Waiting on Wednesday – Firefly: Life Signs by James Lovegrove

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  I’m starting off my Waiting on Wednesday articles for the year strong by looking at the very next Firefly tie-in novel, Firefly: Life Signs, which is sure to be an epic and enjoyable read.

Firefly Life Signs

Over the last few years, Titan Books have been leading the way with tie-in fiction for Joss Whedon’s wildly popular Firefly franchise, by creating a series of fantastic Firefly novels that imagine new adventures for the various crewmembers of the spaceship Serenity.  Being the massive fan of the franchise that I am, I have gone out of my way to read all four previous Firefly novels they have released (consisting of Big Damn Hero, The Magnificent Nine, Generations and The Ghost Machine).  Each of these books have been extremely clever and exciting reads that did an amazing job of bringing the iconic characters from the television show to life, and I have deeply enjoyed all of them.  As a result, I was very happy when I found out that there was a brand new Firefly novel coming out in a few short months and instantly considered it a must-have book for the year.

This latest upcoming Firefly novel, Life Signs, is currently set for release in mid-March and is written by bestselling science fiction and fantasy author James Lovegrove, with Joss Whedon credited as a consulting editor.  Lovegrove has been the absolute star of this current run of Firefly tie-in novels, having written three of the four books.  All of these Lovegrove Firefly novels have been amazing and compelling reads, although my favourite is probably last year’s The Ghost Machine, which saw the protagonists become entrapped by beguiling visions and terrifying nightmares.  However, I have particularly high hopes for Lovegrove’s next entry in the series, as Life Signs has a really cool and intriguing plot.

Synopsis:

Some months after Inara leaves Serenity, Mal and the crew learn the reason for her sudden departure: she is dying of a terminal illness. It is Kiehl’s Myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer that’s supposedly incurable.

Through their shock and despair, they learn that there are rumors of a scientist believed to have developed a cure for her condition, but he has been disgraced: incarcerated for life on notorious Alliance prison planet Atata. Here, terraforming did not take properly, so the world is a frozen wasteland. Inmates are abandoned there with no guards and left to survive as best they can.

To save Inara, the Serenity crew must infiltrate the prison…

Ooh, now this is a very interesting synopsis that opens up a lot of great storylines for this book.  Fans of the Firefly franchise will probably know that the Inara terminal illness story element mentioned above was actually a real plotline that was going to be explored in future seasons of the television show, if it hadn’t been cancelled so soon (damn you, Fox executives, damn you to hell!).  Several inclusions in the show hinted at Inara’s condition, and there were apparently plans to do a big episode about it, although some of the revealed details about this potential episode are a tad disturbing (let’s just say that Inara was apparently going to have a very bad encounter with some Reavers).  I have to say that I am really excited to see that someone is finally going to explore this abandoned story arc in some detail, and it should result in some emotional and dramatic moments for the characters, as well as provide some addition backstory for Inara.  I also really like how, in order to solve this problem, the crew are going to embark on a reverse prison break to find and exfiltrate a disgraced mad scientist who may potentially have a cure.  Attempting to break into a desolate ice prison that is completely controlled by the inmates has so much potential for excitement and disaster and I am sure it is going to be quite a fun and enjoyable story.

As a result, I am really looking forward to checking out this new Firefly novel in March.  Based on how cool and significant the plot sounds, and due to how much I have enjoyed Lovegrove’s excellent writing in the past, I have some major expectations for Life Signs and I cannot wait to see how it unfolds.

Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume One: Dark Heart of the Sith

Darth Vader - Dark Heart of the Sith

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: Darth Vader (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Greg Pak

Artist: Raffaele Ienco

Colour Artist: Neeraj Menon

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the first entries in a new set of Star Wars comics is here and it is pretty damn awesome, as Greg Pak, Raffaele Ienco and Neeraj Menon present the first volume of the 2020 Darth Vader series, Dark Heart of the Sith.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains issues #1-5 of the Darth Vader (2020) comic book series which takes place right after The Empire Strikes Back.  The Darth Vader (2020) series is part of a new range of Star Wars comics which include the Star Wars (2020), Doctor Aphra (2020) and Bounty Hunters series, all of which are set in the year between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  These comics follow on from earlier series which were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  This latest round of comics attempts to provide details about what occurred between the events of the second and third films, as well as create some new and exciting adventures.  All of the comics in this range sound fantastic, and I have been eagerly anticipating all of them, especially Darth Vader (2020) due to all the potential for action and drama that it has.

To tell this unique tale, Marvel have utilised the fantastic team of author Greg Pak, artist Raffaele Ienco and colour artist Neeraj Menon.  Greg Pak is a film director and author who has written several amazing comics in his career, with a particular focus on the Hulk and Hercules series for Marvel.  I am somewhat familiar with Pak’s work, enjoying his current run of Firefly comics for Boom!.  I am a little less familiar with Ienco and Menon (although Menon did work as a colourist on the Target Vader limited series), but both are experienced artists who have worked on some intriguing-sounding projects in the past.  This is an intriguing team, and they came together to produce an excellent and powerful Darth Vader story.

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During the climatic events of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader revealed that he was Anakin Skywalker to his son, Luke, and offered him a chance to rule the galaxy by his side.  However, Luke refused to join him out of fear and disgust, choosing instead to plunge to an unknown fate beneath Cloud City.  Now, rejected and betrayed, Vader finds himself full of rage and determined to seek revenge on anyone who kept his son from him and made him weak.

Tracing Luke’s life before the Rebellion, Vader attempts to find anyone he can take his frustrations out on.  But with everyone in Luke’s past dead and beyond his wrath, Vader decides to investigate what happened to his wife, Padmé Amidala, after their final confrontation on Mustafar.  Investigating a listening device left in Padmé’s apartments on Coruscant, Vader travels to a hidden Rebel base where he makes the startling discovery of a woman with a shocking resemblance to an older Padmé.

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Despite the initial shock, Vader is soon able to determine that this is not his dead wife returned from the grave but the Queen’s Shadow, Sabé.  Sabé was once Padmé’s most loyal friend, handmaiden, bodyguard and double, and her death has haunted Sabé for years.  Determined to use Sabé to find the answers he is looking for; Vader decides to work with the former handmaiden to find out the truth of Padmé’s last moments.  The information that they need apparently resides on Naboo, and Vader is forced to relive the ghosts of his past life as Anakin Skywalker to find the truth.  However, more treachery awaits Vader on Naboo as a secret organisation waits to kill him.  The Handmaidens of Amidala know who truly killed their mistress, and they are finally ready to take their revenge.

What is it about Darth Vader that makes it impossible for someone to create a bad comic about him?  I mean, seriously, all the previous Darth Vader comics in the current canon have been absolute masterpieces, from the epic 2015 Darth Vader series (check out my reviews for Volume One: Vader, Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets and the crossover comic Vader Down), the impressive prequel series Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (check out my reviews for Volume Two: Legacy’s End and Volume Three: The Burning Seas), the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars series, Skywalker Strikes, or the fun limited series, Dark Visions.  Each of these comics has been impressive in its own way, and in each of them Darth Vader shines as the ultimate badass.  This first volume of the new Darth Vader series is no exception as it follows Vader through a harrowing journey of discovery that takes him back into his tumultuous past and explores the consequences of his actions at the formation of the Empire.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains an epic and emotional narrative which follows one of fiction’s greatest villains after he encounters one of the biggest setbacks in his life.  Set mere moments after Vader’s final appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Lord of the Sith embarks on a deeply personal mission that is half rampage and half voyage of discovery.  After some initial setbacks, Vader eventually finds Sabé, the Queen’s double, whose appearance in the final panel of Issue #1 was a major selling point for the series.  Sabé’s introduction to the plot leads Vader to revisit some of the most important locations from his life as Anakin Skywalker, before an inevitable run-in with Padmé’s former followers, who hold Vader responsible for her death and the death of Anakin Skywalker.  This entire arc is extremely well written, and I absolutely loved the ambitious and clever story that Pak came up with.  The author does an awesome job of combining an exciting narrative made up of several epic and impressive moments and with a deep dive into Vader’s mind, and this results in a captivating and powerful read that serves as a particularly distinctive chapter in the history of Darth Vader.  I really enjoyed where Pak took Dark Heart of the Sith’s amazing story, and while certain elements lose their impact in the internet age of freely available spoilers, there are some big and impressive moments in here that all Star Wars fans need to see.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this comic was the way that the creative team brought in elements from the Star Wars prequel films and inserted them into a story set right after The Empire Strikes BackDark Heart of the Sith takes the reader back to several key locations from the prequel films and reintroduces several minor characters who appeared in them, including Sabé, one of the pilots from The Phantom Menace and Captain Gregar Typho, Padmé’s security guard in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  This use of these elements from the prior movies works extremely well in the context of this comic’s story, as Vader is forced to revisit his past at a point when he is the most vulnerable in the present.  This makes Dark Heart of the Sith quite an interesting comic for Star Wars fans, who will greatly enjoy the inclusion of elements from two distinctive eras of the franchise.  I felt that Dark Heart of the Sith was a very accessible comic for readers with limited familiarity with Star Wars fiction, and readers only need to check out some of the films to get a good understanding of what is happening. 

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However, as an established fan of the franchise, I was quite overjoyed to see that this comic had an interesting connection to some interesting pieces of Star Wars extended fiction, namely two recent novels by E. K. Johnston, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow and Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.  These two novels, which serve as sequel and prequel to The Phantom Menace respectively, are set around the lives of Padmé and her handmaidens and provide added details about how they came into her service and the loyalty that they felt to her.  The narrative contained within this comic serves as a sequel to an arc set up in Queen’s Shadow, where Sabé swears to find justice for the death of Padmé, with several of the unique characters who were either introduced or sufficiently fleshed out in these novels also appearing.  This results in several awesome scenes, including one particularly epic sequence in which Vader is confronted by Padmé’s surviving handmaidens, who engage in an all-out brawl against him.  I found all of this to be immensely cool, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the elements from these books concluded in this comic, especially as Dark Heart of the Sith serves as a definitive conclusion to these character arcs.

Unsurprisingly, the standout character of this comic is Darth Vader himself, who goes through a lot during Dark Heart of the Sith.  Pak really turns this first volume into a deep exploration of Vader’s complex psyche, and there is an interesting examination of how Vader is feeling in the immediate aftermath of Luke rejecting him.  Without his usual determination and dedication to the Dark Side, Vader is lost in this comic, acting out of impulse and searching for someone or something to take his rage out against.  The introduction of Sabé and the return to several key locations from his past only adds to his confusion and emotional instability, and it is blatantly obvious that this is not the same Vader we have come to fear and admire.  Instead, this Vader hesitates to do some of his usual acts of destruction.  Certain memories from his past suddenly spring to the forefront of his mind, turning him away from his desired actions, such as sparing Sabé after revisiting his memory of killing Padmé.  Vader is also continually thrown by the return of several figures from his past, each of whom had a connection to both Padmé and Anakin Skywalker, and it proved to be quite fascinating to see Vader interact with them differently, especially as none of them are aware that Vader is Anakin. 

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This comic also contains some key moments of history for Vader; not only does he finally visit Padmé’s tomb but he also admits to her murder, all of which have major emotional implications for him.  I quite enjoyed this dive into Vader’s psyche and I really appreciated the way that the creative team tried to show just how complex and conflicted the character can be.  Based on how Volume One ends, this is probably going to be a recurring theme of the Darth Vader (2020) series and it will be interesting to see the many different changes in the character’s psyche.  I should mention that even though this is a focus on Vader’s mind and his innumerable regrets, the creative team do go out of their way to show just how much of a badass he is and there are several impressive sequences where he doles out death and destruction on an epic level, including killing some of the biggest and most dangerous creatures on Naboo.  All of this results in a deeply impressive Darth Vader comic, and I love the creators’ take on this amazing villain.

Aside from Vader and the returning characters from the prequels, Dark Heart of the Sith also features a fun new posse for Vader in the form of three Death Troopers (the elite Stormtroopers introduced in Rogue One) and the forensics droid Zed Six Seven, who accompany Vader throughout this mission.  While the Death Troopers do have a key role in this comic as Vader’s bodyguards and backup, they are mostly just background characters, without any major defining characteristics or moments.  Zed Six Seven, on the other hand, does a lot of talking, commenting on every event and revelation that occurs within the course of the narrative.  This extra commentary is essential, as Zed Six Seven provides nearly all the necessary exposition within the narrative, as Vader has less dialogue than a typical comic protagonist.  Despite primarily being an exposition machine, Zed Six Seven does prove to be an entertaining character, and I quite enjoyed his reactions to certain revelations or the events, even if his inability to keep his robotic mouth shut does cost him in the end.  Overall, I really liked all the character inclusions and development featured within Dark Heart of the Sith, and it helped to make an epic and powerful story.

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I really must highlight the exceptional art featured within this volume as the two artists, Ienco and Menon, do an amazing job bringing this captivating narrative to life.  I absolutely loved all the art contained within this comic and I felt that each of the scenes was drawn very well, with the various featured characters representing their film counterparts in impressive detail.  I particularly enjoyed the excellent way that the artists recreated a ton of key events from the prequel movies and featured them throughout the comic.  The recreated shots from the films were done with a distinctive red filter and were utilised as Vader’s flashbacks to key events from his life.  These flashback scenes help to highlight just how muddled and conflicted Vader’s thoughts are, and they are utilised to great effect throughout this first volume, often shown side-to-side with current events for some amazing contrasts.  I felt that this excellent artwork really helped to enhance Pak’s clever story, especially as the artwork provides the reader with some fantastic visuals of Vader’s emotional range.  It is a real testament to their drawings that you constantly have an idea of how Vader is feeling even with the mask on, and a lot of this is down to the way that the artists portray his body language and reactions.  I also loved several sequences that recreate Luke’s fall to the bottom of Cloud City at the end of their duel in The Empire Strikes Back.  These sequences are featured multiple times throughout the comic, with Luke replaced with several other characters, including various iterations of Vader himself, reflecting just how fractured or lost Vader feels.  This comic is also filled with some action-packed and explosive moments that see Vader attempt to kill everyone and everything in his path.  These action sequences are an exciting treat at several key points throughout the narrative and it is always fun to see Vader kick ass and take names.  Highlights included several sequences where Vader faces off against the megafauna of Naboo, including one massive leviathan (whose introduction is one of my favourite panels in the entire comic).  There is also a particularly brutal fight sequence towards the end of the comic where Vader releases years of anger and frustration in one destructive flurry.  All this awesome art adds so much to the comic and I cannot compliment it enough.

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Dark Heart of the Sith, the first volume of the Darth Vader (2020) series, is an absolute triumph that may be one of the best pieces of Star Wars fiction this year.  Featuring an outstanding combination of exciting narrative, compelling character development and eye-popping artwork, Dark Heart of the Sith was an absolute treat to read from start to finish.  I loved the way in which the creative team dived into the mind of my favourite Star Wars character, and it proved to be a gripping and powerful read.  This was one of the best things I read all year and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

Waiting on Wednesday – 2021 Star Wars Tie-In Novels

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday I take a look at the bevy of cool upcoming Star Wars novels that are set for release in early 2021.

I have been in a major Star Wars mood for the last week (well, more of a Star Wars mood than I usually have).  This improved Star Wars mood seemed to begin sometime on Saturday, coinciding with me watching the epic finale of a certain television show.  With the sheer awesomeness of The Mandalorian coursing through me, it made me think that, while most of the year has been pretty abysmal, it has been a pretty exceptional year for Star Wars.  I have personally enjoyed nearly every novel, comic and television show that has been released in 2020 and there have been some truly exceptional pieces of tie-in fiction.  2021 is actually shaping up to be an even better year, not least because of all the really cool shows that they are currently planning to release (I believe that only dogs and dolphins were able to hear my excited squeals when Disney did their big reveal of upcoming shows a couple of weeks ago).  With that in mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to highlight some of the amazing upcoming Star Wars tie-in novels that have been announced for the next year, all of which I will grab and review as soon as I possibly can (this is the way!).

Let’s start this article off by talking about The High Republic.  Announced late last year, The High Republic range was advertised as the brand-new era of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  Set 200 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, The High Republic shows the Jedi at the absolute height of their power and looks set to follow a whole new generation of heroes as they explore a very different version of the Star Wars universe to that depicted in the films.  In order to explore this new period of Star Wars history, a whole set of novels and comics have been commissioned, featuring the talents of some of the top authors of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  These novels and comics were initially set for release earlier this year, but then 2020 happened and things naturally got pushed back a little.  Most of these novels are now currently set for release in the next couple of weeks and will be amongst the first books of 2021 that I will check out.  While I love all things Star Wars, I am especially keen to check these novels out as it will provide me with a glimpse at this new timeline that is set to become a major part of the franchise in the coming years (for example, one of the shows they recently announced, The Acolyte, will apparently be set in or towards the end of The High Republic era).

Star Wars - Light of the Jedi Cover

The first of these books that I will be reading is the interesting-sounding Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, which is set for release on 5 January 2021.  Light of the Jedi will be the first adult Star Wars novel set in this period, and because of this it is bound to be one of the most prominent and important entries in the entire The High Republic range, setting the tone for the entire project and introducing much of the backstory and lore.  In order to tell this vital tale, Light of the Jedi will be written by acclaimed author Charles Soule.  I am a major fan of Soule’s work as a comic book writer, having particularly enjoyed his Star Wars comics, including the exceptional Poe Dameron comics, The Rise of Kylo Ren limited series and the deeply impressive Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith series (make sure to check out my reviews for Volume 2: Legacy’s End and Volume 3: The Burning Seas).  As a result, I have high hopes for Light of the Jedi, especially with the really cool synopsis that has already been released.

Light of the Jedi Synopsis:

Long before the First Order, before the Empire, before even The Phantom Menace. . . Jedi lit the way for the galaxy in The High Republic.

It is a golden age. Intrepid hyperspace scouts expand the reach of the Republic to the furthest stars, worlds flourish under the benevolent leadership of the Senate, and peace reigns, enforced by the wisdom and strength of the renowned order of Force users known as the Jedi. With the Jedi at the height of their power, the free citizens of the galaxy are confident in their ability to weather any storm But the even brightest light can cast a shadow, and some storms defy any preparation.

When a shocking catastrophe in hyperspace tears a ship to pieces, the flurry of shrapnel emerging from the disaster threatens an entire system. No sooner does the call for help go out than the Jedi race to the scene. The scope of the emergence, however, is enough to push even Jedi to their limit. As the sky breaks open and destruction rains down upon the peaceful alliance they helped to build, the Jedi must trust in the Force to see them through a day in which a single mistake could cost billions of lives.

Even as the Jedi battle valiantly against calamity, something truly deadly grows beyond the boundary of the Republic. The hyperspace disaster is far more sinister than the Jedi could ever suspect. A threat hides in the darkness, far from the light of the age, and harbors a secret that could strike fear into even a Jedi’s heart.

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The next entry in this article is another The High Republic novel, Into the Dark by Claudia Gray.  Into the Dark is a young adult Star Wars novel that is currently set for release on 2 February 2021.  This young adult book will be set during the same major event introduced in Light of the Jedi and will follow a different set of Jedi characters as they attempt to navigate the disaster.  This second novel appears to have a more typical young adult story, with a teenage character coming into his own, but it sure sounds like it is going to be a great read.  Just like with Light of the Jedi, Into the Dark is in the hands of an outstanding author, Claudia Gray, who has written some fantastic Star Wars novels in the past, such as the captivating Master & Apprentice, which was one of my favourite audiobooks of 2019.

Into the Dark Synopsis:

Padawan Reath Silas is being sent from the cosmopolitan galactic capital of Coruscant to the undeveloped frontier—and he couldn’t be less happy about it. He’d rather stay at the Jedi Temple, studying the archives. But when the ship he’s traveling on is knocked out of hyperspace in a galactic-wide disaster, Reath finds himself at the center of the action. The Jedi and their traveling companions find refuge on what appears to be an abandoned space station. But then strange things start happening, leading the Jedi to investigate the truth behind the mysterious station, a truth that could end in tragedy….

Those are the two The High Republic novels I am currently most interested in checking out.  There are a couple of young reader or junior fiction The High Republic novels that are also coming out in early 2021 for young Star Wars fans.  Some additional The High Republic novels are also set for release later in the year, although most of them are currently untitled or have had very few details revealed about them so far.  I will probably cover these additional The High Republic novels in a few months’ time (probably around May the Fourth), but this article is far from done.  Early 2021 will also see the release of two additional Star Wars novels set outside The High Republic era, both of which serve as sequels to awesome Star Wars novels from 2020.

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The first of these books is Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed, which is currently set for release on 2 March 2021.  Victory’s Price is the third and final novel in the exciting Alphabet Squadron series, which follows a mismatched group of damaged Rebel pilots, known as Alphabet Squadron, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Empire.  I have had an amazing time reading the previous two entries in the series, Alphabet Squadron and Shadow Fall, both of which provided the reader with excellent character work and fantastic fighter pilot action sequences.  This third book will follow on from the shocking aftermath of Shadow Fall, which saw the protagonist and leader of Alphabet Squadron, Yrica Quell, return to her former Tie-Fighter unit, Shadow Wing, after being rejected by her fellows in the Rebellion.  This third book looks set to be another intense and emotional thrill ride and I cannot wait to see how Freed concludes this fantastic series.

Victory’s Price Synopsis:

The aces of the New Republic have one final chance to defeat the darkness of Shadow Wing in this thrilling conclusion to the Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron trilogy!

In the wake of Yrica Quell’s shocking decision-and one of the fiercest battles of their lives-the remnants of Alphabet Squadron seek answers and closure across a galaxy whose old war scars are threatening to reopen.

Soran Keize has returned to the tip of Shadow Wing’s spear. Operation Cinder, the terrifying protocol of planetary extermination that began in the twilight of the Imperial era, burns throughout the galaxy. Shadow Wing is no longer wounded prey fleeing the hunters of the New Republic. With its leader, its strength has returned, and its Star Destroyers and TIE squadrons lurk in the darkness between stars, carrying out the fallen Emperor’s final edict of destruction-as well as another, stranger mission, one Keize has championed not for the dying Empire, but for its loyal soldiers.

Alphabet Squadron’s ships are as ramshackle and damaged as their spirits, but they’ve always had one another. Now, as they face the might of Keize’s reborn juggernaut, they aren’t sure they even have that. How do you catch a shadow? How do you kill it? And when you’re finally victorious, who pays the price?

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Last, but certainly not least, is the second novel in the compelling Thrawn Ascendancy series, Greater Good, by Timothy Zahn, which will hopefully be released in early May 2021.  For nearly 30 years, Timothy Zahn has been one of the top writers of Star Wars tie-in fiction, creating a huge number of impressive stories and iconic expanded universe characters.  His defining creation is without a doubt the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, the ultimate Imperial strategist, who has proven his worth as a major antagonist in both the old Star Wars Legends canon and the current Disney-owned Star Wars canon.  Not only was Thrawn an impressive character in the Star Wars Rebels animated series but he was recently mentioned in The Mandalorian (an event that elicited a particularly high squee from me) and looks set to appear in live-action form in the upcoming Ahsoka show.  I have a lot of love for Zahn’s writing (for example, his great Star Wars heist novel, Scoundrels), and I have particularly enjoyed his work in recent years.  This includes his Thrawn series, which sees the author provide a new backstory to the titular character that fits within the bounds of the current canon.  Zahn produced some exceptional reads for this series, including Thrawn (which is one of my favourite pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction), Alliances and Treason.  The Thrawn Ascendancy series dives even further back into the character’s past and shows some of his younger exploits with his planet’s defence forces, where he encounters a series of plots to destroy the Chiss Ascendancy.  The first novel in this series, Chaos Rising, was a compelling 2020 read, and I look forward to seeing how the series continues next year with Greater Good.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good Synopsis:

Thrawn and his allies race to save the Chiss Ascendancy from an unseen enemy in the second book in the epic Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy from bestselling author Timothy Zahn.

Thrawn’s latest triumph still rests newly on his shoulders. Despite leading the Chiss to victory and bringing glory to the House of Mitth, the true threat to the Ascendancy has not yet been extinguished. Their foes do not send threats or ultimatums, or mass ships on the edge of the Chaos. Their weapons come cloaked in smiles and generosity: Gifts offered freely. Services granted unconditionally.

Across the Ascendancy, seemingly inconsequential events could herald the doom of the Chiss. As Thrawn and the Expansionary Defense Fleet rally to uncover the enemy plot, they discover a chilling truth: rather than invade Chiss capitals or pillage their resources, they strike at the very foundation of the Ascendancy, seeking to widen the rifts between The Nine Ruling Families and the Forty Great Houses below. As rivalry and suspicion sow discord among allies, each warrior must decide what matters most to them: the security of their family, or the survival of the Ascendancy itself.

As you can see, there are some awesome Star Wars tie-in novels set for release in 2021.  All of the above sound extremely interesting and captivating, and I cannot wait to read all four of them, as well as the other Star Wars books set for release later in the year.  Let me know which Star Wars novels you are most looking forward to reading in 2021 and feel free to gush about the upcoming television shows as well.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra written by Sarah Kuhn and performed by a full cast

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Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 21 July 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Script: Sarah Kuhn

Cast: Emily Woo Zeller, Jonathan Davis, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Sean Kenin, Nicole Lewis, Carol Monda, Euan Morton, Catherine Taber and Marc Thompson

Length: 5 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The most brilliant and conniving archaeologist in the entire Star Wars canon gets her own audio drama as author Sarah Kuhn and an exceedingly talented cast of audiobook narrators present Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, the audio drama.

Throughout the galaxy Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra is renowned as a criminal and bringer of chaos without peer, but in her own eyes she is simply an archaeologist and technology enthusiast, albeit one willing to sell her findings to the highest bidder.  However, her latest venture is about to get her into the worst type of trouble, the sort that will haunt her for the rest of her incredibly short life.  Attempting to steal a dangerous weapon from a restricted alien vault, Aphra finds herself surrounded and slated to die, that is until Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and overall badass suddenly appears and saves her. 

Vader is engaging in a high-risk power play against the Emperor and Aphra has just become his most useful pawn, whether she likes it or not.  Working as his agent, Aphra must utilise her skills as a con-woman, genius technician and criminal mastermind to help Vader achieve his goals: depose the Emperor and find his new obsession, the pilot who blew up the Death Star, Luke Skywalker.  Determined to stay on Vader’s good side, Aphra, with the help of her two friendly murder droids, Triple-Zero and BT-1, helps her new master engage in all manner of shenanigans across the universe, including kidnappings, torture and elaborate heists.  However, Aphra knows that all it will take is just one mistake or slip-up to earn her new employers’ deadly wrath.  To avoid her inevitable appointment with Vader’s crimson lightsaber, Aphra will need to pull out every trick in her impressive arsenal if she is to survive.  But can even the great Doctor Aphra outsmart Darth Vader and the entire Empire, or has the smartest woman in the galaxy finally met her match?

Well this is an exceedingly fun and entertaining entry in the Star Wars expanded universe which provides a new angle to the tale of Doctor Aphra.  Doctor Aphra is an incredible and complex character who has only been recently added into the canon.  Introduced in the opening issues the 2015 Darth Vader comic book series, Doctor Aphra served as a major supporting character for much of the series run, entertaining readers with her antics and ability to survive working for Darth Vader.  Aphra proved to be an extremely popular character, and this resulted in the character getting her own comic book series (which ironically lasted more issues than the Darth Vader series she was introduced in).  The Doctor Aphra series ended up being an amazing hit thanks to some exceptional writing and it is one of my favourite pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction (make sure to check out my reviews for the last two volumes in the series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon and A Rogue’s End), and there is even a second Doctor Aphra series on its way.  It seems that Aphra’s popularity has continued to grow as earlier this year this Doctor Aphra audio drama was released, written by talented author Sarah Kuhn.  This proved to be an exceptionally impressive audio release that does an amazing job bringing this fantastic character into an entirely new format.  This audio drama has a run time of around five and a half hours, which listeners are able to breeze through in no time at all.

The Doctor Aphra audio drama contains an intriguing and captivating story that follows the character as she engages in all manner of adventures in service to Darth Vader and her own survival.  Told entirely from the perspective of Aphra as she makes a series of recordings to an unknown person, and set shortly after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, this story follows Aphra through the entirety of her ill-fated association with Darth Vader.  This employment places her in all manner of danger, as she completes a series of tasks important to Vader, including an elaborate heist; gets in the middle of a deadly conflict between Vader, one of his rivals in the Empire, and the protagonists of The Original Trilogy; and finds herself a prisoner of the Rebel Alliance before eventually attempting to manipulate the Emperor for her own ends.  At the same time, Aphra is constantly balancing on a knife’s edge, as her beloved boss has made it abundantly clear that he will kill her the moment she displeases him.  This forces Aphra into a number of tense and dangerous situations as she needs to convince Vader to keep her alive throughout the entire book.  This struggle to stay alive adds a substantial amount of suspense to the audio drama, as the listener really wants this entertaining character to survive, and it eventually leads to an outstanding and epic conclusion.  All of this proves to be an exceedingly captivating adventure, and listeners are in for an exciting and hilarious time, especially with Aphra’s entertaining and over-exaggerated narration of the events occurring. 

While I did really enjoy the story contained within this audio drama, I do need to point out that it is not actually an original tale; instead it is an adaption of several canon comic book series, namely the comics that featured Aphra’s early adventures.  The first part of the audio drama adapts most of the first two volumes of the 2015 Darth Vader comic series, Volume One: Vader and Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets.  From there the story follows the course of the crossover limited series, Vader Down, before moving on to the events of the fourth volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic, Rebel Jail.  Finally, the story returns to the Darth Vader comic, utilising parts of the fourth and final volume, End of GamesDoctor Aphra proves to be an exceptional adaptation of these comics although they only show off the events that Aphra herself witnessed or was a part of.  I had an amazing time listening to this adaptation and I really enjoyed seeing several of the amazing events that originally occurred on the page being brought to life by this enjoyable performance. 

People interested in listening to this audio drama do not need to have read the adapted comics first, as Kuhn provides Aphra with a great deal of narration that explains her role in the story and all the events leading up to the comics.  As someone who has read the comics before listening to this audio drama, I found that there was a lot in this production for fans of the comic.  I personally really enjoyed seeing these events from Aphra’s perspective (as the original comics mostly followed main characters such as Vader, Luke, Leia, and Han), and it was extremely interesting to see her thoughts on the various events occurring.  The author also comes up with a lot of additional backstory that helps to enrich Aphra’s involvement in the narrative, which fans of the character will really appreciate.  While I had a great time listening to this audio drama, I did notice that several events were glossed over, mainly because Aphra did not witness them occur in the comics.  For example, you have no idea who is behind several of the battles or attacks that Aphra finds herself in the middle of, with Aphra herself giving limited explanations for them.  While I knew full well what was going on, people who haven’t read the comics are going to be full of questions and this may make the audio drama a little confusing at times.  That being said, this was still an outstanding and deeply enjoyable production, and perhaps it will encourage listeners to check out some of the adapted comics (trust me, they are awesome).

One of the best things about this audio drama was the way in which the narrative explored the complex and exceedingly likeable character of Doctor Chelli Aphra.  Aphra is a clever, impulsive and chaotic rogue archaeologist who is obsessed with ancient technology, particularly unusual droids and dangerous weapons.  Aphra is a wildly entertaining character who is essentially an amoral version of Indiana Jones that has no problems cheating or betraying people who she encounters, as long as she gets to hold onto the valuable antiques or can sell them for vast amounts of money (none of her loot belongs in a museum!).  Aphra appears to have a relentlessly positive personality, providing the listener with a string of continual jokes and funny observations with an infectious amount of enthusiasm.  However, deep down Aphra is actually a deeply damaged individual who has suffered a number of losses and betrayals that impact her current outlook on life and other people. 

Despite the fact that Aphra is the very definition of an unreliable narrator (she literally deletes or edits the parts of the story she does not like to suit her agenda), I felt that this audio drama does an amazing job exploring this wily protagonist.  Having Aphra’s inner monologue about the events occurring during this story proved to be not only entertaining but also very enlightening, and it showed some fascinating glimpses of her inner personality and emotional state.  While much of Aphra’s story was previously explored in the comics that Doctor Aphra is based on, this adaptation does go a little further, pulling in some backstory that was introduced in the later Doctor Aphra comics and expertly working it into this narrative.  Kuhn also comes up with some additional history that is unique to this production, including a number of scenes that explore her previous romantic relationship with Sana Starros.  While this relationship has been mentioned and discussed in several of the comics, this is probably the most in-depth examination of it in the canon and it becomes an important part of the overall plot.  I really enjoyed the way in which Doctor Aphra examined its titular protagonist and I felt that the story really captured her essence and outrageous personality.

This audio drama sports an amazing voice cast and each of them does a fantastic job in this production.  However, I really must highlight the performance of Emily Woo Zeller, who portrayed the titular character.  Zeller is an experienced and talented narrator who has contributed to a huge raft of audiobooks, including several I am quite interested in checking out, such as Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas.  Due to how the audio drama is written, Zeller’s voice is the one we hear the most throughout Doctor Aphra, as she recounts all of the characters dialogue and the overall narration of this book.  I really loved the way that Zeller portrayed the character of Aphra in this audio drama and I thought she got all the aspects of the character down perfectly.  Zeller gives a particularly energetic performance throughout this adaption, and listeners get a real sense of the mischievous and over confident outer shell that Doctor Aphra portrays to everyone she meets.  However, Zeller also captures the vulnerable nature of this complex protagonist, showing off the character’s full range of emotions when she is scared, angry or contemplating her many regrets.  This rich and amazing performance from Zeller really helps to make this audio drama something special, and I am really glad that she was able to bring Doctor Aphra to life in such an exceptional way.

Doctor Aphra also makes use of several other impressive voice actors throughout this audio drama, each of whom are portraying major Star Wars characters who Aphra interacts with through the course of this adventure.  This audio drama features a who’s who of Star Wars audiobook narrators, many of whose works I have previously enjoyed in a range of productions including the previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.  These additional narrators include Jonathan Davis (who I previously enjoyed in Star Wars: Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith), Sean Kenin (Death Troopers), Euan Morton (Tarkin), Catherine Taber (Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow), Marc Thompson (Thrawn, Thrawn: Chaos Rising, Dark Disciple and Scoundrels), Sean Patrick Hopkins, Nicole Lewis and Carol Monda.  Each of these voice actors did an exceptional job of bringing their various characters to life throughout Doctor Aphra.  I particularly enjoyed Marc Thompson’s Darth Vader and Euan Morton’s Emperor, as both voice actors brought some realistic menace to these iconic villains.  Catherine Taber, who is best known for her portrayal of Padme Amidala in The Clone Wars animated series, does an excellent Princess Leia in this production, and I really appreciated the choice to cast her.  Sean Patrick Hopkins does a really cool Luke Skywalker, and I was really struck by how close he got to a younger Mark Hamil’s voice.  I also really enjoyed Sean Kenin’s Triple-Zero, and I felt he really captured the essence of this crazy character.  Each of these side characters added a lot to the production as a whole and, while they were not as heavily featured as Aphra, each of them had their own entertaining moments and interactions.  I particularly loved the threatening aura that Darth Vader exhibited towards Aphra, and there is also a very entertaining interaction between Aphra and Han Solo that results in some of the best jokes in the entire production.  You also have to love the fact that Aphra ends up with a posse that essentially reflects the main characters from The Original Trilogy, with a protocol droid (Triple-Zero), an Astromech (BT-1) and a Wookie (Black Krrsantan).  Of course, Aphra’s friends are all dangerous killers, which makes for some extremely entertaining and deadly encounters.

In addition to featuring an impressive voice cast, Doctor Aphra also features the full range of iconic Star Wars sound effects and musical scores that were made famous in the movies.  Pretty much every action that occurs within the book is accompanied by a sound effect, whether it be blaster fire, the sound of engines or even a susurration from other people in a crowded room.  I always love how these sound effects helped to create an atmosphere throughout the course of a Star Wars novel, and I felt that they were particularly useful for this audio drama format due to the lack of narration that a standard audiobook would have.  I also have to talk up the excellent use of the incredible Star Wars musical score that features during several key scenes of the novel.  Hearing this music during some of the most pivotal, dramatic or action-packed sequences makes the narrative seem that much more epic, and I absolutely loved hearing this music throughout this production.  The use of the sound effects and music enhances the story in immeasurable ways, and it helps to turn this audio drama into an exceptional treat for the ears. 

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra is an impressive and deeply enjoyable audio production that brings fan-favourite character Chelli Aphra into a whole new light.  Cleverly adapting several amazing Star Wars comics, the Doctor Aphra audio drama features an interesting story from author Sarah Kuhn that shows the events from the perspective of the chaotic and duplicitous titular protagonist.  Featuring an exceptional voice cast, Doctor Aphra proves to be an extremely entertaining and exceedingly addictive listen that I had a very hard time turning off.  I personally think this was one of the best audio productions of 2020 and it comes highly recommended both to general Star Wars fans and to those who have read the adapted comics.  I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama and I hope that they think about adapting the later Doctor Aphra comic book series next as there are some impressive storylines featured in there.

Firefly: Generations by Tim Lebbon

Firefly Generations

Consulting Editor: Joss Whedon

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 3 November 2020)

Series: Firefly – Book Four

Length: 287 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Over the last couple of years, there has been a resurgence of tie-in fiction around the Firefly television series, such as a new range of comics that was released by Boom!  However, the tie-in fiction I have been enjoying the most has been the excellent Firefly novels released by Titan Books.  I have so far had the great pleasure of reading and reviewing the first three novels in the series, Big Damn Hero, The Magnificent Nine and The Ghost Machine.  All three of these Firefly novels have been extremely fun to read and The Ghost Machine was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020.  As a result, I have been eagerly awaiting the next novel in the series, Firefly: Generations by bestselling author Tim Lebbon.  Lebbon is an intriguing author who has been writing since the late 1990s across a variety of different genres.  Not only has he written several of his own novels and series, including Coldbrook, Relics and the Toxic City series, but he also authored an impressive amount of tie-in fiction, including a Star Wars novel, the official novelisation of The Cabin in the Woods and, most notably, the Rage Wars series, which encompassed both the Predator and Alien franchises.  Generations is the author’s first foray into the Firefly universe and it was originally set for release last year, before being temporarily delayed.  However, it was well worth the wait as this new novel from Lebbon is an extremely good Firefly tie-in novel that sees the crew of the Serenity embark on another dangerous adventure in space.

Set between the events of the television show and the Serenity movie, Generations sees the crew of Serenity once again low on cash after another poor job.  Hoping to turn their fortunes around by visiting a backwater planet with some potential smuggling jobs, the crew are disappointed by a lack of work.  However, an intriguing new opportunity presents itself when Mal wins a mysterious and seemingly unreadable map from an old mercenary.

While initially sceptical of its worth, Mal is convinced he may have something when a rival group of smugglers attack the crew, desperate to retrieve the map.  Curious, the crew investigate further and find that their wayward psychic, River Tam, can read the map and believes that it leads to an abandoned Generation ship, one of the massive vessels that brought humans to this galaxy from Earth-that-was.  With the potential for priceless salvage too much to resist, Mal and his crew decide to follow the map out into deep space, hoping for a miracle.

Arriving at the coordinates indicated on their map, they find the wreck of the Generation ship exactly where expected and loaded with valuables.  However, the ship appears to have been recently visited by the Alliance, who have made some surprising modifications to it.  Even worse, the closer they get to the ship the more animated River becomes, convinced that something is waiting for them.  Ignoring River’s cryptic warnings, Mal leads a team aboard, but what they find will haunt them to the end of their days.  Something extremely dangerous has awakened on the ship, and it is very, very angry!

Firefly: Generations is an impressive and exciting novel that sees the crew of Serenity embark on another thrilling money-making expedition in space.  This particular adventure was a rather cool one, and I really loved the way in which the author sends the characters off to explore a seemingly abandoned ship.  Lebbon sets his story up extremely well, and the subsequent action-packed narrative moves as an exceedingly fast pace as the protagonists quickly encounter all manner of problems that require them to escape from the ship before it is too late.  While this is a story that revolves around thrilling action and excitement, Lebbon makes time for several character-driven arcs, and the reader gets some excellent backstory and universe lore.  In many ways, this felt like an episode of the Firefly television show, and I had an extremely hard time putting the book down once I got drawn into the story.  Overall this was an amazing and enjoyable novel, and I had an awesome time reading Generations.

As part of this excellent story, Lebbon makes sure to bring several of the key Firefly characters to life throughout his book.  While Inara and Shepherd Book are mostly absent, the rest of the cast of the television show take part in this intriguing adventure, and I think it worked a little better with the smaller group of characters.  Lebbon did a great job with their characterisations in this novel and most of the featured characters are well utilised throughout the story, especially as they each spent time as a point-of-view character.  The always entertaining Captain Malcolm Reynolds serves as the driving force of much of the plot in this book, obtaining the map and taking his crew out on the adventure.  Mal was a lot of fun throughout the book, providing the reader with a number of clever jokes and observations about the dangerous events they are encountering and trying to work his way around it.  Wash was also particularly funny throughout this book, mainly because, out of all the characters, he was the most apprehensive about visiting the Generation ship.  Wash keeps up an amusing patter throughout the book, and there are several great scenes where he is forced to deal with some uninvited guests aboard Serenity.  I also quite enjoyed the use of Jayne and Kaylee throughout Generations, as they both get a lot of focus as they team up together.  Kaylee has a particularly deep attachment to the events occurring throughout the book, due to her fascination with the Generation ships, and this leads her into the heart of the action, somewhere she usually tries to avoid.  Luckily, she spends most of her time with the dangerous Jayne, who is up to his usual mercenary ways, attempting to loot the ship for anything valuable.  While Jayne maintains his typical gruff exterior for much of the book, there are some excellent moments when he opens up to Kaylee and shows how much closer he has grown to the rest of crew as a result of their adventures.  However, some of the most interesting scenes in this book concern River, who finds herself coming face to face with a dangerous figure from her terrifying past.  River has a unique history with the main antagonist of this book, which results in her attempting to establish a connection with him.  However, it doesn’t take long for this connection to take a dark turn, and she is forced to make some hard decisions about whether she wants to continue on with her crew or with someone she has an intense connection with.  Not only are River’s scenes quite emotionally deep, by Lebbon presents several great sequences where she uses her combat training to overwhelm the crew in order to get to where she wants to go.  I did think that Zoe and Simon were a bit underutilised throughout the novel, however, they still served vital supporting roles throughout the plot and they had some fun interactions with the rest of the characters.

In addition to his portrayal of the main characters from the television show, Lebbon also features some intriguing new antagonists for Generations’ story.  This includes the mysterious person who the crew encounter aboard the Generation ship, Silas, someone with a connection River’s past.  Silas is quite an interesting character, mainly due to the parallels between him and River, and it proved to be quite fascinating to see him in action throughout Generations, especially as he is one of the most dangerous things the crew has ever encountered.  Lebbon has also introduced a new female duo the mysterious agents known as The Hands of Blue (two by two, hands of blue).  Lebbon presents a compelling take on these two characters, and it is one of the first times fans of the show get to see inside the heads of any members of this secretive group.  I quite liked the utilisation of them in this book, especially as the author spends time showing just how bonded and weird these characters are and it was great to get some more information on this mysterious group.  Having both Silas and The Hands of Blue (with their associated Alliance backup) as antagonists in this novel really raised the stakes of this action packed novel and it was exciting to see the three-way fight that resulted between these two competing antagonists and the crew of Serenity.  I really enjoyed all the excellent character work in this book and it resulted in some amazing and intense scenes.

One of the things that I enjoyed the most about Generations was the way in which Lebbon spends time exploring and expanding on the Firefly universe.  Not only does the author do an amazing job replicating the old-west feel of this great science fiction series, continuing the cool adventures in a post-civil war landscape, but he also expands on the lore of this universe.  As part of this, Lebbon provides a lot of background and details about the transition of humanity to the star system where the Firefly series is set, including the massive Generation ships they used as transport, providing the reader with insights into their construction and how the technology has changed in the period between the exodus from Earth and the events of this book.  It was really fascinating to see the characters from the television show explore this ship and learn more about their long-forgotten history and past.  It was particularly entertaining to see them interact with some of the technology and cultural items from our time period, and there are numerous jokes around the characters not understanding certain brands or references.  In addition to this intriguing expansion of the Firefly timeline, certain reveals in the plot necessitate a deeper look into the history of River and the program that made her, and you get some other hints at what projects and military testings the Alliance does.  All of this makes for a fantastic addition to the Firefly cannon and fans of the franchise will appreciate some of the cool new additions that Lebbon brings to the table.  While Generations is probably best read by those people familiar with the Firefly show, the novel is also extremely accessible to newcomers to the series, who will no doubt enjoy the cool and enjoyable science fiction adventure.

Firefly: Generations by Tim Lebbon is a thrilling novel that takes the reader on a wild and compelling adventure into the amazing Firefly universe.  Generations contains an impressive and exciting story that makes excellent use of the characters from the Firefly television show while also exploring the franchise’s expanded universe.  A fun and easily enjoyable novel, this book comes highly recommended to all Firefly fans and you are guaranteed to have an amazing time getting through this awesome book.

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.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by E. K. Johnston

Queen's Peril Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 6 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into a galaxy far, far away, as bestselling young adult author E. K. Johnston presents the very first Star Wars novel of 2020, Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.

Padmé Naberrie has always wanted to serve the people of her home planet of Naboo, and she knows that the best way to do that is to become Queen. Entering the competitive election, the 14-year-old politician is elected as ruler of Naboo. Casting aside her real identity for the protection of herself and her family, Padmé takes on a new name, Amidala, and moves into the royal palace, determined to bring change to Naboo. However, even a ruler as brilliant and diplomatic as Padmé is unable to do everything by herself, and she finds out that she is going to need help.

In order to keep her safe and to assist her with her needs, Padmé is introduced to a group of talented young women who will serve as her handmaidens. Acting as her assistants, confidantes, bodyguards and decoys, each of her handmaidens brings something different to the group, and it is up to Padmé to turn them into an effective team. Together, Padmé and her new friends seem capable of dealing with any challenge that may impact them.

However, there is a dark plot at work within the Republic, and its mastermind has Naboo in their sights. Soon Naboo is invaded by the armies of the Trade Federation, who seek to capture Queen Amidala and force her to sign away the planet. Forced to flee in disguise, Padmé sets out to reclaim her home and will do anything to free her planet. While Jedi, soldiers and a young chosen one may rally to their cause, the fate of Naboo ultimately rests on the shoulders of a young queen and her loyal handmaidens.

Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and enjoyable new addition to the Star Wars canon from bestselling author E. K. Johnston. I have been rather enjoying some of Johnston’s recent Star Wars releases, and I had a fun time reading her 2016 novel, Ahsoka, as well as last year’s fantastic release, Queen’s Shadow. Queen’s Peril is the first of several Star Wars books being released in 2020 (although some have been delayed), and I have been looking forward to seeing how this book turns out. This new novel acts as a prequel to Queen’s Shadow and is set both before and during the events of the first Star Wars prequel film, The Phantom Menace. This ended up being a fun and interesting read that explores some unique parts of Star Wars lore.

This latest Star Wars novel contains an intriguing tale that starts from the moment that Padmé is elected queen and takes on the Amidala persona. The first two thirds of this book follow the early days of Amidala’s reign, introducing Padmé and her handmaidens and showing how they became such a tight-knit team. There are a number of great moments during this first part of the story, and it was interesting to see the origin of a number of elements of the Amidala character that are shown in The Phantom Menace, such as her voice, the establishment of the decoy system, and a huge range of other compelling features. There are also several scenes that are dedicated to exploring why the Trade Federation decided to target Naboo and what the origins of their conflict were. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, and I feel that the final third kind of let it down a little. The last part of the book focuses on the invasion of Naboo and follows the events of The Phantom Menace. While it was cool to see some different perspectives on the events of the film, this part of the book felt rather rushed, as the narrative jumped between a number of sequences from the movie in rather quick succession. Despite the problems with the ending, this was still a rather compelling story, and I did enjoy Johnston’s additions to the Star Wars universe.

While on the surface this book appears to be purely about Padmé, Queen’s Peril is actually about a number of different characters who made Padmé’s role as Queen Amidala possible. Padmé is naturally one of the main characters of the book, but all five of her handmaidens are just as important to the story. Johnston previously introduced each of these handmaidens in Queen’s Shadow, and briefly explored their unique skills and what they brought to the group. She does this again in Queen’s Peril, although this is done in greater detail, as this book shows each character’s history and how each of them became a handmaiden. Each of the handmaidens is given a distinctive personality, and all five get a number of scenes told from their point-of-view. I really enjoyed learning more about these characters, and it was great to see them come together as a group and work towards ensuring that Padmé was protected and an effective queen. While each of the characters are explored in some detailed, the biggest focus is on Sabé, Padmé’s first handmaiden and her main decoy (played by Keira Knightly in the film). The author spends time showing the unique relationship between Sabé and Padmé, and it was captivating to see the trust between them grow. Because she was so heavily focused on in the movie, Padmé does not get a lot of scenes in the last third of the book, so quite a bit this part of the story is told from the perspective of all the handmaidens. It was rather interesting to see how each of these characters went during the course of the film, and it was particularly cool to see some scenes with Sabé as she pretended to be the Queen.

In addition to Padmé and her handmaidens, Queen’s Peril also featured point-of-view chapters or scenes from pretty much all the key characters from The Phantom Menace film. The use of all these extra characters was an interesting choice from Johnston, and I liked how it expanded the story and showed some fresh perspectives and backstory for several major Star Wars protagonists. Most of these appearances are rather brief, with characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn only getting a few minor scenes. However, other characters do get some extended sequences, especially Captain Panaka, the head of Amidala’s palace guards. Several chapters are told from Panaka’s perspective, and he becomes quite a key character within the book, mainly because he is the person who finds and recruits all of the handmaidens. Panaka is a major driving force of the plot, and it was interesting to see his role expanded from the films, especially as you get more insight into why he is so dedicated to the Queen. I also really liked how the book features several sequences told from the perspective of Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious. These scenes were fun, as they showed a lot of Palpatine’s earliest manipulations, including how he was able to organise the invasion of Naboo. Overall, I rather appreciated how the author utilised all the characters within Queen’s Peril, and watching their development and interactions proved to be quite compelling.

Like the author’s other Star Wars novels, Queen’s Peril is intended for a young adult audience, and Johnston does a fantastic job tailoring it towards younger readers. This book has a lot of great young adult moments to it, especially as it focuses on a group of teen girls working together to outsmart a variety of adults and then eventually save their entire planet from an invasion. Queen’s Peril has some fantastic portrayals of these teen protagonists, and there are a number of sequences which show them stepping up or dealing with complicated issues that younger female readers will appreciate. While it is intended for younger readers, Queen’s Peril, like most young adult Star Wars novels, is also very accessible to all readers who are major fans of the franchise, and it is easy for older readers to get into and enjoy the plot of the book and its intriguing new additions to the Star Wars lore.

I did have a minor complaint about the release order of the books in Johnston’s series about Padmé. While I enjoyed both Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow, I really do think that it was an odd decision to release Queen’s Shadow first, and then release a prequel novel a year later. It would have been better to release Queen’s Peril first to introduce the various handmaidens and help build up the emotional connection between them and Padmé, making their use and inclusion in Queen’s Shadow a bit more impactful. It might also have made a bit more sense to have Queen’s Peril only focus on events before The Phantom Menace, have another book focus exclusively on what was happening with the handmaidens and Padmé during the course of the film (which would have ensured that Queen’s Peril did not feel as rushed as it did towards the end), and then release Queen’s Shadow. While I am sure that there is some reason why the order for these books was a bit off, probably at the publisher level, I think they could have planned this out a little better.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Queen’s Peril, and I had a great time listening to this book. Queen’s Peril has a short run time of just over six hours, so it is rather easy to get through this book quickly. Like all Star Wars audiobooks, this version of Queen’s Peril was a real auditory treat, due to the excellent use of the iconic Star Wars sound effects and scores from the movies, which are used to enhance each of the scenes. While it was great to once again hear all the fantastic music and intriguing background noises, Queen’s Peril’s greatest strength as an audiobook comes from its fantastic narrator, Catherine Taber. Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clones Wars animated television show, and, short of getting Natalie Portman in, is the perfect person to narrate a novel about the character. Taber also narrated the previous Johnston book about Padmé, Queen’s Shadow (indeed all of Johnston’s Star Wars books have featured the character’s voice actor as a narrator for their audiobook), and it was great to see her return. She naturally does a perfect voice for the character of Padmé, as well as for the handmaidens, who had similar speaking patterns due to their role as decoys. There are some great vocal scenes between these characters, especially when they are trying to perfect the Amidala voice, and they go through several variations throughout the book. In addition, because Queen’s Peril features nearly every major character from The Phantom Menace, Taber also had to voice several different people who were brought to life by some amazing actors in the original film. I felt that Taber did a fantastic job as imitating some of these voices, and it proved to be a real showcase for her skills as a voice actor. Overall, I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Queen’s Peril.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and exciting new young adult Star Wars release from E. K. Johnson that acts as a sequel to her previous awesome novel, Queen’s Shadow. Johnston comes up with another compelling story that explores the early life of Padmé/Queen Amidala and her loyal handmaidens. While it does have some flaws, it is a very good book, and it should prove to be a fun read for established fans of the franchise and younger readers who are interested in breaking into the expanded universe. I had an amazing time listening to this book and I look forward to seeing what sort of Star Wars story Johnston produces next.

Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

Firefly The Ghost Machine Cover

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 28 April 2020)

Series: Firefly – Book three

Length: 335 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting on Wednesday – Upcoming Star Wars Comics

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I am still in a massive Star Wars mood after listing my favourite pieces of Star Wars fiction for last week’s Top Ten Tuesday, so I thought I would use this article to highlight some of the amazing upcoming Star Wars comics that I will be purchasing later this year.

If the fact that I wrote a massive and detailed list last week to celebrate May the Fourth wasn’t a hint, then I’ll flat out say it: I love Star Wars. I am an avid consumer of all things Star Wars, and for the last couple of years I have gone out of my way to watch all the movies, read all of the new Star Wars tie-in novels and absorb all of the associated animated shows. However, in my opinion, some of the best examples of Star Wars fiction that are being created at the moment are the franchise’s excellent comic books.

Marvel Comics have released some truly terrific Star Wars comics over the last couple of years, from ongoing series like Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (check out my reviews for volumes Two and Three) and Poe Dameron, cool crossovers like Vader Down, and even some exceptional limited series, such as Vader: Dark Visions. These examples are just a taste of what is available, and there have been several other great comics released over the last few years, including some incredible ongoing series. Pretty much all the current Star Wars comics are outstanding reads, featuring impressive stories, fantastic portrayals of characters from movies, cool new characters and eye-catching artwork.

2020 is shaping up to be an awesome year for fans of these Star Wars comics, as four new ongoing series have just recently started up, all of which sound really cool. I am particularly excited for three of them, as they will follow on from some of my favourite Star Wars comics that have only just recently finished in the last few months. All four series will be set between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and each of them will follow a different group of Star Wars characters throughout the turbulent times between these movies. Each of these series will feature a new creative team, which should help produce some cool, fresh storylines and perspectives. If the previous run of Star Wars comics is anything to go by then these four series are all going to be heavily linked with each other, and there will probably be some storyline connections later down the line. Heck, it would not surprise me if all four of these comics have a massive crossover at some point, which would be beyond awesome. While all four of these series have actually already started, I am going to feature them in this Waiting on Wednesday article because it will take several months for me to get copies of all of them, due to my preference for collected editions over individual issues. I am also going to have to wait a little longer than usual to get these comics, as Marvel Comics were forced to temporarily postpone their publishing line in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, although this is not something that I am going to complain about.

Star_Wars_2020_1_cover

The first of these new series is Star Wars (2020), which will no doubt serve as the central post for this entire new run of Star Wars ongoing comics. This new Star Wars (2020) ongoing series is written by Charles Soule and drawn by Jesús Saiz, and will follow the adventures of the Rebel Alliance, with the focus on the protagonists from the Original Trilogy, namely Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Lando Calrissian. This series has a lot of storyline potential, as it will deal with all the fallout from the events of The Empire Strikes Back. In addition, it will probably also follow on some of the events that were explored in the previous long-running Star Wars comic series, which started in 2015 (check out my review for the first volume). The first upcoming volume is currently set for release on 21 July 2020, and it sounds like this comic is going to focus on quite a few intriguing story threads.

Volume Synopsis:

“No…I am your father.”

In the wake of the events following The Empire Strikes Back, it is a dark time for the heroes of the Rebellion. The Rebel fleet…scattered following a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Hoth. Han Solo…lost to the bounty hunter Boba Fett after being frozen in carbonite. And after being lured into a trap on Cloud City and bested in a vicious lightsaber duel against the evil Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker…learned the horrible truth about his past. Vader did not kill Luke’s father, Anakin – Vader is Luke’s father! Now, after narrowly escaping the dark lord’s clutches, and wounded and reeling from the revelation, Luke, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, the Wookiee Chewbacca and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 must fight their way back to the Rebel Alliance – for the fate of the entire galaxy is at stake! After so many losses, is victory still possible? But, what Leia, Luke and their ragtag band of freedom fighters do not realize is that they have only traded one Imperial trap for another! Enter the cunning and vengeful Imperial Commander Ellian Zahra, at the helm of the Tarkin’s Will! Writer Charles Soule (DARTH VADER) and artist Jesús Saiz (DOCTOR STRANGE) are taking us all to the galaxy far, far away!

DarthVader2020-1

The next series that I am looking forward to is the Darth Vader (2020) series of comics. There have been some incredibly cool comics focused around Darth Vader released in the last few years, from The Dark Lord of the Sith series that I mentioned above (which focused on the early days of Darth Vader after the events Revenge of the Sith), to Darth Vader (2015), which was strongly connected to the events of the Star Wars (2015) series. This was an amazing comic that not only introduced a barrage of awesome and distinctive new characters but which showed a number of extremely captivating moments in Darth Vader’s new history, such as the moment he realised that Luke was his son. I massively enjoyed this series when it came out, and I have recently reviewed Volumes One and Two of the series, giving them both five-star ratings.

As the Darth Vader (2020) is a bit of a direct successor to two excellent prior series that focused on the character, I have extremely high hopes for this new series, which will be written by Greg Pak and features the artistic talents of Raffaele Ienco. This new series has already caught my attention as the first issue apparently ends with Vader coming face-to-face with the most significant person from his past. I also really like that the series as a whole is going to focus on Vader as he comes to terms with the fact that Luke refused to join him and turn to the Dark Side of the Force, something which apparently has an interesting impact on Vader’s psyche. This first volume of this series is set for release on 25 August 2020, and I am deeply invested in checking this volume out as soon as possible.

Volume Synopsis:

“JOIN ME, AND TOGETHER, WE CAN RULE THE GALAXY AS FATHER AND SON!”

In the shattering climax of The Empire Strikes Back, DARTH VADER infamously reveals his true relationship to LUKE SKYWALKER and invites his son to rule the galaxy with him. But Luke refuses – plunging into the abyss beneath Cloud City rather than turn to the Dark Side. We all remember Luke’s utter horror in this life-altering moment. But what about Vader? In this new epic chapter in the Darth Vader saga, the dark lord grapples with Luke’s unthinkable refusal and embarks on a bloody mission of rage-filled revenge.

Writer Greg Pak and artist Raffaele Ienco unleash Darth Vader on his dark quest of vengeance and discovery!

DoctorAphra2020-1

The third series that I am going to check out later this year is Doctor Aphra (2020). This is a series that I am really looking forward to, as it features one of the best new Star Wars characters of the last few years, the titular Dr Aphra. Aphra was originally introduced in the Darth Vader (2015) series, and is a rogue archaeologist, tomb raider, con artist, thief and adventurer, who is essentially a combination of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but without any morals. She proved to be an extremely popular character who not only survived the events of the Darth Vader series (despite Vader’s best efforts) but was eventually given her own ongoing series. I am a massive fan of the previous Dr Aphra series, and in my opinion, it was one of the best comics of the last few years, featuring some extremely clever stories, excellent character work and an outstanding sense of humour. I have recently reviewed the last two volumes of this series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon and A Rogue’s End, both of which got a full five stars from me. Due to how much I loved the previous versions of Dr Aphra, I am extremely keen to check out this series, and I cannot wait to see what happens to this cool character next.

This new Doctor Aphra comic features the creative team of Alyssa Wong and Marika Cresta, neither of whom I am very familiar with. I am, however, rather curious to see their take on this amazing character, and I cannot wait to grab this comic later this year. Unfortunately, this series is facing some major delays due to the aforementioned publication cessation, so it might be a while before I get to check out the collected volume. The first issue was only just released, but it sounds like it has a fun story to it, and it should prove to be a good basis for the rest of the issues in the first volume. The premise certainly sounds very Dr Aphra, as the protagonist and her allies (a combination of new and old characters) attempt to find a legendary cursed item.

Issue #1 Synopsis:

NEW CREW, NEW MISSION! With the Rebel Alliance back on the run after their defeat at the Battle of Hoth, it’s never been a more dangerous time for outlaws, scoundrels and the errant rogue archaeologist to make their way in the galaxy. But after a string of bad luck and near escapes, DOCTOR APHRA is back on the job! She’s been keeping a low profile – jobs are scarce and credits scarcer. But the promise of the score of a lifetime is a chance too good for her to pass up. And to find the cursed RINGS OF VAALE, Aphra will need a crew of treasure hunters the likes of which the galaxy has never seen before! But RONEN TAGGE, heir to the powerful Tagge family, also has his eyes on the prize. Do Aphra and her team stand a chance at fortune and glory?

BountyHunters-1

The final series starting up in 2020 that I am going to look at in this Waiting on Wednesday is Bounty Hunters, written by Ethan Sacks and illustrated by Paolo Villanelli. As the name suggests, this series will focus on several of the Star Wars universe’s iconic bounty hunters, including Beilert Valance, Boba Fett and Bossk. This is the only series in this article that is not a sequel to an existing series, although backstory elements of the main character, Beilert Valance, were recently set out in the Target Vader limited series.

As Bounty Hunters is not a direct sequel to an established series that I have gotten into, I do not have quite the same emotional attachment to it that I do with the other three series mentioned in this article. Despite this, I am planning to grab this series when it comes out, and I am actually rather looking forward to it. Bounty hunters such as Boba Fett, Cad Bane and the protagonist of The Mandalorian are amongst some of the coolest characters in the Star Wars canon, and they have some the best stories in the franchise. A whole comic series set around some of these characters sounds like a lot of fun, and the central story of the first volume is apparently going to focus on Valance, Fett and Bossk all hunting for a fellow bounty hunter who betrayed them years ago. I am rather curious to see where this series ends up going, and I am also glad that there is a finally an ongoing comic series that features Boba Fett as a recurring character (particularly as he is going to appear in The Mandalorian later this year). Bounty Hunters is another series that has been significantly impacted by the Marvel Comics shutdown, with only the first two issues currently released, and the third not scheduled to come out until June. This probably means the first collected edition will take a while to come out, but I can wait, especially as the first issues sounds rather cool already.

Issue #1 Synopsis:

NEVER BETRAY A BOUNTY HUNTER – ESPECIALLY IF IT’S BOBA FETT!

Years ago, VALANCE and fellow bounty hunters BOSSK and BOBA FETT took on a mission that went sideways in a bad way after Valance’s mentor, NAKANO LASH, violently betrayed them. Valance’s team barely escaped with their lives. He never thought he’d face his old mentor ever again-until Lash finally resurfaces under mysterious circumstances. Every bounty hunter in the galaxy wants a piece and Valance is hell-bent on getting to the prize first. He has score to settle-but so does Boba Fett! ETHAN SACKS (OLD MAN HAWKEYE and GALAXY’S EDGE) and PAOLO VILLANELLI (VADER: DARK VISIONS and JEDI FALLEN ORDER – DARK TEMPLE) are teaming up to bring you the bounty hunter adventure you’ve been waiting for this March!

As you can see, there are some truly awesome-sounding Star Wars comics coming out later this year, and I am deeply excited for all of them. Each of these new ongoing series has a lot of potential, and I honestly think that I am going to love all four of these series once I get my hands on their first collected edition. Let me know which of these comics you are most excited for in the comments below. In the meantime, make sure to check out one of my previous Waiting on Wednesday articles where I look at the next three Star Wars novels that are set for release.

Hit-Girl, Vol 4: In Hollywood by Kevin Smith and Pernille Ørum

Hit-Girl in Hollywood Volume 4

Publisher: Image Comics (Paperback – 19 June 2019)

Series: Hit-Girl – Volume 4

Writer: Kevin Smith

Artist: Pernille Ørum

Colourist: Sunny Gho

Letterer: Clem Robins

Length: 112 pages

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Lights, camera, bloodshed and mayhem! The world’s most dangerous pre-teen assassin, Hit-Girl, travels to Hollywood in the fourth instalment of the brilliant and exciting Hit-Girl series.

Hit Girl S2 #1

This current Hit-Girl series has been a lot of fun, as it follows Hit-Girl on her world tour of destruction and vigilante justice, with a new creative team at the helm of each volume (which are each made up of four issues). I have been really getting into this series, and I loved the first three volumes, having previously reviewed the first and third volumes, Hit-Girl in Columbia and Hit-Girl in Rome. This fourth volume, Hit-Girl in Hollywood, is another interesting addition to the series, featuring the intriguing creative team of Hollywood screenwriter Kevin Smith and artist Pernille Ørum, and contains Season 2, Issues #1-4 of the Hit-Girl series.

I have to say that I was rather looking forward to this fourth volume. Not only does it have a cool-sounding premise but it also features the writing talents of Kevin Smith, who has written and directed some rather entertaining and distinctive comedy movies (my favourite is Dogma). Smith has also written several comics over the years, which have ranged from the good to the controversial. I am a massive fan of several of his comics, including the incredible Daredevil: Guardian Devil, and his run on Green Arrow back in the early 2000s, which brought back the titular character and set up one of my favourite comic book series of all time. Some of his other work has been a little less well received, such as Batman: The Widening Gyre (which featured the infamous “bladder” spasm incident), but Smith has always been able to create an entertaining story. As a result, I was rather intrigued to see his take on the character of Hit-Girl, and the result was a rather unique and memorable tale.

Hit Girl S2 #2

Mindy McCready, the pre-teen vigilante known as Hit-Girl, is living her best life, killing bad guys and distributing her lethal brand of justice across the world. However, during her most recent mission she becomes aware of something truly terrible: someone is making a big Hollywood movie of her life and it is going to feature a dramatic re-enactment of her father’s death. Determined to stop the movie from being made, Mindy travels to Hollywood to crack some heads and put the fear of Hit-Girl into the movie makers. Deciding to strike at the very top, Mindy breaks into the set to have a “talk” with the studio boss, however, she instead comes across a rather disturbing scene that she was not expecting.

It turns out that there is another vigilante running around Hollywood, and she has in her sights the most evil and vicious predators there are: Hollywood executives who prey on young women. Her latest vicious attack on the studio boss behind the Hit-Girl movie has garnered a large amount of attention, and Hit-Girl is now the main suspect. Hit-Girl needs to find this new vigilante and get out of town fast. But with both the FBI and the remnants of the Genovese mob family gunning for her, can Hit-Girl survive, and what happens when she meets up with a vigilante who has even more issues than she does?

Hit GIrl S2 #2b

Wow, now that was something! I have to admit that I did have a suspicion that Hit-Girl in Hollywood was going to be a rather weird entry in the series, but I was not expecting just how crazy Smith and the artistic team ended up making it. I honestly think the best way to describe this comic is with the phrase “over-the-top”, as this comic features some rather extreme examples of violence and vengeance that a lot of people are going to find rather uncomfortable. I personally found the comic to be quite entertaining, and I liked seeing the crazy character of Hit-Girl in a whole new setting, especially one that makes fun of the Hollywood elite and dramatic method actors who fall deep for their beloved craft. However, even I had to admit that this comic had some issues which made it just a little too insane to completely enjoy.

Hit GIrl S2 #3

The comic actually starts by displaying a graphic and somewhat unexplained school shooting, which is probably going to turn away a bunch of potential readers right off the bat. Hit-Girl brutally intervenes to stop the shooting (graphically killing the two teen killers), but becomes more concerned when she discovers she has an unauthorised biography which is being adapted into a movie, and she travels to Hollywood to put an end to it. Once there she discovers that another teen girl is running around town in a Hit-Girl inspired costume, castrating predatorial Hollywood executives as “Dick-Taker”, whose introduction made me crack up and stop taking this comic seriously. While I could maybe overlook the portrayal of a school shooting at the start of the comic, Dick-Taker officially made this story way too over-the-top for me, especially as Dick-Taker wears a very disturbing and artistic cape that appears to made up of the stitched together skins of the male extremities she has removed (I kid you not!).

Hit Girl S2 #3b

All of this is way too crazy, and it does not help that Hit-Girl in Hollywood’s story is a bit weak in places. The big shoot-out in the fourth issue is cool, but it all happens rather suddenly, and all the key players are in the same place at the same time, prompting Hit-Girl and Dick-Taker to team up, which happened just a little too easily for my taste. I wasn’t a big fan of seeing Hit-Girl fighting the FBI either, as she has a “no killing cops” mindset which was a big part of the end of Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall. I also thought that it was a bit of a waste to use the remnants of the Genovese mob in this story, and the manner in which the final member of the family that has been the main antagonists of Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass was taken down is a tad odd.

Hit Girl S2 #4

Now, despite the flaws and over-the-top extreme nature of much of the comic, I did like parts of Hit-Girl in Hollywood, which made it a mostly fun read. This comic is chock full of gratuitous violence, expertly brought to life by the artistic team, which, let us be honest, is one of the main reasons that you would buy a Hit-Girl comic. I also really liked how the entire first issue was told completely without any dialogue, except for in the final scene. This first issue turns out to be rather cool, as watching Hit-Girl’s outrage grow as she finds out that not only did someone write a book about her but it’s being turned into a movie is pretty entertaining, and showing her sitting on the Hollywood sign saying “I see dead people” in the very last panel is a great way to foreshadow the death and destruction that is bound to follow. I also liked Smith’s take on the crazy, fake town of Hollywood, and it definitely made for an interesting setting, filled with several entertaining characters, quotes from popular movies and a relevant storyline about sexual predators in Hollywood getting what’s coming to them. The whole storyline around the origin story of Dick-Taker is also a rather intriguing version of extreme method actors, and I thought it was interesting to see how inspiring someone like Hit-Girl could potentially be to other disenfranchised young women. My favourite part of this comic had to be the emotional scenes where Hit-Girl visits the set of the Hit-Girl movie and sees them recreate the moment her father died. The combination of anger, fear, regret and sadness that is shown on Hit-Girl’s face and in her thoughts is pretty intense, and it makes for a rather great scene.

Hit Girl S2 #4b

Overall, I’d say that Hit-Girl in Hollywood is an interesting addition to the series that dials up the action and excitement but which is probably not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I personally liked most of it, but I have to admit that parts of it were off-putting and the whole comic is a bit too crazy for its own good. Still, people looking for an extreme and explosive comic with some memorable moments to it could do a lot worse than Hit-Girl in Hollywood, and you are guaranteed to have a few laughs with this one. I am giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars, although I can imagine that a lot of other people will not be as generous with their ratings as I am. I am looking forward to seeing where the next volumes of this series go, and I cannot wait to get my next Hit-Girl fix.