Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

Firefly The Ghost Machine Cover

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 28 April 2020)

Series: Firefly – Book three

Length: 335 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firefly: Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove and Nancy Holder

Firefly Big Damn Hero Cover.png

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover edition – 20 November 2018)

Series: Firefly

Length: 334 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

 

Ready for something shiny? Serenity flies again in this fantastic new Firefly tie-in novel that takes the reader back to the original television series and reunites the crew of your favourite spaceship for another amazing adventure.

Firefly, for those people unfamiliar with it, was a science fiction television show that ran for one season back in 2002-03.  Created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and The Avengers movie fame, Firefly is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction television shows of all time.  Featuring a fun group of main characters all played by amazing actors, this western-themed epic in space had some extremely clever and well-written storylines and an outstanding core concept.  Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after only one season (clearly the evillest thing that anyone at Fox has ever done), although it gained cult status after it was released on DVD.  Its post-airing popularity allowed Whedon to create the movie, Serenity, which closed one of the show’s major storylines, while also taking out a couple of major characters (I am still upset about one of those, he was a leaf on the wind, god damn it).  Following the movie, the Firefly universe has mostly continued in the form of several different comic books, usually created with Whedon’s direct input as either a writer or producer.  Do not be surprised if I review several of these Firefly/Serenity comics in the future, either as part of my Throwback Thursday series or when I review the collected edition of the current ongoing Firefly series.

If my notations above did not give it away, I am a huge fan of the Firefly franchise (and generally anything written/created by Joss Whedon), so I was always going to love this novel.  However, all prior biases aside, I found that Big Damn Hero was an excellent tie-in novel, and I powered through this book in extremely short order.

Big Damn Hero is written by James Lovegrove with bestselling author Nancy Holder (author of nearly 20 Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in books) credited as coming up with the original story concept.  Joss Whedon is also acknowledged as the original creator of the Firefly universe and is credited as a consulting editor.  Lovegrove is a veteran writer who has published a number of books since his 1990 debut, The Hope.  Readers may be familiar with his long-running Pantheon series, his recent work on the 2011 Sherlock Holmes series or the three books he has currently written for his The Cthulhu Casebooks series, which also features Sherlock Holmes.  Big Damn Hero is the first novel in a new Firefly tie-in trilogy from Titan Books which brings fans a completely new set of Firefly adventures.  Two additional books are set to be released later this year, with The Magnificent Nine coming out in March and Generations being published in October.

The Firefly franchise is set approximately in the year 2517, where humanity has expanded out into a new star system and terraformed a number of planets and moons.  The central planets were fully terraformed and heavily populated, while the outer planets and moons are more rugged, desert-like and with smaller populations.  The television series is set six years after the end of a brutal war between the Union of Allied Planets (the Alliance) and the Independents (also known as the Browncoats, a name also given to the fans of the franchise), which saw the Alliance gain complete control of the star system.

The show and associated media follow the adventures of the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity as they travel across the system participating in a variety of illegal or barely legal jobs.  The ship is captained by Malcom “Mal” Reynolds, a former sergeant in the Independent army who named the Serenity after the bloodiest battle in the entire war.  Joining him are former Independent army corporal and second in command of the ship Zoe; Zoe’s husband and Serenity’s pilot Wash; mercenary Jayne; ship’s mechanic Kayle; companion Inara; Shepherd Book; and the fugitive siblings Simon and River Tam.  Most of the crew’s adventures in the show followed their various jobs, personal stories and a particular focus on the events surrounding the Tam siblings becoming fugitives.

Big Damn Hero is set a few weeks after the events of the television show’s 12th episode, The Message, and starts the same way most Firefly adventures start, with the crew taking on a new job.  Initially contracted to transport volatile explosives off Persephone for their regular booker, crime lord Badger, the crew decide to take on some additional cargo from a mysterious new contact.  However, the meet turns out to be a trap and Mal is kidnapped and taken off-world.

With the explosives nearing a point of instability, the rest of Serenity’s crew is forced to leave Persephone to continue their original contract.  With only limited leads and the Alliance on their tail, the crew split up in order to locate their captain and maintain the safety of the ship.  Meanwhile, Mal awakens to find that he has been kidnapped by a squad of former Browncoats who are fanatically hunting down former members of the Independent army who they deem responsible for the Independents’ defeat in the war.  Mal has been named a traitor and a coward by old friend from before the war and must now defend himself in an impromptu trial.  As secrets from Mal’s past are brought to the surface, he finds himself at the mercy of a frenzied mob of former friends and comrades demanding his blood.  Can the crew of the Serenity save him, or will Mal pay for his past sins?

Perhaps the best praise I could heap on this book is that I very easily saw this story as a new episode of the show.  Like several of Firefly’s episodes, Big Damn Hero contains a compelling story that is split between the current adventures while also examining the past of one of its characters, in this case Mal.  This exploration into the past then comes into play for the main adventure, as it not only shows the reader events that were formative in Mal’s current character but also explains the actions of the book’s antagonists.  I felt that the plot of Big Damn Hero was a bit of an homage to the show’s fifth episode, Safe, as there were a number of similarities.  Safe was also interspersed with character flashbacks and the main plot of that episode features members of Serenity’s crew being kidnapped and subsequently imperilled while the rest of the crew are forced to take Serenity away from the area for an urgent plot reason.  Safe also featured the crew of Serenity arriving to save the day at the last minute in order to be the “big damn heroes”, a term the crew coined in Safe.  I also felt that the author tapped into elements of the lasting impacts of the war that were featured in episodes such as The Message or in the movie Serenity.  Throughout this book, various characters are shown to be negatively impacted by the war, whether this has made them cold and determined or raging bags of revenge.  Overall, I felt that the author captured the heart of these episodes quite well and helped turn them into a fantastic new addition to the Firefly franchise.

While this is mainly a book about Mal and his past coming back to haunt him, Lovegrove does spend a bit of time focusing on the other members of Serenity’s crew.  As a result, nearly all of the other crew members have at least one chapter told from their point of view.  This allows the reader, especially those who are unfamiliar with the television series, to get a good idea of who the characters are and what their general personality or motivation is.  Aside from Mal, Zoe gets the most focus out of all the other characters, as she not only attempts to find her missing captain but must also take command of Serenity to ensure its safety from other threats encroaching on it.  Zoe is pretty awesome in these chapters, and I felt that the author captured her determination, badassery and extreme loyalty to Mal after serving with him during the war.  Shepherd Book also gets a few entertaining chapters throughout the book, as he leads the investigation into Serenity’s missing captain.  Lovegrove continues to expand on Book’s mysterious past, as the supposedly humble shepherd has high-level military contacts, investigative skills and tactical abilities (those curious to find out Book’s past should check out the comic book Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale).  Most of the rest of the characters also get their moments to shine: Jayne is his usual over-the-top violent self, Inara uses her position and companion training to manipulate several opponents, and River does River things, such as making fun of Badger’s accent or taking out armed goons surprisingly easily.  This focus on the whole crew of Serenity was very reminiscent of the show, and it is obvious that Lovegrove has a great appreciation for franchise’s characters.

In addition to looking at the main characters, Lovegrove also features a number of characters or references from the television show and movie that are likely to be extremely attractive to the franchises fans.  Lovegrove has included a huge range of stuff, from fan favourite side character Badger to Jayne’s fabulous knitted hat and a number of other call-backs to previous episodes and antagonists.  It is possible the author might have gone a bit overboard in places with these inclusions.  When the Hands of Blue are mentioned and it is implied that they could be nearby, that really got my hopes up and I was disappointed when they did not show up in any way.  However, I personally loved all the call-backs and references and it really played to my well-defined sense of nostalgia.

One of the inclusions I really enjoyed in Big Damn Hero was the new insight into main character Malcolm Reynolds’s backstory.  While the show and movie did provide some insights into his actions during the war against the Alliance, not a lot else about his past was ever shown.  Big Damn Hero, however, provides the reader with several chapters that delve into his past and show Mal as a rambunctious teenager on his home world of Shadow.  It is quite amusing to see several of Mal’s personality traits imposed on a younger version of the character, and fans will have fun getting this insight into the early days of this character.  I quite liked these flashback scenes, especially as they show some of Mal’s early tragedies and the events that led up to him joining the Independent army.  This is a fantastic addition to the plot, and I really appreciated this deeper look into one of my favourite characters.

Big Damn Hero is a superb new addition to the Firefly franchise that sees the crew of Serenity go on another dangerous adventure.  Not only does the author dive into the past of one of one of the show’s main characters but he presents a compelling and moving story of the harsh life at the edge of the verse while expertly utilising each of the show’s major characters.  The result is a fantastic tie-in novel that does a great job of capturing the Firefly universe and continuing one of my favourite science fiction series.  I had a lot of fun reading Big Damn Hero, although I am aware that a lot of that is due to my love of the show and movie.  People who are unfamiliar with the Firefly franchise will probably have a harder time following this novel, although I felt that Lovegrove did a good job setting this up as a book any science fiction fan could enjoy.  I am giving this book a rating of 4.25, although some of this rating is due to my nostalgia and love of the series as a whole.  I am very much looking forward to the next two Firefly tie-in novels that Titan Books are releasing later this year, and 2019 is going to be a great year for fans of the Firefly franchise.