Star Trek: The Next Generation: Available Light by Dayton Ward – Audiobook Review

Star Trek - Available Light Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (9 April 2019)

Series: Star Trek

Length: 11 hours and 59 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For my latest review, I dive back into the massive universe of extended books that surround the Star Trek television and movie series, with the latest novel from legendary Star Trek fiction author Dayton Ward.

When I reviewed my first piece of Star Trek fiction, The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack, a couple of months ago, I mentioned how substantial the extended book universe around Star Trek was. With a huge number of series that cover various points of the Star Trek universe and over 840 novels to accompany the various movies and television shows, there are so many additional stories and characters out there for dedicated fans to enjoy. Star Trek tie-in novels and comics were not something that I had really gotten into before The Way to the Stars, but after enjoying it, I thought that Available Light would be a good opportunity to expand my knowledge of the Star Trek universe. I also decided that I would try my first Star Trek audiobook; I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Available Light, narrated by Robert Petkoff.

Quite a large amount of the extremely large Star Trek extended universe can be attributed to the author of this book, Dayton Ward. Ward is a prolific author who has been writing Star Trek fiction since 1998 with his inclusions in the long-running Strange New Words collections of Star Trek short stories, becoming the first author to contribute to three separate volumes of this series. Since then he has written more than 20 additional inclusions in the Star Trek universe, including last year’s Star Trek Discovery: Drastic Measures, which made my Top Ten list of Books I Wish I Read in 2018.

Available Light is the latest book in a series of novels which are set after the events of the last Star Trek: The Next Generation film, Nemesis. Available Light takes place in the year 2386, set seven years after the events of Nemesis and continues to follow the adventures of the USS Enterprise E, under the command of Captain Picard. Ward has written the last three books in this specific Star Trek series and Available Light continues several of the storylines established in these previous novels.

For over 200 years, covert organisation Section 31 has policed and protected the United Federation of Planets from the shadows. Following the designs of an artificial intelligence, Control, Section 31 has committed attacks, assassinations, political interference and all manner of illegal actions to preserve the security of the Federation, without any oversight. However, thanks to the actions of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character, Dr Julian Bashir, all of Section 31’s secrets have been published and are now out in the open for everyone to see. With the entire Federation of Planets now aware of Section 31’s actions, the Federation government and Starfleet move to arrest and prosecute all known Section 31 agents for treason against the Federation.

While numerous crimes and atrocities have been revealed, perhaps none is more controversial than Section 31’s assassination of Federation President Min Zife following his secret deposition by a group of Starfleet officers. More shocking is the revelation that one of the Starfleet officers responsible for the illegal coup d’etat that unseated Min Zife was none other than Jean-Luc Picard, the captain of the USS Enterprise E.

While the politicians and remaining commanders of Starfleet argue about the future of Picard, the Enterprise continues its exploration of the distant and uncharted Odyssean Pass. The Enterprise has come across an incredibly large and ancient spaceship adrift in the middle of nowhere and apparently abandoned. When the Enterprise’s away team boards the ship, they discover that the ship might not be as abandoned as first believed. As Picard and the Enterprise attempt to help the mysterious beings who inhabit the ship, they find their plans complicated by the arrival of a band of salvagers with designs on the massive ship.

I really enjoyed Available Light, as Ward presents the reader with a compelling adventure in space that really reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ward goes deep into the Star Trek lore to produce an intriguing story for the fans, and it was quite interesting to see how the events of Available Light help shape the wider Star Trek book universe. The book makes exceptional use of advanced science and a large amount of action to make the story even more interesting and fun. I especially enjoyed the various wonderful examples of ship-to-ship combat that occurred throughout much of the book, and I found them to be extremely entertaining and exciting. Overall, this is a pretty fun read, although there are some issues when it comes to its intended audience and the distribution of its two main storylines.

One of the things that I always try to cover when reviewing novels related to movies, television shows and video games is whether a book is suitable only for fans of the original media or whether readers with limited background knowledge of the franchise will be able to appreciate the book. Available Light falls into the category of books which is primarily aimed towards those readers with some knowledge and appreciation of the Star Trek franchise, especially those who are fans of the books, as Ward makes use of a number of storylines that originated in other books. For example, Available Light continues to showcase the Enterprise’s exploration of the region of space known as the Odyssean Pass, which has been covered in Ward’s last three novels, Armageddon’s Arrow, Headlong Flight and Hearts and Minds. It also dramatically follows storylines started in David Mack’s 2004 novel, A Time to Heal, which detailed the assassination of Min Zife, and his 2017 Star Trek: Section 31 novel, Control, which featured the publication of Section 31’s secrets. The book also contains a huge number of references to previous Star Trek adventures that happened in other books, the movies and the television shows. This does not just include those works associated with The Next Generation, as events from other shows, such as Deep Space Nine, are also heavily referenced. As a result, fans of these existing pieces of Star Trek fiction will have a much deeper appreciation for what is going on, and they may already be invested in the storylines that have been established in these previous books.

