Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas

Catwoman Soulstealer Cover.jpg

Publishers: Penguin Random House

                        Penguin Random House Audio

Publication Date – 7 August 2018

 

One of DC Comics’ most iconic and badass female antiheroes is re-imagined in this bold new novel from young adult fiction bestseller Sarah J. Maas.

Selina Kyle is a rough street kid growing up in the slums of Gotham City.  She looks after her sister while scraping a living as a gang member and pit fighter.  When her luck finally runs out, her potential is seen by the mysterious Talia al Ghul who saves her and recruited into the League of Assassins.

Two years later, Selina has returned to Gotham City with a plan to turn the city on its head as Catwoman, the master thief and criminal mastermind.  Using the alias of the spoiled socialite Holly Vanderhees, Selina has returned at an ideal time; Batman is not in the city, away on a vital mission, and he has left his protégé Batwing behind to safeguard the city.  Initiating a series of high-profile thefts, Selina soon has the attention of Batwing and GCPD, especially when she starts teaming up with her new BFFs Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn to wreak havoc around the city.

While Batwing searches the city for this mysterious new villain, his alter ego, Luke Fox, encounters his mysterious new neighbour, Holly, and the two find themselves drawn to each other as their alter-egos battle in the night.  While Selina is able to outfox Batwing, a far more destructive force is about to be unleased upon Gotham.  Catwoman stole something from the League of Assassins and now a cadre of their most lethal assassins are descending on the city.  Will Selina be able to survive their deadly attentions, what is Catwoman’s plan, and who will be left standing in the aftermath?

This is the third book in the DC Icons series, a series of young adult books that provide re-imagined origin stories for younger versions of DC’s most iconic characters outside of the other established DC universes.  Featuring a range of different authors, the first book in the series, Wonder Woman: Warbringer, focused on Wonder Woman before she left Themyscira to become a hero, while the second book, Batman: Nightwalker, followed a teenage Bruce Wayne as he attempts to stop a series of murders in Gotham City.  A fourth book in the DC Icons series, Superman: Dawnbreaker, is currently set to be released in March 2019 and will follow a young Clark Kent as he investigates strange happenings in Smallville.

Soulstealer is the first of these DC Icons books that I have read, and I was quite impressed with the new and unique Catwoman story that it contained, as well as the cool new versions of several DC characters, including Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Batwing.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, read by Julia Whelan.  I quite enjoyed having the story narrated to me, especially as it only took around 10 hours to get through.  While I initially had misgivings about whether I would like this series, after reading and loving Soulstealer I will definitely be getting a copy of Dawnbreaker when it is released next year, and Warbringer and Nightwalker will both be appearing future versions of my Throwback Thursdays reviews.

The author of Soulstealer, Sarah J. Maas, is one of the biggest names in modern young adult fiction, having written two best-selling young adult series in the last six years.  Her long-running Throne of Glass series finished earlier this year, and she has also created the A Court of Thorns and Roses series.  Soulstealer is the first Sarah J. Maas book that I have had the pleasure of reading, but after really enjoying the intricate story and fantastic characters within the novel I am keen to see what her fantasy books are like.  As a result, her Throne of Glass series is high on my list of books to check out in the future, especially after seeing just how awesome the artwork is on some of those covers and collected box sets.

Maas has installed a fantastic and clever story into her debut DC novel, and I really enjoyed how she re-imagined the origins of prominent comic book character.  Soulstealer contains a younger version of Catwoman, introducing her as a teenager gang member and focusing on her initial life of crime.  After the introductory paragraph, the story jumps ahead two years to Selina’s return to Gotham and her initial adventures as Catwoman, while also featuring several flashbacks to her training with the League of Assassins.  This main story is then told from two separate point-of-view characters, Selena and Batwing, and shows the characters in both their costumed adventures and as the people behind the masks in their civilian identities.  Soulstealer has a tight and intricate storyline that contains the perfect balance of comic book action, relationships, backstory, references and variations to comic lore, as well as a number of heists and intricate plots.  I loved Catwoman’s overall plan, as she engages in a play to take over Gotham while really nursing an ulterior motive that pits her against the League of Assassins.  I loved the slow reveal of this complex and insane plan, as well as the lengths she goes to bring her plan to pass, including making some dangerous partnerships.

One of the most interesting and significant changes that Maas makes to Catwoman’s origin story in this novel is the fact that she never meets or associates with Batman.  In nearly every previous iteration of Catwoman, her story has always been intertwined with Batman’s, as the two were usually each other’s main love interest, either as Batman and Catwoman or Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.  However, in Soulstealer, Catwoman is substantially younger than Batman, who starts his crusade years before she is trained by the League of Assassins.  In addition, Batman is not present in Gotham when she returns to the city and throughout the book the two characters have no interactions at all.  Instead, Catwoman’s main love interest is the Luke Fox version of Batwing, who has been defending Gotham in Batman’s absence.  This results in a similar romance plot to some of the classic Batman and Catwoman storylines, where the two characters meet and start to fall in love with each other in both of their personas, despite their apparently different personalities.  This is a fun little romance that does get serious at times, as the two characters are mirrored by their personal traumas and backstories, such as a Selina’s life on the streets and with the League, versus Luke’s PTSD as a result of his time as a marine.  There are also some great moments when the two characters face off against each other, and some of the book’s best laugh-out-loud moments came when Catwoman messes with either Batwing or Luke, sometimes at the same time.  To my mind, the funniest scene in the book had to be when Batwing, after getting injured and rescued by Catwoman, awakens half-naked in a darkened room, only to find out that he is actually in Commissioner Gordon’s spare bedroom.  The moment Luke walks out to find Gordon and his family staring at them was pretty darn funny, especially when Batwing attempted to play it off nonchalantly while silently cursing Catwoman.

One of the elements of Soulstealer that I really appreciated was the references and re-imagined versions of several DC comics characters that appeared throughout the novel.  A huge range of DC characters, many tied into the Batman comics, appear throughout the book in a number of different capacities.  The characters that appear range from the iconic to the obscure and are enough to delight both hardcore comic fans and those with a more casual knowledge of these comics.  Several major Batman characters appear throughout the story; I will refrain from mentioning the full roster of characters to cut down on spoilers, although there is one appearance that was particularly awesome.  While a number of these characters have key or interesting differences between their mainstream comic book counterparts, it is clear that Maas has a real understanding and appreciation for the lore behind these characters.  It is also incredibly fascinating to see how Maas changes these characters for the purposes of her story, and the subtle tweaks that are made to accommodate this different universe.

Of all these additional characters, two of the best and significant inclusions are fellow supervillains Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, who team up with Catwoman to bring a little chaos to Gotham.  In the comic universe, these three supervillains occasionally form a team known as the Gotham City Sirens, and it was great to see them together in this book.  Like Catwoman, both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are quite young and have slightly altered origin stories which somewhat mirror the new origin story of Catwoman.  However, some of the key elements that made these characters so great in their comic book origins remain alive in these book adaptations of the characters and which work extremely well with Maas’s fantastic Soulstealer storyline.  For example, in this story, Harley is still obsessed with the Joker, no matter how much it impacts her relationship with the others, and there are a lot of discussions between Catwoman and Ivy about the roots of her obsession and insanity.  There is also a very clear and acknowledged romantic connection between Ivy and Harley that adds a really interesting element to the story, especially as Harley’s insanity stands in the way of the more serious relationship Ivy desires.  The inclusion of these characters adds in a defining friendship for a main character who has never had the option of friends before, and it’s also a lot of fun seeing these three characters work together, especially as they have such diverse skill sets and range of attitudes.  Overall, I really loved the fact that Maas included Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn as key characters in her novel, and it was a lot of fun to see her version of these young villains banding together for the first time and forming an outstanding partnership.

Rather than read a physical copy of this book, I grabbed the audiobook copy of Soulstealer and listened to that instead.  The audiobook is narrated by Julia Whelan, who does an amazing job capturing the essence of the book’s main character, Catwoman/Selina Kyle.  When focused on Catwoman’s point of view, the listener gets a real sense of the character’s emotions and attitude, and the voices that Whelan assigns to the other main female characters, Ivy, Harley and Talia, are fairly distinctive and fit well with the character.  I thought that the voice that the narrator used for the book’s other point-of-view character, Batwing/Luke Fox, was very serviceable and conveyed the character well enough.  However, I was a tad disappointed that the narrator did not do too much with several of the other iconic Batman characters in the story, such as Alfred, Batman or Commissioner Gordon, especially as these major characters have all been portrayed by amazing actors or voice actors in the past.  Still, the audiobook version is a great way to enjoy this story and it certainly helped me power through this novel quickly without forcing me to skip over any of its important elements.

Catwoman: Soulstealer is an excellent young adult superhero novel from acclaimed author Sarah J. Maas.  This book is a fantastic standalone novel that re-imagines an iconic DC comic book character.  No great previous insight into Catwoman or the DC universe is required, and those with even a glancing knowledge of the comic book characters will be able to enjoy this novel to its full potential.  This serves as a very good young adult novel that will hopefully draw in a younger generation of readers into this established universe, and I appreciated Maas’s casual inclusions of a number of LGBT+ elements.  Soulstealer comes highly recommended and it has certainly sparked my interest in checking out all the other books in the DC Icons range.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Throwback Thursday: Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line Cover.jpg

Publishers: Vintage Books

                        Random House Audio

Publication Date – 25 March 2014

 

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

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I will be looking at the thrilling and enjoyable first tie-in novel to the Veronica Mars franchise, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.

Veronica Mars was a highly regarded (at least for the first two seasons) teen crime television series that aired for three seasons between 2004 and 2007.  The show, staring Kristen Bell in her breakout role as the titular character, was an incredibly fun and compelling mixture of teen drama and serious investigation.  Veronica Mars is a teenage private investigator who finds herself investigating the murder of her best friend, following a cover up by the town’s rich and powerful inhabitants.  The first two seasons featured epic season-long mysteries, while the third season contained two half-season mysteries.  Each episode also featured a mystery-of-the-week storyline that would often play some part in that season’s overarching storyline.  In addition to the intriguing and complex mystery based storylines, fans of the show could also enjoy the heartfelt drama and romance between the show’s main characters, as well as the interesting social dichotomy of the show’s main location, Neptune, California.  Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after its third season, and fans were given an unsatisfactory and incomplete series finale.

However, due to support of the Veronica Mars hardcore fans, referred to as “Marshmallows”, as well as an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, the show was revived with a 2014 Veronica Mars feature film.  This new movie was set nine years after the show’s third season and showed Veronica’s return to Neptune.  The creators attempted to capitalise on the success of the Veronica Mars film by creating some additional material in the Veronica Mars universe.  This included the meta web series Play it Again, Dick as well as two novels set in the aftermath of the movie.  The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line was the first of these novels released, coming out the same month as the Veronica Mars movie, while the second book, Mr. Kiss and Tell was published a year later in 2015.  Both books were written by series creator Rob Thomas and short story author Jennifer Graham, and Thomas has stated that they are both considered to be cannon.

I only ended up watching the Veronica Mars show a few years ago, but found myself really getting into the excellent storylines and memorable characters.  I managed to avoid any spoilers so I was able to enjoy the incredible mysteries of the first two seasons, both of which were very clever, with complicated and hard to predict solutions.  After enjoying both the shows and the movies, I also decided to check out the associated books and obtained an audiobook copy of The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, which I have listened to several times.  With the recent announcement of a Veronica Mars revival series airing in 2019 to be set five years after the events of the film, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to re-listen to and review The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line as part of my Throwback Thursday series.  I am particularly interested to see if Thomas will continue to consider this book as canon when the new series of the show is released, as there are significant narrative developments that may prove hard to explain to those who haven’t read this book.

Neptune, California is usually the home of sun, sand, the ultra-rich, their low-income employees and a corrupt sheriff’s department.  But something else has descended on Neptune: spring breakers.  With busloads of college students descending on Neptune, the town has been turned into one long and boozy event.  It’s all fun and games until one girl disappears from a party and her case is picked up by the conservative media as a call to action against Neptune and spring break.

After nine years away, Veronica Mars has returned to Neptune, the town where she experienced so many traumatic events.  After saving her former/current boyfriend Logan from a murder investigation, Veronica has given up her career as a lawyer and has returned to her old addiction, private investigating.  With her father still recovering from a suspicious car crash, Veronica has taken over Mars Investigations and is desperately trying to keep the business afloat with small, petty cases.

With the media storm around the missing girl intensifying, Veronica is called in to find her before Neptune’s spring break economy is ruined.  Diving into the parties and sordid holiday fun, Veronica soon finds that the house that the girl disappeared from is owned by a dangerous pair of brothers with serious criminal connections.  Though Veronica is convinced that the owners of the house are behind the disappearance, the case becomes even more complicated when a second girl disappears from the same house.  Worse, the second girl has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past that will rock her to the core.

While it would have been easy for the authors just to create a lazy tie-in novel, Thomas and Graham actually created a complex and multi-layered mystery narrative that serves to keep the readers excited and guessing the entire time they are enjoying it.  There is quite a lot going on within this mystery storyline, as for most of it, the protagonist is uncertain about what crime she is actually investigating.  There are a lot of false leads, suspects, hidden clues and several pulse-pounding scenes in which Veronica finds her life threatened as she attempts to uncover a major break in the case.  The final conclusion of the investigation is pretty clever and has a few sneaky twists that are hard to see coming.  The authors also amp up the drama during certain parts of the book as Veronica is forced to confront some heavy subjects from her past, as well as the anger and despair of the people she is investigating.  There is also further antagonism between Veronica and the towns’ corrupt sheriff, who Veronica is actively investigating for corruption, as well as a dramatic fight with her father, Keith, who is dismayed by his daughter’s decision to remain in Neptune as a private investigator, a decision which caused her much grief in the past.

One of the more interesting things about the original show was the social makeup of the fictional setting of the town of Neptune.  In the show, Neptune is home to both a rich upper class, known as the “09ers” in reference to Neptune’s fictional postcode, and the people who work for them or are employed in the town’s businesses and local economy.  As a result, several of the episodes of the original series focused on this discrepancy between these two distinct social classes, which was often represented by the rich students receiving unfair advantages at Neptune High.  This was continued in the 2014 Veronica Mars movie, which showed that the sheriff’s department had become especially corrupt and were more focused on protecting the rich and powerful than arresting real criminals, as seen when they framed a side character, Weevil, with a planted gun.  The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line continues to explore how corrupt the city has become under the new sheriff, and how incompetent the police have become.  This is shown early on in the book when Veronica is hired by the Neptune Chamber of Commerce to find the missing girls, as the town’s business leaders lack confidence in the sheriff’s investigative skills.  When Veronica queries why they still support him, they make it clear that his policy of doing what the richer citizens want makes him a desirable tool.  There are also some dark reveals about the serious crimes he turns a blind eye to in order to avoid confrontation and stay in power.

While there is less focus on the town’s social divide, the authors did add a new element to the plot of this Veronica Mars book: spring breakers.  The plot of this book shows the town completely overrun with drunk, drugged-up and sexually excited college students keen to enjoy the beaches and parties of Neptune.  Thomas and Graham pull no punches when it comes to these descriptions, attempting to fully encapsulate the chaotic and at times dangerous activities that the students get up to, often highlighting how their behaviour at times degenerates to the level of a drunken mob.  This spring break background serves as an entertaining and intriguing background for the murder mystery storyline.  There is a good amount of humour watching Veronica acting the part of a drunken sorority girl as she attempts to blend in with the crowd, as this is in complete opposition to her usual prickly demeanour.  This spring break storyline will also be an interesting read for those planning to check out the upcoming revived season of Veronica Mars, which is apparently going to focus on a spring break serial killer which initiates a conflict between the upper and lower classes of the town.

As this is a tie-in book to a television and movie franchise, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line appeals to fans of Veronica Mars the most.  Readers will be relieved to see that Veronica still maintains her trademark sarcasm and the jaded personality she developed at a young age when she learned how much other people sucked.  This book is set only a few months after the Veronica Mars film, and shows the aftermaths of the events that occurred during it.  Long-time Veronica Mars characters Wallace Fennel, Keith Mars and Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie all appear in the book in significant roles, while minor movie antagonist, Dan Lamb, returns in a similar role for this book.  In addition, other popular characters like Logan Echolls, Dick Casablancas, Eli “Weevil” Navarro and Cliff McCormack have smaller roles within the book.  While it is good to see them again, their minor appearances have mainly been added in for fan service.  One of the most memorable things about this book for fans of the show are the significant developments that happen in Veronica’s personal life, as a character from her past returns with some massive changes.  While these developments serve an important part of the book’s plot and offer some excellent and well-appreciated emotional moments, I will be very surprised if they carry through into the new season of the television show.  Overall, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line serves as a fantastic addition to the Veronica Mars franchise and contains a huge number of elements that will prove extremely appealing to fans of the original show.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is definitely one of those novels that is best enjoyed in its audiobook format.  This is because the Rob Thomas and the producers of the audiobook were able to get Kristen Bell to come in and narrate this version of the book.  As Kristen Bell does a bit of in-show narration, it makes sense for her to continue it here, with Veronica serving as the only point-of-view character.  Having her narrate the actions of the book and everything she sees makes it feel a lot like the television show and gives it a natural and authentic feel.  It was also pretty amusing to hear Bell do the voices of her co-stars from the shows and movies throughout the book.  I think she does a pretty good job of her narration of the other character’s voices, as there are distinctive approximations of all the relevant characters, in addition to new voices for the exclusive book characters.  Overall, if fans of this franchise are keen to experience a new Veronica Mars adventure, this is their best option.  Written by the show’s creator and voiced by its lead actresses, the audiobook version of The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is essentially just another episode of the show, and is the best way for fans of the Veronica Mars show to enjoy.  At 8 hours 43 minutes, it is a quick audiobook to get through.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is an excellent piece of the amazing Veronica Mars franchise which presents the reader with a continuation of this fun universe and allows fans of the show to see what happens next to their favourite characters.  Featuring a clever and intricate central mystery that twists and turns in multiple unexpected ways, this book is a fantastic read as told by its iconic protagonist.  Best enjoyed in its audiobook format with the voice of Veronica Mars herself, Kristen Bell, narrating the story, this is a recommended read for all fans of the fans of the show, and may prove to be an intriguing introduction for newcomers to the franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston

Ahsoka Cover.jpg

Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press

                        Penguin Random House Audio

Release Date – 11 October 2016

 

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

The apprentice lives.  One of the best Star Wars characters that originated outside of the live-action movies returns in this action-packed, character-driven novel, which follows Ahsoka Tano’s adventures after the destruction of the Jedi Order.

Those people familiar with my previous reviews may have noticed that I am a bit of a Star Wars fan, having reviewed several pieces from the current Disney Star Wars extended universe in the last few months.  Therefore, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that I have watched and enjoyed the Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels animated television shows.  Both of these shows are very well done, can be appreciated by a varied audience and contain a large amount of the classic Star Wars heart and respect for the franchise’s lore and history that was missing in some of the more recent movies.  While many memorable characters were introduced in these shows, perhaps the most significant to the lore is the titular character of this book, Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice.

For those of you failing to remember Anakin having an apprentice in the live-action movies, you are not going crazy; Ahsoka has yet to appear in any live action movie.  She was instead introduced in The Clone Wars animated movie and served as one of the main characters of The Clone Wars television series, all of which take place in the years between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Despite being one of the most popular characters on the show, Ahsoka would leave the Jedi Order at the end of the fifth season of The Clone Wars and only appear in the sixth season as part of a short vision sequence.  As a result, fans of the both the show and the character were frustrated and confused about what Ahsoka’s fate was and whether she had survived the events of the third prequel movie.  Fans didn’t get their answer until a couple of years later, at the end of the first season of Star Wars Rebels, where it was revealed that Ahsoka had survived the Jedi purge, becoming a member of the early Rebel Alliance.  Ahsoka, now wielding a pair of white lightsabers, became a key character in the second season of Star Wars Rebels, in which she was still an incredibly cool and powerful warrior.  She was utilised to perfection in this new show and had what is easily the best scene in the entire run of Star Wars Rebels: her long-awaited confrontation with Darth Vader.  The sheer emotion and intensity as Ahsoka finally came face-to-face with her old master and discovered that he was responsible for the fall of the Jedi was just amazing and is one of my favourite moments from all of television.

Following her appearance in Star Wars Rebels, Disney commissioned a young adult Ahsoka book, which was announced on 31 March 2016, one day after the Star Wars Rebels season 2 finale.  This book was released in late 2016 and was written by young adult author and Star Wars fan E. K. Johnston.  Ahsoka was Johnston’s first foray into Star Wars fiction, although she is currently working on Queen’s Shadow, a young adult novel focused on a pre The Phantom Menace Padme Amidala, set to be released next year.  I have no doubt that a review for Queen’s Shadow will appear on this website in due time.  Now, with the recent announcement of a seventh season of The Clone Wars and the reveal that Ahsoka will be appearing in this new season, I decided to check out this book to see if it did the character any justice.  I chose to enjoy this as an audiobook, rather than read a physical copy.

During the Clone War, Ahsoka Tano was a fierce warrior and a commander of the Republic’s clone troopers.  However, after the devastation of Emperor Palpatine’s Order 66, which saw the clones turn on the Jedi, everything changed.  Fighting on Mandalore, far away from her master, Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka is unaware of his fall to the dark side of the Force, and only just manages to escape the purge of the Jedi Order.

Now, one year after the fall of the Republic and the rise of the new Galactic Empire, the former Padawan is in hiding on the outskirts of the galaxy, trying to avoid any Imperial attention.  Living under an assumed name and with her trusty dual lightsabres gone, Ahsoka scrapes a living as a mechanic, intentionally distancing herself from the Force in order to hide her Jedi abilities.

Ahsoka journeys to a remote farming settlement on the Outer Rim moon of Raada.  Settling into her new life and making connections with its inhabitants, Ahsoka believes that she has finally found her sanctuary.  But her hopes of a peaceful life in her new home are quickly dashed when the Empire arrives, imposing their totalitarian rule on the people of Raada.  The agricultural potential of the moon is vital to the future of the Empire, and the workers are being forced to farm a new and mysterious plant.  Determined to help her new friends and wanting to make a difference, Ahsoka uses her wartime experience to help form a resistance in order to undermine Imperial control.

But when she is forced to reveal her full powers in order to save her friends, she once again finds herself on the run.  However, this time her actions have not gone unnoticed.  Her old ally, Senator Bail Organa wants her to join his fledgling rebellion, while the sinister Inquisitor, the Sixth Brother, arrives on Raada with plans to capture her, using Ahsoka’s friends as bait.

Because I am a fan of the titular character, I did go into Ahsoka with some rather high expectations.  Luckily I quite enjoyed Ahsoka, powering through this book quickly while appreciating how Ahsoka’s new adventure fit into the existing Star Wars chronology.  This story is very good, with an excellent blend of character development, Star Wars lore and some scintillating action and adventure.  The book contains a well-paced narrative that not only features Ahsoka’s personal story, but also examines the viewpoint of several side characters, in order to move the plot along, while also showing the impacts of Ahsoka’s actions from a different viewpoint.

This book is mainly focused on the adventures of Ahsoka, and fans of the animated show will appreciate seeing how she not only managed to survived the purge of the Jedi, but how she became the hardened rebel agent we encountered in Star Wars Rebels.  I feel that anyone who reads this book will appreciate the considerable amount of character development and insight that occurs with the titular character.  At the start of the book, Ahsoka is afraid, hiding who and what she is from the world while also denying herself access to the Force.  She is filled with regrets, concerns for her missing Jedi family and guilt not just about surviving but also about leaving the Jedi Order before its fall.  Throughout the book, her adventures, the new friendships she develops, the people she helps and the role she plays on Raada all help her to find a new purpose, as well as re-establishing her connection with the Force.

There are a number of great scenes featuring or concerning Ahsoka in this book.  These include her battle with the Sixth Brother, the forging of her new white lightsabres and the epic scene where she unleashes her Force abilities for the first time in a year.  It was also intriguing to see her advising the farmers in guerrilla tactics and helping them sabotage the Imperial occupation.  Fans of Ahsoka will appreciate the similarities this has to one of the character’s most significant arcs from The Clone Wars that featured her training a guerrilla army to combat a Separatist invasion, including a young Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker’s character in Rogue One).  I also enjoyed Johnston’s focus on the connection between Ahsoka and the female character Kaedan Larte.  It was great seeing this character help get Ahsoka out of her shell, and the subtle romantic feelings between the two of them was an interesting character direction for Ahsoka.  Overall, I thought Ahsoka contained an incredible take on its titular character, as Johnston not only provides the reader with a much clearer picture of Ahsoka’s fate following The Clone Wars, but also provides a powerful look at her thoughts and feelings following the destruction of the Jedi.

In addition to exploring the fates of one of their favourite characters, fans of the franchise are also treated to another intriguing look at events in the Star Wars universe not covered in the movies or television shows.  Ahsoka is set one year after the events of Revenge of the Sith, and shows the early days of Imperial control in the galaxy.  There is a palpable and well-utilised feeling of dread throughout the book as the various point-of-view characters encounter the steady increases in Imperial control as their military expands its influence.  It is fascinating to see the early Imperial military machine in action, especially when it comes to controlling and pacifying smaller planets and moons.  One of the most interesting aspects of this is the type of troops being utilised.  By this point in the Star Wars’ chronology, the Empire has started to phase out their clone troopers, replacing them with the human stormtroopers that appear in the original trilogy.  During her encounters with them, Ahsoka notes that these stormtroopers are still quite green and are nowhere near the clones’ level of competency when it comes to battle, controlling territory or dealing with Jedi.  This changeover in troop type for the Empire has not really been covered in too much detail before and is quite fascinating to see.

The exploration of the Empire’s methods of hunting down the remaining Jedi is also intriguing, as one of Vader’s Inquisitors serves as the book’s main antagonist.  The Sixth Brother is shown not only hunting fully trained Jedi like Ahsoka but also tracking down Force-sensitive children for his masters.  The extent of the Inquisitor’s power and influence is explored in some detail here, and I enjoyed seeing Ahsoka’s impression of these Inquisitors’ skills and actions, especially as the Inquisitors were also trained by Darth Vader.  Readers will also note the obligatory hints at the creation of the Death Star throughout the plot of the book, which is an important part of the overall Star Wars chronology.

These early days of the Imperial military is not the only thing covered in the book, as Johnston also explores the opening actions that would lead to the formation of the Rebel Alliance.  Johnston uses minor Star Wars character Bail Organa to great effect here, showing the work he beings immediately after his heroics in Revenge of the Sith to oppose the Emperor.  Ahsoka also features several cameos from other characters in the Star Wars cannon, and readers can look forward to seeing fan favourite characters Darth Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2D2, a young Princess Leia and the Grand Inquisitor.  This is a compelling and insightful addition to the Star Wars extended universe, and readers will be amazed by this new viewpoint into one of the franchise’s most volatile periods.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Ahsoka rather than track down a physical copy to read.  This was mainly because the creators of the Ahsoka audiobook managed to score Ashley Eckstein as the narrator.  Eckstein is the actor who voices Ahsoka in both The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and I loved the idea of having the definitive voice of the character narrate this crucial Ahsoka story to me.  As Ahsoka is the most prominent point-of-view character, this works out incredibly well, and the reader can enjoy hearing Ahsoka tell the story of what is around her.  Eckstein also provides excellent voice work for all the other speaking characters that feature in the book, as each of these characters were given a distinctive voice that does not feel out of place.

While I really enjoyed hearing Eckstein narrate the story, another benefit of listening to Ahsoka on audiobook is the use of the iconic Star Wars music, as well as the book’s cool use of sound effects.  The creators of the Ahsoka audiobook have inserted John Williams’s iconic score from the movies into a variety of the book’s scenes.  While this is slightly distracting in one or two places where the music did not quite fit properly, it works incredibly well for most of the book.  Several of the story’s big scenes, such as the pivotal battle sequence where Ahsoka reveals her Jedi powers for the first time since she went into hiding, are underscored by this music.  With this grand and powerful music playing in the background, these scenes are given a real epic quality that you just do not get from reading a psychical copy of the book.  It also serves to make Ahsoka feel a lot more connected to the movies, as the listeners are provided with a score that is instantly recognisable as belonging to this franchise.  In addition to the spectacular musical inclusions, the audiobook also features a range of relevant sound effects that really add to the book’s atmosphere and authenticity.  These sound effects range from droid noises and the sounds of ships starting up, to background music when the characters hang out in the cantina.  None of these sound effects distracts from the story and for some of the battle scenes, the lightsabers and blasters sounds really add to the reader’s excitement and involvement in the action.  Another thing I found fun while listening to Ahsoka on audiobook was the producer’s use of some sort of voice modulator for when Eckstein narrates the voices of stormtroopers or other characters wearing helmets.  This is a nice touch and really speaks to the producer’s attention to detail.  I am unsure how effective this would have been if Darth Vader had appeared in the book, but I’m sure I would found the end result amusing one way or another.

Clocking in at just over seven hours long, this is an easy book to get through and the inclusion of the classic Star Wars music, fun sounds effects and the definitive voice of the titular character make it an excellent way to experience this fantastic story.

Ahsoka has been written with a young adult audience in mind, and is definitely an enjoyable book for younger readers who are curious about the Star Wars universe, are fans of the animated shows, or are just looking for an exciting adventure in space.  That being said, the book does not pull any punches, and features an extended torture scene and quite a few deaths, including one particularly gruesome kill by the Sixth Brother.  While some of this can be a tad heavy, I personally feel that anyone mature enough to be familiar with the Star Wars franchise is probably going to be mature enough to not be affected by this violence.  Despite being intended for a young adult audience, Ahsoka, like many of the Star Wars young adult range, is definitely a series that can be appreciated by an older audience, especially those familiar with the franchise and the titular character.

Overall, I was very happy that I checked out Ahsoka, as it not only provided greater insight into the history of one of my favourite Star War’s characters but also painted a detailed and intriguing picture about the early days of the Empire.  Featuring a surprisingly deep and emotional story, this is a fantastic addition to the Star Wars extended universe that will appeal to fans of the amazing animated show, while also offering character based adventure to the more casual reader.  Definitely best to check out in the audiobook format, readers will love how this morphs this impressive Star Wars story into a memorable experience that becomes very difficult to turn off.

My Rating:

Four stars

If you enjoy Star Wars fiction, check out some of my previous reviews:

https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/08/12/star-wars-thrawn-alliances-by-timothy-zahn/

https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/05/30/star-wars-last-shot-by-daniel-jose-older/

A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

A Shot in the Dark Cover.jpg

Publisher: Raven Books

Publication Date – 28 June 2018

 

From Lynne Truss, one of England’s most creative minds, comes A Shot in the Dark, a hilarious take on the historical murder mystery that sets three fantastic and exaggerated police characters against a sinister and surprising criminal mastermind.

Brighton, 1957.  Following a terrible massacre that saw the death of every member of two rival gangs some years before, the city of Brighton is now clear of all crime.  At least, that’s what Inspector Steine believes, and, as he is the famous and inspirational police detective whose actions allowed the eradication of these vicious gangs, that’s what the rest of the Brighton Constabulary believe as well.  Unfortunately for everyone, Inspector Steine is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.  Despite all the evidence, he simply refuses to believe the theory of his long suffering ‘bagman’ Sergeant Brunswick that a mysterious third crime boss organised the massacre and is currently running crime in Brighton.

So when the young, keen and exceedingly annoying Constable Twitten arrives in Brighton and starts investigating a series of burglaries, Steine is particularly aggrieved.  Despite Steine’s insistence that Brighton’s criminal element is no more, Twitten seems determined to find criminal activity – and he does.  The opening night of a new controversial play is unfortunately ruined when the opinionated and unpleasant film critic that Twitten is sitting next to is shot in the head.  Finally a crime that even Steine can’t ignore.

Who could have wanted the critic dead?  Is his death due to the multiple plays and productions that his reviews have destroyed?  Or is it perhaps related to a bank robbery that the critic witnessed many years ago, and that Steine failed to solve.  As Twitten and Brunswick start their investigation and Steine provides his own special brand of ‘help’, a second body is found.  As the case continues, Brighton’s newest constable is about to uncover a dark secret about his city and the sinister figure manipulating everything behind the scenes.

Truss is a highly talented writer, author and radio personality who has produced a huge range of different works, including the non-fiction book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  Truss has also created several other fictional and non-fictional books, as well as a number of popular radio series.  A Shot in the Dark is Truss’s fifth fiction novel and is the first book in her Constable Twitten Mystery series.

One of the most interesting features of A Shot in the Dark is that it is actually a novelisation of Truss’s popular radio comedy drama series, Inspector Steine, which ran between 2007 and 2013 and starred the inimitable Michael Fenton-Stevens.  This is a great introduction to the franchise that will have a massive amount of appeal both to fans of the radio show and people who are unfamiliar with this great comedy series.  Rather than being a simple write-up of one of the Inspector Steine episodes, A Shot in the Dark is a combination of several different episodes, containing plot elements from various seasons of the show’s run.  In particular, it contains components borrowed from the series one episodes While the Sun Shines, Separate Tales and The Deep Blue Sea, the series two episode The Entertainer, and the series three episode While the Sun Shines.  As a result of this combination, people unfamiliar with this series get to experience several of the radio show’s best stories and plot points in their first outing.  On the other hand, fans of the radio series get a completely new adventure that re-imagines Constable Twitten’s early days at Brighton.  Storylines listeners may be familiar with have been altered in some new and substantial ways to create a fun and excellent combination of some key stories in the series.

In the original Inspector Steine series, Truss created some amazing characters who are not only terrific by themselves but who played off each other extremely well.  The author has done an amazing job transplanting these characters into a completely different format.  The three main characters are Inspector Steine, Constable Twitten and Sergeant Brunswick.  Inspector Steine is your classic self-important senior management figure who thinks they are so much smarter than they actually are.  Steine is extremely self-absorbed and very easily manipulated, but ultimately well meaning, given he is completely convinced that all the crime in Brighton was erased years ago as a result of his brilliant actions.  Twitten, on the other hand, is actually as smart as he thinks and has no trouble letting everyone he meets know it.  His clever investigative work is capable of solving the crime, but his cleverdick attitude ensures that no-one, especially Inspector Steine, will actually listen to him.  Sergeant Brunswick plays straight man to both of his colleagues, and seems to be the middle ground between these two extreme personalities.  However, while he is a competent investigator, he is also easily manipulated, and fails to see that his brilliant plans to go undercover on every case are hampered by the fact that all of Brighton’s criminals already know who his is.  These three are all extreme examples of some of the classic police characters.  In a normal piece of crime fiction, these three characters work well together (think Endeavour for example), but in A Shot in the Dark they bring out the worst in each other and combine together for great comedic value.

While the three police characters are excellently used and a whole lot of fun by themselves, special mention needs to be given to the brilliant antagonist of this story.  Whiles fans of the radio series will not be surprised about their identity, I will try to avoid revealing too much in order not to ruin the surprise for any new readers.  That being said, this character is an excellent villain who is able to manipulate the three police characters in some suitably comedic ways.  The various and often quite unsubtle ways in which this villain manoeuvres the protagonists in A Shot in the Dark is absolutely hilarious, especially when their ridiculous plots actually work.  New readers will have a fantastic time finding out who this character is and how they’ve gotten away with their crimes, while fans of the radio series will love seeing this outstanding antagonist in all their criminal glory once again.

A Shot in the Dark contains a fantastic story that expertly combines a clever murder mystery with hilarious comedy elements.  As mentioned above, due to main characters’ various shortcomings and the devious nature of the villain, this is not your standard criminal investigation.  The protagonists have to deal with some absurd situations as well as various unusual plans to stop them solving the case.  That being said, the police do perform an investigation and the truth of the various crimes are eventually uncovered, although again without the standard solution crime fiction readers would be used to.  The crime elements are compelling and there is a really interesting mystery contained within this book, with some imaginative twists leading up to the conclusion.  In addition, the two murders are connected together in some clever ways, and the overarching conspiracy about Brighton is particularly intriguing.  While the book contains some gripping mystery elements, it is a comedy at heart; there are some really amazing comedy elements, including some great sequences that really cracked me up.  In addition to the shenanigans of the main characters, there are a range of other eccentric characters throughout the book that provide some fun moments of comic relief with their antics.  These elements come together perfectly, and it is incredibly fun watching all attempts at a serious investigation get disrupted in various silly ways.

Truss set the Inspector Steine series within Brighton in the early 1950s.  While this would already be an interesting setting, the author has amped this up by using elements from the classic crime novel and movie, Brighton Rock.  Truss has stated that her series is based on captions at the start of the 1948 movie which declared that Brighton went from a crime hub between the two World Wars to an area completely free of criminals and corruption by the 1950s.  While many people would be somewhat suspicious of such a statement, the Inspector Steine series is based on the idea that a member of the police actually believed this and acted accordingly.  As a result, the whole city has, on the surface, a wholesome family atmosphere.  That makes the crime hiding underneath a lot more fun to see, especially as the criminals really don’t need to do too much to disguise their activities, secure in Steine’s blissful ignorance.  In addition, fans of the crime classic may be interested to know that there are a number of elements from Brighton Rock that play a key part in the story.  As both the book and the movie exist within the Inspector Steine universe, Inspector Steine actually blames the events of this book on Graham Greene, the original author of Brighton Rock (a sentiment shared by Truss).  In addition, various characters within A Shot in the Dark are obsessed with the events of the classic crime book, and many locations from the Brighton Rock book and movie become major plot settings in the story.  In particular, there are several sequences based around one certain murder from the movie that results in some very entertaining scenes.  Overall, this is a great setting for this excellent comedy-mystery hybrid, which also has some fantastic tie-ins to a classic post-war crime novel.

Lynne Truss delivers an extremely fun and very entertaining adaption of her popular Inspector Steine radio series with A Shot in the Dark.  Featuring all of the exceptional characters that were a standout feature of the original series, A Shot in the Dark is an excellent piece of comedy that also contains some intriguing mystery elements and a unique settings with ties to the crime classic Brighton Rock.  This five-star book comes highly recommended and is guaranteed to leave you laughing for hours.  I am already looking forward to the next Constable Twitten Mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Special thanks need to be given to my partner, Alex, who, on top of her usual editorial expertise for my reviews, happens to be a geek for BBC Radio 4 comedies and was able to help me properly analyse A Shot in the Dark without spoiling the identity of Brighton’s greatest criminal mastermind.

Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars Thrawn Alliances Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century

Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

Two Star Wars fan favourite villains come together in the ultimate bad guy team-up in the latest novel from the extended universe icon, Timothy Zahn.  I reviewed the previous Star Wars release, Last Shot here: https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/05/30/star-wars-last-shot-by-daniel-jose-older/

It is the height of the Empire’s tyranny over the galaxy, but threats are always on the horizon.  When the Emperor senses a disturbance in the edge of imperial space, he despatches his two most capable servants.  One is his apprentice, the powerful dark lord of the Sith, Darth Vader, and the other is the master tactician, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  While both men are fiercely loyal to the Emperor, Vader and Thrawn are rivals for his favour and have differing views when it comes to command, combat, tactics and the future of the Empire, especially over the construction of the Death Star.

Vader and Thrawn travel to the planet of Batuu in the Unknown Regions, the vast, uncharted areas of space outside of the imperial galaxy.  As these two ambitious individuals attempt work together, they encounter a threat not only to the Empire but to Thrawn’s secret plans.  Can these two succeed in their mission, or will Vader’s distrust of Thrawn result in the Grand Admiral’s early death?

This is not the first time these two men have worked together.  Back during the Clone Wars, Jedi General Anakin Skywalker encountered Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo of the Chiss Ascendancy.  Their chance encounter resulted in these two combining forces to uncover a Separatist plot that has resulted in the disappearance of Senator Amidala.  But as these soldiers, now known as Vader and Thrawn, grow to respect each other, their differing priorities may break their newfound alliance apart.  What connections do these two missions have to each other, and what will happen when their tragic past is brought into the present?

Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the more interesting characters in the Star Wars universe.  Created by Zahn back in the 1991 story Heir to the Empire, Thrawn was the commander of the Imperial Remnant following their defeat in Return of the Jedi and was presented as the ultimate tactician and a major threat.  Appearing in several books, he quickly became a massive fan favourite character, and is easily one of the most popular creations in the entire Star Wars extended universe.  However, following the Disney buyout of the franchise, the books that introduced Thrawn to the Star Wars fandom are no longer considered canon.

But the Grand Admiral could not be denied and has since resurfaced in the new Disney official Star Wars universe in all his villainous glory.  First reappearing in the third season of TV’s Star Wars Rebels, voiced by Lars Mikkelsen, Thrawn serves as one of the series’ primary antagonists, masterminding plots that devastate the heroes.  In addition, a new series of books dedicated to the character of Thrawn were commissioned as part of the new extended universe, which sees the return of Timothy Zahn to the fold.  The first of these books, 2017’s Star Wars: Thrawn, saw Zahn recreate  Thrawn’s origins to fit into the new universe and detail the rise of the alien officer to the rank of Grand Admiral in the xenophobic Imperial Navy.

In addition to the two novels mentioned above, Zahn has created a huge number of books since his first release in 1983.  In the last 35 years, he has released over 50 books, most of which were science fiction novels, as well as a number of short stories, novellas and graphic novels.  Of these books, 12 are set within the Star Wars universe, with many of them representing significant entries in the now defunct extended universe.

Thrawn: Alliances is evenly split between two separate timelines, both set in different parts of the Star Wars canon.  The main story is set after the events of the third season of the Star Wars Rebels television show, which is set in the period between the Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope movies.  The repercussions of that dramatic season finale are certainly felt within this book.  The Alliances storyline set in the past focuses on a time period after the end of the Clone Wars television show, which is set between the Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith movies.

Like in Zahn’s previous books, Thrawn once again shines as the best part of Alliances.  The cool, tactical way he approaches everything is a fantastic character trait, and I could almost hear Lars Mikkelsen’s voice every time Thrawn spoke in the book.  The author continues to portray Thrawn as an incredibly insightful being who is able to come to perceptive conclusions from the most mundane of items or actions.  These insights come into effect throughout the book as Thrawn comes up with some unique and effective tactics in his various encounters.  While Thrawn is an awesome character, Zahn has also included one of the greatest film villains of all time within his story.  Darth Vader is a great character throughout this book and has some destructive and memorable scenes.  Fans who enjoyed his devastating appearance in Rouge One will love to see him power through his opponents is this story.  There are also other excellent sequences where he shows off his renowned piloting skills, this time in a TIE Defender.  Readers will also see a great comparison between the styles of the two imperial commanders that really highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both characters.  Vader’s immense power and Thrawn’s tactical ability are on display as a result, but they also show off Vader’s barely contained rage and his limited ability to trust anyone.  Overall, this is a creative and thrilling use of two of these two amazing Star Wars characters.

For fans of science fiction action adventures, one of the most exciting elements of this book is the significant amount of space combat throughout the story.  Ship-on-ship battles in the darkness of space have always been some of the most impressive parts of the Star Wars screen instalments, and Zahn goes all out to showcase this in Alliances.  There are a huge range of these sequences, from smaller fighter-on-fighter combat, to demonstrations of the destructive power of a Star Destroyer, to even a large-scale space battle between multiple ships.  Zahn has spread the story across multiple characters, including imperial naval commanders and members of the stormtroopers, to really showcase these battle sequences, and this also allows him to present several boarding actions being led by the stormtroopers.  Seeing Thrawn in command of all of these engagements is also fantastic, as his well-documented tactical abilities come to the fore again.  These space engagements are a great part of the story and will prove to be exciting for the reader.

The use of the two split timelines is also an excellent way of telling this story and provides a number of noticeable benefits to the book.  There are a number of connections between the two separate storylines that come into effect throughout the book, and it’s always fun to view some hints about the past hidden in the storylines set in the present.  This split storyline is also an exceptional way to expand on the connection between Vader and Thrawn, two characters who, despite their respective service to the Empire, have never had much to do with each other before.  Having one storyline feature Vader and one storyline feature Anakin is also a smart way to show the differences between the two aspects of the one man.  Not only does Zahn examine how much Vader has changed since the Clone Wars but he also hints at the darkness already inside Anakin even back then.  This is further showcased by examining the relationship Thrawn has with both Anakin and Vader and how the character has gone from being a trusting individual to a creature more concerned about his ties to the Emperor.  That being said, Thrawn provides several taunting hints about knowing who Vader really is, and the reader is constantly wondering if the master tactician has actually worked out the biggest secret in the Star Wars universe.

Alliances also takes the reader to a more obscure part of the Star Wars universe: past the Outer Rim and into the Unknown Region.  There is less of a focus on the central story of Rebels versus the Empire which is heavily featured in the films and television series, and more on the exploration of an area never seen on screen.  This is an intriguing change of pace for this newer extended universe and opens up some interesting options for future books.

Legendary Star Wars author Timothy Zahn once again returns to what he knows best with another book focused on his most iconic and memorable character, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Alliances sees Thrawn team up with Darth Vader in an electrifying and powerful adventure into the unfamiliar areas of the Star Wars universe.  This book is definitely geared towards the hardcore Star Wars fans, but it is also extremely accessible to the more causal science fiction reader, who will appreciate the inclusions of two sensational main characters, substantial action and combat, and a clever use of different perspectives and timelines.  This is another sensational read from Zahn, and I can’t wait to see where his greatest creation, Thrawn, next appears in the Star Wars universe.

My Rating:

Four stars

Word of Warcraft: Before the Storm by Christie Golden

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Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

War is once again coming to Azeroth in the brand new World of Warcraft novelisation from the queen of tie-in books and Blizzard Entertainment’s new in-house novelist Christie Golden.

The world of Azeroth is constantly at war, and for generations its inhabitants have known nothing but conflicts and threats.  Perhaps the greatest enemy that the people of Azeroth ever faced were the demonic Burning Legion, who are the root of many of the world’s great conflicts.  Now, after a devastating campaign, the Burning Legion has finally been defeated, although Azeroth’s victory came at a great cost.  As his final act of destruction, the leader of the Burning Legion, the Titan Sargeras, struck a great blow against Azeroth, plunging his gigantic sword into the surface of the planet and leaving a gaping wound in the side of the world.

Now both factions of Azeroth, the Alliance and the Horde, can finally recover and come to terms with the destruction caused by their demonic foes and the dramatic changes that have rocked their hierarchies.  Following the death of his father, young Anduin Wrynn has inherited the throne of the human kingdom of Stormwind, and serves as the new leader of the Alliance.  At the same time, the Horde is now under the sway of its new Warchief, the banshee queen of the Forsaken, Sylvanas Windrunner.  Both new leaders must come to terms with the running of their respective factions and the current peace blessing the land.

But there is always tension simmering between the Alliance and the Horde, and many predict that a new conflict is just around the corner, especially when both sides make a startling discovery: the blow from Sargeras’s sword has caused the very essence of Azeroth to bleed forth from the ground.  This new substance, known as Azerite, is extremely powerful, containing the very strength of Azeroth, and with the potential to be used as a mighty weapon by whichever side controls it.

As both factions investigate the wound in Azeroth and this strange new material, King Anduin seeks to finally forge peace between the Alliance and the Horde.  In order to achieve this peace, Anduin embarks on an ambitious plan to win the Forsaken to his cause and gain the trust of Sylvanas.  But Sylvanas has her own vision for the future of Azeroth, and woe betide anyone who stands between the Dark Lady and her goals.  Will peace finally be achieved, or will the discovery of Azerite result in a new war between the Alliance and the Horde?  And what role will Calia Menethil, long lost sister of the Lich King Arthas Menethil, play in this new era?  One thing is certain: the Battle for Azeroth starts here.

Before the Storm is the latest tie-in book to the massive Warcraft video game franchise.  People who have never played these games may be surprised to know that this franchise has a rich narrative history.  The original Warcraft games came with a substantial amount of lore and plot that were in some ways just as revolutionary as the game’s mechanics.  This tradition of great storytelling has continued over the years, and every single one of the games has contained a range of intricate and compelling storylines.  Many of these stories are incredibly elaborate and have great potential for future adaptations.  For example, this reviewer would be especially keen to see the corruption of Arthas and the rise of the Lich King told on the big screen.

The game’s narrative tradition has also resulted in a huge number of tie-ins that are mostly targeted towards fans of the game.  There are currently over 30 Warcraft books, as well as a number of comics and even some manga.  The vast majority of these adaptations are considered canon, and have been subsequently referenced in the plot of the games, including the franchise’s main game, the MMORPG World of Warcraft.  For example, in one of the previous novels, The Shattering: Prelude to Cataclysm, Cairne Bloodhoof a major character from Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and the leader of the Taurens in World of Warcraft, is killed off, and this carried through to the game in several different ways.  Before the Storm is the latest book in this extended universe, and has been released as a tie-in for the upcoming Battle for Azeroth expansion, which is out in August.

The author of this latest novel, Christie Golden, has a bibliography of over 50 books, and has substantial experience writing tie-in books for big franchises.  In addition to her debut Ravenloft trilogy, Golden has written 15 Star Trek novels, five Star Wars books, and a number of full-length and short story tie-ins for franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Invasion America, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Golden has also written a number of books for Blizzard, with five books based on Starcraft and 10 based around the Warcraft games.  Her previous Warcraft novels include stories that help cement the franchise’s established lore, the official novelisation of the recent Warcraft movie, and novels that have established the plot prior to several of World of Warcraft’s expansions.  For example, her 2014 novel, War Crimes, heavily set up the Warlords of Draenor expansion, while also presenting an elaborate novel that highlighted the crimes of the previous expansions main antagonist.  Golden has incredible knowledge of Warcraft’s lore and narrative history, having provided significant contributions to it in the past, and readers will appreciate the way that this new book connects with several of her previous Warcraft novels.

Before the Storm is a fun and exciting fantasy novel that has been expertly set within the World of Warcraft universe.  The narrators visit a number of key locations that feature within the games and Golden has done an amazing job of describing these distinctive and well-explored background settings.  There are some great locations used within the story, including several of the game’s main cities, such as Stormwind, Ironforge, Orgrimmar and the Undercity.  People familiar with the latest expansions will also love the addition of the Netherlight Temple, the priest class hall, as a key setting within this book, as it is such a unique and niche location within the game.

A large proportion of the novel is told from the perspectives of the leaders of the Alliance and the Horde, Anduin Wrynn and Sylvanas Windrunner.  If the awesome trailer for Battle for Azeroth is anything to judge by, the next World of Warcraft expansion will focus heavily on these two characters as they lead their factions into a large-scale war against each other.  Golden has made sure to explore both of these respective characters’ mindsets and examine potential future motives for the upcoming in-game conflict.  Other parts of the story are told from the perspective of a range of minor characters, many of whom are actually interactable NPCs within the game.  This range of perspectives gives a wide angle viewpoint of the story being told in both the book and the game, and allows the author to show off the different motivations and differences between the two rival factions.  Players will also love to see this story woven around minor NPCs they may have interacted with in the game, especially as this book may explain why they may have moved or disappeared in future versions of the game.  This is a great adaptation of the current World of Warcraft universe and Golden has successfully transplanted several key and iconic aspects of the game into this book, creating an excellent addition to this extended universe.

While a number of the different Warcraft races are featured within Before the Storm, many readers will enjoy Golden’s focus on the undead playable race, the Forsaken.  While many of the franchise’s previous novels have featured Forsaken characters, Golden has chosen to do a deeper examination of this race now that their ruler is the Warchief of the Horde.  There are some particularly interesting discussions about the role the Forsaken play within Azeroth and how the other races view them.  Readers will be intrigued by the examination about their current level of humanity, and whether they can still maintain connections to the family they had before they died, and will be intrigued by Golden’s fascinating analysis.

As an official World of Warcraft tie-in, Before the Storm is naturally a desirable read for those who are familiar with the franchise and the game’s current storylines.  As mentioned above, there are a ton of elements that will appeal to those gamers currently awaiting the next expansion, as this book ties in to its central storyline.  However, Golden makes sure to elaborate on a range of prior events in the franchise and this will ensure that former players will be able to jump in and follow from when they were last familiar with the story.  In addition, Golden’s writing is fairly accessible, and the game elements don’t massively overwhelm the story, ensuring that readers unfamiliar with the games will be able to enjoy this fantastic fantasy adventure without getting too lost.

Christie Golden has once again created a fun and electrifying novelisation of the Warcraft universe.  Before the Storm is a great tie-in to the upcoming game release, Battle for Azeroth, and serves as an excellent precursor of the exciting stories that will feature within the new expansion.  Making full use of the franchise’s significant lore and a range of iconic settings, Golden has produced a deep and thrilling fantasy tale that that will massively appeal to all fans of the Warcraft games.

My Rating:

Four stars

Star Wars: Last Shot by Daniel Jose Older

Last Shot Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century

Australian Publication Date – 30 April 2018

World Publication Date – 17 April 2018

 

Han and Lando return in Last Shot, the latest Star Wars novel, released just ahead of the characters’ upcoming prequel movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The Phylanx Transmitter is one of the most secretive and dangerous weapons in the galaxy.  Built by the psychotic Fyzen Gor, over the years it has been sought by some of the most nefarious people in the galaxy, from criminal gangs to bounty hunters and even the Empire.  Two captains of the Millennium Falcon have gone up against Gor in an attempt to claim the Phylanx Transmitter.  In the early days of his career, the dangerously charismatic Lando Calrissian and his pilot droid, L3-37, encountered a prototype of the transmitter and barely survived.  Years later, a young Han Solo and the Wookiee Chewbacca raced through the criminal underworld to reach the transmitter before it disappeared into the stars.

Since then, the Empire has fallen and the New Republic has taken its place.  Lando has become a successful business owner and the respected administrator of Cloud City, while Han has settled down with Princess Leia and is now trying to be a good father to young Ben Solo.  While Lando and Han both believe they have put their former lives as thieves and smugglers behind them, the past has a way of catching up with everyone.

Having escaped custody, Gor is holding Cloud City hostage and demands that Han and Lando find and reclaim the Phylanx Transmitter.  Forced to fly under the radar, the two scoundrels must find the transmitter and prevent Gor from using it to rain down untold destruction across the galaxy.  In order to succeed, they recruit a brand new team, including a young hotshot pilot, a brilliant Ewok slicer, a woman who may be the love of Lando’s life, and, of course, the best and fluffiest co-pilot around, Chewbacca.  However, even their new team may not be able to withstand Gor and his twisted droid creations.

Last Shot is the latest book from the acclaimed Daniel Jose Older, author of the young adult fantasy sensation Shadowshaper.  This represents his first venture into Star Wars fiction.

Ever since the original Star Wars movies, vast amounts of books, comics, video games and a television series have been created, resulting in a massive extended universe.  Since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012, the vast majority of this extended universe has been expunged, with only the movies and a few products, such as The Clone Wars, now considered canon.  Some elements of the original extended universe have resurfaced over the years, such as fan favourite character Grand Admiral Thrawn, who recently appeared as an antagonist in Rebels and was the subject of last year’s Thrawn by Timothy Zahn.  Last Shot is the latest book in the smaller Star Wars canon extended universe which has been cultivated in the Disney years.  This stand-alone book has been released as a companion piece to the upcoming movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and features four of the characters who are going to appear in it.

Last Shot contains a clever combination of four separate storylines set in different points in time throughout the franchise’s history.  The main story is set a couple of years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and features the characters forced to return to their lives of crime.  Two of the side storylines follow the main characters on a separate mission in their past, and these subplots are set on either side of the upcoming Solo movie.  The final storyline is set over a period of years and follows the rise of Fyzen Gor.  Older does a skilful job of switching between the various storylines to reveal certain clues and show the reader the hidden history the two main characters have with the protagonist.

This book will strongly appeal to fans of Star Wars, particularly those who like to dive deeper into the lore and storylines of the extended universe.  However, even dedicated fans may feel a little overwhelmed by the constant references to other elements of canon and the inclusion of nearly every alien race in the galaxy.  Even the addition of The Force Awakens fan favourite character Maz Kanata seems a bit forced and unnecessary.  Despite this, casual fans will easily be able to follow the story and enjoy the funny and action-packed adventure within.

Last Shot sets itself apart from many of the other Star Wars stories by avoiding the Jedi-saturated and force-fixated storylines that define most of the movies and books.  This book doesn’t even feature a single Jedi, but instead focuses on the criminal underworld of the galaxy as the main characters fight, cheat and steal their way to victory.  This is a refreshing story which seems to mirror the crime-orientated plot of the upcoming Solo movie.

In addition to the crime-centric story and the multitude of action-packed scenes, the readers will really enjoy the substantial humour that Older has included within book.  In particular, most readers will appreciate the number of self-deprecating jokes and references towards elements of the Star Wars universe.  For example, one particularly enjoyable sequence involves a Gungan who is annoyed with how his species is perceived by the galaxy thanks to the actions of a certain individual.  Despite there being a 40-year gap between the events of this book and those of The Phantom Menace, some shade is still thrown over the infamous Jar Jar Binks.  Not only does the book come across as more humorous and less serious than other Star Wars stories, the book has also been written in a much more adult way, as there are a number of jokes and allusions that would never get included in the family friendly movies.  As a result, Last Shot is an incredibly entertaining story that stands apart from previous works of Star Wars fiction.

Star Wars: Last Shot is an outrageously fun new novel that will greatly appeal to all fans of the Star Wars franchise.  Filled with innumerable references and jokes about the wider Star Wars universe, readers will love to see Han Solo and Lando Calrissian being the very best scoundrels they can be.  This is amazing and addictive new adventure in a galaxy, far, far away.

My Rating:

Four stars