These include the Broadsiders, an alien pirate band who Spensa joins and swiftly grows close to thanks to their inclusive nature and love of great pilots.  It was fascinating to see Spensa, who has had to fight for inclusion her entire life, gain some more friends, even though she knows she can’t stay with them.  There are some great figures amongst this bunch, and I loved some of the unique alien features they had.  Sanderson reintroduced one of the best characters from the Starsight in the book, who proves to be quite an entertaining and lovable inclusion, even if they are experiencing some memory issues.  Some of the main series antagonists have minor appearances in this book, plotting from afar and setting some evil plans in motion.  While it would have been interesting to see more about them, especially as they were only introduced in the prior novel, I think keeping them mostly apart from Spensa worked in the context of the unique plot that Sanderson was trying to develop.  I also deeply enjoyed the strange creatures known as the Delvers.  The Delvers are dangerous and powerful interdimensional beings who exist on a whole other form of reality and consciousness.  Sanderson does a fantastic job exploring what exactly these beings are, and you get a real sense of their dangerous emotions and outlook on life.  I really appreciated the author’s clever use of these seemingly less than humourous monsters as the antagonists of this book, and it proved to be a welcome addition to the plot.  Every character in this book is extremely awesome, and readers will have an exceptional time exploring their complex personalities as the plot unfolds.

While I did receive a physical copy of this book, I chose to enjoy the audiobook version of Cytonic instead to fit it into my reading schedule.  This proved to be an extremely wise decision as the audiobook was a fantastic way to check Cytonic out, something I had previously found when listening to Skyward.  There are actually two versions of the Cytonic audiobook available, but I chose to listen to the Sophie Aldred version, as she was the narrator who I listened to previously.  This version of Cytonic had a run time of just under 14 and a half hours, making it a relatively quick audiobook to get through, especially once I got incredibly hooked on the story.  I really enjoyed listening to Cytonic and I found that the audiobook version helped my appreciation of both the new setting of the Nowhere and the various cool space fighter sequences featured throughout.  Aldred is an outstanding narrator, and I had an exceptional time with the various voices she featured throughout Cytonic.  She hits the character of Spensa perfectly, fully capturing her daring and adventurous personality, and enhancing all her many quirks.  I also loved the cool voice she used for M-Bot, including the fun accent, which fully showed of his computer origin, as well as the many unusual behavioural quirks that have developed within him.  This great narration deeply enhanced this already cool novel and I had a wonderful time listening to this incredible audiobook.

With the third entry in the epic Skyward series, Cytonic, acclaimed author Brandon Sanderson continues to shine as one of the absolute best modern fantasy and science fiction writers out there.  Cytonic is another captivating and impressive young adult science fiction read that perfectly continues the outstanding narrative from the previously Skyward novels.  Featuring some incredible characters, an intense and moving narrative, and a bold and inventive new setting, Cytonic is an exceptionally awesome read that you will get addicted to.  I had a fantastic time with this novel and I cannot wait to see how Sanderson wraps up this series in the future.

Cytonic Cover 2

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Quick Review – Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Lies Like Wildfire Cover

Publisher: Penguin Books (Trade Paperback – 14 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 371 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to see the strongest of friendships burnt alive by fire, lies and deceit, in this startling and powerful young adult thriller by amazing author Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, Lies Like Wildfire.

Lies Like Wildfire was a really compelling and exciting read that ended up being one of the better pieces of young adult fiction I read all year.  This was the debut thriller novel from Alvarez, whose previous work has primarily included middle-grade fantasy novels, such as her equine-based The Guardian Herd and Riders of the Realm series.  I was actually surprised to learn that his was Alvarez’s first thriller novel, as it was really good, presenting the reader with an untenable and desperate scenario and forcing several life-long friends to make some hard and terrible decisions.

Synopsis:

The monsters have known each other their whole lives. This is their final summer before college – time to hang out, fall in love and dream about the future.

Until they accidentally start a forest fire which destroys their hometown and leaves death in its wake.

Desperate for the truth to remain hidden, the group make a pact of silence.

But the twisted secret begins to spin out of control and when one of the friends disappears they all become suspects.

We know how it starts but where does it end?

Wow, now this was such a great book.  Lies Like Wildfire has a brilliant and powerful plot that was extremely clever, emotionally rich and very shocking, all at the same time.  The book follows a group of childhood friends, known as the Monsters, who accidently start a forest fire during a summer outing.  Terrified of California’s incredibly strict fire laws that harshly punish even accidental offenders, the group attempt to cover up their actions as the fire races towards their town causing all manner of death and destruction.  As the fire rages, the group makes a pact to keep the secret, but lies, guilt and personal vendettas soon lead to terrible choices, as the truth bursts out and even more lives are ruined in the fallout.