Dedicated fans of The Next Generation television series and movies will probably be surprised about the extensive storylines established in these books. Since the events of Nemesis, the books included in these series cover a huge range of adventures and character developments of the crew of the Enterprise. Those Star Trek television and movies fans coming into this book will be surprised at events like Picard and Beverly Crusher getting married and having a son. These fans should also be prepared for the fact that only a few of The Next Generation’s main characters are really featured in Available Light. While Picard, Worf, Geordi La Forge and Beverly Crusher are still aboard the Enterprise, major characters such as Deanna Troi, Data and Wesley Crusher do not appear at all, while the character of William Riker (now an Admiral) only appears in one chapter. In their place, several new, original characters have taken on their roles and become point-of-view characters for the Enterprise. While these characters are quite intriguing, fans of the original crew may be a little disappointed not to see how the missing characters are going. Ward has also included some characters that appeared in minor roles in both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. These include Admiral William Ross (who appeared in 13 episodes of Deep Space Nine), Worf’s brother Martok (who also appeared in Deep Space Nine) and Philippa Louvois (the Judge Advocate General from The Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man). Not only are these characters quite interesting in their own right, but there are some significant developments for some of these characters that fans of the franchise will be deeply intrigued to see.

That being said, while a large amount of the story is quite heavy on Star Trek lore, references and tie-ins to previous storylines, Ward does an exception job making this story accessible to a wide range of readers. I am not a particularly dedicated Star Trek fan and I only have an average knowledge of the lore and the various series and movies. However, I was able to follow the story quite closely, as Ward did a fantastic job explaining and describing the events that occurred in the previous storylines and episodes that Available Light’s story follows on from. While some readers whose knowledge of Star Trek is lesser than mine might struggle a little with the book, I feel that Ward has made this book extremely accessible to most readers. However, this book will really appeal to those readers who have a prior appreciation of the Star Trek franchise.

I should mention that that this book, like many licensed Star Trek novels, is not actually considered to be canon in relation to the television shows or movies. While some books, such as the recent Star Trek Discovery books, are considered to be canon (indeed, events in The Way to the Stars were mentioned in the show), Available Light and the books that it follows on from are not. That means that events that occur in this book are unlikely to affect what happens in upcoming movies or television shows, such as the upcoming show featuring the return of Captain Picard. While reading a non-canon book like this might not appeal to some fans of the franchise, I still quite enjoyed the story, and I am intrigued to see how this separate Star Trek universe will continue.

Available Light features two separate storylines that mostly remain separate from each other. The first storyline focuses on the fallout of the events of Control, including the revelation about Section 31’s actions and the attempts by the Federation to round up and prosecute all those who worked with or for the covert organisation. The second storyline focuses on the Enterprise as they encounter the new alien ship and the various inhabitants of this new region of space. Despite the huge amount of detail used to describe the Section 31 part of the book in both the official synopsis and the synopsis I wrote above, this storyline only really takes up around one-third of Available Light, with the remaining two thirds focusing on the Enterprise and her crew. I found both storylines to be extremely fascinating and a lot of fun. The Enterprise storyline felt like a classic episode of a Star Trek television series, with the crew working together to explore an intriguing phenomenon and overcome the odds to save an innocent party. The Section 31 storyline is also really cool, and I really enjoyed seeing what happens when the existence of this organisation becomes public knowledge.

While Ward does try to bring these two separate storylines together, such as by examining Picard’s guilt at the role he played in Min Zife’s ousting and assassination and having it affect his actions in the Enterprise storyline, I did at times feel like I was reading two unrelated books. I really think this would have been a better book if Ward had focused on only one storyline. I would have really loved a book completely dedicated to the aftermath of the Section 31 reveal, including having Picard stand trial for his crimes, and I am sure that the story of the Enterprise discovering the massive ship could have been even better with some additional storytelling. Instead, the story of Picard’s trail will occur later this year in David Mack’s upcoming novel, Collateral Damage. While it was slightly disappointing to find out that Available Light’s Section 31 storyline was mostly included to set up a future book, it was still really interesting and helped created a book that was a lot of fun to read.

Ever since Section 31 was first introduced, it has been a deeply intriguing plot point. The idea of a secret Federation security organisation that goes against nearly everything that Starfleet stands for is really clever, and it opens up a lot of possibilities. Section 31 is getting a lot of focus at the moment, as not only did they appear throughout the second season of Star Trek Discovery (which utilised the AI program Control, who appeared in several novels linked to Available Light as an antagonist) but there are apparently plans to do a Section 31 television series featuring Michelle Yeoh’s character from Discovery. As a result, it was really interesting to see this book universe version of Section 31 start to unravel in Available Light. The shock and outrage that results throughout the book are deeply intriguing, and I really liked seeing how the Federation and Starfleet reacted to the news. This really was a cool plot point, and I am extremely curious to see what happens to the organisation in future books.

As I mentioned before, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Available Light. At just under 12 hours in length, it did not take me too long to get through this book, and I found it to be a great format to enjoy the intriguing, Star Trek based plot. I did find that listening to the story helped me pick up a lot more of the previous storylines and Star Trek references that Ward had littered throughout the book, which probably gave me a better base to enjoy the story. I found Robert Petkoff to be a really good narrator, and I really enjoyed the way that he told the story. Petkoff does a pretty good impersonation of the male characters from The Next Generation, including Picard, Worf and La Forge, and I found his Picard voice to be extremely convincing. Petkoff also did a great impersonation of Vulcan and Klingon characters throughout the book, and I thought the voices he attributed to these alien characters were quite excellent. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of Available Light, and I am extremely glad it was the version of the book I chose to enjoy.

