Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed

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

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra: Volume 7: A Rogue’s End

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Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Doctor Aphra – Volume 7

Writer: Simon Spurrier

Artists: Caspar Wijngaard (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Star Wars: Empire Ascendant), Elsa Charretier (Doctor Aphra Annual #3)

Colour Artists: Lee Loughridge (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Star Wars: Empire Ascendant), Edgard Delgado and Jim Campbell (Doctor Aphra Annual #3)

Letters: VC’s Joe Caramagna (Doctor Aphra #37-40, Doctor Aphra Annual #3), Clayton Cowles (Star Wars: Empire Ascendant)

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

So I just got through with watching the latest episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and it’s put me in a Star Wars mood (well, more of a Star Wars mood than usual), so I thought I would get a review together for the seventh and final volume of the excellent 2016 Doctor Aphra series, A Rogue’s End.

The Doctor Aphra series is an outstanding comic book series that I have been really getting into over the last couple of years. Spinning off from the 2015 Darth Vader comics, this series features a witty and unique protagonist in its titular space archaeologist, Doctor Aphra, who blasts around the universe bringing chaos and disorder in her wake. This has probably been one of my favourite comic book series of the last couple of years, and it is easily my top Star Wars comic at the moment. Unfortunately, this current run of Doctor Aphra has just come to an end, although a new Doctor Aphra series is just starting up with a different creative team. Writer Simon Spurrier and his artistic team produced an incredible and satisfying conclusion to their Doctor Aphra run with A Rogue’s End, the sensation final volume that follows on from the events of the excellent sixth volume, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, and is set just before the events of The Empire Strikes Back.

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After saving the Emperor’s life from an assassination plot, archaeologist, scam artist and all-around disaster zone Doctor Chelli Aphra thought that she would finally be safe. Instead she finds herself trapped in the one place she has been running from for years, in the clutches of the most dangerous person in the galaxy, Darth Vader. Vader desperately wants Aphra dead, as she knows his darkest secret, his obsession with Rebel pilot Luke Skywalker, and it is only a matter of time before he finds an excuse to kill her.

Trapped aboard Vader’s Star Destroyer with her young companion, Vulaada, Aphra’s only chance to survive is prove her usefulness and help Vader find the location of the new Rebel base. However, Aphra is nothing if not resourceful, constantly looking for a way to game the system and extend her life. An encounter with a mysterious figure in an ancient temple seems to offer her the best chance of survival, until she finds out that it is her Jedi-obsessed father, Korin Aphra, once again causing trouble.

With the fate of everyone she loves in the balance, Aphra begins to devise another elaborate plan. With the help and hindrance of her ex-girlfriend, Captain Magna Tolvan, and the murderous droids BT-1 and Triple Zero, Aphra sets out not only to fool the entire Empire but to finally bring her affiliation with Darth Vader to an end. Can Aphra pull off the greatest con of her career, or will all her lies and deceit finally bring her the grisly end she has been running from for years?

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Well that was another damn impressive and deeply enjoyable Doctor Aphra comic. Spurrier, who has been working on this series since late 2017 (when he cowrote issue #14 with Kieron Gillen, one of the original creators of the character), brings this series to an epic and satisfying conclusion with another incredible group of stories. This seventh volume of the series contains issues #37-40 of the Doctor Aphra series, as well as the Doctor Aphra Annual #3 and material from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1. This whole volume was deeply captivating and I loved every second that I was reading through it, especially as it combines and excellent story with some fantastic artwork.

At the centre of this book is an exciting and clever story of survival, deceit and redemption. The four issues of the Doctor Aphra series (#37-40) contain an amazing storyline that follows the series protagonist as she attempts to get out of the most dangerous situation she has ever found herself in. Spurrier tackles these final four issues with the same style that he has employed for most his run, blending together a tale of deceit, double-crossing and survival in the Star Wars universe with humour, fantastic action and a deep analysis of the troubled and complex character that is Doctor Chelli Aphra. This results in an addictive overarching narrative that is not only incredibly entertaining, but which also gets quite moving and emotional at times, especially when Aphra encounters all the important people in her life, many of whom have been damaged in one way or another by her selfish actions. I have to say that I was particularly impressed with Aphra’s master plan in this comic, especially as it not only showed off her skills for deceit and manipulation but it was motivated by a genuine desire to help those she loved, which represents some significant series-wide character development for her. I also appreciated how the whole storyline has some major connections to the events of The Empire Strikes Back, and I liked how it was tied in more to the main plot of the movies.

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One of the other things that I really loved about this comic was the way that Spurrier wrapped up a ton of the storylines around some of the great supporting characters that have made this series such a treat. In particular, she manages to have some touching final meetings with her father, her ex-girlfriend, Tolvan, and her young sidekick, Vulaada, and this volume serves as a rather good conclusion to their various storylines (although I hope that they do appear in the future series). Her final meeting with Tolvan was pretty great, as the two have had a particularly chaotic and damaging love affair due to the actions of Aphra, and it was nice to see her finally prove Tolvan wrong and do the right thing for her. I also loved some of the scenes between Aphra and her father, and there is one incredible sequence where Aphra concisely recounts some of the adventures she has had throughout the series, and her father finally provides her with the advice and guidance that she has always sought from him. I really appreciated that Aphra finally gets some closure with these supporting characters, and in the three cases above she goes out of her way to protect them and bring them together to ensure that they have better lives. This is a major change in direction for Aphra, whose entire series has seen her repeatedly screw up and destroy the lives of everyone she meets, including those people close to her, something she is keenly self-aware of and deeply ashamed of. As a result, it was rather nice to see her finally step up and take responsibility for several people close to her, and to finally make what she sees as the right decision and leave them behind: “Love is letting go.” I also enjoyed the return of the two murder droids, BT-1 and Triple Zero, who have been highlights of both this series and the preceding Darth Vader series. I felt that both of them are rather well utilised in this story, and quite frankly you could not have wrapped this series up without them. It looks like both of them are going to be major features (in some form or another) of the next Doctor Aphra series, which should be fun.

Another character who Aphra gets a bit of closure within this volume is her oppressive employer, Darth Vader. Aphra and Vader have a complex and lengthy history together, dating back to the 2015 Darth Vader series where Vader forcibly recruited Aphra, and which ended with Vader believing that he had killed her, only for Aphra to trick him. Aphra has spent the subsequent run of her series constantly trying to stay off Vader’s radar, and continuously tricking him into believing that she is dead. However, after the events of Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, she is firmly in his clutches and waiting to die. I really loved the whole interaction between Aphra and Vader in this volume, as for most of it Aphra is trying to trick or convince Vader to keep her alive, while Vader is looking for an excuse to kill her. This pretty much makes Aphra the most desperate we have ever seen her, as she is still rather traumatised from the events of Vader’s first attempt to kill her, and still gets an interesting array of nightmares about them. Despite this, Aphra is eventually able to turn the tables of Vader, thanks to her cunning, knowledge about the force, pieces she has gleaned from Vader’s past and technical ability. The way she is able to take him down is pretty impressive: “Don’t pick a fight with an archaeologist in a spooky old ruin. And don’t wage war against a tech criminal if you’re half a machine.” It makes for a great sequence, especially when she uses Vader’s own scary reputation against him. This scene also allows Aphra to have a memorable heart-to-heart with Vader, and she discusses the similarities the two of them share, mostly about how they are both living with a massive amount of regret. In the end, Aphra decides against killing Vader, saying, “I’m your biggest fan,” even though she knows that Vader will come after her in the future, even more determined to kill her. She actually has a rather poignant farewell with Vader, saying, “In a funny sort of way, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” which says a whole lot about Aphra’s messed up character, but is a fun and fitting reversal of how Vader ended their partnership in his series.

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This volume features some tremendous illustrations from a truly talented team of artists. I really enjoyed the artwork that was featured within this story, and I think that it did a fantastic job of conveying and enhancing the complex and enjoyable storylines that the writer came up with. There are a number of well-drawn and well-portrayed sequences throughout this volume, although I particularly liked the one that made up the majority of issue #40, which featured Aphra facing off against Vader in a ruin filled with traps. There was also a rather good extended conflict between Aphra and Tolvan throughout a Rebel Alliance a spaceship that the drawings helped make particularly fun and chaotic, and which also did a good job of showing off the anger and complex emotions that filled their relationship. Overall, there was some fantastic artwork in this volume, and I think that the artists did an excellent job bringing the great characters and excellent story to life.

Most of what I mentioned above takes place in issues #37-40 of the Doctor Aphra series, but this volume also contains two extra stories, the Doctor Aphra Annual #3 and the parts taken from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1. Both of these inclusions were also written by Spurrier and are really tied into the narrative contained within the main plot of the volume, and I felt that these two inclusions did a lot to enhance my overall enjoyment of A Rogue’s End.

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I did quite enjoy the fun story contained with the Doctor Aphra Annual #3, which focuses on some of the great supporting characters from the Doctor Aphra series. The self-contained story in this annual issue sees Aphra try to repay her debt to the monster hunters Winloss and Nokk, who previously saved her life, by providing them with information she is privy to while aboard Vader’s star destroyer. This information leads these two hunters to the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine, where another former associate of Aphra, the Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan, is in residence. This leads into a rather fun story which sees these characters and a rather slimy bartender go through all manner of trouble just for a measure of revenge. This was an excellent and compact story that contains a clever revenge plot, and it’s pretty damn hilarious. I liked how this annual followed the lead of the other stories in this volume by focusing on Aphra bringing together some of the side characters from the series, presenting the reader with a good conclusion to their association and storyline with Aphra. This story featured a different artistic team to the rest of the volume, resulting in a different and distinctive drawing style for the entire issue. I actually rather liked the style that this separate artistic team came up with, and I think that it fit the more humour-based storyline that that Spurrier came up with. Overall, this latest issue of the Doctor Aphra Annual made for an amazing entry in this volume, and I think that it worked extremely well with the other issues featured within it.

This volume also contained material from Star Wars: Empire Ascendant #1, which makes up a small story at the end of the book. This material focuses on the three people that Aphra saved throughout A Rogue’s End, Tolvan, her father and Vulaada. They are all on Hoth when the message that Aphra was composing in the final Doctor Aphra issue is received by the Rebel Alliance. This leads to a rather heartfelt and emotional scene in which the three of them discuss whether their lives where made better or worse by knowing Aphra, and whether she ever did anyone any good. Their musings are interrupted by one of the few other people in the Rebel Alliance who had any dealings with her, Luke Skywalker, who provides some information about a good deed she performed after the last time they saw her. I liked how Spurrier once again examine the chaotic and destructive personality of Aphra through the eyes of the people who knew her best, and it really matches the overall theme of the volume. I also liked the inclusion of Skywalker in this story, and it was a fun call back to the earlier volumes of the Star Wars (2015) series, which featured Aphra working with the main protagonists of the original trilogy. It was interesting to see Luke’s take on Aphra, and it is a bit of a crossover between the idealism of the main cast and the darker reality of the Star Wars universe that the cast of Doctor Aphra find themselves in. I had a good laugh at Tovan’s assessment of Luke as the farmboy who got bumped up to commander after one lucky shot, and I also loved their response to Luke’s glowing assessment of Aphra actually being a good person: “Should we tell him she also saved the Emperor’s life? Better not, nothing crueller than reality to a dreamer.” This short piece of material actually serves as a pretty good conclusion not only to the volume but to the Doctor Aphra series as a whole, and I think that its moving, character-driven storyline helped provide an emotional end to the entire series.

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The seventh volume of the amazing Doctor Aphra series, A Rogue’s End, is another extremely entertaining and complex Star Wars story which I deeply enjoyed. Writer Simon Spurrier and his talented artistic team once again take the reader on another exciting and powerful adventure that not only serves as a great story in its own right but which also provides fans of Doctor Aphra with a meaningful and rewarding conclusion to the entire series. This volume gets a full five stars from me, and I would strongly recommend this volume, and indeed the entire series it concludes, to anyone looking for an outstanding and fresh Star Wars adventure.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra: Volume 6 – Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon

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Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 10 December 2019)

Series: Doctor Aphra – Volume Six

Writer: Simon Spurrier

Pencilers: Wilton Santos, Caspar Wijngaard, Andrea Broccardo and Cris Bolson

Inkers: Marc Deering, Walden Wong and Scott Hanna

Colour Artists: Chris O’Halloran and Stephane Paitreau

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 112 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The most devious woman in the galaxy, Doctor Aphra, is back, and she’s got both side of the Galactic Civil War gunning for her in the sixth volume of one of the best Star Wars series out there. I have been meaning to review this volume since it first came out in December. However, I just picked up the seventh and final volume of the current run of Doctor Aphra, so I thought I would quickly review this volume first before I get around to that.

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Doctor Aphra is one of the few ongoing Star Wars comic book series that has been released in the last couple of years, and in my opinion it is one of the strongest Star Wars series out there. The Doctor Aphra comics are set in the period of time between the fourth and fifth Star Wars films (A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back), and follow the adventures of Doctor Chelli Aphra, renowned archaeologist, adventurer and master criminal. Aphra is an original character who was introduced in the first volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Vader, where she served as Darth Vader’s secret agent. Following the conclusion of the Darth Vader series, Aphra, who proved to be a very popular character, received her own spin-off series, which followed on after the events of Darth Vader and feature Aphra as she attempts to make money while trying to ensure Vader doesn’t find out that she is still alive. This series was initially written by one of the original creators of the Doctor Aphra character, Kieron Gillen, however, the second half of the series has been written by Simon Spurrier. Spurrier is the sole writer of this sixth volume of Doctor Aphra, which also features the artistic talent of a several talented artists.

In Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, Aphra is up to her old tricks again. Despite only recently recovering from a life-threatening injury, Aphra has taken on a dangerous job robbing an alien robot death cult shrine with the help of her new sidekick and ward, Vulaada. However, while aboard the shrine, Aphra notices an ancient Jedi weapon, a sniper rifle that utilises lightsaber technology to kill opponents from vast distances. Unable to help herself, Aphra steals the rifle, starting a chaotic chain of events across the galaxy.

Already extremely unpopular with the Empire, this theft pops Aphra to the top of their most wanted list with a hefty bounty placed on her head. Captured by the Rebel Alliance first, Aphra learns that her stolen rifle is the key to a secret rebel superweapon that they plan to use to assassinate the Emperor. Sensing an opportunity to make some money and permanently get the Empire of her back, Aphra recruits her old associate, the Wookiee Black Krrsantan, in order to steal the rifle back from the Rebels. However, this puts her into conflict with her ex-girlfriend, Captain Tolvan, who is now working for Rebel Intelligence.

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As Aphra recovers the rifle and flees to the Empire, she finds herself face to face with the mysterious Imperial Minister for Propaganda and Misinformation, Pitina Voor, the woman behind the latest Imperial manhunt for Aphra. Voor has plans for her, and Aphra is right in the middle of a vast scheme involving both the Rebels and the Empire. However, no plan has ever survived contact with the good doctor, especially when Aphra has revenge on her mind.

Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon was a superb and outstanding addition to the excellent Doctor Aphra comics, and this might actually be one of the strongest volumes in the entire series. Author Simon Spurrier tells a tight and compelling story within this volume which not only dives back into the past of the series’ titular character but which also showcases new elements of both sides of the Galactic Civil War. You also see the welcome return of several of the best characters from the series, such as Black Krrsantan and Aphra’s love interest, Captain Tolvan, as well as the introduction of an intriguing new antagonist. Featuring issues #32 – 36 of the Doctor Aphra series, this volume is a riot from start to finish (hell, the last two pages are the best in the entire volume), and I really loved the captivating tale that Spurrier wove together in these issues, especially as it features the series trademark dark humour and the focus on its self-destructive and conniving main character.

At the centre of Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon lies an amazing narrative of schemes, plots and lies as Aphra is hunted and manipulated by elements of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Thanks to a recent archaeological theft, Aphra is thrust into the midst of a Rebel conspiracy to kill the Emperor and must decide what to do. Of course, Aphra being Aphra, she goes with the course of action that benefits herself the most and ends up backstabbing and manipulating both the Rebels and the Empire. This leads to some great scenes, including a heist aboard a Rebel spaceship and a sequence where Aphra hacks the entire Imperial communications system in order to sing her praises as an Imperial hero in order to avoid a summary execution. However, not everything is as it seems as the various sides are all trying to manipulate Aphra to their own ends, which results in a surprising number of different twists and turns (or as one character puts it “that is the most convoluted plan I’ve ever heard”). It was fascinating to see Aphra, the ultimate manipulator, being played by so many different sides, each of whom thinks they know how she is going to react. Aphra manages to end up on top, but it was cool to see the various ways she managed to get to the bottom of the plans surrounding her and use it to her own ends. Her motivations for doing so were really compelling, and it was amazing how the creative team had been building up to them throughout the course of the book. Of course, it doesn’t all end up Aphra’s way, and the end result of her schemes sees her come full circle to the last place she wants to be. This all makes for one hell of thrilling main storyline of intrigue and deception, and I really loved where all the twists and turns went.

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Just as with the rest of the entries in this series, one of the best things about the Doctor Aphra series is the titular character herself. Aphra is a complex and haunted character who seemingly lacks a moral code and will only do what is in her own best interest. The character has a rather flippant and disrespectful attitude, and most of this volume’s amazing humour is down to her clever quips and humorous observations amongst the more serious Star Wars characters. One of the things that I have really enjoyed about the Doctor Aphra series has been the examination of Aphra’s self-destructive tendencies and the way that she makes the lives of everyone she comes into contact with worse. This is continued once again in Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, as she runs from one bad situation to the next, with her every action making her life and the lives of those around her infinity more miserable and more complicated, which makes for some very dramatic and emotional sequences. This is such an expected trait that many of the characters who Aphra has dealt with in the past or who have studied her actually expect her to make these bad or selfish decisions, and I really liked the way that this was a central plot point in the intrigue and espionage storyline. I also loved Aphra’s interactions with her love interest, Captain Tolvan, especially because, during their last meeting, Aphra purposely altered her memories to make her believe she had killed Aphra in a jealous rage. While Aphra did this with the best of intentions (it was the only way to save both Aphra and Tolvan from Vader), this has obviously had a major negative impact on their relationship, and Tolvan now actively loves and hates Aphra in equal measure and apparently has zero trust in her. This is one of the many things haunting Aphra in this volume, as she clearly knows the damage she has done to woman she loves: “I broke her heart. She’s too smart to ever help me again.” Of course, this fraught relationship is another part of the intrigue surrounding Aphra, and it was rather clever the ways in which both sides tried to manipulate Aphra through it.

In addition to the all the awesome character work happening with Aphra in the present, the readers of this volume are also treated to a look back at the characters past. In particular, you finally get to see Aphra’s mother for the first time and learn the tragic circumstances around her death. This has been hinted at for some time, all the way back to the second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets. As a result, it was great to finally see the full extent of this character background, and it was fascinating to see what happened and how this has impacted on the personality of Aphra. I enjoyed the way in which the scenes from the past were mirrored in the scenes from the present, and I really liked the similarities in the way that Aphra was raised with the harsh way she is treating her new ward, Vulaada. I was also impressed by the way in which seemingly innocuous details from Aphra’s past suddenly had a big impact on her current story, and the creative team did a great job hinting about these impacts throughout the entire volume. All of this helps build up a much more complex story around the character that is Aphra, and I found this dive into her past to be extremely compelling.

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I also need to say how much I loved the parts of this book that featured Darth Vader, whose villainy and hatred for Aphra shine through in the few short scenes that he has. Aphra and Vader have a complicated history together, and Vader is desperate to kill Aphra once and for all (she’s faked her death on him a few times already), as she is the only living person in the galaxy who knows about his obsession with Luke Skywalker and his plans to overthrow the Emperor. Vader has two sequences in this book, both of which revolve around his determination to kill Aphra, no matter the perceived costs. While the first is really good, mainly due to Vader answering an Imperial officer’s request to state his rank with “Lord”, nothing quite beats the second appearance on the last two pages of the volume. After apparently beating all of her opponents, Aphra is sure of her safety due to her status as an Imperial hero, right up until Vader appears, lopping off heads with his lightsaber. The moment Aphra sees him, she knows she and Vulaada are dead, and she immediately hugs Vulaada and gets her to close her eyes. I really loved this scene, especially the resigned way in which she responds to Vulaada’s frantic belief that them being heroes is going to save them with “he doesn’t care”. This was a pretty outstanding end to the entire volume, and it was amazing to see the next chapter of the turbulent relationship between Aphra and Vader.

The Doctor Aphra series has always done a great job showing off several different sides of the Star Wars universe, including giving a closer look at parts of its criminal underbelly and its archaeological sector. However, in this book, we get to see new sides of both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. In particular, we get to see the Empire’s Coalition for Progress, a sinister organisation led by new antagonist Pitina Voor that is dedicated to expanding and maintaining the Empire through manipulation, trickery and propaganda, rather than brute force. This is rather fascinating inclusion into the canon, and it was rather interesting to see a whole new side to the way that the Empire controlled the galaxy. Voor is also a rather intriguing character, with a unique vision for how the Empire should be run and maintained, and it was kind of fun to see her gripe about the PR problems that occur when you are being ruled by Sith Lords (I had to agree, the Emperor really isn’t adequately loveable). They also have a rather nifty little museum dedicated to some of the Empire’s greatest victories and propaganda coups, which the artistic team filled with several Easter eggs. I was also rather impressed by the way that the creative team explored the darker side of the Rebel Alliance by examining the covert and morally ambiguous actions of their intelligence agency. This is something that has been explored before in some other Star Wars entries, such as in Rogue One, but this volume of Doctor Aphra takes it to a new extreme with Rebel Intelligence apparently plotting to build a miniature Death Star in order to take out the Emperor and win the war. I rather liked this darker side of the Rebels, and it was interesting to see more of a Rebel organisation that uses less moral tactics to achieve their goals.

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Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon features the work of several different artists, each of whom worked on a couple of different issues within the volume, which results in an interesting combination of styles. This means that this volume of Doctor Aphra contains a range of different art styles and techniques across the various issues. I actually liked the myriad changes that occurred issue to issue, and it was fantastic to see the different styles and artistic ideas that this large team produced. This volume contains some rather impressive and beautifully drawn scenes and sequences, which fit perfectly around Spurrier’s compelling story and which work really well together. The end result is a fantastically drawn and executed comic, which is a delight to look at.

This sixth volume of the always entertaining and incredible Doctor Aphra series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon, is an outstanding addition to the series, and it is one that I had an amazing time reading. This volume contains a complex plot of intrigue and doublecrosses, which sets the loveably dysfunctional protagonist down another road of self-destruction and manipulation in order to survive. Filled with some excellent and memorable story moments, and an incredible conclusion to this volume’s key storyline, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon is relentlessly entertaining and endlessly captivating, and I had an absolute ball unwrapping it. A highly recommended read; if you have not read any Doctor Aphra yet, then you are missing out!

Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian

Ember Queen Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Ash Princess – Book Three

Length: 465 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Young adult fantasy fiction author Laura Sebastian brings her debut series to a close in a big way with Ember Queen, the excellent and exciting conclusion to the Ash Princess trilogy.

Years ago, when the vicious Kalovaxians invaded the island of Astrea, they killed their queen, enslaved the Astrean people and stole their sacred magical gems. Princess Theodosia, heir the Astrean throne, was imprisoned and spent over 10 years as a captive of the Kalovaxian Kaiser, belittled by the mocking title of “Ash Princess”. However, this imprisonment didn’t break Theo; instead, with the help of her friends, she was able to escape to forge her own destiny. Now Theo has returned to Astrea, leading an army made up of freed Astreans, pirates, refugees and forces from the other nations the Kalovaxians have ruined. Hoping to free her people, Theo and her friends believe that they finally have the advantage over the Kalovaxians. However, the sins of Theo’s past have come back to haunt her.

Cress is a young Kalovaxian noblewoman who claimed Theo as her best friend during Theo’s imprisonment, despite being the daughter of the man who killed Theo’s mother. Theo chose to poison Cress and her father when she made her escape, and while she succeeded in killing Cress’s father, the magical poison she used had unexpected side effects on Cress. Despite being burned and mutilated, Cress survived, with the fire-imbued poison granting her powerful and deadly magical abilities. Using these to her advantage, Cress has done the unthinkable, killing the Kalovaxian Kaiser, poisoning Theo and claiming power over Astrea as the Kaiserin.

Barely surviving her own poisoning after a sojourn down into the magical Fire Mine, Theo must now find a way to free Astrea from her former best friend. With her own fire magic greatly increased, Theo plots to take the fight straight to the Kalovaxians. However, Cress has her own plans, and whole of Astrea may burn in order for her to get her revenge. Who will rise as the Ember Queen, and will the winner have anything left to rule?

Wow, talk about an impressive end to a great trilogy. Ember Queen is an amazing book from Laura Sebastian, who over the last couple of years has done an excellent job establishing herself as one of the best new young adult fantasy fiction authors. This is the third and final book in Sebastian’s debut Ash Princess trilogy, and this is definitely another superb addition to this fun series. I have been enjoying this trilogy since the beginning, reading Ash Princess in 2018 and Lady Smoke in 2019, both of which are pretty fantastic novels. Ember Queen turned out to be an excellent conclusion to this entire trilogy, and I had a great time reading it.

Sebastian has pulled together an excellent story for the final volume of the Ash Princess series, and I really liked the way in which she wrapped up the entire trilogy. After the first two novels dealt with the oppression of Astrea by the Kalovaxians, we finally get to see Theo’s big attempt to free her country from the invaders. I loved the way that Sebastian changed the theme of each novel, with the first novel relying on espionage, the second on diplomacy, and this third book on war. Sebastian produced a compelling narrative around this battle for the control of Astrea, and I really liked some of the directions that the story went into, especially when some intriguing new fantasy elements were introduced by the antagonist. Overall, I was really impressed with how Ember Queen turned out, especially as Sebastian used it to expertly conclude this awesome trilogy.

One of the main strengths of the Ash Princess trilogy has always been its great characters, who evolve throughout the course of the books. This is particularly true for Ember Queen, as Sebastian wraps up many of the character threads that have been introduced in the previous books, resulting in some excellent character devolvement as well as some satisfying conclusions for many character arcs. The main example of this is the series protagonist and point-of-view character, Princess Theodosia (Theo). Throughout the course of the first two books, Theo has grown substantially as a character, from a meek and seemingly broken prisoner to a cunning spy and manipulator, to a canny diplomat to finally an effective military commander. We finally get to see Theo take up the reins of leadership and responsibility that she has been somewhat apprehensive of in the previous books, as she starts making the hard decisions needed to ensure the freedom of her people. I really liked seeing all this character growth from the protagonist and I also appreciated the fact that Sebastian had Theo look back and own many of her prior mistakes and decisions that she regretted. Overall, I thought that Sebastian did an amazing job portraying Theo’s entire arc, and I think that she concluded her story in an impressive and enjoyable manner.

Sebastian has also produced some great conclusions to the arcs of the various side characters that were featured within this trilogy. For example, Soren has an intriguing story during Ember Queen, as he finds himself once again caught between the woman he loves and supports, Theo, and his people, the Kalovaxians. Like Theo does with the Astreans, Soren must come to a decision about his role as a leader of the Kalovaxians, and I think that his story and romance with Theo came together quite well. Blaise, Theo’s childhood friend and secondary love interest, also has an excellent arc within this book, finally getting some closure over his relationship with Theo, as well as the conclusion to his mine-madness arc. Several of the other supporting characters get some great advancement within this book as well. Artemisia, Erik and Heron all have their individual tales expanded on, and it’s great to see how comfortable and close they, Theo, Soren and Blaise have come together as a group. I particularly liked the way that Theo has gotten closer to Artemisia, her tough-as-nails cousin and bodyguard, and I had a good laugh at the way that Art allowed Theo a one-off session of girl talk as a way of calming her down before the final battle. New character Maile is an interesting addition to the series, and while she initially comes across as rather abrasive, she eventually becomes part of the group, resulting in a significant revelation for one of the characters.

The main thing that really made Ember Queen stand out to me was the complex relationship between the protagonist of the book, Theo, and the antagonist, Cress. This has always been a rather interesting relationship, as within the first book Theo and Cress were, in theory, best friends, referring to the other as their heart’s sister, even if Cress was actually rather controlling and manipulative. Theo eventually allowed Cress and her father to be poisoned at the end of the first book, and Cress now holds a heavy grudge against Theo for her betrayal. She has also evolved as a character since this first book, morphing into a much more confident woman who has taken control of her people in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of Theo’s growth as a leader. However, this is where some of the similarities end, as Cress is now a bit of a black mirror to Theo, as she is cruel, ruthless, determined to win whatever the cost and has no compunction about killing innocents. Despite all this, Theo is still drawn to her old friend, and the two of them have a compelling emotional bond (as well as an actual magical bond) throughout this novel. Theo feels guilty for the way that she betrayed and poisoned Cress, and she has a bit of a hard time seeing the evil person that she has become, and is more inclined to consider mercy than her friends would like. Cress, on the other hand, acts as ruthlessly as possible towards Theo and her friends, and is actually an extremely convincing antagonist for this book. Despite her actions, the reader gets to see that Cress is still deeply concerned with what Theo thinks about her and her plans, and there are still hints of a connection. However, her sense of betrayal, anger and determination to keep her newfound power always start to overwhelm any connection she feels to her old friend, and this leads to some devastating and heart-breaking confrontations. This whole dynamic between protagonist and antagonist is a really amazing part of Ember Queen, and adds significantly to the overall quality of the story.

I have always appreciated the magical system that Sebastian has featured in her Ash Princess books. This magic is elemental in nature, based around fire, earth, water or air (similar to the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with a few key differences), and is exclusive to the Astreans, due to the presence of the magical mines located on their island. This magic has been a bit of an understated affair in the previous books, as the plots of those novels focused on espionage and diplomacy and required smaller, more subtle displays of magic. However, in Ember Queen, the Astreans are now at war, and so the magical gloves are off. This book is filled with a number of great examples of just how powerful or effective Astrean magic can be and it is a really cool addition to the series. Seeing the formerly enslaved or dispossessed Astreans unleash their power against their oppressors is a little cathartic, and it certainly makes for some great, if devastating, scenes. Sebastian also does some intriguing morphing of her magical system when it comes to Theo, Cress and some other characters, and this results in a rather interesting plot line that I liked.

Like the rest of the books in this series, Ember Queen is a rather good piece of young adult fiction. Sebastian has created an amazing story that features a group of young people growing as characters and sacrificing everything for freedom, friendship and justice. This a great book for younger readers, and while there is plenty of violence, war and fighting, there is nothing too graphic or over-the-top that makes it inappropriate for younger readers. I personally really appreciated Sebastian’s excellent portrayal of several LGBT+ characters within this book, especially as two of these characters had one of the best romantic relationships in the entire series. Despite being angled towards younger readers, Ember Queen is one of those books that can be enjoyed by a wider audience of people. There is definitely something for everyone in this book and it is really worth checking out.

Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian is a wonderful novel that not only contains a captivating story, but which also does an awesome job concluding the author’s debut trilogy. In this final book in the Ash Princess trilogy, Sebastian presents a desperate battle for freedom, complete with intriguing magical elements, excellent characters, complex interactions between the protagonist and antagonist and a fantastic story. All of this comes together in a first-rate read, which is a great conclusion to this series. I note that Sebastian has her next body of work already planned out, with the first book in her upcoming young adult fantasy series, Constellation of Chaos, set for release next year. This new book has an interesting plot synopsis out already and I am planning to grab this book when it comes out. Until then, Ember Queen is an excellent book from Sebastian and it is really worth seeing how this fantastic trilogy ends.

The Museum of Desire by Jonathan Kellerman

The Museum of Desire Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 4 February 2020)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 35

Length: 348 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a compelling and intricate novel from one of the leading authors of the murder mystery genre as I check out The Museum of Desire, the newest novel from Jonathan Kellerman.

The Museum of Desire is the latest book in Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series of murder mystery books, which is the author’s main body of work. This series has been running since Kellerman’s 1985 debut, When the Bough Breaks, and the author has since released over 50 books, several of which he has co-written with either his wife or his daughter. I only started reading Kellerman’s novels last year when I picked up a copy of the previous book in the Alex Delaware series, The Wedding Guest, which contained a rather clever mystery that I had a great time reading. As a result, I made sure to keep an eye out for Kellerman’s next release and I subsequently found myself deeply intrigued when I saw the plot for his latest novel, The Museum of Desire, and really wanted to check it out. This latest Kellerman novel is the 35th novel in the Alex Delaware series and it contains another intriguing and complex murder mystery storyline that I had a lot of fun unravelling.

In the aftermath of a wild party in a Beverly Hills mansion, the cleaner assigned to the property makes a terrible discovery: a limousine containing four blood-soaked dead bodies. Each of the four has been murdered and artistically posed within the car, making for a grim and disturbed scene. To make matters even more unusual, the victims all appear to have been chosen at random, with none of the victims having any apparent connection to any of the others.

Realising that they are dealing with another special case, LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis calls in his friend and frequent consultant, psychologist Dr Alex Delaware, to help unravel this mystery. Over the years that Alex and Milo have been working together, they have seen some particularly heinous and unusual murders, but these might be the most disturbing one yet. As the two begin running down the case, they find themselves on the trail of a vicious killer with a love for unusual art and a penchant for eliminating any potential witnesses to their crime. Worse, it soon becomes apparent that their killer is not yet done, and that many more people are going to die.

The Museum of Desire is another excellent release from Kellerman that delivers the reader an amazing and compelling murder mystery. The author has done a fantastic job with his latest mystery, coming up with a unique and interesting murder scenario, with four apparently random victims posed in a very distinctive manner. This turned into a quite a clever and complex mystery storyline that went in some very intriguing directions. Kellerman makes sure to fill the story up with a substantial number of twists, strong false leads and a raft of plausible suspects, making the real killer a bit hard to predict. I was certainly a bit surprised by who it turned out to be, but I thought it was quite a good twist. Kellerman makes sure to wrap this whole murder mystery storyline up with a memorable conclusion, which I thought was an incredible way to end this entire plot. The end result is a very captivating tale of passion, brutality and revenge, and I very much enjoyed unravelling this awesome mystery storyline.

One of the things that I really like about Kellerman’s books is the slower-paced, methodical style in which his protagonists investigate the various murders that they come across. Rather than coming to a massive conclusion off the smallest pieces of evidence, the two central characters slowly build up their case throughout the course of the book in order to work out what happened. This is mostly done by interviewing witnesses to the crime, as well as the friends and family of the murder victims, establishing what sort of people they were, where they spent their time and who they interacted with. With this information in hand, as well as some physical or forensic evidence and potentially some internet search results, they can create a rough picture of what happened and what sort of people they are dealing with in order to narrow down their suspects and come up with the necessary leads to identify the killers. This methodical approach to a murder investigation is quite distinctive and it makes the whole book feel a lot more realistic, like you are reading about a real investigation rather than one of those television shows where the crime is solved in a matter of hours. That being said, several breaks in the case are only coincidently revealed because the narrator happened to be driving by. This feeling of realism is backed up by the protagonists having to deal with things like delays in the lab, conflicting priorities within the department and a lack of manpower from overworked police officers who have multiple cases, all of which expands the investigative timeline out. I actually really like this style of crime writing from Kellerman, as it makes The Museum of Desire stand out from some of the other murder mysteries out there. I am a big fan of the realism that he installs in his work, and I feel that it makes the story even more compelling and enjoyable.

Another great part of the Alex Delaware books are the two main characters, Doctor Alex Delaware and LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis. While this is the Alex Delaware series, with Alex Delaware serving as the books narrator and point-of-view character, Milo is just as important to the series. Both Alex and Milo are great characters in their own right. Alex is the brilliant child psychologist whose insights into the human mind are useful for many of the cases seen in these books and who also serves as a bit of stand-in for the author, who himself is a noted psychologist. Milo, on the other hand, is an openly gay veteran homicide detective who is heavily respected by both his fellow officers and the wider community he has been serving for years. While on paper this seems like a bit of an unusual partnership, Alex and Milo have been working together since the first book in the series and have now formed a rather effective team and a close friendship. It is a lot of fun watching the two of them solve crimes, especially as play off each other really well during the course of the book, with Milo providing the police knowledge and experience, while Alex brings his outside view and professional expertise to the game. While both are serious when it comes to the crimes they are investigating, Milo has a bit of a comedic edge to him, which works well as Alex is a bit more of the team’s straight man. Their views of the various people they meet and circumstances surrounding the cases are usually amusing, especially when dealing with unusual situations. The Museum of Desire is a great example of this, as you get to see them deal with art snobs, disrespectful rich kids, fierce landladies, a socially different teenager and unhelpful witnesses, and they have some good discussions about them later. Overall, I am a massive fan of this team up (although I like Milo a bit more as a character) and I cannot wait to see what crazy crimes and people they go up against in Kellerman’s next book.

With his latest novel, The Museum of Desire, Jonathan Kellerman has produced another captivating murder mystery. Featuring a unique case, a fantastic and twisty mystery and Kellerman’s trademark brand of investigation, this latest novel is an amazing and enjoyable read that pits his great protagonists against a clever killer. This was another awesome addition to the terrific Alex Delaware series, and readers are going to have an amazing time getting to the bottom of his latest case.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee

Loki Where Mischief Lies

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (3 September 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 9 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Mackenzi Lee comes a fun and clever young adult tie-in novel to the Marvel comic book universe that follows the early life of one of the genre’s best villains, Loki, the Asgardian God of Mischief.

Loki has long been one of the most infamous and complicated villains in the Marvel Universe, whose manipulations and machinations are a constant threat to Asgard, his brother, Thor, and the Avengers. However, years before he started causing chaos in Midgard, he was a young prince of Asgard and the unfavoured son of Odin. Despised and mistrusted by the people of Asgard for his magical abilities, and feared by his father as a prophesied destroyer, Loki’s only confidant is Amora, a powerful sorceress in training.

When Loki and Amora accidently destroy an ancient and valuable magical artefact, Amora is banished to Midgard (Earth), where her magic will eventually fade, and Loki loses the one person who appreciates who he truly is. Determined to prove his father wrong, Loki dedicates himself to becoming a dutiful son, but he continues to find himself overshadowed by his brother’s bravery. When a failed mission once again disappoints Odin, Loki is sent to Midgard in order to investigate a series of murders that have been caused by Asgardian magic.

Arriving in 19th century London, Loki makes contact with a small group of humans who police interdimensional travel, the Sharp Society. Loki, despite his reluctance to help, soon finds himself trying to find the mysterious killer who is turning humans into living corpses. But when he discovers who is responsible for the deaths, he is once again torn between doing the right thing and acting the villain. As his adventure on Midgard continues, Loki soon realises that he needs to decide who he truly is: the good prince of Asgard his family always wanted, or the villain everyone expects him to be.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies is a rather intriguing read that caught my attention some time ago. I am a huge fan of Marvel comics and I will always be interested in checking out any tie-in novels connected to either the comics or the movies. As a result, I made sure to grab a copy of the audiobook version of this book as soon as I could. This turned out to be a fast-paced and enjoyable read that explores the life and times of a young Loki, placing him into a fascinating setting that helped enhance the story. Lee, who is best known for her young adult novels set in the 19th century, including This Monstrous Thing and the Montague Siblings books, created a great Loki story that does a spectacular job diving into the psyche of the character and shaping a fun adventure around it. This is actually the first book in a series of three historical novels that Lee has been contracted to write that will feature Marvel antiheros, and I am really interested in finding out which characters will be in these books.

Where Mischief Lies contains a compelling central storyline that follows the early days of Loki in Asgard and his first foray down to Midgard. Lee starts the story off by introducing a young Loki on Asgard, establishing his character, examining some of his early motivations, inserting a major life-changing event and inserting a magical premonition that will haunt the character throughout the rest of the book. I really enjoyed this introduction to the characters and the plot, and thought that it set up the rest of the story perfectly. The next few parts of the book, which are set after a time jump of a few years, do a good job showing how the character has evolved after the introductory events of the book, and then they manoeuvre him down to London where he has to discover the cause of a series of deaths done using Asgardian magic. The set up to get him down to London, the initial parts of Loki’s adventures on Midgard, his introduction to the Sharp Society and the first encounter with the mysterious bodies are all pretty interesting, and is a great follow-through from the book’s introductions.

I did however struggle with the middle parts of the book, as they felt a little flat and hard to get through. Those readers hoping for a complex mystery into who is leaving the bodies on the streets of London are going to be disappointed, as Loki solves the case quite quickly, and it is literally the most obvious suspect ever. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the following periods of Loki’s indecision and angst as he tries to deal with the fallout from this revelation. However, the ending of the book more than makes up for it, as Lee wraps it up with an epic conclusion that showcases the full extent of the character’s nature and his eventual future, while also utilising story elements set up earlier in the book. While there were periods in the middle of the book where I was starting to get a little restless, I think overall the story of Where Mischief Lies is really good and its strong ending made it all worthwhile.

Thanks to his appearances in the MCU, Loki is probably one of the most popular and well-known Marvel antiheroes and characters, so any portrayal of him needed to be spot on. Luckily, Lee did an outstanding job with her characterisation of Loki, and the examination of the younger version of this character is probably one of the best things about this book. Lee’s version of young Loki contains all the hints of the growing arrogance, swagger, fashion sense, penchant for mischief and casual disdain for mortals and Asgardians that make him such a fun character in the comics and movies. However, what really makes this an excellent portrayal is the fact that Lee also shows all of Loki’s inherent vulnerability, frustration and anger, which have resulted from a childhood of being seen not only as the lesser son but as something that is dangerous and untrustworthy. This examination of the character’s inner psyche is a fantastic central point of the book, and it is interesting to see the world from Loki’s point of view, especially as you really start to sympathise with him. The story also shows some key moments in Loki’s life, and you get a sense of his motivations and determination to torment those around him. I also think that Lee did a fantastic job of examining the relationship between Loki and Thor. While a lot of their relationship is antagonistic, Thor is shown at times to be the only character who trusts Loki, and it is interesting to see the relationship that might lead to Loki’s eventual redemption. If I were to complain about any aspect of Lee’s portrayal of Loki, it would be that his powers and abilities were a bit inconsistent at times. For example, it was a little weird to see him being physically inconvenienced by a human in one scene, and then a chapter or two later he has the strength to lift two people up at the same time. While this is a relatively minor issue and I imagine that you could explain this away as some form of deception by Loki, I personally found it to be a little jarring.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Lee’s portrayal of Loki is his gender and sexuality. In the build-up to the release of Where Mischief Lies there was a lot of discussion about how this book was going highlight certain LGTB+ elements from the comic books, especially as Lee’s previous books have all contained LGTB+ components. Throughout his comic book history, Loki has been portrayed as both genderfluid and pansexual, and both of these elements of the character are explored within this new book to various degrees. While an interesting part of the character, the genderfluid aspect of Loki is only really shown to a small degree in this book. While Loki does not actually change his gender within Where Mischief Lies (which has occurred in some Marvel comics), when asked “if he prefers men or women”, he does indicate that he has been both. There are also several examples of Loki using his powers of magic to appear as a female character (with various degrees of success), and there are also scenes where he dresses in women’s clothing, usually stolen from Amora, who is amusedly annoyed that they look better on him. While it was not as fully explored as it could have been (and to be fair, it would have been hard to add it in to a novel of this length), it is really cool to see a genderfluid character being introduced into a novel connected to the Marvel Universe.

In addition to this, the pansexual aspect of Loki’s character is on full display throughout the book, as Loki has romantic connections with both male and female characters. Not only does he fall in love with Amora (there is a reason they call her The Enchantress), but a romantic connection also begins to spark between him and a young Sharp Society member, Theo. I really liked the way that Lee handled both of these romances. While the relationship between Loki and Amora ends in flames (which should come as no surprise to Marvel fans), the slowly growing feelings he shares with Theo are quite sweet and contain some rather interesting social commentary. The relationship with Theo is underscored with feelings of identity; due to the social conventions of the 19th century, Theo is unable to be who he really is. This is mirrored by Loki, who has complete freedom of sexuality and gender, but who finds that he is looked down on because of his magic, which he sees as a being major part of his identity. All of this was intensely fascinating, and I really enjoyed seeing this additional complexity explored within the character.

Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was the various tie-ins it contained to the Marvel’s comics universe. This was a pretty comprehensive origin story for Loki, and quite honestly it could be used as a prequel to both the comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, given that there is a lot more focus on magic, runes, elves and artefacts, it should probably be more associated with the comics. Lee does a fantastic job bringing Asgard to life, and there are a number of cool references to the various settings and characters of the Thor comics that will appeal to major comic book fans. In addition to this, the author also peppers the story with other Marvel references, especially when the story goes down to Midgard. For example, there are mentions of an industrialist called Stark, talk of a green-skinned female alien and discussion that the Sharpe Society should be renamed as either SHIELD or SWORD. While all these references are rather amusing, I would say that no real prior knowledge of the comics or the movies are really required to enjoy this book, although Marvel fans will probably get more out of it.

Where Mischief Lies is being marketed as a young adult fiction novel, and I believe that this would be a great book for young teen readers, who will love this intriguing look at one of the best Marvel characters. Younger readers should be prepared for the typical amount of comic book level of violence and sex in this book, but there is really nothing that is too explicit for younger readers. I personally think that many teens will appreciate the various LGTB+ elements included in the story, and they will be interested to see this side of the character that has not been included in the movies. Like many young adult tie-in novels, Where Mischief Lies is very accessible to older readers, and I know that many will really like this take on Loki as well, making this a fantastic novel for all ages.

While I really enjoyed the awesome cover of Where Mischief Lies’ hardcover edition, I ended up listening to it on audiobook rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format of this book is narrated by Oliver Wyman and runs for just over nine hours in length. I think that was a pretty good way to enjoy Where Mischief Lies, as it proved to be a rather easy book to listen to, and I was able to complete it in only a couple of days. Wyman is an enjoyable narrator, and I really like his take on the book’s protagonist and point-of-view character, Loki. He did a fantastic job capturing various aspects of the character’s personality and speech patterns, from his sneering contempt to his frustrations at the way he is treated. This excellent narration really added a lot to my enjoyment of the novel and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format to anyone who is interested in checking this book out.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee was a fantastic young adult tie-in novel that does a wonderful job of bringing the character of Loki to life. I had a lot of fun listening to this novel, especially as Lee dives deep into the life and mind of Loki, exploring how he became the villain we all love. I was initially planning to give this book a rating of four out of 5 stars; however, considering how much I ended up writing about it, it must be worthy of 4.25 stars instead. I have to say that I was impressed with Lee’s talent for writing novelizations about Marvel antiheroes, and I look forward to her next book in this young adult series.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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Publisher: Tor (Hardcover – 10 September 2019)

Series: The Ninth House – Book One

Length: 448 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From debuting author Tamsyn Muir comes a very unique and compelling science fiction novel filled with death, comedy and necromancers in space, Gideon the Ninth.

Before I begin reviewing Gideon the Ninth, I have to point out how impressive the design of the hardcover copy I received was. When I previously featured this book in one of my Waiting on Wednesday articles, I mentioned how much I loved the cover art. Indeed, the drawing of the book’s titular redheaded character with her face painted liked a skull surrounded by exploding skeletons is pretty damn cool. The hardcover copy also has some excellent visuals, as the outer rim of all the pages is coloured black, which definitely gives prospective readers a noticeable visual hook, especially when combined with the all-black binding underneath the jacket, emblazoned with gold writing on the spine and a single golden skull on the front. I really liked this fantastic presentation style, and it definitely left an impression on me as I started to read the book.

In the far future, a vast interstellar empire is ruled by necromancers whose control over the various magical disciplines of death make them a powerful force. Eight noble houses serve under the First House of the Emperor, and each of them has just received a message from their ruler. The heirs to each of these houses and their cavaliers, loyal sword-wielding protectors and companions, must attend the Emperor’s planet in order to compete to become the next generation of Lyctor, immortal beings of vast power.

Gideon Nav is an indentured servant to the Ninth House of the Empire, a small and impoverished house that carries a dark reputation. A skilled swordswoman, Gideon wants nothing more than to enlist in the imperial army to leave the dark crypts, the strict occult nuns and the multitude of skeletons that make up the Ninth Planet far behind. However, when her latest escape attempt fails, she finds herself offered an irresistible bargain: act as the Ninth House’s cavalier for the period of the trials and be granted her freedom. There is just one minor problem: Gideon and the heir to the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, an extremely powerful bone witch, absolutely hate each other.

Forced to temporarily put their differences aside, Gideon and Harrow travel to First House, only to discover it is a near ruin, looked after by a few old and mostly unhelpful servants. They soon learn that the secrets to becoming a Lyctor lie hidden within the walls around them, and the representatives of various houses can do whatever they wish to learn them. Trapped on the planet, Gideon and Harrow begin to explore the First House and encounter the heirs and cavaliers of the other houses. As the mismatched pair from the Ninth House start to unravel the various mysteries and challenges before them, a gruesome murder occurs. Something powerful is lurking within the First House, and it has the heirs in its sight. Can Gideon and Harrow work together, or will their own turbulent past and the secrets of their house tear them apart?

Gideon the Ninth is a chaotically clever and massively entertaining first novel from Tamsyn Muir, who has done an excellent job introducing readers to her intriguing new world. Gideon the Ninth is the first book in her The Ninth House series, which already has two planned sequels in the works, with the first of these currently set for release next year. After hearing the awesome plot synopsis for this book earlier in the year, I had picked this as potentially being on the best books for the latter half of 2019. I am glad to see that my instincts were once again correct, as this was an awesome read that gets four and a half stars from me.

Muir has produced an outstanding story for her first novel, as the plot for Gideon the Ninth is an amazing combination of humour, universe building, emotional character moments and a captivating set of mysteries as the protagonists attempt to uncover not only the vast secrets of the First House but the identity of the person or being that is killing them off one by one. The author has stacked this book with all manner of fantastic twists, and there are a number of major and game changing developments that are well paced out amongst the story. There is never a dull spot within the book, as even parts where no substantial plot developments are occurring are filled with excellent humour from the sarcastic narrator with a huge vocabulary of various swear words. There is also a substantial amount of action throughout the course of the book. The various fight scenes blister and explode off the page, especially thanks to the unique magical system that Muir has populated this world with. All of this results in an addictive and electrifying overall story with a very memorable ending.

The real heart of Gideon the Ninth lies in its incredible main characters, Gideon Nav and Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and the complex relationship the two of them have. Gideon is the badass, rebellious, coarse, girl-loving mistress of the blade, who serves as the book’s narrator and only point-of-view character. Gideon is an absolute blast as a main character, as she deals with every situation she comes across with an abundance of disrespect, anger and exaggerated responses, resulting in much of the book’s humour. Harrow, on the other hand, is the dark noble necromancer heir to the Ninth House, whose reserved persona, obsession with necromantic research and abilities, and vindictive nature work to make her initially appear as a polar opposite to Gideon. The relationship between these two main characters is initially extremely adversarial, as both characters declare their absolute hatred for each other, and Harrow seems determined to make Gideon’s life a living hell. As the book progresses, however, Muir really dives into the heart of the relationship between the two characters, revealing a complex history and a twin tale of woe and dark secrets that has defined them for their entire lives. The combined character arc of these two main characters was done extremely well. While you knew from the very start of the book that the two characters would eventually work together, the exact reason why this occurred was handled perfectly, and the final form of this cooperation helps create an epic and tragic conclusion to the entire book. While their relationship is not explicitly romantic (Harrow’s sexuality really is not explored in this book), they do become quite close by the end of the novel, and both characters are written exceedingly well.

In addition to Gideon and Harrow, Muir has also included a range of different characters, representing the heirs and cavaliers of the other major houses in the Empire. This results in an intriguing assortment of side characters who add a lot to the overall story. The author has made sure to invest in substantial backstories for all these additional characters, and this has a number of significant benefits for the story. Not only are the readers now blessed with an abundance of viable and duplicitous suspects for the story’s murder mystery, but each of the various representatives of the houses have their own individual secrets and motives for being at the First House. Learning more about each of these characters is quite fascinating, and a number of them have some pretty amazing character arcs. I particularly enjoyed the storyline of Palamedes Sextus of the Sixth House, who treats his necromancy more as a science than a form of magic. Sextus is the most logical character out of all the people in the book, and he serves as a major driving force of the investigation into the murders. His connection to some of the other characters in the book is a major part of the book, and the ultimate conclusion of his story arc is really cool. Muir has done an incredible job coming up with the book’s various characters, and it is a major part of why this book is so awesome.

It is quite clear that Muir has an amazing imagination, as she has produced a grim and compelling new universe to set this book in. Necromancy and a futuristic science fiction setting make for a fascinating combination, and I really loved her examination of an empire built on worshipping an immortal, necromantic Emperor and the various secrets that come with it. The sheer range of different necromantic magic featured within this book is pretty impressive, especially as each of the Imperial Houses has their own specific form of necromancy, all of which are examined throughout the book. Not only are all these different types of magic really fascinating to examine but it also results in some diverse pieces of magical action, as many of the necromancers unleash their various forms of magic throughout the book, resulting in some fantastic sequences. I do think that the author could have done a slightly better job of explaining some of the unique elements of her universe at the start of the book, as I got a little confused at some points towards the beginning; however, this was quickly chased away by deeper dives into the universe’s lore later in the book. Muir has left open a number of questions and plot directions to explore in future books in the series, and I am really curious to see what happens next.

Gideon the Ninth is a wild and exciting novel that makes use of an intriguing concept, some compelling characters and an excellent story to create an exceedingly entertaining book that was a heck of a lot of fun to read. Featuring laugh-out-loud humour, intense action and major emotional moments, this is an incredible read that is really worth checking out. Muir has hit it out of the park with her debut novel, and I cannot wait for the next book in the series.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town by Michael Pryor

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 July 2019)

Series: Ghost Town – Book 2

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Michael Pryor revisits his Ghost Town young adult series with another entertaining and intriguing story, Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town.

Anton Marin is having an extremely odd gap year. As a member of an infamous outcast ghost-hunting family, Anton can see the ghosts that linger in our world, and he has recently taken up the family business. Working with his new partner, the English badass Rani Cross, Anton works to protect the people of Melbourne from the more dangerous types of ghosts while also ensuring that all the wandering spirits they encounter are helped on to the next world. However, even with Rani’s help, ghost hunting in Melbourne has recently gotten even more difficult as the city finds itself in the midst of a genuine ghost plague. A massive infestation of the most dangerous types of ghosts imaginable is wreaking havoc across the city, and even usually benign or harmless spirits are starting to attack people.

Anton and Rani’s problems are about to get even worse; a deadly cult of Trespassers, humans who use magic to control ghosts for their own ends, is in town and determined to capture anyone with ghost sight for use in their rituals. As Anton and Rani find themselves with a target on their back, Anton must deal with the return of his long-lost aunt Tanja. While Anton is overjoyed to have a member of his family back, he quickly realises that not everything with his aunt is as it seems. What secrets is Tanja hiding and what is her connection to the leader of this group of Trespassers? As secrets and occult dangers arise within Melbourne, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Michael Pryor is one of Australian’s most notable authors of young adult fiction, having written a number of fantasy and science fiction novels for a younger audience. Some of his most notable series include The Law of Magic, The Extraordinaries and his six entries in the long-running The Quentaris Chronicles. Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is the second book in Pryor’s latest series, Ghost Town, and follows on from his 2017 release, Gap Year in Ghost Town. I initially thought that Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town was my first experience reading Pryor’s work, but I actually remember reading some of the books in The Doorways trilogy back when I was kid. While this was something like 20 years ago (and now I feel old), I do know that I greatly enjoyed these books and their clever concept, so I was excited to check it out.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is an interesting and engaging piece of young adult fantasy with a number of cool features. Pryor has done a fantastic job combining a unique concept of ghost hunting with a group of enjoyable characters and grounded the story in the author’s home city of Melbourne. This results in a great piece of fiction that will do a wonderful job of enthralling a whole new generation of young Australian readers. For those readers who are only just coming onto this series, knowledge of the previous book is not a necessity to enjoy this sequel, as the author does a good job of re-introducing the characters, plot details and adventures that were featured in Gap Year in Ghost Town.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this series is the overarching concept of a world haunted by real and potentially malevolent ghosts, and the adventures of the few individuals who can actually see them. Pryor has populated his story with all manner of different types of ghosts, each with their own specific characteristics, strengths and appearances. Readers will get to see the various ghosts that the protagonists go after, including the Lingers, Moaners, Thugs, Weepers and a new breed of zombie ghosts, just to name a few. All of these ghosts are really cool, and I enjoyed how this book started going into a little more detail about the origins of ghosts and the malevolent forces behind them. I also liked how the story also pivoted towards a more human antagonist in the form of the Trespassers, and it was intriguing to see how a group of people utilising the ghosts for nefarious purposes. It was interesting to see the protagonist’s ghost hunting techniques in action, and it results in some intense action sequences, especially when they have to fight ghosts and the Trespassers at the same time. This is an inventive and clever concept that helps make this series stand out from some of the other young adult fantasy books out there.

Another great distinguishing feature about this book is the author’s inclusion of a contemporary Melbourne setting. I love fantasy stories that utilise modern settings, and Pryor did an exceptional job bringing the city of Melbourne to life. The characters visit all manner of key landmarks in the city throughout the course of the story, and I really liked seeing locations I have visited featuring fights between ghost hunters and spirits. Pryor also uses the opportunity to showcase some of his favourite restaurants and cafes and it was nice to see an author insert elements of a city they clearly love into their story.

In addition to its intriguing concept and excellent setting, I was also impressed with the complex characters in Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town. The main protagonist is Anton, the funny and slightly odd heir to an exiled ghost hunting family with their own unique techniques for dispersing ghosts. Anton serves as the narrator and point-of-view character for the story, and he offers a fun and introspective narration to the book, while the revelations about certain family secrets offer up some interesting drama. The other main protagonist, Rani, is an extremely skilled sword-wielding badass who is a former member of an established ghost-hunting order from England and is an excellent female character for this series. Anton and Rani form a great team in this book, as the two of them find their groove as a partnership and work well against the threats they face. The character of Bec is an interesting third member of this partnership, as not only is she Anton’s oldest friend, who plays a cute game where they try to guess quotes from famous figures, but she is also Rani’s girlfriend, who they share an apartment and cat with. Bec really brings the team together, and there are some interesting examinations of the dynamics between the three of them, as each of them feels like they are the outsider in the group. There are also a few cool new additions to the series in this book, including a couple of Scottish ghost hunters, their ghost-hunting dog and a good antagonist in the form of the leader of the new cult of Trespassers.

Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is an excellent piece of young adult fiction that is appropriate for a wide range of different ages and tastes. While there are a few dark scenes, such as a somewhat gruesome torture sequence, the vast majority of the book is appropriate for young teens and perhaps particularly mature young readers. I thought the author’s inclusion of a positive lesbian relationship between Rani and Bec was a really good feature for the young adult audience, and it was that was portrayed extremely well. I am also sure that young Australian readers, especially those living in Melbourne, will love to see these fantasy variations of locations they are familiar with, and it will hopefully invigorate their imagination.

Michael Pryor has done an amazing job following up Gap Year in Ghost Town, as he presents another compelling and enjoyable paranormal young adult adventure. With inventive ghosts, scary antagonists, great characters and a fantastic Australian setting, Pryor has once again shown why he is one of the leading authors of young adult fiction in Australia. Graveyard Shift in Ghost Town is definitely worth checking out, and it has a lot of features that should prove appealing to the younger teen audience.

War of the Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

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Publisher: Hyperion (Hardcover – 4 June 2019)

Series: Royal Bastards trilogy – Book 3/Final

Length: 392 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

War, rebellion, magic and one hell of kickass story! Shvarts brings the outstanding Royal Bastards trilogy to an end with War of the Bastards, the relentlessly entertaining conclusion that rounds out the series with an epic bang. The Royal Bastards trilogy is the debut work of author Andrew Shvarts, who has produced an incredible young adult fantasy series that has been an absolute delight to read over the last three years. Set in the fantasy nation of Noveris, the series follows the adventures of its protagonist, Tilla, and her friends as they try to navigate the treachery and war that has engulfed their nation.

I had an absolute blast reading the second book in the trilogy, City of Bastards, last year. Not only did the book feature a compelling story style and an amazingly captivating plot, but it ended with an outstanding cliff hanger with the protagonist failing to stop the antagonist’s sinister plot, which results in the entire royal family being killed off and the enemy gaining control of the throne. This was such an epic ending, especially because the massacre of the entire royal family was just so unexpected (I really was expecting a last-minute rescue from the protagonists), and I have been extremely curious to see how this story ended for quite a while.

It has been a year since the destructive events that changed Noveris forever. After orchestrating the explosion that decimated the royal court of Noveris, killing the King and Queen and most of Noveris’s nobles, Lord Elric Kent has assumed the throne. With a huge number of powerful bloodmages under the command of his ruthless Inquisitor, Miles Hampstedt, Kent’s rule over Noveris looks to be nearly absolute. However, many are still fighting back against the despotic new rule, including Kent’s bastard daughter, Tilla.

Tilla is a member of the resistance group known as the Unbroken, which fights to return Tilla’s friend, the rightful Queen, Lyriana Volaris, back to the throne. With the help of her lover, Zell, and Lyriana’s cousin, Ellarion, Tilla and the Unbroken are engaged in a brutal guerrilla war against the new regime. However, the situation looks dire and victory near impossible to achieve, until a mission to rescue a major source of rebel intelligence reveals that their informant was none other than King Kent himself. Kent’s rule has been usurped by Miles, whose absolute control over the bloodmages has allowed him to take over Noveris without anyone noticing. While attempting to deal with the implications of capturing Tilla’s father, the Unbroken also free Syan Syee, a young woman from the Red Wastes with mysterious magical powers, who brings an urgent message to the people of Noveris. Syan warns of a coming apocalypse and believes that defeating Miles is the key to stopping it. Needing new allies, Tilla, Lyriana, Zell, Ellarion, Kent and Syan journey to the Red Wastes, hoping to recruit Syan’s people to their cause. However, what they discover in the Red Wastes will change everything. With this new knowledge, can Tilla and her friends save Noveris, or will Miles’s lust for power and control tear their world apart?

Before I started reading this book, I honestly thought that Shvarts was going to have an extremely hard time matching the awesomeness of City of Bastards. However, I am pleased to report that War of the Bastards is an incredible and massively compelling read that I enjoyed just as much as the second book in the series. While it may lack the shocking cliff hanger ending of City of Bastards, War of the Bastards has an excellent fast-paced story that proves extremely hard to put down once you start.

I really loved the story contained within War of the Bastards and felt that it was an amazing conclusion to the trilogy. The tale of an epic battle to free a kingdom is a classic, but the author has put some fantastic modern twists on it, and his entertaining writing style and dedication to bringing out huge moments, really turns this into something special. Shvarts has included a number of cool twists and turns throughout this book, and I really liked where the story went at times. There was also a slight turn away from fantasy towards another genre about two-thirds through the story that proved to be a bit surprising, but I found it to be an interesting addition to the story. Without giving too much away, I was very satisfied with the clever way that the antagonist was taken down at the end of the book, and it was a nice call-back to earlier events in the series. I really enjoyed how this story turned out, and it was an outstanding conclusion to the epic tale that had been told throughout the Royal Bastards trilogy.

In the previous books in the series, the author tended to only set the story in one general setting, such as the West for the first book and the Lightspire for the second book. In War of the Bastards, Shvarts continues to expand on his fantasy world, but this time he takes his characters to several new locations that had been alluded to in the other books. The story starts in the Heartlands and focuses on the characters fighting their guerrilla war there. This land has been transformed by the oppression of Kent and Miles, and it was intriguing to see how bad things had gotten under their rule. The protagonists also journey through the Southlands and the Red Wastes, both of which are pretty fascinating and distinctive locales. The Red Wastes was definitely the most unique location, ravaged by terrifying magical storms and featuring interesting new civilisation. Overall, these new locations are pretty cool, and readers will enjoy exploring more of this great fantasy world.

One of the major strengths of Shvarts’s previous books has been the excellent character work. Each of the major characters has gone through tremendous growth through the course of the first two books, and this growth has continued through the course of War of the Bastards. Tilla has gone from being two different types of social outcast (a bastard in the first book and a traitor’s daughter in the second) to a respected rebel warrior fighting the good fight. However, despite knowing she is fighting for what is right, Tilla is not natural killer and has to constantly deal with the guilt of her actions, keeping a running mental count of all those she has killed. She also has to finally come to terms with her strained relationship with her father once he joins them on their quest. Due to her status as a bastard, her father has always kept a certain distance with her. Now, with him joining their band, Tilla is forced to have several emotional confrontations with him over the terrible things he has done in previous books and how he treated her in the past. This results in some dramatic moments within the book, and the exploration of their relationship makes for great reading. Tilla still serves as the book’s narrator and point-of-view character, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. This is extremely fortunate, as her sassy and sarcastic outlook on the events occurring around her leads to a lot of the book’s humour. All in all, I have always found Tilla to be a pretty awesome main character, and it was great to see how her story ended.

In addition to Tilla, the other three main characters from the previous Royal Bastards books all get great character arcs within this book. Lyriana spends this book as the Queen in exile of her people and is burdened with the responsibility of being a figurehead. However, she rises to the challenge and proves herself to be powerful badass and war leader thanks to her epic magical abilities. This was a massive change in her character from the second book, where she was devastated with loss and trauma, and it was great to see her at her full potential. Readers will also like the new relationship she finds herself in, and it was nice to see her finally get some emotional happiness. I would say that Zell is character least utilised in this book, but we do get to witness him trying to come to terms with guilt from the previous book thanks to the inadvertent role he had in facilitating the massacre. The character most impacted by the events of the previous book is Ellarion, Lyriana’s cousin and the most powerful magician in the lands. He lost his hands at the end of City of Bastards when defending his friends from the massive explosion and must now learn how to live without them and, more importantly, the magic they allowed him to perform. Shvarts did an amazing job portraying Ellarion’s despair at his situation and the longing he has for his lost magical arts. Some interesting things happen to him in this book and he has a major moment that readers will absolutely love.

Two new characters join the main characters in this book: Syan from the Red Wastes and Tilla’s father, Lord Kent. Syan is a pretty cool lesbian character who has some significant secrets in her past. Shvarts does a great job telling her entire story within this one book, and I found her to be quite an enjoyable character. Lord Kent was another fantastic addition to the main group of protagonists. While he has appeared in both of the previous books in the trilogy, we have never really gotten his side of the story before. In addition to all the drama surrounding his relationship with Tilla, we also get to see his motivations for his actions, as well as the regret for what he has brought about. I really liked the inclusion of Kent in War of the Bastards and thought it was a clever touch from Shvarts because of all the extra emotional complexities and drama he brings to the story.

I should quickly mention the main antagonist of this book, Miles. Miles has always been a pretty unlikeable character, especially after betraying the group in the first book due to his jealousy over Tilla choosing Zell. Shvarts really makes him even more despicable in War of the Bastards by showing him as the facilitator of all the worst things that have been done in Noveris in the last year. Later confrontations with him reveal that he has no remorse and really does not see himself as the bad guy. His continued obsession with Tilla is pretty messed up (cough, harem, cough), but I do like how that was used against him at times. Overall, Miles makes for an excellent series villain, and Shvarts did an amazing job utilising him in this final book.

The author has a very creative mind when it comes to the magic and fantasy elements contained within this series. The magical abilities and rules that govern the lands of Noveris are extremely interesting and have led to some impressive magical destruction and battles in the past. Shvarts continues to do this in the final book, and the exploration of the origins of magic and the devastating consequences of using it are really fascinating. Shvarts came up with some cool and unique new magical abilities in War of the Bastards, especially for the magic utilised by the people of the Red Wastes. The author has been really creative in this final book, and I am sure readers will like some of the ideas he comes up with.

Like the previous books in the series, War of the Bastards is being marketed towards the young adult audience. However, it should only really be read by the older teen audience, as it features a lot of adult content. While it does not have as much sex, drugs and drinking as City of Bastards did, it does feature a heck of a lot more violence, and some of the action scenes are pretty gruesome. This does mean the book is really easy for older readers to enjoy, and I would strongly recommend this to all adult fantasy readers.

While I am sad to see the Royal Bastards series end, War of the Bastards was such an incredible conclusion to the story that it does not seem too devastating. Due to its near perfect blend of electrifying story content, excellent characters and entertaining writing style, I found that it was near impossible to put War of the Bastards down, and I had an amazing time reading it. This is easily a five-star read, and I reckon this is my favourite young adult book of 2019 so far. With his debut trilogy, Andrew Shvarts has shown himself to be an extremely talented author, and I will be eagerly keeping an eye out for his next series.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Vol.1: High School is Hell by Jordie Bellaire and Dan Mora

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Publisher: BOOM! Studios (28 May 2019)

Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Volume 1

Length: Four issues – 128 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a whole new take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the first four issues of BOOM! Studios’ new Buffy comic series are collected together in their first volume, High School is Hell.

For those unfamiliar with it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an extremely popular fantasy television show that started in 1997 and ran for seven seasons until 2003. The show followed the adventures of the titular Buffy, who has inherited the role of the Slayer, a magically strengthened warrior chosen to fight vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first show helmed by Joss Whedon, who went on create one of the best science fiction shows of all time, Firefly, as well as direct the first two Avengers movies (and parts of the Justice League movie, but let’s not look to closely at that). Buffy was actually an adaption of Whedon’s 1992 movie of the same name; however, there were some significant differences between the tone and writing of the movie and the show, as the show had some superb storylines and an amazing cast. It eventually resulted in the spin-off Angel, which also had a strong five-season run and some amazing episodes.

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Due to the immense popularity of the show, a huge amount of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in material has been created, including a number of novels and video games. A substantial number of comic books were also created through Dark Horse Comics, many of which involved Whedon in the creative process. Indeed, the storylines of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were continued for many years as a comic book series that followed a huge number of events that occurred following the end of both television shows.

Recently, Dark Horse Comics gave up the comic book rights to several of Joss Whedon’s works, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. These rights were subsequently obtained by BOOM! Studios, who have embarked on a whole new wave of comics for these franchises. The first of these, Firefly, started up last year, and the first collected volume was released in late April (I grabbed a copy the other day and will hopefully review it in the next couple of weeks). A new Angel comic book series is also currently running, although the first issue was only released a short while ago, so it might be a little while before I get my hands on the collected edition of it. BOOM! Studios are producing a bunch of different stories for these various properties and have different plans for each of them. The Firefly comics, for example, will be set in the same universe as the shows and have presented an interesting new adventure. However, for the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic, they have decided to do something different. Rather than continue the storylines written by Dark Horse Comics or try to fit in the established universe left by the shows, the new creative team have taken the bold step of completely revamping the entire series, restarting the story from the beginning and swapping the setting to a more modern era. This new series takes place in 2018/19 instead of the 1990s and features a completely different story to the original series, similar to what Marvel Comics did with their Ultimate universe.

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This new series starts in a similar way to the events of the show, with Buffy Summers only recently arrived in Sunnydale and ready to start as the new kid at Sunnydale High. Buffy has to deal with many of the pitfalls of being a modern teenager, grades, friends and an embarrassing dead-end job. However, Buffy has one thing no over teenager has to deal with, an unescapable destiny as the latest in a line of vampire slayers. While the story may sound familiar so far, this is not the grunge era of the 1990s; instead it is the modern era of smart phones, social media and social norms. Buffy soon settles in as the new girl in school, training with her watcher, Giles, and making two new friends, Xander and Willow, after she saves them from a vampire. While the worst thing in her life may appear to be the exceedingly peppy Cordelia, Sunnydale is still Sunnydale. Vampires and demons are always lurking just beneath the surface, and two familiar and deadly foes are in town. The devastating team of Drusilla and Spike are looking for a mysterious power and will kill anyone who gets in their way. What is their sinister plan, and how will the lives of the new Scooby Gang be changed forever?

Volume 1, High School is Hell, features issues #1-4 of this new Buffy series and was written by Jordie Bellaire. It also features the artistic skills of Dan Mora as the illustrator and Raúl Angulo as colourist. Joss Whedon is also credited as the original creator of this series in all the issues, although I am uncertain if he consulted on this new project at all. Pretty much the moment I saw this comic in the shop, I knew I was going to enjoy it. I grew up with watching Buffy and Angel when I was younger and have enjoyed a lot of their comics in the past. I really liked the concept of this new series, and I was incredibly interested in seeing where the creators of this new series were going to take it. I have to say that I was not disappointed with the end result. These first four issues not only tell an excellent and deeply compelling story with some incredible artwork; they also present an incredible reimagining of the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe and bring it into modern times.

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The issues featured within Volume 1 tell a pretty amazing story. The whole reintroduction of the Buffy world is done extremely well, as the new story told within is filled with the right amount of new ideas, classic characters and an exciting, action filled storyline with some major twists. I really think the blend of the old characters and story elements with the new storylines where done exceedingly well, and it creates and excellent new world that has some amazing potential for the future. Bellaire also does a fantastic job capturing the tone and humour of the original series and inserting it into this new vision of the Buffy universe, and it makes for quite an entertaining and enjoyable read. I also like how the creators brought the story out of the 90s into more modern times, incorporating all the relevant technology and social norms into the plot. There are also quite a few jokes making fun of the 90s, which is a nice touch, and a great call back to the original series. As a result, I thought the new story introduced in High School is Hell was pretty darn amazing and I had a lot of fun reading it.

The issues featured in High School is Hell feature an interesting mix of characters from the original television show, and I think fans of Buffy will enjoy the changes that the creative team introduce to the various characters. Firstly, Buffy remains pretty much unchanged; she is still the new girl at the school who is trying to balance the Slayer part of her life with high school, friends and romance. While there is a tad additional teenage apathy, perhaps as a result of her job at Tunaverse, her character remains as a pretty consistent touchstone from the original series. The same could be said of Giles, who is still the same stuffy English gentleman he was in the first few episodes of the original show with the disapproving mentor vibe, although we do get to see him playing his guitar in public a lot sooner.

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While Buffy and Giles are fairly similar to their original versions in the show, there are some interesting changes to the other major Buffy characters featured in this new series. For example, Willow has already discovered her sexuality and has a girlfriend, new character Rose. She also seems to be a whole lot more confident than she originally was in the series and is already eager to fight evil and start learning magic (which couldn’t possibly go wrong). Cordelia is still the most popular girl in school, although she is a lot braver and nicer than she was in the original show, although most of the characters find her extreme peppiness to be a bit too much. She also garners a rather unhealthy obsession with Spike, which was an intriguing addition which will no doubt become a major plot point in the future. Interestingly enough, Xander is probably the character who has changed the most in this series. On the exterior he is still the same happy-go-lucky character he was in the show. However, none of the characters realise that Xander is actually quite depressed, lonely and feels quite powerless, something the audience is made aware of by viewings of his anonymous blog. The inclusion of the blog entries is quite clever; we are initially made to think they are Buffy’s inner monologue. Once we are shown they belong to Xander, it gives an emotional look into his mind. Xander’s resultant story arc in this book ends in a pretty shocking twist, which has real potential to be a defining moment of this series.

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In addition to these main characters who were the focus of the original Buffy first season, there is also an interesting use of other characters from the show. Major characters Anya, Robin Wood, Spike and Drusilla all show up in these first four issues, each entering the story far earlier than they did in the television show, and with very different storylines. Anya is a demonic witch who deals magical artefacts from a secret occult shop (a fun nod to her business from the show). Anya is a neutral force in the town, and it is an interesting departure from her role as a vengeance demon. We only see a little of Robin Wood in these first four issues, although he is set up as Buffy’s potential love interest. In this series he’s set up as a star athlete and overall nice guy, with no real indication of whether he’ll have the same connections to the Slayers or Spike that he did in the show. Spike and Drusilla are a cool choice as the initial antagonists for this version of Buffy. The two of them always make a great team, although there is a bit of a change to the dynamic. Dru is somewhat less insane in this series, and seems to be the brains of the operation, relying on Spike a lot less. Spike is pretty much his usual fun self, although he appears a little less in love or devoted to Dru as he was in the show. He also has a fun relationship with Cordelia, and there is also a certain debate about his name. While Dru and Anya refer to him as William, he introduces himself to Cordelia as Spike to try and sound edgy, which results in a good joke from Dru about how the name “hardly played in the 90s”.

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Overall, I was quite happy with how the creative team behind this new series utilised the show’s existing characters and brought them into the new century. Some of the changes are really quite cool, and I liked how some of the dynamics were altered. Some of the new characters were also pretty cool, and it will be interesting to see what overall impact they will have on the series. I think that some of their decisions will lead to some excellent stories in the future, and I look forward to seeing how other existing characters are introduced.

The artwork in the first four issues of this series was pretty awesome and really added a lot to this volume. Mora did an outstanding job capturing the likenesses of the existing characters from the show; they looked so much like the original actors. The action sequences are done exceedingly well and there is a real sense of motion in some of the scenes that bring all the fights to life. The artwork and the colour schemes help add a lot of dread or unease to several scenes throughout the volume, which add a lot more to story. The artwork in this new version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was first rate and really exciting.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High School is Hell represents a bold new direction for the Buffy franchise, and one that I am quite excited for. The alternate timeline that the creative team has decided to set this story in is quite an intriguing concept that works exceedingly well. Bellaire has come up with a captivating initial storyline that is enhanced by Mora’s artwork. This series will definitely appeal to fans of the original television series, who will love seeing these great characters altered in a brand-new timeline. It is also easily accessible to those readers less familiar with the show and could be a good starting point for those who want to check out the franchise. This volume is highly recommended, and I am looking forward to the future inclusions in this excellent new comic book series.