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.

Star Trek: Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack

Star Trek - Picard Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 11 February 2020)

Series: Star Trek: Picard – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Get ready to dive back into the Star Trek universe with Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack, the latest Star Trek novel which ties into the events of the Picard television show. The Last Best Hope is an outstanding novel that serves as a bridge between Star Trek: The Next Generation show and the current Picard series.

Nearly 20 years before the events of Picard, both the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire faced an unprecedented calamity. Scientists have just discovered that the Romulan sun is in the process of going supernova, turning into a destructive force that will devastate the Romulan home system and have significant negative follow-on effects on the remaining planets within Romulan Space. In order to ensure the evacuation of their people, the Romulans grudgingly request aid from the Federation, who assign Jean-Luc Picard to the mission.

Picard, promoted to the rank of admiral, quickly finds himself in charge of the largest and most difficult operation in Starfleet history. The evacuation mission is a vast undertaking, requiring Starfleet to relocate hundreds of millions of Romulans to distant planets in only a few short years. Lacking resources and manpower, Picard begins the evacuation process as best he can, with the invaluable help of his new first officer, Rafaella “Raffi” Muskier. Meanwhile, back in the Federation, Geordi La Forge attempts to come up with new ways to increase Starfleet ship production on Mars. The best solution is the creation of a new, synthetic workforce, and La Forge calls in an old colleague, the brilliant scientist Bruce Maddox, who reluctantly halts his lifelong work on artificial life to help build these new synthetics.

As the evacuation progresses, Picard takes solace in every small victory his team can achieve, but this mission seems doomed to fail. Debates from ambitious Federation politicians, distrust and fear from the Romulans they are trying to help, and interference from the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police, all hinder the mission. However, Picard is not one to give up easily and is determined to save every Romulan he can from the impending disaster. But even the great Jean-Luc Picard is unprepared for how his mission will end. Everything is about to change, and Picard and the galaxy will never be the same again.

Star Trek is one of those popular franchises that always produces a ton of extra content each year in the forms of novels and comics, so it was no surprise that material related to Picard would eventually be released. The Last Best Hope is the very first Picard tie-in novel, although I expect that additional books will come out in the future. Indeed, IDW has already released a Picard tie-in comic, Countdown, which I will probably check out at some point. This first Picard novel was written by veteran tie-in author Una McCormack, who has previously delivered several great Star Trek books, including last year’s Star Trek: Discovery tie-in, The Way to the Stars. McCormack does an amazing job with The Last Best Hope, producing a captivating and incredible read that expertly leads into the new show.

Before I dive too deep into this review, I think that it is necessary to point out that this book was released on the 11th of February, between the third and fourth episodes of Picard. That means that this book contains quite a few mentions of events and reveals that occur in the initial episodes of the show, especially as McCormack clearly had early access to the show’s scripts. While this ensures The Last Best Hope a much more complete and in-depth tie-in novel, it does mean that this book contains some spoilers for the television series. In addition, as I have been religiously watching Picard every week, my review is influenced by the events of the first six episodes and it also contains some spoilers from the show.

The Last Best Hope is a wide-ranging Star Trek canon novel, set across several years of Star Trek history (2381 to 2385) that explores one of the biggest prequel events mentioned within Picard, the explosion of the Romulan sun and the attempts by Picard to evacuate them. This leads into a powerful and clever novel which shows all the trials and tribulations associated with this exercise, as well as several other events that lead into the show. McCormack makes excellent use of a number of different character perspectives to create a full and rich narrative around this plot, which also explores some major Picard characters. While I did think that parts of the story ended rather suddenly, with no real lead-in to the disaster on Mars that changes everything, this book is a first-rate novel which I powered through in extremely short order.

One of the major appeals of this book is the fact that it serves as a prequel to the events of Picard and provides readers with additional background and context to the adventures currently happening in the show. This is done in a number of ways, from providing the reader with greater background about certain characters, showing the origins of a number of the storylines from the show and serving as a bridge between the events of Picard and The Next Generation. The Last Best Hope features an excellent introduction to several of the newer characters in the show, such as Agnes Jurati, Raffi, Elnor and the Qowat Milat nuns, and it was intriguing to see how these characters slotted into the pre-history of the show. At the same time, McCormack also examines what happened to several established characters from The Next Generation after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, including Picard, Bruce Maddox, Geordi La Forge and even a little bit about Worf (he becomes captain of the Enterprise!). McCormack also provides an explanation about several key occurrences and storylines that are touched on within the show, such as the creation of the synthetic workers that destroyed Mars, Picard’s resignation from Starfleet and the extent of several key relationships. There are also some potential hints at where the show might go in the future, and I will be interested in seeing if those pan out at all. I was pleasantly surprised with how much background that McCormack was able to fit into The Last Best Hope, and the different revelations and expansions on the information provided in the show make this a fantastic read for those currently watching Picard.

The Last Best Hope features some very impressive character work, and I feel that McCormack did an excellent job capturing the personalities and histories of several key characters from the new show. I really appreciated her portrayal of Picard, and this book featured several key aspects of his character, such as his dark moods, his determination and his ability to inspire absolute loyalty in his subordinates. I liked how the reader gets to see how Picard deals with the seemingly impossible task assigned to him, especially as his emotions throughout the book range from hope to absolute despair, as multiple obstacles and problems seem to dog everything he does. One of the major parts of his character explored in this book is the way that Picard’s ideals and beliefs seem a little out of touch with the world he lives in. This is something that is shown throughout the Picard television show, as the old-school captain is now living in a much darker and more desperate world. I am really glad that McCormack tried to capture this in her novel, and it was really compelling to see Picard being completely oblivious about the darker realities of the galaxy. All of this is really compelling to see, and I think that it serves as a good basis for some of the ways Picard acts in the current show.

Aside from Picard, a number of other characters are featured throughout the book, many of whom have some really interesting and compelling stories. I personally found the tale of Raffi, Picard’s new first officer, to be particularly good, as the reader gets to see how she became so messed up and obsessed with proving that the Romulans where behind the destruction of Mars. You also get a better understanding of why she was so mad that Picard quit on her and the mission, especially after she sacrifices everything for him, thanks to the way he inspired her. McCormack also spends significant time exploring the character of Bruce Maddox, and it was especially intriguing to see this character between his appearances in The Next Generation and Picard. You also got to see the origins of his relationship with Agnes Jurati (indeed, based on release dates you learn about this relationship in this book before it is mentioned in the show), and it was great to see how it unfolded and how close the two of them were. Of course, this also has a more sinister and heartbreaking edge to it if you look back at this relationship after the events of the fifth episode of Picard. I also liked the Geordi La Forge storyline; it was interesting to see his struggle to increase Starfleet ship production. However, the best part of this portrayal occurs at the end of the book, and I will be curious to see how they show off his survivor’s guilt if the character ever appears in Picard.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was the way McCormack slowly starts to alter the tone of the novel to represent the change between the lighter The Next Generation and the darker Picard shows. At the start of the book, the story is more in line with the tone of The Next Generation, with Picard embarking on a humanitarian mission with his idealism and belief in the greater good intact. However, as the mission progresses, things start to get darker, as the various obstacles to the Romulan relief mission become more apparent. The dark and callous manipulation of the Romulan leaders and Tal Shiar as well as the xenophobic politics of certain Federation politicians becomes more and more apparent, resulting in a darker tone. McCormack also attempts to replicate the more adult tone of the current show with a greater reliance on swearing (never have I seen so many F-bombs dropped in a Star Trek novel, oh the humanity!) and hints of mass murder, genocide and extinction-level events. All of this makes for a slightly different Star Trek tie-in novel experience, and I personally enjoyed some of the subtle changes McCormack made to the tone.

I personally really enjoyed seeing the entirety of Picard’s attempts to evacuate the Romulans from their soon to be exploding sun. This has been one of the most fascinating events mentioned in the show, with several parts shown or alluded to in Picard. McCormack really dived into this event, showing many of the various aspects of such an operation, including the science, politics and diplomacy associated with it. From the start, this whole mission is painted as a near impossibility, not just because of the scale of calamity and the number of people affected but because of the mindset and suspicion of the Romulans they are trying to save. To put it into context, this operation would be like the United States trying to evacuate a similar sized country that had North Korean levels of state led secrecy and distrust towards the organisation trying to save them. The sheer scale and difficultly of this mission are constantly raised, and yet Picard and his team seem to find a solution to many of the problems presented to them. Of course, anyone who has seen the first episode of the show knows how this is going to end, so seeing the characters getting so invested in their mission is a bit of an emotional blow. That being said, this book contains a lot more context for some of the Federation’s decisions, and in particular the character of Admiral Kirsten Clancy (Starfleet’s CNC in the second episode of Picard), comes across as a whole lot more sympathetic. Overall, I felt that this was an amazing expansion on the events mentioned in the show, and it was really cool to see how the whole operation unfolded.

Another great facet of The Last Best Hope which made it such an intriguing book was its compelling examination of the Romulan people. McCormack really dives into Romulan culture and society in this book, presenting some intriguing details about this race. In particular, she examines the Romulans’ deep-seated need for privacy and secrecy, which is a defining part of their species. McCormack does an excellent job highlighting how this desire for secrecy impacts them as a race and a culture (secret multi-room Romulan music for the win!), and how they barely trust other members of their own species, let alone members of the demonised Federation. Seeing how this obsession with lies, secrecy and the appearance of saving face with the Federation impacted the species’ chance for survival is a compelling and intriguing part of the book. McCormack also dives into other parts of Romulan culture and society, mainly the role of the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police, who have long been a shadowy force within Star Trek lore. Seeing the fear and apprehension that this organisation causes amongst ordinary Romulan citizens, as well as the lengths they will go to maintain secrecy and security, is pretty crazy and it certainly enhances an established Star Trek antagonist species. I also enjoyed seeing more of the Qowat Milat, the Romulan warrior nuns who Picard befriends and helps evacuate from Romulan space. The Last Best Hope contains several encounters with the Qowat Milat, and we get to learn a bit more about them, the role they play in Romulan society and how they interact with the Tal Shiar, with whom they have an adversarial relationship. All of this is deeply, deeply fascinating, especially for those readers who love learning about Star Trek lore, and I really enjoyed seeing all the Romulan inclusions featured in this book.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Last Best Hope, which is narrated by Robert Petkoff. This new Star Trek audiobook runs for 11 hours and 40 minutes, which can be listened to fairly quickly, especially once you get stuck into the compelling story. I really enjoyed listening to The Last Best Hope, mostly thanks to the incredible voice work of Robert Petkoff. Petkoff seems to be the go-to narrator for all things Star Trek these days, as he has lent his superb vocal talents to a huge number of other Star Trek audiobook adaptions in recent years. I have previously enjoyed his work on such books as The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox, The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett and Available Light by Dayton Ward. In each of these previous books, I have been greatly impressed by Petkoff’s ability to recreate the voices of key characters from the Star Trek television shows, including most of the characters in The Original Series and The Next Generation. He continues this amazing voice work in The Last Best Hope, providing near-perfect impressions of characters like Picard and La Forge, which really helps the reader immerse themselves into the story. While his impressions of some of the newer characters from Picard are not as accurate (keep in mind Petkoff would have recorded this book before Picard aired), he does provide clear and distinctive voices for each of the characters utilised in the books. I also love the accents he provides to the various alien races and nationalities in this book, and I especially enjoy hearing him attempt to replicate the speech patterns of certain aliens, like the Vulcans. Thanks to this incredible voice work, I absolutely loved listening to the audiobook for The Last Best Hope, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in this latest Star Trek novel.

Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack is an excellent and deeply captivating read which serves as a perfect prequel tie-in novel to the current Picard show. There is so much information and detail about the Star Trek universe prior to the events of the current television series contained within in this novel, and I loved seeing the author expand on the intriguing new universe that has been hinted at in the show. This is a must-read book for all Star Trek fans, especially those who have been loving Picard, and even non-Star Trek fans will enjoy this book’s powerful story and the fantastic plot device of the Romulan rescue mission. The Last Best Hope is probably the best Star Trek novel I have had the pleasure of reading so far, and I am extremely excited to see what other tie-in novels they release around the awesome new Picard series.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight Cover 2.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Skyward – Book 2

Length: 461 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, Brandon Sanderson, comes Starsight, an outstanding and addictive young adult science fiction read which continues the wildly entertaining adventures of a young starfighter years in the future.

Starsight is the second book in the Skyward series and follows on from the 2018 release of the same name. Skyward was a fantastic young adult science fiction book that told a compelling tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie in humanity’s distant future. Skyward was an amazing read, and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2018. As a result, I have been looking forward to Starsight for a while now, and it was one of my most anticipated releases for the second part of this year.

The Skyward series is set on the planet of Detritus, a desolate world that houses a population of humans in the caverns beneath the surface. The humans on Detritus are the remnants of a once great intergalactic human civilisation that has been destroyed in a war with a superior alien civilisation. Forced into hiding within the planet for hundreds of years, humanity eventually returned to the surface utilising scavenged starfighters to escape and build a military outpost to fight back against the alien ships who continue to harass the planet.

In Skyward, the reader is introduced to Spensa Nightshade, a young woman determined to become a pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), the military organisation that fights the alien invaders. While talented, Spensa faced opposition to being accepted into the military due to an apparent act of cowardice by her father years before. Despite the odds, Spensa was accepted in the DDF and was trained to become a skilled pilot, fighting in a number of actions against the enemy, while also trying to find out what actually happened to her father. Along the way, Spensa discovered an ancient but advanced human ship that had crash-landed on Detritus. Upon repairing the ship, Spensa discovered it had an AI installed in its computers, which she called M-Bot. After stopping an extremely destructive alien attack with the help of M-Bot, Spensa was compelled to fly through Detritus’s atmosphere, where she made several startling discoveries, the first of which was that Spensa and her family are powerful cytonics, beings with mental powers who are capable of traversing vast distances through space with their ability. The second discovery she made was that the aliens attacking Detritus were not simply mindless aggressors determined to wipe out humanity; instead they are members of an interstellar conglomeration called the Superiority, who are attempting to contain humanity within the planet. The Superiority hold a great fear of humans, who they see as an extremely dangerous and violent species, and Detritus is actually a prison planet/wildlife preserve where humans can live without disrupting the rest of the galaxy. Unfortunately, the actions of the DDF in reclaiming the surface and utilising spaceships have forced the Superiority to reconsider their approach, and they are now working to kill all the humans.

Usually this is the part of the review where I would give a brief plot synopsis of the new book and then go into an analysis of what I liked about it. However, this is going to prove a little hard to do without revealing some spoilers. While I don’t typically avoid talking about plot points that occur around 50-100 pages into book (I don’t particularly consider something happening that early to be a spoiler), I am a little more wary with Starsight. This is mainly because the plot of the book features some immediate substantial changes from the story that appeared in Skyward, none of which are really hinted at in any of the official online plot synopsis or book blurbs. As I am publishing this review a week before Starsight’s official release date, I think it is best that I put up a spoiler alert below, before I start going into the book in any real detail.

For those readers who do not want to risk any spoilers, I will say now that Starsight is an incredible book that I really, really enjoyed. Sanderson tells a wildly entertaining and highly addictive story that features some memorable characters, high-stakes events, some of the best science fiction action I have ever read and a ton of inventive world building. I honestly think that this is one of the best releases of 2019, and it easily gets a full five-star rating from me (if only I could go higher). I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an epic science fiction read, and if you loved Skyward, you are going to love this book.

Anyway, if you are not interested in learning any more details about this book’s plot or characters (which I do explore to a substantial degree), I would suggest you stop reading now, as everything below this paragraph has a spoiler alert in effect.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

 

Starsight is set a few months after the events of Skyward, and humanity has been busy. Thanks to Spensa and Skyward Flight, as well as the advanced technology contained with M-Bot, the DDF has managed to capture several of the planet’s ancient orbiting defensive platforms, which have allowed them to push the Superiority forces out of Detritus’s obit. However, despite these successes, humanity is still trapped on Detritus, and the eventual Superiority mass retaliation will likely wipe out everyone on the planet. Their only chance at survival is to flee from Detritus and find a new planet to make their home, somewhere the Superiority cannot find them. However, the only way to do this is with some form of hyperdrive, which humanity lacks access to, and Spensa’s cytonic teleportation abilities are too restrictive for mass use.

The crash-landing of an unknown alien spacecraft on Detritus may provide the solution that will ensure humanity’s survival. The pilot of this craft is a member of a non-Superiority species who has been invited for diplomatic reasons to enlist in a new Superiority fighter squadron, and she is able to pass on the cytonic coordinates to the squadron’s base to Spensa. Disguised with M-Bot’s holographic technology, Spensa travels to the Superiority space city, Starsight, in order to infiltrate the Superiority military and find and steal a working hyperdrive.

Joining the new Superiority squadron, Spensa discovers that she and her fellow recruits are being trained to fight the delvers, titanic inter-dimensional beings that dwell in the nowhere, who are capable of devastating planets if they are drawn into our dimension by an over-use of cytonic ability. But as Spensa attempts to complete her mission, she finds herself caught amidst the politics of the various Superiority races, many of whom wish for the complete and utter destruction of her people. Can Spensa navigate the strange new world she finds herself in, or will her actions result in the destruction of all she knows?

As you can see from the above synopsis, Starsight goes in some very interesting and unpredictable directions. I personally loved all of these new story elements, and the idea of Spensa having to infiltrate a mostly unknown alien society was a really clever and intriguing central plot idea that I think worked extremely well. The subsequent narrative is a fantastic blend of different story elements, which includes some great new characters, settings and plot directions, as well as some of the best parts of Skyward. For example, not only do you get to see a whole new take on the excellent space fighter training plot point that made the first book so amazing, but you also get a science fiction spy thriller story filled with all manner of political intrigue. This was a fantastic book to get into, and Sanderson has made sure that the plot is accessible to readers who did not get a chance to check out Skyward last year. However, I would strongly recommend reading Skyward first, not only because it will give you a better idea of the characters and certain plot elements, but because it is such an awesome book in its own right.

One of my favourite things about the first book in the Skyward series was the excellent group of characters that Sanderson focused on, including Spensa, M-Bot and the members of Skyward Flight. Throughout Skyward the reader got to know and care for these characters, and it was actually a little bit distressing when bad things happened to them. Skyward continues to look at several of the characters from the first book, although readers who grew attached to Skyward Flight might be a tad disappointed as Sanderson shifts the focus away from them and introduces the reader to a whole new group of alien characters.

Spensa is still the main point-of-view character for this second book and serves as a fantastic central protagonist. In many ways, Spensa is still the same impatient and reckless pilot that was such to see in the first book. However, it soon becomes obvious that the experiences, relationships and life lessons that she has faced since joining the DDF have tempered her in many ways, especially as she has to deal with the intense responsibility of being her people’s greatest hope for survival. I really enjoyed watching Spensa as she was forced to assimilate into the alien cultures on Starsight, and it was interesting to see how she reacted when she realised not everyone there is as evil as she believed. The opinions and support she gives to her alien friends result in some emotional moments, and it was really heart-warming to see how far she has progressed since the last book.

While Spensa is a great central protagonist, to my mind the best character in the entire book is still her sentient ship, M-Bot. M-Bot is the snarky and hilarious artificial intelligence that Spensa discovered crashed on Detritus, and together they form an efficient and enjoyable team. M-Bot honestly has all the best lines in the book, and nearly every interaction with Spensa results in some excellent jokes or banter. Despite the humour, M-Bot is a pretty complicated character, especially as in this book he is attempting to work out the full limits of his consciousness and code. He is continuously attempting to prove that he is actually alive, and these attempts result in safeguards in his system attempting to shut him down. I really enjoyed the way that Sanderson continues to utilise M-Bot. Even though he is a ship, he is still a fantastic and highly enjoyable character to focus on and we even get a reason for his mushroom obsession in this book.

Spensa’s new flight of Superiority comrades features an eclectic bunch of aliens, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. These include a figment called Vapour, who is essentially a sentient smell that can take control of ships and pilot them. Vapour is the ultimate spy and requires Spensa to be constantly on her toes. There is also the dione draft, Morriumur. Dione are a race of non-violent aliens high up in the Superiority hierarchy, who have a unique breeding system that combines the parents into one new being. This is a process that can take several goes, as the family of the newly bred dione may choose to reform a young dione so that they have an ideal personality. Morriumur is a draft, spending the first few months of their life testing out their personality to see if they are an ideal member of the species. Morriumur, who has slightly more violent tendencies than most of their species, is trying to prove that they belong as a starfighter, but the combined expectations of their family and the inner thoughts that they are not worthy, are a constant hindrance to them as a pilot.

While both of the above characters are pretty cool, and Sanderson spends a good amount of time exploring them, two members of Spensa’s new flight really stood out. The first of these is Brade, a human from another prison world who has been recruited as a cytonic enforcer by one of the book’s central antagonists. Brade, after being taken from her parents as a child, has essentially been brainwashed all her life to consider humans as evil and inferior, and this has a major damaging effect on her psyche. The interactions between her and Spensa throughout the book are quite fascinating, and she proved to be one of the most complex characters in this book. My favourite new character, however, had to be Hesho, who is totally not king of the kitsen. The kitsen are a race of tiny gerbil-like aliens who have recently converted from a monarchy to a democracy in an attempt to become a Superiority race. Hesho leads a group of around 50 kitsen who pilot one heavily armed fighter in Spensa’s squadron like it’s a capital ship. Hesho and the kitsen are really hilarious characters, mainly because Hesho is attempting to convince the Superiority that he is no longer ruling his people as a king, and instead the kitsen have embraced democracy. Unfortunately, despite Hesho insisting he is no longer a monarch in every interaction he has, his people continue to worship him, which kind of undercuts this message. I also found the similarities in the personalities between the kitsen and the Spensa we first encountered in Skyward to be very amusing, as the kitsen attempt to compensate for their size with extreme confidence and boasting like Spensa used to (for example, the first ship we see the kitsen flying is called Big Enough to Kill You).

All of the above characters are great, and I really loved the way that I was once again drawn into their various personalities and histories. It was a bit of a shame not to see too much of the characters I liked so much from the first book (although we do get an idea of what various members of Skyward Flight are up to), but I think the new characters that Sanderson introduced more than made up for it.

In addition to the fantastic character work, one of the other best features of Starsight is the epic and fast-paced action sequences that punctuate much of the book. Just like in Skyward, Sanderson presents a huge number of different scenes where Spensa is fighting or training in a fighter. The sheer amount of detail that goes into these various action sequences is pretty amazing, and I was able to picture all the flying and manoeuvres perfectly. The author comes up with a number of clever new scenarios in this book, including the fancy flying and combat required to fight a delver, or having Spensa fly in the type of craft she has been fighting against for her entire military career. All of the action in this book is first-rate, and I can guarantee that you will get lost in some of the incredible action sequences.

I have always been impressed by the elaborate worlds that Sanderson can create for his stories. Whether it is the vast fantasy world that he came up with for The Stormlight Archive, the supervillain dominated alternate version of Earth that appeared in The Reckoners trilogy, or the fantastic science fiction planet of Detritus that was the main setting for Skyward, Sanderson always delivers complex and intricate settings for his story, complete with huge amounts of backstory. In Starsight, Sanderson once again produces a huge and detailed new setting for his outstanding story. The alien civilisation that is living on Starsight is very impressive, and I love all the different alien races that he has come up with for this story. Many of the aliens have some very complex and fascinating history, a great deal of which featured in the story. I really look forward to seeing how Sanderson expands this universe even further in the final book in the trilogy, and I cannot wait to see what new aliens or civilisations he comes up with.

As you can see from this rather lengthy review, there is a lot to love about this book. Sanderson does an impressive job of combining the intriguing new story direction, the amazing characters, intense action and fascinating new setting into one concise narrative, and the end result is a perfect book. While Starsight is being marketed as a young adult book, and indeed it would prove appropriate for most young readers, it is really a novel that can be enjoyed by any reader of any age. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series (which seems to be 2021 at this point, so far away!).

Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Outstanding new author Christopher Ruocchio, who blew me away last year with his debut novel, Empire of Silence, returns with the second book in his brilliant Sun Eater series, Howling Dark.

Empire of Silence was one of my favourite books from last year, easily making my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list, and I absolutely loved the author’s highly addictive story and its vast new science fiction universe. This was a fantastic first book from Ruocchio, and when I finished it, I really wanted to know what happened next. As a result, I have been waiting to read this sequel for a while, having done a Waiting on Wednesday article on it and including it on my Top Ten Most Anticipated July – December 2019 Releases list. I was pretty excited to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago, especially as Ruocchio was nice enough to mention my blog in his acknowledgements (this has not affected my review or rating in any way). However, due to having a huge number of other books that were high priority reads, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Howling Dark instead, which is narrated by Samuel Roukin. I had extremely high hopes when I started reading this book, and I was definitely not disappointed by the final result.

The Sun Eater series is set far in humanity’s future, where humans have left Earth and expanded out to thousands of worlds. While humanity, mostly in the form of the Roman-inspired Sollan Empire, has flourished, for the last four hundred years they have been fighting a brutal and destructive war with the Cielcin, a spacefaring race of aliens who have destroyed hundreds of colonies and billons of humans. Each of the books in the series is written as a part of the autobiographical chronicle of series’ protagonist, Hadrian “Halfmortal” Marlowe, otherwise knowns as the Sun Eater. Hadrian is the man who will one day destroy a sun in order to burn every Cielcin to a cinder, and in doing so become both history’s greatest hero and most infamous monster. However, these events are set to occur much further on in the future, and these earlier books focus on the events that formed Hadrian’s character, and show how he became the man to end it all.

In Howling Dark, the story is set some 50 years after the events of Empire of Silence. During this time Hadrian Marlowe has been wandering the outer fringes of the galaxy trying and failing to find a myth. Leading a band of mercenaries, former gladiators and disguised Imperial legionnaires, and carrying a cargo of frozen Cielcin prisoners, Hadrian hopes to travel the lost planet of Vorgossos. The planet’s mysterious master apparently has a way to contact the Cielcin, who Hadrian hopes to finally negotiate peace with, ending the brutal war that has ravaged both races.

However, finding Vorgossos has proven far more difficult than Hadrian initially anticipated. The legendary planet is well hidden, and the only way to uncover its location is to deal with the Extrasolarians, a group of humans who live outside of Imperial control and whose reliance on technology and enhancements borders on the heretical. As Hadrian and his companions locate a promising lead, they are suddenly ordered back to the fleet as the war against the Cielcin needs every soldier.

Determined to bring his plan for peace to fruition, Hadrian and his companions disobey these orders and go rogue. Entering the worlds of the Extrasolarians, the Exalted and other grim horrors at the edge of the known universe, they are able to obtain passage to Vorgossos. However, what they find at their destination may be even worse than the alien foes they are attempting to contact. Between facing technological monstrosities, a cruel, immortal king and the appearance of humanity’s oldest and most feared enemy, Hadrian has his work cut out for him. But the further along his path he travels, the more Hadrian begins to understand the grim destiny in front of him and the terrible cost he will have to pay.

This is another epic book from Ruocchio! Howling Dark is a dark, gothic science fiction masterpiece that was an absolute treat to read, and which really highlights the author’s creativity and ability to create a wide-ranging universe with some unique and captivating features.

This was another incredible and ambitious story from Ruocchio, who takes the reader on an extended and powerful adventure through his great universe. The Howling Dark contains a lengthy and compelling plot which goes in some very interesting directions. While this is a long book, Ruocchio does a great job of pacing the story out, and there is rarely a moment where the plot is not progressing in an intriguing way, or where the reader is left bored. I really enjoyed some of the dark places that the author took the story in this book, and there are a variety of cool new locations, antagonists and other monsters that the protagonist and his friends need to deal with in one way or another. Hadrian goes through some notable character development in this story as he takes more and more steps down the road to becoming the biggest legend in the universe. Howling Dark has a pretty epic conclusion to it, with some major plot developments occurring in the last 100 pages or so, and I really liked how Ruocchio wrapped up the storyline. Overall, this book has an intense and captivating storyline to it, and I am exceedingly glad I got a chance to read it.

I did find that the start of the book was a tad hard to get into. Due to the complex storylines (and possibly because I have read so many different books in the last year) it took me a little while to remember whom some of the characters were and where the plot was up to. It did not help that the story had jumped ahead by 50 years, and some of the events that occurred during this break are mentioned a few times at the start of the book. However, once I was able to get my bearings, it did not take me long to get hooked on the story and I had no problems following the enjoyable plot, especially as the author does a great job explaining these missing events and offering the reader several recaps of the events from the first book. Readers of the physical copy of Howling Dark will also be helped by the detailed dramatis personae, index of worlds and lexicon of terms that is included at the back of the novel, which can really help to clear up some confusion about the events that have occurred. I would say that readers would probably be best served checking out Empire of Silence first before trying to read Howling Dark, but I believe that new readers will be able to fully enjoy this story once they reach the recaps and get a sense of what happened in the previous books.

I really enjoyed how Ruocchio continued to write his story in the chronicle format that worked so well in the first book. Each of the books in the Sun Eater series are presented as part of a self-written chronicle of Hadrian’s life, penned some years in the future after he destroyed the sun. As a result, the story is told exclusively from Hadrian’s perspective and features his memories of the various events that formed his character. This is a great way to tell the story, mainly because the reader gets to see a contemplative version of the narrative. There is a real and palpable sense of regret in Hadrian’s narration, which really adds to the book’s grim tone, as the reader gets to hear the protagonist recount events that are not only traumatic for him, but which set him down the path to his defining moment. Due to Hadrian’s lifetime of self-reflection, you also get a far more in-depth examination of the character’s motivations for taking certain actions, as well as an analysis of why other characters acted the way did, which adds a great edge to the story. I also liked how the protagonist hinted at some of the key moments that occur later in the book or may occur in later books. This dramatic irony does a wonderful job of keeping a sense of tension in the air, as the reader knows that the worst is yet to come. Ruocchio’s use of the chronicle format for these novels is cleverly done, and I really enjoyed how it helped enhance the overall story.

Possibly Ruocchio’s biggest strength as a writer is his amazing ability to come up with a widespread and intriguing new universe to use as a setting for his fantastic story. This was one of my favourite things about Empire of Silence, as I loved the large, sprawling human empire that Hadrian lived in during the first book. This Sollan Empire was created after a major war with artificial intelligences thousands of years before, and therefore any technology that is too advanced or which thinks for itself is considered heretical by a controlling religious organisation. The massive empire is heavily inspired by the Roman Empire, with a similar government, military system, social castes and culture. This also affects the overall tone of the story, as the narrator, Hadrian, is a true son of this empire, and thus has a classical education that guides his overall view of life. As a result, the story is filled with the Hadrian quoting a number of historical verses and aphorisms to tell his tale, which really helps to give the overall story a more classic tone in the science fiction environment. I really liked this cool combination of science fiction elements with this antique mindset, and the general history of the Sollan Empire, with its veneration of other historical empires such as the Romans or the Victorians, is deeply interesting. This Sollan Empire actually reminded me a bit of the Imperium from Warhammer 40k, which also has a Roman inspiration and overarching gothic theme to them. As a fan of Warhammer 40k, it was cool see a universe built along similar ideas, and Ruocchio comes up with a number of clever and unique new elements to make his Sollan Empire stand out. Although most of the story in Howling Dark is spent outside of the main empire, the author still spends time expanding on elements of this massive organisation, and the reader gets more of a sense of them. I especially enjoyed seeing the Imperial legions in battle during this book, and it results in a number of incredible scenes that I really enjoyed.

Ruocchio also does an outstanding job introducing a number of intriguing new universe elements to this book in the form of the Extrasolarians. I found the dive into the world of the Extrasolarians to be extremely fascinating, especially as Ruocchio let his creativity run wild during this part of the books, coming up with all manner of technological marvels, body augmentations, genetic modifications and other science fiction wonders. However, many of these technologies have a darker side to them, which the protagonist and his friends find out the hard way. Some of these modifications are downright creepy, and this really helped the author create a dark and distinctive expansion to his universe. I was especially impressed with one of the new antagonists of this story, Kharn Sagara, a sinister, technologically enhanced ancient with hidden motivations (check out the cover below to see how cool his character design is). The reader also gets a much more in-depth look at the Cielcin in this book, as the protagonist starts to understand more about them and how they think. Ruocchio does a fantastic job exploring the mindset of these creatures and showing them as truly alien beings with very little similarities to humanity, and the reader starts to get an understanding of why Hadrian will eventually be forced to destroy them. All of this is really cool, and I could honestly go on for pages about all the cool world building that Ruocchio does in this book, it was that impressive.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to Howling Dark’s audiobook format. The audiobook runs for 28 hours and 3 minutes and is narrated by Samuel Roukin, who does a fantastic job bringing this story and the characters to life. This is a lengthy audiobook, and readers will need to make a bit of room in their listening schedule to get through it. It is actually the longest science fiction audiobook that I have ever listened to (so far) and would easily make my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To list. I found that Howling Dark’s audiobook format was a great way to enjoy this epic novel. I always find that listening to a complex story helps me absorb a lot more of the story and universe details, making for a much fuller read. This was definitely true for Howling Dark, as I was able to really appreciate the huge amount of gothic science fiction detail that Ruocchio installed in his work. I also found that Roukin’s narration also did a wonderful job of capturing Hadrian’s inherent regret and despair, and this really helped me appreciate the entirety of the book’s story. Roukin also creates some terrific voices for the various characters and does a fantastic job bringing them to life through the audiobook. This was a fantastic format to enjoy Howling Dark with, and I will strongly consider listening to the audiobook of the next book in this series.

Overall, I think that Christopher Ruocchio does an excellent job following up on his spectacular debut, Empire of Silence. Howling Dark is an amazing read that I absolutely loved. Ruocchio has come up with a complex story for this book, which is massively enhanced by his clever writing style and impressive imagination. Clearly, Empire of Silence was no fluke, as Howling Dark gets a full five stars from me. I am really looking forward to checking out the next book in the series, especially as Ruocchio has left a huge number of intriguing storylines open, and I fully intend to stick with this series until Hadrian destroys that sun.

Howling Dark Cover 2

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

Master & Apprentice Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (16 April 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moscow Offensive by Dale Brown

The Moscow Offensive Cover.jpg

Publisher: Corsair

Australian Publication Date – 11 December 2018

World Publication Date – 5 June 2018

 

An intense and exhilarating military thriller filled with advanced military robots duking it out across America, now that sounds like my sort of novel!  Prepare for an explosive technological thriller as Dale Brown, the bestselling author of the Patrick McLanahan series, returns with his latest novel, The Moscow Offensive.

For years, Russia’s ambition to conquer the entire world and defeat the United States has been growing, with its leaders unleashing a series of advanced weapons against the West.  Russia’s dominance was only held in check thanks to the actions of United States pilot Patrick McLanahan, who utilised America’s most innovative technology to counter the Russian attacks.  However, with McLanahan now believed dead, the brilliant and manipulative Russian president, Gennadiy Gryzlov, sets forth a new attack.  Secretly buying a large airfreight company, Gryzlov uses this proxy business to ferry weapons and military personnel into the United States undetected.  Identifying a string of high-value targets, Gryzlov attempts to cripple the United States from within, and strike its citizens with terror.

The only force that might be able to stand up to Gryzlov’s machinations is the legendary Iron Wolf Squadron and their parent private military company, Scion Aviation International.  Formed by McLanahan and former United States President Kevin Martindale, the Iron Wolf Squadron utilises their advanced Cybernetic Infantry Devices (CIDs), twelve-foot-tall piloted combat robots, whose technology and weapons are capable of overpowering conventional military forces.  Currently employed by Poland and its Alliance of Free Nations, the Iron Wolf Squadron is responsible for knocking back several of Russia’s attempted invasions and more ambitious bids for power.  However, their success in Poland has alienated America’s selfish and paranoid president, Stacy Anne Barbeau, who is determined to bring Martindale and Scion down.

Taking advantage of President Barbeau’s incompetence, Gryzlov is able to launch a series of attacks, placing the blame on the Iron Wolf Squadron.  Now targeted by both the Americans and the Russians, a small detachment of Iron Wolf Squadron CIDs, led by Patrick McLanahan’s son Brad, deploy to the United States to counter the Russians and reveal their involvement.  However, the Russians have succeed in reverse-engineering combat robots of their own, and are now fully capable of going toe-to-toe with the Iron Wolf Squadron.

Dale Brown is one of the world’s leading authors of the technological and military thriller genre, having written a huge number of high-octane, electrifying reads since the 1980s.  The Patrick McLanahan series is his main body of work and started in 1987 with his debut novel, Flight of the Old Dog.  This series has mostly focused on the adventures of its titular character, Patrick McLanahan, across a variety of different military situations, inside and outside of the United States armed forces.  These novels have generally been set around the same time as their publication date, meaning that the characters have aged and matured with the series.  As a result, in later years, Patrick McLanahan has taken a back seat from the action, with the role of main series protagonist taken up by his son, Brad McLanahan.  The Moscow Offensive is the 22nd book in the series, and continues with some of the storylines from the previous books in the series.  A 23rd book is already in the works, and The Kremlin Strike is set to come out in early May 2019.

I had not previously read any books in the Patrick McLanahan series before, and while I thought the synopsis sounded pretty awesome, I was not too sure what to expect from it.  After reading it I found The Moscow Offensive to be an incredible novel with some fantastic thriller elements and outstanding action sequences.  The overall story of this book is extremely compelling, and I had a very hard time putting this book down as I really loved this wide-ranging thriller storyline.  I was a little worried about coming into a series 22 books in, but I found that the author did a fantastic job in The Moscow Offensive of introducing the reader to his thriller universe.  Throughout this book, Brown provides the reader with ample descriptions and discussions about the book’s characters, technology specs and the relevant history of the various military organisations, countries and fictional military actions.  As a result, it is really easy for readers unfamiliar with Dale Brown’s work to come into the Patrick McLanahan series with The Moscow Offensive, and at no point while reading it was I lost or confused about any of the book’s plot elements.

The international thriller elements of this book and the utilisation of current world politics were some of my favourite inclusions in The Moscow Offensive.  I liked how the author inserted bits and pieces of real world political and social issues into his writing to create an intriguing and familiar background for the story.  On top of this, he also includes the more outrageous elements from his previous novels, including the Iron Wolf Squadron, whose pilots command high tech robots to stop Russia from invading Poland and other Eastern European countries.  This is a fun mesh of realistic and out-there settings which I found to be an incredible basis for this novel.

The intelligence battle between the United States and Russia has been a firm and dependable element for innumerable thrillers over the years, and Brown constructs a fantastic story around this battle.  The battle is more one sided in The Moscow Offensive, as Brown makes great use of an incompetent United States President character, the use of which has become a much more common element in fiction in recent years (hard to imagine why).  It is utterly fascinating to see the various ways that Brown comes up with to attack America and damage the country’s military infrastructure.  These attacks have a range of different purposes, from outright attacking the US military, to setting the President against the Iron Wolf Squadron.  All of these international and militarist thriller elements are an awesome part of this book, as not only do they help create a great story, but the reader is able to consider the realism of a such a story.

In addition to the cool international thriller elements of this book, I liked the deep look at military technology both real and fictional.  Brown, a former US Air Force aviator, has an excellent understanding of modern military hardware and the people that use them, creating an outstanding militaristic narrative as a result.  The descriptions and analyses of Russian and American weapons, planes and other vehicles are very intriguing and give the book another deep sense of realism.  Of course the most epic inclusions in this book are the CIDs, the large, manned combat robots that the Iron Wolf Squadron have utilised in several of Brown’s previous books to frustrate the Russians in battle.  These machines really amp up this series to new heights, and in The Moscow Offensive, Brown ups the ante by having the Russians develop their own combat robots in response to their defeats against the Iron Wolf Squadron.  This adds a whole new element to the book, as the United States is attacked by these machines and finally has to deal with the devastation they can cause.  Both sides having these machines is incredibly intriguing, as it really allows the author to examine the advantages of these potential machines in a military setting and showcase what sort of damage they could potentially do, even to their creators.  These advanced military elements are a terrific part of The Moscow Offensive, and I was really impressed with how Brown was able to combine it with the book’s other thriller elements to create a captivating read.

The Moscow Offensive contains a faction of Americans fighting a covert war with the Russians, with both sides utilising advanced combat robots.  As a result, this book is packed full of action and there are a number of fantastic high-tech battle sequences.  Without a doubt, the CIDs and their Russian counterparts really are the stars of the book.  These two sets of machines go up against a range of conventional military opponents in some massively destructive and very one-sided scenes.  Brown cleverly saves the combat between the two opposing groups of combat machine until the end of the book, and does a fantastic job at pumping up the hype for their eventual confrontation.  This final climatic battle does not disappoint, as the two sides engage in a brutal and devastating fight that is well worth the wait.

Dale Brown has once again provided the reader with an extremely fun piece of fiction, as he continues his ambitious, clever and entertaining Patrick McLanahan series.  As someone coming into Brown’s fictional universe for the first time, I was blown away by the intense action and outstanding thriller elements contained within this book and it is easily one of my favourite new series.  As a result, I highly recommend The Moscow Offensive to new readers and those existing fans of the series.  This is an excellent choice for anyone looking for some insane action or a truly unique story.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

Jinxed Cover.jpg

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 9 August 2018

 

Creative young adult fiction author Amy McCulloch returns with a fun and compelling techno-thriller that takes an incredible and entertaining look at the potential future of your favourite devices and combines them with a unique idea of how to make them even more user-friendly.

In the near future, the must-have technological device is the baku, your brand new best friend.  Bakus combine all the features of your smart devices and internet connection with a constant companion in the form of a robotic animal that is customisable to your needs and price range.  Low range bakus take the form of small creations like insects, while the most advanced baku are created to look like birds of prey or large land animals.  Not only are bakus the most popular form of communication device, but in this day and age, even basic bakus are needed to fully experience day-to-day life.

Lacey Chu has big dreams of working for Moncha Corp, the company which designs and creates the baku, as well as working for her idol, Moncha’s founder, Monica Chan.  However, the only way to achieve that dream is to get accepted into the exclusive Profectus Academy, the elite tech school whose graduates become the designers, coders and creators of the next generation of baku.  When Lacey is rejected from the academy and can no longer afford her dream baku, she is crushed.  That is until she finds Jinx, a ruined cat baku that appears to have been abandoned at the bottom of a canyon.  Bringing it home to fix, Lacey’s fortunes appear to immediately turn around when her application for the Profectus Academy is suddenly accepted and Jinx is listed as the advanced baku she is required to have for classes.

Arriving in the academy, she finds it a very different place than she imagined.  The students and faculty are obsessed with Baku Battles, the academy-sponsored fights between bakus that help determine a student’s rank and prestige in the academy.  Finding herself drafted onto a Baku Battle team, Lacey starts to learn all about the inner workings of the baku.  The more she learns, the more she begins to realise that something is very different about Jinx.  Jinx is not the usual mindless machine; Jinx can think for himself, has his own personality and is even starting to communicate with Lacey.  As Jinx begins to mess with parts of Lacey’s life, she begins to fully comprehend the implications of Jinx’s existence.  What shadowy secret lies at the heart of Moncha, and will Lacey and her friends be able to save Jinx from them?

Amy McCulloch is a well-established young adult fiction author who has written a number of books since her 2013 debut.  McCulloch also writes under the name Amy Alward and mostly focuses on young adult fantasy novels as part of her Potion and The Knots Sequence series.  Jinxed is her first foray into the science fiction genre and represents an exciting techno-thriller that explores an intriguing piece of future technology and the exciting adventure that happens around it.

The overall story of Jinxed is an excellent mixture of science fiction, thriller and teen drama elements, all set within a captivating academy background.  As a result, throughout the book, there is a ton for the reader to enjoy as they are introduced to the technology around the baku and see the narrator investigate a conspiracy centred around the creation of Jinx, all while dealing with the highs and lows of school life.  It is a fun combination of different story elements that works towards a great overall narrative.  I was able to work out what one of the twists was going to be quite early in the book, but it didn’t really impact my enjoyment of the story.  There are some great moments throughout, as well as a surprising ending that makes me very curious to read any sequels that McCulloch brings out.

The baku are an essential part of this story and are a really interesting element that McCulloch has chosen to use.  Many science fiction and technology based authors are currently attempting to predict what the next big piece of technology will be in the world, with many of them focusing on what the next ground-breaking piece of communications technology will be.  While many of these suggestions seem quite plausible and seem to support the current trends in technology, this is the first book I’ve seen that suggests combining a person’s smart device with a robotic pet.  The narrator suggests that the fiction justification for the creation of the baku was to give people a companion that is both helpful and which also limits their dependencies and addictions to mobile phones and smart devices.  It’s a rather fun concept and it is cool to see how McCulloch imagines how these creations would work.

The baku are broken down into various levels of sophistication, from the basic models which look like insects and can only do the most basic of tasks, to the ultra-sophisticated versions which come in the form of some very powerful creatures.  It is also intriguing to see how many of the book’s various characters start to care for their bakus like they are real animals, and the bond that they form as a result, even if their bakus aren’t sentient.  The bond that forms between Lacey and Jinx is fairly unique, however, as Jinx is an early form of artificial intelligence, and it is nice to see it develop through the course of the book as Lacey risks her life to help Jinx.  There are a few great scenes which show Jinx trying to come to grips with his existence, whether he is helping other bakus, questioning how baku are made, or by attempting to exist among a group of real life cats.  A truly intriguing postulation about future technologies, McCulloch has created a unique and fascinating idea that works well within this narrative.

Most of the action of this book is contained within fights between the bakus rather than between any of the human characters.  This is mostly done in the Baku Battles tournament at the school, where several bakus fight each other in a free-for-all brawl.  I love a good fictional tournament, and each of the bakus has various techniques.  As a result, the fights within the book can become quite fun and energetic as eagle, boar, tiger, cat and frog bakus all fight in various ways.  I also enjoyed the scoring concept that McCulloch came up with for this tournament, as the surviving team receives all the points, but their opponents can steal them if they can repair their team’s bakus sufficiently by the next day.  This is an intriguing stipulation for a tournament which allows McCulloch to show off several scenes of the narrator doing advanced repair work.  These tournament battles do a good job of moving the plot along and work into the books various elements very well, whether by giving the narrator access to certain locations to investigate secrets, or by bringing her closer to or further apart from other characters in the books, to allowing a closer examination of the workings and mindsets of the book’s technological elements.

Amy McCulloch’s latest book, Jinxed is a high-octane technological thriller that makes use of amazing science fiction elements to create an enthralling adventure.  Aimed for a young adult audience, the lack of any substantial violence, except between the book’s distinctive robotic animals, makes this a perfect read for a wide range of younger readers.  At the same time, the intriguing concept of future technology and its wide range of applications, including for high-stakes gladiatorial battles, makes it intriguing for an older readers.  This is an absolutely fantastic book from McCulloch.  I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars