The Erasure Initiative by Lili Wilkinson

The Erasure Initiative Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 August 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the brightest and best Australian authors, Lili Wilkinson, returns with another intense and captivating young adult fiction novel that takes the reader on a clever thrill ride, The Erasure Initiative.

Lili Wilkinson is an extremely talented writer who has written several bestselling young adult fiction novels since her 2006 debut, Joan of Arc: The Story of Jehanne Darc.  I first really got into Wilkinson’s work back in 2018 when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of After the Lights Go OutAfter the Lights Go Out was an incredible and amazing young adult fiction novel that followed the daughter of a survivalist in outback Australia as she attempted to navigate a real-life apocalyptic event.  This was a truly impressive novel, and not only did I give it a full five-star rating but I also consider it to be one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have ever read.  As a result, I was extremely excited when I saw that Wilkinson had a new book coming out, especially as The Erasure Initiative had such an awesome-sounding plot behind it.

A teenage girl wakes up on an advanced self-driving bus.  She has no memory of who she is, where she is or what she has done in her past.  The only clue to her identity is a nametag that reads CECILY.  But she is not alone.  On the bus with her are six other people, some who seem familiar and some who do not.  These include an attractive guy, a beautiful girl with severe anger issues, a brilliant high schooler, a tattooed man with violence boiling just beneath the surface, an extremely confident and controlling women and a disorientated old lady.  Like Cecily, none of the other people on the bus appear to have their memories, but each of them has a secret worth dying for.

As Cecily and her new acquaintances attempt to make sense of who they are and what is happening to them, a series of ethical questions are posed to them.  Each person on the bus must participate and choose an outcome to a hypothetical scenario, with the decision the majority chooses taking place before their eyes.  Soon, the participants are tested in even more shocking ways, as the various ethical questions become personal and deadly.  Determined to find a way out of this situation, the passengers attempt to uncover the truth behind their incarceration on the bus.  But the deeper they dig the more secrets about their past are revealed and the more discord grows amongst them.  How are each of these people connected and what actions in their past resulted in them being placed on the bus?  More importantly, what is the Erasure Initiative and what impact will it have on all of them?

This was a heck of a novel from an author who I am a major fan of at the moment.  Wilkinson did an outstanding job crafting together this compelling and thought-provoking standalone novel which combines an extremely gripping and clever storyline, with some rather fantastic and inventive ethical dilemmas.  The end result is an impressive young adult fiction novel that I absolutely loved and which I was able to read in extremely short succession, especially once I became addicted to The Erasure Initiative’s captivating narrative and needed to find out how the book would end.

I really have to highlight the incredible narrative that Wilkinson came up with for this fantastic novel.  The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Cecily (if that is her real name!) and shows her slowly unwind the events occurring around her.  Wilkinson starts the story off strong, presenting the reader with a series of enticing mysteries, including who the main characters are, what they are doing on the bus, who is behind their predicament, and what secrets each character’s apparent amnesia hides.  As the story progresses and the characters start to get a sense of who they are and how they feel about each other, they are beset not only with the strange ethical questions but with a series of hints at their past and what they are there for.  This is assisted by a series of in-narrative documents and articles that appear at the start of multiple chapters, providing the reader with more clues towards the character’s past lives.  These hints and reveals are done perfectly by Wilkinson, with a lot of the key information initially redacted to give readers a basic shape of the character’s past and personalities, without revealing the whole picture.  This all leads into the story’s big reveals that start about halfway through the book.  While I was able to predict a couple, including who the novel’s antagonist was, there were quite a few reveals I did not see coming, and one in particular had me reeling at its cleverness and the author’s excellent use of misdirection.  By the end of the book, all of the various twists and secrets come together perfectly, and the overall conclusion of the novel is extremely satisfying, especially as I quite enjoyed where the characters ended up.  Overall, this was a pretty epic story, and I really enjoyed seeing how it turned out.

One of the most intriguing parts of The Erasure Initiative’s story was the way that the author examines ethics and how humans view right and wrong.  The novel follows several amnesiac characters as they are forced to participate in a series of ethical dilemmas, most of which are some variation of the ‘trolley problem’.  Watching the characters react to the numerous variations of the problem and try to come up with the answer they think is right is really quite fascinating, especially when it is influenced by several additional factors, like who is involved, certain alterations in a person’s appearance and more.  All of this results in a number of thought-provoking scenarios for the characters, which is further complicated by the people not knowing who they are thanks to their amnesia.  This leads to all manner of additional fascinating examinations of self and personality as the people try to determine who they are based on the few clues or details they have been given, like attempting to work out whether the people who woke up with a certain colour shirt are law-abiding citizens or criminals.  I really liked the various reflective looks at people’s personalities, as the characters looked in on themselves or passed judgements on their fellow passengers.  The eventual reveal of the cause of the amnesia and the forced ethical examinations results in even more discussions about morals and personalities, as the characters come to terms with who they are and what choices they made in their previous lives.  All of this added an extremely compelling and interesting edge to the entire story, which certainly makes The Erasure Initiative stick out and become even more memorable.

Like most of Wilkinson’s work, The Erasure Initiative is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I can guarantee that this is the sort of book I would have really appreciated when I was a teenager.  As I have mentioned above, this book contains quite an impressive story, and one of the great things about it is that it does not talk down to its intended audience.  Indeed, Wilkinson has included some very complex and clever themes about identity, personality, decision making and ethical behaviour that I feel younger readers will really appreciate and take the time to consider.  Many of the characters and their decisions will easily resonate with a teenage audience, and this is a very worthwhile book for them to check out.  The book does contain some mature themes and content which potentially makes it a bit inappropriate for younger readers and early teens, although most of the inclusions are tastefully done and in keeping with current social norms.  This is also one of those young adult novels that is extremely accessible to older readers, and I feel that there is a lot in The Erasure Initiative for post-teen readers.

With The Erasure Initiative, amazing Australian author Lili Wilkinson has once again produced an incredible and powerful young adult fiction novel that comes highly recommended.  I loved the amazingly clever story, especially thanks to the memorable ethical elements and this is a fantastic novel for a huge range of different readers.  Wilkinson is fast becoming one of my favourite Australian authors, and I cannot wait to see what outstanding story she comes up with next.

Throwback Thursday: Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry

Dogs of War Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 25 April 2017)

Series: Joe Ledger – Book Nine

Length: 17 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry, the 9th novel in the action-packed, over-the-top Joe Ledger series.

People familiar with my blog will be aware that over the last year or so I have been making my way through Maberry’s Joe Ledger science fiction thriller novels.  I have been a little obsessed with these books ever since I first checked out the 10th novel in the series, Deep Silence, and then went all the way back to book one, Patient Zero, to see how the series started.  Ever since then I have worked my way through the rest of the Joe Ledger novels, each of which has proven to be a pretty top notch read.  I absolutely love the clever writing style, unique stories and distinctive characters that Maberry features in these novels, and I usually power through them in extremely short order.  Dogs of War is no exception, as I was able to get through this in less than a week and it did not take long for me to get addicted to its intriguing and exciting plot.

Following the disastrous events of Kill Switch, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a secret American counterterrorist unit that focuses on dangerous and unusual technology and science, is damaged and discredited.  However, they are still determined to do good throughout the world, and their main field agent, the legendary Joe Ledger, is always keen for a new case.  So when his brother calls him out of the blue with an unusual mystery, Ledger does not hesitate to head back to Baltimore in order to investigate.

Arriving in his former hometown, Ledger discovers a curious set of circumstances.  A young street worker went on a rampage, killing several people before dying herself.  The cause of her madness appears to be a new strain of rabies, which was apparently triggered by nanobots in her brain.  Attempting to investigate more into the case, Ledger finds himself and his family targeted by ruthless killers with advanced technology, determined to ward him off the case.  It soon becomes apparent that the death of the young girl in Baltimore is just the tip of the iceberg, as other mysterious events and attacks occur across America, many of them targeting members of the DMS.  A new enemy has risen from the ashes of the DMS’s old foes, and she is determined to bring about a new world order.  Worse, the DMS’s most dangerous enemy has returned, ready to rain chaos and destruction down on the entire world.  Can Ledger and his team defeat this ruthless team of villains before it is too late, or will Ledger face the greatest tragedy of his life?

So, after reading all 10 Joe Ledger novels (as well as the spinoff novel, Rage), I have come to the conclusion that is actually impossible for Maberry to write a bad Joe Ledger novel.  I was once again blown away while reading this ninth book as Dogs of War contained an epic and addictive story that I could not stop listening to.  Maberry continues to utilise his distinctive writing style in this book, setting up a captivating and clever story that is loaded with intense action, likeable characters, memorable antagonists and a devious plot to end the world.  This results in a very captivating read and Dogs of War gets an easy five stars from me.  This is actually one of my favourite novels in the series and is probably the best one I have read this year (by a very small margin; Predator One and Kill Switch are both really good).  Also he briefly mentions my Alma mater, ANU, so yay for that!

Dogs of War contains an absolutely fantastic story that sees the fun and complicated protagonist, Joe Ledger, face off against another world ending threat.  Just like in the rest of the series, Dogs of War’s narrative is cleverly constructed with about half the novel is told from the point of view of Ledger, as he encounters the antagonist’s plot in real time.  However, the rest of the novel features a large array of alternate perspectives and preceding time periods that expands the range of the story and helps to create a complex and captivating narrative which really grabs the reader’s attention and interest.  Maberry backs up this great storytelling with a thrilling and action-packed narrative that is fast-paced and delightfully over-the-top.  I really love the unique science fiction thriller storylines that Maberry features within Dogs of War and I appreciated all the cool connections that it has to previous novels in the series.  This cool story will appeal to a wide range of different readers and it is extremely accessible to people who are unfamiliar with the Joe Ledger series as Maberry goes to great lengths to explain all the various story elements and characters featured within the book.  That being said, I really need to emphasise just how truly over-the-top this story could be, as there are a number of scenes that some readers may find uncomfortable or hard to read.  This includes some very graphic fight sequences and some rather disturbing sexual content, some of which, if I am being honest, is way too excessive (one flashback scene features the underage antagonist getting deflowered by a literal demon right after her mother’s funeral, which happened to coincide with 9/11).  Still I have a lot of love for the way in which Maberry constructs a Joe Ledger story, and Dogs of War is a truly fun and thrilling story as a result.

Just like with the previous novels in this series, Maberry has anchored his amazing story on a fantastic collection of characters who really help to enhance the narrative and turn this into a first-class read.  The main character is the series’ titular protagonist, Joe Ledger.  Ledger is an extremely complex character due to his fractured personalities and intense emotional range, and it is always incredible to see the story through his eyes, whether he is feeling each and every emotional blow that comes as way as a result of the case, or he is dishing out severe and brutal vengeance to those who have wronged him.  Ledger is also the cause of most of the book’s enjoyable humour, as he has an extremely flippant outer personality, including a hilarious and sarcastic inner monologue, which becomes especially funny when he encounters the various strange and over-the-top elements that this series is known for.