In the end, my second dive into the Star Trek universe was a little bit of a mixed bag. While there are some great and enjoyable story inclusions throughout Available Light, this is a book that is more aimed towards extremely dedicated Star Trek fans and features a split story that at times is more concerned with setting up future books rather than standing on its own. But I found the storylines explored within the books to be a lot fun, and I had an absolute blast listening to this captivating Star Trek tale. I am still really keen to check out additional Star Trek novels, and I hope to see where the various plots explored in this book go from here.

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston – Audiobook Review

QueensShadow Cover.jpg

Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press and Listening Library (5 March 2019)

Series: Star Wars Extended Universe

Length: 8 hours 22 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The female protagonist of the Star Wars prequel movies, Padmé Amidala, gets a story mostly worthy of her, as young adult fiction author E. K. Johnston attempts to bridge the character gap between the first two Star Wars prequel movies in Queen’s Shadow, the first Star Wars novel of 2019.

While The Phantom Menace had its flaws, one of the things that the first Star Wars prequel film did right was the character of Queen Amidala, the young, fierce and strong democratically elected Queen of Naboo, who was able to lead her people to freedom.  Portrayed by a young Natalie Portman, the character appeared in the other two prequel movies, where her relationship with Anakin Skywalker became a key plot point of the entire series.  While I am not the biggest fan of how Padmé was portrayed in the second and third prequel films, I was quite excited to read a novel that explored the character in more detail, especially one written by Johnston, who did such a fantastic treatment on the popular character Ahsoka Tano in her one previous foray into Star Wars fiction.  After my previous awesome experiences with Star Wars audiobooks, such as Ahsoka, I chose to listen to this book’s audiobook format, which was narrated by Catherine Taber.

Four years after ensuring the defeat of the Trade Federation on Naboo, Queen Padmé Amidala has served the last elected terms of office and is no longer Queen.  Now free of the responsibilities of ruling, Padmé and her loyal handmaidens now have time to think about a new future.  However, before Padmé can put any plans in place the new Queen of Naboo presents her with a job she cannot refuse: become the new representative of Naboo in the Galactic Senate.

Accepting the role, Senator Amidala travels to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic, to take up her seat, accompanied by a completely new support staff.  She is quick to discover that her experiences as a ruler have not prepared her for the demanding and treacherous world of galactic politics.  The Senate is a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy, and Padmé is already considered by many to be a puppet of Chancellor Palpatine.  She also has number of powerful enemies throughout the galaxy who seek not only to discredit her but also to kill her.

However, Padmé Amidala is used to being underestimated, and with Sabé, her former decoy and shadow, watching her back, she begins to forge the political alliances she needs to finally bring some change the galaxy.

This was an interesting piece of Star Wars fiction that I quite enjoyed.  However, it is not without its flaws, and there were a few things that I disliked about the story that resulted in me dropping my overall rating slightly.  But before I talk about the parts of the story that I had issue with, I want to mention the elements of this book that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Queen’s Shadow is an amazing Padmé Amidala story that helps redeem the character after her less than stellar showings in the second and third Star Wars prequel movies.  This book helps make people forget about the helpless, pregnant damsel from Revenge of the Sith (although some deleted scenes from that movie do show some of the politics she was involved with), and instead focuses on her role as a canny political operator.  I was also quite happy that Anakin did not appear as a character in this book; I preferred to see Amidala stand on her own without being defined by her relationship with a Jedi.

Johnston did a spectacular job of creating a novel that bridges the gaps in Padmé’s story between the first and second prequel movies.  At the end of The Phantom Menace Padmé is still queen of Naboo, but by the start of Attack of the Clones she has become a senator, with very little discussion in the movies concerning how this came about.  While I am sure that some of the books and comics in the old Star Wars extended universe would have covered this period of Padmé’s life, Queen’s Shadow is one of the first stories to explore this in the new Disney owned and operated Star Wars extended universe.

The author spends a significant amount of time focusing on Padmé’s early days in the Galactic Senate, including how she formed some of her early alliances, such as with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, and how she became such a significant force in the Senate.  In addition to this, we get to see how and why several of the minor Naboo characters from The Phantom Menace left Padmé’s side, and how several new characters, such as her new handmaidens and her security guard, Gregar Typho, came into her service.  In addition to serving as a bridge between the two prequel movies, Queen’s Shadow also ties into The Clone Wars animated television show, showing Padmé’s first contact and initial relationships with some of the characters who originated in the animated show, such as Senators Rush Clovis and Mina Bonteri.  While the book does spend time setting up events for Attack of the Clones, Johnston ensures that Padmé and the other main characters reflect on the events that occurred during The Phantom Menace, and the people that helped them during these adventures, such as Qui-Gon Jinn and little Anakin Skywalker.  Overall, I felt that this really helped tie in the events between the two books and is an excellent new piece of Star Wars cannon.

In my opinion, one of the cleverest parts of The Phantom Menace was the revelation towards the end of the film that Queen Amidala was actually being played by two separate actresses: Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.  In the context of the film, Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé, was the real queen of Naboo, while Keira Knightley’s character, Sabé, was a decoy used for security purposes.  While Padmé portrayed the Queen at the start of the movie, when the Trade Federation invaded there was a subtle switch and Sabé took on the role while Padme could be seen disguised as a nondescript handmaiden in the background.  The two characters would then switch between portraying Queen Amidala throughout the film, with Sabé taking on the role whenever there was a chance the Queen could be captured or killed, while Padmé took on the role herself when official discussions or speeches needed to be made.  Handmaiden Padmé also got her own scenes when Sabé was taking on the role as Queen, allowing the viewers to see this side of the character.  This was and still is an amazing and ingenious part of the movie, which worked due to the similarity in appearances between the two then relatively unknown actresses, a downplaying of Knightley’s role in the film, as well as because of the elaborate makeup, hairstyles and dresses that Queen Amidala wore.  As a result, the general audience were quite surprised at the time, especially as cast lists were not as easily available on the internet at the time.

As a result, I was extremely happy that Johnston chose to explore the utilisation of the queen’s decoy in some detail throughout this book.  Quite a lot of time is spent discussing the techniques behind the Amidala persona, from the distracting makeup and costumes, to the quick-change techniques that Padmé and her handmaidens utilise, and even several discussions about the ‘Amidala voice’, the imperious tone that Portman and Knightly both performed in The Phantom Menace.  I found this entire exploration of this decoy angle incredibly fascinating, and it gave me a completely new appreciation for how the decoys were utilised in the first prequel film.  The decoys were also a key part of Queen’s Shadow, as Padmé still continues to utilise them as a senator, allowing her to avoid danger and slip away at social gatherings so she can undertake other covert tasks.  The scenes where they utilise them are quite intriguing, and I liked the author’s thoughts on the psychology behind the effectiveness of the decoys and how they are still an effective technique in an advanced science fiction society.  It was interesting to note that both of Padmé’s decoys who appear the films, Sabé and Cordé (who was blown up at the start of Attack of the Clones), have major roles in this book, with both taking on the Amidala persona at some point in the story.

While it was intriguing to see Cordé learn to take on the role of Amidala in this book, the original decoy, Sabé, was a much bigger part of the plot.  Sabé has a significant role within the book and is actually Queen’s Shadow’s secondary protagonist, performing undercover work on Padmé’s behalf.  The relationship between Padmé and Sabé was a really interesting and emotional subplot to explore, as Sabé is quite loyal to the former queen.  How Sabé defines herself as Padmé’s friend and confidant is a significant part of Sabé’s story, and Johnston spends time attempting unravel this complicated relationship.  The overall result is a fascinating inclusion to this story, and one that adds some real emotional depth to the story.

In addition to the focus on the decoy characters, Johnston also spends time looking at the role of Padmé’s royal handmaidens, the young hooded women who followed Padmé around in the first film.  I had never really given the handmaidens much thought before this book, apart from how Padmé was able to hide her identity by taking up a handmaiden’s garb for several parts of the film.  However, Johnston does a fantastic job of explaining the actual role of these characters as Padmé’s confidants, covert operatives, undercover bodyguards and potential body doubles.  I really liked how Johnston was able to turn these minor characters from the films into a significant part of her book, and it was quite interesting to see them be deployed to help with Padmé’s political moves.  Each of the handmaidens, both those who only appeared in The Phantom Menace and those who only appeared in Attack of the Clones, are explored in some detail throughout the book.  The reader gets a real sense of each of the characters personalities, what skills they bring to Padmé’s table and the fates of those handmaidens who served Padmé during the invasion of Naboo are also explained by this book.  This look at the handmaidens is an excellent part of the book, and one that I actually found quite fascinating.

Aside from the look at Padmé and her associates, Queen’s Shadow also examines a number of other aspects of the Star Wars universe during this time period.  For example, there is quite a large focus on politics, both on Naboo, and within the Galactic Senate.  The galactic politics in particular is quite intriguing, and I liked seeing Padmé’s initial impression of Senate procedure and its many shortcomings.  Johnston has also included some fun media articles throughout the book, showing how negative news coverage is being used to disadvantage or advantage Padmé’s political ambitions, which I found to be quite amusing.  There are also some hints at the coming Separatist movement, as several planets are showing discontent with the Republic and certain actions are taking place to undermine security throughout the galaxy.  All of the features are pretty interesting, and I had fun reading about them throughout this book.

Now, while I obviously quite enjoyed many of the elements that Johnston explored in this book (having gone on about them for over two pages), I have to admit that the overall story is actually a bit boring in places and the story really does not go anywhere.  There are some big points, including a quick assassination attempt, piracy, large-scale disasters and potential political crisis, but many of these events has any real significance, follow through or any sort of actual conclusion.  This could potentially be alright if Queen’s Shadow is the start of a larger storyline or a new book series, but I am not too sure how likely that is.  Not only is there no real indication that Johnston will be continuing this story, but the epilogue of the book kind of puts a damper on that, which I will discuss below.

 

BEWARE SPOILERS BELOW:

The epilogue of the book shows Padmé’s funeral, as shown at the end of Revenge of the Sith.  While I did like how Johnston alluded to the funeral at the start of Queen’s Shadow’s by using the same descriptions of Padmé’s floating flower-covered body, and the funeral does put a final end to the story.  The epilogue did show Sabé talking with Senator Organa, so this book could potentially set up a follow-up book focusing on the former decoy either joining the Rebel Alliance or investigating Padmé’s death.  However, this does not really fit with some of the open story points from this book, as the Trade Federation are the most likely people behind the assassination attempts and the piracy, and who cares about the Trade Federation after Revenge of the Sith?  In addition, this book only really explored around a year of Padmé’s life as a senator, and I think it would make more sense to follow more of Padmé’s early political career, especially as there is still around five more years until Attack of the Clones begins.  I suppose you could maybe do a split-timeline story that follows Padmé and Sabé before and after Revenge of the Sith, with the two storylines coming together, although I am not sure how well that would work.  I would like to see Johnston explore this more and give her overall story more shape, I just do not know how likely that is at this point.

END OF SPOILERS

 

While the somewhat pointless story does bring Queen’s Shadow rating down a bit, its audiobook features really help raise it up again, especially with its excellent narrator Catherine Taber.  The audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow runs for around eight hours and 20 minutes, so it is an easy book to get through quickly.  Catherine Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clone Wars animated show and is also the most recent person to portray the character on screen.  As a result, she is the perfect narrator for this book, as she already perfected a great Natalie Portman imitation voice for the show.  Taber did a fantastic job narrating this book, as she not only is the perfect voice for Padmé but also has an amazing range for the other characters featured in the book.  I appreciated how she was able to craft similar voices for the handmaiden characters, many of whom were chosen to be handmaidens because they were physical and audible matches to Padmé.  This is particularly true of Sabé, and as a result Taber ensures she has pretty much the same voice that Padmé does.  Other high points of Taber’s narration include her rendition of the Amidala voice, as well as the creepy tones she utilises for Chancellor Palpatine, especially when he kept saying “my dear”.  As always, the producers of this Star Wars audiobook load up this version with all sorts of sound effects and classic Star Wars music.  I felt that these sound effects and music really helped enhance the story, and gave it some real atmosphere, and I liked the way that certain things, such as holo-messages between the characters, were altered to make them sound more realistic.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Queen’s Shadow as the best way to enjoy this story, and I thought it was just wonderful.

Queen’s Shadow is marketed as a young adult novel, and it is quite a good novel for a younger audience to enjoy, with only minor sexual references, coarse language, drug use and violence throughout the book.  However, there really is not any upper age limit on enjoying this book, and older readers can just as easily explore Johnston’s story.  While there is no age limit, readers should ideally be a Star Wars fan to fully enjoy Queen’s Shadow.  At the very least, readers should have watched all of the prequel films first to get a full handle on what is happening.  While I imagine someone with no prior knowledge of Star Wars might be able to enjoy reading this, it is probably not the best young adult science fiction book to pick out.  As a result, this book is recommended more for established fans of the franchise, and as a pretty hard-core Star Wars fan myself, I know I enjoyed all of the references and character exploration that Johnston did a lot more.

In the end, I decided to award Queen’s Shadow four stars out of five.  While I really loved all the intriguing elements that Johnston explored in this book, the lagging story did make it a little harder to enjoy.  That being said, I would not hesitate to grab another Star Wars book from Johnston, as she has an outstanding understanding and appreciation of the Star Wars universe.  I do hope that this story is continued in some way, and if it does, I will definitely check out the audiobook version of it, especially if it is narrated once again by Catherine Taber.  Interesting reading, Queen’s Shadow is worth checking out, especially if you are an established fan of the Star Wars franchise.

Mission Critical by Mark Greaney

Mission Critical Cover

Publisher: Sphere (Trade Paperback Edition – 26 February 2019)

Series: Gray Man – Book 8

Length: 513 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling author Mark Greaney returns with another entertaining and fast-paced instalment in his enjoyable Gray Man spy thriller series.

Court Gentry used to be a ruthless covert assassin known as the Gray Man, a highly skilled killer considered a legend in the clandestine circles.  However, times change, and Gentry now finds gainful employment as a CIA hitter, one of three elite agents that make up the Agency’s super-secret Poison Apple program.  Going under a new codename, Violator, Gentry is redirected aboard a CIA flight in Europe.  Tensions rise when the plane’s other passengers, a team of heavily armed agents, attempt to remove Gentry from the flight in order to protect their prize, a hooded man who may have knowledge that could identify a mole within the CIA.

Allowed to remain on the plane, Gentry finds himself thrust into the middle of a firefight when the plane lands in England.  A team of mercenaries ambush the plane, overcoming the CIA and MI6 agents waiting to meet the flight and taking the kidnapped man for themselves.  Gentry gives chase to the surviving mercenaries to regain the kidnapped man and soon finds himself investigating the case by himself.

As Gentry attempts to uncover what is going on in England, one of Poison Apple’s other operatives, the former Russian agent Zoya Zakharova, finds herself under attack in her CIA safe house.  With Zoya going off the radar, Gentry’s handlers are convinced that a mole within the CIA is tipping of a dangerous opponent.  Gentry and his team are soon the only agents who can stop a devastating attack that could bring the West to its knees.

Mark Greaney is a highly regarded spy thriller writer who has some substantial works to his name.  He was Tom Clancy’s co-author for legendary espionage author’s final three books, Locked On, Threat Vector and Command Authority.  Following Clancy’s death in 2013, Greaney continued to write an additional four novels in Clancy’s Jack Ryan Universe.  Aside from the books he wrote with Clancy, Greaney has his own series, the bestselling Gray Man series, which started in 2009 with the author’s debut book, The Gray ManMission Critical is the eighth book in the Gray Man series.

