Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

Lady Smoke Cover.png

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.

Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars Thrawn Alliances Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century

Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Four stars