In addition to Ledger, Maberry also does an amazing job reintroducing and utilising the various recurring characters who have been featured in the previous entries in the series.  All of the side characters have their own distinctive and enjoyable personalities, and fans of the series will really appreciate seeing many of these characters return and continue their various individual storylines.  This includes the two surviving members of Ledger’s personal strike team, Top and Bunny, who serve as a great backup throughout the novel and get into some dangerous scrapes of their own.  I particularly appreciated the way in which the author examined and showcased the emotional damage that these two characters have been dealing with since the traumatic events of Kill Switch, and it added an amazing sense of realism to the story.  I also absolutely loved seeing more of Ledger’s attack dog, Ghost, the best and most lovable canine killing machine in all of fiction.  It is an absolute testament to Maberry’s writing ability that he is able to install such a fun and memorable personality into a fictional dog, and you can’t help but love it when Ghost is on the page doing his thing.  That being said, one of the best characters in the novel has to be the mysterious head of the DMS, Mr Church.  Church is a calm and measured figure throughout the novel, grounding the various main characters and providing stable leadership to them.  However, the main appeal of Church lies around his enigmatic nature and past.  Maberry has built up such an amazing amount of mystique around this character that anytime a little hint or mention of his past is presented the reader absolutely laps it up as they try to figure out who or what he is (is he an alien, an angel, some form of immortal hero from history? You just don’t know).  Dogs of War features several more tantalising hints and clues about this, and you get some very interesting glances into his past, although there is still so much mystery.  I really loved seeing all these great characters again, and it was fantastic to see how the story unwinds around them.

No Joe Ledger novel would be complete with a sensationally evil villain with a complicated past and an elaborate master plan, and Dogs of War features both in spades.  The main antagonist of this novel, Zephyr Bane, is a rather intriguing character with a unique view on the world and a range of connection to some of the villains previously featured in the series.  Maberry does an outstanding job building up this antagonist throughout the course of Dogs of War, including through a series of interludes that show key moments in Zephyr’s life, such as how she came up with her plans and how she was tutored in the art of villainy.  While Zephyr is a great antagonist, Maberry doubles down on the villainy in the novel by introducing another sinister opponent for the DMS to face.  This second antagonist is someone who has appeared in several of the past Joe Ledger novels, although his identity is hidden for a good part of the book (although fans of the series will work out who they are rather quickly).  This character is another particularly mysterious being, who spends most of the book manipulating events from the shadows, giving the reader hints at who they are and what they are capable of.  A major highlight of this novel is this villain’s long-awaited showdown with a major Joe Ledger character, and this fated interaction does not disappoint, even if it leaves the readers with more questions than answers.  Overall, these are some fantastic antagonists, and I absolutely love seeing the outrageously evil opponents that Maberry comes up with for these books.

I also have to highlight the extremely complex and intricate evil plot that these antagonists came up with for Dogs of War.  This was a great, high-stakes plan that contained a lot of different elements that are slowly revealed to the reader throughout the course of the book.  Not only does Maberry make great use of flashbacks and interludes to show how this plan came to pass and the various planning stages but he also spends time examining how the antagonists attempt to counter the inevitable interference from the DMS.  Both of the main antagonists have had interactions with the DMS before, and they know that any plan they implement will gain the attention of the DMS at some point.  As a result, they come up with a number of counters and tactics designed to directly target key elements of the DMS in order to take them off the board.  This was a really clever part of the story, as not only does it add an extra level of drama to the narrative, especially when Ledger is emotionally targeted, but it also represents a clever bit of continuity with the rest of the series.  A lot of the weaknesses that the antagonists attempt to exploit were previously introduced or discussed in some of the previous Joe Ledger novels.  The antagonists subsequently try to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors when they utilise these weaknesses, resulting in a lot of tension as some of the characters you are invested in are personally targeted.  I think this was one of the more inventive master plots that Maberry has come up with for the Joe Ledger series.

One of the most fascinating parts of Dogs of War was the author’s examination of certain real-world technologies.  Throughout the course of the book, the author examines all manner of technological marvels in great detail, including nanobots, advanced robots, drones, computer technology and artificial intelligence.  This results in a number of intriguing discussions as the various characters consider all the applications and impacts that such technology has on the world, these technologies are then cleverly worked into the plot of the book as the antagonists utilise them for their evil plans.  Not only is this immensely interesting and highlights the research that the author has obviously done, but all this technology adds a certain amount of real-world menace to the book.  As Maberry takes pains to explain at the very front of the book, all of the technologies that he features within Dogs of War is either in development, currently being tested or already exist in the real world.  As a result, the reader gets a little bit of dread at the thought that a lot of the terrible things that Maberry features within Dogs of War could happen in real life.  This of course helps to ratchet up the tension and suspense within the novel, and I really appreciated how the author used this to make the story even better.  Also, you get to see the protagonist go up against a bunch of robotic dogs, which is just awesome on so many levels.

In order to enjoy Dogs of War I checked out the audiobook format of the novel, which has a decent run time just short of 18 hours.  I absolutely love the Joe Ledger audiobooks and they are by far my preferred way to enjoy these fantastic novels.  The main reason for this is the awesome narrator, Ray Porter, who has lent his talent to every novel in the Joe Ledger series, including Dogs of War, and whose voice really enhances these books.  Porter, who is probably my favourite audiobook narrator at the moment, does an amazing job bringing the characters and the story to life, thanks to his memorable voices and the impressive way that he loads each word with so much emotion and personality.  You always get an incredible sense of the character’s emotions, as the anger, rage, fear or grief that they go through always comes through so clearly.  I particularly love the way that Porter brings the series’ main character, Joe Ledger, to life, as he perfectly captures Ledger’s diverse emotive range, including his boundless anger and his outrageous and sarcastic humour.  I also love the incredible voices he utilises for some other characters, such as the mysterious Mr Church, and his depiction of him contains all the necessary gravitas and power to match the character described in the text.  I also liked the way in which Porter loads one of the antagonist’s voices up with such pure menace and hatred, turning them into a very threatening figure in this format.  All of this made listening to Dogs of War an absolute treat, and I cannot recommend the Joe Ledger audiobooks enough.

Dogs of War was another excellent and addictive entry in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, and I had an amazing time listening to it.  Featuring an outstanding story, awesome characters and so many other fantastic elements, this was an incredible read and I am extremely glad that I checked it out.  I have to admit that I am actually a little sad to have finished off Dogs of War, as that was the last Joe Ledger novel that I had to read.  I have really enjoyed going back and checking out all of the wonderful novels in this superb series, and I will have to get my science fiction thriller fix somewhere else in the future.  Luckily, Maberry actually references several other great series in Dogs of War that could be worth checking out, including the Sigma Force, Seal Team 666 and Chess Team thriller novels, all of which apparently exist in a shared universe with the Joe Ledger books.  I will have to have a think about look at some of these in the future, especially as I wait for Maberry to write another entry in his spin-off Rogue Team International series.  In the meantime, Dogs of War is really worth reading and it comes very highly recommended from me.

Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

Firefly The Ghost Machine Cover

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 28 April 2020)

Series: Firefly – Book three

Length: 335 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Get ready to dive into the minds of chaotic crew of Serenity as bestselling author James Lovegrove presents the third original tie-in novel to Joss Whedon’s epic science fiction television show, Firefly, The Ghost Machine.

Since the end of 2018, Titan Books have been publishing an exciting series of Firefly novels, which follow the exploits of the infamous crew both during and after the events of the original show. Since the planned third novel, Generations, was delayed towards the end of last year, all of the released Firefly novels have been written by author James Lovegrove, who is probably best known for his Pantheon series, as well as his various Sherlock Holmes novels (which feature some intriguing and unique stories around the iconic character). I have been really enjoying these recent Firefly novels, due to my love of the franchise and the excellent quality of the books involved, and I had an amazing time reading the first two entries in this series, Big Damn Hero and The Magnificent Nine. Due to how much I have enjoyed the prior books and the franchise as a whole, I was rather excited to read The Ghost Machine, and I was not disappointed. Lovegrove (with Whedon credited as a consulting editor), has produced a fantastic and compelling novel, with a really intriguing central plot premise.

Set between the events of the television show and the film, Serenity, this novel focuses on the crew of the Firefly class spaceship, Serenity, as they tour the verse looking for work, legal, illegal and all shades in between. This time, Captain Malcolm Reynolds has accepted a contract from crooked businessman Badger to pick up package on a remote planet and bring it back to him. However, Mal is less than thrilled when he discovers that the cargo is a flightcase stolen from the notorious Blue Sun Corporation, which likely contains advanced tech designed for the Alliance military.

Refusing to let such a potentially problematic cargo aboard his ship, Mal, Zoe and Jayne are forced to kill the sellers in order to leave. However, what Mal does not realise is that Jayne has snuck the package aboard Serenity without telling anyone. As Serenity leaves the planet, each member of the crew suddenly begins to live out their biggest fantasy. Mal finds himself living a peaceful family life with Inara, Jayne is back on his family’s ranch with his little brother’s damplung cured, Wash imagines that he is the owner of a vast shipping empire, and Zoe dreams that the Independence won the battle of Serenity Valley and defeated the Alliance in the Unification War.

What the crew does not realise is that the flightcase contained an experimental urban pacification device known as The Ghost Machine. This machine causes people to fall into a fugue state while imagining their greatest desires, but the tech is dangerously faulty. Soon the crew’s visions of riches, rewards and happy lives become distorted and turned into terrible nightmares that threaten to tear apart their psyches. Worse, with Wash out of commission and not steering the ship, Serenity is on a collision course with a nearby moon. The only person not affected by the machine is River Tamm, whose own mind is dangerously askew at the best of times. But with River sedated and unconscious, can she do anything to help her friends and save the ship, or will The Ghost Machine claim its next victims?

Well, that was shiny! The Ghost Machine is an excellent and enthralling Firefly tie-in novel which was a real pleasure to read. Lovegrove has pulled together one hell of a character-driven narrative which presents the reader with a perilous situation, while also diving deep into the hearts and minds of the iconic crew members. This a clever and compelling story which would have honestly made a spectacular episode of the television show, which I think is high praise in itself. The entire book is extremely slick and captivating, and once I got into it I could not stop reading it, managing to polish off the last 300 pages in a single night. Lovegrove has honestly outdone himself with this book, and I think that The Ghost Machine is my favourite of all the current Firefly books.

As I mentioned above, The Ghost Machine is the third Firefly tie-in novel that has been released, although it was initially intended to be the fourth. Each of these Firefly novels, including The Ghost Machine, are standalone novels, and you do not need to have read any of the prior tie-in books before reading this latest release, nor are there any issues involved with Generations being released out of sequence. I found that The Ghost Machine was very accessible to all readers, and even those people who are not as familiar with the events of the television show should be able to follow and enjoy what is going on within this book. That being said, this novel, like all tie-in books, is specifically designed to be enjoyed by major fans of the franchise, and Lovegrove has filled The Ghost Machine with a number of fun references and callbacks. In particular, quite a number of minor characters from the television show are referred to or appear throughout the book, either within the various dream sequences or back in the real world, and there were even a couple of mentions of characters who only appeared in Lovegrove’s prior novel. There is also a fantastic sequence that replays the opening events of the very first Firefly episode, except with a twist, and some of the plot elements of this book have some interesting connections to the Serenity film set after the events of The Ghost Machine. As a result, fans of the show are going to have a great time reading this novel, although more casual science fiction fans will probably enjoy it as well.

