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

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Publisher: BOOM! Studios (28 May 2019)

Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Volume 1

Length: Four issues – 128 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente

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Publishers: Titan Books

                        Blackstone Audio

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

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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

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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

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 3 May 2018

 

One of historical fiction’s very best authors is back with an enthralling story that follows history’s greatest warriors on one of their most legendary journeys.  Without a doubt, Conn Iggulden is one of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today.  Since 2003 he has consistently produced some of the most in-depth, detailed and engrossing chronicles of several different historical periods and cultures.  His previous work includes lengthy examinations of Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan in his bestselling Emperor and Conqueror series, and he has also produced the definitive fictional account of one of the bloodiest civil wars in English history with his extraordinary War of the Roses series.  Now, following his 2017 fantasy debut Darien, Iggulden has once again returned to his historical fiction roots by exploring another new realm of history, the Spartans.

In 401 BC, the new Persian king, Artaxerxes II, rules the largest empire in the known world.  With an empire sprawling from the Aegean Sea to the north of India, the king of Persia is the undisputed ruler of 50 million people.  However, despite all their wealth and power, the kings of Persia have never conquered Greece.  From Thermopylae to Marathon and Platea, the Persians have suffered the ferocity of the Greeks, and none are more feared than the men of Sparta.  As a result, it has been many years since the Persians have attempted to invade Greece, and many Spartans now serve as mercenaries in the Persian army.

When Prince Cyrus, Artaxerxes’s brother, is nearly executed by the new king following the death of their father, the young prince is determined to claim the throne of Persia for himself.  After hiring an army of skilled Greek mercenaries led by an elite core of Spartan warriors and the revered Spartan General Clearchus, Cyrus marches against his brother.  But battles can be lost with a single blow, and when Cyrus is killed on the battlefield the Greeks suddenly find themselves trapped in the middle of the Persian Empire.

With Clearchus and the other Greek generals having been killed through treachery, it falls to a young solider, Xenophon, to lead the surviving Greeks to safety.  With limited supplies and no knowledge of the land before them, Xenophon must find a way to lead 10,000 soldiers and an additional 10,000 camp followers back to Greece.  Forced to endure constant attacks from the Persian army as they travel through deserts and across mountains, their journey will become legendary.

The Falcon of Sparta is a standalone novel primarily based on the classic Greek text, Anabasis, which was written by the historical Xenophon.  Iggulden’s novel focuses on the events of the first four of the seven books of Anabasis.

While The Falcon of Sparta does not contain the full version of Anabasis, in some ways it is a much more complete and detailed story that focuses on the people who featured in this great adventure.  Xenophon related his tale in a rather simple and direct manner, and Iggulden has compensated for this by providing his own storytelling and dramatic writing.  Many of the key characters now have significant backstories fictional justifications for many of these characters’ actions and motives.  For example, Iggulden attempts to provide a more complex and dramatic explanation for the schism between Artaxerxes and Cyrus, rather than the historical story that Cyrus simply desired the throne.  Iggulden also provides additional context for one of the main villains of the Anabasis, the Persian noble Tissaphernes, who led the Persian armies against the retreating Greek forces.  In The Falcon of Sparta his role as a villain is greatly expanded.  Not only is he portrayed as a former friend of Cyrus who betrayed him for power but also as one of the main reasons Cyrus fails to seize the throne and the protagonists are placed into such peril.  Iggulden’s additional backstories and character traits make for a much more compelling and complete story with thrilling and absorbing motivations and antagonists.

These additional story elements are greatly enhanced by the author’s use of character perspectives.  For the first two thirds of the story, narration is split between a number of characters, including Cyrus, Clearchus, Tissaphernes, Artaxerxes and Xenophon.  Not only does this split narration help to build up the respective characters’ histories and allow the audience a better view of their personalities, but it also adds significantly to the story as these characters provide various perspectives on the events occurring in the formative parts of the main story.  Through the narrators we are given glimpses into a range of interesting things, including Artaxerxes’s and Cyrus’s thoughts on the war for their father’s throne, as well as the events and feelings that led up to the conflict.  We also see the respect that Cyrus and Xenophon have for their Spartan allies, as they see examples of their effectiveness in combat and their legendary self-discipline.

The scenes told from Tissaphernes’s point of view further highlight his role as a villain as his inner monologue reveals his selfish motivations and ambitions.  The story told from Tissaphernes’s viewpoint helps turn him into an embodiment of the distain that the ancient Persians had for the Greeks and their soldiers.  Despite seeing the Greeks’ substantial battle prowess, Tissaphernes and many of the Persians viewed the Greeks as second-rate soldiers, and it is fascinating to see how deeply held this belief was.

After the first two thirds of the book, the story is told exclusively from the point of view of Xenophon and starts to mostly represent Book III and Book IV of the Anabasis.  This part of the book allows the reader a closer view of the Spartan and Greek forces as they participate in their epic march and is very entertaining.  Even as the story becomes confined to only one narrator, Iggulden is still able to provide the necessary detail and drama in the final part of the book to keep the story going strong and maintain the reader’s attention and enjoyment.

Special attention needs to be given to the masterful portrayal of the Greeks and Spartans in battle.  Iggulden has an incredible eye for detail and an amazing writing style that brings the reader right into the heart of the book’s large-scale action sequences.  In particular, he spends a significant amount of time focusing on the Greeks and the Spartans and does an amazing job of capturing their battle techniques, tactics and mentality.  There are a large number of battle scenes within this book, and Iggulden uses every opportunity to show off the prowess of his heroes in as much detail as possible, allowing the reader to easily witness the events in their minds.  The Persian soldiers are also examined in the scenes narrated by Cyrus, and it is interesting to see the differences in the fighting style and mentality of the Greeks and Persians.  Those interested in reading about this part of history will love the amount of attention given to the Spartans and find many of the associated descriptions deeply fascinating.

Conn Iggulden has once again produced a masterful and absorbing fictional account that focuses on an utterly intriguing historical event.  Bringing the reader right into the middle of the march of the Ten Thousand, Iggulden expands on Xenophon’s Anabasis and provides a more dramatic and elegant story of betrayal, endurance and survival.  The Falcon of Sparta is a love letter to one of history’s most legendary race of warriors, and it provides the reader with a detailed exploration of Spartan warfare, lifestyle and mentality.  This is a breathtaking and highly recommended piece of historical fiction that is guaranteed to drag you in for the long haul.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Star Wars: Last Shot by Daniel Jose Older

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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