I loved this brilliant book, and Alvarez has come up with such an impressive scenario for it.  Told from the perspective of one of the Monsters, Hannah, this entire novel unfolds in a rush, with the readers barely getting time to breathe as devastating events and terrible secrets are thrust before them as part of this addictive and powerful narrative.  Alvarez ensures that the readers are hooked early in the book, especially as the opening scene gives a sneak peek to events halfway throughout the narrative.  The story then jumps back to the events that led up to the fire, showing the mostly innocent group as a careless accident threatens to ruin their entire lives and everything they know and love.  Alveraz does a brilliant job of producing the ultimate no-win scenario, with the protagonists caught between their own guilt and the harsh consequences for their unintentional actions. 

This fantastic introduction leads to the destructive early scenes of the wildfires that ravish the protagonist’s hometown.  These scenes are pretty damn devastating and very well written, as Alvarez perfectly captures all the horror of an incoming fire and the panic and pain it can cause (it’s very realistic, and those people triggered by wildfires or bushfires might want to avoid it).  However, this destruction is nothing compared to the guilt, public shame, police prosecution, and disintegration of friendships that occur in the aftermath of the fire as the friend’s first attempt to cover up their involvement, and then limit the blame they receive as they start to get found out.  Despite their guilt in this matter, you cannot help but feel for the characters, especially as Alvarez does an incredible job making them very relatable, and the circumstances surrounding their crime could honestly happen to anybody.  However, the real meat of the story involves the powerful drama that emerges because of the fire, as this lifelong friendship is pushed to the limit, not just because of the actions of the characters, but because of jealousy, family hardship, and the stress of lost futures, that drives all of them to desperate action.

This leads to the second half of the novel, when one of the Monsters goes missing in mysterious circumstances.  Evidence soon points to members of the Monsters being involved, potentially to stop the missing person from revealing the groups involvement to the police, and the group is riven by further mistrust and interrogation.  This second half of the book is incredibly fascinating, especially as the readers are left unaware of who could potentially be involved as the only point-of-view character, Hannah, suffers from amnesia brought on by a bear attack.  While I usually dislike an amnesia inclusion in a novel, it works extremely well in the context of Lies Like Wildfire’s plot, even the bit about the bear attack (it’s a clever, if devastating, inclusion).  This lack of memory from the protagonist really keeps the reader on their toes and the sudden mystery is a compelling and fun addition to the plot.  I personally became ultra-invested in this book at this point, not only because I wanted to find out what had happened to the missing character, but because I was enjoying the complex character arcs and the quickly decaying personal relationships that bound them together.  The final reveal about who was responsible and why is brilliantly done, and I deeply enjoyed the various character reactions that occurred around it, especially from the protagonist.  This ended up being quite a complex and deep narrative, and it is one is perfect for teenagers and older readers, as everyone can get really invested in the intelligent and emotional plot. 

Overall, Lies Like Wildfire was a brilliant and powerful debut thriller from Alvarez, who came up with an amazing concept and turned it into an outstanding read.  I loved the great blend of thriller and young adult drama, especially as it produced a complex and moving tale of youth, disaster, mystery, and the tenuous ties that bind us together.  Readers will swiftly become entranced by this excellent and compelling tale, and I really found myself getting drawn into the amazing character driven tale of lies and deceit.  I am extremely glad that Alvarez decided to dive across into the thriller world, and if Lies Like Wildfire is anything to go on, she has a really bright future in it.  I look forward to seeing what other books Alvarez produces in the future, and I am definitely grabbing a copy of her next book, Friends Like These, when it comes out next year.

It Ends in Fire by Andrew Shvarts

It Ends in Fire Cover 2

Publisher: Jimmy Patterson Books (Hardcover – 9 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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After wowing the world with his debut trilogy, impressive young adult fantasy author Andrew Shvarts return with a fantastic and entertaining read that cleverly parodies the classic magical school fantasy setting with It Ends in Fire.

Shvarts is a great author whose work I have been rather enjoying over the last couple of years.  Shvarts debuted back in 2017 with his Royal Bastards trilogy, which followed a group of illegitimate children as they found themselves caught up in the conspiracies and plots of their dangerous parents.  Made up of Royal Bastards, City of Bastards (which has an extremely explosive ending), and War of the Bastards (one of my favourite books of 2019), this was an awesome trilogy, and it has made me very keen to read more of Shvarts’s books.  As a result, when I heard that Shvarts had a new novel coming out, one set in one of my favourite settings, a magical school, I knew I had to grab it.  I have been waiting for It Ends in Fire for a while, and I was quite excited when I received a copy the other day.

Prepare to visit the Republic, a land of magic, deceit and corrupted power, where the Wizards rule and the non-magical people, the Humbles, are brutally oppressed.  At the heart of the Republic is Blackwater Academy, the most prestigious school of magic in the land, where the elite Wizards are trained and forged into scheming, power-hungry sadists.  Blackwell Academy has survived for centuries and remains a great power in the Republic, but nobody is prepared for the arrival of its latest student.

As a child, Alka Chelrazi watched as her parents were brutally murdered by a powerful Wizard, and she has since sworn vengeance.  Taken in by a rebel group, Alka has grown into their most lethal weapon thanks to her own magical abilities and has spent her life training to do the impossible: infiltrate Blackwell.  Taking the identity of a dead Wizard unknown to anyone, Alka is tasked with entering the school, learning all its secrets, and burning it to the ground from the inside.

Determined to carry out her duty to the very end, Alka attempts to find her bearings and learn everything she can.  However, Blackwell is unlike any other school in the Republic, its lessons are lethal, the rivalries are fierce, and some students will do anything to succeed, even kill their classmates.  To complete her mission, Alka will need to use every skill and trick at her disposal to recruit allies, take out her rivals and help a motley crew of outcasts to win the Academy’s Great Game.  However, with dangerous politics, power-hungry rivals, suspicious professors, and an evil headmaster all arrayed against it, can Alka succeed in bringing down the Academy, or will the fires of her revolution be snuffed out before it can begin?

This was an awesome and compelling new book from Shvarts, who has produced another deeply entertaining and intense read.  It Ends in Fire has a powerful and captivating narrative that not only contains a great story about revenge and finding oneself, but which also parodies certain magical school stories.  I had a great time reading this novel, and I became quite addicted to it as it went along.

It Ends in Fire has a brilliant and exciting narrative that moves at a fast pace and ensures that the reader is never bored.  Shvarts starts the story off with a bang, introducing the protagonists and point-of-view narrator, Alka, and showing her initial steps in infiltrating the academy.  The start quickly showcases some of the lead characters, the stakes of her mission, and the new and somewhat familiar setting of Blackwell Academy, as well as the surrounding Republic.  At the same time, Shvarts includes a series of framing chapters that are set in the protagonist’s past, showcasing her motivations, her many personal tragedies and the training she undertook for her infiltration.  From there the story quickly progresses into a compelling arc around the character’s darker magical school experience, while also building up her personal history.  There are some fun magical lessons, budding rivalries and caste systems woven into the narrative, and it was intriguing to see this ultimate outsider attempt to get into the flow of this elite school.  The crux of the narrative revolves around three magical contents that the various school houses compete in for glory and reputation (as well access to the Republic Senate, which interests Alka).  These competitions are pretty awesome, and serve as the major story highlights, much in the same way as the Quidditch matches and the Triwizard Tournament in the Harry Potter novels.  I particularly enjoyed the first and third one, and it was pretty fun to see the protagonist engage in some heavy cheating to pull it off.

This all leads up to a big and brutal finale, where the protagonist finally gets to unleash her true personality on her foes, and which potentially sets up some interesting directions for any resultant series in the future.  There is a great blend of character development, world building, magical adventure, intrigue and personal betrayal throughout this story, and I ended up getting really stuck into this brilliant narrative.  I pretty much read the last 200 pages in a single day, especially as it contained two of the competitions and a fantastic duel, and I really loved how everything came together.  It Ends in Fire turned out to be fairly self-contained and feels a lot like a standalone read.  That being said, it has some potential to be a larger series, and I would be interested to see where it goes, especially as there are some outstanding storylines to explore.  Like Shvarts’s previous novels, It Ends in Fire is aimed towards a young adult audience with its teenage protagonist and supporting characters.  Due to some more mature elements, this novel is probably best suited towards an older teenage audience, who will no doubt appreciate the author’s realistic take on teenage education.  This novel will also hold a lot of appeal to adult fantasy fans, especially those who grew up on Harry Potter, as this novel acts in many ways like a clever and fun parody of these classic novels.  An overall excellent story with some fun twists and major memorable moments.

I must say that I was also incredibly impressed with the new fantasy setting that Shvarts came up with for It Ends in Fire.  This new fantasy world is a brilliant and complex collection of nations brought together by an oppressive magical regime ruled by powerful Wizards who control the non-magical people, the Humbles.  The author does a great job setting up this cool new world, and I loved the examination of a magical regime and the unique cultural and social circumstances that would evolve in such a regime.  I particularly enjoyed the fun examination of the Republic’s politics, especially when it came to the impacts of the protagonist’s actions within Blackwater Academy.  It was also very compelling to see the clever hierarchies that see even some Wizards oppressed or disenfranchised, ensuring that the situation is even more complex than the protagonist, who was raised by rebellious Humbles who hate all Wizards, initially believed.  This proves fertile ground for the main narrative that follows Alka attempting to take the system down from the inside, and it was a solid background to the narrative.  I also really appreciated the cool new magical system that Shvarts came up with for his new novel.  In It Ends in Fire, Wizards cast spells by entering a time-dilated field known as the Null, where they carve glyphs into the air with Loci (magical wands) to unleash elemental spells.  This is an awesome magical system, which allows for some amazing and complex duals and battles.  The slow-motion aspect of the Null ensures that there is some clever strategy involved, as well as some intense explanation from the protagonist, and I deeply enjoyed some of the fun an epic clashes that occurred.

In addition to the cool magic and fun overarching setting, I also must highlight Blackwater Academy, which serves as a dark mirror to other magical schools that have been featured in fantasy novels and media.  In many ways, Blackwater Academy is a twisted version of Hogwarts; an elite magic school, with houses, elaborate classes and competitions.  Shvarts does an amazing job of working altered versions of these classic magic school elements into his own setting, and pretty much every scene has something reminiscent of these established school settings.  However, all these elements are twisted and converted into something far darker and more adult.  The teachers are crueller, the rich rival kills with impunity, the lessons are more deadly, and the headmaster is essentially Dumbledore (a highly respected wizard who turned down political leadership to be a teacher), except evil and self-serving.  I really liked how Shvarts included these elements in his novels, and it was a lot of fun to not only spot the similarities but also see how the author had twisted them into something different (for example, the protagonist is chucked into the universe’s version of Hufflepuff, and then turns them into a strong team).  This resulted in a fantastic and compelling setting that is both familiar and rather distinct at the same time.

While there are a lot of similarities to Hogwarts and other classic magical schools, Blackwater Academy also has some truly unique features, which also enhance how awesome it is as a primary setting.  The near murderous rivalries between the houses added some excellent conflict to the narrative, and I found the Humble village located next to the school to be a great inclusion, especially as all the inhabitants are absolutely terrified of their Wizard clientele.  I also really loved the unique challenges that the students had to compete in throughout the year into order to win the Great Game.  While the inclusion of a three-event competition is somewhat familiar, the challenges themselves are special, and Shvarts obviously had a lot of fun coming up with something new for the young Wizards to compete in.  This entire clever setting and compelling magical system help to transform It Ends in Fire into an incredible read, and I hope that Shvarts will explore it more in the future.

I also need to quickly highlight the great characters within this novel.  It Ends in Fire features a fantastic and entertaining cast whose unique stories add a lot of depth and drama to this brilliant tale.  The most prominent of these is protagonist and narrator Alka, a rebel and wizard who infiltrates the Blackwater Academy with dreams of destroying it and everyone in it.  Alka is a complex and intriguing figure who must overcome a lot of emotional turmoil in this novel while also encountering conflicts, revelations and disturbing truths about the nature of evil.  Shvarts did an awesome job setting Alka up throughout this novel, and I appreciated the way in which elements of her past life are blended into the primary story.  Alka’s unique history and experience with Wizard culture ensures that she is the perfect narrator, ensuring that the reader learns about many parts of the world’s unique aspects through her constant questioning and research.  I also appreciated the complex romantic relationships that form between her and two other characters, especially as both are sweet and moving in their own ways, while also naturalising Alka’s bisexuality.  The rest of the characters in It Ends in Fire are also set up pretty well, and I liked the cool blend of arrogant rich wizards, bitter Humbles and lower-tiered Wizards who struggle in life nearly as much as the Humbles.  Shvarts utilised a wonderfully eclectic group of supporting characters throughout this novel, and I enjoyed some of the friendships and rivalries that formed, as well as the similarities that some characters have to notable Harry Potter characters.  The author introduces some interesting storylines and character development arcs around them, and you end up getting attached to their survival alongside Alka.  It will be interesting to see if Shvarts will continue to explore them in the future, and I hope he does, as I would love to see what happens to them next.

With his latest novel, It Ends in Fire, Andrew Shvarts continues to dominate the young adult fantasy genre with a complex and powerful read.  It Ends in Fire has a brilliant and entertaining narrative that takes a rebellious soul into the heart of enemy territory, an evil and twisted magical school.  I loved how Shvarts cleverly subverted a classic fantasy setting with his fantastic narrative and world building, and the resulting story is loaded with magical action, amazing character develop, and multiple fun, high-concept sequences.  It Ends in Fire is a highly recommended young adult fantasy novel and you will have a wonderful and amazing time reading it.

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