Just like the television show it ties into, The Ghost Machine’s story is very character driven, and focuses on the members of Serenity’s crew. In this story, Lovegrove focuses on all seven remaining characters (as this is set between Firefly and Serenity, Inara and Shepherd Book have both left the ship) equally, and each of them serves as a point-of-view character for several chapters in the book, with one or two chapters also told from the perspective of a non-crewmember like Badger. As the story revolves around each character living out their own unique fantasy, this proved to be the best way to tell the story. I was quite impressed by the way that Lovegrove was able to create distinctive and compelling storylines for each of these main characters in the few chapters each of them had, and all of their character arcs came together extremely well to make an excellent overall narrative. I also think that Lovegrove did a fantastic job portraying all the crew members, and each of them came to live in a similar manner to how they were in the show. This excellent character work added quite a lot to the narrative, and it was great to see some more of these beloved characters.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the visions that each member of the crew experiences because of the titular Ghost Machine. All the characters, with the exception of River, find themselves living a dream version of their life, where their deepest desires have come to pass. It was deeply interesting to see what each member of the crew’s desires where, and it says a lot about each of their personalities and mindsets, while also showing what some of them think about their fellow crew members. For example, Mal’s vision of a happy life with Inara speaks volumes about his true feelings for her after she left Serenity, especially as in this dream he would be willing to live on an Alliance planet just to make her happy. Jayne’s vision of a peaceful life on the family ranch with his brother cured of his terminal illness seems quite at odds with his usual gruff exterior, and it was nice to see that there is more to his character than his desire for violence and money. Simon, who misses the family life and medical career he left behind, imagines a seemingly nice sequence in which he and River are back home safe, but which also includes a relationship with Kaylee. I personally really enjoyed seeing Zoe’s vision of the Independence winning the battle for Serenity Valley and the Unification War, which made for some fascinating alternate history scenes, and which shows that she still is not over how the war ended. I also had to laugh at Wash owning a company called Pteranodon Incorporated in his dreams, due to his love of dinosaurs.

While it was really intriguing to see what each of the characters deepest desires were, it was also cool to see these desires get turned into nightmarish scenarios. The second part of the novel becomes significantly darker as each of these scenarios dissolve into truly terrible situations that play into the characters fears. Lovegrove comes up with some compelling and at times horrifying alterations to each character’s desires, and it was interesting to see each of them unfold. For example, you have a Reaver ship coming down near Mal’s new family home, Wash getting his company taken away by an unlikely source, and Simon finding himself being literally hunted by his family for pursuing a relationship with a mechanic rather than a rich, socially acceptable woman. Each of these changes in scenarios made for some great reading, and I also liked how they also revealed some more details about each character’s inner psyches, such as Simon assuming that his formal family would approve of his budding romance with Kaylee, or the fact that Zoe was always cautious of the mysterious Shepherd Book, and had suspicions about what his past could of have been. Even River, who is the only person who realises that what she is seeing is a dream, is affected by what she and the others think, which limits her ability to save the ship, adding a whole new layer of suspense to the story. Actually, the whole River character arc is actually really exciting, as she ends up bouncing around each of the other character’s nightmares. It was intriguing to see the various ways that she communicated with these characters, especially as she is significantly more mentally intact in these interconnected dreams. The inclusion of all these compelling visions and nightmares really enhances the entirety of The Ghost Machine’s narrative, and it was a fantastic and clever story element.

Overall, The Ghost Machine is an outstanding and wildly entertaining Firefly tie-in novel that was an amazing treat to read. James Lovegrove has come up with an imaginative story, full of action and excitement that also gets right to the heart of several key characters from the television show. I really loved the multiple creative dream sequences that made up most of the book, and it made for an extremely fascinating story. This was an awesome and addictive novel, and it is a must-read book for all fans of the Firefly franchise.

Star Trek: Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack

Star Trek - Picard Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 11 February 2020)

Series: Star Trek: Picard – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Get ready to dive back into the Star Trek universe with Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack, the latest Star Trek novel which ties into the events of the Picard television show. The Last Best Hope is an outstanding novel that serves as a bridge between Star Trek: The Next Generation show and the current Picard series.

Nearly 20 years before the events of Picard, both the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire faced an unprecedented calamity. Scientists have just discovered that the Romulan sun is in the process of going supernova, turning into a destructive force that will devastate the Romulan home system and have significant negative follow-on effects on the remaining planets within Romulan Space. In order to ensure the evacuation of their people, the Romulans grudgingly request aid from the Federation, who assign Jean-Luc Picard to the mission.

Picard, promoted to the rank of admiral, quickly finds himself in charge of the largest and most difficult operation in Starfleet history. The evacuation mission is a vast undertaking, requiring Starfleet to relocate hundreds of millions of Romulans to distant planets in only a few short years. Lacking resources and manpower, Picard begins the evacuation process as best he can, with the invaluable help of his new first officer, Rafaella “Raffi” Muskier. Meanwhile, back in the Federation, Geordi La Forge attempts to come up with new ways to increase Starfleet ship production on Mars. The best solution is the creation of a new, synthetic workforce, and La Forge calls in an old colleague, the brilliant scientist Bruce Maddox, who reluctantly halts his lifelong work on artificial life to help build these new synthetics.

As the evacuation progresses, Picard takes solace in every small victory his team can achieve, but this mission seems doomed to fail. Debates from ambitious Federation politicians, distrust and fear from the Romulans they are trying to help, and interference from the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police, all hinder the mission. However, Picard is not one to give up easily and is determined to save every Romulan he can from the impending disaster. But even the great Jean-Luc Picard is unprepared for how his mission will end. Everything is about to change, and Picard and the galaxy will never be the same again.

Star Trek is one of those popular franchises that always produces a ton of extra content each year in the forms of novels and comics, so it was no surprise that material related to Picard would eventually be released. The Last Best Hope is the very first Picard tie-in novel, although I expect that additional books will come out in the future. Indeed, IDW has already released a Picard tie-in comic, Countdown, which I will probably check out at some point. This first Picard novel was written by veteran tie-in author Una McCormack, who has previously delivered several great Star Trek books, including last year’s Star Trek: Discovery tie-in, The Way to the Stars. McCormack does an amazing job with The Last Best Hope, producing a captivating and incredible read that expertly leads into the new show.

Before I dive too deep into this review, I think that it is necessary to point out that this book was released on the 11th of February, between the third and fourth episodes of Picard. That means that this book contains quite a few mentions of events and reveals that occur in the initial episodes of the show, especially as McCormack clearly had early access to the show’s scripts. While this ensures The Last Best Hope a much more complete and in-depth tie-in novel, it does mean that this book contains some spoilers for the television series. In addition, as I have been religiously watching Picard every week, my review is influenced by the events of the first six episodes and it also contains some spoilers from the show.

The Last Best Hope is a wide-ranging Star Trek canon novel, set across several years of Star Trek history (2381 to 2385) that explores one of the biggest prequel events mentioned within Picard, the explosion of the Romulan sun and the attempts by Picard to evacuate them. This leads into a powerful and clever novel which shows all the trials and tribulations associated with this exercise, as well as several other events that lead into the show. McCormack makes excellent use of a number of different character perspectives to create a full and rich narrative around this plot, which also explores some major Picard characters. While I did think that parts of the story ended rather suddenly, with no real lead-in to the disaster on Mars that changes everything, this book is a first-rate novel which I powered through in extremely short order.

One of the major appeals of this book is the fact that it serves as a prequel to the events of Picard and provides readers with additional background and context to the adventures currently happening in the show. This is done in a number of ways, from providing the reader with greater background about certain characters, showing the origins of a number of the storylines from the show and serving as a bridge between the events of Picard and The Next Generation. The Last Best Hope features an excellent introduction to several of the newer characters in the show, such as Agnes Jurati, Raffi, Elnor and the Qowat Milat nuns, and it was intriguing to see how these characters slotted into the pre-history of the show. At the same time, McCormack also examines what happened to several established characters from The Next Generation after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, including Picard, Bruce Maddox, Geordi La Forge and even a little bit about Worf (he becomes captain of the Enterprise!). McCormack also provides an explanation about several key occurrences and storylines that are touched on within the show, such as the creation of the synthetic workers that destroyed Mars, Picard’s resignation from Starfleet and the extent of several key relationships. There are also some potential hints at where the show might go in the future, and I will be interested in seeing if those pan out at all. I was pleasantly surprised with how much background that McCormack was able to fit into The Last Best Hope, and the different revelations and expansions on the information provided in the show make this a fantastic read for those currently watching Picard.

The Last Best Hope features some very impressive character work, and I feel that McCormack did an excellent job capturing the personalities and histories of several key characters from the new show. I really appreciated her portrayal of Picard, and this book featured several key aspects of his character, such as his dark moods, his determination and his ability to inspire absolute loyalty in his subordinates. I liked how the reader gets to see how Picard deals with the seemingly impossible task assigned to him, especially as his emotions throughout the book range from hope to absolute despair, as multiple obstacles and problems seem to dog everything he does. One of the major parts of his character explored in this book is the way that Picard’s ideals and beliefs seem a little out of touch with the world he lives in. This is something that is shown throughout the Picard television show, as the old-school captain is now living in a much darker and more desperate world. I am really glad that McCormack tried to capture this in her novel, and it was really compelling to see Picard being completely oblivious about the darker realities of the galaxy. All of this is really compelling to see, and I think that it serves as a good basis for some of the ways Picard acts in the current show.

Aside from Picard, a number of other characters are featured throughout the book, many of whom have some really interesting and compelling stories. I personally found the tale of Raffi, Picard’s new first officer, to be particularly good, as the reader gets to see how she became so messed up and obsessed with proving that the Romulans where behind the destruction of Mars. You also get a better understanding of why she was so mad that Picard quit on her and the mission, especially after she sacrifices everything for him, thanks to the way he inspired her. McCormack also spends significant time exploring the character of Bruce Maddox, and it was especially intriguing to see this character between his appearances in The Next Generation and Picard. You also got to see the origins of his relationship with Agnes Jurati (indeed, based on release dates you learn about this relationship in this book before it is mentioned in the show), and it was great to see how it unfolded and how close the two of them were. Of course, this also has a more sinister and heartbreaking edge to it if you look back at this relationship after the events of the fifth episode of Picard. I also liked the Geordi La Forge storyline; it was interesting to see his struggle to increase Starfleet ship production. However, the best part of this portrayal occurs at the end of the book, and I will be curious to see how they show off his survivor’s guilt if the character ever appears in Picard.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was the way McCormack slowly starts to alter the tone of the novel to represent the change between the lighter The Next Generation and the darker Picard shows. At the start of the book, the story is more in line with the tone of The Next Generation, with Picard embarking on a humanitarian mission with his idealism and belief in the greater good intact. However, as the mission progresses, things start to get darker, as the various obstacles to the Romulan relief mission become more apparent. The dark and callous manipulation of the Romulan leaders and Tal Shiar as well as the xenophobic politics of certain Federation politicians becomes more and more apparent, resulting in a darker tone. McCormack also attempts to replicate the more adult tone of the current show with a greater reliance on swearing (never have I seen so many F-bombs dropped in a Star Trek novel, oh the humanity!) and hints of mass murder, genocide and extinction-level events. All of this makes for a slightly different Star Trek tie-in novel experience, and I personally enjoyed some of the subtle changes McCormack made to the tone.

I personally really enjoyed seeing the entirety of Picard’s attempts to evacuate the Romulans from their soon to be exploding sun. This has been one of the most fascinating events mentioned in the show, with several parts shown or alluded to in Picard. McCormack really dived into this event, showing many of the various aspects of such an operation, including the science, politics and diplomacy associated with it. From the start, this whole mission is painted as a near impossibility, not just because of the scale of calamity and the number of people affected but because of the mindset and suspicion of the Romulans they are trying to save. To put it into context, this operation would be like the United States trying to evacuate a similar sized country that had North Korean levels of state led secrecy and distrust towards the organisation trying to save them. The sheer scale and difficultly of this mission are constantly raised, and yet Picard and his team seem to find a solution to many of the problems presented to them. Of course, anyone who has seen the first episode of the show knows how this is going to end, so seeing the characters getting so invested in their mission is a bit of an emotional blow. That being said, this book contains a lot more context for some of the Federation’s decisions, and in particular the character of Admiral Kirsten Clancy (Starfleet’s CNC in the second episode of Picard), comes across as a whole lot more sympathetic. Overall, I felt that this was an amazing expansion on the events mentioned in the show, and it was really cool to see how the whole operation unfolded.

