The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso

The Unbound Empire Cover (WoW)

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 25 April 2019)

Series: Swords and Fire – Book 3

Length: 508 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the fast-rising authors of fantasy fiction, Melissa Caruso, brings her outstanding debut series to an end with the third book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, The Unbound Empire.

It is always a bittersweet moment when a great book series comes to an end. For the last two years, the Swords and Fire trilogy has been one of my favourite new fantasy series due to its excellent combination of characters, story, intrigue, fantasy elements and world building. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, The Tethered Mage, and I felt that Caruso did an excellent job following this up with The Defiant Heir, which made my Top Ten Reads For 2018 list and my Top Ten Books I Loved with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads list. As a result, I have been eagerly waiting for The Unbound Empire for the last year, and it even featured in my very first Waiting on Wednesday post.

The Swords and Fire series is set on the continent of Eruvia, which is made up of two great nations, the Serene Empire of Raverra and the loosely collected states of Vaskandar. The Serene Empire is the home of our protagonists, and is a land where magic is controlled by the government, led by the Doge and the Council of Nine. All mages who are identified as having enough power are conscripted into the army as a Falcon. Each Falcon is bound to a non-magical handler, a Falconer, who is entrusted to control and protect their Falcon. One such Falconer is Lady Amalia Cornaro, heir to one of the most powerful families in Raverra and future member of the Council of Nine. While the nobility is usually forbidden from becoming Falconers, desperate circumstances forced Amalia to be bound to the powerful and rebellious fire warlock Zaira.

Vaskandar, on the other hand, is a far wilder nation, ruled by the Witch Lords, magicians whose powerful vivomancy literally flows through their land, making them part of everyone and everything in their domain. War is always looming between these two nations, and while Vaskandar as a nation has decided to remain out of the most recent conflict, nothing can stop an individual Witch Lord from attacking. The cruel and ambitious Witch Lord Ruven, the Skinwitch, has long wanted to conquer and rule over The Serene Empire. His most recent ambitions have been stymied by the combined actions of Amalia and Zaira, who managed to stop his plan to unleash a destructive volcano, although it came at great cost to Amalia.

However, Ruven is far from done and is determined to gain new land, either in the Serene Empire or in the domains of the other Witch Lords. Launching a series of attacks against the Empire’s capital, Raverra, as well as several outlying holdings, with a range of horrifying strategies, Ruven is able to cause significant damage. But while he launches his attacks, he is also trying to recruit Amalia to his cause by any means necessary, as her unique heritage gives her the ability to usurp the domains of other Witch Lords. As Amalia and Zaira race to counter Ruven’s actions, Amalia finds herself once again torn between love, duty and friendship, as the responsibilities of her office clash with the friendships she has formed. As Amalia struggles to maintain her humanity in the heat of war, Ruven’s greatest cruelty might be the thing that finally breaks her and leads to the fall of the Serene Empire.

Caruso once again knocks it out of the park with The Unbound Empire, creating a satisfying conclusion to her series that still contains her trademark storytelling ability and character work. The final book in the Swords and Fire trilogy does a great job utilising the previous entries of the series and also attempts to tie up all of the existing loose storylines and plot points. The Unbound Empire is filled with some really emotional storylines, a number of powerful magical action sequences and several surprising plot developments. The end result is another five-star book from Caruso that I powered through in quite a short period.

At the heart of this book lies the series’ main two characters, the narrator and point-of-view character, Amalia, and the fire warlock Zaira. The challenging and evolving relationship between the initially sheltered Falconer and the rebellious and infinitely destructive Falcon has always been a major part of this series. While the two characters have been establishing a better relationship with each book, it was great to see the two of them becoming even closer in this book and helping each other deal with some major issues. I also liked how both characters’ stories come full circle in this book, as Amalia becomes more and more like her mother, while Zaira finally confronts a number of her personal demons and for once starts to consider having a future. The author’s depiction of the doubt and guilt that Amalia is feeling after the events of the last book forced her to kill her cousin added some extra emotional depth to the story, and I liked the inclusion of such a realistic emotional reaction. The character arcs for the two main characters were incredible, and it was great to see how much they had evolved over the course of the trilogy.

Caruso has also developed a number of great side characters for this series, and she continues to expertly utilise them in this final book. The main two side characters of The Unbound Empire were Amalia’s love interests: Captain Marcello of the Serene Empire; and the Witch Lord Kathe, known as the Crow Lord. Throughout the course of the book, Amalia is caught between them; while she loves Marcello, her position makes a relationship impossible, and Kathe presents a more suitable match. Marcello’s storyline in this book is pretty significant, and there are some substantial and emotive changes to his character that really helped make The Unbound Empire extra compelling. I also really liked the deeper dive into Kathe’s personality and backstory, as well as the natural strengthening of the relationship between Amalia and Kathe. Thankfully the book’s love triangle aspect wasn’t too over-the-top or filled with insufferable toxic jealousy, as both the men understand the difficult position Amalia is in. The arc of Zaira’s love interest, Terika, is really sweet, and I liked how she continues to have a positive effect of Zaira’s personality. Other side characters, such as the Amelia’s powerful and unflappable mother; the surprisingly lethal Cornaro servant, Ciardha; and Marcello’s eccentric artificer sister, Istrella, all shine through in this book, and all of them add quite a lot to this book’s story.

No great fantasy story would be complete without a despicable antagonist threatening the heroes, and luckily this book has a truly evil and threatening villain. The Witch Lord Ruven is a powerful Skinwitch, a person with the ability to control and alter other creatures just by touching him. Not only is this power by itself pretty horrifying but Ruven uses it in some fairly novel and evil ways, unleashing all manner of horrors upon the protagonists. I thought that Ruven had some of the best magical powers in the entire series, and his abilities were really fun to see in this book. Caruso also tried to humanise the character in places throughout this book, which was a nice touch and added some new depth to the story, although he does mostly come off as utterly irredeemable. Overall, I feel that Ruven was an excellent villain and his antagonism really helped make this book and the series as a whole.

I have always loved the complex fantasy world and elements that the author came up with for this series. The various forms of magic and resulting rules that form the backbone of this book are very imaginative, and I loved how Caruso was able to utilise them in her story. There are some amazing new versions of the magic and fantasy elements from the previous two books included in The Unbound Empire, as well as some new locations to explore. While the world building is not as intense as the first two books in the trilogy, Caruso still offers some great new elements, and I had a lot of fun seeing these extra expansions to the universe. Hopefully Caruso will come back to this world at some point in the future, as I had a lot of fun there over the course of the series.

The Unbound Empire was another incredible piece of fantasy fiction from author Melissa Caruso that expertly wraps up her debut trilogy. This has got to be one of the best debut fantasy trilogies I have had the pleasure of reading, and it has been a lot of fun absorbing the excellent tales of magic, adventure and intrigue that Caruso has woven over the last two years. I have really loved the Swords and Fire trilogy, and while I am sad to see it go, I am excited to see where Caruso goes next as this author has amazing potential for the future. I highly recommend each and every book in the series and encourage you to get wrapped up in the magic and characters of this series if you have not had a chance to read it.

Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray – Audiobook Review

Master & Apprentice Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (16 April 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

2019 is shaping up to be an amazing year for fans of the new Star Wars extended universe, a group of which I consider myself to be a proud member, with so many awesome Star Wars books and comics being released.  After reviewing the first Star Wars book for 2019, Queen’s Shadow, a few weeks ago, I have been really looking forward to getting to grips with the franchises second 2019 novel, Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray.

Master & Apprentice is a canon Star Wars novel set around eight years before the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  It focuses on two of the main characters from this prequel movie, Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Qui-Gon Jinn is an experienced and powerful Jedi Knight, having been trained in the Force by the legendary Count Dooku, who himself was trained by Master Yoda, and is ready to face any threat or danger that lies in front of him.  However, his greatest challenge may prove to be his own Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The two Jedi are polar opposites to each other: while Obi-Wan is by-the-book and rigid in his respect of rules and protocol, Qui-Gon routinely shows very little regard for the rules and laws that bind the Jedi and constantly finds himself at odds with the Jedi Council.  Despite years of working together, the two Jedi struggle to understand each other.  Qui-Gon sees every mistake of Obi-Wan’s as his own, while Obi-Wan is unable to understand the reasoning behind Qui-Gon’s actions, nor his obsession with the ancient Jedi prophecies that many see as dangerous and unreliable.  Their tenuous and strained relationship is further tested when Qui-Gon is unexpectantly offered a place on the Jedi Council, a move that would likely end their partnership.  With feelings of betrayal and failure hanging over both of them, they are suddenly assigned a critical mission that is likely to be their last as master and apprentice.

Fellow Jedi Rael Averross, another former apprentice of Dooku, has requested Qui-Gon’s help with a difficult political dispute on the planet of Pijal.  Averross has been serving as regent for the planet’s young queen, who is days away from ascending to the throne and signing an important treaty.  A series of attacks which has rocked the planet is apparently the work of The Opposition, a band of political performance artists turned terrorists.  Once the two Jedi arrive on the planet, they quickly find that the situation is far more complicated than initially believed.  With corruption and secrets around every corner, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan attempt to get to the bottom of everything, even utilising a pair of jewel smugglers to help with their inquiries.  However, their investigations are hampered by their opposing points of view, which only worsen when Qui-Gon places great stock in a dark vision of the future he has foreseen.  Can they overcome their differences to unravel the plot, or will they fail their mission?

Claudia Gray, also known as Amy Vincent, is a prolific and experienced author, best known for her first body of work, the Evernight series, which started in 2008.  Since then she has written a number of other series, including the Spellcaster, Firebird and Constellation series, as well as the standalone novel Fateful.  Gray also has a huge amount of experience writing Star Wars fiction, having previously written three Star Wars tie-in novels in the new extended universe, including Lost Stars, Bloodline and Leia, Princess of Alderaan.  As a result, the story of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi is in safe hands as Gray produces an outstanding, compelling and character-driven novel that delves deep into the Star Wars lore to create an amazing story.

Master & Apprentice presents a clever and exciting story that sees the protagonist attempt to uncover the mysterious events unfolding on Pijal, while also dealing with their many personal and emotional issues.  The story is told from the perspective of a range of characters in the book, and each of them adds their own thoughts and experiences to the story.  The overall story arc on Pijal becomes quite complex, with many different and intriguing sides to the conflict, and the people behind the events are not who you think.  I had an amazing time enjoying this book.

In this fantastic piece of fiction Gray goes into some intriguing parts of the Star Wars universe and lore.  This is actually the furthest back the new extended universe books go, so it offers the reader a great opportunity to see some of aspects of the pre-movie Star Wars universe.  While there are some hints at the events to come, as well as references to some major characters in the upcoming movies, the book contains a significant amount of new content and antagonists.  It is actually quite refreshing to read a Star Wars book that is not tied into the Skywalker family or featuring the Empire or the First Order as an antagonist.  I quite enjoyed the look at the pre-The Phantom Menace universe, including the new planet of Pijal, and the inclusion of the immoral Czerka Corporation, who previously appeared in the pre-Disney Star Wars universe.  While those fans of the Star Wars franchise who like to consume more than the movies will absolutely love this book, Master & Apprentice should prove to be fairly easy to read for those people who have at least seen The Phantom Menace, as it is a pretty intriguing science fiction adventure.

Those readers who are interested in a deeper dive into the Jedi of the Republic era are in for a real treat in this book, as Gray delves into aspects of their history and lifestyle.  Throughout Master & Apprentice there are a number of scenes set in the Jedi Temple, as well as a number of discussions about how and why the Jedi do what they do.  Perhaps one of the key things highlighted in this book is how the traditional Jedi master and apprentice program worked.  Several different apprenticeships are shown, and the reader gets a good idea of what is entailed in this relationship, what training the Padawans go through and how the process turns them into the eventual guardians of peace in the galaxy.

One of the most unique and fascinating aspects of Star Wars and Jedi lore that Gray examines are the fabled Jedi prophecies.  The prophecies were created long ago by an ancient group of Jedi sages, and are reputed to reveal events from the future.  The prophecies become a key part of the story, as not only do they drive a wedge between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan but they are also shown to have a major influence over Dooku when Qui-Gon was his Padawan.  The prophecies have been mentioned in the movies before, with the most famous prophecy about the coming of a chosen one who will bring balance to the Force, referring to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.  While the chosen one prophecy is referenced in Master & Apprentice, several other prophecies are mentioned, including one that comes true in this book.  I was really quite intrigued by the author’s examination of the prophecies; while they have been mentioned in the movies, I did not know too much about them.  Dedicated fans will no doubt have fun trying to tie some of these prophecies into the movies and other associated pieces of Star Wars media.  For example, there is one that clearly refers to Princess Leia that is repeated a couple of times.  I personally was very curious about one prophecy that was mentioned towards the end of the book, which was referenced as being obsessed over by Count Dooku.  It was a particularly portentous-sounding prophecy, and I wonder if it will have anything to do with recent revelations in the trailer for the next Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker.

The story contained within Master & Apprentice is a strong, character-driven affair which features a compelling central cast, each of whom gets an in-depth analysis from Gray.  Not only is there some compelling examinations of the main two characters, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, but Gray also introduces several intriguing and entertaining new characters who really add a lot to the story.

There is a great examination of the younger Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in this book, as Gray examines not only the relationship between the two characters but also aspects of their past and their personalities.  When the two characters are introduced in the first prequel film, The Phantom Menace, very little is known about them, save that Obi-Wan is nearing the end of his apprenticeship and the two of them disagree on certain matters, such as the future of Anakin Skywalker.  Master & Apprentice offers a whole new, deeper examination of these characters and explores how these two Jedi came together and appeared so close, despite some differences in their personalities and styles.  I thought that this deep dive into the relationship between these key movie characters was utterly fascinating, and it made me reconsider aspects from the movie.  The strained relationship between the two characters becomes a major factor of the book, and Gray creates an emotional storyline around it as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan work to overcome their issues while facing external threats.  This was an excellent part of the book which readers will quite enjoy.

In addition to looking at their relationship and how the two characters become close, Gray also looks at other aspects of their past.  This is particularly true for Qui-Gon, as Gray spends time highlighting Qui-Gon’s apprenticeship to Dooku and his friendship with Rael through a series of flashbacks.  These flashback scenes are quite interesting as they show several key events that were responsible for turning Qui-Gon into the character he was in the movie and go a long way to explain why he was such a hesitant master for most of Master & Apprentice.  There was also an intriguing and extended look at how and why Qui-Gon became so obsessed with the Jedi prophecies.  Qui-Gon’s research and fascination with the prophecies becomes a major part of the book, which really appealed to me, and which also explains a lot about the Qui-Gon’s actions in The Phantom Menace.  For example, it explains why Qui-Gon was so sure that he had found the Chosen One in Anakin Skywalker, and why he was determined to train him, even if it meant defying the will of the council.  These storylines also explain certain aspects of Obi-Wan’s personality that occur within the movies.  For example, the bond and respect that are formed between Obi-Wan and his master explain why he was so willing to take on Anakin as an apprentice after Qui-Gon’s death in The Phantom Menace.  It also adds another layer to Anakin’s betrayal in Revenge of the Sith, as Anakin has not only betrayed Obi-Wan and the Jedi but also Qui-Gon’s memory and his belief in Anakin as the chosen one.  This might explain why Obi-Wan, upon defeating Anakin, so passionately shouted “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE.”  There were also some cute aspects to Obi-Wan’s life that are explained, such as why he had such an aversion to flying and how he was able to ride the lizard mount in Revenge of the Sith.  I quite liked how both characters developed over the course of the book, and I felt that Gray did an amazing job bringing these characters to life and providing an excellent story about their past.

While Gray’s portrayal of the main two characters is really good, I also have to say how much I loved some of the side characters that the author introduced in this book.  My favourite has to be Rael Averross, the unconventional Jedi who has a connection to Qui-Gon’s past.  Rael Averross is pretty much the opposite of all the Jedi readers would mostly be familiar with.  He’s a hard drinking, womanising (which he claims is technically not against the rules of being a Jedi), death stick using scoundrel, who hates nearly every aspect of being a Jedi Knight.  He was an extremely entertaining character whose actions and scruffy appearance are part of a persona the character has created to disguise the guilt, fear and resentment from his past.  I also liked how he was the only character able to identify and point out what the actual result of someone fulfilling the prophecy and finding the chosen one, something that every other Jedi apparently missed.  Rael was such an interesting counterpoint to the other Jedi characters in Master & Apprentice, and his influence on a young Qui-Gon was quite intriguing.  It will be interesting to see if Rael shows up again (I believed he is used in a recent Star Wars audiobook, Dooku: Jedi Lost) as he has the potential to be a key character in the new Disney expanded universe.

Other characters utilised within this book are the two jewel smugglers co-opted by the Jedi to be their guides on Pijal, Pax and Rahara.  While both these characters are a lot of fun, the standout one has to be Pax.  Pax is a gaudy and socially inept character whose inability to interact with other people is due to the fact he was raised by a ship full of protocol droids.  Pax is full of sass, sarcasm and insults, and is easily the most entertaining character in this entire book.  Rahara is also a great character.  A former slave of the Czerka Corporation, Rahara is the more normal of the two characters.  However, her former enslavement still haunts her and drives much of her more noble actions in this book.  Individually, both these characters are pretty cool, but together they form a great team who play off each other well.  Their emotional attachment to each other is another great part of the book and seeing the lengths that the usually pragmatic Pax will go to for Rahara is very heart-warming.

There were also a few flashback scenes featuring Qui-Gon’s mentor and future Star Wars antagonist Count Dooku.  All of these scenes were shown from the point of view of Qui-Gon as Dooku’s apprentice, and they paint a picture of a rigid and severe Jedi who was already showing signs of being tempted to the Dark Side of the Force.  This was a very intriguing portrayal, although I believe that the audiobook Dooku: Jedi Lost, which was released around the same time as Master & Apprentice, contains a lot more of Dooku’s backstory and motivations, and I am definitely going to check this other audiobook out at some point.

As usual, I was deeply, deeply impressed with the audiobook version of this Star Wars book.  The company behind these audiobooks really go the extra mile to make them special, and these tie-in novels are quickly becoming my favourite series to listen to rather than read.  The Master & Apprentice audiobook runs for 11 hours and 42 minutes, and I found that I was able to get through this book quite quickly.  I always find I absorb a lot more of the story with the audiobook format, and with this book I was really able to enjoy the character strife, as well as the new world building that Gray included.  Props need to be given to the amazing sound effects that seem to permeate nearly every single scene in this book.  Firstly, I absolutely love how the incredible and iconic music from the Star Wars movies is used during some of the book’s major scenes.  The music, especially some of the big orchestral moments that defined key parts of the original Star Wars movies, is quite incredible and it does an amazing job of forcefully dragging the reader into the story.  The additional sound effects used throughout the book easily replicate the actions going on around the characters, often using established and recognisable sound from the movies.  I also loved how some of the sound effects could be so effective at creating an appropriate background for the scene by adding in engine noises or the susurration of a loud crowd.

The audiobook format of Master & Apprentice is narrated by Jonathan Davis, who has previously provided his voice to several other Star Wars audiobooks.  I was deeply impressed with Davis’ incredible voice acting range in this book, as the voices he comes up with for the characters are outstanding.  For example, he produces incredible voices for the book’s two main characters, Qui-Gon and Ob-Wan as he damn near succeeds in replicating the two actors voices from The Phantom Menace.  On top of that, his Yoda voice is spot-on, and sounded just like Frank Oz in the movies.  I also liked the voices that the narrator came up with for some of his new characters.  His voice for Rael, for example, does an amazing job capturing the character’s personality, including his more carefree attitude, and the simmering anger that exists for most of his interactions with Qui-Gon.  I also quite like the voice and tone he uses for Pax, and the character’s inbuilt arrogance and emotional shallowness really shine through.

Master & Apprentice is so far my favourite Star Wars book of 2019, and I absolutely fell in love with its excellent story and powerful character work.  Gray takes her readers deep into the Star Wars lore, allowing fans of the franchise to further examine two of the best characters from The Phantom Menace movie.  The combination of Jonathan Davis’ exceptional narration and the production company’s perfect use of classic Star Wars music and sound effects resulted in an absolutely fantastic audiobook that comes highly recommended.  This is one hell of a book, and I cannot wait to see how the rest of the year’s Star Wars books turn out.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora Rising Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 6 May 2019)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book 1

Length: 470 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The superstar team of Australian young adult fiction authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff comes together once more to create an outstanding, heartfelt and deeply entertaining new novel that may prove to be one of the best young adult books of 2019.

Kaufman and Kristoff are two of the biggest and most creative authors currently writing young adult fiction.  Kaufman is probably best known for her work with Meagan Spooner, where they have co-authored the Starbound trilogy and Unearthed series of books, the second book of which, Undying, was released earlier this year.  She is also in the process of writing her own Elementals series, with the second book, Scorch Dragons, released a month ago.  Kristoff first came into prominence with The Lotus War series, which debuted in 2012.  Since then he has also written The Nevernight Chronicle, the final book of which is set to be released in September, while his latest book, Lifel1k3, was one of the most talked about young adult releases of 2018.  Kristoff’s sequel to Lifel1k3, Dev1at3, is set to be released in a month, and he is currently working on an epic fantasy series, Empire of the Vampire, with the eponymous first book set to be released in September next year.

Kaufman and Kristoff have previously collaborated on the bestselling and award winning The Illuminae Files, a space opera epistolary series made up of three books which ran between 2015 and 2018.  Their latest collaboration, Aurora Rising, is another epic piece of young adult science fiction and is the first book in their planned Aurora Cycle series, which is currently set to feature another two books, released in 2020 and 2021.

Aurora Rising is set in the year 2380 and follows a spacefaring team of young adventurers as they attempt to save the galaxy.  In the future, humans have expanded out deep into the Milky Way, with fast intergalactic travel made possible through the Fold, dangerous space found on the other side of literal folds in the universe.  The Aurora Legion are an independent peacekeeping force made up of humans and several friendly alien races.  In order to complete their various humanitarian, exploration and peacekeeping missions, the Aurora Legion sends teams of young legionnaires, who can better withstand the rigors of the Fold, into the field.  Each team is made up of six highly trained and skilled individuals, who together can solve any problem they encounter.

Tyler Jones is the star graduating cadet of the Aurora Academy, who, thanks to his dedication and ability, will be given first pick of his fellow graduating cadets to form an elite team.  However, when an unscheduled joyride forces him to perform a risky rescue in the Fold, he misses the cadet draft, leaving him with a team of the cadets none of the other graduating squad leaders wanted.  These include (the descriptions were copied from the blurb due to accuracy):

  • His sister, Scarlet – A cocky diplomat with a blackbelt in sarcasm;
  • His best friend, Cat – A tomboy pilot who’s totally not into her squad leader, in case you were wondering;
  • Zila – a sociopath scientist with a fondness for shooting her bunkmates;
  • Finian – a smart-ass tech-whiz with the galaxy’s biggest chip on his shoulder;
  • Kal – an alien warrior with anger management issues.

Forced to make the most of his bad luck, Tyler leads his team on a routine mission that quickly turns hairy when a hostile force of aliens seek to destroy them.  However, genocidal aliens are the least of their problems, when they discover that the girl Tyler saved in the Fold, Aurora O’Malley, has stowed away on their ship.  Aurora, the only survivor of a colony ship long thought lost, is 200 years out of time and desperate to figure out what happened to her colony and the family she left behind.  The squad discovers that she is far more significant than they could ever imagine when she displays strange abilities and impossible knowledge of both the past and future.  When shadowy government agents attempt to arrest Aurora, the squad are forced to go rogue to solve the mystery and end up in a race to save the galaxy.

Aurora Rising is a spectacular read, as these skilled authors take the reader through an intense young adult science fiction adventure in an intriguing new universe.  The book’s story as a whole is an outstanding mixture of intense action, enjoyable science fiction elements and excellent character work, all wrapped up with clever storytelling that is both compelling and humorous.  There are a number of great scenes and epic moments throughout this book that really highlight this book’s unique style and the writer’s ability to tell a story.  For example, I personally liked an extended sequence that followed the protagonists as they embarked on an elaborate and seemingly impossible heist on a massive space station ruled by a vicious crime lord.  The overall result is a near perfect read that I had an absolute blast checking out.  This is an amazing piece of young adult fiction, with enough action and relatable characters to appeal to all manner of potential teen readers.  Older science fiction readers will also have a great time with this book, especially as it sets up a captivating and ambitious new trilogy that will appeal to a huge and diverse audience.

This book is told from the first-person perspectives of the book’s seven protagonists, which includes Aurora and all six members of Tyler’s squad, each of whom gets a series of chapters throughout the book to tell the story.  Kaufman and Kristoff make good use of the chapters each of the characters narrate and the reader gets a good idea of each character’s individual personality, as well as important snippets into their individual backstory.  The authors also try to differentiate these chapters out a bit for some of the characters.  For example, Zila’s chapters are rather short, blunt and analytical in nature, matching her personality, while Scarlet’s chapters feature her listing off the humorous pros and cons of her ex-boyfriends, figuring out which ones to stay in contact with.  I really enjoyed how the authors told the story through these seven separate narrators, as not only did it bring me closer to the characters but it allowed the authors to showcase various perspectives of some of the more impressive sequences and events, allowing for a fuller and more intense story.

Aurora Rising features an outstanding complement of main characters, as each member of the squad, including Aurora, are looked at in some detail.  I was very impressed with how the authors where able to create such expansive and intriguing backstories for all seven main characters, as each of them has their own issues or concerns.  For example, Tyler and Scarlett are living in the shadow of their dead father’s heroics and trying to make him proud, Cat is deeply in love with Tyler and is having a hard time keeping her feelings in check, and Zila struggles with her disconnection with other people brought on by her tragic past.  Other examples include the team’s two alien members: Finian, who to hides his feelings of abandonment behind his brilliance and snark; and Kal, who is torn between guilt about what his race’s warrior caste, of which he is a member, has done to his home planet and his surprising feelings for one of the other members of his squad.  Aurora is perhaps one of the most complex characters, waking after 200 years to find that everything and everyone she knew is dead and parts of her past have been hidden for nefarious reasons.  Add into that her discovery of uncontrollable mental abilities and the feeling that something mysterious is guiding her and she has a lot to worry about.  One of the best things about this book is that whilst all seven characters are fairly complex individually, the book’s true strength revolves around the fact that when these characters come together they are an extremely dysfunctional crew.  The crew starts off as a rebellious and overly sarcastic mess unable to work together effectively, even with their individual abilities and strengths.  However, as the book continues, they do learn to cooperate to a degree, and the reader is made to really care for them, both individually and as a whole.  I loved how these character relationships expanded and strengthened throughout the book, and I had a lot of fun with this humorous and entertaining group of people.

I really enjoyed the universe that Kaufman and Kristoff crafted to fit around this enjoyable and intriguing story.  Visions of humanity’s future can always be a bit hit or miss, but I thought that the science fiction setting that the authors utilise in this book, which sees humanity expanding and interacting with other races while dark secrets and wars build up in the background, to be a fun and well-thought-out setting.  The characters visit an interesting and inventive number of locations through the book, all of which really add to Aurora Rising’s adventure and action.

I liked the author’s concept of the Aurora Legion, an intergalactic peacekeeping organisation that sends teenage operatives into action due to science fiction reasons.  One of the things I quite enjoyed about this was how these teams were designed to have six members whose joint abilities and specialities would allow them to anticipate and overcome any problem.  As a result the teams are made up of:

  • Alphas – leaders
  • Faces – diplomats
  • Aces – pilots
  • Gearheads – mechanics/inventors/technicians
  • Tanks – combat specialists
  • Brains – science officers/medics

This team breakdown proved to be quite an interesting concept, even if they do sound like party roles in a MMORPG (tank, healer, DPS etc).  I liked this idea and the various characters slid into the roles quite effectively.

I also had a lot of fun with the universe-expanding insertions that Kaufman and Kristoff placed before a number of the book’s chapters.  These insertions are written as information pages being read by Aurora on her uniglass, an AI tablet called Magellan, who has a playful sense of humour and who also provides some amusing commentary within the story.  These information pages provide the reader extra information about the universe, including about the Aurora Legions, the roles of the squads’ various members, the history of the universe, alien species, locations the protagonists visit and other relevant inclusions.  While each of these pages contains universe factual information, Magellan adds humorous twists to each of these pages which are very entertaining and really fit into the easy going and entertaining mood of most of the book.  However, these information pages do change and get more serious in the darker parts of the book, which also helps prepare the reader for the shift in mood.  I loved these inclusions, not only appreciating the inventive universe building they allowed, but also the fun take on the classic idea of in-universe media inclusions.

Aurora Rising is an absolutely fantastic book that blasts off with action, humour and amazing characters to create a deeply compelling and relentlessly entertaining story.  Australian authors Kaufman and Kristoff are an outstanding writing duo, and their latest collaboration is an amazing piece of young adult fiction that brilliantly establishes their new trilogy and ensures that future instalments of the Aurora Cycle will be some of the most sought after young adult books for 2020 and 2021.  Aurora Rising comes highly recommended from me, and it is one of my favourite new young adult books of 2019 so far.

Runaways Volume 2: Best Friends Forever by Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Recently reunited and still coming to terms with being a family again, the adventures of Marvel Comics’ favourite group of misfit youths continues in Best Friends Forever, the second volume of young adult author Rainbow Rowell and artist Kris Anika’s run on Runaways.

The Runaways, Chase, Gert, Karolina, Nico, Victor, Molly and Old Lace are finally back together and living in one of their parents’ old hideouts.  While most of the team have grown up since the last time they were all together, this does not mean that they have their lives together.  Each of the Runaways has their issues to deal with, be it Gert’s recent return to life after several years of being dead, Karolina’s relationship problems or Victor’s current existence as a disembodied head.  The only one who appears to have their life even remotely together is the team’s youngest and at times wisest member, Molly, who is enjoying her time in middle school.  But even Molly is having problems, as she is faced with a hard choice and must consider whether she actually wants to grow up.

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As Molly deliberates over the dilemma presented to her, a barrage of other arrivals impact on the Runaways.  Karolina’s girlfriend, Julie Power of Power Pack fame, is in town, which causes significant drama for Karolina and Nico, while Dr Doom has apparently appeared on their doorstep, determined to find Victor.  Can a team rife with squabbles, drama and internal strife come together to face the problems before them, or will their significant changes be too much to bear?

Runaways is still one of my favourite Marvel series.  After the revamp earlier this year, previously reviewed here, these fantastic characters are still going strong.  In this second volume, Rowell, Atkins and their creative team continue to produce some outstanding and emotional stories that are based more on the relationships between the main characters than the traditional crime-fighting storylines contained within other comics.  While they do go up against a couple of superpowered opponents within this story, none of these antagonists is truly evil, and their motivations and history are a lot more morally ambiguous than some of the previous Runaways stories.  The creative team do a fantastic job of blending highly emotional storylines with a bunch of fun and heart-warming sequences, filled with random and funny elements, such as an errant Doombot.  This all comes together into one fantastic overall story that hits all the right buttons.  This second volume contains issues #7 – #12 of this new run on Runaways.

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One of the main aspects of this second volume of Runaways is the continued focus on the relationships between the series’ main characters.  Most of these characters are still coming to terms with being back together after all of them attempted to live lives outside of their team.  Quite a bit of Volume 2 involves the characters trying to determine what roles they have within this surrogate family, and the fact that they are not as close as they used to be.  What I liked is the way that Chase, usually the most immature member of the team, attempts to become the father of the group, matching up with the traditional female leader of the team, Nico, as the team’s mother.  This new parental role is highlighted in a funny couple of scenes where Chase and Nico use magic to become Molly’s legal guardians, a shortcut way that “seems totally legit and great”.  A lot of this volume is also focused on the romantic relationships between several of the group’s characters, including the relationship between Gert and Victor and the new romantic feelings between Nico and Carolina.  I thought the lead-in to both these relationships worked out very well and sets up some interesting potential in future volumes.  I am also very curious to see how the friendship between Victor and Chase is going to be impacted as a result of this new relationship in future volumes of this series.  I liked the way that the relationships and romantic considerations that featured between Carolina and Julie and Carolina and Nico were handled very well and with great sensitivity, and showed great representations of LGBT+ relationships.

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I also appreciated the way that Rowell and Anika continued to focus on the emotional and mental damage that the team’s exploits have had on these characters over their entire comic book history.  In this second volume, there is a significant focus on Victor, who was mentally and physically damaged during his previous appearances in Vision.  Chase and Doombot’s attempts to rebuild Victor during this volume prove to be a particularly vivid trigger for Victor, and leads to some significant emotional moments.  There is also a look at Victor’s fear of vibranium because of its addictive and mind-altering impact on him, which drove him to commit terrible acts in a previous series.  The creative team also take a look at the life of old team member Klara, the young powered girl the team rescued from abuse back in 1907 during a time-travel adventure.  It was previously revealed that Klara had been taken away from the team by the state and is now in a loving household.  A brief section of this volume is dedicated to the team finding her and attempting to bring her back into the fold, but Klara refuses to come back, as she is happy in her new life.  You have to appreciate Klara’s sound reasoning for not wanting to come back to the team, due to the death and multiple problems experienced in the previous adventures.
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One of the most significant issues that the character’s experiences have had on them is based around their negative opinions of adults.  Most of the truly terrible things in their lives have been the result of the plans of the adults they encounter, and their distrust of most adult characters has been a long-running aspect of the series.  It is interesting to see that this carries through to the new series, even though several of the characters are now actually adults.  This viewpoint is most prevalent in Gert, whose death during one of the previous run of this series means she still shares the beliefs these characters had while they were fugitives.  However, the rest of the team also have a hard time trusting other adults, such as when they assume Klara’s new adopted parents have to be evil, as every adult they have previously dealt with in similar circumstances were also evil or abusive.  This viewpoint has significant plot impacts in this second volume, as Molly, given the opportunity to stay young forever, talks to several of the other Runaways in an attempt to subtly work out their thoughts on growing up.  Most of the characters, including non-team member Julie Powers, talk somewhat negatively about their current lives and regret growing up, which tempts Molly to accept the chance to stay young.  The final message of this storyline strongly implies that growing up isn’t so bad, as even the antagonist, a young girl who has stayed 13 for 50 years, does not always want to be young.  It was also interesting to see Klara try to correct the team when they say that no adults can be trusted; having had a loving family relationship, she no longer believes that.

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The second volume of this run of Runaways continues to make use of some fun artwork throughout the various issues.  The character designs continue to be fun, and it is interesting to see some new looks and some constantly changing character designs, especially for the trendy Nico.  The art is often used for comedic affect.  Victor has a fun use throughout the book, and it is pretty humorous to see the head floating around in a number of scenes, even in a middle of a fight scene.  I also loved how throughout the course of the volume, he was given more and more advanced mobility upgrades in each scene that he appeared in, each more comedic than the last.  For example, at the start of the volume he is mostly transported in other character’s hand, his own momentum or in a backpack.  However, as the volume continues he is variously attached to a Roomba, a small tracked rover, several helium balloons (so he can get the feeling on flight back again) and eventually a new drone.  All of these are slightly ridiculous and fun, but they do not take away from the emotional nature of several scenes, and I must point out some of the awesome drawings that hint at the issues Nico is having with her magic.

The second volume of this new series of Runaways, Best Friends Forever, is another strong and emotional addition to this new version of this young adult superhero comic.  I really appreciated the creative teams continued focus on the character relationships and the emotional aspects of the characters’ lives.  Best Friends Forever is another fantastic addition to this powerful new run of Runaways, and I am excited to see what happens to this great group of characters next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars