Halo: Renegades by Kelly Gay – Audiobook Review

Halo Renegades Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gallery Books and Simon & Schuster Audio (19 February 2019)

Series: Halo

Length: 8 hours 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

In this review, I dive into the expanded media universe surrounding the popular Halo video game franchise, as I review one of their latest tie-in books, Renegades by Kelly Gay.

I remember way back in 2001 when we first got the X-Box, the original Halo (or Halo: Combat Evolved) was one of the first games we got on the system, and it was definitely one of the best games we had at the beginning of the platform.  The graphics on Halo were just incredible for the time, and it represented a fantastic evolution in the first-person shooter genre.  The Halo series has since expanded out in a number of addition games, including the five main games (Halo to Halo 5), two additional first-person shooters (ODST and Reach) and two real-time strategy games (Halo Wars 1 and 2).  I have ended up playing most of the games in this series and have quite enjoyed the fun action and excitement that come with the series.

Like many other video game franchises, writers have taken advantage of the Halo series’ popularity to create a range of tie-in novels, comics, animation and other media items.  There has even been talk of a live-action Halo movie for some time, although we are probably a long way off from that.  Halo is one of those games where the creators actually invested in a complex backstory and extended history, much of which is revealed within the game’s impressive cut scenes.  While I quite enjoyed the extended Halo backstory revealed in the games, I never got too into the media tie-ins associated with the franchise.  The only other book in this franchise I have read is Halo: Contact Harvest, which I bought in Philippines to supplement my reading material on an extended trip.  While I did actually really enjoy Contact Harvest, which focused on one of the most entertaining side characters in the original game trilogy, I did not have a chance to read any of the other books written about the games until now.  Since starting my blog, I am always keen to expand my range and decided to listen to the audiobook version of this book for something different.  I did have to choose between Renegades and the recently released young adult Halo book, Battle Born, but ended up going with Renegades in the end.  I may yet check out Battle Born at a later date.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the games are set in the 26th century, after humanity has journeyed away from Earth and formed an interstellar civilisation.  Some years before the events of the first game, humanity comes into contact with an advanced alliance of alien races, collectively known as the Covenant, who engage in a brutal war against humanity.  As part of this war, a human ship fleeing the Covenant lands on an artificial ring planet, known as Halo.  The Halo rings were created millennia ago by a now extinct race of beings, the Forerunners, to stop the creatures destroying their civilisation, the parasitic race known as the Flood.  However, the only way to defeat the Flood was to wipe out all life in the galaxy to starve the Flood, and then reseed life, including humanity, back into the galaxy.  Throughout the course of the first three games, the protagonist attempts to save humanity from the Covenant and the Flood, eventually forming an alliance with elements of the Covenant and bringing the war to an end.  Halo 4 and 5 are set a few years after the original trilogy, and feature the protagonist dealing with surviving members of the Forerunners and a whole set of other threats.

Renegades is set in the year 2557, approximately around the same times as Halo 4, and follows the adventures of the human salvage ship Ace of Spades.  After the events of the book Halo: Shadow and Smoke, the crew of the Ace of Spades are still reeling from the losses they experienced and are eager to get revenge of the Sangheili (Elite) Covenant commander Gek’Lhar.  Captain Rion Forge is also determined to use the information they recovered in their last adventure to locate and rescue her father’s missing ship, the Spirit of Fire.

However, Gek’Lhar is not the only enemy they have made.  The United Nations Space Command’s (UNSC) Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) works to collect or control all valuable or dangerous pieces off Forerunner technology in the galaxy, and the crew of the Ace of Spades are the only people aside from Gek’Lhar who have knowledge of a massive debris field filled with valuable Forerunner technology.  In the middle of a daring heist to steal information from Gek’Lhar, Forge and her crew find themselves captured by ONI operatives, who confiscate the coordinates to the debris field, as well as all the crew’s assets and salvaged technology.

Left with nothing but their ship, the Ace of Spades crew need to find the next big score, and information Forge secretly obtained from ONI during their arrest may provide them with what they need.  ONI are on route to secure a remote and desolate planet, which contains the remains of one of their ships, which apparently crashed with classified technology aboard.  The contents of the ship may be the crew’s best option to reclaim their stolen possessions, so they set out to get there first.  Beating ONI to the planet, the Ace of Spades crew make a surprising discovery of an advanced robot calling itself 313 Guilty Spark.

Halo: Renegades is a terrific novel from author Kelly Gay, who creates an exciting and compelling story with a huge number of connections to the Halo universe.  Gay is a well-established author of science fiction and fantasy fiction, best known for her Charlie Madigan series, and who also writes under the pen name of Kelly Keaton.  Renegades is the direct sequel to Gay’s 2016 novella Smoke and Shadows, but it also continues stories started in the games and introduced in The Forerunner Saga of books.

The first thing I have to talk about when it comes to Halo: Renegades is the sheer range of Halo references and backstory from across the Halo games and extended media utilised in this book.  Not only is the story set in the post-Halo 3 universe but the book takes place around the time of the events of Halo 4, with several of the events from the fourth game commented on and having some impact on the story.  In addition, one of the main protagonists of the book, Rion Forge, is the daughter of one of the main characters from the first Halo Wars, Sergeant John Forge, and Rion Forge spends a good part of this book trying to find her father and the ship from Halo Wars 1 and 2, the Spirit of FireRenegades also features 313 Guilty Spark, one of the main antagonists from the original trilogy, as a major point-of-view character in the book, and characters from the Spartan Ops additional content of Halo 4 appear in various minor roles throughout the book.  That is on top of all the information contained in the previous books in the Halo extended universe.  Renegades takes place directly after the events of Gay’s preceding Halo novella, Smoke and Shadows, and all the events that occur in that book are incredibly relevant.  In addition, the events and characters explored in The Forerunner Saga, a trilogy that dove deeply into several key Forerunner characters from the various games, also play a significant role throughout Renegades.

Now, with all these references to various games and books, how easy is the plot of Renegades to follow, especially for those with limited or only basic knowledge of the Halo universe?  I would say that Renegades is a perfect book for hardcore fans of the Halo series who have enjoyed some of the books mentioned above and who will appreciate all the references and discussion that occurs within.  People with slightly less knowledge of the franchise may struggle during certain parts of the plot and have a hard time understanding the relevance of what is happening.  Having played all the games and having done some background reading, I thought that I would be able to follow everything that was going on, but I actually struggled with some aspects of the plot, especially with the extensive discussion about ancient Forerunner characters.  While I did struggle a little, I found that as I stuck with the book, all the relevant parts were eventually explored in some additional detail, helping to fill in the picture.  I do think that the author took the reader’s knowledge of the events of all the video games a little for granted, and there were some gaps in the story that, while I was able to fill them in, people less familiar with the games might have trouble with.  That being said, Gay did a fantastic job of making the story accessible to those people who had not read her direct prequel story, Smoke and Shadows, and readers were quickly able to get a good understanding of Gay’s earlier entry into the Halo universe.  In the end, if you have very little knowledge of the Halo games, this probably is not the book for you, and while you might be able to enjoy the adventure within, you are extremely likely to get lost a number of times throughout the complex plot.

Aside from the intensive amount of inclusions from the various Halo games and media tie-ins, I felt that Renegades was an overall awesome book that was a lot of fun to listen to.  Gay presents an entertaining character based novel that has a good amount of new, original story content while also utilising the main aspects of the Halo universe.  The author presents the story from a range of different character perspectives, allowing for a richer and fuller story for the reader to enjoy.  There is a little less action than you would expect from a Halo tie-in novel, but there are still a number of action sequences throughout the book to keep fans of combat and firefights interested.  I quite liked where the story went, and I was extremely glad that I decided to read this book.

I thought that the camaraderie of the crew of the Ace of Spades served as a good emotional heart to this story, and I liked the time that Gay spent exploring the familiar relationship that had formed among the members of the crew, and the strain that recent events had placed upon them.  I also enjoyed how the story focused on a gang of salvagers, and it was interesting to see how they fit into the wider Halo universe.  It also meant the story featured a few heists-like sequences, as the team uses intelligence rather than brute-strength to defeat their opponents.

One of the more interesting characters utilised in Renegades was the character of 313 Guilty Spark.  Spark was a Forerunner Monitor; an intelligence left behind to maintain the Halo rings and help activate them in case of another Flood infestation.  Spark appeared in all three of the original Halo games, including Halo: Combat Evolved as the main antagonist, and Halo 3, in which he was apparently killed.  However, The Forerunner Saga of books revealed he had survived the events of Halo 3 and was actually a former ancient human who had been transformed into a monitor long ago by the Forerunners.  Spark had quite a good redemption arc within this book, as well as good a redemption arc, as someone who killed off Sergeant Major Johnson deserves.  While Spark has his own agenda for most of the book, his time among the crew starts to rekindle his lost humanity and slowly turns him into a somewhat likeable character.  I did enjoy the duality that Gay portrayed within Spark, as the character tries to figure out who exactly he is: the ancient human, the Forerunner monitor or something entirely different.  His subsequent quest to find out who he is becomes a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see how it tied into the larger Halo universe, especially in relation to the Forerunners.  I was slightly disappointed that his role in the original three Halo games was not really mentioned or explored, but it was still a compelling character arc that I found to be most intriguing.

As I mentioned before, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, narrated by Justine Eyre.  Like many tie-in novels, this is a relatively short audiobook, only going for 8 hours and 37 minutes, making it fairly easy to get through this book quickly.  I quite enjoyed listening to this book rather than reading it, as it allowed me to absorb the deep dive into the Halo lore a little easier.  I also found that the audiobook format helped enhance some of the action sequences, such as the awesome spaceship fight sequences in the centre of the book.  Justine Eyre did a fantastic job of narrating this story, and the voice she provides for the base narration and the book’s central character, Rion Forge, is perfect, encapsulating the strong and determined nature of Forge that Gay sets forth in the book.  I quite liked the voices that Eyre utilises for the other human members of the Ace of Spades crew, and she does some decent and varied voices for the book’s alien characters.  I had a little trouble liking Eyre’s voice for Guilty Spark, mainly because Tim Dadabo did such an incredible job with the character in the games; however, this did not really negatively impact my experience with Renegades.  As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of this tie-in novel, as I found it to be an awesome way to enjoy this amazing story.

Kelly Gay did an excellent job following up her 2016 Halo novella, Smoke and Shadow, and I had an absolute blast listening to Halo: Renegades.  The book contains an outstanding story that goes deep into the lore of the Halo franchise and successfully pulls in elements from several games and novels to create a fantastic overall read.  While some readers may have trouble following some parts of the story, I had a great time reading it, and I know that established fans of this particular franchise will really love Gay’s new book.  I really hope that Gay continues the story of Rion Forge, 313 Guilty Spark and the rest of the crew of the Ace of Spades in the future, and I would be quite interested to see them try to navigate the post-Halo 5 universe.  This is definitely a series that I will be keeping an eye on.

Firefly: The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove

Firefly The Magnificent Nine Cover

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover Format – 19 March 2019)

Series: Firefly – Book 2

Length: 331 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Fresh off writing the fantastic first book in this new series of Firefly tie-in novels, author James Lovegrove has crafted another amazing Firefly book that focuses on one of the more entertaining members of the Serenity crew, the hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne.

As I mentioned when I reviewed the first book in this new series of Firefly novels, Big Damn Hero, and in one of my subsequent Waiting on Wednesday entries, I am a massive fan of the Firefly franchise and was particularly eager to read the second book in this new series, The Magnificent Nine, which sounded liked it had an amazing plot.  As a result, I made sure to order this copy online well in advance and was extremely happy when it came last week so close to the worldwide release date.  I managed to read through it in about a day, and once again had the amazing feeling of being transported back into Firefly universe.

Out in the darkness of the verse, the crew of the Firefly class ship Serenity is up to its old tricks, searching for smuggling jobs that will keep them flying, while at the same time staying off the Alliance’s radar.  While Captain Malcolm Reynolds is used to anticipating the needs and wants of the inhabitants of his ship, he is completely thrown when a request for an unpaid mercy mission comes from one of the most unlikely members of his crew.  Serenity’s resident disgruntled mercenary, Jayne Cobb, suddenly asks that the ship be diverted to the backwater world of Thetis.  An old flame of Jayne’s, Temperance McCloud, has reached out requesting aid.  A vicious bandit, Elias Vandal, is threatening her small town of Coogan’s Bluff with a horde of trigger-happy thieves and murderers.  Mal initially does not take the request seriously, but then Jayne does the unthinkable and offers up his most prized possession, his beloved gun, Vera, as payment for the crew’s help.

Arriving at Thetis, the crew find that not only are the inhabitants of Coogan’s Bluff reluctant to get involved in any sort of fight, but a well-armed force of killers is waiting for them and spoiling for a fight.  However, the most shocking discovery is the fact that Temperance is raising a teenage daughter, born less than a year after Temperance and Jayne parted ways and named Jane McCloud.

This was a pretty epic read and one I had a lot of fun with.  Lovegrove once again hits it out of the park with this amazing novel that featured a great story, excellent coverage of the Firefly crew and some new interesting characters and events.  The Magnificent Nine is set between the events of the television series and the film Serenity, before Inara and Shepherd Book leave the ship.  Once again, I liked how this new entry into the Firefly book series felt exactly like a new episode of the television show, although it uses some of the show’s existing episodes, like Jaynestown or Heart of Gold, as inspiration.  I also quite liked how the story emulated some classic westerns such as The Magnificent Seven, which obviously inspired this book’s name, while also utilising science fiction elements.  I actually enjoyed this book a bit more than the preceding Firefly novel, Big Damn Heroes.  I felt that the story was more fast paced, significantly more action packed, and less widely spread out that the first book.  I also quite enjoyed the author’s use of the existing characters from the show as well as the intriguing new side characters that are introduced in this book.  The main story contains some interesting twists and turns, some of which are easy to see coming, but one or two of which come out of nowhere and are quite surprising.  The end result is a thrilling and character driven story which is enhanced by its association with the Firefly television show.

One of my favourite things about this book is the focus on the character of Jayne, especially as we get to see his underutilised noble side come out once again.  Throughout the run of the television show and most of the follow-up movie, Jayne is a selfish mercenary more concerned with his own self-interest and personal gain than the lives of his fellow crewmembers.  Jayne is not above sacrificing or betraying members of his own crew, namely the Tam siblings, if it will benefit him in some way.  His joining the crew of Serenity even involved him betraying and shooting his former captain when Mal offered him a better paying job and his own room on the ship.  That being said, there are a few instances where Jayne will do the right thing and act the hero, resulting in some memorable moments for the character.  The most notable of these occurred in the episode Jaynestown, where Jayne’s core beliefs are rocked by an entire community who venerate them as a great hero of the masses.  In The Magnificent Nine, Jayne’s noble side once again comes out when he receives a request for help from his former lover and her daughter.  As a result, he makes a series of impulsive and foolish actions throughout the book in order to try to do what he sees as the right thing, and these often result in some excellent sequences throughout the book.

Seeing this more noble version of Jayne emerge once again is fantastic and will be greatly appreciated by a huge number of Firefly fans.  Jayne is always a widely entertaining character in the Firefly franchise, and I felt that Lovegrove did a great job of portraying the character in this story.  I really enjoyed seeing another Jayne-centric storyline, and I liked how the author makes sure to utilise a number of classic Jayne elements throughout The Magnificent Nine, including the return of his iconic bobble hat and his favourite gun, Vera.  However, there are some interesting new Jayne moments as well, as Lovegrove goes back and explores some elements from his past, including how he met Temperance, and how she helped turn him into the man he is today.  This is an outstanding novel for those fans who love the character of Jayne, and I had a lot of fun watching him get another personal adventure.

As The Magnificent Nine mostly focuses on Jayne, the rest of the crew do take a bit of a backseat in this book.  That being said, all of them get one or two scenes focused on them, in one way or another.  Lovegrove once again does a great job of capturing the characters from the show, and rehashing their various quirks, relationships and the other minutiae of their personalities, even with these limited scenes.  While some of the characters do not get too much action in this book, I thought that Mal and River in particular were showcased well.  In this book, Mal plays the long-suffering captain who finds himself dragged into all manner of trouble by his crew, which forces him to act as the ship’s annoyed father figure.  River, the psychotic psychic, also gets a pretty good run in this book.  While Lovegrove does not explore her mind to any great degree, she gets some fun scenes, including one where she takes out intruders in Serenity, and another where she steals Vera and uses it in a firefight.

The side characters introduced in this book are pretty memorable, and the storylines revolving around them were very interesting.  Jayne’s former love interest, Temperance McCloud, is a pretty badass woman, and it’s fun to see the sort of woman Jayne would fall in love with.  There are also a number of secrets from Temperance’s past that come into play and add some emotional depth to hers and Jayne’s story.  The villain of this story, Elias Vandal, is a fairly dark antagonist, acting as a sort of Charles Manson-like character, forming a cult of personality that draws in the planets outcasts and loners while also claiming to be a former Reaver.  I quite liked Vandal as the story’s villain.  I thought he was well written out, and the various layers to his past and the way he controls his gang are quite intriguing.  Young Jane McCloud is another great side character, and I liked her interactions with River and Jayne.  She forms a great friendship with River, and the two get up to all sorts of fun antics.  I also liked the unconventional father-daughter relationship that occurred between Jayne and Jane, especially when they were forced to work together.

As mentioned above, The Magnificent Nine contains a large amount of action, with a huge number of firefights and other battles throughout the book.  I liked the way that many of the battles had a western theme, with the skilled gunfighting heroes fighting large swathes of bandits and goons.  However, the utilisation of science fiction elements really helped enhance them and, in some cases, increase the humour value.  I liked the Mad Max-like chase scene that featured not only horses but also dune buggies, motorbikes and Firefly’s mule.  There is also a spaceship assisted lassoing that was quite fun, and I liked seeing a classic trope like a lasso assisted by science fiction elements.

I absolutely loved Firefly: The Magnificent Nine, which turned out to be another ultra-fun romp back into one of my favourite television shows.  Lovegrove has a real skill for bringing these characters to life, and I really enjoyed the thrilling story he wrote for The Magnificent Nine.  The author’s portrayal of Jayne Cobb really shines through in this book, and it was great to see another story based around this awesome and funny character.  This book is best appreciated by fans of the franchise, although I feel there is a lot in this book for new fans to enjoy.  While this book was an amazing amount of fun to read, I now have to wait another six months for my next taste of the Firefly verse; how will I survive?

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston – Audiobook Review

QueensShadow Cover.jpg

Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press and Listening Library (5 March 2019)

Series: Star Wars Extended Universe

Length: 8 hours 22 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The female protagonist of the Star Wars prequel movies, Padmé Amidala, gets a story mostly worthy of her, as young adult fiction author E. K. Johnston attempts to bridge the character gap between the first two Star Wars prequel movies in Queen’s Shadow, the first Star Wars novel of 2019.

While The Phantom Menace had its flaws, one of the things that the first Star Wars prequel film did right was the character of Queen Amidala, the young, fierce and strong democratically elected Queen of Naboo, who was able to lead her people to freedom.  Portrayed by a young Natalie Portman, the character appeared in the other two prequel movies, where her relationship with Anakin Skywalker became a key plot point of the entire series.  While I am not the biggest fan of how Padmé was portrayed in the second and third prequel films, I was quite excited to read a novel that explored the character in more detail, especially one written by Johnston, who did such a fantastic treatment on the popular character Ahsoka Tano in her one previous foray into Star Wars fiction.  After my previous awesome experiences with Star Wars audiobooks, such as Ahsoka, I chose to listen to this book’s audiobook format, which was narrated by Catherine Taber.

Four years after ensuring the defeat of the Trade Federation on Naboo, Queen Padmé Amidala has served the last elected terms of office and is no longer Queen.  Now free of the responsibilities of ruling, Padmé and her loyal handmaidens now have time to think about a new future.  However, before Padmé can put any plans in place the new Queen of Naboo presents her with a job she cannot refuse: become the new representative of Naboo in the Galactic Senate.

Accepting the role, Senator Amidala travels to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic, to take up her seat, accompanied by a completely new support staff.  She is quick to discover that her experiences as a ruler have not prepared her for the demanding and treacherous world of galactic politics.  The Senate is a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy, and Padmé is already considered by many to be a puppet of Chancellor Palpatine.  She also has number of powerful enemies throughout the galaxy who seek not only to discredit her but also to kill her.

However, Padmé Amidala is used to being underestimated, and with Sabé, her former decoy and shadow, watching her back, she begins to forge the political alliances she needs to finally bring some change the galaxy.

This was an interesting piece of Star Wars fiction that I quite enjoyed.  However, it is not without its flaws, and there were a few things that I disliked about the story that resulted in me dropping my overall rating slightly.  But before I talk about the parts of the story that I had issue with, I want to mention the elements of this book that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Queen’s Shadow is an amazing Padmé Amidala story that helps redeem the character after her less than stellar showings in the second and third Star Wars prequel movies.  This book helps make people forget about the helpless, pregnant damsel from Revenge of the Sith (although some deleted scenes from that movie do show some of the politics she was involved with), and instead focuses on her role as a canny political operator.  I was also quite happy that Anakin did not appear as a character in this book; I preferred to see Amidala stand on her own without being defined by her relationship with a Jedi.

Johnston did a spectacular job of creating a novel that bridges the gaps in Padmé’s story between the first and second prequel movies.  At the end of The Phantom Menace Padmé is still queen of Naboo, but by the start of Attack of the Clones she has become a senator, with very little discussion in the movies concerning how this came about.  While I am sure that some of the books and comics in the old Star Wars extended universe would have covered this period of Padmé’s life, Queen’s Shadow is one of the first stories to explore this in the new Disney owned and operated Star Wars extended universe.

The author spends a significant amount of time focusing on Padmé’s early days in the Galactic Senate, including how she formed some of her early alliances, such as with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, and how she became such a significant force in the Senate.  In addition to this, we get to see how and why several of the minor Naboo characters from The Phantom Menace left Padmé’s side, and how several new characters, such as her new handmaidens and her security guard, Gregar Typho, came into her service.  In addition to serving as a bridge between the two prequel movies, Queen’s Shadow also ties into The Clone Wars animated television show, showing Padmé’s first contact and initial relationships with some of the characters who originated in the animated show, such as Senators Rush Clovis and Mina Bonteri.  While the book does spend time setting up events for Attack of the Clones, Johnston ensures that Padmé and the other main characters reflect on the events that occurred during The Phantom Menace, and the people that helped them during these adventures, such as Qui-Gon Jinn and little Anakin Skywalker.  Overall, I felt that this really helped tie in the events between the two books and is an excellent new piece of Star Wars cannon.

In my opinion, one of the cleverest parts of The Phantom Menace was the revelation towards the end of the film that Queen Amidala was actually being played by two separate actresses: Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.  In the context of the film, Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé, was the real queen of Naboo, while Keira Knightley’s character, Sabé, was a decoy used for security purposes.  While Padmé portrayed the Queen at the start of the movie, when the Trade Federation invaded there was a subtle switch and Sabé took on the role while Padme could be seen disguised as a nondescript handmaiden in the background.  The two characters would then switch between portraying Queen Amidala throughout the film, with Sabé taking on the role whenever there was a chance the Queen could be captured or killed, while Padmé took on the role herself when official discussions or speeches needed to be made.  Handmaiden Padmé also got her own scenes when Sabé was taking on the role as Queen, allowing the viewers to see this side of the character.  This was and still is an amazing and ingenious part of the movie, which worked due to the similarity in appearances between the two then relatively unknown actresses, a downplaying of Knightley’s role in the film, as well as because of the elaborate makeup, hairstyles and dresses that Queen Amidala wore.  As a result, the general audience were quite surprised at the time, especially as cast lists were not as easily available on the internet at the time.

As a result, I was extremely happy that Johnston chose to explore the utilisation of the queen’s decoy in some detail throughout this book.  Quite a lot of time is spent discussing the techniques behind the Amidala persona, from the distracting makeup and costumes, to the quick-change techniques that Padmé and her handmaidens utilise, and even several discussions about the ‘Amidala voice’, the imperious tone that Portman and Knightly both performed in The Phantom Menace.  I found this entire exploration of this decoy angle incredibly fascinating, and it gave me a completely new appreciation for how the decoys were utilised in the first prequel film.  The decoys were also a key part of Queen’s Shadow, as Padmé still continues to utilise them as a senator, allowing her to avoid danger and slip away at social gatherings so she can undertake other covert tasks.  The scenes where they utilise them are quite intriguing, and I liked the author’s thoughts on the psychology behind the effectiveness of the decoys and how they are still an effective technique in an advanced science fiction society.  It was interesting to note that both of Padmé’s decoys who appear the films, Sabé and Cordé (who was blown up at the start of Attack of the Clones), have major roles in this book, with both taking on the Amidala persona at some point in the story.

While it was intriguing to see Cordé learn to take on the role of Amidala in this book, the original decoy, Sabé, was a much bigger part of the plot.  Sabé has a significant role within the book and is actually Queen’s Shadow’s secondary protagonist, performing undercover work on Padmé’s behalf.  The relationship between Padmé and Sabé was a really interesting and emotional subplot to explore, as Sabé is quite loyal to the former queen.  How Sabé defines herself as Padmé’s friend and confidant is a significant part of Sabé’s story, and Johnston spends time attempting unravel this complicated relationship.  The overall result is a fascinating inclusion to this story, and one that adds some real emotional depth to the story.

In addition to the focus on the decoy characters, Johnston also spends time looking at the role of Padmé’s royal handmaidens, the young hooded women who followed Padmé around in the first film.  I had never really given the handmaidens much thought before this book, apart from how Padmé was able to hide her identity by taking up a handmaiden’s garb for several parts of the film.  However, Johnston does a fantastic job of explaining the actual role of these characters as Padmé’s confidants, covert operatives, undercover bodyguards and potential body doubles.  I really liked how Johnston was able to turn these minor characters from the films into a significant part of her book, and it was quite interesting to see them be deployed to help with Padmé’s political moves.  Each of the handmaidens, both those who only appeared in The Phantom Menace and those who only appeared in Attack of the Clones, are explored in some detail throughout the book.  The reader gets a real sense of each of the characters personalities, what skills they bring to Padmé’s table and the fates of those handmaidens who served Padmé during the invasion of Naboo are also explained by this book.  This look at the handmaidens is an excellent part of the book, and one that I actually found quite fascinating.

Aside from the look at Padmé and her associates, Queen’s Shadow also examines a number of other aspects of the Star Wars universe during this time period.  For example, there is quite a large focus on politics, both on Naboo, and within the Galactic Senate.  The galactic politics in particular is quite intriguing, and I liked seeing Padmé’s initial impression of Senate procedure and its many shortcomings.  Johnston has also included some fun media articles throughout the book, showing how negative news coverage is being used to disadvantage or advantage Padmé’s political ambitions, which I found to be quite amusing.  There are also some hints at the coming Separatist movement, as several planets are showing discontent with the Republic and certain actions are taking place to undermine security throughout the galaxy.  All of the features are pretty interesting, and I had fun reading about them throughout this book.

Now, while I obviously quite enjoyed many of the elements that Johnston explored in this book (having gone on about them for over two pages), I have to admit that the overall story is actually a bit boring in places and the story really does not go anywhere.  There are some big points, including a quick assassination attempt, piracy, large-scale disasters and potential political crisis, but many of these events has any real significance, follow through or any sort of actual conclusion.  This could potentially be alright if Queen’s Shadow is the start of a larger storyline or a new book series, but I am not too sure how likely that is.  Not only is there no real indication that Johnston will be continuing this story, but the epilogue of the book kind of puts a damper on that, which I will discuss below.

 

BEWARE SPOILERS BELOW:

The epilogue of the book shows Padmé’s funeral, as shown at the end of Revenge of the Sith.  While I did like how Johnston alluded to the funeral at the start of Queen’s Shadow’s by using the same descriptions of Padmé’s floating flower-covered body, and the funeral does put a final end to the story.  The epilogue did show Sabé talking with Senator Organa, so this book could potentially set up a follow-up book focusing on the former decoy either joining the Rebel Alliance or investigating Padmé’s death.  However, this does not really fit with some of the open story points from this book, as the Trade Federation are the most likely people behind the assassination attempts and the piracy, and who cares about the Trade Federation after Revenge of the Sith?  In addition, this book only really explored around a year of Padmé’s life as a senator, and I think it would make more sense to follow more of Padmé’s early political career, especially as there is still around five more years until Attack of the Clones begins.  I suppose you could maybe do a split-timeline story that follows Padmé and Sabé before and after Revenge of the Sith, with the two storylines coming together, although I am not sure how well that would work.  I would like to see Johnston explore this more and give her overall story more shape, I just do not know how likely that is at this point.

END OF SPOILERS

 

While the somewhat pointless story does bring Queen’s Shadow rating down a bit, its audiobook features really help raise it up again, especially with its excellent narrator Catherine Taber.  The audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow runs for around eight hours and 20 minutes, so it is an easy book to get through quickly.  Catherine Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clone Wars animated show and is also the most recent person to portray the character on screen.  As a result, she is the perfect narrator for this book, as she already perfected a great Natalie Portman imitation voice for the show.  Taber did a fantastic job narrating this book, as she not only is the perfect voice for Padmé but also has an amazing range for the other characters featured in the book.  I appreciated how she was able to craft similar voices for the handmaiden characters, many of whom were chosen to be handmaidens because they were physical and audible matches to Padmé.  This is particularly true of Sabé, and as a result Taber ensures she has pretty much the same voice that Padmé does.  Other high points of Taber’s narration include her rendition of the Amidala voice, as well as the creepy tones she utilises for Chancellor Palpatine, especially when he kept saying “my dear”.  As always, the producers of this Star Wars audiobook load up this version with all sorts of sound effects and classic Star Wars music.  I felt that these sound effects and music really helped enhance the story, and gave it some real atmosphere, and I liked the way that certain things, such as holo-messages between the characters, were altered to make them sound more realistic.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Queen’s Shadow as the best way to enjoy this story, and I thought it was just wonderful.

Queen’s Shadow is marketed as a young adult novel, and it is quite a good novel for a younger audience to enjoy, with only minor sexual references, coarse language, drug use and violence throughout the book.  However, there really is not any upper age limit on enjoying this book, and older readers can just as easily explore Johnston’s story.  While there is no age limit, readers should ideally be a Star Wars fan to fully enjoy Queen’s Shadow.  At the very least, readers should have watched all of the prequel films first to get a full handle on what is happening.  While I imagine someone with no prior knowledge of Star Wars might be able to enjoy reading this, it is probably not the best young adult science fiction book to pick out.  As a result, this book is recommended more for established fans of the franchise, and as a pretty hard-core Star Wars fan myself, I know I enjoyed all of the references and character exploration that Johnston did a lot more.

In the end, I decided to award Queen’s Shadow four stars out of five.  While I really loved all the intriguing elements that Johnston explored in this book, the lagging story did make it a little harder to enjoy.  That being said, I would not hesitate to grab another Star Wars book from Johnston, as she has an outstanding understanding and appreciation of the Star Wars universe.  I do hope that this story is continued in some way, and if it does, I will definitely check out the audiobook version of it, especially if it is narrated once again by Catherine Taber.  Interesting reading, Queen’s Shadow is worth checking out, especially if you are an established fan of the Star Wars franchise.

Star Trek Discovery: The Way To The Stars by Dr Una McCormack

Star Trek Discovery - The Way To The Stars Cover

Publisher: Gallery Books (Trade Paperback Format – 8 January 2019)

Series: Star Trek Discovery – Book 4

Length: 276 pages

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Get ready to dive into the extended Star Trek universe with The Way To The Stars, the latest tie-in novel to the franchise’s current show, Star Trek Discovery.

While most people would be familiar with the iconic Star Trek television shows and movies, some may be unaware that there is an extremely rich and extensive Star Trek universe across a variety of different media formats.  This is particularly true when it comes to the vast number of Star Trek novels which utilise the franchise’s massive universe.  Since 1967, during the run of the original Star Trek television series, a bevy of authors have contributed to this extended universe by creating a huge number of novels made up a range of different series and publishers.  There are now over 840 Star Trek novels, not only complementing the various Star Trek movies and television shows but also creating a series of new adventures.

With the announcement of the latest Star Trek television show, Star Trek Discovery, in late 2017, a new series of related novels was commissioned for release around the same time.  This new series focused on several of the characters featured within Star Trek Discovery, providing intriguing character history and a series of new, exciting adventures.  The first book in this series, Desperate Hours, was released in 2017, days after the premier episode of Star Trek Discovery.  These books have so far covered several of the show’s key characters, including Michael Burnham, Saru, Gabriel Lorca and Philippa Georgiou, while a fifth book out later this year will focus on Christopher Pyke and the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  I actually have a copy of the second book in this series, Drastic Measures, on my bookshelf at home, and I have been intending to read it for some time.  I will hopefully get to that, and the other books in the Star Trek Discovery book range, at some point in the future.

I have to admit that I am more of a casual Star Trek fan and I have more of a preference for Star Wars (and with that, I lose several Trekkies reading this review).  That being said, I have watched a number of the movies and I am really enjoying Star Trek Discovery at the moment.  This book is the first actual Star Trek novel that I have had the pleasure of reading, and there are several cool-sounding upcoming Star Trek novels that I am probably going to try and check out.

The Way To The Stars focuses on the character of Sylvia Tilly, the young, brilliant and awkward Starfleet cadet and essential member of the U.S.S. Discovery’s crew.  However, when she was 16, years before she joined Starfleet, her life was going down a different path.  The daughter of a high-ranking United Federation of Planets (the Federation) diplomat, Tilly finds herself under intense pressure to succeed.  Forced by her domineering mother to abandon her love of science and engineering to pursue a career as a diplomat, Tilly is shipped off to an elite off-world boarding school.

Forced out of her comfort zone, and continuously micromanaged by her mother, Tilly begins to crack under the pressure until, for the first time in her life, she rebels.  Escaping the school and embarking on a dangerous off-world trip, Tilly seeks her own path in life, which will eventually lead her join Starfleet and adventure out into the stars.

The Way To The Stars is the fourth entry in the Star Trek Discovery book series, and it is written by veteran science fiction and tie-in novel author, Dr Una McCormack.  Dr McCormack is an expert when it comes to the novelisation of popular science fiction television shows, having written a number of Doctor Who tie-in novels throughout her career.  Dr McCormack also has a large amount of experience when it comes to the Star Trek extended universe, having authored several novels that continue the adventures of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine television series.

This book was a little different to what I anticipated it would be.  Rather than featuring an action-packed adventure with Starfleet like the previous books in the Star Trek Discovery series, The Way To The Stars mainly focused on Tilly’s school and family life.  While this was still a very interesting and enjoyable read, I kept expecting pirates, aliens or some sort of antagonist to drop in and take over the school, forcing Tilly to use the engineering skills that her mother and school friends were so dismissive of to save the day.  So it was a tad disappointing to find this book only contained a mostly school-based story, more concerned with Tilly’s studies, her overbearing mother and her problems making friends.  Do not get me wrong; there are a lot of fun and enjoyable elements to these parts of the story, and the later part of the book in which Tilly runs away from school and tries to make her own way in space are very interesting.  It was, however, somewhat lighter than what I was expecting from a Star Trek novel, and its tone and writing style reminded me more of a young adult school novel.

That said, this was still a very enjoyable novel as Dr McCormack does an amazing job of bringing one of Star Trek Discovery’s most entertaining characters to life while placing her in a fun and interesting coming of age story.  The author makes great use of the Star Trek elements to tell her story, and I found it fascinating to see the advanced interplanetary schooling (rich boarding schools are rich boarding schools no matter what planet they are on), as well as Tilly’s adventures on human planets and ships outside of Federation space.  The latter parts of the book set on the Starfleet ship were fun, and it was great to see the adventures of a scientific ship, as well as Tilly’s contributions to their voyage.  The resultant first contact that they make was interesting, and it was cool to see elements from the part of the story set in the school come into play during this bit.  Overall, I did have a lot of fun reading The Way To The Stars, and found it to be a very well-written story with a lot of intriguing elements to it.  I really got into the story and managed to read it in only a couple of days, so many people should have fun reading it.

One of the things that I did like about The Way To The Stars was the way the author brought the book’s main character, Tilly, to life.  Within Star Trek Discovery, Tilly, as portrayed by Mary Wiseman, is a fun, brilliant and neurotic character who serves as the show’s moral centre and heart.  Despite mostly being a kind and thoughtful person, Tilly is regularly able to take control of a situation and act in a command capacity, often with humorous results.  I felt that Dr McCormack’s portrayal of Tilly within this book did an excellent job of either showing that these were already existing qualities/personality traits or else examined the first time that Tilly ever showcased these traits.  It was really good to see where Tilly came from and the sort of influences she had in her life to turn her into the character that is so beloved in the show.  As a result, The Way To The Stars is an excellent coming of age story, and I really enjoyed the way that the author wrote the character within the book.

This book is strongly related to the Star Trek Discovery television show; however, I do not believe that too much pre-existing knowledge or fandom experience is required to enjoy The Way To The Stars.  Dr McCormack has an inclusive writing style and I believe that anyone with even a basic knowledge of Star Trek will be able to pick this book up and enjoy the fun story within.  It should go without saying, though, that those people who are fans of the Star Trek universe will get a lot more out of this story.  This is especially true for fans of Star Trek Discovery, who will appreciate this deeper dive into the protagonist’s backstory and the examination of her early life.  I believe that The Way To The Stars is considered to be a canon story within the Star Trek universe; however, I doubt that the events within will have any impact on the show.  Still, it is quite an interesting inclusion that will really interest those who have come to enjoy the characters of Star Trek Discovery.

Star Trek Discovery: The Way To The Stars is a fun and enjoyable tie-in novel that does an amazing job of examining the past of a key character of the show.  Dr McCormack creates an interesting coming-of-age story that will appeal to hardcore Trekkies and casual science fiction readers alike.  I quite enjoyed my first foray into the Star Trek extended universe, and I am planning to try and get some of other Star Trek books coming out later this year.  Stay tuned to see me go further beyond the final frontier.

Waiting on Wednesday – Firefly: The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove

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.
Firefly The Magnificent Nine Cover.jpg

After my recent review of the first book in the new Firefly series, Big Damn Hero, for this week’s Waiting on Wednesday I will be looking at the second book in the series, The Magnificent Nine.  I am massive Firefly fan, so I am extremely eager to read any new instalments in the Firefly series.  After James Lovegrove’s strong first entry with this series, I am very keen to check out his follow-up book, especially as it has an extremely intriguing-sounding plot.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The second original novel tying into the critically acclaimed and much-missed Firefly series from creator Joss Whedon.

An old flame of Jayne Cobb’s, Temperance McCloud, sends a message to Serenity, begging him for help. She lives on the arid, far-flung world of Tethys, and bandits are trying to overrun her town to gain control of their water supply: the only thing standing between its people and dustbowl ruin. Jayne tries to persuade the Serenity crew to join the fight, but it is only when he offers Vera, his favourite gun, as collateral that Mal realises he’s serious.

When the Serenity crew land at a hardscrabble desert outpost called Coogan’s Bluff, they discover two things: an outlaw gang with an almost fanatical devotion to their leader who will stop at nothing to get what they want, and that Temperance is singlehandedly raising a teenage daughter, born less than a year after Temperance and Jayne broke up. A daughter by the name of Jane McCloud…

One of the most amusing episodes from the original Firefly series was the seventh episode, Jaynestown, which focused on Serenity’s morally deficient mercenary and framed him in a vaguely good light for the first time in the series.  This plot synopsis sounds a bit like this episode, and I am very keen to see more of Jayne’s past, as well as some characters that can bring out the character’s better side.  The whole bandit situation is also reminiscent of the series’ 13th episode, Heart of Gold, which saw Serenity’s crew defend a settlement against a band of attackers.  The combination of both of these plots could result in some story magic, and I am looking forward to what is sure to be an action-packed bag of fun.  I am also very curious to see if the child, Jane McCloud, is actually Jayne’s daughter.  Personally, I think it could go either way.

The Firefly shows, comics and books have always been a fantastic combination of the science fiction and western genres, so I am quite excited about the name of this latest book, The Magnificent Nine.  Obviously, this is a reference to the famous western movie, The Magnificent Seven (or the movie it was based, the Japanese film Seven Samurai), which featured a band of highly skilled adventurers defending a village from a group of bandits.  So I am looking forward to seeing several scenes where the eclectic Serenity crew trains the villagers to defend themselves, before leading them into battle against the bandits, and I am sure this book will be a fun homage to this classic western movie.

The Magnificent Nine is set to be released in about a month, and I cannot wait to get a copy of it.  I did want to combine this review with a Waiting on Wednesday for the third book in this series, Generations, but only the very bare-bones synopsis of the plot has been released so far.  That being said, I am already in love with it and keen to check it out.  Bring on the next instalment of the Firefly universe!!!

Firefly: Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove and Nancy Holder

Firefly Big Damn Hero Cover.png

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover edition – 20 November 2018)

Series: Firefly

Length: 334 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

 

Ready for something shiny? Serenity flies again in this fantastic new Firefly tie-in novel that takes the reader back to the original television series and reunites the crew of your favourite spaceship for another amazing adventure.

Firefly, for those people unfamiliar with it, was a science fiction television show that ran for one season back in 2002-03.  Created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and The Avengers movie fame, Firefly is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction television shows of all time.  Featuring a fun group of main characters all played by amazing actors, this western-themed epic in space had some extremely clever and well-written storylines and an outstanding core concept.  Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after only one season (clearly the evillest thing that anyone at Fox has ever done), although it gained cult status after it was released on DVD.  Its post-airing popularity allowed Whedon to create the movie, Serenity, which closed one of the show’s major storylines, while also taking out a couple of major characters (I am still upset about one of those, he was a leaf on the wind, god damn it).  Following the movie, the Firefly universe has mostly continued in the form of several different comic books, usually created with Whedon’s direct input as either a writer or producer.  Do not be surprised if I review several of these Firefly/Serenity comics in the future, either as part of my Throwback Thursday series or when I review the collected edition of the current ongoing Firefly series.

If my notations above did not give it away, I am a huge fan of the Firefly franchise (and generally anything written/created by Joss Whedon), so I was always going to love this novel.  However, all prior biases aside, I found that Big Damn Hero was an excellent tie-in novel, and I powered through this book in extremely short order.

Big Damn Hero is written by James Lovegrove with bestselling author Nancy Holder (author of nearly 20 Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in books) credited as coming up with the original story concept.  Joss Whedon is also acknowledged as the original creator of the Firefly universe and is credited as a consulting editor.  Lovegrove is a veteran writer who has published a number of books since his 1990 debut, The Hope.  Readers may be familiar with his long-running Pantheon series, his recent work on the 2011 Sherlock Holmes series or the three books he has currently written for his The Cthulhu Casebooks series, which also features Sherlock Holmes.  Big Damn Hero is the first novel in a new Firefly tie-in trilogy from Titan Books which brings fans a completely new set of Firefly adventures.  Two additional books are set to be released later this year, with The Magnificent Nine coming out in March and Generations being published in October.

The Firefly franchise is set approximately in the year 2517, where humanity has expanded out into a new star system and terraformed a number of planets and moons.  The central planets were fully terraformed and heavily populated, while the outer planets and moons are more rugged, desert-like and with smaller populations.  The television series is set six years after the end of a brutal war between the Union of Allied Planets (the Alliance) and the Independents (also known as the Browncoats, a name also given to the fans of the franchise), which saw the Alliance gain complete control of the star system.

The show and associated media follow the adventures of the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity as they travel across the system participating in a variety of illegal or barely legal jobs.  The ship is captained by Malcom “Mal” Reynolds, a former sergeant in the Independent army who named the Serenity after the bloodiest battle in the entire war.  Joining him are former Independent army corporal and second in command of the ship Zoe; Zoe’s husband and Serenity’s pilot Wash; mercenary Jayne; ship’s mechanic Kayle; companion Inara; Shepherd Book; and the fugitive siblings Simon and River Tam.  Most of the crew’s adventures in the show followed their various jobs, personal stories and a particular focus on the events surrounding the Tam siblings becoming fugitives.

Big Damn Hero is set a few weeks after the events of the television show’s 12th episode, The Message, and starts the same way most Firefly adventures start, with the crew taking on a new job.  Initially contracted to transport volatile explosives off Persephone for their regular booker, crime lord Badger, the crew decide to take on some additional cargo from a mysterious new contact.  However, the meet turns out to be a trap and Mal is kidnapped and taken off-world.

With the explosives nearing a point of instability, the rest of Serenity’s crew is forced to leave Persephone to continue their original contract.  With only limited leads and the Alliance on their tail, the crew split up in order to locate their captain and maintain the safety of the ship.  Meanwhile, Mal awakens to find that he has been kidnapped by a squad of former Browncoats who are fanatically hunting down former members of the Independent army who they deem responsible for the Independents’ defeat in the war.  Mal has been named a traitor and a coward by old friend from before the war and must now defend himself in an impromptu trial.  As secrets from Mal’s past are brought to the surface, he finds himself at the mercy of a frenzied mob of former friends and comrades demanding his blood.  Can the crew of the Serenity save him, or will Mal pay for his past sins?

Perhaps the best praise I could heap on this book is that I very easily saw this story as a new episode of the show.  Like several of Firefly’s episodes, Big Damn Hero contains a compelling story that is split between the current adventures while also examining the past of one of its characters, in this case Mal.  This exploration into the past then comes into play for the main adventure, as it not only shows the reader events that were formative in Mal’s current character but also explains the actions of the book’s antagonists.  I felt that the plot of Big Damn Hero was a bit of an homage to the show’s fifth episode, Safe, as there were a number of similarities.  Safe was also interspersed with character flashbacks and the main plot of that episode features members of Serenity’s crew being kidnapped and subsequently imperilled while the rest of the crew are forced to take Serenity away from the area for an urgent plot reason.  Safe also featured the crew of Serenity arriving to save the day at the last minute in order to be the “big damn heroes”, a term the crew coined in Safe.  I also felt that the author tapped into elements of the lasting impacts of the war that were featured in episodes such as The Message or in the movie Serenity.  Throughout this book, various characters are shown to be negatively impacted by the war, whether this has made them cold and determined or raging bags of revenge.  Overall, I felt that the author captured the heart of these episodes quite well and helped turn them into a fantastic new addition to the Firefly franchise.

While this is mainly a book about Mal and his past coming back to haunt him, Lovegrove does spend a bit of time focusing on the other members of Serenity’s crew.  As a result, nearly all of the other crew members have at least one chapter told from their point of view.  This allows the reader, especially those who are unfamiliar with the television series, to get a good idea of who the characters are and what their general personality or motivation is.  Aside from Mal, Zoe gets the most focus out of all the other characters, as she not only attempts to find her missing captain but must also take command of Serenity to ensure its safety from other threats encroaching on it.  Zoe is pretty awesome in these chapters, and I felt that the author captured her determination, badassery and extreme loyalty to Mal after serving with him during the war.  Shepherd Book also gets a few entertaining chapters throughout the book, as he leads the investigation into Serenity’s missing captain.  Lovegrove continues to expand on Book’s mysterious past, as the supposedly humble shepherd has high-level military contacts, investigative skills and tactical abilities (those curious to find out Book’s past should check out the comic book Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale).  Most of the rest of the characters also get their moments to shine: Jayne is his usual over-the-top violent self, Inara uses her position and companion training to manipulate several opponents, and River does River things, such as making fun of Badger’s accent or taking out armed goons surprisingly easily.  This focus on the whole crew of Serenity was very reminiscent of the show, and it is obvious that Lovegrove has a great appreciation for franchise’s characters.

In addition to looking at the main characters, Lovegrove also features a number of characters or references from the television show and movie that are likely to be extremely attractive to the franchises fans.  Lovegrove has included a huge range of stuff, from fan favourite side character Badger to Jayne’s fabulous knitted hat and a number of other call-backs to previous episodes and antagonists.  It is possible the author might have gone a bit overboard in places with these inclusions.  When the Hands of Blue are mentioned and it is implied that they could be nearby, that really got my hopes up and I was disappointed when they did not show up in any way.  However, I personally loved all the call-backs and references and it really played to my well-defined sense of nostalgia.

One of the inclusions I really enjoyed in Big Damn Hero was the new insight into main character Malcolm Reynolds’s backstory.  While the show and movie did provide some insights into his actions during the war against the Alliance, not a lot else about his past was ever shown.  Big Damn Hero, however, provides the reader with several chapters that delve into his past and show Mal as a rambunctious teenager on his home world of Shadow.  It is quite amusing to see several of Mal’s personality traits imposed on a younger version of the character, and fans will have fun getting this insight into the early days of this character.  I quite liked these flashback scenes, especially as they show some of Mal’s early tragedies and the events that led up to him joining the Independent army.  This is a fantastic addition to the plot, and I really appreciated this deeper look into one of my favourite characters.

Big Damn Hero is a superb new addition to the Firefly franchise that sees the crew of Serenity go on another dangerous adventure.  Not only does the author dive into the past of one of one of the show’s main characters but he presents a compelling and moving story of the harsh life at the edge of the verse while expertly utilising each of the show’s major characters.  The result is a fantastic tie-in novel that does a great job of capturing the Firefly universe and continuing one of my favourite science fiction series.  I had a lot of fun reading Big Damn Hero, although I am aware that a lot of that is due to my love of the show and movie.  People who are unfamiliar with the Firefly franchise will probably have a harder time following this novel, although I felt that Lovegrove did a good job setting this up as a book any science fiction fan could enjoy.  I am giving this book a rating of 4.25, although some of this rating is due to my nostalgia and love of the series as a whole.  I am very much looking forward to the next two Firefly tie-in novels that Titan Books are releasing later this year, and 2019 is going to be a great year for fans of the Firefly franchise.

Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

Stranger Things Suspicious Minds Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 301 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Gwenda Bond comes this first official tie-in novel to the television sensation, Stranger Things.

It is 1969, and while America languishes in the midst of the Vietnam War, shadowy events with long-term implications are starting to take place in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana.  The enigmatic Dr Martin Brenner has arrived at the Hawkins National Laboratory to start conducting a series of experiments as part of the CIA’s secretive MKUltra program.  Arriving with him is the doctor’s most gifted test subject, a young girl simply known by the number Eight, who can create illusions with her mind.

In a nearby college campus in Bloomington a young student, Terry Ives, signs up as a test subject for a government experiment at her university.  When she meets Dr Brenner her determination and curiosity impresses him enough to include her in his new experiment.  Travelling to and from the Hawkins National Laboratory in an unmarked van, Terry meets her fellow participants in the experiment, Alice, Gloria and Ken.  Each of the participants has a unique set of skills or abilities, which Brenner hopes to draw out through administration of psychedelic drugs and other invasive techniques.

As the months pass and the experiments become harsher and even more unethical, Terry attempts to find out more about who Dr Brenner really is and what the objective of his experiments are.  When Terry discovers Eight, she begins to question everything that Dr Brenner has done.  With their academic and personal lives deeply tied to the experiment, Terry and her fellow test subjects must find a way to leave the program.  But Dr Brenner is determined to keep each of them involved in his project, and he will do whatever he can to not only trap each of them, including doing the unthinkable to Terry.

It is near impossible to be unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, the Netflix show that takes its audience on a dark journey into a world of alternate universes and psychokinetic powers with a healthy dose of 80s nostalgia.  Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel to the television series, and it provides its readers with a prequel story that not only reveals some much-needed backstory to one of the series’ most beloved protagonists (no, not Barb), but also highlights the true nature of a sinister character from the first series.  Suspicious Minds is written by young adult author Gwenda Bond, who has significant experience writing tie-in novels, having previously written the intriguing-sounding Lois Lane series, which focuses on a younger version of the famed comic book journalist.

Despite Bond’s background as a young adult fiction author, this book is much more targeted towards an older audience.  The overall story can be quite dark in places, featuring canon-typical violence and horror themes, and the final chapters of the book show the antagonist doing some exceedingly cold and ruthless actions towards the protagonists.  Due to me being a fan of the television series, I did have a good inkling about how this story was going to end, but I still really enjoyed the dark twist regarding the main character and antagonist at the conclusion of the book and thought that it was quite cleverly done.  One of the other reasons I enjoyed Suspicious Minds was due to Bond’s outstanding story that contained some excellent allusions to the Stranger Things television show and a brand-new historical context to set the story within.

It does need to be said that Suspicious Minds is really a story for those fans of the Stranger Things television show.  This book is set some years before the television show and reveals how Eleven came to be in the custody of the Hawkins National Laboratory.  As a result, one of the main characters of this book is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who was briefly seen in Season 1 and Season 2 of the show.  Some investigation in the first season and pretty powerful flashback in the second season have revealed some of these events, but not a lot of context was given.  As a result, viewers were uncertain about how Terry came to the attention of the government, who or where Eleven’s father was, or why Eleven was considered to be so special even before she was born.  All of these questions and more are answered within Suspicious Minds, and Bond is able to construct a fantastic background for this part of the television show.

In addition to the focus on Terry Ives and the origin of Eleven, Bond spends a significant amount of time focusing on the character of Dr Martin Brenner.  Dr Brenner is one of the main antagonists of the first season of Stranger Things, as he is not only the person responsible for containing and abusing Eleven but also the man in charge of the cover-up surrounding Will Byers’s disappearance.  For a good part of Season 2 of the show, it was assumed that Dr Brenner had died in the Demogorgon attack in the Season 1 finale; however, it was eventually revealed that he was alive and in hiding.  This probably means that he will be a major character again in Season 3 of the show, which means that the content of this book is extremely interesting for fans of the show.  Throughout Suspicious Minds, Bond goes out of her way to highlight what a cold and calculating character Brenner really is and to examine in more detail the crimes that he perpetuated against Eleven’s mother.  I found this examination of Dr Brenner to be absolutely fascinating, and the battle of wits that occurred between Terry and Brenner was a fantastic plot focus for this book.  By the end of the story, Brenner has been built up as a considerable antagonist, and it will be extremely interesting to see how much of Suspicious Minds’ characterisation of him will appear in future episodes of the show.

Aside from the necessary focus on these main two characters and their creation of Eleven, Bond also included a few curious connections to the show that I did quite enjoyed.  For example, there is a bit of a focus on the character of Eight/Kali, who appeared in a second season episode of the television show.  Suspicious Minds shows her as a young child, and focuses on her relationship with the Dr Brenner and some other characters.  There are also a few obligatory references to the Upside Down and the Demogorgon which, while interesting, do not overwhelm the rest of the plot.  I was also rather amused by Bond spending some time explaining how a photograph of Dr Brenner and his test subjects was taken so it could fit into the plot of Season 1.  Overall, I did enjoy these references, but I was relieved that Bond did not go too overboard with them and instead focused on her own unique story, resulting in a narrative that stood by itself and could potentially be enjoyed by someone who has not watched the show.

One of the most beloved parts of the Stranger Things television show is its use of 80s nostalgia, as it provides its viewers with epic amounts of cultural and historical references.  Bond does a good job replicating this scene-setting in the book by highlighting parts of that late 60s and early 70s American culture and society.  While there are several fun cultural references throughout the book, I liked how a large amount of the plot and background story focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was dominating society at this point.  Suspicious Minds contains a number of references to the war, and Bond spends a good amount of time highlighting the various attitudes towards the war, including the divide between younger students and the older generations.  Several key events of this time are either shown or alluded to, such as Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, the 1969 National Draft Lottery and the Kent State University Massacre.  These result in some great settings for the story, and the impacts that they have on the characters and the overall plot of this book are really quite clever and interesting.  I also quite enjoyed how Bond tried to replicate the fantasy roleplaying vibe of the Stranger Things kids in this book by having her protagonists take inspiration from a fantasy source.  As Dungeons & Dragons would not be released until a few years after the events of this book, Terry and her friends refer to themselves as the Fellowship of the Ring, as each of them are major fans of The Lord of the Rings books.  I really enjoyed Bond’s decision to include this as a reflection of the show, and I loved how she chose a more time-appropriate series to serve as their inspiration.

Gwenda Bond’s novel, Suspicious Minds, is a compelling new addition to the Stranger Things universe which serves as a fantastic prequel to the television series.  Utilising an excellent combination of Stranger Things characters and intriguing historical events, this novel paints a dark and tragic picture of the origins of one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, while also examining the dark side of an early antagonist.  Highly recommend for those readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the Stranger Things’ universe, this book is also a dark and captivating story that will stick in the reader’s minds even if they are not fans of the franchise.