This was an incredibly thrilling story which contains hell of a lot of action and espionage.  I really liked the sound of Mission Critical’s plot synopsis and was glad that I picked up a copy of this book, as the action and intrigue did not stop the entire time.  At over 500 pages long, I was worried that this might drag in some places, but I found myself fairly absorbed by the awesome plot and sufficiently pumped up by the huge number of firefights, close combat sequences and high-speed chases.

I loved the spy thriller storyline that was a prominent part of Mission Critical.  Greaney weaves together a number of plotlines to create a fantastic overall spy thriller narrative.  Because Mission Critical is told from a number of perspectives, including those of the protagonists and antagonists, the reader gets a great idea of all the action, spycraft and dirty tricks that both sides employ to complete their respective missions.  Greaney obviously has a large amount of knowledge about the espionage world, and I loved all his depictions about the inner workings of spy agencies, rogue operatives and the various tricks and techniques that agents employ.  I also liked Greaney’s depiction of the inner politics of the CIA and how that might impact on missions and the distribution of resources, as well as a look at the CIA’s relationship with other countries’ intelligence agencies.

I really liked some of the characters featured within this book.  The protagonist, Court Gentry (and I have to point out how much I love that name), is a solid and dependable badass agent to anchor this series.  He’s your typical thriller protagonist, with some badass skills and a reputation to match.  I loved his anti-authoritarian vibe, and I also quite enjoyed how he actually got his ass handed to him multiple times throughout the book, rather than being unbeatable in every encounter.  I was also impressed that Greaney kept showing him being slowed down by his injuries, rather than having him at 100% for every encounter like some other authors do.  Zoya is also a good protagonist for this story; let’s face it, a sexy Russian agent never goes amiss in a spy thriller.  The author dives into this character’s background quite a bit in Mission Critical, and her connections to the plot and the antagonists were explored in an intriguing manner.  The third Poison Apple operative, Zack Hightower, aka Romantic, was used a little less than his comrades, but he was a fun addition to the team, adding some humour to the story, especially when it came to his codename, as well as some complex history and camaraderie with Gentry.  The Poison Apple program handler, Suzanne Brewer, also adds some great things to the story.  A career-orientated CIA administrator, she has to try and play straight-woman to the three anti-authority, disrespectful operatives that are under her command.  The fact that she does not want to be working with these people and is at times actively sabotaging them to try and get a different posting adds some really intriguing elements to the story, and I liked watching her work against her agents for her own selfish ends.

Mission Critical is the eighth book in Greaney’s Gray Man series.  While this latest entry does feature a number of characters from the previous books in the series, readers are not required to have read any of the previous books to enjoy this story.  I felt that Greaney did an excellent job of explaining any elements from the previous entries in the series that become relevant throughout Mission Critical.  Fans of the Gray Man series will probably really enjoy the deeper examination of Zoya’s history and backstory, as well as her inclusion in the other Poison Apple agent’s operations.

Overall, Mission Critical was a deeply entertaining espionage novel that is bound to keep readers absorbed with its excellent action and thriller elements.  It is easily enjoyable for both existing fans of the franchise and new readers alike.  I had a lot of fun reading this book and I powered through all 500+ pages in fairly short order.  I am planning to keep an eye out for Greaney’s next book, Red Metal, a really cool-sounding war thriller that is coming out in July this year.

Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz

out of the dark cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Orphan X (Book 4)

Length: 435 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

The Orphan X series returns with a bang as thriller extraordinaire Gregg Hurwitz sets his long-running protagonist against his most dangerous opponent yet in this fun and exciting new novel.

Evan Smoak is an orphan in every way that matters.  Taken from his foster home as a child and inducted into a top-secret espionage program, Evan was given a new name, Orphan X.  The Orphans are the most lethal secret agents the United States ever produced, taking on missions around the world.  But after years of killing and being lied to, Evan had enough and left the program.  Now using his abilities to stay hidden, Evan has taken on a new identity, The Nowhere Man, a mysterious vigilante who helps people placed in terrible situations.  While Evan is satisfied with his new life, there is one threat from his old life that he needs to kill.  Unfortunately for Evan, that one man is now the President of the United States of America.

As the head of the Orphan program, Jonathan Bennett used the Orphans to promote his illegal and corrupt agendas around the world.  Now that he has achieved his ambition to become President, to cover his tracks he has ordered the death of all the remaining Orphans, as well as the man who was the closest thing Evan had to a father.  Now Orphan X is at the top of his hit list, and the only way to protect himself and the other orphans is to do the impossible and kill Bennett first.

Residing in the most impenetrable building in the world and with the full force of the Secret Service protecting him, Bennett looks to be untouchable, especially as he has unleashed the vengeful Orphan A to hunt Evan down.  However, Orphan X has a plan and is determined to take everything from the President.  Can Evan succeed?  Why is Bennett so concerned with covering up the details of Orphan X’s first mission?  One thing is for sure: all hell is about to break loose in Washington.

Hurwitz is a veteran author whose work mostly fits into the thriller and mystery genres.  He has written a couple of series, including the young adult zombie series, The Rains Brothers, and the thriller-based Tim Rackley series.  In addition, Hurwitz has also written a number of interesting sounding standalone books, including his debut novel, The Tower, as well as a number of comics for DC and Marvel, including Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, 19 issues of Batman: The Dark Knight and even a run on Marvel’s excellent 2004 The Punisher series.  Aside from the two The Rains Brothers novels, Hurwitz’s main work in the last three years has been his Orphan X series.  Out of the Dark is the fourth novel in this series and continues a number of storylines set out in the earlier books.

With the exception of some of his comics, I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Hurwitz’s previous books before, although several do sound very interesting; for example, his 2001 release, Minutes to Burn, has been recommended to me before due to its fun premise.  However, upon hearing that the plot of this book was going to set an elite rogue operative against the President of the United States, I knew that I had to check this book out.  Luckily my propensity for falling for and checking out books with amazing and out-there plot synopsis paid off once again, as I had a lot of fun reading this action-packed thriller.

After some bad experiences in the past, I am always a little apprehensive about coming into a series several books in, and Out of the Dark was no exception, especially as it was the fourth book in the series.  However, Hurwitz does a fantastic job setting out the events leading up to this story, and I did not find myself lost in the slightest as I read this book.  Therefore, I have no hesitation in recommending this book to readers who, like me, were intrigued by the intriguing story concept and want to start the series here.

The main story focuses on Orphan X’s and the President’s attempts to take each other out, and it results in a fast-paced and action-packed thrill ride, as the two sides unleash everything to win.  This main storyline is split between several characters, including Orphan X, the President, the head of the President’s security detail and Orphan A.  Hurwitz spends time exploring each of these characters’ backgrounds, personalities and motivations, allowing for a richer overall story rather than a typical all-action adventure.  In addition to this main storyline, there is also a secondary storyline where Evan, as The Nowhere Man, helps out a person being targeted by a drug lord.  I was a bit uncertain about the necessity of this second storyline, as I was quite enjoying the focus on assassinating the president.  However, I did appreciate how this second storyline was used to convey Evan’s continued search for humanity and redemption after years as an assassin.  Fans of the previous books in the Orphan X series will enjoy a number of inclusions thrown into Out of the Dark, including several characters from the previous books, a continuation of some storylines, and an opening scene that shows Evan’s first mission as Orphan X back in the 1990s.  All of this comes together into an amazing and captivating story that is not only exciting, but which also has some emotional weight backing it up.

Hurwitz takes his plot focus of an elite agent targeting the President and really runs with it.  The protection surrounding the President of the United States of America is legendary, both inside and outside of fiction.  Therefore, the idea that one man can take him out is a crazy idea, especially as Hurwitz makes it clear the sheer amount of resources and firepower that the President’s security detail has on his side.  Indeed, there are several comparisons made throughout the book, showcasing the Secret Service’s tools and resources, and then counterpointing it to the few resources the protagonist has access to.  Despite this, at no point does the reader feel like Orphan X is the underdog, even with Orphan A and his less than savoury cohorts chasing after him.  Indeed, as the book progresses, the President and his security get more and more nervous, especially as Evan makes his various moves.  The protagonist’s overall plan for getting to the President is pretty clever, and I love how this storyline ended.  This was an extremely fun story focus, and I was not disappointed by how Hurwitz showcased it.

It should go without saying that this book is chocked full of action, as there are a number of high-intensity scenes where the protagonist takes it to his opponents.  Hurwitz can write a really good action sequence, and there were some really fun details throughout the book.  The author really uses these scenes to show off what a badass Orphan X is, including an early scene where the protagonist tells several police officers exactly how he is going to take them out and then proceeds to beat the thus-prepared officers in what has to be the ultimate power play.  These action scenes also show off what the Secret Service can do and how impressive their presidential security is.  With plenty of explosions, gunfights, full-on assaults of strongholds and violent hand-to-hand combat sequences, there is plenty in this book for those readers who love a bit of action in their fiction.

Overall, Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz is an amazing read that I had an absolute blast with.  Orphan X continues to reign supreme as one of modern thriller fiction’s most badass protagonists, as he takes on the whole Secret Service.  This is an extremely exciting and clever read that also takes the time to dive into the emotional motivation of its characters.  Out of the Dark is an absolutely stunning blast from Hurwitz and I loved this latest addition to the entertaining Orphan X series.

Red War by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Red War Cover.png

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 25 September 2018

 

From the minds of two outstanding thriller writers comes Red War, the latest book in the iconic Mitch Rapp spy series.  This newest addition is an exhilarating and action-packed espionage novel that incorporates a captivating look at modern global politics into its exciting and enjoyable narrative.

For years, Russian president Maxim Krupin has ruled his country with an iron fist, and even recent setbacks to his ambitious plans in the Middle East have not lessened his power or influence.  However, Krupin is about to encounter an opponent even he may not be able to overcome: cancer.  With an inoperable brain tumour impacting his actions, the once calculating and selectively destructive strongman begins openly targeting all his enemies and opponents in order to retain his power and to distract attention away from his illness.

The Americans, especially the CIA, are alarmed and surprised by the Russian president’s sudden and unpredictable moves.  Uncertain of the motivations behind them, the CIA assign legendary covert operative Mitch Rapp to investigate and counter Krupin’s more aggressive moves, including the attempted assassination of Krupin’s former problem solver, Grisha Azarov.  When Rapp and the CIA uncover proof about Krupin’s medical condition, they begin to realise just how desperate and dangerous their opponent is.  With Russian troops massing on the border of Europe, it appears Krupin may even be willing to start a war with the West in order to maintain his position.  With World War III just around the corner, Rapp is given an impossible task: infiltrate Russia and assassinate the man many consider to be the most powerful person in the world.  Will Rapp and his allies succeed in this dangerous mission, or will their actions lead the world to the very brink of a nuclear war?

This is the 17th book in the Mitch Rapp series, which began in 1999 with the first book, Transfer of Power, which was written by Vince Flynn as a follow-up to his 1997 debut, Term Limit, which is set in the same universe as the Mitch Rapp books.  Following Flynn’s death in 2013, the series was continued by fellow thriller writer Kyle Mills, who has written 17 books since 1997, including the last three Mitch Rapp novels.  The Mitch Rapp books are a fast-paced and action-packed series that focuses on American espionage, and often features the titular character’s brutal war on Islamic terrorists.  Some who are unfamiliar with the books may have seen the film adaption of Flynn’s 2010 prequel novel, American Assassin, which was released in 2017, featuring Dylan O’Brien of Teen Wolf and The Maze Runner fame, as well as Batman himself, Michael Keaton.

In this latest book, Mills continues the series trend of providing the reader with eventful and compelling adventures.  Red War is chock full of action and combat as the protagonists attempt to counter the Russian president, the president’s personal assassin and the whole Russian army.  Readers will find plenty to keep them entertained, from small tactical skirmishes around the world between American and Russian covert forces, to large-scale battles and wars, with some devastating results.  While the main protagonist, Mitch Rapp, is starting to get a little old, he is still the same killing machine he has always been, and he powers through the vast majority of his opponents.  However, some of the other characters he encounters are the cream of the Russian army and have been enhanced by a combination of extreme training and performance-enhancing drugs.  This results in some very hectic shoot-outs and fight sequences, although there is very little doubt that Rapp will succeed.  A lot of these fights are tactical in nature as Rapp seeks to outsmart larger or more formidable forces he finds himself up against, resulting in some scenes with slower pacing that are used to create a more intense, but equally exciting, action sequence.  In addition, there are some fairly outrageous sequences throughout the book that readers will really enjoy.  For example, in a later part of the book Rapp suddenly finds himself leading an unusual army against his opponents, and a scene earlier in the book he decides to utilise a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in a fight after he starts “getting sick of these drugged-up, thirtysomething terminators whom Krupin was churning out”.

Mills has also made sure to include detailed examinations of the various intelligence-gathering and espionage techniques that his characters employ, as well as several scenes exploring the opposing nations planning and tactical sessions.  It is always fun to read about fictional tactical and intelligence meetings, especially in novels like Red War, when you see both these discussions from both sides of the conflict in order to focus on the various moves and countermoves each opposing side utilises.  In Red War, the motivation behind the Russian president’s actions is revealed to the reader within the first few pages of the book; however, all the American characters, and even some of the Russian characters, have no idea why he has escalated his campaign against his opponents.  It is very captivating to watch the various actions Krupin takes to not only stay in power, but also hide his illness from his own people.  As the book progresses and this becomes harder for him to manage, it is interesting to see the Americans begin to put the pieces together and see how well their theory fits into place.  Both the American and Russian characters do a lot of espionage and counterespionage moves throughout the novel as the Americans attempt to uncover the Russian leader’s unpredictable next move, while Krupin and his agents attempts to take out his various rivals while also frustrating the Americans.  The descriptions of these espionage moves and techniques feel very realistic, and there is enough going on to keep any lover of spy fiction very happy.

One of the most compelling and notable things about Red War is the way that it brushes on current politics and uses many recent real-world events in its story, by either referencing them or attributing them to the book’s fictional characters.  One of the main antagonists, the Russian president Krupin, is an athletic and powerful strongman that is clearly supposed to be a fictional version of Vladimir Putin, with several similar character attributes, including a propensity to use staged hunting propaganda shots out in the snow to promote his rugged, masculine image.  Many of Krupin’s actions and decisions throughout the book match those of Putin, down to the character revealing he utilises social media to influence international politics.  As a result, while the book focuses on a fictional antagonist, the reader is left thinking about what would happen if something similar were to happen to Putin or another world leader, and how other nations would respond.  The American and Russian characters discuss geopolitics throughout the book as they make their plots and plans, and many of the events they discuss have happened in the real world.  This allows the readers, especially those familiar with current world affairs, to enjoy a much more realistic read, especially when the characters look at real world events to justify their actions or responses.  These real-world inclusions help to turn Red War into a much more intriguing read for the readers that does an amazing job capturing its audience’s attention and interest.

Despite being the 17th book in the Mitch Rapp series, Red War is a very approachable book that is very easy for readers unfamiliar with the series to enjoy.  A perfect read for those who are intrigued by a fun and exciting plot concept, Red War delivers all the action and espionage you could possibly want, with some incredibly fascinating insights and references to modern global politics.  Mills has once again forged an incredible story from Vince Flynn’s original thriller universe, and fans of this series will not be disappointed by this latest offering.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars