Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Lesser Evil Cover

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 16 November 2021)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book Three

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The undisputed master of Star Wars extended fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with final book in the Thrawn Ascendancy series, Lesser Evil, which brings this excellent prequel trilogy to a fantastic and dramatic end.

Out of all the awesome authors who have contributed to the Star Wars extended universe over the years, few are more talented or highly regarded than Timothy Zahn.  Zahn, who is one of the key architects of the original extended universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends), is probably best known for his original trilogy of Star Wars novels, which started with Heir to the EmpireHeir to the Empire served as the introduction of several major extended universe characters, such as Mara Jade; however, his most iconic creation is probably the legendary character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is an intriguing and complex figure considered the greatest tactician in the entire Star Wars canon.  Serving as a major figure in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn was the brilliant antagonist of Heir to the Empire and other major Star Wars Legends novels.  The subsequent popularity of Thrawn saw him eventually introduced into the Disney canon in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, as well as a future live-action appearance.  This also resulted in Zahn being contracted to write six new Thrawn-centric novels.  The Thrawn trilogy (made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason), detailed Thrawn’s introduction, rise and career in Imperial Navy and filled in some of the gaps of the show.  Zahn followed this up with the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, which served as a prequel to the original trilogy.

The Thrawn Ascendancy series is set during the Clone Wars period and takes place in the Chaos, the unexplored area of space outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars series, and focuses on Thrawn’s species, the Chiss.  As such, the series is primarily set in and around the Chiss Ascendancy and focuses on several threats to the Ascendancy that Thrawn attempts to overcome.  This series has so far consisted of Chaos Rising and Greater Good, both of which were extremely cool, filled with detailed battles, fun new characters, and some intense political machinations.  Now this brilliant trilogy comes to an end, with a final chapter telling the full story of Thrawn’s greatest victory and lowest moment.

For thousands of years, the legendary Chiss Ascendancy has been one of the greatest powers within the Chaos, keeping its people safe from the alien races who seek to conquer or destroy them.  Confident in its own power and determined not to interfere in the lives of its neighbours, the Chiss maintain their borders through the Expansionary Defence Fleet.  However, in recent months, the Ascendancy has found itself under attack from a dangerous and manipulative force that seeks to utterly destroy the Chiss.  After defeating a potential external invader and weathering an attempt to drag some of the Ascendancy’s powerful families into conflict, the threat to the Chiss appears to be over.  However, these were merely a precursor to a much more sophisticated and dangerous attack by a new alien race, known as the Grysk.  Led by the dangerous and manipulative Jixtus, the Grysk seek to unleash a deadly, multi-pronged assault against the Chiss to rip the ascendancy apart inside and out.

As Jixtus traverses the planets of the Ascendancy, manipulating the great Chiss families towards civil war, his powerful fleet lies just outside its borders, waiting to attack.  With the Chiss getting closer and closer to a devastating internal and external conflict, the fate of the Ascendancy lies in the hands of Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo (Thrawn), the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet’s most brilliant and unconventional commander.  Having defeated the previous attacks on the Ascendancy, Thrawn is the only person that fully understands the oncoming danger and he is determined to stop Jixtus and permanently end the threat he represents.  However, Thrawn has long worn out the patience of the ruling families, and he now finds himself hamstrung by politics and personal grievances.  To save his people, Thrawn will be forced to break all the rules he has sworn to uphold.  But just how far will Thrawn go to defeat his enemy, and what consequences will his actions have on himself and the future of the Chiss Ascendancy?

Lesser Evil was another brilliant and exceptional read from Zahn that did an amazing job of wrapping the complex Thrawn Ascendancy series to an end.  Containing some awesome and unique Star Wars elements, Lesser Evil fills in all the gaps between this trilogy and the sequel Thrawn trilogy, and I think it ended up being one of Zahn’s strongest recent novels.

This novel contains an amazing narrative that brings together all the elaborate and compelling storylines from the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels and provides a satisfying and fantastic conclusion to the trilogy.  The novel starts off right after the events of Greater Good, with several characters dealing with the aftermath of the near civil war and Thrawn’s latest unofficial mission.  The story quickly introduces the book’s antagonist, the master manipulator Jixtus, as he starts his grand plan to destroy the entire Chiss Ascendancy.  This brings out an impressive amount of intrigue, infighting and dissent, which forces many of the protagonists to attempt to slow it down.  At the same time, Thrawn engages in his own mission to try and identify the enemy’s master plan, which reintroduces several key storylines and settings from the previous novels and helps tie them into the plot of this book.  Zahn also throws in a series of flashback interludes that dive into key parts of Thrawn’s past and give some context to his current mindset and plans.  This all leads up to the big conclusion in which the great adversaries, Thrawn and Jixtus, finally meet in battle.  Lesser Evil proves to be a particularly exciting and intriguing read, and I loved the brilliant combination of world building, political intrigue, character development and fantastic battle sequences.  I had a lot of fun with this story, and it was one of the strongest in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.

I really enjoyed how Zahn told this final entry in the series.  The great use of multiple character perspectives not only allows for a richer story that examines all angles of the conflict but it also presents several impressive character driven storylines that were wonderful to follow.  In addition, Zahn once again lays onto the universe building by expanding the reader’s knowledge of the alien Chiss Ascendancy and their domain outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars universe.  This universe building excellently comes into play as the novel progresses, especially as the antagonist’s plan relies on manipulating the politics and history of the various ruling families.  I really appreciated this cool extended look into this intriguing setting, especially as it ties into some of Zahn’s prior work.  Due to the extensive and elaborate Star Wars lore contained within Lesser Evil, this book is probably best read by experienced fans of the franchise who will appreciate all the inclusions.  It is also highly recommended that readers check out the first two novels in this trilogy first, as the storylines of Lesser Evil are very strongly tied into them.

Lesser Evil contains some intriguing connections to the wider Star Wars universe and canon that long-term fans of the franchise will deeply appreciate.  These connections mainly revolve around Thrawn’s prior appearances and fills in many gaps that were left open from the Thrawn trilogy.  This includes the full reason why the original series began with Thrawn banished from his people and left stranded on an alien planet.  It has been pretty clear since the first Thrawn Ascendancy novel that this entire trilogy has been leading up to this moment, and Zahn did not disappoint, including a moving and complex reason for the banishment that played perfectly into the character’s personality and the events of the previous novels.  Zahn also layers in a ton of intriguing connections to his Star Wars Legends novels that fans will deeply enjoy.  For example, parts of Lesser Evil are deeply connected to Zhan’s previous novel, the now non-canon Outbound Flight, which also focused on a younger Thrawn.  Parts of Outbound Flight’s story and setting have been adapted into the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, such as some elements of Chiss culture and some supporting characters, and it was interesting to see Zahn retrofit his previous works for the new canon.  In addition, key flashbacks within Lesser Evil take place in a version of Outbound Flight’s narrative, and while I did think this was cool, Zahn did not include a lot of context, so readers unfamiliar with his prior book may be left a little confused.  Still, this was a clever homage to the author’s prior works, and I appreciated Zahn’s fascinating references to his now defunct novels.

One of the strongest things about Lesser Evil was the great array of characters featured throughout.  There is a very strong cast in this final book, with most of the key characters having been established in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels or re-introduced from some of Zahn’s Star Wars Legends novels.  All the major characters featured in Lesser Evil have some amazing story arcs and Zahn spends a lot of time fleshing out their personalities, motivations, and histories, which deeply enhances this brilliant narrative.

The most prominent of these characters is Thrawn himself, who has an epic showing in Lesser Evil after being somewhat underutilised in Greater Good. Lesser Evil proves to be a defining novel for Thrawn, especially as he encounters his true enemy, the Grysk, for the first time.  The reader is also given insights into certain previously unseen relationships that Thrawn had, namely with his adopted brother, Thrass.  It also finally reveals the reasons why he was banished from the Chiss and marooned on the deserted alien planet by the start of Thrawn.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character arc surrounding Thrawn in this book, and Zahn does a great job once again highlighting his unique personality and motivations.  Despite being a little less sinister in literary form than in Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn has a harsh edge here, and the reader gets some great insights into his constant motivation of protecting the Chiss Ascendancy.  Throughout the course of the book, it becomes deeply apparent that Thrawn will risk everything to achieve his goal, and I loved how heartless Thrawn can become when dealing with his enemies.  This motivation and background go a long way to exploring Thrawn’s actions while serving the Empire, and fans of this fantastic character will deeply appreciate this compelling story arc.  Zahn also answers several intriguing questions about Thrawn’s past in this book, and it proved incredibly fascinating to see this great character expanded even further.

I must once again highlight the great way in which Zahn displays his central protagonist.  As with his previous appearances in Zahn’s novels, Thrawn is one of the few characters whose perspective is not shown; instead all his actions and interactions are viewed through the eyes of his friends, allies, and even a couple of enemies.  I have always felt that this was a very clever technique from Zahn as it helps to highlight just how mysterious and distinctly complex his protagonist is.  Readers are only given glimpses into his brilliance, and it allows for increased suspense and surprise throughout the novel as the reader often has no idea what Thrawn is thinking or how he plans to get out of a certain situation.  The use of other observers also really helps to highlight the tactical ploys Thrawn employs, especially as he usually is forced to explain his insights, strategies, and the entire scope of his plans to the less tactically gifted people he is working with.  These elaborate explanations, coupled with the observations of the relevant side character, ensures that the readers get a much more detailed picture of Thrawn’s observations and subsequent tactics.  I have often compared this to how Watson amps up the deductive ability of Sherlock Holmes by having Sherlock explain everything to him, and the result is pretty much the same here.  I deeply enjoyed this fantastic use of perspective and I love everything that Zahn did with his iconic protagonist throughout Lesser Evil, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series.

If Thrawn was Sherlock Holmes, then I would say that antagonist Jixtus was the Professor Moriarty of the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  A member of the mysterious Grysk species, Jixtus has been a shadowy figure throughout the proceeding novels, influencing events from the shadows and sending out proxies to fight Thrawn and the Chiss.  This comes to an end in Lesser Evil as Jixtus takes a personal hand in attacking the Chiss Ascendancy.  Jixtus proves to be an excellent and brilliant counterpoint to Thrawn and it is fascinating to see the battle of minds between them, especially as both have alternate strengths.  While Thrawn is tactically brilliant, Jixtus is better at personal manipulation and politics, something Thrawn struggles with.  As such, there is a real battle of styles here in Lesser Evil and the result is pretty brilliant.  I also really appreciated how you also never see any part of the book told from Jixtus’ perspective, ensuring that he is just as mysterious and ethereal as Thrawn.  I loved how Zahn portrays Jixtus in this novel; he comes across as an incredibly dangerous and malevolent being, even though you never see his face.

The other new character I wanted to focus on in this book was Thrass (Mitth’ras’safis), Thrawn’s friend and fellow member of the Mitth family.  Thrass is an interesting character, initially introduced in the previous canon as Thrawn’s brother.  There have only been hints of him in the Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and this final book finally features in him to a degree, showing him in a series of flashback interludes set in Thrawn’s past.  Thrass is shown to be a Mitth politician who finds himself befriending and then partnering with Thrawn through a series of adventures.  The two complement each other extremely well, with Thrass serving as a bridge for the more unconventional Thrawn, while also supporting him with his political knowledge.  Thrass’s scenes proved to be a great inclusion to the novel and I felt the author did a great job re-introducing the character, even if only for flashback sequences.  I really appreciated the author’s examination about how this friendship, and later brotherhood, was vital to Thrawn’s growth and current abilities, and I particularly enjoyed the examination about how Thrass helped develop Thrawn’s flair for the dramatic.  Fans of Zahn’s Legend’s work will deeply enjoy the new appearance of this established character in Lesser Evil, and I think it was an interesting and fun choice from the author, that ended up working incredibly well.

I must also highlight how Zahn featured the other recurring characters from the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  Pretty much all the major characters from the previous two novels are featured strongly in Lesser Evil, and there are some remarkably good storylines set around them.  Thrawn’s crew aboard the Springhawk get a decent amount of focus throughout this book, particularly Samakro, Thalias and Che’ri, and each of their storylines are nicely concluded.  In addition, I loved the continued use of Ziinda, another Senior Captain, who, after barely averting a civil war in the previous book, finds herself subsequently vilified and forced into a new family.  Ziinda proves to be a vital part of the plot, and it was great to see how much she had developed since the previous novel, especially as Zahn starts her on the path to becoming as determined as Thrawn.  Zahn also makes great use of Roscu, a former member of the Expansionary Defence Fleet who had issues with Thrawn in Chaos Rising. Roscu is initially set up as a secondary antagonist, especially as her mistrust of Thrawn, his friends, and all the rival families, drives her to do some stupid things.  However, Zahn slowly turns her into a surprisingly sympathetic character as the novel progresses and you end up really rooting for her.  I also loved Qilori, a supposedly neutral Pathfinder with a grudge against Thrawn; and Thurfian, the Mitth Patriarch who views Thrawn and his actions as a threat to his family and the Chiss as a whole.  These two serve as interesting secondary antagonists to the story, and it was great to see their outraged reaction to Thrawn’s actions, as well as their own attempts to end him.  These characters, and many more, added so much to this book, and I loved seeing all their arcs conclude with the trilogy.

I cannot talk about a Zahn Star Wars novel without highlighting the amazing and exciting space battles featured within.  No one does a space battle in Star Wars fiction better than Zahn, who devotes an impressive amount of time and detail into making them as impressive, thrilling, and tactically awesome as possible.  The reader gets a detailed mental impression of the space engagements that occur, and you can practically feel every shot, roll, or manoeuvre.  Lesser Evil was a particularly good example of this, featuring several great battle scenes, including one massive and action-packed confrontation towards the end.  Each sequence was beautifully rendered and perfectly portrayed, with the reader getting the full sense of everything that happened.  Throw in the distinctive technology of the Chiss, as well as the tactical abilities of Thrawn, and you have some of the most unique and brilliant battles in all of Star Wars fiction, especially as there is a great focus on larger cruisers and battleships, rather than smaller fighter craft.  I deeply enjoyed every battle sequence in this book, and fans of fights in space are in for a real treat here.

Unsurprisingly, I ended up checking out the audiobook version of Lesser Evil, rather than reading a psychical copy.  I cannot overemphasise just how amazing the Star Wars audiobooks are, thanks to their usual amazing combinations of impressive voice acting, clever sound effects and moving Star Wars music.  Lesser Evil is a great example of this, and I had a wonderful time getting through this brilliant audiobook, even with its extensive 23+ hours run time (it would rank 17th on the current version of My Longest Audiobook I Have Ever Listened To list).  I must once again highlight the cool sound effects that were utilised throughout the audiobook to great effect.  These effects, most of which have been taken from Star Wars films and animated shows, add so much depth and power to the audiobook’s scenes, building up a strong atmosphere around the words.  Sounds like blaster fire or roaring engines really help to bring the listeners into the centre of the book’s climatic scenes, while even smaller scenes get a boost thanks to having crowd noises or computer sounds lightly running in the background.  The audiobook also makes good use of the iconic Star Wars score in various parts.  While not featured as heavily as other Star Wars audiobooks, in several places the amazing orchestral music from the films is utilised to give some major scenes a dramatic punch.  This is particularly true in some of the battle sequences, and the listeners are treated to some of the more exciting or moving tunes, which makes the battles or major moments feel bigger and more important.

In addition to this great use of sound effects and epic Star Wars music, Lesser Evil’s audiobook also benefited immensely from the narration of Marc Thompson.  Thompson is an amazing narrator (one of my personal favourites), who has contributed his voice to a huge range of Star Wars novels, including all of Zahn’s previous Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and other audiobooks such as Scoundrels, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, Dark Disciple and more.  Thompson has such a great range for Star Wars fiction, and he can produce some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters featured within.  Most of these voices are continuations of the ones used in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and I enjoyed the consistency from the previous two books.  I must also really highlight Thompson’s epic Thrawn voice, that perfectly captures the character’s essence, and which is incredibly close to Lars Mikkelsen’s voice from Star Wars: Rebels.  I also loved the voice that Thompson assigned to Jixtus, and the dark and sinister tones perfectly fit this awesome villain.  Thompson also cleverly modulated his voice for certain alien races to capture the unique characteristics Zahn assigned to them in his writing.  You really get a sense about how alien and strange these creatures are, which helped bring me into the zone.  This was another exceptional Star Wars audiobook, and this is easily the best way to enjoy this clever and impressive novel.

With the brilliant and captivating Lesser Evil, the legendary Timothy Zahn brings his awesome Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy to an end in a big way.  Loaded up with excellent universe building, an outstanding story, some excellent characters and some truly impressive space battles, Lesser Evil is probably the best entries in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.  I loved how Zahn brought the trilogy’s various storylines together in this final novel, providing an exciting and captivating conclusion that perfectly leads into the original Thrawn trilogy.  Thanks to all of this and more, Lesser Evil gets a full five stars from me and comes extremely highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  I have had an incredible time reading the various Thrawn novels over the last few years and I really hope that Timothy Zahn continues to explore his iconic protagonist in the future, especially once Thrawn gets his long overdue live action debut.

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Last Graduate Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 28 September 2021)

Series: Lesson Two of the Scholomance

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to the deadliest magical school of all time in The Last Graduate, the epic second lesson of the Scholomance series by bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik.

Novik is a fantastic author who has produced some excellent fantasy novels throughout her career, including her bestselling Temeraire series (set during a re-imagined Napoleonic War fought with dragons), as well as her standalone reads Uprooted and Spinning Silver.  However, I personally know Novik best from her awesome 2020 book, A Deadly Education, which was one of my favourite books from last yearA Deadly Education had an awesome story that followed Galadriel “El” Higgins, a student in the Scholomance, a lethal magical school filled with all manner of magical monsters known as maleficaria (mals).  This was an outstanding read with a really clever and intense narrative, and I have been really looking forward to seeing how the story continued for a while now.  As a result, I was excited when I found out that the sequel, The Last Graduate, was coming out, and it swiftly became one of my most anticipated reads for 2021.

Following her daring mission to reactivate the school’s defences and kill as many maleficaria as possible, El finally thinks she has a chance to relax and prepare for her gruelling final year at the Scholomance.  Not only must she continue her exhaustive magical studies, but the entire year leads up to a lethal graduation ceremony, where the students must run a gauntlet of mals at the school’s entry hall to escape back into the real world.  Now with allies, friends and even an extremely odd love interest in moody warrior mage Orion Lake, El has a chance of escaping the Scholomance without being forced to rely on her immense affinity for the most destructive spells in existence, which could result in the entire student body being vaporised.

However, the sentient Scholomance appears to have different ideas for El and resolves to make her life as difficult as possible, assigning her impossible classes and isolated study periods.  Worse, it appears that the school is deliberately funnelling as many mals towards El as possible to kill her and steal her magical energy.  Determined to defeat the school and escape, El is forced to make some new alliances to survive the year and make it to graduation.  At the same time, she needs to navigate her unusual relationship with Orion, especially after receiving a mysterious warning from her mother to stay away from him.

The closer El gets to graduation, the harder life becomes, especially after the scope of her magical abilities is revealed to the entire school.  Now targeted by rival factions within the Scholomance and unsure who she can trust, El will need to pull together every terrible power at her command to survive.  However, not everything is what it seems in the Scholomance, and the school has one final lesson to teach El: sometimes there are things far more important than surviving.

Wow, just wow, now that was a damn impressive sequel.  The Last Graduate is an epic and incredible read that proved to be utterly addictive in all the right ways.  I had an absolute blast reading this exceptional fantasy novel and I ended up powering through the last half of the novel in a couple of hours, only to be utterly traumatised by its cliffhanger ending.  It was so much fun getting back into this detailed and compelling setting, and it was great to see the main characters continue to evolve throughout, even if they lead to tragedy and heartbreak.   This was an outstanding read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

This latest book from Novik contains a pretty epic narrative which covers El’s entire final year within the Scholomance.  The story continues immediately after the end of A Deadly Education, and I would strongly recommend reading the first book before attempting The Last Graduate, as the initial Scholomance book contained a lot of interesting detail and character development that is useful to understand.  This second book starts off at a good, restrained pace, mostly settling things down after the fast-paced conclusion of A Deadly Education and allowing the protagonist and point-of-view character, El, to settle back into the rhythms of the school.  The author utilises a very detail-rich brand of storytelling, which helps to produce quite a rich a vibrant novel, even if it did slow down my initial reading speed.  However, the pace picks up significantly once it becomes apparent that things in the school have changed, as El finds herself the only person in the school being attacked by mals.  This troubling situation forces her to turn to her friends and new allies to survive, especially as she is convinced that the school itself is out to get her.  This eventually leads to the reveal that El is an all-powerful force of destruction, which greatly alters the balance of power in the school, as El is caught between the various enclaves who view her as a major weapon both inside the Scholomance and in the national rivalries outside of it.  This results in an immense amount of drama and conflict, as El fights to remain neutral and survive, while also coming to terms with who she is and the terrible magical system she finds herself a part for.

All this drama, fighting and conflict leads up to the big event of the book, the graduation gauntlet, something that the author has been building up since the start of the series.  However, nothing goes as expected with graduation, as everything about it, including the lead-in and the training is very different than in previous years.  The reasons why are finally revealed as part of a very interesting twist which changes everything about how you thought the novel was going to end.  This alteration leads to an excellent conclusion which perfectly works in all the story elements that have set up throughout the course of the two novels.  The final scenes are extremely dramatic, with some big moments and epic displays of magic that will keep you on your toes.  I honestly could not put the book down during this part of the novel as I was desperate to see how everything ended, and then we got to the very last sentence.  Ooh, that last sentence, how much I hate and love you at the same time.  Novik sets up a really massive cliffhanger that was both perfect and enraging at the very same time.  I was literally yelling my shock and frustration at the book (and Novik by extension) as I read and re-read that sentence, as I could not believe that she left it like that.  I mean, mad respect for setting it up and making me care so much for the characters so that I was deeply impacted by it, but at the same time, how dare you make me feel like that.  Naturally, the third and final book in the Scholomance series is now one of my most anticipated reads for 2022 (which is what Novik intended, evil genius that she is), and I am extremely eager to see what happens next.

I deeply appreciate the awesome setting that is the Scholomance.  This sentient magical school is such a dark and wonderful setting, and Novik has built it up perfectly throughout the course of the series.  I absolutely love this brilliantly perverse version of the classical magical school setting, especially as Novik has spent an amazing amount of time establishing it, providing the reader with a ton of detail and anecdotes about the education, living arrangements and many, many, hazards involved with living there.  This detail continues in The Last Graduate, as Novik expands on the school, showing more fantastic elements to it, and even throwing in a few intriguing changes that impact the status-quo of everybody there.  There is so much fun detail here, and I loved the examination of how living in such a dangerous and enclosed building would impact the people living there.  There is one amazing scene where El channels a lot of magic into the school, accidentally restarting a simulation of the outdoors.  The subsequent wave of grief from all the students at seeing the sun again was pretty terrible, and it showed just how damaging this situation is, even though it is saving their lives.  I also really appreciated the interesting new changes that Novik introduced to school, especially as it significantly alters what you think you knew about it.  I also liked how Novik also provided some additional detail of the wider world outside the Scholomance, expanding on some of the details that were already set up in A Deadly Education.  There are several hints about big events occurring outside of the school which will probably come into play in the third novel, and there is also an interesting examination about the rivalries between the various enclaves, magical societies with selective membership and strong political power.  I cannot wait to see what awesome new details and settings that Novik will add into her next book, and I have no doubt it will be really cool to learn about.

Aside from that outstanding story, the epic finale, and the wildly inventive setting, I also must highlight the great characters featured within the novel.  There is an interesting and memorable array of characters featured throughout the Scholomance series, although most of the book focused on protagonist El.  El is a fantastic and intense character, mainly because she holds a mythical level of destructive power, an incredible affinity for combat and death spells, and is also some form of prophesised destroyer, which caused her father’s side of her family to try and kill her (a bold move for pacifists).  This, as well as the fact that her power makes everyone she encounters subconsciously uneasy, turned El into quite a guarded person, and much of the first book focused on her coming out of her shell and finally making friends.  This development continues in The Last Graduate, as El is forced to make even more friends and alliances.  This has a pretty positive impact on her personality, especially as she learns to trust people, and while she still has a mostly prickly disposition, she does mellow out a little more.  There is also a rather interesting major plot point when the full range of her powers becomes apparent to the entire school.  This makes her a target for everyone in the school, with the various enclave students either trying to recruit her or kill her.  This forces El once again into a defensive mode, although she is eventually able to overcome for the greater good of herself and the school.  I deeply appreciated El’s growth as a character in this novel, and it was great to see this wildly unstable and sassy protagonist once again.

The other major character of the book is El’s love interest, Orion Lake.  Orion is another interesting protagonist, as he is a powerful mage with a hero complex who gains his powers from killing mals.  A member of the exclusive and powerful New York enclave, Orion is considered more of an asset than a person by his family, which has resulted in everyone seeing him as either a god or a weapon.  This, combined with his love for fighting monsters, has left Orion a little messed up, and he ends up imprinting on El as she is the first character to treat him like a normal person and call him out for his stupid heroic mindset.  Orion is a very complex and nuanced character, and it has been interesting to see him develop, especially as you only really get to see him through El’s cynical eyes.  While he is a little less utilised in this novel, he still has several interesting challenges, including having substantially less magical energy and power due to him encountering very few mals in his final year.  There is also the rather awkward but sweet romance he has with El.  Both these characters are messed up in their own unique ways, but together they nearly make one emotionally function human.  Their romance is a major part of the book’s plot, and Novik works in some compelling and moving storylines around it.  I felt that all of Orion’s character arc was really well written, and I deeply appreciated the way that Novik cleverly set up some key moments surrounding him.

Aside from El and Orion, The Last Graduate contains a fantastic array of supporting characters in the form of the other Scholomance students.  While Novik did introduce most of these characters up in A Deadly Education, I felt that they got a lot more attention in The Last Graduate, with the author taking the time to explore them a little further.  I quite liked the increased focus on these supporting characters, as there are an interesting array of personalities, powers and allegiances, which helped make the plot more exciting and filled with intrigue.  I particularly enjoyed the various members of El’s alliance, each of whom get a few key moments throughout the book and prove to be quite fun to follow.  I also must highlight El’s new familiar, a mouse called Precious, who gains a sort of sentience throughout the book, and immediately starts trying to sabotage El and Orion’s relationship.  Each of these characters added something fun to the overall tapestry of The Last Graduate’s story, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all of them in the final book.

With The Last Graduate, the amazing Naomi Novik has substantially jumped up my list of favourite authors, even if I am severely annoyed with her about that brilliant, if cruel, cliffhanger.  This excellent second novel in the Scholomance series is one of the best books I have read all year, and it is a highly recommended read.  I had an outstanding time once again exploring this messed-up magical school, and the complex characters and unique storylines helped to create an intense and powerful read.  I honestly cannot wait to read the third and final book in this series, even though I fully expect Novik to do everything in her power to break my heart.  If you have not started reading the Scholomance series, you are missing out big time!

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Shadow Fall Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 23 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Strap in and prepare yourself for some intense combat out in the black of space, as Alexander Freed returns with another exciting and compelling Star Wars novel, Star Wars: Shadow Fall.

In the wake of the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star above Endor, the once mighty Galactic Empire is on its last legs as they face a determined and continuous assault from the forces of the New Republic.  Amongst the New Republic troops fighting to end the tyranny of the Empire are the ragtag fighter group known as Alphabet Squadron.  Formed by New Republic Intelligence and serving under legendary Rebel General Hera Syndulla, Alphabet Squadron’s mission is to hunt down and destroy the elite TIE fighter pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, known as Shadow Wing, who have been terrorising the galaxy and are one of the greatest threats to the New Republic’s success.

Following their recent victory, which saw Shadow Wing’s base destroyed and their commanding officer killed, Alphabet Squadron are assisting with the lengthy siege of the Imperial system of Cerberon.  Led by former Imperial pilot Yrica Quell, herself a deserter from Shadow Wing, the five pilots of Alphabet Squadron are finally starting to work together as a team.  However, while they are happy to help Syndulla with her latest vital campaign, the squadron is still determined to finish off the remaining members of Shadow Wing before they cause more chaos and destruction.  Working with their New Republic Intelligence handler, Caern Adan, Quell believes she may have come up with a plan to trap her former Imperial comrades.  However, Quell has severely underestimated just how ruthless Shadow Wing has become.

Quell’s former mentor and commanding officer, Imperial fighter ace Soran Keize, has returned and taken control of Shadow Wing.  Determined to keep his people alive while inflicting as much damage as possible to the New Republic, he launches an attack against the Cerberon system that manages to bypass the trap laid for him.  Scattered, the members of Alphabet Squadron must each fight their own battles throughout Cerberon as they all attempt to survive and strike back.  However, as they face their greatest challenge to date Alphabet Squadron soon begins to realise that their most dangerous threat may not be the pilots of Shadow Wing, but the terrible secrets their own leader is keeping.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall is a fantastic and impressive Star Wars novel that examines the immediate aftermath of the original Star Wars trilogy while focusing a group of complex and damaged characters.  Shadow Fall is the fifth Star Wars novel from science fiction author Alexander Freed, and it serves as the second book in his Alphabet Squadron trilogy, which started last year with Star Wars: Alphabet SquadronAlphabet Squadron was an excellent first novel in this series, thanks to its exciting story which did an amazing job introducing the reader to each of the main characters of the titular Alphabet Squadron (so called because each member flies a different model of Rebel ship, i.e. one X-Wing, one Y-Wing and so on).  Freed’s latest novel is an outstanding sequel to Alphabet Squadron which continues the amazing character arcs and war-based narrative, while also adding in some excellent new elements.  While I really enjoyed the prior novel from Freed, I personally felt that Shadow Fall was a stronger book than Alphabet Squadron and I ended up really getting into this powerful and action-packed story.

This latest book from Freed contains an epic and enjoyable character-driven war story that follows the pilots of Alphabet Squadron as they attempt to subdue the Empire once and for all.  This proves to be a rather elaborate and multifaceted narrative as Freed utilises the key members of Alphabet Squadron as point-of-view characters.  While Shadow Fall initially has all the squadron members together, each of them goes on their own adventures throughout the book, breaking it up into several distinctive storylines.  Each of these storylines is rather intriguing and emotionally charged, especially as all the characters go through their own voyages of discovery.  These storylines are all confined to the same star system and each has its own take on the war occurring throughout Cerberon, especially as Freed also features a number of chapters from the point-of-view of the novel’s main antagonist, which allows the reader to see the plans and issues surrounding Shadow Wing.  All of this helps to create a compelling and exhilarating read, particularly as Shadow Fall contains a number of exciting and well written action sequences, including a series of amazing and impressive ship to ship combat scenes.  The characters get into some unique and deadly battles throughout the course of this book, and I really loved seeing all the intense fighting out in space.  Overall, this was a fantastic story and it ended up being quite a remarkable and addictive read.

One of the big things that I liked about Shadow Fall was the way that it continued to explore the turbulent period of Star Wars history that follows in the immediate aftermath of the death of the Emperor.  This period within the Star Wars universe has so much potential for great fiction and I feel that Freed does an outstanding job utilising it within his novels and showing off the battles that occurred.  There is a real gritty and dark feeling to this book, as both sides are involved in a lengthy and bitter conflict.  I really liked the darker and more desperate conflict that Freed portrays throughout this book, as both sides get pushed into some corners as they battle throughout the system.  This turned out to be an excellent setting and I really found it fascinating to see this vision of the post Return of the Jedi universe, especially as there was no instant victory for the Rebels as the movies suggest.  I look forward to seeing more of the war as the Alphabet Squadron series progresses and it will be interesting to see what battles and scenarios occur in the final book.

Readers interested in checking this series out do not need to have too much knowledge about the Star Wars extended universe; a general knowledge of the movie franchise should suffice.  However, like all pieces of tie-in fiction, those readers who are familiar with the more obscure bits of the fandom’s lore and history will get a lot more out of these books than casual readers.  I would also strongly suggest that people who want to read Shadow Fall should go back first and try Alphabet Squadron, as this will allow readers to get a better idea of the various characters and their histories and ensure that their actions have greater impact.  However, if you are determined to start here, I felt that Freed made Shadow Fall pretty accessible, summarising certain key events from the prior book and also providing some wider background information about the Star Wars universe during the period the novel is set.

One of the reasons that this story is so impactful and enjoyable is that Freed has anchored his narrative on the memorable and flawed characters that are Alphabet Squadron.  Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character viewpoints, the reader gets an in-depth understanding of all the key characters and their various story arcs and development.  A large amount of the book’s plot continues to focus on the leader of Alphabet Squadron and X-Wing pilot, Yrica Quell.  Quell is a former Imperial pilot and member of Shadow Wing, who defected after the end of the war, claiming that she attempted to stop her squadron from implementing Operation Cinder, a series of genocides ordered by the Emperor in the event of his death.  However, it was revealed at the end of Alphabet Squadron that she was actually a willing participant in Operation Cinder and only defected because her commanding officer, Soran Keize, ordered her to leave.  Quell is still haunted by her actions and is attempting to find redemption by working for the New Republic to hunt down her old squadron, while at the same time being blackmailed by her handler, Caern Adan, who is keeping the information about her crimes secret.  There are several great scenes throughout this book that deal with Quell’s guilt and fear of being found out as she attempts to come to terms with all she has done and tries to become the good person everyone believes she is.  However, chaotic events towards the middle of the book undo some of her progress and force her to really look deep into herself.  Quell easily has the best character arc entire book and her entire dramatic storyline is extremely well-written and emotionally rich.  It looks like Freed is taking this character in some interesting directions and it will get see what happens next.  I also enjoyed certain LGBT+ inclusions surrounding Quell (and some other characters), and it always great to see more of that added into the Star Wars universe.

Several other members of Alphabet Squadron get their own fascinating storylines and character arcs.  First up you have Wyl Lark, the team’s young A-wing fighter pilot, who is still shaken after his encounters with Shadow Wing during the first book.  Lark is a complicated character within this novel, as due to the past trauma he has started to experience some real weariness at all the fighting.  He also bears some inner conflict thanks to his past interaction with an unnamed member of Shadow Wing, who he knows only as Blink (due to the condition of their TIE fighter in the first book), which has made him believe that the Imperials are more human than most New Republic fighters believe.  This makes him act out in some odd ways, potentially endangering himself and others.  Regardless, Lark also takes on a big leadership role within this book as he finds himself in charge of a mixed force of New Republic soldiers and pilots who he must rally together to stop the machinations of Shadow Wing.  This forces him to make some tough decisions and results in some excellent character development, which is probably going to become a key part of the next entry in the series.

The book also focuses on Chass na Chadic, the pilot of the squadron’s B-Wing.  Chass is also an emotional mess throughout the book, which causes her to act out in an aggressive and reckless manner.  However, Chass’s difficulties are a result of her own addiction to combat and danger and her worries about what she is going to do after the war.  Chass also has a rather intriguing storyline that sees her forced to seek shelter with a growing cult after she is shot down.  This only adds to her emotional confusion as, while this organisation has some very valid points about the war, Chass has her own problematic history with cults which severely colours her opinions.  A fourth member of Alphabet Squadron who also gets a fair bit of attention is Y-Wing pilot Nath Tensent.  Nath gets a little less use than Quell, Lark and Chass in this book, and rather than getting his own individual storyline he ends up being more of a supporting character to the other members of Alphabet Squadron.  I liked how Nath, after getting the revenge he desired in the first book, started taking on more of a mentor role within the team and he ends up being the glue that keeps them somewhat together.  His experience, easygoing manner and ability to socialise with everyone really helps to balance out the team, and I think it was good decision from Freed to have at least one point-of-view protagonist not be an emotional wreck.  I have to admit that I really liked seeing all of these complex and damaged protagonists and their various storylines and development became a powerful part of the book’s story.

Aside from these main four members, Shadow Fall also features several other great New Republic characters.  This includes the fifth and final member of Alphabet Squadron, Kairos, the mysterious scarred alien pilot of the team’s U-Wing.  Kairos does not get a lot of use throughout this book and is barely seen or mentioned after the first 100 pages.  Despite this, there are a few minor reveals about her shrouded past, and I can only hope that we find out a lot more about her in the final book.  There is actually a lot more of a focus on the supporting character of Caern Adan, the New Republic Intelligence officer who has been leading the hunt for Shadow Wing, as well as his companion, IT-O, a former Imperial torture droid turned therapist.  I found Caern’s use within Shadow Fall to be rather compelling, especially after he was portrayed as such a despicable and self-serving character in the first novel.  Freed dives into this Caern’s background in this novel and shows how he became the harsh, calculating person you met in Alphabet Squadron, as well as exploring his history with IT-O and Kairos.  This examination into his past, as well as his present-day adventures with Quell, helps generate a bit of sympathy for him and he ends up becoming a bit of a tragic character as a result.  I was also really glad to see more of New Republic General Hera Syndulla, who fans would know as one of the main protagonists of the Star Wars Rebels animated television show.  Hera was a great character on the show and in recent years she has been featured as a key Rebel commander in the expanded fiction (with her ship, Ghost, having brief cameos in two separate live action Star Wars movies).  I am always happy to learn more about Hera’s story post-Star Wars Rebels, especially as she has a great role as the wise overall commander throughout this book, and Star Wars Rebels fans will get sad in one or two places, such as when she wistfully asks if anyone has a Jedi hidden away.  Overall, these were some great supporting characters and I enjoyed Freed’s focus on them.

In addition to all the members of the Alphabet Squadron and the various New Republic supporting characters, Shadow Fall is also a tale of Imperial pilot Soran Keize.  After spending most of the first book trying to forget his past and exploring the post Imperial galaxy, Soran returns to claim his place as leader of Shadow Wing.  Soran is another compelling character who ends up serving as an alternate point-of-view character for roughly a third of the book.  I always love it when authors show the story from the antagonist’s perspective, and this ended up working incredibly well in this novel.  Not only do we get to see Soran’s complex motivations for returning to his wing and restarting the fight with the New Republic, but through his eyes we also get a better idea of how the Imperial remnant is fighting and surviving at this point of the war.  Freed adds some real desperation to the Imperial characters as they start to deal with the fact that they are going to lose the war, and there are some interesting discussions about the Imperial pilots having to change tactics, as they no longer have access to the vast resources they were previously used to.  Despite his at times merciless tactics, Soran’s viewpoint really helps to humanise the Imperial antagonists and, in many ways, they are mirrors to the New Republic characters, as both teams are fighting for their ideals and beliefs.  That being said, none of the Imperial characters aside from Soran popped out to me, and I had a hard time really caring about them in any way or remembering who they were.  Still, it was great to get more of an Imperial viewpoint in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron series.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed is another outstanding and enjoyable Star Wars novel that serves as an exceptional sequel to last year’s Alphabet SquadronShadow Fall is an extremely captivating and addictive read, especially as Freed features an amazing action-packed story, fun Star Wars elements and some incredibly complex and compelling characters whose damaged personalities and scarred pasts really stick in the reader’s minds.  I had an awesome time reading Shadow Fall and I cannot wait to see how Freed finishes off this darker Star Wars series.