Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz

Into the Fire

Publisher: Michael Joseph/Brilliance Audio (Audiobook – 28 January 2020)

Series: Orphan X – Book Five

Length: 12 hours

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of bestselling thriller author Gregg Hurwitz comes an outstanding and captivating adventure novel, Into the Fire, the latest book in his amazing Orphan X series.

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, a former orphan child who was taken in by a secret covert government and trained from a young age to become the most skilled assassin and special operator in the world. Orphan X served his country for years before finally having enough and leaving, pursued by the people who ordered his creation. Resettling to Los Angeles, Evan forged a new identity for himself as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante dedicated to helping those in desperate need who have no one else to turn to.

After killing his greatest enemy, the United States President, Evan has had enough of violence and is determined to retire and live a quiet life. But before he leaves everything behind, Evan has decided to help one more person as The Nowhere Man, as one final act of redemption. Enter Max Merriweather, a poor construction worker in LA. Two months earlier his cousin Grant, a successful forensic accountant, entrusted Max with an envelope and instructions to take it to a reporter if anything happened to him. Now Grant is dead, an armed thug is ransacking Max’s apartment and the reporter he was told to contact has been murdered. With nowhere else left to turn, Max calls The Nowhere Man.

Taking on Max’s case, Evan dives into LA’s criminal underbelly in order to locate the people hunting Max. Easily finding the thugs responsible for Grant’s death, Evan manages to eliminate them quickly; however, it turns out that they are just the tip of an iceberg stretching throughout the entirety of LA. Grant was on the verge of uncovering a massive conspiracy, and his evidence could put away a lot of dangerous people who are now determined to kill Max to keep him quiet. Determined to keep Max safe, Evan soon finds himself embroiled in one of the most challenging and complicated missions of his life, as behind every corner a new adversary lies, each one more powerful and connected than the last. Can even this legendary assassin and vigilante win with the odds so severely stacked against him?

Gregg Hurwitz is a veteran thriller author who has been producing compelling and exciting novels since his 1999 debut, The Tower. Since then he has written over 20 novels, including his Tim Rackley series, The Rains Brothers books and several standalone novels. He has also contributed to several DC and Marvel comic book series, such as Batman: The Dark Knight and The Punisher, and he also does a bit of screenwriting, having written several episodes of the 2009 remake of V. Hurwitz’s main body of work at the moment is his Orphan X series, which started in 2016 with the novel Orphan X. Into the Fire is the fifth book in the Orphan X series and follows on shortly after the events of the fourth book, Out of the Dark. I actually got into Hurwitz’s works last year when I read Out of the Dark due its cool story premise of a former secret agent attempting to kill the President. After I enjoyed this fun action thriller last year, I was definitely keen to check out more of Hurwitz’s work and I have been looking forward to Into the Fire for a little while now.

Now, I have to admit that while I was interested in checking out Into the Fire, I was a little worried that Hurwitz was going to have a hard time topping his previous novel and its outrageous central plot point. However, Into the Fire turned out to be an outstanding read which I ended up enjoying more than Out of the Dark. Hurwitz has produced an incredible thriller that is filled with intense action, clever plot developments and an excellent character-driven central story. All of these amazing elements combine together perfectly into a novel which can easily be read as either a continuation of the series or as a compelling standalone novel.

One of the best parts of this novel is the well-written and captivating central thriller storyline which sees the protagonist attempt to take down a criminal conspiracy in the heart of LA. What starts out as a relatively simple mission to take down a small-time criminal organisation quickly morphs into a massive task, as each time Evan thinks he has succeeded, a larger and more dangerous adversary appears behind the people he has just taken out. There are so many twists and turns in this novel, you honestly don’t know when or where it is going to end, and the story goes in some very fun and clever directions. I really enjoyed how the author layered his story with seemingly innocuous comments and discussion that later morphed into major plot payoffs later down the line in the book, and I was actually surprised about a few of the reveals that occurred.

I really liked the overarching plot idea of an elite secret agent going after everyday criminals with his full range of tradecraft, advanced weapons and training, especially as it resulted in some amazing sequences throughout the book. The protagonist comes up with some truly unique, clever and at times brutal ways to take down some of his opponents, which were fun to check out. I know I will never look at a plastic drinking straw the same way again. My personal favourite part of the book are several chapters where the protagonist breaks into a prison to deal with one of his targets. The various ways that he infiltrated the prison, pulled off his mission and then escaped was not only clever but also very entertaining, and I loved every single second of it. I also really liked how Hurwitz introduced a handicap for his protagonist throughout this book in the form of a severe concussion obtained early on in the story. The author did an excellent job portraying the symptoms of a concussion, and it was interesting to watch the protagonist struggle to complete his tasks with blurred vision or a massive headache. The concussion angle was a great way to amp the risk surrounding the protagonist’s actions, as it actually put many of his opponents on an equal footing with this former elite special agent and was a fantastic inclusion to the story. Overall, this turned out to be an extremely well-written and deeply exciting thriller storyline, which proves to be quite addictive and captivating.

I was also quite impressed by the way that Hurwitz spent time examining and developing the central characters of this book. In particular, there is a fascinating focus on the complex character of Evan Smoak, who is the main protagonist of this series. Hurwitz has always done an amazing job of portraying Evan as a man very much haunted by his past lives, both as an abandoned child and as an assassin who was trained to kill since the age of 12. Both of these parts of his life still drive him, and his whole persona as The Nowhere Man is a form of redemption for him, as he attempts to not only atone for the lives he took as Orphan X but to also help those who feel as powerless as he did when he was a young child. Hurwitz continues to utilise this characterisation in Into the Fire, although this time it is further complicated by his plans to retire after this one final mission. This whole retirement angle is a major concern for Evan, as he spends a good part of the book weighing up the good he does as The Nowhere Man against all the personal benefits of attempting to live a normal life. This makes for a lot of internal conflict, which forces the author to once again dive into Evan’s motivations for being a vigilante, which adds a great dramatic edge to the entire story.

This consideration about having a more normal life is also explored in the way that the trained loner Evan starting to learn more about human interaction and relationships in this book. Part of this takes place in the way that he interacts with Joey, the teenage hacker and former Orphan trainee he saved and took under his wing. Evan has inadvertently taken on the role of a father figure to Joey, and it was great to see him continue to act protective towards her and see their unique relationship grow. There is also the rather amusing and awkward interactions that he has with the residence of his building. Despite not wanting to have much to do with them, he actually goes out of his way to protect them, and he is actually shown to care quite deeply when one of them is hurt. Finally, there is the complex relationship he has with Mia, the single mother and ADA in his building who he has feelings for but has driven away with his acts of vigilantism. All of these interactions help Evan develop more as a character and recover a little more of his lost humanity, and I really enjoyed the way that Hurwitz explored such a complex and damaged protagonist.

While most of the book’s focus is on Evan, Hurwitz also dives into the life of Evan’s latest client, Max Merriweather. Max, who serves as a significant point-of-view character, is a down-on-his-luck individual who is dragged into the events of this book by his more successful cousin. Throughout the course of Into the Fire, you get to learn about the past of Max, showing how, due to events outside of his control, he has always been seen as the family screw-up, something he has struggled to escape due to his corresponding low self-confidence. You also get to see the history of his tragic marriage, and how doing the right thing cost him everything. I really liked the way that Hurwitz took the time to explore the life of this new client, especially as it develops him into a much more sympathetic character that reader becomes invested in over the course of the book. I also liked the relationship he slowly built up with Evan, as each of them were able to provide some help in solving the deeper emotional or personal issues that were affecting the other. This excellent character was an outstanding and distinctive part of the book, and I am definitely keen to see what excellent characters are introduced in the next Orphan X book, especially after the intriguing reveal at the end of Into the Fire.

I ended up enjoying the audiobook format of Into the Fire, which was narrated by Scott Brick. This audiobook runs for a substantial 12 hours in length, but I got through it rather quickly, as I got really drawn in by the cool and compelling story. I personally found that this was an excellent way to consume this fantastic book, and I had a great time listening to the story. Brick is an excellent audiobook narrator who has a lot of experience bringing thriller novels to life. I previously enjoyed his narration of The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry, and I am currently listening to his narration of the sequel, The Warsaw Protocol. Brick did a wonderful job bringing the characters in Into the Fire to life, and I felt that he utilised perfect voices for each of them. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Into the Fire, as it is an amazing way to enjoy this book.

Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz is an incredible read that comes highly recommended. This latest book in the fantastic Orphan X series is an outstanding piece of thriller fiction, which sets its complex characters down an action-packed road of intrigue and twists to produce a five-star read. Hurwitz has really outdone himself with Into the Fire, which turned out to be one hell of a book. I cannot wait to see where Hurwitz takes the Orphan X series next, but I will definitely be grabbing a copy of his next book when it comes out.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Dark Disciple by Christie Golden

Star Wars Dark Disciple Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 7 July 2015)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 11 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 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 this week’s Throwback Thursday, I go back and check out an amazing piece of Star Wars fiction with Star Wars: Dark Disciple by tie-in fiction extraordinaire Christie Golden. Dark Disciple is a compelling and intense Star Wars novel that features two fan-favourite characters from the extended universe in a fantastic adventure that is deeply connected with The Clone Wars animated series.

A Jedi shall not know anger. Nor hatred. Nor love!

For years, the galaxy has been locked in one of the most destructive struggles it has ever known, the Clone Wars. Led by the ruthless Sith Lord Count Dooku, the Separatists have engaged in a gruelling and bloody conflict with the Republic that has led to the death of countless innocents. While the guardians of the Republic, the Jedi, have tried in vain to capture Dooku and end the war, their methods appear inadequate to stop him. After a particularly brutal massacre, the Jedi Council do the unthinkable and sanction the assassination of Count Dooku, believing that only his death will bring peace to the galaxy.

To that end, the Council turns to maverick Jedi Master Quinlan Vos. Unpredictable, brash and experienced in undercover work, Vos is the perfect candidate for this dangerous mission. However, this is not a one-man job. In order to track down Dooku, infiltrate his defences and defeat him in battle, Vos is going to need a partner. At the suggestion of Master Yoda, Vos seeks out the one person who knows the Count better than anyone else, Dooku’s former apprentice and assassin, Asajj Ventress.

After losing everything she held dear at the hands of Dooku, Ventress is desperate to leave her past as a Sith behind. But her hatred for Dooku is all-consuming, and she jumps at the chance to finally kill him. However, Ventress believes that Dooku can only be defeated by someone empowered by their emotions and able to access the dark side of the Force. Tutoring Vos in the methods of her race, the Nightsisters, Ventress is able to make Vos stronger and more powerful as he sits on the knife’s edge between the light and the dark side. But this balance is fragile at best, and all it will take is a single push for Vos to fully embrace the darkness. Between the machinations of Dooku, terrible secrets from the past and his growing feelings for Ventress, can Vos remain true to his vows and complete his mission, or have the Jedi have unleashed a great new evil upon the galaxy?

Dark Disciple is an intriguing addition to the Star Wars canon which not only has some major connections to the popular Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series but also contains a cool and at times dramatic story about love, darkness within and redemption. Dark Disciple was actually based on a script for eight unproduced episodes of The Clone Wars that were never made due to the Disney buyout of Star Wars and the subsequent cancellation of the animated show. These episodes were written by The Clone Wars screenwriter Katie Lucas (who provides a foreword for this book) and subsequently adapted into this book by acclaimed science fiction and fantasy author Christie Golden. Golden has authored many tie-in novels for various franchises, and I have previously enjoyed her World of Warcraft novels, including War Crimes (probably my favourite piece of Warcraft fiction) and Before the Storm. While Golden had written a few pieces of Star Wars fiction before this book, Dark Disciple ended up being her first novel in the current canon. In the end, this turned out to be an excellent read and I was really impressed in the way that Golden ended up turning this cool script into a deep and compelling novel.

Seeing as it is based off an unused script for the show, this book obviously has some strong connections to The Clone Wars television show. This book is set a little while after the events of the already aired episodes of The Clone Wars and continues their range of storylines a little further. Not only does Dark Disciple contain several characters whose main appearance was in the animated show, but it also refers to events from several episodes, including episodes that Katie Lucas wrote herself. As a result, Dark Disciple is probably best enjoyed by those readers who are familiar with the show, who will have a greater appreciation of the book’s various story elements. That being said, anyone who has seen the Star Wars prequel movies will be able to easily follow what is going on, and will no doubt enjoy the complex story it contains.

Fair warning to fans of The Clone Wars series, though: you are going to experience some sense of crushing disappointment after reading this. The book itself is pretty damn awesome, but it’s supremely disappointing that the story contained within this novel never featured as the amazing extended arc for the animated series it clearly would have been. While I really loved this novelisation, I cannot help but imagine how emotional and explosive it would have been acted out and animated as part of the show. As I review this book, it is actually less than a month until the release of the seventh and final series of The Clone Wars. While I am deeply excited for this final season, after reading this book I am a little sad as I know that the storyline contained within Dark Disciple is unlikely to be featured in it.

That being said, I really enjoyed the fact that this book focuses on two amazing characters from the animated series, Asajj Ventress and Quinlan Vos. Ventress and Vos are fan-favourite characters who have had significant appearances within the expanded Star Wars universe. Ventress is best known for her role within The Clone Wars universe (first appearing in the original 2003 Clone Wars show), where she first served as a major antagonist, before developing into more of an anti-hero. Ventress ended up being the focus of several major arcs within The Clone Wars series, some of which were written by Katie Lucas. Her success in the animated series saw her utilised in several books and comics set in the same period, although most of these are no longer canon. Vos also has an interesting origin as he was first seen as a background character in The Phantom Menace. Thanks to his cool look and some fan interest, the character was given a fleshed-out origin story as a Jedi and subsequently utilised in several works of expanded fiction. This included books and comics and an appearance in one episode of The Clone Wars. While Ventress and Vos had several interactions in the old Star Wars Legends canon, Dark Disciples is actually the first time that they meet in the current canon. Their whole relationship is a major part of the story, and I liked how it formed and developed throughout the course of the book.

I really enjoyed how Ventress was utilised in this book. Ventress is one of the best original characters in The Clone Wars, and I have always loved the gradual journey to redemption that occurred within her story arc. As a result, a book where she is one of the main characters is deeply intriguing to me and I was excited to see how she continued to evolve after her last appearance in the animated series. There are some major developments for Ventress in this book, and if you ever enjoyed this character in the animated series and wanted to know her ultimate fate than you need to read this book. Personally, I think that this was an amazing continuation to the character arcs that had been featured within the shows, and as I mentioned above, I am disappointed that it was never included as part of The Clone Wars. In adapting the script into this novel, Golden makes sure to really cover the background of this character, so those readers who are unfamiliar with the shows will be able to understand her complex and tragic backstory. I also think that Golden did an amazing job of capturing the complex character that was Ventress in this book, getting past her prickly outer layer to see the more complicated emotional person within. This was a near perfect examination of one of the best Star Wars characters who never appeared in a movie, and after reading this book it will be a shame not to see more of her in any of the planned animated shows.

Perhaps the most compelling part of this book is the complex and gripping central tale about Quinlan Vos’s fall to the dark side of the Force. This was an intrinsic part of the book’s overall plot, as Vos and Ventress both believed that having the easy power obtained by dark side users was the only way to defeat Dooku. This turn to the dark side is spurred on by lies, revelations and intense emotions, and it necessitates some deep dives into Vos and Ventress’s respective psyches, resulting in some dramatic and personal moments from both of these great characters. Watching Vos’s slow decline as he slips further and further away from the light side is painful at times, especially when you just know he is eventually going to turn. Even then, despite realizing it was coming, the point when he fully breaks bad for the first time (yellow eyes included) is pretty powerful, as he lashes out at the only person he has, and will ever, truly love. In many ways, Vos’s fall reflects Anakin’s later turn in Revenge of the Sith, in that he believes learning about the dark side is for the greater good, the Jedi Council pushes him to do something he has moral issues with and his emotional connections to a women push him over the edge. There are also some amazing scenes in the later part of the book where the reader is unsure whether Vos is actually evil or is just pretending to have fallen to fool his foes, which leads to a lot of uncertainty and hostility from the other Jedi and Ventress as they try to work out his plan. Overall, this was an outstanding centre for this book, and the complex web of deceit, deeper examination of how one falls to the dark side and all the drama surrounding this part of novel, was really cool to read.

One of the other parts of the story that I found to be interesting was the depiction of some of the other Jedi in this book. Throughout this story the Jedi, particularly the members of their ruling council, are shown to be walking a bit of a darker path thanks to the impacts of the Clone Wars. While not attempting to learn more about the dark side of the Force, members of the Council are beginning to propose action that they usually wouldn’t consider, such as the assassination of Dooku, or the execution of Vos and Ventress. This is a really intriguing take on their characterisation which plays in well with the future events of Revenge of the Sith, where their boldness in attempting to take over the Republic to protect it or Mace Windu’s attempt to kill Chancellor Palpatine backfires on them. Windu in particular comes across as a bit of an arse in this book, and the rest of the council (with the exception of Yoda and Kenobi) seem like meek followers going along with him. I thought that this aspect of the books was pretty interesting, and it liked seeing some hints of this once wise and noble Jedi Council beginning to act more rashly and dramatically.

Like most of the Star Wars books that I look at for my Throwback Thursday articles, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Dark Disciple, which was narrated by Marc Thompson and ran for just over 11 hours. I have mentioned several times before about how I find Star Wars audiobooks to be a step above most other audiobook productions I listen to, and Dark Disciple was yet another awesome example of just how cool they can be. This audiobook in particular does an excellent job of utilising the huge range of iconic Star Wars sound effects to create an exciting or appropriate atmosphere for much of the story, and there is nothing cooler than hearing lightsaber or blaster sound effects during a battle sequence. In addition, this format also features some of the incredible and memorable music from the films. John Williams’s epic score from the prequels was on full display in this book, with some of his most awesome pieces being used throughout several scenes to great effect. Nothing amps up an action scene quite as much as having the pulse pumping Duel of the Fates playing in the background, while hearing the mournful composition known as Anakin’s Betrayal playing during the scenes where Vos is turning to the dark side of the Force is a real emotional gut punch that brings back memories of Vader and the Emperor killing all the Jedi. This was actually one of the best utilisations of Star Wars music in an audiobook that I have so far experienced, and I really loved how much it increased my enjoyment of this fantastic audiobook.

In addition to the cool sound effects and dramatic music, the audiobook also benefited from the talented voice work of Marc Thompson. Thompson is a veteran narrator of Star Wars audiobooks, having worked on a huge number of their tie-in books since 2007. I have previously listened to two Star Wars books narrated by Thompson, Thrawn and Scoundrels, and with both of these I was really impressed with the realistic and clever voices that he came up with for some of iconic Star Wars characters. Dark Disciple is another exceptional example of Thompson’s skill, as he was able to reproduce the voices of several of the book’s major characters. Not only does he do an amazing job replicating Ventress’s voice, but he also produced excellent examples of Yoda, Count Dooku and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voices from The Clone Wars show. This is some first-rate voice work which, when combined with all the extra sound effect and musical inclusions, made Dark Disciples an absolute treat to listen to, and I cannot recommend this format highly enough.

Star Wars: Dark Disciple by Christie Goldie is an outstanding and highly enjoyable piece of Star Wars fiction that I had an amazing time listening to. Featuring a first-rate story that revolves around two amazing characters and their complicated relationship to the force (and each other), Dark Disciple is one of the better Star Wars novels that I have had the pleasure of reading. A perfect tie-in to the amazing The Clone Wars animated series, this book is a must read for all fans of that series, especially before the seventh and final season is released. Dark Disciple comes highly recommend and is a force to be reckoned with.

The Russian by Ben Coes

The Russian Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 30 July 2019)

Series: Rob Tacoma – Book One

Lenght: 9 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thriller author Ben Coes returns to the world of his Dewey Andreas series with The Russian, the first book in spinoff series which sets the CIA against the Russian mafia in a violent conflagration.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, some of the most dangerous and ruthless criminals from Russia emigrated to the United States in order to take advantage of the unique opportunities available there. This led to the creation of the Russian mafia, a group whose capacity for violence, murder and collateral damage knows no bounds. The Russian mafia are now the most effective and feared criminal organisation in the world, and conventional law enforcement seems unable to stop them. However, after elements of the Russian mafia organise the brutal assassination of two prominent American politicians, the President of the United States has had enough. Utilising a top-secret piece of legislation, the President authorises the CIA to run a small kill team on US soil. Their mission: kill those responsible for the assassinations while also taking down the Russian mafia by any means necessary.

Tasked with pulling together an elite two-man kill team to undertake this dangerous mission, the director of the CIA knows that his first recruit needs to be Rob Tacoma. Tacoma is one of the best killers the CIA ever produced, an operative without peer who is able to think on his feet and adapt to any situation. Tacoma is the perfect man for this dangerous and secretive job, especially as he already bears a hefty grudge against the Russian. However, this assignment begins poorly when Tacoma finds his new partner murdered by mafia hitmen before he even officially joins the team. The Russians already know what his mission is, and with his identity exposed, Tacoma is now being hunted by the entire Russian mafia. Can even this legendary CIA operative survive against a criminal army without rules, conscious or limits?

The Russian is the first book in the new Rob Tacoma series of thriller books. The Rob Tacoma books are a spinoff of Coes’s Dewey Andreas series, which ran between 2010 and 2018, featuring eight novels. Rob Tacoma was a popular supporting character in the Dewey Andreas books, and it’s interesting to see him getting his own adventures. I have had my eye on The Russian for a little while now due to its awesome-sounding plot, and I really wanted to read it last year when it first came out but I didn’t get a chance. As a result, when I was in the mood for an exciting thriller, The Russian was at the top of my list of books to check out. I ended up really enjoying The Russian as it has a fun, fast-paced story with a lot of action that I was able to power through in a very short period of time.

This new book from Coes features a rather intriguing plot idea of a CIA agent, and by extension the CIA, going to war with an organised crime group, the Russian mafia. I really loved this concept and I think that Coes did a wonderful job expanding it out into a thrilling and enjoyable story. The start of the book is set out perfectly, with the event that shows off the notoriety of the Russian mafia and prompts the President to set the CIA on them, presenting the reader with a pretty compelling start to the book. I appreciated the author taking the time to explore how the CIA were allowed to operate on US soil, and the explanation for this was a really cool plot element. I also loved the quick jump into the next part of the book, which saw Tacoma fall headfirst into trouble when the Russians find out who he and his partner are and send hitmen after him. From there you have a great, fast-paced story, as Tacoma works his way up the food chain of the Russian mafia to the very top. Coes does a fantastic job introducing the Russian mafia and setting them up as major antagonists. Not only does he examine the history of the mafia but he also explores the background of several of the major antagonists in the book, presenting them as real threats.

Among the highlights of this book were the awesome action sequences that Coes inserts throughout the story. In his attempts to take down the Russians, Tacoma engages in a number of gun fights and covert infiltrations to find and kill his targets. Each of these is a lot of fun to see unfold, and there are some really impressive sequences throughout this book. My personal highlight was an extended sequence in an airport, where Tacoma, in the midst of a busy crowd of civilians, must take down a team of assassins who are gunning for him. There were also several great and brutal scenes involving close-combat fighting, including some knockdown brawls between competing Russian gangsters, which of course Tacoma eventually gets caught right in the middle of. Needless to say, there is plenty in this book to keep those action junkies happy, and it I found it to be an enjoyable part of the book. However, readers should be warned that there are several gruesome torture scenes in this novel, which are probably not everyone’s cup of tea.

I felt that The Russian was an excellent introduction into a new major series for Coes, and I liked how he was able to change the direction of his antagonists away from more usual spy thriller targets and towards organised crime. While the author is moving in a new story direction, The Russian is strongly associated with the Dewey Andreas universe. There are a ton of references to the events that occurred in the previous books, and a number of characters from this original series are included, such as the titular Dewey Andreas. Coes does a great job of introducing all the relevant character backgrounds and previous plot events that the reader needs to know, and absolutely no knowledge of these prior books is required to enjoy The Russian. Still, fans of the original Dewey Andreas books will no doubt enjoy seeing how the universe has progressed, especially as The Russian includes a range of different characters from the previous book.

While I did really enjoy the story that Coes pulled together in The Russian, I did find that it was occasionally let down by elements of the author’s writing style. In my opinion, a bunch of plot points were repeated unnecessarily throughout the book and there were several inconsistencies in the book’s timing and characters that stood out to me. In addition, I had issues with some parts of the dialogue, which I found to be a bit unnatural in places. The above issues occasionally broke up the flow of the story for me and they were a bit discordant. However, I still really enjoyed this book, and I felt that the amazing and action-packed story really overcame some of these technical issues. That said, I did find that some of the book’s major twists were a tad easy to predict, especially the last one, which was tied into the background of Tacoma’s character and revisited several times by a bunch of different characters.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Russian, which was narrated by Ari Fliakos, who has previously narrated one of the books in the Dewey Andreas series. The Russian is a relatively short audiobook which ran for 9 hours and 20 minutes. I quite liked the audiobook format of this novel, especially as it allowed me to get through the book really quickly. Fliakos is a pretty good narrator, and he was able to produce a number of excellent voices for the characters, giving many of them passable Russian accents. I did think that listening to The Russian on audiobook made several of the dialogue issues I discussed above stand out a little more, but overall this was a fantastic format on which to enjoy this book.

Overall, The Russian by Ben Coes is a fun and exciting read that I had an amazing time listening to. Coes has done a wonderful job spinning this book off from his previous series, and I really enjoyed the compelling and action-packed story that he came up with. At this point in time, I am planning to read the next book in the Rob Tacoma series when it comes out, and I am looking forward to seeing where this compelling series goes next.

Quick Review – Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep – Audiobook Review

Kill the Queen Cover.jpg

Publisher: HarperAudio (2 October 2018)

Series: A Crown of Shards series – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Kill the Queen is a fun young adult fantasy book that came out late last year. Written by veteran author Jennifer Estep, known for her work on fantasy books such as the Elemental Assassin and Mythos Academy series, Kill the Queen is the first book in her new Crown of Shards series. I listened to the audiobook version of it, narrated by Lauren Fortgang, earlier this year and I have been meaning to review it for some time. With the sequel, Protect the Prince, coming out in a couple of weeks, I figured that it was about time I finally wrote this one up.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

Initially I was not too sure about this book, especially as the opening scenes were a tad slow and less action-packed than I was expecting. However, since the blurb and several early parts of the book indicated that there was an upcoming massacre in the palace, I decided to stick around and keep listening to it. This proved to be quite a good decision; not only did the story quickly pick up pace but I ended up really liking this book.

The lead-up to the massacre at the start of the book was done exceedingly well, especially as the reader can see it coming and you find yourself becoming quite involved with the story at that point. The rest of the story is also fairly exciting. The massacre at the palace is surprisingly brutal for a young adult book, and I really enjoyed the next half of the story, which featured the character joining the gladiator troupe. This part of the book was a good combination of training montage, character development and romance, while also showing a small amount of the antagonist’s moves to solidify her hold on the country. The eventual assault on the palace by the protagonists and the final fight between Evie and Vasilia were good, although I was expecting something a tad more epic, such as a massive battle between all the gladiators and the guards. Still it sets up the future books in the series well, as there are still antagonists on the loose, secrets to be discovered and wars on the horizon.

While the story is very good, this it does feature a number of young adult and fantasy tropes that are a tad overused at this point. The ostracised girl finding her confidence is very familiar, as is Evie’s romance with Lucas, the bad boy she initially cannot stand. I was also a bit disappointed with the shared history with the antagonist that was hinted at throughout the book. It is made to sound like Vasilia did something horrible to Evie in the past, but the evil deed was revealed to be engineered social ostracism because Vasilia had no more use of Evie. This is just a tad disappointing, especially as Evie mentions several times how terrible the event was and several flashbacks are utilised to build up the reveal. Do not get me wrong, the social ostracism that Vasilia organises is cruel, but, honestly, it’s insignificant compared to some of the other traumatic events Evie experiences, and better suited to a high school drama than a fantasy book like this. In addition, I did find that Evie’s whole character arc was also a little bit predictable. It is clear very early on that Evie was going to a classic ‘chosen one’ character whose secret magical ability and mysterious status as Winter Queen will save the country in the future. While a tad predictable, it was still a very interesting story to listen to, and even led to the author including a fun, self-aware declaration from Evie about how she totally is not a chosen one. I hope that Estep cuts down on the young adult and fantasy tropes in the next book, but this was still an amazing piece of fiction that is well worth checking out.

Overall, I would give this book 3.75 out of 5 stars and would definitely recommend it to any reader who is looking for a good new young adult fantasy series. I had a great time listening to it and I managed to power through it in a short amount of time. The audiobook version of Kill the Queen is really well done, and Fortgang is an excellent narrator who contributes some superb voicework to this book. I am probably going to get the second book in the Crown of Shards series when it comes out and I am eager to see where the story goes, especially as the author did leave some interesting plot points open.

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.