Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Vol.1: High School is Hell by Jordie Bellaire and Dan Mora

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - High School is Hell Cover

Publisher: BOOM! Studios (28 May 2019)

Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Volume 1

Length: Four issues – 128 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a whole new take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the first four issues of BOOM! Studios’ new Buffy comic series are collected together in their first volume, High School is Hell.

For those unfamiliar with it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an extremely popular fantasy television show that started in 1997 and ran for seven seasons until 2003. The show followed the adventures of the titular Buffy, who has inherited the role of the Slayer, a magically strengthened warrior chosen to fight vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first show helmed by Joss Whedon, who went on create one of the best science fiction shows of all time, Firefly, as well as direct the first two Avengers movies (and parts of the Justice League movie, but let’s not look to closely at that). Buffy was actually an adaption of Whedon’s 1992 movie of the same name; however, there were some significant differences between the tone and writing of the movie and the show, as the show had some superb storylines and an amazing cast. It eventually resulted in the spin-off Angel, which also had a strong five-season run and some amazing episodes.

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Due to the immense popularity of the show, a huge amount of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in material has been created, including a number of novels and video games. A substantial number of comic books were also created through Dark Horse Comics, many of which involved Whedon in the creative process. Indeed, the storylines of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were continued for many years as a comic book series that followed a huge number of events that occurred following the end of both television shows.

Recently, Dark Horse Comics gave up the comic book rights to several of Joss Whedon’s works, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. These rights were subsequently obtained by BOOM! Studios, who have embarked on a whole new wave of comics for these franchises. The first of these, Firefly, started up last year, and the first collected volume was released in late April (I grabbed a copy the other day and will hopefully review it in the next couple of weeks). A new Angel comic book series is also currently running, although the first issue was only released a short while ago, so it might be a little while before I get my hands on the collected edition of it. BOOM! Studios are producing a bunch of different stories for these various properties and have different plans for each of them. The Firefly comics, for example, will be set in the same universe as the shows and have presented an interesting new adventure. However, for the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic, they have decided to do something different. Rather than continue the storylines written by Dark Horse Comics or try to fit in the established universe left by the shows, the new creative team have taken the bold step of completely revamping the entire series, restarting the story from the beginning and swapping the setting to a more modern era. This new series takes place in 2018/19 instead of the 1990s and features a completely different story to the original series, similar to what Marvel Comics did with their Ultimate universe.

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This new series starts in a similar way to the events of the show, with Buffy Summers only recently arrived in Sunnydale and ready to start as the new kid at Sunnydale High. Buffy has to deal with many of the pitfalls of being a modern teenager, grades, friends and an embarrassing dead-end job. However, Buffy has one thing no over teenager has to deal with, an unescapable destiny as the latest in a line of vampire slayers. While the story may sound familiar so far, this is not the grunge era of the 1990s; instead it is the modern era of smart phones, social media and social norms. Buffy soon settles in as the new girl in school, training with her watcher, Giles, and making two new friends, Xander and Willow, after she saves them from a vampire. While the worst thing in her life may appear to be the exceedingly peppy Cordelia, Sunnydale is still Sunnydale. Vampires and demons are always lurking just beneath the surface, and two familiar and deadly foes are in town. The devastating team of Drusilla and Spike are looking for a mysterious power and will kill anyone who gets in their way. What is their sinister plan, and how will the lives of the new Scooby Gang be changed forever?

Volume 1, High School is Hell, features issues #1-4 of this new Buffy series and was written by Jordie Bellaire. It also features the artistic skills of Dan Mora as the illustrator and Raúl Angulo as colourist. Joss Whedon is also credited as the original creator of this series in all the issues, although I am uncertain if he consulted on this new project at all. Pretty much the moment I saw this comic in the shop, I knew I was going to enjoy it. I grew up with watching Buffy and Angel when I was younger and have enjoyed a lot of their comics in the past. I really liked the concept of this new series, and I was incredibly interested in seeing where the creators of this new series were going to take it. I have to say that I was not disappointed with the end result. These first four issues not only tell an excellent and deeply compelling story with some incredible artwork; they also present an incredible reimagining of the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe and bring it into modern times.

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The issues featured within Volume 1 tell a pretty amazing story. The whole reintroduction of the Buffy world is done extremely well, as the new story told within is filled with the right amount of new ideas, classic characters and an exciting, action filled storyline with some major twists. I really think the blend of the old characters and story elements with the new storylines where done exceedingly well, and it creates and excellent new world that has some amazing potential for the future. Bellaire also does a fantastic job capturing the tone and humour of the original series and inserting it into this new vision of the Buffy universe, and it makes for quite an entertaining and enjoyable read. I also like how the creators brought the story out of the 90s into more modern times, incorporating all the relevant technology and social norms into the plot. There are also quite a few jokes making fun of the 90s, which is a nice touch, and a great call back to the original series. As a result, I thought the new story introduced in High School is Hell was pretty darn amazing and I had a lot of fun reading it.

The issues featured in High School is Hell feature an interesting mix of characters from the original television show, and I think fans of Buffy will enjoy the changes that the creative team introduce to the various characters. Firstly, Buffy remains pretty much unchanged; she is still the new girl at the school who is trying to balance the Slayer part of her life with high school, friends and romance. While there is a tad additional teenage apathy, perhaps as a result of her job at Tunaverse, her character remains as a pretty consistent touchstone from the original series. The same could be said of Giles, who is still the same stuffy English gentleman he was in the first few episodes of the original show with the disapproving mentor vibe, although we do get to see him playing his guitar in public a lot sooner.

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While Buffy and Giles are fairly similar to their original versions in the show, there are some interesting changes to the other major Buffy characters featured in this new series. For example, Willow has already discovered her sexuality and has a girlfriend, new character Rose. She also seems to be a whole lot more confident than she originally was in the series and is already eager to fight evil and start learning magic (which couldn’t possibly go wrong). Cordelia is still the most popular girl in school, although she is a lot braver and nicer than she was in the original show, although most of the characters find her extreme peppiness to be a bit too much. She also garners a rather unhealthy obsession with Spike, which was an intriguing addition which will no doubt become a major plot point in the future. Interestingly enough, Xander is probably the character who has changed the most in this series. On the exterior he is still the same happy-go-lucky character he was in the show. However, none of the characters realise that Xander is actually quite depressed, lonely and feels quite powerless, something the audience is made aware of by viewings of his anonymous blog. The inclusion of the blog entries is quite clever; we are initially made to think they are Buffy’s inner monologue. Once we are shown they belong to Xander, it gives an emotional look into his mind. Xander’s resultant story arc in this book ends in a pretty shocking twist, which has real potential to be a defining moment of this series.

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In addition to these main characters who were the focus of the original Buffy first season, there is also an interesting use of other characters from the show. Major characters Anya, Robin Wood, Spike and Drusilla all show up in these first four issues, each entering the story far earlier than they did in the television show, and with very different storylines. Anya is a demonic witch who deals magical artefacts from a secret occult shop (a fun nod to her business from the show). Anya is a neutral force in the town, and it is an interesting departure from her role as a vengeance demon. We only see a little of Robin Wood in these first four issues, although he is set up as Buffy’s potential love interest. In this series he’s set up as a star athlete and overall nice guy, with no real indication of whether he’ll have the same connections to the Slayers or Spike that he did in the show. Spike and Drusilla are a cool choice as the initial antagonists for this version of Buffy. The two of them always make a great team, although there is a bit of a change to the dynamic. Dru is somewhat less insane in this series, and seems to be the brains of the operation, relying on Spike a lot less. Spike is pretty much his usual fun self, although he appears a little less in love or devoted to Dru as he was in the show. He also has a fun relationship with Cordelia, and there is also a certain debate about his name. While Dru and Anya refer to him as William, he introduces himself to Cordelia as Spike to try and sound edgy, which results in a good joke from Dru about how the name “hardly played in the 90s”.

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Overall, I was quite happy with how the creative team behind this new series utilised the show’s existing characters and brought them into the new century. Some of the changes are really quite cool, and I liked how some of the dynamics were altered. Some of the new characters were also pretty cool, and it will be interesting to see what overall impact they will have on the series. I think that some of their decisions will lead to some excellent stories in the future, and I look forward to seeing how other existing characters are introduced.

The artwork in the first four issues of this series was pretty awesome and really added a lot to this volume. Mora did an outstanding job capturing the likenesses of the existing characters from the show; they looked so much like the original actors. The action sequences are done exceedingly well and there is a real sense of motion in some of the scenes that bring all the fights to life. The artwork and the colour schemes help add a lot of dread or unease to several scenes throughout the volume, which add a lot more to story. The artwork in this new version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was first rate and really exciting.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High School is Hell represents a bold new direction for the Buffy franchise, and one that I am quite excited for. The alternate timeline that the creative team has decided to set this story in is quite an intriguing concept that works exceedingly well. Bellaire has come up with a captivating initial storyline that is enhanced by Mora’s artwork. This series will definitely appeal to fans of the original television series, who will love seeing these great characters altered in a brand-new timeline. It is also easily accessible to those readers less familiar with the show and could be a good starting point for those who want to check out the franchise. This volume is highly recommended, and I am looking forward to the future inclusions in this excellent new comic book series.

Quick Review – Texas Hold ‘Em edited by George R. R. Martin

Texas Hold 'Em Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 6 November 2019)

Series: Wild Cards series – Book 27

              American Triad trilogy – Book 3

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Texas Hold ’Em is the 27th book in the long-running Wild Cards series, which started in 1987. I read this book late last year but did not get a chance to review it until just now, so I’m just going to do a quick one.

The Wild Cards books make up one of the more interesting book series at the moment. Started by George R. R. Martin and his tabletop game friends (all of whom where fantasy and science fiction writers), this series has since expanded into a massive book franchise that has featured an impressive line-up of authors. There are a huge number of books, and the series is even currently being adapted into a couple of television series on Hulu.

Each of the Wild Cards books is made up of several short, interconnected stories written by a different author, with the entire novel edited together by Martin. Texas Hold ’Em, for example, features the talents of David Anthony Durham, Max Gladstone, Diana Rowland, Caroline Spector, Walton Simons, William F. Wu and the late Victor Milán. Melinda M. Snodgrass, who has contributed to a huge number of the previous Wild Cards books, also assisted in editing this book.

I came into this franchise fairly late and have only read the books which make up the most recent trilogy, The American Triad. I quite enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy, Mississippi Roll and Low Chicago, and was looking forward to the third and final book, Texas Hold ’Em.

Blurb:

In the aftermath of World War II, the Earth’s population was devastated by a terrifying alien virus. Those who survived changed forever. Some, known as jokers, were cursed with bizarre mental and physical mutations; others, granted superhuman abilities, became the lucky few known as aces.

San Antonio, home of the Alamo, is also host to the USA’s top high school jazz competition, and the musicians at Xavier Desmond High are excited to outplay their rivals. But they are also jokers; kids with super abilities and looks that make them stand out. On top of that, well, they are teenagers – prone to mischief, mishaps, and romantic misunderstandings.

Ace Michelle Pond, aka The Amazing Bubbles, thinks that her superhero know-how has prepared her to chaperone the event. But little does she know the true meaning of the saying, ‘Don’t mess with Texas’.

I found Texas Hold ‘Em to be a fun addition to this fantastic series. However, unlike the other two Wild Cards books that I have read, this one seemed to be a bit more like a young adult fiction novel. This is mainly because many of the short stories focus on teenage characters as they encounter the many ups and downs of San Antonio and the jazz competition. The rest of the stories are a pretty interesting mix of mystery, thriller and other action adventure type stories, as the various adult characters encounter a range of situations, mostly associated with protecting or wrangling their young charges. There were some good stories within this book, and fans of the franchise will appreciate the return of several recurring characters who have appeared in some of the previous books.

The stories in this book are told in a different way to the previous Wild Cards books. Rather than having several short stories told to their full extent and then connected by one split short story that overlaps with each of them, Texas Hold ’Em is instead broken up by a period of several days. Each of the days contains multiple parts of the various short stories, featuring the events of that story that happens on that day. This is a much more fragmented way to tell each story, but the chronological consistency is an interesting narrative choice. The combined short stories do make for quite a good overall narrative, although it does seem a little lower stakes than some of the previous books in the series.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the examination of prejudice and hatred that infects each of the stories. In this universe, many of the humans who were unaffected by the Wild Card virus discriminate against Jokers and Aces; Jokers because of their disfigurations and Aces because they are afraid of them. This appears to be particularly enhanced down in San Antonio, mainly due to the appearance of the Purity Baptist Church, this universe’s version of everyone’s favourite hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church. The various protests and prejudices of the fiction group against those affected by the Wild Card virus do reflect the Westboro Baptist Church, so it was definitely an accurate depiction, and it was cool to see how they would react when confronted with someone with superpowers. That being said, the writers really needed to come up with a better term than “God’s Weenies” to refer to this group, or least stop repeating it to the degree that they did. Many of the characters in the book also encounter other forms of discrimination aside from the protests occurring outside the event, most of which mirrored discrimination real-life minority groups experience every day. This was a pretty good look at discrimination, and I liked how the various authors attempted to examine this problem by putting it in the context of the Wild Cards universe, especially as it led to some curious scenarios and interesting story moments.

Overall, this was a great new addition to the Wild Cards series. If I’m going to be honest, this was probably my least favourite book in the American Triad trilogy, but I still had fun reading it. I am interested to see what the next book in the Wild Cards universe will be like, and I will be curious to see if the show I mentioned above actually comes into being.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn – Audiobook Review

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Publisher: Random House Audio (11 April 2017)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 16 hours and 56 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

While Disney are currently releasing quite a large number of Star Wars tie-in novels and comics, none of them quite had the history behind them that Thrawn did. Timothy Zahn is probably one of the best authors of Star Wars fiction of all time, having written several books in the previous Star Wars expanded universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends) before Lucasfilm was bought out in 2012. Without a doubt, his most iconic contribution to the Star Wars universe was the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who was introduced in his 1991 book, Heir the Empire, the first book in Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy. Grand Admiral Thrawn was the Empire’s greatest tactician and naval commander, who led the war against the protagonists of the original Star Wars trilogy following the events of Return of the Jedi and proved to be an effective major antagonist. Thrawn swiftly became a fan favourite, and Zahn revisited the character several times.

While Thrawn was an amazing character, many assumed that he was unlikely to be seen again after Disney shelved the original expanded universe to allow for their own stories and characters. However, Disney surprised many when they announced that Thrawn would be brought back to their extended universe in the Star Wars Rebels animated show. Thrawn was introduced as the show’s main antagonist for the third and fourth season and he shone as the villain of the show, bringing his tactical abilities and unique view of war to bear against the rebels. Brought to life with the voice work of the extremely talented Lars Mikkelsen, Thrawn is easily one of my favourite things about the show’s last two seasons and was a fantastic addition to the plot.

Disney also decided to include Thrawn in their slowly building collection of Star Wars novels, with a whole new Thrawn trilogy commissioned from Timothy Zahn. Given the unique opportunity to have a second go at introducing one of his most iconic creation, Zahn has so far written two books in this series, Thrawn and Alliances. I read and reviewed Alliances last year, but I unfortunately missed getting a copy of Thrawn when it first came out. With the third and final book, Treason, coming out at the end of July, I decided to finally go back and check out an audiobook copy of Thrawn.

In the Star Wars Legends canon, Thrawn was active for a long period of time, essentially from before the events of Attack of the Clones until several years after the events of Return of the Jedi, with a lengthy service in the Imperial Navy. In this book, however, Zahn has to reintroduce his character in a much earlier and compacted period of Star Wars history, as his character could only have come to prominence between Revenge of the Sith and the third season of Star Wars Rebels in the Disney canon. I was quite keen to see this new version of the character, especially as Zahn gets to once again show how an alien managed to rise to the highest of ranks in the xenophobic Imperial military.

Several years after the fall of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi, the Empire reigns supreme throughout the galaxy and is always looking to expand its control. A routine survey of an unexplored world in Wild Space uncovers a small, ramshackle settlement with items featuring writing in an unknown alien language. As the Imperial survey team investigates, they find themselves under attack from an unseen adversary who manages to inflict heavy causalities with minimal resources. Retreating back to their ship, the Imperials discover that their attacker, a blue-skinned, blue-haired alien, has stowed away on their transport. The alien identifies himself as Mitth’raw’nuruodo, a member of the Chiss Ascendency, a legendary race from the Unknown Regions. The Imperial commander takes Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn, to Coruscant to be presented to the Emperor, who he impresses with his tactical ability and his mysterious connection to the Clone War General, Anakin Skywalker.

Taking Thrawn into his service, the Emperor makes him an officer in the Imperial Navy, along with his translator, cadet Eli Vanto. As Thrawn and Vanto are first enrolled in the Imperial Naval Academy and then assigned junior roles on a ship, they face opposition and resentment from other members of Navy. However, thanks to Thrawn’s unparalleled tactical and strategic mind, as well as his ability to understand and predict the actions of his opponents on the battlefield, the two are able to rise in the Imperial hierarchy.

As Thrawn is quickly promoted up the ranks, he starts to become obsessed with the enigmatic Nightswan, a brilliant rogue tactician who has been helping criminals and dissidents defy the Empire across the galaxy. At the same time, Thrawn’s inability to understand the political realities of the Imperial Navy proves to be a major threat. Luckily the politically ambitious Arihnda Pryce is willing to provide help, as long Thrawn assists with her plans to gain political power and become governor of her home planet of Lothal. As rebellion spreads through the galaxy, Thrawn leads the assault to cut it down as he heads towards his promotion as Grand Admiral.

This was a pretty outstanding novel. I absolutely loved Thrawn and it is probably the best canon Star Wars novel in that I have so far had the pleasure of reading. Zahn did an amazing job revamping his iconic character by presenting a fantastic new story that not only harkens back to the author’s original novels but also fits the character perfectly into the Disney timelines. Thrawn is an excellent balance of character work, action, political intrigue and exploration of the Star Wars universe, all of which adds up to an incredible novel that I was nearly unable to stop listening to and which results in an easy five-star rating from me.

The events of this book take place over the course of nine years, between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. More specifically, it starts 11 years after Revenge of the Sith, and continues directly at the start of the third season of Star Wars Rebels, approximately two years before A New Hope. Thrawn is split into two separate storylines: one that follows the rise of Thrawn through the Imperial Navy and another that focuses on the machinations of Arihnda Pryce as she becomes governor of Lothal. The Thrawn storyline is mostly told from the perspective of Thrawn’s companion, Eli Vanto, although a few chapters are shown from Thrawn’s perspective alone. While the two storylines start off showing Thrawn and Pryce’s separate rises to power and are not initially connected, once the two characters start working together, their stories mesh together a lot more. While I had a stronger preference for the parts of the book focussing on Thrawn, I did quite enjoy the sections focusing on Pryce, as they had some compelling elements and showed a different side of the Empire. The two separate storylines mesh together quite well, and together they tell a complete and intriguing story that highlights how the characters obtained the relevant positions in the Imperial hierarchy that they had when introduced in Star Wars Rebels.

At the heart of this book is the focus on Thrawn, an absolutely amazing central protagonist, whose escapades and adventures are some of the best parts of the book. Zahn has done an amazing job reinventing Thrawn for this new era of Star Wars history, keeping all the character traits that made him such a hit in the original expanded universe, while fitting his character timeline into a much shorter period. Thrawn is still the same highly intelligent alien with an unmatched tactical mind and an appreciation for the culture and art of the various people he encounters. However, in this universe, he achieves his rank of Grand Admiral in a far shorter period of time. Starting with his rescue on a remote planet after ambushing Imperial forces (the entire scene is a rewrite of Zahn’s 1995 short story, Mist Encounter, although with a few necessary changes), this book shows him joining the Imperial Academy, and then climbing the ranks all the way up to Grand Admiral within a few short years. The entire story of Thrawn’s early career in the Imperial Navy is absolutely fascinating, and I really enjoyed this look at the character’s history, especially as his rapid promotions were due to the multiple intriguing military actions he oversaw. His entire storyline is extremely well paced out, and the reader gets a full story that is incredibly captivating. This was a really clever reimagining of the character’s history, and it is a great story to tell.

Zahn does a great job showcasing Thrawn as an utterly brilliant individual who is clearly smarter than everyone else he encounters. There are some great characteristics to Thrawn, like the way he is able to get into his opponents’ heads and anticipate their actions and intentions. His shear analytic ability is showcased so many times throughout the book, most notably in the way that he analyses the emotions and body language of all the people he encounters. For example, whenever Thrawn is talking with someone, the reader gets a short description of the facial reactions or emotions that the character talking to Thrawn is exhibiting. I’m unsure what this looks like in the hard copy of the book, but in the audiobook version the narrator uses his chilling Thrawn voice rather than his baseline narrator voices. From these short descriptions, the reader gets an idea of what Thrawn thinks the other character is thinking, and it is deeply fascinating to see how this affects Thrawn’s actions. I loved that the author continued to show how Thrawn gains insight into a people’s culture and personalities through their art. Throughout the book, Thrawn is shown appreciating a potential opponent’s art and culture, and then using the conclusions and observations he gleams from the items to alter his strategies or the way that he deals with them. This is a fantastic character trait that I am glad Zahn continued to use in his works.

Probably one of the best things about the character of Thrawn in this book is the inventive and brilliant strategies that he comes up with to defeat his enemies. Throughout the course of the book, Thrawn utilises some deeply inventive plans for both large-scale conflicts and smaller battles, and it is always very entertaining to watch these plans come to fruition. I loved some of the strategies that Thrawn used in this book; whether he is swamping a shielded fortress with artificial tidal waves or using Clone Wars era buzz droids to take out a pirate ship, the end result is just spectacular. In many ways, the Thrawn in this book is a bit like Sherlock Holmes, if Sherlock worked for an evil space empire. His opponent, Nightswan, is essentially Moriarty (a man nearly as smart as Thrawn, who sells his tactical abilities to members of the underworld), and the author uses this to make the battle scenes even more intense, as a brilliant attack from Nightswan is countered by an even more sophisticated move from Thrawn. In addition, Thrawn also has a loyal sidekick in Eli Vanto, who is essentially the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock. Not only are there certain similarities between the two within the story, such as the way that Thrawn takes Vanto and train him in his methods, turning Vanto into an extremely competent strategist, but Zahn also uses him in a similar literary way to Watson in the Sherlock Holmes novels. Vanto is used as a proxy for the audience, so when he questions Thrawn on how he came up with his plans or anticipated his opponents, the audience gets a full explanation within the scope of the story. Thrawn was an extremely awesome character in this book, and his presence helps turn this into an outstanding read.

In addition to the character of Thrawn, Zahn also looks at Governor Arihnda Pryce, another major antagonist from Star Wars Rebels. Zahn spends a good amount of time showing Pryce’s past and how she went from a nobody to a powerful planetary governor with major political connections and a history working with Grand Admiral Thrawn. I liked this look at Pryce; her story is pretty compelling and it offers a great look at the political side of the Empire. Pryce is already a pretty despicable character in Star Wars Rebels (she is responsible for the tragic death of one of the main characters), but this book does a masterful job of showing just how evil she is. While it starts off showing her experiencing early hardship and difficulties, she quickly stops being a character you can root for the moment she has any sort of power within her grasp. The way she turns on her friends and her extreme act of self-preservation towards the end of the book are pretty dark, and you cannot help but dislike the character even more after reading her full arc in this book. This was some really good character work, and Zahn does an amazing job showcasing Pryce’s motivations and despicable nature.

If you are a fan of massive and electrifying space battles, there is a lot for you to love in Thrawn. Zahn has packed this book with a huge number of large and impressive battles between Imperial ships and the various pirates and rebels that are encountered throughout the story. There are some really fun ship-to-ship battles throughout this book, and they are absolutely spectacular to watch unfold. Thanks to the brilliant adversary that Thrawn faces for most of the book, the characters face some unique opposition, such as Clone War era ships, like the vulture droids, and an impressive island base with massive guns. These result in some amazing sequences, especially when Thrawn comes up with a surprising strategy to defeat the opposition. I had a lot of fun listening to these battle sequences, and they are a real highlight I feel that many readers will enjoy.

Thrawn takes quite an interesting look at certain parts of the Star Wars universe, and fans of the series will enjoy the author’s canonical deep dive into the Empire at the height of its power. Quite a lot of time is spend showcasing the ins and outs of the Imperial Navy, and readers get a good idea of how it operates and its system of command as the main character rises through the ranks during the course of the book. In addition to the military side of the Empire, the storyline focusing on Governor Pryce highlights how brutal Imperial politics is during this period, as she attempts to gain power and influence. Zahn also includes a number of key characters from Star Wars lore and inserts them into his story. Characters such as Grand Moth Tarkin and Colonel Wullf Yularen (a background Imperial character in A New Hope who was given an expanded role in The Clone Wars animated show) are used quite successfully in this book and offer some interesting insights into additional aspects of the Empire. There are also the obligatory hints at the Death Star (seriously, nearly every piece of Star Wars fiction set in the period has some mention of a “secret Imperial project”) and other elements of the Star Wars movies. I quite enjoyed this intriguing look at the Empire between the events of the first two trilogies, and it helped with the story.

Like most Star Wars tie-in novels, Thrawn is intended more for dedicated fans of the franchise, although I felt that this book would be particularly accessible to those readers with only a basic knowledge of the Star Wars franchise. Zahn does an excellent job explaining key aspects of the Star Wars universe that fans who are only familiar with the movies might not understand, and the book features some really fun and exciting moments. As a result, this might be the perfect book to try if you are interested in exploring the Star Wars expanded universe for the first time, especially if you happened to enjoy Thrawn in Star Wars Rebels. There really is so much in here for dedicated Star Wars fans to enjoy, and those readers who grew up with Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy will no doubt be extremely curious to see this new version of the character.

Like most of the Throwback Thursday books I review, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Thrawn rather than read the physical copy. The Thrawn audiobook is narrated by veteran Star Wars audiobook narrator Marc Thompson and runs for 16 hours and 56 minutes. I have mentioned before that listening to a Star Wars audiobook is an intriguing experience, as the productions are filled with all manner sound effects, including a number of iconic sounds from the Star Wars franchise. Thrawn continues this tradition, featuring a huge number of sound effects in pretty much every scene. These sound effects are really effective at creating an ambiance and atmosphere, and the reader gets a whole other experience of the events occurring in the book. This includes a background susurration during parties and large gatherings or the sound of blaster fire during a battle sequence. While I really love how most of these sound effects work, I did have a slight issue with an effect used to alter the voices of a certain alien species. The producers added a high-pitched screeching echo to the voices of the aliens known as the Afe in order to simulate their unique vocal patters as described in the book. However, this sound effect is extremely distracting and unpleasant, and I found it hard to listen to the dialogue of the Afe characters. While these characters were only in the book for a short while, their voices were extremely memorable and it is hard to forget that screeching sound. On the plus side, the audiobook also featured several pieces of John Williams’s epic music from the Star Wars films at key parts of the book, which helped enhance several of the scenes and bring the audience into the story.

In addition to all the sound effects and music, the Thrawn audiobook also featured the vocal talents of narrator Marc Thompson. Thompson is an extremely talented voice actor, and his work in Thrawn was pretty amazing. He has an excellent voice for the character of Thrawn that not only sounds like Lars Mikkelsen from Star Wars Rebels but which also carries all of the character’s intelligence and charm. Thompson comes up with a great voice for Eli Vanto, utilising an accent that screams space yokel and which stands out from the voices of other Imperial characters in this book. I was also quite impressed with how Thompson was able to imitate key characters from the Star Wars universe. For example, Thompson does a great Emperor Palpatine voice and also comes up with passable imitation of Grand Moth Tarkin. I felt that Thompson really got the heart of many of the characters he narrated, whether by showcasing Thrawn’s cool intelligent manner or by replicating the arrogance that comes off many of the book’s Imperial characters. As a result, I would wholeheartedly recommend the audiobook version of Thrawn, as not only do the producers continue to make good use of sound effects and music, but they also use an amazing narrator to bring this story to life.

I had an absolute blast going back and listening to Thrawn for the first time. This is an exception piece of Star Wars fiction and Zahn does an outstanding job bringing his iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, into the new Disney canon. Featuring a ton of amazingly entertaining moments and some excellent character work, Thrawn is an exceedingly fun book that will prove to be extremely appealing to both hardcore Star Wars fans and novice readers. This was a wonderful five-star read, and I cannot wait to see how Zahn wraps up this trilogy.

Waiting of Wednesday – Loki: Where Mischief Lies 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.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.

I am a man that loves a good and complex anti-hero story, so for this week’s Waiting on Wednesday I check out an absolutely spectacular-sounding book that is set to be released in September 2019: Loki: Where Mischief Lies.

Loki Where Mischief Lies.jpg

Loki: Where Mischief Lies is the first of three young adult novels that acclaimed author Mackenzi Lee has been contracted to write by Marvel Comics. Each of these books will focus on a different Marvel anti-hero and will feature a historical setting. The first of these anti-heroes is the master of mischief himself, Loki, Prince of Asgard, who, thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has to be one of the most popular comic book villains at the moment.

Even before Tom Hiddleston brought him to life with some significant swagger in the MCU, the character of Loki has been a major figure in the Marvel Comics universe. A re-imagining of the Norse god of mischief, Loki is portrayed as a powerful magician who battles against his brother, the superhero Thor, out of jealousy or for control of Asgard or the world. He has been a recurring Marvel villain for over 60 years and is the villain responsible for the formation of the Avengers. Over the years, a large amount of complexity has been added to his character, with some significant developments to his motivations and history, and a number of notable shifts in his allegiance and relationship with Thor and the rest of Asgard. As a result, I am quite eager to see any sort of novel written about Loki, especially one that sounds as awesome as this one.

Goodreads Synopsis:
Before the days of going toe-to-toe with the Avengers, a younger Loki is desperate to prove himself heroic and capable, while it seems everyone around him suspects him of inevitable villainy and depravity . . . except for Amora. Asgard’s resident sorceress-in-training feels like a kindred spirit-someone who values magic and knowledge, who might even see the best in him.

But when Loki and Amora cause the destruction of one of Asgard’s most prized possessions, Amora is banished to Earth, where her powers will slowly and excruciatingly fade to nothing. Without the only person who ever looked at his magic as a gift instead of a threat, Loki slips further into anguish and the shadow of his universally adored brother, Thor.

When Asgardian magic is detected in relation to a string of mysterious murders on Earth, Odin sends Loki to investigate. As he descends upon nineteenth-century London, Loki embarks on a journey that leads him to more than just a murder suspect, putting him on a path to discover the source of his power-and who he’s meant to be.

There are so many amazing elements to unwrap in the plot synopsis, but the bottom line is I think I am going to like this. Not only do we have a comic book novelisation focusing on an amazing character, but we have Loki investigating murders in 19th century London. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and a murder mystery in 19th century London is always a great basis for a good story. Combine that with comic book shenanigans and a young Loki investigating the crimes, and you have a book with insane amounts of potential.

I am also quite excited by the choice of author for this trilogy. Mackenzi Lee is a fantastic author known for her unique and powerful novels, most of which are set in 19th century England. I am very much looking forward to seeing her take on the character of Loki, and I cannot wait to see what sort of backstory and conflicted thought processes she attributes to this amazing character.

One of the things about Where Mischief Lies that is getting a lot of attention is the author’s apparent intention to make Loki a genderfluid and pansexual character. This is based on a tweet from December 2017, in which Lee responds to someone’s question about Loki being queer in her upcoming book. Lee correctly points out that Loki “is a canonically pansexual and gender fluid character” and then ends it with “So.”. Based on that, quite a lot of people are assuming she will explore this aspect of the character in her book. Loki’s gender identity and sexuality have been featured in many comics, with the character reincarnating as a female several times, and there are also some examples of Loki romancing members of various genders. I am quite interested in seeing how much of this is explored in Where Mischief Lies, and I am sure it will result in quite an intriguing part of the story.

I am uncertain whether I will grab a physical copy of this book or try to get it on audiobook. While I love the awesome cover for Where Mischief Lies and imagine it would look great on a hardcover book, I do love a good audiobook and I have had excellent experiences with comic book based audiobooks in the past. They have also gotten Marc Thompson, one of the best Star Wars audiobook narrators, to narrate this book. I have recently finished listening to one of his Star Wars audiobooks and would be really intrigued to see what voice he would attribute to Loki and the other iconic Marvel characters.

This has the potential to be an outstanding novel, and I am really looking forward to seeing how Lee tackles the character of Loki. The plot of this book sounds like a huge amount of fun, and I am sure there will be some amazing story and character developments throughout the book. I think this is going to be one of the best tie-in novels of the year and I plan to get it as soon as it comes out.

Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher

Darkness on the Edge of Town Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

With the third season of the sensational and entertaining television show Stranger Things fast approaching (4 July cannot come fast enough), another tie-in novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher, has been released and offers another intriguing look into the wider Stranger Things universe. This story heads back into 1970s and focuses on the life of Hawkins police Chief Jim Hopper, portrayed in the show by David Harbour, and presents a thrilling and curious new adventure.

Stranger Things is one of the hottest televisions shows on at the moment, featuring a captivating plot, some incredible characters, amazing young actors and the fun use of 1980s nostalgia, all of which come together into one hell of a show. With the final season of Game of Thrones just wrapped up, the third season of Stranger Things is the next big release I am looking forward to (with the possible exception of Good Omens), and I fully intend to binge-watch it the weekend it comes out. It is not surprising that some tie-in material has been released to capitalise on the success of the show, and, truth be told, they have actually been a little restrained with it, with only one tie-in novel and one comic book series released so far. While I have not had a chance to the read the comic book series, The Other Side, which looks at Will Beyers’ time in the Upside Down in Season 1, I did previously read and review the first official Stranger Things tie-in novel, Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond, a few months ago. Suspicious Minds was set back in 1969 and looked at how Eleven was born and then subsequently stolen by the US Government, and it proved to be quite a thrilling read which explored some fascinating backstory to the television show.

As a result, I was very keen to check out what the next Stranger Things tie-in novel was like and what secrets it might reveal about the show. Darkness on the Edge of Town is set to be released on 4 June 2019, exactly one month before the release of Stranger Things’ third season, which is going to be set around Independence Day in 1985. Another Stranger Things book, which I will also try to get a copy of, Runaway Max, is also due out on 4 June, and this book will be aimed at a young adult audience.

Darkness on the Edge of Town was written by New Zealand-born author Adam Christopher, who has some experience with tie-in novels, having previously written three books that tie in to the Dishonoured video game and two books that tie in to the Elementary television show. Christopher is probably best known for his 2012 debut novel, Empire State, as well his Ray Electromatic Mysteries and Spider Wars series. I have not previously read any of Christopher’s work before, but several of his books, especially Empire State (a noir superhero thriller with parallel words, yes please!), sound like a lot of fun and I may have to check them out in the future.

Darkness on the Edge of Town’s story starts in December 1984, around two months after the end of the second season of Stranger Things. While enjoying a quiet Christmas with his adopted daughter, Eleven, Jim Hopper is suddenly brought back to his past when Eleven pulls out a cardboard box marked “New York”. Despite his reluctance, Hopper begins to tell Eleven the story of the greatest case he solved before tragedy forced him back to Hawkins.

On Independence Day in 1977, after returning from the Vietnam War, Jim Hopper is living in New York City with his wife, Diane, and his daughter, Sara. While the city deals with bankruptcy and a heatwave, Hopper, a rookie NYPD detective, finds himself investigating a series of brutal, ritualistic murders with his new partner, Rosario Delgado. The murderer has already killed three people, leaving a mysterious card at each crime scene. Before Hopper and Delgado can make any progress, their investigation is shut down by shadowy federal agents who order them off the case. Disobeying orders and putting his career on the line, Hopper continues to investigate the murders and is able to connect the deaths to the mysterious leader of the Viper gang, who is reputed to have paranormal powers. Going undercover to infiltrate the Vipers, Hopper makes some startling revelations about the scope and devastation of the gang leader’s sinister plans, and he must do everything he can to protect his city from an upcoming evil.

This was quite an interesting and engaging novel from Christopher, who not only manages to examine some interesting aspects of the Stranger Things television show but also creates his own intriguing story set during an interesting time in American history. The story is split between two separate time periods. Some of the story is set in December 1984 and follows the older Hopper as he tells the story to Eleven, while the majority of the book is set back in 1977 and follows Hopper and his partner as they investigate the brutal murders and the Vipers. Most of the book comes across as a dark murder mystery thriller that also spends significant time examining the psyche of its protagonist. I quite liked the murder mystery angles of the 1977 storyline, and it provides an interesting counterpoint to the more science fiction/horror/young protagonist focus of the television show.

The previous Stranger Things novel, Suspicious Minds, explored in detail events that featured in the show in flashbacks. Darkness on the Edge of Town, however, is a character study that may not have too much relevance to franchise’s overall story. While this might not appeal to some Stranger Things fans, it does allow Christopher a lot more freedom to explore the character of a younger Hopper. The result is a fantastic story that dives deep into the psyche of this great character and really lets the reader see what drives Hopper and what initially convinced him to become a police officer. There are some amazing parts to this examination of the character, but I personally liked the way that Christopher decided to focus on the lasting effects of Hopper’s service in Vietnam. This is explored in some detail, and the reader gets a really good idea of how emotionally vulnerable Hopper was even before his daughter became sick and his wife left him. I also thought that the author did a great job showing Hopper’s relationship with Eleven in the 1984 storylines, and their oddball father-daughter relationship comes across quite well.

In addition to the focus on the character of Hopper, this book also contains a few plot points that tie into the wider Stranger Things universe. The contents of the mysterious box Hopper had hidden in his house, which Eleven uncovered in Season 2, becomes a major part of this book’s story. In addition, there are several things that could potentially become significant in the future, and which the reader can leave to their own imagination. The first thing that comes up is a physic prediction about clouds or tendrils of darkness covering the world, mentioned a few pages in and repeated throughout the book. While events that occur later in the book do fit in with some of these predictions, the imagery of the Mind Flayer from the show comes to mind every time this vision is mentioned, and in some ways, it fits the predictions a little better. In addition, quite early in the book the antagonist is rumoured to have mental abilities as a result of government experiments. For a large part of the book, the reader is left wondering whether he actually has abilities like Eleven and, if he does, how he is connected to the institute that Eleven was being tested in. All of these, plus some other great references, will prove to be deeply appealing to fans of the television show, and I will be really intrigued to see if any of these references might appear in the third season of the show (do these authors have the inside track on the series?).

One of the most interesting parts of Darkness on the Edge of Town was its setting in 1970s New York City. The 1970s, especially 1977, were a pretty chaotic period in the city’s history, which serves as an excellent backdrop to this dark and gritty tale. Not only was the city suffering through a severe economic downturn but there was also a tremendous heatwave, especially in July of 1977, when the vast majority of the storyline is set. The Son of Sam killer was also active during this time, a fact commented on in several parts of the book, which also ties into the darker ‘70s crime nature of this book. I liked the way that Christopher was able to bring the atmosphere of this period to life in his book, as well as the way he was able to tie the story into a certain major event that occurred in New York in July 1977. This great use of setting really added a lot to the story and helped turn Darkness on the Edge of Town into quite a compelling read.

One of the reasons why Stranger Things is such a success is the show’s writers and creators have such an amazing ability to channel its viewers’ nostalgia for the 1980s into each episode. Writers of these tie-in novels also attempt to capitalise on this nostalgia by highlighting aspects of that decade’s culture in their writing. I previously felt that Gwenda Bond did an amazing job of that in Suspicious Minds, and Christopher also did his job exploring parts of that culture, specifically when it relates to New York City. As a result, there are several fun references to relevant movies, television shows, books, sports and music for fans of the 1970s to notice and reminisce about. Whether the characters are having fun thoughts about M*A*S*H or cheeky discussions about whether Princess Leia will end up with Luke or Han in Star Wars, there are some really fun inclusions throughout the book, and Christopher luckily does not go too overboard loading his story up with these references. I personally quite liked the way that the author envisioned the New York City gangs at this point, and the main one that Hopper encounters has a very Warriors vibe around it. An extended sequence later in the book kind of put me in mind of Escape from New York (although that was released in ’81). I really enjoyed the strong nostalgia included in the book, and it added a certain amount of fun to the book that fans of the show will greatly appreciate.

Darkness of the Edge of Town is a fantastic new addition to the burgeoning Stranger Things extended universe, and Adam Christopher does an amazing job of exploring one of the show’s main characters. The author’s examination of Jim Hopper is a deep and emotional dive into the character’s psyche, and it proves to be an effective and compelling centre to this book. Christopher is also able to utilise ’70s nostalgia and fan interest in the franchise quite effectively and turn this into an excellent tie-in novel to this complex and enjoyable show. The end result is an excellent character-driven story that will greatly appeal to fans of Stranger Things. This book is really worth checking out, especially before the third season of the show is released, and I look forward to seeing what other tie-in novels Christopher produces in the future.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Available Light by Dayton Ward – Audiobook Review

Star Trek - Available Light Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (9 April 2019)

Series: Star Trek

Length: 11 hours and 59 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For my latest review, I dive back into the massive universe of extended books that surround the Star Trek television and movie series, with the latest novel from legendary Star Trek fiction author Dayton Ward.

When I reviewed my first piece of Star Trek fiction, The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack, a couple of months ago, I mentioned how substantial the extended book universe around Star Trek was. With a huge number of series that cover various points of the Star Trek universe and over 840 novels to accompany the various movies and television shows, there are so many additional stories and characters out there for dedicated fans to enjoy. Star Trek tie-in novels and comics were not something that I had really gotten into before The Way to the Stars, but after enjoying it, I thought that Available Light would be a good opportunity to expand my knowledge of the Star Trek universe. I also decided that I would try my first Star Trek audiobook; I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Available Light, narrated by Robert Petkoff.

Quite a large amount of the extremely large Star Trek extended universe can be attributed to the author of this book, Dayton Ward. Ward is a prolific author who has been writing Star Trek fiction since 1998 with his inclusions in the long-running Strange New Words collections of Star Trek short stories, becoming the first author to contribute to three separate volumes of this series. Since then he has written more than 20 additional inclusions in the Star Trek universe, including last year’s Star Trek Discovery: Drastic Measures, which made my Top Ten list of Books I Wish I Read in 2018.

Available Light is the latest book in a series of novels which are set after the events of the last Star Trek: The Next Generation film, Nemesis. Available Light takes place in the year 2386, set seven years after the events of Nemesis and continues to follow the adventures of the USS Enterprise E, under the command of Captain Picard. Ward has written the last three books in this specific Star Trek series and Available Light continues several of the storylines established in these previous novels.

For over 200 years, covert organisation Section 31 has policed and protected the United Federation of Planets from the shadows. Following the designs of an artificial intelligence, Control, Section 31 has committed attacks, assassinations, political interference and all manner of illegal actions to preserve the security of the Federation, without any oversight. However, thanks to the actions of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character, Dr Julian Bashir, all of Section 31’s secrets have been published and are now out in the open for everyone to see. With the entire Federation of Planets now aware of Section 31’s actions, the Federation government and Starfleet move to arrest and prosecute all known Section 31 agents for treason against the Federation.

While numerous crimes and atrocities have been revealed, perhaps none is more controversial than Section 31’s assassination of Federation President Min Zife following his secret deposition by a group of Starfleet officers. More shocking is the revelation that one of the Starfleet officers responsible for the illegal coup d’etat that unseated Min Zife was none other than Jean-Luc Picard, the captain of the USS Enterprise E.

While the politicians and remaining commanders of Starfleet argue about the future of Picard, the Enterprise continues its exploration of the distant and uncharted Odyssean Pass. The Enterprise has come across an incredibly large and ancient spaceship adrift in the middle of nowhere and apparently abandoned. When the Enterprise’s away team boards the ship, they discover that the ship might not be as abandoned as first believed. As Picard and the Enterprise attempt to help the mysterious beings who inhabit the ship, they find their plans complicated by the arrival of a band of salvagers with designs on the massive ship.

I really enjoyed Available Light, as Ward presents the reader with a compelling adventure in space that really reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ward goes deep into the Star Trek lore to produce an intriguing story for the fans, and it was quite interesting to see how the events of Available Light help shape the wider Star Trek book universe. The book makes exceptional use of advanced science and a large amount of action to make the story even more interesting and fun. I especially enjoyed the various wonderful examples of ship-to-ship combat that occurred throughout much of the book, and I found them to be extremely entertaining and exciting. Overall, this is a pretty fun read, although there are some issues when it comes to its intended audience and the distribution of its two main storylines.

One of the things that I always try to cover when reviewing novels related to movies, television shows and video games is whether a book is suitable only for fans of the original media or whether readers with limited background knowledge of the franchise will be able to appreciate the book. Available Light falls into the category of books which is primarily aimed towards those readers with some knowledge and appreciation of the Star Trek franchise, especially those who are fans of the books, as Ward makes use of a number of storylines that originated in other books. For example, Available Light continues to showcase the Enterprise’s exploration of the region of space known as the Odyssean Pass, which has been covered in Ward’s last three novels, Armageddon’s Arrow, Headlong Flight and Hearts and Minds. It also dramatically follows storylines started in David Mack’s 2004 novel, A Time to Heal, which detailed the assassination of Min Zife, and his 2017 Star Trek: Section 31 novel, Control, which featured the publication of Section 31’s secrets. The book also contains a huge number of references to previous Star Trek adventures that happened in other books, the movies and the television shows. This does not just include those works associated with The Next Generation, as events from other shows, such as Deep Space Nine, are also heavily referenced. As a result, fans of these existing pieces of Star Trek fiction will have a much deeper appreciation for what is going on, and they may already be invested in the storylines that have been established in these previous books.

Dedicated fans of The Next Generation television series and movies will probably be surprised about the extensive storylines established in these books. Since the events of Nemesis, the books included in these series cover a huge range of adventures and character developments of the crew of the Enterprise. Those Star Trek television and movies fans coming into this book will be surprised at events like Picard and Beverly Crusher getting married and having a son. These fans should also be prepared for the fact that only a few of The Next Generation’s main characters are really featured in Available Light. While Picard, Worf, Geordi La Forge and Beverly Crusher are still aboard the Enterprise, major characters such as Deanna Troi, Data and Wesley Crusher do not appear at all, while the character of William Riker (now an Admiral) only appears in one chapter. In their place, several new, original characters have taken on their roles and become point-of-view characters for the Enterprise. While these characters are quite intriguing, fans of the original crew may be a little disappointed not to see how the missing characters are going. Ward has also included some characters that appeared in minor roles in both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. These include Admiral William Ross (who appeared in 13 episodes of Deep Space Nine), Worf’s brother Martok (who also appeared in Deep Space Nine) and Philippa Louvois (the Judge Advocate General from The Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man). Not only are these characters quite interesting in their own right, but there are some significant developments for some of these characters that fans of the franchise will be deeply intrigued to see.

That being said, while a large amount of the story is quite heavy on Star Trek lore, references and tie-ins to previous storylines, Ward does an exception job making this story accessible to a wide range of readers. I am not a particularly dedicated Star Trek fan and I only have an average knowledge of the lore and the various series and movies. However, I was able to follow the story quite closely, as Ward did a fantastic job explaining and describing the events that occurred in the previous storylines and episodes that Available Light’s story follows on from. While some readers whose knowledge of Star Trek is lesser than mine might struggle a little with the book, I feel that Ward has made this book extremely accessible to most readers. However, this book will really appeal to those readers who have a prior appreciation of the Star Trek franchise.

I should mention that that this book, like many licensed Star Trek novels, is not actually considered to be canon in relation to the television shows or movies. While some books, such as the recent Star Trek Discovery books, are considered to be canon (indeed, events in The Way to the Stars were mentioned in the show), Available Light and the books that it follows on from are not. That means that events that occur in this book are unlikely to affect what happens in upcoming movies or television shows, such as the upcoming show featuring the return of Captain Picard. While reading a non-canon book like this might not appeal to some fans of the franchise, I still quite enjoyed the story, and I am intrigued to see how this separate Star Trek universe will continue.

Available Light features two separate storylines that mostly remain separate from each other. The first storyline focuses on the fallout of the events of Control, including the revelation about Section 31’s actions and the attempts by the Federation to round up and prosecute all those who worked with or for the covert organisation. The second storyline focuses on the Enterprise as they encounter the new alien ship and the various inhabitants of this new region of space. Despite the huge amount of detail used to describe the Section 31 part of the book in both the official synopsis and the synopsis I wrote above, this storyline only really takes up around one-third of Available Light, with the remaining two thirds focusing on the Enterprise and her crew. I found both storylines to be extremely fascinating and a lot of fun. The Enterprise storyline felt like a classic episode of a Star Trek television series, with the crew working together to explore an intriguing phenomenon and overcome the odds to save an innocent party. The Section 31 storyline is also really cool, and I really enjoyed seeing what happens when the existence of this organisation becomes public knowledge.

While Ward does try to bring these two separate storylines together, such as by examining Picard’s guilt at the role he played in Min Zife’s ousting and assassination and having it affect his actions in the Enterprise storyline, I did at times feel like I was reading two unrelated books. I really think this would have been a better book if Ward had focused on only one storyline. I would have really loved a book completely dedicated to the aftermath of the Section 31 reveal, including having Picard stand trial for his crimes, and I am sure that the story of the Enterprise discovering the massive ship could have been even better with some additional storytelling. Instead, the story of Picard’s trail will occur later this year in David Mack’s upcoming novel, Collateral Damage. While it was slightly disappointing to find out that Available Light’s Section 31 storyline was mostly included to set up a future book, it was still really interesting and helped created a book that was a lot of fun to read.

Ever since Section 31 was first introduced, it has been a deeply intriguing plot point. The idea of a secret Federation security organisation that goes against nearly everything that Starfleet stands for is really clever, and it opens up a lot of possibilities. Section 31 is getting a lot of focus at the moment, as not only did they appear throughout the second season of Star Trek Discovery (which utilised the AI program Control, who appeared in several novels linked to Available Light as an antagonist) but there are apparently plans to do a Section 31 television series featuring Michelle Yeoh’s character from Discovery. As a result, it was really interesting to see this book universe version of Section 31 start to unravel in Available Light. The shock and outrage that results throughout the book are deeply intriguing, and I really liked seeing how the Federation and Starfleet reacted to the news. This really was a cool plot point, and I am extremely curious to see what happens to the organisation in future books.

As I mentioned before, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Available Light. At just under 12 hours in length, it did not take me too long to get through this book, and I found it to be a great format to enjoy the intriguing, Star Trek based plot. I did find that listening to the story helped me pick up a lot more of the previous storylines and Star Trek references that Ward had littered throughout the book, which probably gave me a better base to enjoy the story. I found Robert Petkoff to be a really good narrator, and I really enjoyed the way that he told the story. Petkoff does a pretty good impersonation of the male characters from The Next Generation, including Picard, Worf and La Forge, and I found his Picard voice to be extremely convincing. Petkoff also did a great impersonation of Vulcan and Klingon characters throughout the book, and I thought the voices he attributed to these alien characters were quite excellent. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of Available Light, and I am extremely glad it was the version of the book I chose to enjoy.

In the end, my second dive into the Star Trek universe was a little bit of a mixed bag. While there are some great and enjoyable story inclusions throughout Available Light, this is a book that is more aimed towards extremely dedicated Star Trek fans and features a split story that at times is more concerned with setting up future books rather than standing on its own. But I found the storylines explored within the books to be a lot fun, and I had an absolute blast listening to this captivating Star Trek tale. I am still really keen to check out additional Star Trek novels, and I hope to see where the various plots explored in this book go from here.

Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray – Audiobook Review

Master & Apprentice Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (16 April 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

2019 is shaping up to be an amazing year for fans of the new Star Wars extended universe, a group of which I consider myself to be a proud member, with so many awesome Star Wars books and comics being released.  After reviewing the first Star Wars book for 2019, Queen’s Shadow, a few weeks ago, I have been really looking forward to getting to grips with the franchises second 2019 novel, Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray.

Master & Apprentice is a canon Star Wars novel set around eight years before the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  It focuses on two of the main characters from this prequel movie, Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Qui-Gon Jinn is an experienced and powerful Jedi Knight, having been trained in the Force by the legendary Count Dooku, who himself was trained by Master Yoda, and is ready to face any threat or danger that lies in front of him.  However, his greatest challenge may prove to be his own Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The two Jedi are polar opposites to each other: while Obi-Wan is by-the-book and rigid in his respect of rules and protocol, Qui-Gon routinely shows very little regard for the rules and laws that bind the Jedi and constantly finds himself at odds with the Jedi Council.  Despite years of working together, the two Jedi struggle to understand each other.  Qui-Gon sees every mistake of Obi-Wan’s as his own, while Obi-Wan is unable to understand the reasoning behind Qui-Gon’s actions, nor his obsession with the ancient Jedi prophecies that many see as dangerous and unreliable.  Their tenuous and strained relationship is further tested when Qui-Gon is unexpectantly offered a place on the Jedi Council, a move that would likely end their partnership.  With feelings of betrayal and failure hanging over both of them, they are suddenly assigned a critical mission that is likely to be their last as master and apprentice.

Fellow Jedi Rael Averross, another former apprentice of Dooku, has requested Qui-Gon’s help with a difficult political dispute on the planet of Pijal.  Averross has been serving as regent for the planet’s young queen, who is days away from ascending to the throne and signing an important treaty.  A series of attacks which has rocked the planet is apparently the work of The Opposition, a band of political performance artists turned terrorists.  Once the two Jedi arrive on the planet, they quickly find that the situation is far more complicated than initially believed.  With corruption and secrets around every corner, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan attempt to get to the bottom of everything, even utilising a pair of jewel smugglers to help with their inquiries.  However, their investigations are hampered by their opposing points of view, which only worsen when Qui-Gon places great stock in a dark vision of the future he has foreseen.  Can they overcome their differences to unravel the plot, or will they fail their mission?

Claudia Gray, also known as Amy Vincent, is a prolific and experienced author, best known for her first body of work, the Evernight series, which started in 2008.  Since then she has written a number of other series, including the Spellcaster, Firebird and Constellation series, as well as the standalone novel Fateful.  Gray also has a huge amount of experience writing Star Wars fiction, having previously written three Star Wars tie-in novels in the new extended universe, including Lost Stars, Bloodline and Leia, Princess of Alderaan.  As a result, the story of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi is in safe hands as Gray produces an outstanding, compelling and character-driven novel that delves deep into the Star Wars lore to create an amazing story.

Master & Apprentice presents a clever and exciting story that sees the protagonist attempt to uncover the mysterious events unfolding on Pijal, while also dealing with their many personal and emotional issues.  The story is told from the perspective of a range of characters in the book, and each of them adds their own thoughts and experiences to the story.  The overall story arc on Pijal becomes quite complex, with many different and intriguing sides to the conflict, and the people behind the events are not who you think.  I had an amazing time enjoying this book.

In this fantastic piece of fiction Gray goes into some intriguing parts of the Star Wars universe and lore.  This is actually the furthest back the new extended universe books go, so it offers the reader a great opportunity to see some of aspects of the pre-movie Star Wars universe.  While there are some hints at the events to come, as well as references to some major characters in the upcoming movies, the book contains a significant amount of new content and antagonists.  It is actually quite refreshing to read a Star Wars book that is not tied into the Skywalker family or featuring the Empire or the First Order as an antagonist.  I quite enjoyed the look at the pre-The Phantom Menace universe, including the new planet of Pijal, and the inclusion of the immoral Czerka Corporation, who previously appeared in the pre-Disney Star Wars universe.  While those fans of the Star Wars franchise who like to consume more than the movies will absolutely love this book, Master & Apprentice should prove to be fairly easy to read for those people who have at least seen The Phantom Menace, as it is a pretty intriguing science fiction adventure.

Those readers who are interested in a deeper dive into the Jedi of the Republic era are in for a real treat in this book, as Gray delves into aspects of their history and lifestyle.  Throughout Master & Apprentice there are a number of scenes set in the Jedi Temple, as well as a number of discussions about how and why the Jedi do what they do.  Perhaps one of the key things highlighted in this book is how the traditional Jedi master and apprentice program worked.  Several different apprenticeships are shown, and the reader gets a good idea of what is entailed in this relationship, what training the Padawans go through and how the process turns them into the eventual guardians of peace in the galaxy.

One of the most unique and fascinating aspects of Star Wars and Jedi lore that Gray examines are the fabled Jedi prophecies.  The prophecies were created long ago by an ancient group of Jedi sages, and are reputed to reveal events from the future.  The prophecies become a key part of the story, as not only do they drive a wedge between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan but they are also shown to have a major influence over Dooku when Qui-Gon was his Padawan.  The prophecies have been mentioned in the movies before, with the most famous prophecy about the coming of a chosen one who will bring balance to the Force, referring to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.  While the chosen one prophecy is referenced in Master & Apprentice, several other prophecies are mentioned, including one that comes true in this book.  I was really quite intrigued by the author’s examination of the prophecies; while they have been mentioned in the movies, I did not know too much about them.  Dedicated fans will no doubt have fun trying to tie some of these prophecies into the movies and other associated pieces of Star Wars media.  For example, there is one that clearly refers to Princess Leia that is repeated a couple of times.  I personally was very curious about one prophecy that was mentioned towards the end of the book, which was referenced as being obsessed over by Count Dooku.  It was a particularly portentous-sounding prophecy, and I wonder if it will have anything to do with recent revelations in the trailer for the next Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker.

The story contained within Master & Apprentice is a strong, character-driven affair which features a compelling central cast, each of whom gets an in-depth analysis from Gray.  Not only is there some compelling examinations of the main two characters, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, but Gray also introduces several intriguing and entertaining new characters who really add a lot to the story.

There is a great examination of the younger Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in this book, as Gray examines not only the relationship between the two characters but also aspects of their past and their personalities.  When the two characters are introduced in the first prequel film, The Phantom Menace, very little is known about them, save that Obi-Wan is nearing the end of his apprenticeship and the two of them disagree on certain matters, such as the future of Anakin Skywalker.  Master & Apprentice offers a whole new, deeper examination of these characters and explores how these two Jedi came together and appeared so close, despite some differences in their personalities and styles.  I thought that this deep dive into the relationship between these key movie characters was utterly fascinating, and it made me reconsider aspects from the movie.  The strained relationship between the two characters becomes a major factor of the book, and Gray creates an emotional storyline around it as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan work to overcome their issues while facing external threats.  This was an excellent part of the book which readers will quite enjoy.

In addition to looking at their relationship and how the two characters become close, Gray also looks at other aspects of their past.  This is particularly true for Qui-Gon, as Gray spends time highlighting Qui-Gon’s apprenticeship to Dooku and his friendship with Rael through a series of flashbacks.  These flashback scenes are quite interesting as they show several key events that were responsible for turning Qui-Gon into the character he was in the movie and go a long way to explain why he was such a hesitant master for most of Master & Apprentice.  There was also an intriguing and extended look at how and why Qui-Gon became so obsessed with the Jedi prophecies.  Qui-Gon’s research and fascination with the prophecies becomes a major part of the book, which really appealed to me, and which also explains a lot about the Qui-Gon’s actions in The Phantom Menace.  For example, it explains why Qui-Gon was so sure that he had found the Chosen One in Anakin Skywalker, and why he was determined to train him, even if it meant defying the will of the council.  These storylines also explain certain aspects of Obi-Wan’s personality that occur within the movies.  For example, the bond and respect that are formed between Obi-Wan and his master explain why he was so willing to take on Anakin as an apprentice after Qui-Gon’s death in The Phantom Menace.  It also adds another layer to Anakin’s betrayal in Revenge of the Sith, as Anakin has not only betrayed Obi-Wan and the Jedi but also Qui-Gon’s memory and his belief in Anakin as the chosen one.  This might explain why Obi-Wan, upon defeating Anakin, so passionately shouted “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE.”  There were also some cute aspects to Obi-Wan’s life that are explained, such as why he had such an aversion to flying and how he was able to ride the lizard mount in Revenge of the Sith.  I quite liked how both characters developed over the course of the book, and I felt that Gray did an amazing job bringing these characters to life and providing an excellent story about their past.

While Gray’s portrayal of the main two characters is really good, I also have to say how much I loved some of the side characters that the author introduced in this book.  My favourite has to be Rael Averross, the unconventional Jedi who has a connection to Qui-Gon’s past.  Rael Averross is pretty much the opposite of all the Jedi readers would mostly be familiar with.  He’s a hard drinking, womanising (which he claims is technically not against the rules of being a Jedi), death stick using scoundrel, who hates nearly every aspect of being a Jedi Knight.  He was an extremely entertaining character whose actions and scruffy appearance are part of a persona the character has created to disguise the guilt, fear and resentment from his past.  I also liked how he was the only character able to identify and point out what the actual result of someone fulfilling the prophecy and finding the chosen one, something that every other Jedi apparently missed.  Rael was such an interesting counterpoint to the other Jedi characters in Master & Apprentice, and his influence on a young Qui-Gon was quite intriguing.  It will be interesting to see if Rael shows up again (I believed he is used in a recent Star Wars audiobook, Dooku: Jedi Lost) as he has the potential to be a key character in the new Disney expanded universe.

Other characters utilised within this book are the two jewel smugglers co-opted by the Jedi to be their guides on Pijal, Pax and Rahara.  While both these characters are a lot of fun, the standout one has to be Pax.  Pax is a gaudy and socially inept character whose inability to interact with other people is due to the fact he was raised by a ship full of protocol droids.  Pax is full of sass, sarcasm and insults, and is easily the most entertaining character in this entire book.  Rahara is also a great character.  A former slave of the Czerka Corporation, Rahara is the more normal of the two characters.  However, her former enslavement still haunts her and drives much of her more noble actions in this book.  Individually, both these characters are pretty cool, but together they form a great team who play off each other well.  Their emotional attachment to each other is another great part of the book and seeing the lengths that the usually pragmatic Pax will go to for Rahara is very heart-warming.

There were also a few flashback scenes featuring Qui-Gon’s mentor and future Star Wars antagonist Count Dooku.  All of these scenes were shown from the point of view of Qui-Gon as Dooku’s apprentice, and they paint a picture of a rigid and severe Jedi who was already showing signs of being tempted to the Dark Side of the Force.  This was a very intriguing portrayal, although I believe that the audiobook Dooku: Jedi Lost, which was released around the same time as Master & Apprentice, contains a lot more of Dooku’s backstory and motivations, and I am definitely going to check this other audiobook out at some point.

As usual, I was deeply, deeply impressed with the audiobook version of this Star Wars book.  The company behind these audiobooks really go the extra mile to make them special, and these tie-in novels are quickly becoming my favourite series to listen to rather than read.  The Master & Apprentice audiobook runs for 11 hours and 42 minutes, and I found that I was able to get through this book quite quickly.  I always find I absorb a lot more of the story with the audiobook format, and with this book I was really able to enjoy the character strife, as well as the new world building that Gray included.  Props need to be given to the amazing sound effects that seem to permeate nearly every single scene in this book.  Firstly, I absolutely love how the incredible and iconic music from the Star Wars movies is used during some of the book’s major scenes.  The music, especially some of the big orchestral moments that defined key parts of the original Star Wars movies, is quite incredible and it does an amazing job of forcefully dragging the reader into the story.  The additional sound effects used throughout the book easily replicate the actions going on around the characters, often using established and recognisable sound from the movies.  I also loved how some of the sound effects could be so effective at creating an appropriate background for the scene by adding in engine noises or the susurration of a loud crowd.

The audiobook format of Master & Apprentice is narrated by Jonathan Davis, who has previously provided his voice to several other Star Wars audiobooks.  I was deeply impressed with Davis’ incredible voice acting range in this book, as the voices he comes up with for the characters are outstanding.  For example, he produces incredible voices for the book’s two main characters, Qui-Gon and Ob-Wan as he damn near succeeds in replicating the two actors voices from The Phantom Menace.  On top of that, his Yoda voice is spot-on, and sounded just like Frank Oz in the movies.  I also liked the voices that the narrator came up with for some of his new characters.  His voice for Rael, for example, does an amazing job capturing the character’s personality, including his more carefree attitude, and the simmering anger that exists for most of his interactions with Qui-Gon.  I also quite like the voice and tone he uses for Pax, and the character’s inbuilt arrogance and emotional shallowness really shine through.

Master & Apprentice is so far my favourite Star Wars book of 2019, and I absolutely fell in love with its excellent story and powerful character work.  Gray takes her readers deep into the Star Wars lore, allowing fans of the franchise to further examine two of the best characters from The Phantom Menace movie.  The combination of Jonathan Davis’ exceptional narration and the production company’s perfect use of classic Star Wars music and sound effects resulted in an absolutely fantastic audiobook that comes highly recommended.  This is one hell of a book, and I cannot wait to see how the rest of the year’s Star Wars books turn out.