Throwback Thursday – Batman: Under the Red Hood

Under the Red Hood Cover

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film Eight

Director: Brandon Vietti

Writer: Judd Winick

Producers: Bruce Timm and Bobbie Page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday, I am going to keep following a recent trend of looking at animated movies and review Batman: Under the Red Hood.

Ever since I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War last year, I have been focusing a little more on one of my favourite forms of entertainment, animated films based on comic books.  Not only did I have a great time listing my favourite comic book based animated films and television shows, but I have also done some cool reviews for Batman: Soul of the Dragon and Batman: Assault on Arkham.  After I got some positive responses to my review for Assault on Arkham last week, I thought I would use this Throwback Thursday to highlight the incredibly awesome Batman: Under the Red Hood, which is probably my absolute favourite DC Comics inspired animated film.

Released in 2010, Under the Red Hood was an early entry in the DC Animated Originals Movies range, and it remains one of the best that they have ever done.  Directed by Brandon Vietti and written by Judd Winick, this film is an adaptation of the iconic Batman comics storyline Under the Hood, which was also written by Winick.  Not only does this film contain an excellent story that does an amazing job capturing the original comic but it also features an all-star voice cast and some excellent animation, resulting in a dark and exciting film that is also rich in emotion and tragedy.

Years ago, Batman suffered the greatest defeat in his entire crime-fighting career when the Joker did the unthinkable by brutally killing his sidekick, Jason Todd, the second Robin.  Despite this terrible loss, Batman left the Joker alive and continued his non-lethal mission for justice, fighting from the shadows to save Gotham City from its criminal element.

In the present, Gotham is controlled by the ruthless crime boss, Black Mask, who has managed to take over the entire criminal underworld.  But a new player in town, the mysterious Red Hood, is making moves to disrupt Black Mask’s interests and take control of the city.  With some incredible skills, brilliant manoeuvring and intense violence, Red Hood soon becomes a major thorn in Black Mask’s side, taking parts of the city from him.  At the same time, Red Hood has placed himself right in the path of Batman and his former sidekick, Nightwing, determined to test his abilities against those of the Dark Knight.

As Batman attempts to stop the latest wave of violence sweeping the city, he notices something disturbingly familiar about the Red Hood.  His skills and training are too familiar, and even more shocking, he knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne.  With Black Mask on the warpath, the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul watching from the shadows, and the Joker always a menacing presence in Arkham, Batman gets closer to finding out the terrible truth about who Red Hood truly is.  But is he prepared for the darkness and tragedy he will find under the hood, or will the ghosts of his past finally push Batman over the edge?

Under the Red Hood is a dramatic, exciting, and overall tragic animated feature, which is brought together beautifully to produce an epic and powerful film, anchored by an exceptional narrative.  The film starts in a very dark place, with a malicious and hilarious Joker brutally killing Robin just before Batman can save him.  This perfectly sets the tone for the entire film, as the story advances to modern times and shows a new brutal crime war between the Black Mask and newcomer the Red Hood.  At the same time, Batman becomes embroiled in their war, when he interrupts a ploy by the Red Hood to steal an Amazo superweapon.  This leads to an action-packed middle section of the film, as Batman and Nightwing attempt to capture Red Hood, who is also dealing with assassins sent by Black Mask.  After several impressive fight sequences, Batman learns the shocking truth about Red Hood’s identity (which is as a tad obvious, even for those unfamiliar with the comics), resulting in some extreme drama, as Batman is forced to confront the dangerous ghosts of his past.  As Batman attempts to come to terms with his discovery, Red Hood forces his opponents to make some dramatic moves, which work into his plans.  What follows is a fantastically powerful and intense final act, as Batman confronts Red Hood and finds out the tragic and touching reasons behind his motivations.  What follows is emotional blow after emotional blow, as Batman, Red Hood and the Joker have their final confrontation.  The aftermath of this is absolutely heartbreaking and will leave you breathless and utterly moved: “This doesn’t change anything; this doesn’t change anything at all!”  This is an epic and exceptional narrative that I have so much love for.

Under the Red Hood serves as an exceptional adaptation of the Under the Hood Batman comic storyline, although as the film and the comic share the same writer, that’s pretty understandable.  This film does a great job fitting all the key points of the comic into its 75-minute runtime, and you get the full enjoyable story, as well as some useful backstory, especially around Jason Todd’s death.  This is mostly a pretty straight adaption, although there are a few noticeable changes designed to make the movie flow a little better.  I think these changes work extremely well, and Winick adds several great new scenes into this film that make for a different and, in some ways, better experience than the comic source material.  This is mainly because the Under the Hood comic was set amid several other ongoing Batman storylines, as well as the major crossover event, Infinite Crisis, which impacted Under the Hood’s overall narrative.  As it would have been too confusing to include some of these elements in the film, their removal resulted in a few notable changes.  While this did result in a few fun parts from the comics being removed, such as having the opponents in the Batman/Red Hood team-up fight change from members of the Secret Society of Supervillains, such as Captain Nazi and Count Vertigo, to a group of mechanised martial artists (it’s still a great fight though), some of the other changes worked really well.  I loved the alterations to the Joker’s story, as it was clever to have the Red Hood orchestrate Joker’s release to kidnap him.  It also results in some amazing scenes, including that great cell scene with Black Mask, and the fantastic scene with the truck on the bridge.

One disadvantage that I felt the film version had was that the big reveal over Red Hood’s identity is a lot less impactful.  When the Under the Hood comic first came out, it was a major revelation and there were some great surprise elements to it.  However, by the time the film came out, every comic fan knew who Red Hood really was, so that really cut down on the surprise factor of the reveal.  In addition, even if you were unfamiliar with the Under the Hood comic, the Jason Todd death scene at the start of the film ensured that most viewers would be easily able to figure out this twist as soon as the mysterious Red Hood appeared.  This was kind of unavoidable though, as the rest of the film wouldn’t have made sense without the establishing scene.  I did think that the reason behind Robin’s resurrection was handled a lot better in the film.  The original story, in which he is brought back to life due to Superboy-Prime punching a dimensional barrier, never really worked for me, so having it purely be the result of a Lazarus Pit resurrection was a lot neater and simpler (well, as simple as a magical resurrection pit can be).  Overall, I think that Under the Red Hood proved to be a really good adaption of the original comic, and in many ways I felt that in enhanced the source material while also compensating for the changed canons.

I am always deeply impressed by the fantastic and well-crafted animation of Under the Red Hood.  This entire film features a constant stream of beautiful and amazing sequences that are an absolute joy to behold.  The action is seamless throughout, and the creative team make sure to feature several sequences that show off the various skills of the main characters, while also bringing some iconic scenes from the comics to life.  I really must call out the two excellent extended chase sequences, as Red Hood flees from Batman and Nightwing.  These scenes are full of excitement and major moments, and the fantastic running sequences, equipped with all the players using their various gadgets and tricks, are so cool, and they are just animated perfectly.  However, these chase scenes pale in comparison to some of the epic fight sequences featured throughout the film.  While I do deeply enjoy the Amazo fight sequences at the start of the film, which expertly highlights the way Batman and Nightwing work together as a team, the best ones are the two fights involving Batman and Red Hood.  The first of these, which sees the two former partners team up against the anime-inspired team of assassins, the Fearsome Hand of Four, is so deeply cool, especially as the amazingly drawn martial arts techniques are beautifully paired with the over-the-top gadgets (one guy gets thrown through the air with explosives several times).  The animators save the best for last, with a brutal brawl between Batman and Red Hood near the end of the film.  This impressive and dramatic fight sequence is teased throughout the entire film, and when it goes down it does not disappoint.  The two heroes go to war with each other, each of them bringing lethal fighting abilities and an entire arsenal of toys and gadgets against each other for some incredible action.  The fight goes from the alley where the two first met, to the rooftops, all the way to a dilapidated apartment bathroom, where bodies are brutally thrown through fixtures and walls.  There is so much intensity in this sequence, and the animators outdid themselves bringing this major and spectacular fight to the screen.  You will be so impressed by this terrific animation.

You cannot talk about Under the Red Hood without out mentioning the incredible collection of characters and the outstanding voice cast that perfectly portrayed each of them.  Unsurprisingly for a Batman film, the cast is anchored by the Dark Knight himself, who is voiced by the talented Bruce Greenwood.  This is a great portrayal of Batman and the writer really captured the complexities of the veteran version of this superhero.  This Batman has been fighting crime for a very long time, and has been struck by tragedy after tragedy, especially the death of Jason Todd.  This comes into play throughout the film, and there are some major emotional moments, especially in the final climatic scene with the Red Hood.  Watching this film, it is impossible not to see Batman as a tragic figure, always destined to experience heartbreak and trauma as the result of his relentless crusade.  I did love the amazing animation featured around Batman’s various fight scenes, and it contrasts nicely with some of the other characters, such as Red Hood, with more of a focus on his experience and placing the right move at the right time.  I also really enjoyed Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Batman, who brings a gruff and determined depiction of the character which really works.  Greenwood delivers several great dialogue sequences which show the depth and complexity of this iconic character, and I had a fantastic time following him in this film.

Another major character is the character of Jason Todd/Red Hood (I would add a spoiler alert, but after all these years it’s kind of redundant), voiced by Jensen Ackles.  The Red Hood featured in this film is an amazing and outstanding version of the character, and you run the entire emotional gambit with him.  I loved the fantastic and clever introduction of the character, where he manages to take over a large criminal organisation with just a bag and a machine gun.  This evolves into a very fun game of cat and mouse between Red Hood and Batman, while he also works to take over from Black Mask.  The eventual reveal about Red Hood works extremely well: “You haven’t lost your touch, Bruce,” and I loved the various chase scenes between the two, as well as their joint fight sequence against the Fearsome Hand of Four.  All this perfectly leads up to the great final confrontation with Batman, with a big elaborate fight scene and that extremely dramatic sequence opposite Batman.  Ackles adds some real cockiness to the character, and his various interactions with the supporting characters are pretty funny and really fun.  However, it is his sequences with Batman that are the best, as Ackles adds all the appropriate drama of a murdered child when encountering his former mentor.  The revelation of Red Hood’s motive is deeply captivating, and the entire scene where he, Batman and the Joker are reunited is so very tense and powerful.  You also have to love how the final scene in the film features the younger version of Robin on his first night of crime-fighting, as his innocence and childlike joy at being a hero stands in such contrast to his eventual fate: “This is the best day of my life.”  This is an outstanding portrayal of one of the most complex characters in the DC canon.

I also really must highlight the incredible version of the Joker that is featured in this film, who is voiced by the always entertaining John DiMaggio.  This is a great interpretation of the Joker, and you get to see just how vicious and ruthless he can be.  I love how the writers and actor did a great job capturing his insane mentality when it comes to the Batman, especially as his greatest ambition is to drive Batman insane enough to kill him.  I was honestly surprised at how awesome John DiMaggio was in this role, especially as the purely evil Joker is very different from the comedic characters he is best known for portraying.  However, he brings some very excellent menace to this character, and while there are a lot of humorous undertones to his actions, the sheer insanity and joy he has at other people’s suffering is more than evident.  Joker has some incredible scenes throughout this movie, which DiMaggio really enhances with his unique take on the character.  The opening sequence in which he beats Jason Todd half to death with a crowbar is pretty dark, despite the constant jokes, and his later confrontation with Batman in Arkham really captures his overall insanity.  However, his best sequences occur later in the film.  The first of these is the cell scene with Black Mask, where he accepts a job offer in the most boss way possible (never hand the Joker a cup of any variety).  The follow sequence on the bridge, where he attempts to draw the Red Hood out with a truck, some guys and some gasoline is really great, especially when it is revealed that the Black Mask is also amongst his hostages.  However, DiMaggio shines best in the final sequence where Batman and Red Hood finally have their dramatic showdown with the Joker in the middle.  The Joker revels in all the drama and emotion in the room, especially when Red Hood attempts to force Batman to kill Joker: “This is turning out even better than I hoped!”  The final bit of the confrontation where Joker, realising that Red Hood’s bomb will kill them all, joyfully attempts stop Batman, “This is perfect…. I’m the only one who’s going to get what they want tonight,” really captures the character’s chaotic mentality and is a great conclusion to his story arc.

The other major character in the film is Nightwing, former Robin Dick Grayson, who is portrayed by the legendary Neil Patrick Harris.  Mostly featured in the first half of the film, Nightwing serves as the traditional sidekick role, bringing a lighter comedic role to the dynamic duo and playing off the ultra-serious Batman perfectly.  I loved the fantastic coordination in the action sequences between these two, and the animators do an outstanding job showing how their fighting styles complement each other and they instantly know what the other one is doing.  Harris’s voice work is great, hyping up the characters comedic, banter-laden fight style, and while it didn’t fit as well as some other versions of Nightwing I have seen, this was still a pretty epic bit of casting.

Aside from these above four main characters, I deeply appreciated Jason Issacs and Wade Williams as Ra’s al Ghul and Black Mask respectfully.  Issacs does an outstanding job bringing the enigmatic and ruthless al Ghul to life, and it was great to see the respect and personal code this version of the character has, especially once his actions result in Jason Todd’s death.  Williams’s unhinged version of Black Mask is also incredibly good, and I loved the ultra-anger he brings to the role, especially as he slowly becomes more and more targeted by Red Hood and Batman.  His reactions to the crazy antics of the other characters is pretty fun, and you’ve got to love the look on his face when he sees Red Hood targeting him with a giant rocket launcher.  I also want to call out Kelly Hu as Black Mask’s assistant, Ms Li, a gender-swapped version of the assistant character in the comic.  Ms Li serves a pretty cool counterpart to Black Mask and is a constant calm presence in his chaotic administration, barely batting an eye at any of his angry or violent outbursts.  These great supporting characters compliment the main cast perfectly, and I felt the film’s entire collection of characters and actors helped to turn Under the Red Hood into something incredibly special.

While there have been some incredible DC animated movies out there, none have eclipsed the exceptional and awesome Batman: Under the Red Hood.  Featuring an impressive adaption of an iconic and cool comic story arc, this amazing film contains a fantastic narrative loaded with action, excitement, and intensity, as the characters engage in a dramatic and tragic battle.  With a perfect voice cast and some outstanding animation, Under the Red Hood is a must-watch animated film that I have seen and deeply enjoyed so many times.  An easy five-star watch that is highly recommended; if you love Batman, you need to see this film.

Top Ten Tuesday – Favourite Comic Book Animated Series

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  The official topic this week was Favourite Places to Read, however, I’m going rogue once again and instead will continue my trend of looking at Comic Book adaptations.  Recently I have been highlighting and examining some of the great multi-media features that are adapted from established comic book series.  So far, I have looked at my favourite animated comic book films, ranked all the MCU films, and looked at some cool DC Comics films.  These were very interesting subjects which really appealed to my likes and focuses, and I am having a blast writing about them.  To keep this trend going, I thought that this week I would spend some time looking at some of the incredible animated series based on comic books.

I am sure that all of us can remember watching a comic book adaption on our morning cartoons when we were younger (I know I can, and several examples are featured in the list below).  There is an intrinsic connection between comics and cartoons, and Hollywood’s attempts to turn great comics into fun animated entertainment have resulted in some of the best adaptions of the original content out there.  I have long enjoyed watching animated series based on comics, and we are currently in a bright new age of animated adaptations, especially with the continued focus on all-things comic book and superhero.  As a result, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to explore some of my absolute favourite animated comic book shows.

To produce this list, I pulled together all the best animated shows I have watched over the years that were originally based on some form of comic book.  There are quite a few great shows out there that have some origins in the comic book world, and I had a big pool of potential entries to work with.  I was eventually able to whittle it down to my absolute favourite 10 shows, with my typical generous Honourable Mentions section.  The final list turned out to be pretty interesting, and I was quite happy with the range of shows featured.  I have only included shows I have so far watched, so that means a couple of notable series are missing, such as Superman: The Animated Series.  I have also tended to steer away from a few 90s classics, such as X-Men or Spider-Man.  While I enjoyed these shows when I watched them and they successfully adapt some of the most iconic storylines, they really haven’t aged that well.  I also excluded the most recent animated series, What If…?, mainly because there has only been one episode so far, and I want to see at least the whole first season before I make any decision about it, although I am sure it will appear on future iterations of this list.  Despite these limitations, I ended up coming up with a pretty cool list, so let us check it out.

Honourable Mentions:

Men in Black

Men in Black Animated Series

While strongly inspired by the films, this awesome show had a lot of connections to the original Men in Black comic, and it is an outstanding animated series with some incredible opening credits.

 

Ultimate Spider-Man

Ultimate Spider Man

This was a really good modern take on Spider-Man that nicely tied into some of the other Marvel shows running at the same time.  Featuring some unique and cool adventures, this was an excellent series.

 

Wolverine and the X-Men

Wolverine and the X-Men

A brilliant series that was cut off far too soon after only a single season (an unfortunate casualty of the Disney buy-out of Marvel).  The first season was extremely strong, and if it had gone on for longer, it would have easily been in the Top Ten.

 

Generator Rex

Generator Rex

Based on an extremely short-lived comic, Generator Rex was an epic and entertaining animated show.  Set in a world where everyone has been infected by nanites, it follows titular hero Rex, a teen who can control his nanites and turn them into weapons, as he fights monsters and great villains.  A very cool show that had a great run, and which even featured a fantastic crossover with Ben 10.

 

Top Ten List (Unranked):

Invincible

Invincible

Let us start off with the recently released InvincibleInvincible is an exceptional and amazing adaption of the comic of the same name, which follows a young hero as he attempts to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Featuring an awesome cast, this show really does the comic justice and is very dark and bloody.  I loved the changes they made to the story, while also keeping all the best bits of the comic, including that incredible twist.  I literally just finished the final episode a couple of hours ago and I am still reeling from how brutal it got.  A deeply impressive show, if you have not checked out this first season yet, you are missing out.

 

Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn

From one of the darkest shows on this list to one of the funniest, Harley Quinn is another relatively recent animated show that is extremely cool.  This hilarious show features an R-rated look at one of DC’s most popular characters as she strikes out on her own.  Featuring the voice of Kaley Cuoco in the titular role, this witty and fun show contains a fantastic and moving story that dives into the heart of the protagonist, while also showing off some excellent supporting characters.  I love the great combination of over-the-top humour, intense violence, clever parodies, and emotional storylines, and I am really looking forward to the third season.

 

Young Justice

Young Justice

I must admit that I was initially wary when Young Justice was announced, as surely no show about young heroes could ever top Teen Titans.  However, the moment I watched the first episode I was an instant life-long mega fan.  With a surprisingly deep and complex narrative about a group of sidekicks who become the covert-ops wing of the Justice League, Young Justice was an impressive and compelling series that quickly produced two fantastic and moving initial seasons.  Featuring a strong group of core characters, this series adapted several great storylines from the comics, while also telling its own clever and unique overarching narrative.  I loved all the twists and character development that occurred, and I was so very, very happy when DC eventually announced a third season.  This third season was even more adult than its predecessors and it continued to expand on the series extremely well.  There is another season on the horizon and despite knowing nothing about it, I am already immensely confident that I will love it.

 

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

Avengers_Earth's_Mightiest_Heroes_Vol_3_2_Textless

As you can probably imagine, there have been several attempts to adapt the Avengers into an animated series, and in my opinion the best example of this is The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.  Taking most of its cues from the comics rather than the MCU, this outstanding series really captures the heart of the team and presents an exceptional take on each of the main characters.  The first season is pretty perfect and comes together extremely well.  The second season, while a tad rushed in places, is also incredibly cool, and features an amazing version of the Secret Invasion arc.  Unfortunately, this series was cancelled well before its time, but while it was going, it was incredible.

 

Batman: The Animated Series

Batman - The Animated Series

There are many, many Batman series out there, but none have captured the titular hero, the outrageous villains, and the grim setting of Gotham City as perfectly as Batman: The Animated Series.  With some deep and adult storylines, this series never pulled any punches, despite being a kids show, and for many, it was the best introduction to Batman and the world of comics that you can ask for.  Serving as the definitive animated version of Batman out there, this incredible series features all the classic Batman characters, and even introduced a few new iconic faces, such as Harley Quinn.  You also have to love the voice cast, especially with Kevin Conroy providing the quintessential Batman voice, while Mark Hamill is the ultimate animated Joker.  I am lumping in The New Batman Adventures into this entry as well, mainly as it served as a continuation of the original show.  I also must call out Batman Beyond here, which serves as a great end note to this series, especially with that dark and epic connected film, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.

 

Justice League/Justice League Unlimited

Justice League Unlimited 2

For this next entry I am combining the crowning jewels of the DC Animated Universe, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, as they are honestly just the same show.  Continuing some of the great storylines from Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, this cool series brought together seven heroes who formed the Justice League to fight some of the DC Universe’s best and most dangerous villains.  This series contains some incredible storylines, which are easily appealing to both a younger audience and veteran fans of the comics.  I have a lot of love for both the original Justice League, which focused exclusively on the seven founding members, and Justice League Unlimited, which massively expanded the roster with a great cast of supporting characters.  Despite how epic and captivating the other seasons are, my favourite storyline is the one surrounding the Justice League facing off against Project Cadmus, as it contains some of the best writing and some deep examinations of the nature of power and the potential threat that a group of heroes could pose.  A must watch series for all fans of the Justice League and DC comics in general, you will love this show.

 

The Spectacular Spider-Man

The Spectacular Spider-Man

As Marvel’s most iconic and popular comic character, Spider-Man has had an insane number of animated shows over the years, but to my mind, the best is The Spectacular Spider-Man.  Featuring a perfect take on the character without needlessly rehashing his origin tales, this series serves as a great adaption while also providing its own unique story.  Every episode of this show is deeply entertaining, while also diving into the mindset of the teenage hero, his friends, and his menagerie of villains.  Out of all the shows, I think this one captures the teenage years of Peter Parker the best, while also adding in some more modern twists to ensure it still holds up after all these years.  I can honestly watch this entire series in one extended series, it is that damn good.  Unfortunately, as with many of the best Marvel television shows, The Spectacular Spider-Man ended way too soon, although its final episode did wrap things up nicely.  An excellent and compelling series.

 

Teen Titans

Teen Titans

When there’s trouble you know who to call, Teen Titans!!! Yeah, that theme song says it all when it comes to Teen Titans.  This was a wonderful and spectacular show that had just the right mixture of silliness and darkness.  Following the adventures of the titular superhero team, for four seasons, Robin, Starfire, Raven, Cyborg and Beast Boy fought a series of outrageous villains, with a combination of skill and humour.  With some very distinctive characters, a Japanese inspired art style and two versions of the same theme song, this was one of the most unique shows out there with a style all its own.  While there was a definite focus on humour and friendship, many of the storylines have a deeper, more emotional edge to them that will appeal to watchers of all ages, and there is constant and compelling character development.  This series also contains several outstanding antagonists, with the highlight being Ron Pearlman’s Slade (Deathstroke).  I cannot express how much I love this fantastic animated series, and I have watched it many, many times.

 

X-Men: Evolution

X-Men Evolution

I have mentioned a couple of X-Men shows so far, but the one that I think is the best, by dint of being still watchable and having a decent run, is X-Men: EvolutionEvolution features an impressive X-Men narrative that focuses on teenage versions of most of the main characters.  Featuring all your favourite X-Men, this was a really cool and compelling take on the iconic team, and it contains so many great story arcs, many of which dealt with the comic’s overarching themes of discrimination and prejudice.  While there are a lot of great impacts of this series, easily the best thing this show ever did was introduce the character of X-23, Wolverine’s murderous female clone, who is one of my favourite X-Men characters.  An impressive and important series that is well worth a watch.

 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003 and 2012 series)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Joint

For the final entry on this list, I am going to combine two separate Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shows, with both the 2003 and 2012 series.  Based on the comics of the same name, I have a lot of love for both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adaptations, and I honestly enjoy both equally (hence the shared spot on this list).  While both follow the same characters with similar adventures, these are very different series that go in some unique directions.  The 2003 series was the one I grew up with, and I still really love its drawing style and darker storylines.  The 2012 series on the other hand works its CGI animation and anime inspirations extremely well, resulting in more humour and homages to popular culture.  Despite this apparent divide, the 2003 series did have some extremely funny moments and episodes, while the 2012 series got extremely dark in places.  I also deeply appreciate that both shows feature appearances from my favourite comic character, Usagi, with the rabbit ronin teaming up with the ninjas in multiple fun episodes.  As a result, I would strongly recommend both these series as they serve as excellent introductions to this fantastic franchise.

 

 

Well, that’s the end of this list.  As you can see, there are some truly awesome animated comic shows out there, and I am really passionate about which ones I watch.  I am pretty happy with how this list turned out, and I think the unique spread of shows really reflects my tastes and preferences.  Each of the above shows is extremely good, and I would highly recommend all of them.  This is probably a list I will revisit in the future, especially as there are more and more comic-inspired animated series coming out all the time.  With shows like Invincible and What If…? bringing in a whole new generation of fans to animated adaptions, it is only a matter of time before the other companies start adapting all manner of comics into something cool.  I am already excited about a couple on the horizon (they are apparently working on an Usagi Yojimbo animated series 😊 😊 😊), and I look forward to watching them in the future.  In the meantime, let me know which of the above shows you enjoyed, and if you have any recommendations for other cool animated comic book series, I will be interested in seeing what else is out there.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books that Should be Adapted into Netflix Shows/Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, participants need to list the books that they think need to be adapted into a Netflix show or movie.  My first thought when I heard about this topic was, is Netflix sponsoring this post somehow?  Are they that desperate for new ideas that they are conducting some sort of sneaky market research on us?  If they are, I am personally fine with it.  Netflix has a pretty good track record of turning some popular books and comics into some fun shows and movies, many of which I have enjoyed.  An obvious recent example is The Witcher, although other great examples include The Umbrella Academy (I just binged the second season over two days), A Series of Unfortunate Events, You, The Last Kingdom, and Orange is the New Black.  So if Netflix is looking for some more books to turn into awesome shows, I am all for it and I definitely have some ideas for them.

In order to do this list, I scoured through some of my favourite books and comics to try and decide which ones would make the best television series.  I already had a few on my mind the moment I found out what this week’s topic was, as several of these novels have television potential that really stands out when you are reading.  As the topic was Netflix shows and movies, I did try to exclude any series or universe that had already been bought by another streaming company or which is already in development at Netflix (such as any of Mark Millar’s comics).  As a result, you won’t be seeing The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time on this list, as both are already in production in some form or other, and I have also excluded any comics or books owned by Disney or DC Comics (although a Doctor Aphra Star Wars series would be pretty epic).

I eventually came up with quite a few books, series or comics that I thought would make a good television series, and I was able to whittle away a few options to make a Top Ten List.  I am actually rather happy with how this list turned out, as there are some interesting options on this list.  People familiar with my blog will not be surprised by some of the entries I included, but I think there are some good surprises in there that will make this stand out a little.  So let us see how this turned out.

Honourable Mentions:


The Kingkiller Chronicle
by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind Cover

As one of the best fantasy series ever written, The Kingkiller Chronicle is an obvious choice for this list, as its potential to be an awesome series is hard to deny.  However, due to the fact that an adaption for this series is already in the works, I decided to leave it as an honourable mention.  The Kingkiller Chronicle is a special case, as the last I heard about the adaptation was that it was going to avoid the main story of the novels and instead do a whole new narrative in the same universe.  As I personally think a good Netflix adaptation of the main story would be much better, I decided to include this series on the list and hope like heck any adaption turns out alright.


Orphan X
series by Gregg Hurwitz

out of the dark cover

This is a fun and exciting spy series that features a rogue super-agent on the run fighting criminals and helping people as a vigilante.  I have been absolutely loving these books, including the last two novels Out of the Dark and Into the Fire, and I think that these novels could be turned into something really cool, for example: Out of the Dark features the protagonist going up against the entire Secret Service in order to kill a corrupt President, which is pretty damn awesome.


The Cleric Quintet
by R. A. Salvatore

Canticle Cover

It’s apparently quite hard for me to do a Top Ten Tuesday list without mentioning one of my favourite fantasy authors, R. A. Salvatore.  I am a major fan of Salvatore’s writing and I think many of his books would make awesome shows or movies.  However, as it would be pretty impossible to adapt any of his Drizzt Do’Urden novels into movies of television shows (you can imagine the issues they would have trying to cast and portray any Dark Elf characters), I have instead featured The Cleric Quintet fantasy novels.  The Cleric Quintet follows a young priest and his unusual friends and companions as they attempt to defend their region of the Forgotten Realms from all manner of evil.  This is a great piece of classic high fantasy fiction and I think that viewers would love the intriguing tales included within (I personally loved the second book, In Sylvan Shadows, the most), as well as the fantastic development shown by the main characters throughout the course of the series.

Top Ten List:


The First Law
series by Joe Abercrombie

The Blade Itself

When I was coming up with the entries for this list, the first books I thought about were The First Law novels by Joe Abercrombie.  This is because The First Law books are an outstanding dark fantasy series that features all manner of blood, brutality and manipulations, which would translate extremely well into a powerful and addictive television series.  The real strength of these novels is their unique collection of complicated and flawed characters, each of whom is doing their best to survive in an extremely harsh world.  There are some great protagonists in these novels, each of whom has the potential to become an iconic television character if portrayed right, including a deadly warrior with severe rage issues, a pompous dandy who has greatness violently thrust upon him and an exceedingly manipulative mage whose wisdom and plots are entirely self-serving (think an evil version of Gandalf).  The main reason these books could be adapted into an epic show is thanks to the character of Sand dan Glokta, a dark and ugly character, physically and mentally twisted by years of torture by the enemy, who now dishes out torture himself as an inquisitor, when he finds himself investigating some of the strange events troubling his nation.  Glokta is an incredible character, and with the right actor he could easily be the next Tyrion Lannister.  As a result, I really want to see an adaption of this series, and Netflix can easily make something pretty epic from these books, including the recent sequel novel, A Little Hatred.


Joe Ledger
novels by Jonathan Maberry

Patient Zero Cover

Now these are some books that would make for an exciting television series.  Jonathan Maberry’s action-packed Joe Ledger novels are a compelling thriller series that sets government agents against some of the weirdest things that science can create.  There are some amazing stories contained within the Joe Ledger novels, including weaponised zombies (Patient Zero), ancient vampires (Assassin’s Code) and genetically modified killers (The Dragon Factory), and the clever way that Maberry sets out each novel with interludes and chapters told from the antagonists perspective would translate very well into a television series.  These books also have some fantastic characters, including some insanely brilliant villains, a damaged protagonist and a mysterious spy master, that are just waiting to be brought to life by a group of talented actors in order to become something iconic.  Out of all of the entries on this list, this one might have the most potential to get made as Maberry already has connections with Netflix, after his V-Wars series of comics were turned into a show last year.


The Gentleman Bastards
series by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora Cover

This is another exceptional series of fantasy novels that I thought would make an incredible show as I was reading it.  These books follow a group of con men who attempt to swindle and steal from some of the most dangerous people in their fantasy world.  These books are amongst some of the best pieces of fantasy fiction out there, and their unique blend of fantasy and crime fiction elements would definitely make for a memorable and exciting television series.


World War Z
by Max Brooks

World War Z Cover

Now this was an entry that my editor/wife Alex wished me to include on this list.  I have to admit that I have not read this book (I’ll get to it at some point), but I did enjoy the movie.  I understand that this awesome book is substantially different to the movie, comprising of several vignettes detailing different experiences of the zombie apocalypse, as opposed to the rather narrow perspective represented by Brad Pitt in the film.  Alex seems to think that a Netflix series would probably be a much better way to translate this fantastic story to the screen, and from what I have heard about the book I think I agree, especially after I really enjoyed Brooks’ latest book, Devolution.


Legend
by David Gemmell

Legend

Legend is an amazing classic fantasy novel that contains an incredible storyline that depicts an epic siege, as the largest army ever assembled attempts to conquer an impenetrable fortress.  This was such an awesome read, filled with large amounts of action, adventure and memorable characters, including the world’s most legendary hero, who chooses to die here rather than wither into obscurity.  Legend has so much raw potential as either a limited series or a movie (I think a six episode series might be good), and it also serves as an excellent entry into Gemmell’s wider fantasy series, which would also make for some great shows.

Vespasian series by Robert Fabbri

Rome's Sacred Flame Cover

Netflix already has some great historical fiction adaptions, such as The Last Kingdom television series, but if you want to see some wild and troubling bits from history, then they need to adapt Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series.  The Vespasian series follows the titular Emperor Vespasian from the beginning of his career as he navigates the deadly minefield that is ancient Rome.  Watching the protagonist attempt to gain power and influence in this outrageous city would make for an incredible show, especially as Fabbri spent a lot of time highlighting all the insanities of the various Emperors who ruled Rome during Vespasian’s lifetime.  I am a major fan of this historical fiction series (make sure to check out my reviews of Rome’s Sacred Flame, Emperor of Rome and Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood) and I believe that Netflix could make a very crazy and impressive television adaption of these books.


The Powder Mage
trilogy by Brian McClellan

promise of blood cover

This is another dark and epic fantasy series that would definitely make for a good television series.  The Powder Mage books (starting with the awesome Promise of Blood) are set in the aftermath of a bloody revolution and follow several key figures as they attempt to keep their nation intact, while also uncovering ancient secrets and terrible plots.  There are a ton of amazing elements to these books that would translate extremely well into television awesomeness, but I personally would love to see the unique gunpowder magic brought to life, as all the resultant explosions and displays of power would be quite a spectacle to behold.


Chew
by John Layman and Rob Guillory

Chew Volume 1

I had to include at least one comic series on this list, and I could think of nothing better than this weird and wonderful series.  Chew is an action/comedy hybrid series that follows a detective who gets physic impressions from anything he eats, allowing him to solve crimes in the most unique, and often disgusting way.  Chew is an incredibly creative series, with a lot of fun elements to it, all of which would work extremely well as a live action adaption, and I really think that Netflix could turn this into quite a magical and entertaining television series.


The Stormlight Archive
by Brandon Sanderson

WAY OF KINGS MM REV FINAL.indd

When you think ‘epic fantasy’ these days, you really cannot exclude the massive and extraordinary series that is The Stormlight Archives.  Sanderson is one of the best fantasy/science fiction authors in the world today, and each of his books are an absolute joy to read.  While I was strongly tempted to include his young adult novels Skyward and Starsight on this list, in the end I had to feature his main body of work, The Stormlight Archive.  Starting with the exceptional novel, The Way of Kings, this is a deeply impressive series of fantasy novels that feature massive wars, incredible characters and a huge interconnected universe.  While any adaption might need to tone down some of the connections to some of Sandersons’ other series, a television version of The Stormlight Archive easily has the potential to become the next Game of Thrones, and Netflix would be smart to jump aboard that as soon as possible.


Into the Drowning Deep
by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep Cover

Into the Drowning Deep is a fun horror novel that would make for an awesome Netflix movie.  Written by the exceedingly talented Mira Grant, this book and its preceding novella, Rolling in the Deep, set humans against the most dangerous predators in the world, mermaids.  This book was one of the best novels of 2018, and I loved the way that Grant was able to make the mermaids so dangerous and frightening.  You would need to combine Into the Drowning Deep with Rolling in the Deep to get the full story, and there is a really outstanding movie waiting to be made when you do.  Plus, it would also be really cool if it encourages Grant to write a sequel to Into the Drowning Deep, which is something I really want to see.

 

Whew, that is the end of that list.  As you can see, I have put a lot of thought into what books and comics Netflix should adapt, and I honestly believe that each of the above books could become something really incredible.  I really hope we see some form of adaption of each of these in the future, and if any of them ever get made, then they would be at the top of my to-watch list.  In the meantime, make sure to let me know which of the above books and comics you enjoyed, as well as which novels you think Netflix should adapt in the comments below.

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

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - High School is Hell Cover

Publisher: BOOM! Studios (28 May 2019)

Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Volume 1

Length: Four issues – 128 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffy-03-01a

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

Mass Effect Annihilation Cover.jpg

Publishers: Titan Books

                        Blackstone Audio

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

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

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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

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