Another great facet of The Last Best Hope which made it such an intriguing book was its compelling examination of the Romulan people. McCormack really dives into Romulan culture and society in this book, presenting some intriguing details about this race. In particular, she examines the Romulans’ deep-seated need for privacy and secrecy, which is a defining part of their species. McCormack does an excellent job highlighting how this desire for secrecy impacts them as a race and a culture (secret multi-room Romulan music for the win!), and how they barely trust other members of their own species, let alone members of the demonised Federation. Seeing how this obsession with lies, secrecy and the appearance of saving face with the Federation impacted the species’ chance for survival is a compelling and intriguing part of the book. McCormack also dives into other parts of Romulan culture and society, mainly the role of the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police, who have long been a shadowy force within Star Trek lore. Seeing the fear and apprehension that this organisation causes amongst ordinary Romulan citizens, as well as the lengths they will go to maintain secrecy and security, is pretty crazy and it certainly enhances an established Star Trek antagonist species. I also enjoyed seeing more of the Qowat Milat, the Romulan warrior nuns who Picard befriends and helps evacuate from Romulan space. The Last Best Hope contains several encounters with the Qowat Milat, and we get to learn a bit more about them, the role they play in Romulan society and how they interact with the Tal Shiar, with whom they have an adversarial relationship. All of this is deeply, deeply fascinating, especially for those readers who love learning about Star Trek lore, and I really enjoyed seeing all the Romulan inclusions featured in this book.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Last Best Hope, which is narrated by Robert Petkoff. This new Star Trek audiobook runs for 11 hours and 40 minutes, which can be listened to fairly quickly, especially once you get stuck into the compelling story. I really enjoyed listening to The Last Best Hope, mostly thanks to the incredible voice work of Robert Petkoff. Petkoff seems to be the go-to narrator for all things Star Trek these days, as he has lent his superb vocal talents to a huge number of other Star Trek audiobook adaptions in recent years. I have previously enjoyed his work on such books as The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox, The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett and Available Light by Dayton Ward. In each of these previous books, I have been greatly impressed by Petkoff’s ability to recreate the voices of key characters from the Star Trek television shows, including most of the characters in The Original Series and The Next Generation. He continues this amazing voice work in The Last Best Hope, providing near-perfect impressions of characters like Picard and La Forge, which really helps the reader immerse themselves into the story. While his impressions of some of the newer characters from Picard are not as accurate (keep in mind Petkoff would have recorded this book before Picard aired), he does provide clear and distinctive voices for each of the characters utilised in the books. I also love the accents he provides to the various alien races and nationalities in this book, and I especially enjoy hearing him attempt to replicate the speech patterns of certain aliens, like the Vulcans. Thanks to this incredible voice work, I absolutely loved listening to the audiobook for The Last Best Hope, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in this latest Star Trek novel.

Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack is an excellent and deeply captivating read which serves as a perfect prequel tie-in novel to the current Picard show. There is so much information and detail about the Star Trek universe prior to the events of the current television series contained within in this novel, and I loved seeing the author expand on the intriguing new universe that has been hinted at in the show. This is a must-read book for all Star Trek fans, especially those who have been loving Picard, and even non-Star Trek fans will enjoy this book’s powerful story and the fantastic plot device of the Romulan rescue mission. The Last Best Hope is probably the best Star Trek novel I have had the pleasure of reading so far, and I am extremely excited to see what other tie-in novels they release around the awesome new Picard series.

Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker

Deathwatch Shadowbreaker Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 25 April 2019)

Series: Warhammer 40,000/Deathwatch – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into the extended universe of Warhammer 40,000 (Warhammer 40K or 40K), as science fiction author Steve Parker presents Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker, an action-packed and exceedingly exciting sequel to his 2013 novel, Deathwatch, which pits the deadly Deathwatch Space Marines against an entire planet full of T’au.

Thousands of years in the future, the galaxy is constantly at war. Humankind has survived as the massive Imperium of Man, under the divine protection of their long-dead Emperor. However, this beacon of humanity is under constant threat from all sides. Destructive alien races, demons from the warp and the traitor forces of Chaos continuously assault its borders, whilst heretics, mutants and witches attempt to destroy it from within. Over the millennia, the Imperium has created many different forces to protect their worlds from these threats; however, none is more feared or revered than the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines. Space Marines are legendary warriors genetically modified to become significantly stronger, larger and faster than a normal man. Swathed in power armour and armed with the deadliest of weapons, the Space Marines are a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, bringing the Emperor’s wrath down on all who oppose them.

But even amongst these deadliest of soldiers, there is one organisation of Space Marines who are respected above all others for their fighting ability and skill, Deathwatch. Deathwatch is an elite group made up of best Space Marines veterans from across the Chapters, trained to become the ultimate tools in one of the Imperium’s holiest missions, the extermination of the xenos, the alien. Utilising the most advanced technology in the Imperium and receiving specialist instruction in the strengths and weaknesses of their foes, Deathwatch work in small kill-teams under the Ordo Xenos of the Imperial Inquisition in order to hunt down and destroy the most dangerous xenos threats in the galaxy.

Lyandro Karras, Codicier of the Death Spectres, is a powerful Space Marine Librarian serving in the Deathwatch as the leader of the kill-team, Talon Squad. Barely recovered from the disastrous events of their last mission, Karros and Talon Squad once again find themselves under the command of the mysterious Inquisitor Sigma. Their new mission takes them to a former Imperial world that has been conquered by the alien T’au, who have indoctrinated the majority of the human population into their society and philosophy. An Imperial Inquisitor, Epsilon, has gone missing in T’au space, and Sigma believes that she is being kept prisoner on the planet. Desperate to free her before the T’au extract vital secrets about the Imperium from her, Talon Squad and a force of Ordo Xenos Storm Troopers are deployed to find her. Working with the local human resistance, Talon Squad identify the prison she is located in and must work to release her before the massive T’au garrison knows they are on planet. But what happens when Epsilon refuses to accompany Talon Squad back to the Imperium?

Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker is part of the massive extended universe which has formed up around the Warhammer 40K tabletop miniature game produced by Games Workshop. Warhammer 40K, which was first released in 1987 and pits armies of science fiction miniatures against each other, has always contained an interesting and grim science fiction narrative to serve as a background to the game. With every new edition of Warhammer 40K that was released, this background narrative got more and more detailed, resulting in an extremely deep, compelling and gothic-themed fictional history surrounding all of the different races, armies and characters featured within this tabletop game. Due to the popularity of the Warhammer 40K universe, a huge amount of expanded material has also been released over the years, including several videogames, comics, board game spinoffs, an animated movie (with a remarkably good cast of British actors) and there is currently a television series in production. However, the main medium that has been utilised as part of this expanded universe is books.

Over the years, there has been a tremendous amount of Warhammer 40K books produced, featuring the works of a number of skilled and talented science fiction authors. There are now hundreds of Warhammer 40K books currently published, covering the different periods and races featured in the tabletop game. In 2019 alone there were nearly 20 different novels, anthologies and audio dramas associated with Warhammer 40K. This is a very impressive amount of material, and I have not even mentioned the multiple book releases associated with the separate Warhammer Fantasy universe.

While I am a man of many, many different fandoms, the products of Game Workshops are among the earliest fantasy and science fiction products that I was a major enthusiast of. I was extremely into Warhammer Fantasy when I was a kid and I have many fond memories of painting and battling with the models, reading the company’s monthly White Dwarf publication and playing some of the Warhammer 40K computer games, such as Dawn of War. While I was solely playing with Warhammer Fantasy models, I did learn a lot about Warhammer 40K at the same time, especially as I really enjoyed reading all the lore and background of the various Games Workshop products. I have been meaning to read some Games Workshop fiction for a while now, and I have previously mentioned that I want to read the cool-sounding Gaunt’s Ghosts series. However, I ended up reading the recently released Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker instead, mainly because it featured two of my favourite groups from the Warhammer 40K lore, Deathwatch and the T’au, facing off. Shadowbreaker is the latest book from Steve Parker, a science fiction author, who has primarily written Warhammer 40K fiction. Shadowbreaker is his first release since 2016, and it is actually a sequel to his 2014 novel, Deathwatch, which featured the same group of primary characters.

I am actually really glad that I chose to read and review Shadowbreaker, as this excellent 40K novel contains an awesome and extremely entertaining story that features all manner of action, adventure and intrigue, while also diving deep into several fascinating parts of 40K’s lore. Shadowbreaker is an excellent sequel to the author’s previous book, Deathwatch, and Parker does an amazing job of continuing the story that was started in this prior book, while at the same time setting up some intriguing potential directions for the series to go next. Prior knowledge of the events of Deathwatch is not a necessity to enjoy this book, as Parker does a good job of re-introducing all the relevant events of the previous novel, and readers should be able to follow Shadowbreaker’s story without any real issues. Parker has created a rich narrative for this book that utilises a huge number of character viewpoints to not only examine the development within several characters but also explore a number of different angles and features of the harsh gothic universe in which this book is set. These multiple viewpoints work especially well during Shadowbreaker’s extended action sequences, as they allow Parker to show off every aspect and side of the brutal battles, resulting in some exciting and detailed combat set pieces. Shadowbreaker’s story ends up going in some rather intriguing directions, featuring some fun twists and reveals, and this was an overall fantastic and exciting story to check out.

While Shadowbreaker is an amazing novel, it might not be as appealing to those readers who are not familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe. This book is pretty lore heavy, containing a whole lot of references to history, technology, alien races and other unique aspects of this fictional universe. While I felt that Parker did a great job of explaining most of the Warhammer 40K elements that are relevant to the story, a certain amount of prior knowledge about this massive universe will really help readers understand what is going on. Do not get me wrong; readers unfamiliar with the franchise will easily be able to follow and enjoy Shadowbreaker’s story, but they may have trouble appreciating all the interesting lore references or depictions from the miniatures game. As a result, I would probably recommend this book more to established fans of the 40K universe, although casual science fiction readers are definitely going to have a good time reading this. That being said, I note that some other readers of this book who are more familiar with the actual tabletop game than me were put off by a couple of apparently incorrect depictions of weapons, armour and vehicles. While these apparent anomalies in no way impacted my enjoyment of the book (honestly, I am not knowledgeable enough about battle gear to have really picked up on this), I can imagine that this could annoy some hardcore 40K fans, so fair warning about that.

For me, one of the major appealing aspects of this book was its excellent examination of fascinating elements from the Warhammer 40K universe. As I mentioned above, the universe of the 40K games are filled with all manner of fantastic, complex and unique features which are all backed up with a ton of lore and fictional history. Parker does an awesome job of setting Shadowbreaker within this universe and he ends up utilising quite a lot of detail from the games in the story. There is actually quite a lot going on within this book. Not only do you have the primary storyline of Space Marines versus T’au but you also have storylines that relate to infighting and intrigue within the Ordo Xenos, examination of the constant threat that is the Tyranid, the machinations of the Eldar, and the long-term plots of a demon lord thrown in on top. All these various storylines actually come together really well into an outstanding story, and fans of the 40K franchise are almost guaranteed to have some mention or discussion about their preferred army or race in the game (with a couple of exceptions).

However, the thing that really excited me the most about this book was the central conflict between Deathwatch and the T’au. I am a major fan of both of those groups and have always been really intrigued by the cool lore and background that surrounds them. When I started reading this book, I was half-expecting the story to be shown purely from the perspective of the Deathwatch characters. If this had been the case, the author would have been forced to do a classic humans versus aliens storyline, where aliens are automatically the bad guys due to the Space Marines’ inherent hatred of all things alien. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when Parker presented a much more complex storyline which showed neither side as “good” or “evil”. Instead, thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives, it is shown that both sides of this conflict are dominated by dangerous fanatics driven by their beliefs, either in the purity of destroying all things alien or the defining T’au philosophy of the “Greater Good”. This belief results in both sides doing some very questionable things in order to achieve their objectives, most of which result in large amounts of destruction and death. Interesting enough, it is Lyandro Karras and some of the members of Talon Squad who are the most reasonable characters in this book, and all of them have been heavily indoctrinated about the evils of the alien. This all makes for a much more intriguing and clever story, and I loved how it helped highlighted how complex this universe can get.

Shadowbreaker contains quite a bit of information about how the legendary Deathwatch operates, which is just downright fascinating, and I can imagine a lot of readers would be really interested to learn more about. While there was a lot more about the layout of the organisation and their training in the initial Deathwatch book, readers of Shadowbreaker learn a lot about them in this book. For example, Shadowbreaker contains information about Deathwatch’s unique relationship with the Inquisition, their skills in battle, their knowledge of the aliens they fight and the fact their ranks consist of Space Marines from various chapters. All of this is really cool, and there were a fantastic central organisation to centre the book on.

I also quite enjoyed the examination of the different Space Marines that make up the various Deathwatch kill-teams featured within this book. Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character perspectives, the reader gets to see through the eyes of a number of Space Marine characters. Parker cleverly utilises this to show off the varied personalities of the Space Marines, and it was interesting to see how diverse these genetically enhanced and indoctrinated killing machines can really be. A lot of this is due to the specific Chapters that they come from, as each character seems to reflect the traits of their Chapter and their founding father. I liked how the multiple perspectives helped highlight he different fighting styles of the various members of the Deathwatch kill-team, especially as each of them utilises different weapons and tactics to achieve their goals, reflecting the defining skills of their original Chapter. For example, the Raven Guard character continuously utilises a jump pack and lightning claws in his fights, while the Imperial Fist preferred to use heavy weapons. These different combat techniques add an extra layer of spice to the various fight sequences, and I really liked seeing the different characters in action. I was also really intrigued by the author’s deep dive into the history and peculiarities of two of the lesser-known Space Marine chapters, the Death Spectres and the Exorcists. Parker reveals some really interesting facts about these two Chapters, mostly when these respective characters think back on their past or their Chapter. I really didn’t know that much about these two Chapters before this book, and I really enjoyed learning more about them, especially as they have some very cool and unique traits (one summons and betrays demons for an initiation test; the other has a mysterious glass throne hidden on their home planet). As a result, fans of Space Marine history and lore are really going to love this book, and even non-fans will appreciate the world-building associated with them.

In addition to the intriguing examination of Deathwatch and other Space Marine Chapters, Parker also features an excellent look at one my favourite races in the Warhammer 40K universe, the T’au (or Tau). The T’au are probably the newest race in 40K canon (although that was quite a few years ago) and have been featured in a couple of books and have even had their own video game, Fire Warrior. T’au are a young race of aliens whose empire has quickly expanded in recent years thanks to their advanced technology and wiliness to incorporate alien races into their empire. Their sudden expansion has made them a real threat to the stagnant Imperium of Man. Parker does an amazing job incorporating the T’au into this book, and there are some fantastic depictions of their technology and unique physiology. The T’au serve as excellent primary antagonists for this book, and Parker takes an interesting view of them, diving into the darker side of their empire. Thanks to the various character perspectives contained within Shadowbreaker, the reader gets to see more than their typical depiction as a beatific race who merely wish to share their technology and their message of the “Greater Good” throughout the universe. Instead, you get to understand how slavishly devoted to their philosophy they really are, and the lengths that some of them will go to achieve their race’s goals. There are some really interesting discussions about how they control the populations they conquer, as well as some brief but curious mentions of T’au who do not follow the Greater Good and are persecuted or punished for this. I also really liked the detailed examination of a human world that is being ruled by the T’au, especially as you get to see all the various benefits and downfalls of this control. The fact that neither the T’au nor the Imperium actually care about the planet or its people is a bit of a dark spot in the novel, and some of the conclusions of the book reveal just how much better off this planet would have been on its own. If I had one complaint about Parker’s depiction of the T’au, it would be that they went down way too easily in a fight. While a couple of their units and commanders were able to hold their own for a bit, the rest of the T’au forces were pretty much slaughtered in one-sided battles throughout the book. While I appreciate that the author was probably trying to demonstrate Deathwatch’s skill at killing aliens, I think he could have perhaps added in a bit more of a fight from this popular race. Still, I really enjoyed this inclusion of the T’au, and I need to check out some other books that feature them.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Shadowbreaker, which was narrated by Andrew Wincott. Shadowbreaker clocks in at just over 16½ hours, so it is a fairly substantial audiobook which takes a little bit of effort to get through. I was very impressed by this format of the book, and I personally found it a great way to absorb all the amazing things occurring in the story. Wincott is a really good narrator, coming up with some distinctive and appropriate voices for the huge raft of characters that were featured in this book. I really liked how Wincott was able to capture the emotion and mood of the various characters, and I was especially impressed with the harsher tone that he took for many of the Imperial characters, which fitted perfectly into the gothic style of the Imperium. As a result, I would highly recommend the audiobook format of Shadowbreaker to anyone who is interested in checking this book out, and it is a wonderful way to enjoy this great piece of Warhammer 40K fiction.

Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker was an incredible read which I found to be extremely entertaining and which proved to be a perfect reintroduction for me to the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Parker presents an exciting and compelling story that dives deep into the universe’s lore while also exploring some of the complexities of the various featured races and armies. Overall, this is an outstanding novel and I am really glad that I checked it out. I fully intend to read more Warhammer 40K fiction in the future, especially after enjoying this book so much, and I hope that Parker continues his Deathwatch books in the future as well.

Throwback Thursday – Extinction Machine by Jonathan Maberry

Extinction Machine Cover.jpg

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 26 May 2013)

Series: Joe Ledger Series – Book Five

Length: 14 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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

For my latest Throwback Thursday, I once again go back to one of my absolute favourite series as I check out Extinction Machine by Jonathan Maberry, the fifth book in the exciting Joe Ledger series.

Long-term readers of this blog will be familiar with my recent obsession with the Joe Ledger thriller novels. The Joe Ledger series is one of the main bodies of work from bestselling author Jonathan Maberry, which follows a secret military organisation that targets any organisations or individual who attempts to utilise the latest science and technology for their own dangerous ends. I absolutely fell in love with this series in late 2018, when I read the 10th book, Deep Silence, and I have been slowly reading my way through the earlier Joe Ledger books ever since. So far, each of the Joe Ledger books I have read has been absolutely amazing novels, and I have awarded all of them a full five stars. I also recently read the first book in Maberry’s sequel Rogue Team International series, Rage, which was released a couple of months ago and which I consider to be amongst one of the best books (and audiobooks) of 2019. I am actually reviewing Extinction Machine a little out of order, as I have already reviewed the sixth book in the series, Code Zero, despite reading Extinction Machine first.

For years, Joe Ledger and the Department of Military Sciences (DMS) have faced off against some of the most advanced and devious weapons human ingenuity and insanity is capable of creating. However, what happens when they are forced to go up against something that is literally out of their world? In Extinction Machine, a series of strange and seemingly unrelated events begin occurring around the world. America’s leading weapons manufacturers are being targeted by elaborate computer attacks that are impossible to trace. An advanced prototype stealth fighter is destroyed during its test flight by an impossibly fast craft, while sightings of UFOs are occurring all around the world. In the midst of all this chaos, the impossible happens: the President of the United States vanishes from the White House. The only evidence of his abductors is a crop circle on the White House lawn.

Despite being officially sidelined by the corrupt Vice-President, the DMS attempts to investigate after receiving a strange message from the missing President promising unprecedented destruction. Ledger and his team soon find themselves caught in the midst of massive conspiracy involving alien technology and the deepest secret of America’s military industrial complex. Can the DMS uncover the full conspiracy before it is too late, or will the world tremble at the hands of mysterious beings who want their technology back?

Extinction Machine proved to be yet another thrilling and enjoyable entry in the Joe Ledger series, and I really had a great time listening to it. Maberry has produced another fantastic and elaborate story which utilises a number of his trademark and classic storytelling elements to produce a first-rate read. The reader is once again treated to a fast-paced and captivating narrative which is enhanced by the author’s clever use of different perspectives, point-of-view characters and time periods, which not only focus on the protagonists hunt for answers but also showcases all the fascinating aspects of the villain’s complex master plan. Extinction Machine also continues to feature some outstanding action sequences and a number of amazing and relatable protagonists, including the series’ titular character, Joe Ledger, whose ultra-sarcastic narration and half-broken psyche make him one of the most fascinating and enjoyable action heroes out there. All of these familiar elements have made the previous Joe Ledger books some of my favourite thrillers out there, so I quite enjoyed the fact that Maberry once again utilised them for Extinction Machine, especially as they were once again used to great effect to produce an overall excellent story.

In addition to using all the awesome trademark storytelling elements of the Joe Ledger series, Maberry also makes Extinction Machine stand out from the existing novels in the series by including several new and exciting plot inclusions. At the centre of this is a fantastic overarching story about alien craft that have crash landed on Earth sparking a long-term hidden arms race. This is a deeply fascinating main plot point for the book, which explores a vast and complex conspiracy theory that turns out to be true, as not only have the crashed alien craft allowed the world’s leading arms manufacturers to advance their technology at an accelerated rate, but now the world’s various superpowers all have top-secret programs aimed at obtaining certain alien components and using them to construct a working alien craft, known as a T-Craft. Maberry does an amazing job of introducing the full history and breadth of this alien technology conspiracy at an excellent pace, and it was really intriguing to see him craft an action-packed story around it as Ledger and his team must try to counter not only the antagonist’s plans to utilise the alien technology for their own twisted purposes but also the unexpected consequence of all this secret work. I also think that this story was an excellent way to introduce the concept of aliens into the series as a whole, especially as it is used again in some of the later books. Having Ledger straight up face off against aliens in this book (and presumably win) would have been a bit too much, even for a series that has so far featured genetically modified Nazis and vampires. But by having the protagonists deal with self-interested humans who have spent generations researching mysterious alien technology, Maberry is able to introduce the concept at a much more controlled pace which works a heck of a lot better.

There are a number of other amazing elements introduced or utilised in this novel that were a real highlight for me. These include a several excellent action set-pieces, including a well-choreographed fight sequence out in the woods between Ledger and a lethal hit team and a large-scale assault on the enemy’s compound; some cool new characters, including a major love interest for Ledger; and the first time political attacks hampered the DMS (which later becomes a recurring theme). I also liked the idea of Ledger and his team essentially going up against the Men in Black (known here as the Fixers), who are the henchmen for the book’s antagonists. The Fixers have some devastating alien technology which really help amp up some of the action scenes, and they are also able to pull of a pretty major attack against the DMS with it. Finally, I had a real laugh at the way that one of the main antagonists, the apparently most lethal member of the Fixers, is taken down, especially as Maberry telegraphs how it’s going to happen by mentioning a certain movie scene. All of these new elements are fantastic additions to the story, and I felt that they worked extremely well with the author’s existing writing style for the Joe Ledger books to create another awesome read.

While I really enjoyed Extinction Machine, I have to admit that it is probably my least favourite Joe Ledger book that I have read so far. To be fair, part of this might be because it falls between two of my absolute favourite entries in the series, Assassin’s Code and Code Zero, and I might be unfavourably comparing Extinction Machine to them (especially as I read these three books back-to-back in quick succession). However, in my opinion Extinction Machine’s story went a bit too slowly in places and it lacked the truly compelling villains that the other books in the series feature (even if the antagonists in this book do manage to pull off the biggest attack against DMS yet) all of which slightly tanked my enjoyment of this book. That being said, this is still an amazing read, and even my least favourite book in this series still deserves 4.75 out of 5 stars.

The audiobook is my format of choice for enjoying the Joe Ledger series, and I ended up listening to Extinction Machine over a couple of weeks while I was away travelling. The Extinction Machine audiobook runs for a little under 15 hours and is narrated by the incredible Ray Porter, who has leant his amazing vocal talents to all of the other Joe Ledger audiobooks. I have spent a lot of time over the last year singing the praises of Porter for his work with the Joe Ledger series; in my opinion, he is one of the best audiobook narrators out there. Porter has the rare ability to fully encapsulate the characters that he is voicing, and his perfect take on the character of Joe Ledger is so very impressive. Needless to say, he does another standout job with Extinction Machine, and I highly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking this book out.

Overall, I felt that Extinction Machine was another excellent addition to the Joe Ledger series, and I had a real blast checking it out. There are a lot of cool elements to this book, and I really liked where Maberry took the story this time around. This is a must-read for fans of the Joe Ledger series, and I would also highly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and exciting science fiction thriller.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight Cover 2.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Skyward – Book 2

Length: 461 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, Brandon Sanderson, comes Starsight, an outstanding and addictive young adult science fiction read which continues the wildly entertaining adventures of a young starfighter years in the future.

Starsight is the second book in the Skyward series and follows on from the 2018 release of the same name. Skyward was a fantastic young adult science fiction book that told a compelling tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie in humanity’s distant future. Skyward was an amazing read, and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2018. As a result, I have been looking forward to Starsight for a while now, and it was one of my most anticipated releases for the second part of this year.

The Skyward series is set on the planet of Detritus, a desolate world that houses a population of humans in the caverns beneath the surface. The humans on Detritus are the remnants of a once great intergalactic human civilisation that has been destroyed in a war with a superior alien civilisation. Forced into hiding within the planet for hundreds of years, humanity eventually returned to the surface utilising scavenged starfighters to escape and build a military outpost to fight back against the alien ships who continue to harass the planet.

In Skyward, the reader is introduced to Spensa Nightshade, a young woman determined to become a pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), the military organisation that fights the alien invaders. While talented, Spensa faced opposition to being accepted into the military due to an apparent act of cowardice by her father years before. Despite the odds, Spensa was accepted in the DDF and was trained to become a skilled pilot, fighting in a number of actions against the enemy, while also trying to find out what actually happened to her father. Along the way, Spensa discovered an ancient but advanced human ship that had crash-landed on Detritus. Upon repairing the ship, Spensa discovered it had an AI installed in its computers, which she called M-Bot. After stopping an extremely destructive alien attack with the help of M-Bot, Spensa was compelled to fly through Detritus’s atmosphere, where she made several startling discoveries, the first of which was that Spensa and her family are powerful cytonics, beings with mental powers who are capable of traversing vast distances through space with their ability. The second discovery she made was that the aliens attacking Detritus were not simply mindless aggressors determined to wipe out humanity; instead they are members of an interstellar conglomeration called the Superiority, who are attempting to contain humanity within the planet. The Superiority hold a great fear of humans, who they see as an extremely dangerous and violent species, and Detritus is actually a prison planet/wildlife preserve where humans can live without disrupting the rest of the galaxy. Unfortunately, the actions of the DDF in reclaiming the surface and utilising spaceships have forced the Superiority to reconsider their approach, and they are now working to kill all the humans.

Usually this is the part of the review where I would give a brief plot synopsis of the new book and then go into an analysis of what I liked about it. However, this is going to prove a little hard to do without revealing some spoilers. While I don’t typically avoid talking about plot points that occur around 50-100 pages into book (I don’t particularly consider something happening that early to be a spoiler), I am a little more wary with Starsight. This is mainly because the plot of the book features some immediate substantial changes from the story that appeared in Skyward, none of which are really hinted at in any of the official online plot synopsis or book blurbs. As I am publishing this review a week before Starsight’s official release date, I think it is best that I put up a spoiler alert below, before I start going into the book in any real detail.

For those readers who do not want to risk any spoilers, I will say now that Starsight is an incredible book that I really, really enjoyed. Sanderson tells a wildly entertaining and highly addictive story that features some memorable characters, high-stakes events, some of the best science fiction action I have ever read and a ton of inventive world building. I honestly think that this is one of the best releases of 2019, and it easily gets a full five-star rating from me (if only I could go higher). I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an epic science fiction read, and if you loved Skyward, you are going to love this book.

Anyway, if you are not interested in learning any more details about this book’s plot or characters (which I do explore to a substantial degree), I would suggest you stop reading now, as everything below this paragraph has a spoiler alert in effect.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

 

Starsight is set a few months after the events of Skyward, and humanity has been busy. Thanks to Spensa and Skyward Flight, as well as the advanced technology contained with M-Bot, the DDF has managed to capture several of the planet’s ancient orbiting defensive platforms, which have allowed them to push the Superiority forces out of Detritus’s obit. However, despite these successes, humanity is still trapped on Detritus, and the eventual Superiority mass retaliation will likely wipe out everyone on the planet. Their only chance at survival is to flee from Detritus and find a new planet to make their home, somewhere the Superiority cannot find them. However, the only way to do this is with some form of hyperdrive, which humanity lacks access to, and Spensa’s cytonic teleportation abilities are too restrictive for mass use.

The crash-landing of an unknown alien spacecraft on Detritus may provide the solution that will ensure humanity’s survival. The pilot of this craft is a member of a non-Superiority species who has been invited for diplomatic reasons to enlist in a new Superiority fighter squadron, and she is able to pass on the cytonic coordinates to the squadron’s base to Spensa. Disguised with M-Bot’s holographic technology, Spensa travels to the Superiority space city, Starsight, in order to infiltrate the Superiority military and find and steal a working hyperdrive.

Joining the new Superiority squadron, Spensa discovers that she and her fellow recruits are being trained to fight the delvers, titanic inter-dimensional beings that dwell in the nowhere, who are capable of devastating planets if they are drawn into our dimension by an over-use of cytonic ability. But as Spensa attempts to complete her mission, she finds herself caught amidst the politics of the various Superiority races, many of whom wish for the complete and utter destruction of her people. Can Spensa navigate the strange new world she finds herself in, or will her actions result in the destruction of all she knows?

As you can see from the above synopsis, Starsight goes in some very interesting and unpredictable directions. I personally loved all of these new story elements, and the idea of Spensa having to infiltrate a mostly unknown alien society was a really clever and intriguing central plot idea that I think worked extremely well. The subsequent narrative is a fantastic blend of different story elements, which includes some great new characters, settings and plot directions, as well as some of the best parts of Skyward. For example, not only do you get to see a whole new take on the excellent space fighter training plot point that made the first book so amazing, but you also get a science fiction spy thriller story filled with all manner of political intrigue. This was a fantastic book to get into, and Sanderson has made sure that the plot is accessible to readers who did not get a chance to check out Skyward last year. However, I would strongly recommend reading Skyward first, not only because it will give you a better idea of the characters and certain plot elements, but because it is such an awesome book in its own right.

One of my favourite things about the first book in the Skyward series was the excellent group of characters that Sanderson focused on, including Spensa, M-Bot and the members of Skyward Flight. Throughout Skyward the reader got to know and care for these characters, and it was actually a little bit distressing when bad things happened to them. Skyward continues to look at several of the characters from the first book, although readers who grew attached to Skyward Flight might be a tad disappointed as Sanderson shifts the focus away from them and introduces the reader to a whole new group of alien characters.

Spensa is still the main point-of-view character for this second book and serves as a fantastic central protagonist. In many ways, Spensa is still the same impatient and reckless pilot that was such to see in the first book. However, it soon becomes obvious that the experiences, relationships and life lessons that she has faced since joining the DDF have tempered her in many ways, especially as she has to deal with the intense responsibility of being her people’s greatest hope for survival. I really enjoyed watching Spensa as she was forced to assimilate into the alien cultures on Starsight, and it was interesting to see how she reacted when she realised not everyone there is as evil as she believed. The opinions and support she gives to her alien friends result in some emotional moments, and it was really heart-warming to see how far she has progressed since the last book.

While Spensa is a great central protagonist, to my mind the best character in the entire book is still her sentient ship, M-Bot. M-Bot is the snarky and hilarious artificial intelligence that Spensa discovered crashed on Detritus, and together they form an efficient and enjoyable team. M-Bot honestly has all the best lines in the book, and nearly every interaction with Spensa results in some excellent jokes or banter. Despite the humour, M-Bot is a pretty complicated character, especially as in this book he is attempting to work out the full limits of his consciousness and code. He is continuously attempting to prove that he is actually alive, and these attempts result in safeguards in his system attempting to shut him down. I really enjoyed the way that Sanderson continues to utilise M-Bot. Even though he is a ship, he is still a fantastic and highly enjoyable character to focus on and we even get a reason for his mushroom obsession in this book.

Spensa’s new flight of Superiority comrades features an eclectic bunch of aliens, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. These include a figment called Vapour, who is essentially a sentient smell that can take control of ships and pilot them. Vapour is the ultimate spy and requires Spensa to be constantly on her toes. There is also the dione draft, Morriumur. Dione are a race of non-violent aliens high up in the Superiority hierarchy, who have a unique breeding system that combines the parents into one new being. This is a process that can take several goes, as the family of the newly bred dione may choose to reform a young dione so that they have an ideal personality. Morriumur is a draft, spending the first few months of their life testing out their personality to see if they are an ideal member of the species. Morriumur, who has slightly more violent tendencies than most of their species, is trying to prove that they belong as a starfighter, but the combined expectations of their family and the inner thoughts that they are not worthy, are a constant hindrance to them as a pilot.

While both of the above characters are pretty cool, and Sanderson spends a good amount of time exploring them, two members of Spensa’s new flight really stood out. The first of these is Brade, a human from another prison world who has been recruited as a cytonic enforcer by one of the book’s central antagonists. Brade, after being taken from her parents as a child, has essentially been brainwashed all her life to consider humans as evil and inferior, and this has a major damaging effect on her psyche. The interactions between her and Spensa throughout the book are quite fascinating, and she proved to be one of the most complex characters in this book. My favourite new character, however, had to be Hesho, who is totally not king of the kitsen. The kitsen are a race of tiny gerbil-like aliens who have recently converted from a monarchy to a democracy in an attempt to become a Superiority race. Hesho leads a group of around 50 kitsen who pilot one heavily armed fighter in Spensa’s squadron like it’s a capital ship. Hesho and the kitsen are really hilarious characters, mainly because Hesho is attempting to convince the Superiority that he is no longer ruling his people as a king, and instead the kitsen have embraced democracy. Unfortunately, despite Hesho insisting he is no longer a monarch in every interaction he has, his people continue to worship him, which kind of undercuts this message. I also found the similarities in the personalities between the kitsen and the Spensa we first encountered in Skyward to be very amusing, as the kitsen attempt to compensate for their size with extreme confidence and boasting like Spensa used to (for example, the first ship we see the kitsen flying is called Big Enough to Kill You).

All of the above characters are great, and I really loved the way that I was once again drawn into their various personalities and histories. It was a bit of a shame not to see too much of the characters I liked so much from the first book (although we do get an idea of what various members of Skyward Flight are up to), but I think the new characters that Sanderson introduced more than made up for it.

In addition to the fantastic character work, one of the other best features of Starsight is the epic and fast-paced action sequences that punctuate much of the book. Just like in Skyward, Sanderson presents a huge number of different scenes where Spensa is fighting or training in a fighter. The sheer amount of detail that goes into these various action sequences is pretty amazing, and I was able to picture all the flying and manoeuvres perfectly. The author comes up with a number of clever new scenarios in this book, including the fancy flying and combat required to fight a delver, or having Spensa fly in the type of craft she has been fighting against for her entire military career. All of the action in this book is first-rate, and I can guarantee that you will get lost in some of the incredible action sequences.

I have always been impressed by the elaborate worlds that Sanderson can create for his stories. Whether it is the vast fantasy world that he came up with for The Stormlight Archive, the supervillain dominated alternate version of Earth that appeared in The Reckoners trilogy, or the fantastic science fiction planet of Detritus that was the main setting for Skyward, Sanderson always delivers complex and intricate settings for his story, complete with huge amounts of backstory. In Starsight, Sanderson once again produces a huge and detailed new setting for his outstanding story. The alien civilisation that is living on Starsight is very impressive, and I love all the different alien races that he has come up with for this story. Many of the aliens have some very complex and fascinating history, a great deal of which featured in the story. I really look forward to seeing how Sanderson expands this universe even further in the final book in the trilogy, and I cannot wait to see what new aliens or civilisations he comes up with.

As you can see from this rather lengthy review, there is a lot to love about this book. Sanderson does an impressive job of combining the intriguing new story direction, the amazing characters, intense action and fascinating new setting into one concise narrative, and the end result is a perfect book. While Starsight is being marketed as a young adult book, and indeed it would prove appropriate for most young readers, it is really a novel that can be enjoyed by any reader of any age. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series (which seems to be 2021 at this point, so far away!).

Quick Review – Unleashed by Amy McCulloch

Unleashed Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (ebook format – 22 August 2019)

Series: Jinxed Book 2

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From exciting young adult author Amy McCulloch comes Unleashed, the fun sequel to her clever 2018 release, Jinxed.

Jinxed was an intriguing piece of young adult science fiction that I quite enjoyed last year. McCulloch, who also writes under the name Amy Alward, created a fascinating near-future world where the new tech obsession is bakus, the must-have technological companion. Bakus are essentially a combination of all the smart devices and a robotic pet which can take a variety of animal forms depending on their level of complexity, each with a number of different features. The story focuses on the character of Lacey Chu, a teenage baku fanatic who wants to work for Moncha Corp, the company that creates the baku. In order to secure her dream job, she needs to attend the prestigious Profectus Academy, the Moncha Corp sponsored school for all future employees. While it initially appears that she will not be able to attend due to her lack of a suitably advanced baku, Lacey discovers an abandoned and damaged baku of unknown design, called Jinx. After Jinx is repaired, his advanced systems allow her to get admitted into the academy, where she makes friends, learns all about bakus and participates in the school’s baku battles. However, she also becomes drawn into a vast conspiracy around Jinx, as powerful forces within Moncha Corp attempt to find and capture him in order to use his unique technology for their own ends.

I quite enjoyed Jinxed last year, mainly due to its clever world-building and its great, school-based story of intrigue and friendship (I enjoy stories where a person attends a school or academy to learn their universes special talent or skill). As a result, I ended up grabbing an electronic copy of Unleashed just before I went away on a trip, and it proved to be quite a good read during some travel time that I had. Unleashed is set a short time after the events of Jinxed and continues to follow Lacey as she attempts to unravel the conspiracy surrounding her and Jinx.

Goodreads Synopsis:

When Lacey Chu wakes up in a hospital room with no recollection of how she got there, she knows something is up. But with her customizable smart pet, Jinx, missing in action and Moncha, the company behind the invention of the robot pet, up to something seriously sinister, she’s got a lot of figuring out to do. Lacey must use all her engineering skills if she has a chance of stopping Moncha from carrying out their plans. But can she take on the biggest tech company in North America armed with only a level 1 robot beetle … ?

Unleashed was another great young adult science fiction read, which was also a fantastic follow up to Jinxed. There is a lot of excellent stuff in this second book, which pretty much wraps up the two books series and contains an interesting conclusion to the story established in Jinxed. I liked where the story went in this book, and while I was a little disappointed that they did not really spend any more time at the Profectus Academy, nor where there any more baku battles (which honestly was one of my favourite things about the first book), McCulloch compensates for this by increasing the level of intrigue and conspiracy that the main characters find themselves involved in. The overall plot of the main antagonist is surprisingly wide-reaching, sinister and intricate, and I liked seeing how the protagonists investigated and overcame it. There was also a great amount of teen drama and romance throughout the book, and there were some surprising character developments that made for a fantastic addition to the story.

I also really liked how the author continued to expand on her idea of what a world filled with bakus would be like. Throughout the course of this book, McCulloch comes up with a number of cool features to show how the world has adapted to having such technological creatures. These include showing off the various ways that they have revolutionised social media and day-to-day life, and also feature smaller things, such as baku cafes or add-ons to cars that hold and polish and charge your baku as you drive. All the cool expansion that McCulloch did on her amazing central idea in this novel was a lot of fun and I felt that it added a lot to the book.

Overall, I thought that Unleashed was a fantastic follow-up to Jinxed, and I really enjoyed the cool adventure contained within. Featuring a great story, some enjoyable characters and some excellent creative ideas Unleashed is awesome book for all ages that is worth checking out.

Star Trek: The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox

Star Trek - The Antares Maelstrom Cover.jpg

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 13 August 2019)

Series: Star Trek: The Original Series

Length: 11 hours and 34 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My bold new voyage down into the depths of Star Trek extended fiction continues as I review the latest exciting novel tied into Star Trek: The Original Series, The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox.

Get ready for a good old-fashioned “gold rush” on the outskirts of Federation space, as vast quantities of a rare and valuable mineral vital for energy production is found on the remote planet of Baldur-3. The sparsely populated planet is quickly overrun by a horde of opportunists from all over the galaxy, seeking to make their fortunes as miners and prospectors. Hailing from a variety of planets and made up of a number of different species, these determined but often under-prepared prospectors are pushing Baldur-3’s infrastructure to its limit. Despite not being part of the United Federation of Planets, Baldur-3 requests assistance from Starfleet, which dispatches Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise to help in any way they can. However, upon their arrival in the sector, Kirk discovers several major problems that require him to split his personnel.

While Kirk and the Enterprise remain above Baldur-3, Sulu and a small contingent of the ship’s crew are left behind at the local Deep Space Station S8 to help manage the prospectors in transit to the planet. While there, Sulu is forced to deal with a multitude of issues, including a malevolent saboteur, the return of an old romantic flame, and foolhardy adventurers attempting to cross the dangerous Antares Maelstrom to find a fabled shortcut to Baldur-3. At the same time, Spock and Chekov travel to a nearby planet, inhabited by a pre-spaceflight race of humanoids, where alien items have started appearing in the hands of the locals in what is clearly a severe violation of the Prime Directive. As Spock and Chekov investigate, they find themselves dragged into a sophisticated smuggling ring involving a rare tea that could prove disastrous for the planet’s future development. Each of these groups will experience mortal peril as they attempt to uphold the values of Starfleet and assist all those in need.

I have really been on a roll with Star Trek novels lately, having already read several fantastic pieces in the last few months, including The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett, Available Light by Dayton Ward, The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack and the first volume of the Boldly Go comic book series. The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox is another fun and enjoyable Star Trek novel that I had a wonderful time listening to on audiobook. Cox is an experienced writer of tie-in fiction, having written novels related to a number of different media franchises, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Underworld, The Librarians and titles from DC and Marvel comics. However, his most consistent body of work has been his Star Trek tie-in novels. Since 1995, Cox has written around 20 Star Trek books, set across the various television series. He has already written several books related to The Original Series, as well as three books that show the life and times of iconic franchise villain Khan.

This particular Star Trek adventure is set during the Enterprise’s five-year journey (2265 – 2270), meaning that this story occurred around the same time as the episodes of The Original Series. The Antares Maelstrom turned out to be an interesting change of pace from some of the other Star Trek books I have previously read, as it is a standalone novel that does not seek to explore character backgrounds or continue several ongoing storylines from previous novels. Instead, the episode reads a lot like an episode from The Original Series, with the crew of the Enterprise getting involved with a number of adventures in space and helping those in need.

Cox has populated his latest book with three separate storylines, each of which features various members of the Enterprise’s main crew. This includes Sulu’s stay aboard Deep Space Station S8 and Spock and Chekov’s investigation of the tea smugglers on the nearby planet. Both of these storylines branch off from Kirk’s storyline as he, Scotty, McCoy, Uhura and the Enterprise stay above Baldur-3 and provide assistance to the surface. Each of these storylines is quite interesting and has a number of great moments. While Spock and Chekov’s storyline is one extended adventure, the other two parts of the book feature a series of interconnected adventures and mysteries. This is a very interesting blend of stories, from the examination of a futuristic “gold rush” in space, to a covert investigation on an alien planet. I personally enjoyed Sulu’s storyline the most, as it featured a number of exciting moments between spaceships, a compelling investigation, several great new characters and a huge amount of action. The other two storylines are really good, and in my opinion the story benefited from having this great mixture of storylines, which did not dilute or overwhelm the overall quality of the book. Indeed, all of the storylines form a compelling overarching narrative which I found to be extremely fun and surprisingly addictive, and I was firmly glued to the story.

Like most tie-in novels, The Antares Maelstrom is intended for fans of the franchise it is based on, meaning that this is an ideal read for hardcore Trekkies. However, no great knowledge of the original series is required to enjoy this book. There are no real pre-existing storylines to follow, and anyone who has a basic knowledge of the show or who has seen the latest trilogy of movies will be able to follow along without any issues. Cox does pepper the story with a number of references to some of the past adventures of the Enterprise, and there is even a major connection to one of the more interesting episodes from the first season. The book does feature the first appearance of the titular Antares Maelstrom, which itself is a rather obscure reference to the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, as the Antares Maelstrom is featured in one of Khan’s iconic monologues. While these many references and call-backs to previous episodes will prove to be enjoyable to fans of the franchise, most of them have no real bearing on the plot, and any that do are well explained.

I also felt that Cox did a fantastic job of capturing the original tone of the Star Trek television show in this novel. The focus on the prospectors arriving on Baldur-3 is used by the author to mirror the bold explorative and chance-taking stance that the crew of the Enterprise undertake, and there is a lot of discussion about new opportunities and venturing into the unknown. While these prospectors are initially viewed as greedy and reckless, they eventually come together as part of the book and show how, deep down, people are basically good. All this focus on unity, compassion and logic is classic Star Trek, and Kirk makes sure to accompany many of these examples with his trademark speeches, talking about the ideals of Starfleet and his crew. In addition to this, each of the major characters is strongly featured throughout the book, and the author makes sure that each of them gets a substantial amount of story time. Cox does an amazing job capturing the various personalities of the original series cast members, and it was great seeing them back in action in this new book.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to The Antares Maelstrom on audiobook, narrated by Robert Petkoff, which ran for 11 hours and 34 minutes. I absolutely flew through this audiobook, and I really enjoyed having this cool story narrated to me. Petkoff is still an impressive narrator, and I have previously mentioned how much I enjoyed his work narrating the voices of The Original Series cast members for The Captain’s Oath. In The Antares Maelstrom, Petkoff continues to amaze, coming up with a huge range of different voices for the various characters featured throughout the book. Just like in the previous book, his Kirk, Spock, Sulu and McCoy are darn near perfect, and I was really glad I got to hear a lot more of his Scotty, as he manages an awesome Scottish accent. I also got my first real experience of Petkoff’s Chekov in this book, and I have to say it was near perfect. The narrator expertly captures Chekov’s Russian accent, and there were a number of amazing instances where Petkoff had to imitate Chekov’s classic mispronunciations of English words. This is truly some first-class voice work and it really helps make the entire audiobook stand out. Petkoff seems to be one of the main Star Trek audiobook narrators at the moment, as several recent and upcoming books all feature his talents, and this makes me a lot more eager to check out these books in the future.

The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox proved to be another amazing piece of Star Trek fiction. It presents the reader with three fantastic adventures that come together to create an exciting and captivating book. While probably best read by established Star Trek fans, this book can be easily enjoyed by readers who have less Star Trek experience but who love sci-fi, intriguing mysteries, iconic characters and fast-paced action. Another great outing from Cox, The Antares Maelstrom is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.

Star Trek: The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett

Star Trek - The Captain's Oath Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 28 May 2019)

Series: Star Trek

Length: 11 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to venture boldly into a new Star Trek: The Original Series tie-in novel which not only tells a deeply compelling story but also looks at several pivotal moments of Captain Kirk’s early Starfleet career that made him the captain we all know and love.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk is known throughout the galaxy as a great warrior, diplomat, explorer and hero. His story as the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise is legendary, but how did a relatively young and inexperienced captain gain the right to take command of Starfleet’s most advanced and famous ship? What drives the young captain to be the best? And where did he get the tendency to bend Starfleet’s many rules in order to do the right thing?

Over three separate timelines set between 2261 and 2265, The Captain’s Oath follows Kirk’s early career as a captain. Looking at both his first command aboard the U.S.S. Sacagawea to his initial missions with the crew of the Enterprise, this book highlights several major conflicts and explorations that Kirk was involved in which shaped his personality and command style. From early conflicts with the Klingons, first contact missions that tested Kirk’s dedication to follow the Prime Directive to the letter, and diplomatic missions that had the potential to lead to war, these experiences will turn him into a captain worthy of the Enterprise.

I am fairly new to the world of Star Trek tie-in books, having only previously read two Star Trek novels that were released earlier this year, The Way to the Stars and Available Light. I was massively impressed by The Captain’s Oath, which was a spectacular and massively compelling read. Veteran Star Trek author Christopher L. Bennett, who has written a large number of Star Trek tie-in novels since 2004, crafted an excellent novel that not only showcases the past of an iconic character from the franchise but presents an exciting adventure at the same time.

The overarching narrative of The Captain’s Oath is told in three separate timelines. The first of these timelines starts in early 2261 and follows the early day of Kirk’s captaincy of the Sacagawea. The next timeline is set between 2262 and 2264, and also features Kirk as the Captain of the Sacagawea; however, this timeline starts after an undisclosed destructive event that crippled the ship and killed several of Kirk’s crew in the previous timeline, and follows Kirk’s adventures after this event. The final timeline is set in 2265 and starts the moment Kirk takes command of the Enterprise. It follows his first real mission as captain of his iconic ship, and ends just before the start of The Original Series television show. The book features lengthy chapters, with various adventures in different points of time spread throughout the course of the novel. These adventures are also usually shown from the perspectives of Kirk and some of the Starfleet personnel serving with him, although there are occasional scenes featuring characters aboard other Starfleet ships.

I did initially find it a little tricky to get my head around the use of multiple timelines, especially as I was listening to the audiobook format of The Captain’s Oath. However, once I got track of each of the three major timelines, I was able to appreciate what Bennett was doing with this writing style and how he wanted to tell the story. By using these multiple timelines, Bennett succeeds in telling a story that is much more complex and compelling than a linear story would have been. These multiple timelines allow the reader to get a much better sense of the main character and how he became the person he was in the first episode of The Original Series. By showing various stages of his time as a captain, Bennett is able to examine a number of key events that formed Kirk’s personality and command style. Through a series of intriguing missions and a ton of different scenarios, you get to see how Kirk reacts to both his success and his failures, and what lessons he takes with him. As the book progresses, you get to see how these earlier experiences affect his actions in the subsequent chronological missions. This was an extremely clever way to write the story, and I felt that the multiple timelines work extremely well together and helped create a powerful narrative that did a fantastic job showcasing the character of Captain Kirk.

I also really enjoyed the huge variety of Star Trek missions that Kirk and his crew went on throughout the course of the book. This book featured an amazing range of different missions that Starfleet are known for, including diplomatic undertakings, rescues, exploration, first contact and military missions in defence of the Federation. Some of these missions are quite complex in their individual content and in the way that most of them flow through and connect with later missions in the chronology. Bennett has come up with some truly unique and fantastic scenarios for this book, and through these various missions the reader is treated to some intriguing mysteries, intense battles and deep examinations of humanity and life. I really got into a number of these missions, including a fascinating mission where Kirk and his crew get trapped on a pre-spaceflight planet whose government is using propaganda to frighten the populace with non-existent invading aliens. However, the best scenario is a series of missions set during Kirk’s days as captain of the Sacagawea where he and his crew encounter an unusual group of aliens who are invading Federation space in some unique ships (the one on the cover). The various missions involving these new aliens not only result in some impressive space battles but also feature some intriguing diplomatic meetings and fascinating discussions about different forms of life, as the beings Kirk and his crew encounter are so alien that a number of key concepts such as territory and galactic borders are untranslatable to them. Each of the missions featured in this book were pretty amazing and are a testament to Bennett’s imagination and appreciation for the underlying material.

One of the things that I enjoyed about this book was the sheer amount of Star Trek references and lore that Bennett has managed to fit into this story. Fans of Kirk and The Original Series will be intrigued by this new look at Kirk’s early career as a captain and several of the pivotal adventures he undertook. The Captain’s Oath also features Kirk’s first meetings with several key characters from the series, including Spock, Sulu, Scotty and McCoy. Not only does the reader get an idea of the early relationship between Kirk and Spock, which only began when Kirk took command, but you also get to see Kirk befriend McCoy and then eventually talk him into becoming doctor for the Enterprise. In addition to the look at the major characters, there are also a number of great examinations of minor characters from the series. A great example of this is the inclusion of the Klingon character Captain Koloth, the villain of The Original Series episode The Trouble with Tribbles. While he was only in the book for a short period of time, it does answer a question about how Koloth and Kirk knew each other, as they recognise each other in the episode, and it shows why they disliked each other.

Perhaps the most interesting part of The Captain’s Oath was the inclusion of Gary Mitchell throughout the course of the book. In the show, Mitchell only appeared in one episode and was the original helmsman of the Enterprise before becoming the eventual antagonist of the episode Where No Man Has Gone Before. In this episode it is explained that Mitchell was one of Kirk’s oldest and closest friends, and Bennett spends a lot of time exploring this friendship in this book. Mitchell is shown to be a major influence on Kirk’s personality during the early days of him being a captain, helping him relax and become less beholden to Starfleet’s rules and regulations. Their friendship is an important part of the book, although it is a little tragic when you consider how it is destined to end. The book also features a few scenes with Lt. Kelso, who is killed by Mitchell in Where No Man Has Gone Before, and it is interesting to see some of his interactions with Mitchell and Kirk, considering his appearances in the show. It is curious to note that Bennett appears to have switched the roles of Mitchell and Kelso around, as Kelso is portrayed in the book as the helmsman, while Mitchell is the navigator. Nonetheless, the author uses the inclusion of Kelso to explain why Sulu was the ship’s physicist in this episode rather than helmsman, and why he was given the job in subsequent episodes.

Bennett has included some pretty deep Star Trek lore in this book, but do you need to be a major Star Trek fan to enjoy The Captain’s Oath? In my opinion, you do not. Obviously, hardcore Star Trek fans will get a lot more out of this book, no doubt appreciating all the references, minor characters and the backstory that Bennett has concocted. However, this book is easily enjoyable for people who only have a passing knowledge of the Star Trek shows or universe. Bennett makes the story extremely accessible, and many features from the franchise or history relevant to the story are explained in full detail, ensuring no one is left in the dark. Indeed, due to the awesome story, connection to The Original Series and the focus on such an iconic character, this is a great book to check out if you are curious about Star Trek books and want to see what they are like, and a lot of general science fiction readers will like some of the unique scenarios explored throughout the book. This would also be a really interesting book for those people whose only exposure to Star Trek has been the recent movies set in the alternate timeline, as this book shows a very different version of Kirk. Overall, I think that quite a wide audience can appreciate The Captain’s Oath, and it is a fantastic Star Trek tie-in book to check out.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Captain’s Oath, I decided to check out the audiobook version instead in order to fit it into my reading schedule. The audiobook format of this book is narrated by Robert Petkoff, who has a narrated a large number of previous Star Trek tie-in books, as well as several Star Trek novels coming out later this year. The Captain’s Oath audiobook runs for a pretty typical length of time for a Star Trek book, at just under 12 hours long, meaning that dedicated listeners should be able to get through this quite quickly. I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook format of this book, and I found that listening to the story helped enhance certain aspects of the plot, such as making the action sequences more exciting and providing the full impact of several of Kirks inspirational speeches. Petkoff is an excellent narrator whose work I have previously enjoyed when I listened to Available Light a couple of months ago. I noted back than that Petkoff did an amazing job imitating several key members of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast, and I was very curious to see how he would go with characters from The Original Series. Petkoff’s voice work in The Captain’s Oath was pretty impressive, as he did an exceptional job bringing characters such as Spock, Scotty, Sulu and McCoy to life and making them sound very similar to their original portrayals in the show. Petkoff also did a pretty good Kirk, and I liked how he attempted to reproduce the captain’s iconic speech patterns from the show. Petkoff also had the opportunity to bring a huge range of different nationalities and alien species to life, and these were also very impressive, as he was able to produce some distinctive voice types from the show, including the specific vocal patterns of the Vulcans as well as several distinctive human accents. All of this made for an incredible listen, and I fully intend to check out the audiobook formats of any future Star Trek books narrated by Petkoff. Indeed, the next audiobook I am planning to listen to, The Antares Maelstrom, is narrated by Petkoff, and I look forward to listening to this latest book.

Star Trek: The Captain’s Oath is an exciting and captivating novel that does an outstanding job exploring the early life of Captain Kirk and examining some formative events that made him the character we all know and love. Author Christopher Bennett has created a compelling story that utilises multiple timelines and a series of intriguing missions to tell a complex tale that I had an amazing time reading. This is an excellent piece of Star Trek extended fiction that I would whole-heartily recommend for anyone who has ever been curious about learning more about Kirk’s story and the Star Trek universe prior to The Original Series.