Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain Cover.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date – 8 January 2019

 

Tens of millions of the years in Earth’s future, during the period known as the Thirteenth Occupation, humanity travels across space in sailed spaceships, with many crews searching for relics and treasures from previous eras of human and alien occupation.  For years, the greatest threat to these ships was the legendary pirate Bosa Sennen, whose deadly black ship, the Nightjammer, ruthlessly hunted down and ambushed hundreds of ships, killing all onboard, before vanishing back into the darkness.  Continuously moving her consciousness from one body to the next, Bosa was able to keep her reign of terror going for years, becoming a near-horrifying myth throughout space.  However, Bosa unexpectedly lost everything when she came up against the Ness sisters, Adrana and Fura, whose courage and daring resulted in them taking Bosa’s ship and her life.

Now the Ness sisters command Bosa’s infamous ship, rechristened as Revenger, and seek to make their own fortunes.  Veering away from the ship’s previous profession of piracy, the Ness sisters and their crew scavenge through old abandoned bases, attempting to find lost treasures or supplies as they slowly establish a new life for themselves.  But the legacy of Bosa Sennen is constantly around them, and not even her death is enough to end her legend.

While Adrana seeks to come to turns with the horrors she witnessed as Bosa’s captive, Fura becomes obsessed with finding Bosa’s hidden cache of treasure from her extended lifetime of piracy.  En route to the planet of Wheel Strizzardy to find a source who may be able to lead them to the pirate trove, Revenger is attacked, forcing the crew to brutally defend themselves.  Arriving at their destination, they find that ships they encountered were hired by a consortium of hundreds of planets who have placed a massive bounty on Bosa Sennen’s head.  What’s more, they do not particularly care if she is already dead, as long as her ship and all aboard are captured and destroyed.  Now, with an armada behind them and the crew of Revenger stuck on the gangster-controlled world of Wheel Strizzardy, the Ness sisters must find a way to escape with the information they need.  But are they prepared for the devastating secrets their search will uncover?

Reynolds is a highly regarded science fiction writer who has been writing since the 1990s.  Throughout his career he has written a slew of short stories, novels and other works of fiction.  His main body of work include the Revelation Space series, The Prefect Dreyfus Emergencies, the Poseidon’s Children series and several standalone novels.  Shadow Captain is the second book in his Revenger series, and follows on from the first book in the series, 2016’s Revenger.

Shadow Captain is an intriguing and enjoyable piece of science fiction that follows a mismatched group of semi-pirates as they navigate their way through space.  Reynolds has created an ambitious new universe for this series, and set an interesting and compelling story in the heart of it.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to read the first book in the series, Revenger, beforehand, and this somewhat negatively impacted my enjoyment of this book, as I failed to understand several key aspects of the series universe.  Despite this, I ended up really liking this fantastic read and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

This main reason why my lack of experience with this series impacted how much I enjoyed Shadow Captain is the detailed new science fiction universe that Reynold’s has created.  This universe is pretty impressive, with a number of unique flourishes and a fascinating-sounding history made up of multiple, distinctive eras of widespread human occupation across space.  While this is a really fun feature, I found that Reynolds did a poor job of re-explaining a number of key features of his universe that were introduced in his first book.  Without these explanations I was somewhat lost during a number of important discussions that took place during the early parts of the story.  This was not a massively widespread issue and quite a few important elements were explained to the reader at various points of the book, although Reynolds did delay some explanations longer than necessary.  However, it was a bit frustrating not having an understanding of what some key elements of universe were, or what some slang or terms being discussed by the protagonists in the early parts of the book were, and there are still one or two elements that were mentioned in Shadow Captain that I am not 100 percent certain about.

I also did find the first third of the book was a little slow going, and it took me a while to really get into the story.  This was due to an early combination of not completely knowing what the characters were talking about at certain points, and some slower pacing as the author sets the scene.  While there were some good points to the start of the book, including an great summary of events in Revenger, and some intriguing scenes inside a ‘bauble’, an ancient and abandoned human construction in space, I did find it a little hard to stay interested.  However, I stuck with it and was very glad that I did, as the rest of Shadow Captain was a very entertaining and exciting read.  The last two thirds of the book are an excellent, fast-paced adventure, which features some great battles in space, an intrigue-laced period on the planet of Wheel Strizzardy and a hunt for a hidden trove of treasure.  I really enjoyed the part of the book set on Wheel Strizzardy, as it featured the crew going up against a bunch of ruthless gangsters on a backwater planet.  While there, they have to face off against a cannibalistic crime lord, deal with the secrets of aliens and attempt to outsmart several of the planet’s colourful inhabitants, all the while the bounty hunters chasing after them quickly get closer towards them.  This awesome last two-thirds of the book more than makes up for the slower start to the narrative, and makes Shadow Captain into a very good book overall.

One of the things I liked the most about Shadow Captain was the lingering impacts of events that occurred in the first book, which results in some fantastic character work from Reynolds.  In the first book, Revenger, the primary antagonist, Bosa Sennen, was a fairly impressive villain who perpetrated a number of terrible acts against many of the book’s characters.  Both of the book’s protagonists, the Ness sisters, were impacted in different ways by her actions.  Adrana was kidnapped in Revenger in order to be conditioned to become Bosa’s next host, a process that required her to endure significant torture and physiological abuse.  As a result, throughout Shadow Captain, Adrana must constantly deal with lingering issues impacting her psyche.  She is continuously angry throughout the book, and finds herself constantly holding back new and terrible thoughts that she is convinced are the last lingering aspects of Bosa’s mind and personality that might have been partially imprinted on her.  Fura is also severely impacted by the events of the first book, and has become angry and secretive, with goals she is hiding from her crew and even her own sister.  I liked the reasons behind Fura’s change in personality, as the character was forced to become more ruthless and paranoid in order to get into the mind of her foe, Bosa.  The focus on these characters’ changes in personality is an outstanding addition to the book that results in some significant and intriguing drama throughout the book.  I personally enjoyed seeing a villain’s impact continue so significantly after their death, and it was absolutely fascinating to see the various ways she lived, especially in these different but devasting impacts on the Ness sisters.

In the end, I am going to award Shadow Captain four stars out of five.  While I really enjoyed the book as a whole, the initial problems I experience with the early story and the somewhat ordinary job that Reynolds did re-explaining all of the significant elements of his universe lowered my overall rating.  As a result, I would highly recommend that readers interested in checking out Shadow Captain should probably read Revenger beforehand, as it may increase their overall experience.  There is still an amazing amount to enjoy about Shadow Captain, including an inventive science fiction setting, an entertaining story that ramps up as the book continues and some excellent character work surrounding the actions of the first book’s primary antagonist.  Overall, this is a great piece of science fiction that is well worth checking out, and any future books in the Revenger series will definitely be on my radar.

My Rating:

Four stars

Waiting on Wednesday – Queen’s Shadow and Superman: Dawnbreaker

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.

waiting on wednesday 9 jan 2019 picture

I have never made any secret about the fact that I love novels that tie-in to movies, televisions shows, video games and comic books, with multiple examples featured on my blog and Goodreads page.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that a huge number of tie-in novels are going to appear on my must-read list for the future.  This week I am taking a look at two intriguing young adult tie-in novels that are going to be released in early March 2019: the latest Star Wars novel, Queen’s Shadow, by E. K. Johnston and the fourth book in the DC Icons series, Superman: Dawnbreaker, by Matt de le Pena.

I am a massive fan of both the Star Wars and DC Comics universes, and generally go out of my way to watch, read or play anything associated with these franchises and extended universe.  Honestly, I am going to get both of these books no matter what, but I may as well try and discuss what about these books I am most excited about.

Both of these books have some pretty awesome-sounding story premises.  Queen’s Shadow will apparently follow a young Padmé Amidala immediately after the events of The Phantom Menace, as she transitions from Naboo’s queen to its representative in the Galactic Senate.  I think it is a story with some potential, as this book is likely to become a bit of a political thriller/espionage hybrid, and will explore the politics of the Republic leading up to the Clone Wars.  No doubt Padmé will see some forms of corruption and intrigue, as well as the future Emperor’s devious plots.  I am also looking forward to Padmé getting a story to herself.  While Padmé started off as a badass ruler in the movies, most of her appearances were overshadowed by that frankly terrible romance with Anakin (he’s an angry, stalking man-child who attempted to hit on her by talking about sand, and the whole age gap is pretty darn creepy).  Therefore I will be extremely happy to get a story which will hopefully have no appearances from Anakin, and which will allow the character of Padmé to live up to her own potential (although I will not be surprised if creeper teenage Darth Vader makes some sort of appearance in this book).

While Queen’s Shadow has an interesting-sound story premise, I am actually a bit more intrigued about the proposed story in Dawnbreaker.  It sounds like it will focus on a young Clark Kent still living in Smallville as he learns to control his powers and find his calling as a hero.  Clark will find some dark secrets in the heart of his small town and be forced to investigate.  I have no doubt that this will be an intriguing re-imagination of Superman’s origin, and I am eager to see what sort of mystery or villain will be behind these terrible events.  Just from the synopsis alone, I think this book has potential, and I am looking forward to uncovering all of the story’s hidden secrets.

Another reason why I am hoping to get copies of both of these books is due to my previous experiences with these authors or franchises.  I have been in a real Star Wars expanded universe mood for the last few years now, but I am also excited to get another entry from E. K. Jackson.  I previously read her last entry in the Star Wars universe, Ahsoka, and I was struck by the author’s understanding of the character and the intriguing young adult storyline she was able to create.  As a result, I am eager to see this author’s treatment of another strong female Star Wars character, and I hope she will craft another great story.  I have not previously read anything from Dawnbreaker author Matt de le Pena before, but I have read some of the previous books in the DC Icons series before, such as the last book, Catwoman: Soulstealer.  I really enjoyed the unique ways the author of that book was able to alter the established origin story of Catwoman, so I am very eager to see the new and different story DC will allow in Dawnbreaker.

While I will be very happy with physical copies of both these books, there is a very strong chance that I will seek out audiobook copies.  Both Queen’s Shadow and Dawnbreaker will have their audiobook formats released at the same time as their paperback formats, and neither audiobook sounds like it will be too long, with Dawnbreaker apparently clocking in at around eight hours, while Queen’s Shadow is only a little longer, at 10 hours.  After listening to the audiobook version of the previous DC Icons book, Catwoman: Soulstealer, I know that they will do a good job with it and produce an enjoyable and easy-to-listen-to book.  I am really excited about the audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow.  Not only is it likely to have the same high-quality production value, music and sound effects that the previous Star Wars audiobooks have all featured, but it will also be narrated by Catherine Taber, the voice of Padmé in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated movie and television series.  With Natalie Portman extremely unlikely to narrate an audiobook, Taber is the perfect voice to get for this book.  Not only does she have a perfect Padmé voice, but fans of extended Star Wars universe cartoon shows will love to see her jump back into the character, especially as she is likely to voice the character again in the recently announced new season of The Clone Wars television show.  With the producers going all out for Queen’s Shadow’s audiobook format, it will be a hard target for me to miss and will no doubt be an incredible way to enjoy this book.

These two books will be among the first two tie-in books of 2019 that I seek out, so I am really hoping that I will enjoy them.  I think both of them have intriguing sounding stories, and I have had some great experiences with their respective franchises and their specific authors or series.  I am very likely to get the audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow, but I will have to see how I go with Dawnbreaker.  I have no doubt that I will really love both of these books, and I am definitely going to get copies of both.

Quick Review – OtherEarth by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

OtherEarth Cover.jpg

Publisher: Rock the Boat

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From the superstar team of comedian Jason Segel and young adult author Kirsten Miller comes the second book in their Last Reality series, OtherEarth.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Simon saved his best friend, Kat, from the clutches of the Company and their high-tech VR gaming experience, Otherworld. But it was at a steep price. Now he, Kat, and their friend Busara are on the run. They know too much. About the Company’s dark secrets. About the real-life consequences of playing Otherworld. And about Kat’s stepfather’s involvement in everything. The group is headed to New Mexico to find Simon’s old roommate, who is a tech genius and possibly the only person who can help them reveal the truth about the Company before it’s too late and the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy is erased… forever.

Imagine a future in which you can leave reality behind and give in to your greatest desires. That future is now. And the future is terrifying.

Segel and Miller are an interesting team with some history, having previously written the Nightmares series together.  While Segel is best known for his film, television and comedy work, Miller is an established young adult author, having written two additional series.

I read the first book in this series, Otherworld, late last year, and it was one of the first young adult books I actually reviewed, as I had not professionally looked at this genre much before.  After reading and enjoying the first book a lot, I started checking out more young adult books in the last year, resulting in some really fun finds and some truly excellent reads.  As a result, I was very excited to check out the follow-up to this book and I was curious to see if I would enjoy OtherEarth the same way I enjoyed Otherworld.  I have to say that overall I had a lot of fun with this second book in the Last Reality series, and it had a lot of great and memorable elements to it.

OtherEarth follows on straight after the events of Otherworld, with the protagonists on the run from the Company.  During their previous adventure, the protagonists were able to determine that the Company had been experimenting on coma victims, installing them into their high-tech video game Otherworld, and killing anyone who learns about their secrets.  Simon, Kat, Busara and newcomer Elvis are now determined to expose the sinister actions of the Company while also saving the sentient programs that have come to life within the game.

One of the interesting things I liked about OtherEarth was the way that the authors split the story between the characters going on adventures within the Otherworld game and their attempts to evade and manipulate the company in the real world.  In order to solve their real-world problems, the protagonists are forced to venture into Otherworld in order to locate the consciences of people the Company have trapped within the game in order to obtain the information or resources to shut the Company down for good.  The blend between these in-game adventures and the subsequent real-world actions they take while evading and attacking the Company works really well and helps create an intriguing story.  Both parts of these stories have some great moments, and there are some fantastic twists throughout the book that will keep the reader keen to check out the final book in this series.

The focus on video games continues to be a major part of this book, and the authors offer up a bit of a critique of the future of this medium.  In OtherEarth, every player of Otherworld is a certifiable psychopath, as the world’s richest gamers buy up the extremely exclusive access to the game.  Watching the various players use the game to fulfil their violent desires and use the game to act as gods is quite eye opening, as is the protagonist’s growing addiction to the game and the combat mechanisms within it.  The programs within Otherworld who have gained sentience also offer a unique edge to the story and it is fascinating to watch them react against the players and creators they encounter.

There is a certain amount of humour and comedy throughout the book, although it is not as strictly comedic as other works by Jason Segel.  However, there are some pretty fun and amusing sequences throughout the novel.  The one that springs to mind the easiest is one particularly entertaining high-stakes sequence that suddenly devolves into a weird and comedic discussion about Dame Judi Dench in some very unusual contexts.  The combination of OtherEarth’s humour and the mostly serious nature of the story gives the book an unique flavour which comes together in a very enjoyable way.

From a young adult perspective, this book is probably best intended for an older teen audience as it contains some adult content.  While not as bad as the first book in the series, which contained a pretty inappropriate early scene in which the protagonist blackmails a couple of bitchy high school girls with their nudes, the intense action and some sexual content is probably not ideal for younger readers.  However, this book will be perfect for the older teen market, and most adult readers will have a good time reading this book.

Overall, OtherEarth is an excellent follow-up to Segel and Miller’s Otherworld, and continues their fun techno-thriller adventure.  With some great humour, an intriguing story and some interesting examinations of the gaming medium, OtherEarth is another exciting read for the older young adult audience.  This is a brilliant read that is well worth checking out.  I will personally am looking forward to the third book in the Last Reality series, OtherLife, which is coming out in October 2019.

My Rating:

Four stars

Quick Review – Adrift by Rob Boffard

Adrift Cover

Publishers: Orbit

                       Audible Studios

Publication Date – 5 June 2018

 

For this review I will be looking at Adrift by Rob Boffard, a book I listened to a few months ago, but which I did not get a chance to review at the time.  With the end of 2018 fast approaching, I decided to do a quick review for this book in order to clear my review schedule for the new year.

Goodreads Synopsis:

In the far reaches of space, a group of tourists board a small vessel for what will be the trip of a lifetime – in more ways than one…

They are embarking on a tour around Sigma Station – a remote mining facility and luxury hotel with stunning views of the Horsehead Nebula.

During the course of the trip, a mysterious ship with devastating advanced technology attacks the Station. Their pilot’s quick evasive action means that the tour group escape with their lives – but as the dust settles, they realize they may be the only survivors . . .

Adrift in outer space, out of contact with civilization, and on a vastly under-equipped ship, these passengers are out of their depth. Their chances of getting home are close to none, and with the threat of another attack looming they must act soon – or risk perishing in the endless void of space.

What initially drew me to this book was the pretty cool-sounding synopsis above.  I had not read anything from author Rob Boffard before, but a story featuring a group of mismatched passengers attempting to survive out in space with only a small, poorly equipped ship sounded like an intriguing read.  After enjoying Adrift, I think I might check out Boffard’s Outer Earth series in the future.

Adrift turned out to be a pretty compelling read, featuring a great story in space.  While the action was a little lighter than your standard science fiction read, this is more than made up for by some powerful drama as the characters deal with the stresses of their situation.  There are also some thrilling intrigue elements as the protagonists attempt to unwrap the difficult situations inside and outside of the ship, as well as one particularly shocking and unexpected moment in the middle of the book.  There were a few good action sequences as well, including several epic flight scenes, and a memorable spaceflight featuring a little old lady.

This book is primarily a character-driven story, as the story mainly focuses on the passengers aboard the tourist ship.  Each of the various characters gets decent coverage in this book, with a particular focus on the three main point-of-view characters and the two secondary point-of-view characters.  After the first few chapters, my initial impression of all the characters in the ship was, ‘What a bunch of losers and arseholes!’  The passengers of the ship are made up of several abrasive characters who initially seemed to overshadow most of the other characters, including two timid main point-of-view characters.  However, as the book is explored further, the background of all of the characters is explored in some detail, and the reader gets an idea of why some of the characters are the way they are.  The events of the story help develop these characters further, and by the end the surviving characters are all much more likeable.  I was impressed by the emotional range that Boffard was able to write, and the various reactions to the situations about the tourist ship came across as quite realistic.

I ended up listening to Adrift in its audiobook format, which was narrated by Katie Scarfe.  The audiobook runs for a little bit over 15 hours, so readers need to invest a bit of time in getting through this book.  I thought that Scarfe did a good job with her narration, coming up with a number of good voices for her distinctive characters, and moving the story along quickly.  Scarfe had a bit of work to do with the primary cast of characters, as not only did she have to do Russian, Irish and British accents, as well as several random accents the ship’s computer system blurted out through the course of the book, but she also had to do a range of ages across both genders, from a young male child to an elderly lady.  Fortunately, Scarfe was able to produce pretty good accents for each of these characters, and it was possible to get an idea of gender and age with the various narrations.  I also thought she did a good job capturing the range of emotion that flowed from her characters, from despair to anger at their situation.  Overall, the audiobook format is a great way to enjoy Adrift, and I would recommend it for those who prefer to listen to their books.

Adrift by Rob Boffard is a clever and fairly captivating read that makes great use of its character-driven storyline.  This was a good standalone novel, and readers will find a lot to enjoy with this intense science fiction read.

My Rating:

Four stars

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gollancz

                        Audible Studios

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

Legendary fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Sanderson once again delivers an incredible five-star read with Skyward, a brilliant young adult science fiction story that follows the journey of an energetic young protagonist at she attempts to claim the stars.

As of right now, I have only had the opportunity to read one of Sanderson’s novels, the epic fantasy book, The Way of Kings, which was easily one of the best fantasy reads of the last decade and which I gave a five-star review here.  After enjoying The Way of Kings I was keen to see how Sanderson’s writing ability translated to the young adult science fiction genre.  I have to say I was in no way disappointed, as Sanderson once again creates an amazing and exciting piece of literature, all set within an incredibly detailed new fictional landscape.  Skyward is the first book in Sanderson’s planned Skyward series, which is to be made up of a total of four books.  The second book in this series, Starsight, has apparently already been written, with a release planned for November 2019, while the third and fourth books, both yet untitled, already have tentative release dates in 2021 and 2022.  Starsight is already on my must-read list for next year, and will appear in my Waiting-on-Wednesday series of blog posts the moment the cover gets released.

Far in the future and on another planet, humanity has been under constant attack for hundreds of years.  A mysterious alien race known as the Krell pursued the human fleet across the stars, forcing it to crash on a desolate planet.  Those humans that survived were forced to flee below the planet’s surface, hiding in caves and only re-emerging when they gained the ability to create space fighters capable of fighting off the alien craft.  Now the Defiance Defence League (DFF) fights a constant war against the Krell, who are determined to wipe out the DFF’s main base and the production facilities beneath it.

Since she was a young girl, Spencer Nightshade has always dreamed of becoming a DDF pilot, the elite defenders of humanity, in order to claim the stars.  However, years ago, her father deserted during the most famous battle in DDF history and was shot down by his comrades.  Having been forced to live for years as a daughter of a coward, Spencer is eager to forge her own heroic destiny, but the DDF will never accept her into their flight program.

But with the war going badly and new pilots needed, Spencer is given a chance to join the DDF, thanks to the actions of her father’s old wingmate.  Joining a class of misfit cadets who dub themselves Skyward Flight, Spencer learns to fly the DDF’s ships against the Krell and quickly shows her determination and skill.  However, her father’s legacy is constantly weighing her down, whether by the sabotage of the DDF or the constant fear that deep down she might also be a coward.  With the Krell attacks getting worse, will Spencer find her place as a pilot, or will a terrible secret from the past come back to haunt her?  And through it all, what role will the ancient spaceship Spencer discovers have on the fate of humanity?

I not only received a physical copy of Skyward from Hachette Australia, but I also listened to a copy of this book in its audiobook format, which is narrated by Sophie Aldred and goes for just a little over 15 hours.  Both versions are pretty cool.  The trade paperback version of this novel contains a couple of great maps at the start of the novel that some readers may find useful when it comes to navigating around the story.  There is also a series of intriguing drawings throughout the book that show off several of the ships, both human and alien, that are featured in the story, all of which are juxtaposed against the main ships that the protagonist and her wingmates train and fight in.  The later parts of the book also contain some fantastic illustrations of flight manoeuvres and abilities, which prove informative when utilised with Skyward’s many aerial flight sequences.  I personally preferred the audiobook format of Skyward to the physical copy, as it allowed me to enjoy the many action-packed aerial scenes a whole lot more.  I also loved the narration by Aldred, who was able to create a number of excellent voices for the book’s various characters.

The reason I am giving Skyward such a high-star review is because it is an incredible piece of young adult science fiction that not only has an amazing story but which also contains several outstanding characters and some of the best ship-to-ship action sequences I have ever seen, all of which is combined with Sanderson’s trademark knack for large-scale world building.

I had a lot of fun with the story contained within this book, as Sanderson sets forth a layered and powerful narrative for the reader to enjoy.  Told primarily from the point of view of the protagonist, Spencer, Skyward contains a fantastic coming-of-age storyline set within a flight academy where the cadets learn how to fly in defence of their planet.  I always love a good school based learning narrative, and Sanderson has created an outstanding version of this, where the main characters spend most of the story learning the theory behind flying, while also engaging in real-life combat situations as they train.  As a result, there are heartbreaking losses, great emotional connections forged, and secrets and hints about the overall story slowly released to the reader, all while the protagonist is forced to contend with the machinations of a biased authoritarian figure who even gets to narrate a few chapters to highlight the reasons for her actions.  Overall this is an addictive and exciting story that will really stick in the reader’s imagination.

Sanderson has once again created a detailed and captivating new world in which to set his new series.  The book is set within a new planet that humans from Earth crashed upon years ago in the past, fleeing from a mysterious alien force.  For years the humans lived a nomadic lifestyle in the caves beneath the planet before finally fighting back using newly fabricated fighter craft.  Sanderson has created a fantastic world to host this story, exploring a society forced to live in caves and eventually creating a military base on the surface.  I love how the author has created a ton of new societal rules and features, as well as a world above and beneath the surface of this alien planet.  There is also some really cool and unique technology that comes into play throughout the book, especially in the many aerial combat sequences.  The aliens are mostly a mystery for the entirety of the novel, although I did really enjoy the reveals about them.  I imagine Skyward’s fictional universe will be expanding out in the future instalments of this series and I am very excited to see where this goes.

Some of the best things about this book are the excellent characters that the author has populated his story with.  Of particular note is the main protagonist and point-of-view character, Spencer, who is a really fun and complex character to see this story through.  Spencer is a great character whose life has always been defined by her father’s legacy.  As a result, she puts on an extremely brave and aggressive front to everyone she meets as she tries to convince people she is not a coward.  Because of this, Spencer is quite an eccentric character, spouting out long expositions about how she will harm her opponents, which is quite amusing at times.  However, as the reader gets further into the book, they find out how vulnerable she truly is, as deep down her father’s actions and legacy have had quite an impact on her.  As she progresses into flight training and becomes more and more like her father, she must content with the trials of war, emotional issues with her friends and loved ones, the DDF’s indoctrination against cowards and the secrets that have been kept from her.  The internal conflict and fear that follows is really well written by Sanderson and forms a captivating emotional centre for this amazing narrative.

Quite a lot of time is spent looking at the other cadets that make up Skyward Flight.  Each member of this flight has a unique personality and is given a callsign to make them more distinctive.  There is a fun camaraderie between these characters, and they form quite a close-knit team.  Sanderson spends significant time building up several of these characters, and Spencer, much like the reader, gets quite attached to them.  As a result, when tragedy hits the team, there are some significant emotional blows that come with it.  I liked how the different friendships and relationships help Spencer grow as a character, as she started out the book a bit of a loner.  These side characters are absolutely fantastic, and add another great emotional feature to Skyward’s story.

While Spencer and Skyward Flight are all great characters, my favourite character in all of Skyward had to be the sentient spaceship, M-Bot.  M-Bot is an advanced spaceship who, for various reasons, is obsessed with mushrooms, spends much of the book cracking bad jokes and forms a close relationship with Spencer, the human who discovers it.  M-Bot has to be one of the funniest and quirkiest characters in the whole book, providing several of the book’s best jokes and funniest lines.  The ship’s relationship with Spencer is really well written, as it attempts to balance its existing command code with its new friendship.  This results in some amazing scenes, and I never thought before this book that I would get emotional about a spaceship.  M-Bot is particularly great in the audiobook version, as Aldred gives the ship an excellent Irish accent that really fits the character’s personality perfectly and makes M-Bot stand out throughout the book.

Easily my favourite thing about Skyward has to be the insane and incredibly well-written aerial combat sequences that fill this book.  All of the battles take place within the planet’s atmosphere among falling debris fields, resulting in some elaborate and exciting dog-fights between the DDF fighters and the Krell.  Quite a number of battles feature throughout Skyward, as the protagonist and her companions attempt to stop the Krell destroying humanity’s only hope of leaving the planet.  The author spends significant time exploring the physiology of these aerial fights, including the various tactics, training and technology utilised by the DDF and the Krell.  In particular, Sanderson has created some unique technology to help create some truly amazing combat sequences, including light-lances, which are energy beams that the DDF fighters use to not only throw Krell fighters around but to also help their ships do precise and elaborate manoeuvre around the falling debris.  I also loved how Spencer and her flight got better as the book progressed, reflecting their training and their ability to work together as a team.  All of these battle scenes are fast paced and incredibly well written, and the reader constantly finds themselves placed into the middle of these epic battle sequences.  I found that the audiobook version of Skyward was particularly effective at bringing me into these combat scenes, and I was often on the edge of my seat as I listened to them.  There are a number of these amazing sequences throughout the book, whether they were real battles or simulations.  Highlights for me have to be a high-speed chase through a giant, ancient factory crashing down to the ground, or the final high-stakes battle that serves as an epic conclusion to the whole story.  These battles are truly an amazing feature of Skyward, and I cannot wait to see what incredible aerial battles feature in the future books of this series.

Skyward is one of my favourite books of 2018 and is definitely one of the best young adult books I have read this year.  Brandon Sanderson once again cements his legacy as one of modern fiction’s best fantasy and science fiction authors, as readers are treated to an epic science fiction read set in a rich and detailed new world.  Featuring some amazing characters and outstanding depictions of aerial combat between humans and aliens, this book comes highly recommended.  I have made no secret about how much I am looking forward to future entries in this series and cannot wait to see where Sanderson takes this story next.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente

Mass Effect Annihilation Cover.jpg

Publishers: Titan Books

                        Blackstone Audio

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

A new galaxy, a ship full of disparate alien species, what could possibly go wrong?  Veteran author Catherynne M. Valente brings to life a new adventure in the Mass Effect universe with Mass Effect: Annihilation, the third official tie-in novel to the 2017 video game, Mass Effect: Andromeda.

This was a really good piece of science fiction that expertly built on the intricate extended universe that has been created around the Mass Effect video game franchise.  I should preface this review by mentioning that I am a huge fan of this video game series, and one of the best things about it is the great universe and intriguing storylines that have been produced as a result.  While I know that many people had some valid criticisms about the latest game in the series, Andromeda, I actually really enjoyed the new addition to the series’ story and lore and had a lot of fun playing it and exploring all the additional plot that is hidden outside of the main missions.  One of the many mysteries that I hoped to get an answer about was the fate of Quarian ark, so I was very eager to read this book when I first heard about what it was going to focus on.

For those unfamiliar with the Mass Effect franchise, the first game was released in 2007 and is set in a universe where humanity has gained spaceflight and by 2183 has expanded throughout the Milky Way galaxy.  Once they were outside of our solar systems, humans met with several alien races which governed large portions of the galaxy.  The three main species, the Asari, the Salarians and the Turians, formed a ruling council on the ancient alien space station, the Citadel, which served as a capital city for these races and several other allied species.  The game series followed the human protagonist, Commander Shepard, as he (or she, depending on your settings), investigates the resurgence of the Reapers: ancient, sentient space ships who appear every 50,000 years to destroy all sentient organic life.  While Shepard is able to delay the appearance of the Reapers in the first two games, they launch a full-scale attack in Mass Effect 3, leading to significant, galaxy-changing events.

The game Mass Effect: Annihilation is based on, Mass Effect Andromeda, is the fourth Mass Effect game released and a loose sequel to the original series.  Andromeda is set over 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 3, and follows a group of explorers and colonists from the Milky Way galaxy as they travel to the Andromeda galaxy in an epic one-way trip to find new planets to settle on.  This was a result of the Andromeda Initiative, a joint exercise from a number of Citadel species in order to settle in the new galaxy.  The Initiative launched their ships to Andromeda in the period between Mass Effect 2 and 3.  Each of the main Citadel races, humans, Asari, Salarians and Turians sent an ark ship to Andromeda, each filled with 20,000 cryogenically frozen members of their respective species.  These four arks were launched at the same time, and the plan was for them to dock in the Nexus, a miniature version of the Milky Way Citadel sent in advance of the arks, which was to be used as a staging ground while the Pathfinders found and explored new planets for their races to settle on.  During the events of Mass Effect: Andromeda, mention was made of a fifth ark, built by the Quarians and filled with several other alien races, that was supposed to launch soon after the initial four arks.  However, this fifth ark made no appearance during Andromeda, and was one of the game’s unsolved mysteries, perhaps destined to never be solved, as there is currently no plans to continue the Mass Effect game franchise (although it is too big a franchise for them not to do something else with it in the future).

The Mass Effect games have inspired a number of additional media releases over the years.  Four Mass Effect books were written between 2007 and 2012 to correspond with the original game trilogy, as well as a number of comic book series.  Following the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda in 2017, a new trilogy of books was commissioned which further explored key events or characters mentioned in the fourth game.  Annihilation is the third and final book in the Mass Effect: Andromeda book trilogy.

As the Reaper fleet begins to appear in the Milky Way galaxy, a fifth ark is launched by the Andromeda Initiative to bring another 20,000 settlers to the Andromeda galaxy.  Built by the planetless Quarians, the ark Keelah Si’yah is the only ark to hold colonists from a number of different races, including Quarians, Drell, Elcor, Batarians, Volus and Hanar.  Despite having different outlooks, opinions, biological requirements and reasons to leave the Milky Way, these races are united in their decision to reach the new galaxy and find new planets to settle on.

As the ship reaches the end of its 600-year long journey, problems are soon identified aboard the ship.  One of the ark’s Sleepwalker teams, a small team of individuals tasked with checking on the status of the ark as it flies through space, is suddenly awoken years before the Keelah Si’yah is scheduled to dock with the Nexus.  The ship’s virtual intelligence has identified certain discrepancies in the readings of several Drell cryopods.  Investigating the pods, the Sleepwalker team find that their inhabitants have died from a disease, something that is supposed to be impossible while frozen.  Even worse, the ships systems are all reporting that everything is fine, and that the inhabitants of the pods are still alive.

The Sleepwalker team quickly discover that the dead colonists have all been infected by a virulent disease, one that seems capable of jumping across to the vastly different alien species.  The team are desperate to find out the cause of the disease, but their investigation is severely hampered by a number of system failures across the ark, while the ship’s computers continue to insist that everything is all right.  As the failing systems start to randomly unfreeze more and more colonists, the disease quickly spreads across the ark.  It soon becomes apparent that the disease has been artificially created, and that someone is launching a deliberate attack against the Keelah Si’yah and its crew.  As the various colonists turn on each other in fear and confusion, can the Sleepwalker team find a cure and uncover who is behind the attack, or will everyone on the ark die before reaching Andromeda?

The author of this book, Catherynne M. Valente is not an author I was very familiar with before listening to Annihilation, but she appears to have produced a wide range of different novels, some of which are quite quirky in content.  I do remember seeing and trying to get a copy of her 2018 release, Space Opera, earlier this year, mainly because it sounded like such a fun read, what with it essentially being Eurovision in space.  Luckily, I was able to obtain a copy of Annihilation a week ago and powered through its audiobook format, narrated by Tom Taylorson.

Mass Effect: Annihilation has an exciting and intriguing story that expands on the established lore of the Mass Effect universe while also providing the reader with a compelling science fiction mystery.  The story is broken up into three main parts: the characters attempting to identify and cure the disease, the attempts to fix the ship’s broken system and an investigation into who or what initiated the attack on the ark and its inhabitants.  As a result, there is a good combination of medical, technical and investigative scenes that come together into a rather intriguing overall narrative.  There is not a lot of action, but the focus on the various problems around the ship is very interesting.  The link between the various parts of the book and the final solution to who is behind them was also quite clever and the reasons behind it were quite interesting.  There are some certain dark moments, especially when it comes to the reveal of who was behind it.  Annihilation is obviously going to appeal a lot more to readers who are familiar with the games and who enjoy the backstory of this series, but this is a great story with plenty for other readers to enjoy, and I felt that Valente makes this story accessible for outside readers.

One of the most interesting parts about Annihilation is the fact that the book focuses on the less prominent alien races in the Mass Effect universe.  Aside from one prologue that follows a human, every single character is a member of six less common races in the lore and games, the Quarians, Drell, Volus, Batarians, Hana and Elcor.  This is unique, as the games and the previous novels tend to mostly focus on human characters, or feature a significant number of characters from the games more prominent races, such as the token sexy alien species, the Asari, or the gigantic and war loving Krogan.  The other main council races, the Turians and the Salarians, are also extremely prominent compared to the six races featured within this book, with great Turian and Salarian characters appearing frequently in the games or the books (I am the very model of a scientist Salarian).  In pretty much all of the games, the protagonist can choose members of the above aliens to be a part of the team.  However, Annihilation completely changes this around, as four of the six races that the book focuses on have never had usable characters in any of the games and are mostly minor side characters.  Of the other two races, the Quarians do get a good examination within the games, with one of their members quite a key character.  The Drell are explored to a much lesser degree, although badass Drell assassin Thane Krios as a useable teammate in the second game.

I was pleasantly surprised to read a book where these six less commonly featured races were so prominent.  Valente has a great understanding of these races and spends a significant part of the book exploring each race’s various quirks, important parts of their biology, culture, society or lifestyle, as well as certain parts of their history.  The author does a fantastic job expressing all these racial traits throughout the book, and even new readers to the franchise can quickly gain an understanding of what these species are and what is key to all of them.  For example, Valente is able to expertly capture the various speech characteristics of each of the races featured in Annihilation.  This includes the heavy breathing of the Volus, the lack of personal pronouns in the Hanar’s dialogue, the rolling stream of Drell memories that they say aloud when flashing back to important memories, and even the Elcor habit of prefacing their sentences with their emotional state.  These are all done incredibly consistently throughout the book and really add a lot of authenticity to the story.  These vocal patterns can also be particularly entertaining, especially when it comes to the Elcors, as nothing is more amusing than having an angry Elcor calmly telling everyone how enraged he is.  The various alien species did have the potential to make the investigation into the virus hard to understand, but the author cleverly got around this by having the characters compare the disease, cures and other relevant aspects to common and recognisable human disease.  Overall, these alien inclusions are fantastic, and it was great to see these more obscure fictional species finally get the limelight in a Mass Effect story.

While the alien races as a whole are great inclusions in Annihilation, Valente has also created some amazing characters to make up the Sleepwalker team investigating the issues plaguing the ark.  These characters include the team’s leader, Quarian Senna’Nir vas Keelah Si’yah, Drell detective Anax Therion, Elcor doctor Yorrik, former Batarian crime lord Borbala Ferank, Volus tailor Irit Non and a religiously fanatic Hanar apothecary.  Each of these characters is pretty fun, and all of them have demons in their past that are explored throughout the book.  For example, Senna’Nir is obsessed by computer intelligences, something that is forbidden by the other Quarians following a terrible event in their history.  As a result, Senna’Nir spends large portions of the book coming to terms with his secret obsession, and it is quite an interesting subplot which also allows the introduction of one of the best side characters, a sassy Quarian grandmother virtual intelligence.  Each of the characters’ backstories is fairly compelling and each add a lot to the story.  Borbal Ferank’s crime lord persona is also a lot of fun throughout the book, as she casually mentions her previous crimes and familiar betrayals that are quite common for Batarians.  There are also the mysteries around Anax, as the ultimate infiltrator gives several versions of her past throughout the book to various characters to get the answers and stories she requires.

Easily the best character in Annihilation is Yorrik, the Shakespeare-obsessed Elcor doctor who spends the entire book trying to cure the virus infecting the ark.  He was extremely amusing throughout the entire book, as he spend significant parts of the book dropping jokes in his emotionless tone, or attempting to engage his companions in discussion about his extremely long Elcor adaptions of Hamlet or Macbeth.  Yorrik is a fantastic character throughout the entire book, and he is definitely the person the reader gets the most attached to.  Never have Shakespearian quotes been more appropriate for the fate of an alien.  I also really loved the unique partnership between Anax and Borbala.  The detective and criminal make a great team, and the two have a lot of fun investigating the attack on the ship, and it was great seeing the two of them get closer to each other through the course of the book.  Valente has done an incredible job with the characters in this book, and their histories, relationships and unique viewpoints really make this novel awesome.

I listened to the audiobook version of Annihilation, which I found to be an amazing way to enjoy this book.  At just under nine hours long, this is an easy audiobook to get through, but it is one I had a lot of fun with.  One of the best things about the audiobook version was the fact that they got Tom Taylorson, the voice of the male protagonist in Mass Effect: Andromeda, to narrate this audiobook, which is just awesome for those people who have played the game.  Taylorson does an excellent job portraying each of the characters in this book and I loved all the voices he came up with.  He also managed to get all of the unique voice patterns and vocal particularities of the various alien species down perfectly, and each alien species sounded exactly as they did in the games.  This is an outstanding piece of audiobook narration, which really added a lot to how much I enjoyed this book.

Overall, I am going to give Mass Effect: Annihilation a rating of four and a half stars.  I will admit that one of the main reasons I am giving it such a high rating is because of my love of all things Mass Effect and because of how much I love the franchises lore and expanded fictional history.  I am aware that people who are not as familiar with Mass Effect may not enjoy it as much, but I hope that most readers will appreciate the great characters, interesting story and excellent audiobook adaption.  This is great piece of science fiction and an excellent tie-in novel that is a perfect read for fans of the Mass Effect franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars