Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

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

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

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

Series: Star Wars

Script: Sarah Kuhn

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

Length: 5 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ink by Jonathan Maberry

Ink Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 17 November 2020)

Series: Standalone/Pine Deep series

Length: 15 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to journey back to the weirdly dangerous town of Pine Deep as one of my favourite authors, Jonathan Maberry, presents his latest novel, Ink, an intriguing and clever horror thriller that dives down into the world of memories and tattoos.

Pine Deep, Pennsylvania is a town long-steeped in blood and death.  After barely surviving the terrible events of 15 years ago, now known by the locals as The Trouble, the town has slowly recovered, with fresh businesses and people bringing in new life.  However, no one is ever truly safe in Pine Deep, especially with a malicious predator haunting the streets, one with very particular appetites.

Monk Addison is man who has experienced many weird and horrifying things in his life, but what he is about to encounter in Pine Deep will shake him to his core.  A bounty hunter who has sought redemption in life by covering his body with tattoos depicting the faces of murder victims, Monk has recently moved to Pine Deep to be closer to his friend and tattoo-artist Patty Cakes, but what he arrives he finds Patty in a state of shock.  An important tattoo on Patty’s hand has started to disappear, and as it fades, so do the memories associated with it until Patty can no longer remember anything about, not even the precious person who inspired it.

As Monk desperately tries to understand what is happening to his friend, a pattern begins to emerge.  Several people within Pine Deep are experiencing losses of traumatic or significant memories, and in every case tattoos related to these events have also disappeared.  Worse, in some cases new tattoos are appearing on people, forcing them to do terrible deeds.  Working with Pine Deep’s chief of police, Malcolm Crow, and his adopted son, Mike Sweeney, Monk, Patty and other impacted residents of Pine Deep attempt to discover who or what is behind these stolen memories.  But can they find who is responsible before their memories fade, or will this predator continue to feast on the very thing that makes them human?  The Lord of the Flies is hungry, and his reign of terror has only just begun!

Over the last couple of years, I have become a major fan of Jonathan Maberry’s writings, and I only just recently finished reading all 10 Joe Ledger novels, as well as the first Rogue Team International book, Rage, so I was very excited to get my next fix of Maberry excitement with InkInk was one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020, and it really did not disappoint in any way, as Maberry has produced an intense and captivating horror novel that proved to be both extremely exciting and deeply terrifying.

Ink is an outstanding and impressive book that contains one heck of a story that sees several remarkable characters attempt to deal with a weird and powerfully scary supernatural threat that is attempting to destroy what is most precious to them.  Maberry has crafted together a fantastic narrative for this book that is equal parts clever, compelling and scary, and which dives down deep into the psyche of several complex individuals.  The author utilises his trademark style to produce a wide-ranging, multi-character story that shows the full impact of the antagonist’s dark machinations, and the slow hunt of the protagonists to comprehend what is happening to them, and their subsequent attempts to combat the threat.  While I did think that the story was a little slow at the start, once it gets going the reader has a hard time putting it down, as they become obsessed with seeing the full extent of the horror, as well as becoming connected to the characters featured within.  While Ink contains a lot less action than a typical Maberry novel, this is an extremely exciting and fast-paced read, with the thrilling game of cat and mouse between the villain and his victims proving to be quite intense.  Readers should be warned that this is an extremely adult read, containing some fairly graphic sequences of violence, torture, mental manipulation and sexual content, which may not be for everyone.  Overall though, this is an exceptional read, and I really loved getting to the end of this enthralling and excellent narrative.

While Ink is ostensibly a standalone novel, in many ways it is a sequel to Maberry’s debut series, the Pine Deep trilogy, while also being set in the same universe as several of his other books, namely the Joe Ledger novels.  The entirety of Ink is set in the town of Pine Deep, which was the titular setting of the original trilogy.  As a result, several characters from these books appear throughout the course of the novel and there are a lot of mentions of the events of the Pine Deep trilogy, some of which play into the plot.  While you potentially could get a little more out of Ink by reading the Pine Deep novels first, I would say that you really do not need any prior knowledge of these books to enjoy Maberry’s latest novel.  Like always, Maberry’s writing is very inclusive, providing the reader with relevant information about the events that occurred in these previous novels.  As a result, the reader gets a decent summary of what occurred in the Pine Deep trilogy and how it relates to Ink.  This allows readers unfamiliar with the Pine Deep books to enjoy Ink without any issues, and this might even be a good Maberry starter novel for anyone who has been interested in reading some of his books.  On the other hand, those fans of Maberry who are familiar with this prior trilogy will no doubt really enjoy the return to this iconic setting and will have an amazing time seeing what has happened in the 15 years following the end of Bad Moon Rising (the third and final book in the Pine Deep trilogy).  The summaries of the Pine Deep novels contained within Ink are rather easy to get through and Maberry works them into the story extremely well, so those people familiar with these prior works should be able to read them without getting bored of a forced recap, and this is book that any horror or thriller fan can easily enjoy.

At the heart of Ink are the excellent main point-of-view characters that Maberry utilises to tell his complex tale.  There are several major characters featured throughout the book, including several original characters created specifically for Ink.  The most notable of these is Monk Addison, the relentless and scary former soldier who is desperately seeking redemption after a long and bloody life.  Monk turned out to be an amazing central character for this book and I loved the way that Maberry slowly revealed his past in order to show just how special he his.  Monk goes through a fair bit of development in this novel, and I found myself getting quite attached to him as the story progressed.  In addition to Monk, Ink also has a particular focus on Patty Cakes, Monk’s tattoo artist friend whose memories are impacted by the book’s antagonist.  Patty is a deeply tragic and magical character who has gone through a lot in her life and who now finds herself being attacked in a much more personal and devastating way.  Seeing Patty being overwhelmed by the loss of her memories is really disturbing and heartbreaking and you cannot help but feel her loss deep in your soul, which is a testament to Maberry’s excellent writing.  Patty is another character who you grow to care for as the story unfolds and the constant danger she is put into, both mentally and physically, keeps the reader on edge.  The other two original major characters I need to highlight are Dianna and Gayle.  Dianna is a medium who also has her memories stolen by Ink’s antagonist, while Gayle is someone who builds a connection to Dianna, who is then impacted by Gayle’s lost memories in a different way.  I liked the way that Dianna and Gayle were worked into the story, and they helped to provide a new angle to the narrative.  Watching them team up with Patty added some enjoyable female empowerment elements to the novel, and there is a touching LGBT romance between Dianne and Gayle that I thought Maberry handled well, even if it was a tad explicit.

In addition to these new characters, Maberry also makes use of the protagonists from the Pine Deep novels who return as major characters in Ink.  This includes major characters Malcolm Crow, Mike Sweeney, Val Guthrie and Jonatha Corbiel (now Jonatha Newton).  While Val and Jonatha have mostly smaller roles in this book, Malcolm and Mike are major point-of-view characters, performing their own investigation of the latest batch of weird events occurring around Pine Deep.  Both proved to be exceptional additions to the cast, as not only are they complex characters (especially after the events of the Pine Deep trilogy), but they also add some distinctive viewpoints into the investigate parts of the book.  Maberry does a fantastic job introducing these characters to new readers, while those who have read the Pine Deep books will deeply appreciate seeing what has happened to them since the events of this initial trilogy.  While I am sure that many of Maberry’s readers would have hoped for happy lives for Malcolm, Mike and Val after all they have been through, all three characters have experienced additional difficulties and tragedies in the last 15 years.  These additional life events, as well as their traumas from the Pine Deep books, are expertly incorporated into their characterisation for Ink, and it proved deeply compelling to see their arcs unfold.  I personally enjoyed seeing the new protagonists’ reactions when encountering Malcolm and Mike, and there are a lot of depictions about realising how dark, dangerous and damaged both of them are.  Some of these new characters are also in for a hair-raising surprise when it comes to Mike, and it was interesting to see how that certain aspect of Mike’s character has evolved since his last book.  All of the characters featured in Ink were deeply compelling, and I felt that Maberry did an exceptional job featuring them throughout this novel.

If there is one thing that Maberry is particularly good at it, it is creating iconic and despicable antagonists for his novels.  Ink is no exception to this, as Maberry has once again produced a dark and sinister figure in Owen Minor, the self-proclaimed Lord of the Flies.  Owen is an inherently creepy and deeply disturbing individual who has gained the ability to steal people’s tattoos and the associated memories with them, as well as several other abilities.  Thanks to a series of intriguing interludes, Maberry dives into the history of Owen, showing his origins as a character, what his motivations are and how he realised what his powers were.  This examination of Owen’s psyche and history is both fascinating and unsettling and getting this deeper look into the character’s soul makes the reader dislike him even more, especially as you begin to realise just how twisted he truly is.  The author also includes a number of chapters from the point of view of several different side characters who have been infected by Owen in some way or another.  These scenes not only help to explore the true extent of his abilities but they also show the lengths he is willing to go to get his favourite meal.  The way in which he attacks his victims and then revels in their mental agony ensures that the reader builds a deep hatred for him and you really cannot wait to see him get some form of comeuppance.  All in all, this was another great antagonist from Maberry, and I look forward to seeing what sort of maniac creature he comes up with next time.

As I mentioned above, Maberry returns to his iconic town of Pine Deep for this latest novel, with most of the story set within it.  This proves to be a fascinating and dark location for this great book, and I think that Maberry had fun revisiting this haunted town.  The author really loads a sense of menace and despair into nearly every scene set within the town, and this is enhanced by every character recognising just how weird and dangerous the place can be.  There is a lot of history associated with Pine Deep, as during the original Pine Deep trilogy the town was nearly destroyed by dark forces, with the survivors deeply traumatised as a result.  These events, now know by everyone as The Troubles, are a major part of the town’s identity, and Maberry does a great job teasing out what happened during The Troubles to new readers, with only hints and vague comments describing for the first part of the book.  It proved to be quite fascinating to see how the town has recovered in the roughly 15 years since the events of the Pine Deep trilogy, and Maberry fans will have an amazing time seeing this continuation of the setting.  I really enjoyed seeing the characters explore Pine Deep once again and I hope that Maberry has plans to revisit again in some of his future novels.

One of the more compelling elements of this book is the author’s examination of the importance of tattoos and the memories that people associate with them.  I have to admit that I am not particularly into tattoos; while I can appreciate the cool art that other people get, it is really not something I would consider doing for myself.  However, I deeply enjoyed the way in which Maberry explored the tattoo world in this novel, examining both tattoo artists and the people who desire the art on their body.  In particular, he explores the way in which people get tattoos to mark special or significant occasions, or how tattoos can be used to memorialise tragedy or dark moments from someone’s life and the emotional and memory connections that result from the tattoos.  This becomes quite a significant part of the novel, because the antagonist steals the tattoos to get to the memories associated with it.  As a result, Maberry than examines the impact of losing such a memory and what it could potentially do it to a person.  While some characters manage ok with losing these darker memories, a lot of them are deeply troubled by it, as going through these events and overcoming them, are key to their identity.  Without these memories, and the tattoos that personify them on their body, these characters become despondent, and in many cases it becomes too much for them to bear.  It helps to really emphasise just how evil and malignant the actions of the antagonist is, and I really appreciated the author’s dives into the human psyche and his compelling depiction of what happens when someone loses their memory and identity.  The removal of certain memories from the various point-of-view characters also adds a new level of difficulty to the protagonist’s investigation, as they have to try and find a way to hunt down someone who they can’t remember.  These inclusions really added a lot to the story, and readers may come away with a deeper understanding of how important tattoos can be to people.

As with all of Maberry’s novels that I have so far enjoyed, I really could not resist grabbing the audiobook version of Ink.  The Ink audiobook has a run time of just over 15 hours, which is a typical length for one of Maberry’s novels, and I found it extremely easy to power through this book in less than a week.  Part of this was because of the excellent narration of long-time Maberry narrator, Ray Porter, who once again lends his awesome vocal talent to this thrilling book.  Porter is probably one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment, and I cannot imagine listening to one of Maberry’s novels without his amazing voices.  Just like he does in the Joe Ledger novels, Porter really dives into the characters he is portraying, ensuring that the full range of their emotions become abundantly clear to anyone to who listening to the story.  He is also does an amazing job enhancing the horror elements of this book with some of his creepier tones, and the listener can get chills at the horrible and slimy voices he uses for the antagonist or for some of the darker scenes in Ink.  While it was a little disconcerting at time to hear some of the familiar voices from the Joe Ledger audiobooks in this new novel, Porter was once again fantastic narrating Ink, and I would strongly recommend this format as the ideal way to check this book out.

Jonathan Maberry once again shows why he is one of the preeminent authors of the weird thriller novel, with this outstanding horror book InkInk is an extremely clever and thrilling horror book that grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning and refuses to let go.  Thanks to the outstanding narrative, impressive characters and interesting themes, Ink proves to be a captivating and exciting read, especially when combined with the distinctive setting of Pine Deep from Maberry’s previous novels.  As a result, Ink comes highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, and this novel is worth checking out.  I had an exceptional time reading this book and I cannot wait for Maberry’s next novel, Relentless, which comes out in several long months.

The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt

The Queen's Captain Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Colonial series – Book Three

Length: 358 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s top historical fiction authors, Peter Watt, wraps up his ultra-exciting Colonial series with the third and final novel, The Queen’s Captain.

Watt is a fantastic Australian author who has written a huge collection of amazing historical fiction novels, most of which are set in Australia or feature Australian characters.  I have been a fan of Watt’s books for several years now and I have been particularly enjoying his current body of work, the Colonial series.  The Colonial books, which started back in 2018 with The Queen’s Colonial, follow the adventures of Ian Steele, a colonial blacksmith who manages to enlist as an officer in the British army under the name Captain Samuel Forbes, taking the identity of a friend who wished to sit out his military service.  While the real Samuel leaves to go to America, Ian fights in his place for a period of 10 years, which will allow Samuel to claim a substantial inheritance from his ruthless family.  This has so far been a really fun series, and I enjoyed reading The Queen’s Colonial and The Queen’s Tiger.  I have been looking forward to reading this third novel in the series for some time now and I was very excited when I received my copy, especially because the back cover quoted my Canberra Weekly review of The Queen’s Tiger.  I ended up having an awesome time reading this book, and it proved to be another fast-paced and compelling read.

In October 1863, Ian Steele is still fighting for the British crown as Captain Samuel Forbes, known to his men as the Queen’s Colonial.  After helping to put down the Indian Mutiny, Samuel and his comrades, including his long-time friend Sergeant Major Conan Curry, are fighting the Pashtun in the treacherous mountain passes on the north-western frontier of India.  With only a few months left until the 10-year deal with the real Samuel Forbes concludes, Ian is determined to survive so he can claim his reward and finally settle down.  However, with his typical bad luck, he finds himself drawn into several high-profile missions, including a dangerous operation to eliminate a murderous rebel army camped in the jungle.

As Ian fights for Queen and country, his friends are engaged in their own adventures.  In America, the real Samuel Forbes has followed the man he loves into battle, become a lieutenant in the Union army to fight the Confederates.  Back in London, Ella, the women Ian loves, has entered into an unhappy marriage to Russian Count Nikolai Kasatkin.  Determined to have one piece of happiness, Ella attempts to reclaim the son she had with Ian, but the jealous Nikolai will do the unthinkable to spite her.  At the same time, Samuel’s ruthless older brother, Charles Forbes, continues his relentless bid for power and money, while still determined to prove that the Samuel serving in the British army is an imposter.

All of this will come to a head down in the colonies in 1864.  As Ian is transferred to New Zealand to provide advice to the soldiers fighting against the determined Maori, he will come face to face with an old enemy, and the final chapters of his story will be told.  Friends will die, people will be changed in unexpected ways and the Queen’s Colonial will fight his last battle.  How will the story end?

The Queen’s Captain was another excellent novel from Watt, who has produced an exciting and fascinating conclusion to his latest series.  Like the rest of the books in the Colonial series, The Queen’s Captain is an extremely fast-paced story told from a series of different character perspectives around the world.  The book is broken up into two distinctive parts (although the second part only contains the last 100 pages) and features a number of compelling action and intrigue orientated storylines.  This is an extremely easy novel to get into, even for those readers who have not previously enjoyed the Colonial series, and I was able to finish it off in a short period of time as I got caught up in the various battles and double-crosses.  Watt really took this final entry in his series in some interesting directions, and readers will be intrigued by the various ways he finishes up the Colonial books.  There was a real focus on wrapping up every single storyline and character arc throughout The Queen’s Captain, and I really enjoyed the way in which Watt brought the series to end, especially as the overarching narratives comes full circle.  Overall, I felt that The Queen’s Captain was a fantastic way to conclude the Colonial series and readers are in for a real treat with this book.

Like all of Watt’s novels, The Queen’s Captain makes use of a substantial number of point-of-view characters to tell the story.  This is a combination of some of the established characters from the previous Colonial novels as well as several new characters.  This makes for a rather intriguing, character driven novel, especially as Watt was apparently determined to wrap up as many character arcs as possible for this final entry in the series.  There is a particular focus on the characters of Ian, Samuel, Ella, Charles, and Ian and Ella’s child, Josiah, although many of the other point-of-view characters get their time to shine and Watt ensures that they have a decent backstory.  I have really enjoyed seeing several of these characters develop over the course of the series, and it has been rather heart-warming to see how the hard events of their lives has changed several of them.  I was particularly impressed with the characterisation of the real Samuel Forbes in The Queen’s Captain, as he had a fantastic arc in this book.  Samuel, whose hatred of war is a major plot point of the series, actually joins the Union army in this book, following his love James Thorpe into battle, and while he still detests being a soldier, he shows some natural flair as an officer.  I thought that this inclusion in the book was extremely fascinating, and I loved how Samuel’s arc in this book mirrored that of his body-double Ian, with both of them gaining a reputation for courage and bravery from their soldiers, and both gaining an affectionate nickname from their men, with Samuel becoming known as “the Limey Officer”.  Samuel’s storyline in this book is really good, full of all manner of tragedy, heartbreak and dramatic moments, and readers will be deeply surprised how it ends up.  I also have to highlight the character of Charles Forbes in this book.  Charles serves as the series’ main antagonist, as he is determined to bring down both Ian and Samuel while gaining as much power as possible.  Charles is an extremely slimy villain who the reader cannot help but dislike, and I know I had a rather good time seeing him gradually get some comeuppance in this book.  I also quite enjoyed the various ways in which Watt provided conclusions to nearly all the side-characters featured in the series.  Some of these are rather entertaining (I had a good laugh at one in particular), and it was great to get some closure on all of these excellent characters at the end. 

The major highlights of this book are the awesome and thrilling action sequences as The Queen’s Captain’s characters journey through several intense and dangerous battlefields around the world.  The Queen’s Captain features several interesting and impressive battle scenes from around the world and possibly has the greatest variety out of all the books in the Colonial series.  Not only do you have a number of great sequences in India as Ian fights both the Pashtun in the mountains and a group of rebels in the jungle, but you also have battles from the American Civil War as Samuel fights against the Confederates.  There are also some sequences that feature the Maori fighting against the British and the New Zealand settlers which really stand out, despite the fact that this particular conflict only occurs for a short while towards the end of the novel.  Watt has clearly done his research around these battles, as they are loaded with historical detail about the typical combatants and the weapons and tactics they utilised.  The author does an amazing job bringing these sequences to life, and you get a real sense of the desperation and the horror that the participants would have felt on these fields.  I particularly enjoyed the author’s examination of the differences between small-scale guerrilla skirmishes (several of which occur throughout The Queen’s Captain), compared to the larger-scale battles of the past, and Watt includes several hints about how combat was likely to occur in the future.  All these action scenes are extremely awesome to read and they are a great part of The Queen’s Captain, especially as they help the plot to move along at a faster pace.

The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt was another amazing and enjoyable historical fiction novel that takes the reader on a series of fast-paced adventures around the world.  Watt has done an awesome job wrapping up his Colonial series and readers will have a fantastic time seeing how he has concluded the various storylines and character arcs he has set up over the previous two novels.  A fun and exciting read, The Queen’s Captain comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what cool series Peter Watt comes up with next.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 4 August 2020)

Series: The Locked Tomb – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 51 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sensational author Tamsyn Muir follows up her incredible 2019 debut with another epic, complex and infinitely entertaining hybrid novel, Harrow the Ninth.

Tamsyn Muir burst onto the writing scene with a real vengeance last year with her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in The Locked Tomb series.  Gideon the Ninth was an extremely clever and compelling novel that followed a group of spacefaring necromancers who were summoned to the house of their Emperor and god, and given an opportunity to learn from him and become Lyctors, immortal beings with immense necromantic power who are considered to be living saints.  What they instead found was a haunted manor filled with secrets, weird experiments and mysterious hints at the past.  The protagonist of this first novel was the titular Gideon, a smart assed, foul mouthed lesbian swordswoman who was reluctantly serving the necromantic lady of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.  I absolutely loved Gideon the Ninth and it was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019.  As a result, I was rather intrigued when I heard about its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (which, as you can see above, featured another intense and beautiful cover by the talented Tommy Arnold) and I eagerly grabbed an audiobook copy of it when it came out.  I have to say that I am extremely glad that I decided to do so as Harrow the Ninth turned out to be a truly outstanding book and I had an incredible time reading it.

Harrow the Ninth is set shortly after the dramatic conclusion to Gideon the Ninth and switches the focus of the novel over to Harrowhark, who has succeeded in becoming a Lyctor at great personal cost.  Now alone, mentally scarred and more powerful than ever, Harrow finds herself in the personal care of the Emperor of the Nine Houses, who is determined to use his new Lyctor in a deadly war against an ancient and powerful terror, a Resurrection Beast, the insane and vengeful ghost of a murdered planet.

Travelling to the Mithraeum, the Emperor’s isolated sanctum, Harrow finds herself trapped aboard a desolate space station with her god and her fellow Lyctors.  Each of her companions on the station has their own agenda and motive for being there, and all of them are seeking to use Harrow for their own ends.  Worse, as Harrow attempts to learn the full extent of her new powers and abilities, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong with her transition to Lyctorhood.  Her body keeps failing her, her swordcraft is shoddy, her blade makes her nauseous and her mind keeps presenting her with impossible scenarios.

As the Resurrection Beast comes ever closer to the Mithraeum, Harrow desperately attempts to understand everything that is happening to her and learn how to survive the oncoming attack.  However, she finds herself distracted with the machinations and plots of her untrustworthy rival and the attitudes of her three ancient tutors, especially as at least one of them is trying to kill her.  Can Harrow unwrap all of the dark secrets that lie hidden on the Mithraeum before it is too late, or will the entire Empire fall into ruin before them?

Well damn, now that was a truly enjoyable and incredible read.  Harrow the Ninth is a complex, clever, entertaining and exceptionally well written novel that does an awesome job following on from Muir’s impressive first novel.  I had an absolutely amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I think in many ways is somewhat stronger than Gideon the Ninth.  Not only does Harrow the Ninth have a deeply captivating story that successfully utilises elements from a range of different genres, but it also features some memorable and compelling characters, excellent universe building and a magical system that really stands out thanks to its descriptive necromantic powers.  Harrow the Ninth also serves as a marvellous follow-up to Gideon the Ninth, continuing the clever story from the first book with the same distinctive tone and writing style, while also featuring an intriguing reimagining of prior events.  All of these makes for an epic read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this amazing novel is an intense and multilayered narrative that presents a compelling tale of love, tragedy, treachery and self-discovery.  The story is actually split into several distinct sections, with the main storyline focusing on Harrow after her transformation to Lyctorhood as she spends time in the Mithraeum with the Emperor and the other Lyctors.  This part of the book expertly jumps back and forth through time and is an extremely entertaining part of the book, detailing Harrow’s education under the Emperor and the other Lyctors and her attempts to survive the various internal politics, plots and personal chaos.  The other major part of the story shows a curious alternate version of the events of Gideon the Ninth, shown from Harrow’s point of view, made distinctive due to the complete lack of Gideon, who appears to be erased out of existence.  This alternate version of the prior book is a really intriguing part of Harrow the Ninth’s story, and while I was initially a little confused about why it was included and where Gideon had disappeared to, it proved to be an extremely clever and compelling part of the book, especially when everything becomes fully revealed.  Due to this reimagining of already existing narrative, as well as the continued references to the events of the first book, readers interested in checking out Harrow the Ninth really do need to have read Gideon the Ninth first, as the story gets a little confusing and significantly less impactful without this established knowledge.

These separate storylines complement each other is exceedingly cleverly.  This novel does start off a tad slow, but this is mainly because Muir is re-establishing the narrative from the previous book and loading up the front end of the story with hints and foreshadowing about the multitude or revelations that come throughout the course of the plot.  A lot of big events and reveals occur towards the end of Harrow the Ninth, including a few reveals that were hinted at in the previous novel, and I felt that the author set all of these up perfectly.  This results in an extremely epic conclusion to the novel and I was really impressed by how it all turned out.  This novel contains a unique blend of genres, as Harrow the Ninth features elements from the fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller and murder mystery genres.  All of these disparate features work together extremely well in the story and it helps to produce a distinctive and entertaining narrative, especially as Muir adds on a rather good comedic edge.  The end result is a fascinating and exceedingly captivating overarching narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting pleasantly blindsided by the inventive twists and turns.

This excellent and unique story is expertly supported by a distinctive writing style that I felt did an amazing job enhancing the narrative.  Perhaps one of the most noticeable elements is the clever narration that accompanies the story.  While Harrow is the point of view character for most of the novel, she is not actually the one narrating the story.  Instead Harrow’s actions, emotions and thoughts are identified, summarised, and relayed back to Harrow by an unidentified second person narrator.  Naturally, this proved to be an interesting and unusual way to tell this story, although it works well in the context of the overall narrative, even if it takes a little to get used to.  This narrative format plays into certain character reveals and plot points of the novel and it makes a lot of sense once you get further into the book, with the style itself actually being a hint about what is happening with Harrow.  This narration style changes at a certain point towards the end of the book in accordance with certain plot developments and the subsequent deviation is clever and reminiscent of past events.  I also really must highlight the author’s extremely descriptive form of story writing, as every event, person or location is described in overly vivid detail.  Not only did this ensure that the reader got the full breadth of certain magical action and developments but it also helped to enhance the overall gothic feel of the book and ensure that reader was able to easily imagine the various locations the protagonist found themself in.  This really helped the story to shine and I have a lot of love for how Muir was able to work story elements into this style.

In addition to the great story that Muir has come up with for this book, Harrow the Ninth also boasts an impressive array of amazing characters.  The central protagonist is the titular Harrow, who takes over from Gideon as the main character after the first book.  Harrow is a vastly different character to Gideon as she has a much more subdued personality, less self-esteem, and a more restrained, subtler sense of humour.  Due to Gideon’s somewhat biased narration in the first novel Harrow was mostly viewed as an extremely arrogant, confident, and brilliant person, and this is how Harrow attempts to act throughout most of the novel.  However, certain vulnerabilities in Harrow’s character that were previously explored in Gideon the Ninth once again come to the fore in this second novel.  Harrow was already an extremely complex individual, having been birthed by dark magic, ended up being responsible for the death of her own parents and having an interesting love interest.  However, following her alteration into Lyctorhood, Harrow is a much more damaged person due to the absorption of her cavalier.  Harrow’s already fractured psyche is made even worse throughout the course of the book, as she sees all manner of things that are not there and has some very different ideas of the past or how she perceives the world.  In addition, Harrow bears an immense amount of guilt on her shoulders as a result of various events in her past and the many deaths on her conscience.  Harrow needs to work through all these issues throughout the course of the story if she has a chance to survive, and this becomes a major and dramatic part of the story that was really intriguing to explore.  I had an amazing time seeing the story primarily through Harrow’s eyes and it was a refreshing and compelling change of pace from the first book.

Harrow the Ninth also focuses on a great collection of supporting characters who add some intrigue and drama to the story.  Perhaps the most distinctive side characters in this novel are the five beings that Harrow finds herself trapped with aboard the Mithraeum, the Emperor of the Nine Houses and his four other Lyctors.  This is an extremely fascinating collection of people and much of the story revolves around Harrow’s unique interactions with them as each of them attempts to teach her, manipulate her or kill her at various points within the book.  These characters are really entertaining and distinctive, from the seemingly kind, patient, and infinitely calm Emperor, to the three ancient Lyctors, the cool and confident Augustine, the exceedingly self-involved Mercymorn and the ultra-focused and lethal Ortus.  In addition, we see the return of the manipulative Ianthe, who became a Lyctor at the same time as Harrow and who forms a very distinctive relationship with her throughout the course of the book.  I really enjoyed the complex interactions and relationships that forms between all of these characters (including some wild relationships between various participants), with the Emperor acting as the father figure, the three existing Lyctors portrayed as older siblings who have a complicated power dynamic with each other, while Ianthe and Harrow are the younger sisters learning the ropes from the others.

I also have to highlight the inclusion of several other characters who previously appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  It was rather intriguing to see many of these characters return, especially as most of them died or appeared to die in the prior novel.  Muir does a fantastic job working them into the fabric of this novel, such as by featuring some of them in the alternate version of the events of the first book, changing their roles and impacts on the story as a result.  I particularly enjoyed the extended role of Ortus, cavalier of the Ninth House.  Ortus, not to be confused with the Lyctor mentioned above (although the names are actually a clever clue to a big reveal), died early on in the events of Gideon the Ninth.  But in this book the dour Ortus serves as a fantastic yet reluctant companion to Harrow, with surprising hidden depths and an entertaining obsession with gloomy epic poems and verse.  He is also essentially the complete opposite to Gideon, resulting in a very different dynamic between necromancer and cavalier then we saw in the prior book.  Overall, I have to say that I was exceedingly impressed with the characters featured within this amazing novel.  Each of these complex and memorable characters added a heck of a lot to the story and it was deeply fascinating to see each of their storylines unravel and come to their compelling conclusions.

One of the major elements of this series that I love so much is the weird and wonderful necromantic magical system complements the science fiction of the book.  Pretty much all of the main characters in this book are powerful necromancers, specialising in a different form or style of necromantic magic.  All of this magic is extremely cool, and it was really awesome seeing it utilised in fight sequences and other scenes throughout the book.  Most of the magical elements revolve around Harrow’s bone magic, as she creates skeleton and bone constructs, manipulates her own bones to either enhance herself or detach them to make weapons or other creations, as well as elements of biological alteration.  Muir does an outstanding job explaining the full range of different powers that Harrow has, and there are some amazing scenes where the young necromancer does some really inventive and clever things with her bones.  There is one sequence in particular that sticks in the mind, and I’ll certainly remember it when eating soup in the future. 

In addition to Harrow’s abilities, Muir also showcases the creative and impactful abilities and magical powers that some of the other characters have.  These various abilities are all biological or spiritual in nature, and it was quite fun to see what the different necromancers can do, especially when they go up against Harrow’s bone magic.  All these magic scenes feature some rather vivid imagery and descriptions from Muir as she tries to show the full biological manipulations that are occurring, which really help to make these scenes pop.  The author also does a truly fascinating deep dive into the origins and mechanics of her unique magical system.  A lot of these new magical elements are explained to protagonist in some detail from one of her teachers, so the reader is able to understand these elements really well, and a lot of the lessons and explanations of magic have major impacts on the story down the line.  This proved to be an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of the book and I have a lot of love for Muir’s creativity when it comes to her version of necromantic magic.

I also have a lot of love for the distinctive gothic settings that Muir has imagined up for this series.  Each of the central story locations are filled up with all manner of dark and macabre trappings and features, which the author does a fantastic job bringing to life with her descriptive writing.  This includes the dreary and dark Mithraeum, a vast and mostly abandoned space station where most of the story takes place, as well as an alternate version of the First House that appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  All of these locations are described in great detail and each of these fun and distinctive settings helps to present a darker vibe to story and helps makes this series more unique and memorable as a result.  Harrow the Ninth also contains some rather captivating and inventive universe building expansions as the author attempts to introduce new things into her universe.  All of these extensions to this universe are really clever, playing into the story really well and I loved learning more about this fun fictional setting which does so much to enhance the story. 

I found that the audiobook format of Harrow the Ninth proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing novel.  With a run length of just under 20 hours the Harrow the Ninth audiobook does require a bit of a commitment to get through it, although I felt that it was really worth the time investment.  I do have to admit that it took me a little while to finish this audiobook, especially at the start.  However, I absolutely flew through the second half of the novel once I became extremely invested in the story, and I managed to knock out the final six hours in rather short succession.  I have to highlight the fantastic narrator for this audiobook, Moria Quirk, who does an outstanding job telling the story and bringing the various characters to life.  I felt that Quirk utilised perfect voices for each of the main characters and you get a real sense of each character’s personalities and emotions from this vocal work, from the calm, composed tones of the Emperor to the exceedingly petulant voice of the Lyctor Mercymorn.  This excellent voice work really added a lot to this audiobook. I really think that Harrow the Ninth translates well into the audiobook format, and listening to it really added to my enjoyment of this second novel, especially as I absorbed a lot more of the detail and gothic atmosphere through the narration.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was an epic and exceptional piece of fiction that I deeply enjoyed, and which comes highly recommended.  Not only did Muir present an impressive follow-up to her amazing debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, but she was able to turn out a complex and beautifully written sequel that proved extremely hard to stop listening to.  Powerful, cleverly written and just generally outrageous, Harrow the Ninth is an outstanding read and you have no discovered Tamysn Muir and her fantastic pieces of literature, you are really missing out. 

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Shadow Fall Cover

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

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars: 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

Doctor Aphra Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon

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

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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.