Throwback Thursday: Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf by William King

Space Wolf Original Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Ragnar series – Book One

Length: 266 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday I dive into the world of the Space Wolves chapter of Space Marines with the classic Warhammer 40,000 novel, Space Wolf by William King.

The Warhammer 40,000 expanded universe is truly blessed with the sheer range of unique stories that it contains.  From pulse-pounding crime novels (Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty), deeply fascinating novels about aliens (Ruin, Reign and Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!), haunting horror tales (The Bookkeeper’s Skull), and even brutal war stories by common soldiers (Steel Tread and First and Only).  However, at the end of the day, most of the more intriguing stories focus on the iconic and awesome Space Marines.  These genetically enhanced and over-armoured warriors are often the true MVPs of the Warhammer canon, with some great series based on them (for example, the 50+ book Horus Heresy series).  There are a ton of great Warhammer 40,000 series around the Space Marines that I am exceedingly keen to get into, and I was recently lucky enough to find a copy of the first book of one of them which I immediately dived into.

That book was Space Wolf by William King, who I best know from his epic work in the Warhammer Fantasy franchise with his Gotrek and Felix series (check out my reviews for Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  Space Wolf is the first book in King’s six-part Ragnar series (also known as the Space Wolf and Wolfclaw series).  Focused on the character of Ragnar, a legendary member of the Space Wolves chapter, this series sounded really cool, especially as I have been really enjoying King’s writing lately.  I ended up having a great time with this novel which contains an awesome and very fun story.

In the far future, humanity is constantly at war with aliens, daemons, traitors, and heretics, all of whom wish to tear the massive and fragile Imperium of Man to shreds.  Humanities best and often last line of defence are the mighty Space Marines, the Emperor’s angels who fight the very worst xenos and spawns of the Chaos Gods.  Out of all the Space Marine chapters, one of the most respected, feared and honoured chapters are the Space Wolves.  Born from the genetic material of their legendary founder, Leman Russ, and bearing the touch of the wolf, the Space Wolves have stood tall time and time again.  But how does a mere man become a bestial and lethal Space Wolf?

On the planet of Fenris, Ragnar Thunderfist is a young warrior, content to work on his father’s ship and contend with the many dangers of his fierce and low-tech home world.  During a raid upon his village by a rival tribe, Ragnar is killed in a mightily duel after felling many enemies.  However, this is not the end of Ragnar’s journey; instead he finds himself waking up healed, resurrected by one of the mysterious Wolf Priests who watch over the planet.  Taken from the ruins of his village with other worthy aspirants, Ragnar learns that he has been chosen to become a member of the next generation of Space Wolves.

However, earning the right to join the Space Wolves is no easy task, and Ragnar soon embarks on a gruelling and lethal training regime that will test him to his very limit.  Working to hone himself into a living weapon, Ragnar will face trials, monsters and deadly rivalries as he attempts to prove himself.  But even if he is found worthy, the greatest trial involves the final transformation into a Space Marine.  The Canis Helix, which is implanted into all Space Wolves, bears a dangerous curse, which may turn even the strongest of wills into wild beasts.  Can Ragnar overcome the bestial rage that comes with this awesome gift, or will he lose his mind before he can serve the Emperor?  And what happens with the legions of Chaos arrive upon Fenris?

Space Wolf Cover 2

This was another exceptionally exciting and compelling read from William King, who perfectly starts another epic Warhammer series.  Space Wolf had a very different tone and structure to some of King’s other books that I have enjoyed, and I found myself getting really invested in this intriguing story of survival, self-discovery, and destiny.  Starting with an intriguing glance at the present, Space Wolf jumps back into the protagonist’s past, showing Ragnar’s formative years and the events that led to him being chosen by the Space Wolves.  Primarily told from the perspective of Ragnar, with a few sections told by an antagonistic alternate narrator, Space Wolf quickly turns into a fascinating examination of the intense training faced by potential Space Wolves recruits.  Most of the story follows the various stages of this intense military training and eventual genetic modification, and it was absolutely fascinating to see the changes the protagonist goes through.  While there is a lot of focus on expanding the lore and the character changes associated with it, King tells a concise and powerful story that really dives into the mind and personality of its protagonists.  This extended and brutal training sequence and initiations eventually leads up to the protagonist’s first mission as a Space Marine, which sees him and his team, many of whom you have also come to know, face off against an insidious foe on their own home world.  This last part of the book provides a ton of action, some intriguing horror aspects, and the introduction of a compelling antagonist who will likely show up in future entries in the series.  This final section really brings the entire narrative together extremely well, showcasing what the protagonist has been working towards, while also resolving some great character arcs.  I had a really fun time with this entire novel, and it has definitely made me keen to check out the rest of the series when I get a chance.

One of the most intriguing parts of Space Wolf was the way that it fits into the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Specifically, this novel serves as a particularly good introduction to the legendary Space Wolves Space Marines chapter, who are one of the more popular factions in the extended universe.  King chooses to look at them from a rather unique direction, showing them purely from the perspective of the protagonist Ragnar, an inhabitant of a Norse-esque society with no concepts of space travel, advanced technology, or the wider universe outside of their lands, and whose understanding of the Emperor, the Chaos Gods, the Space Marines and more comes purely from myths and legends.  As such, for much of the novel Ragnar and his fellow initiates have no idea who the Space Wolves are, or what they have been chosen for.  The snippets they continue to get slowly inform them of the wider picture, and it was fascinating to see their blind faith that they were working towards something greater.  Their eventual initiation comes as a great shock to them, and seeing these previously simple warriors become elite Space Marines with knowledge of the wider universe results in some awesome and intriguing scenes.  I found it really fun to see the similarities and differences between the characters when they were normal and when they were Space Wolves, and it was fantastic to witness how their harsh roots results in Space Marines with some major Viking vibes to them (it’s one of the things that make them such a cool chapter).

However, King also ensures that the reader is given some intense insight into the dark side of the Space Wolves.  While their training is often harsh and lethal, and their treatment of the tribes of their home planet is very manipulative, there is something far more worrying lying beneath the surface.  The genetic manipulation that goes into creating them awakens a beast within them, with many losing their sanity or even their humanity entirely, reverting into beastlike creatures known as the Wulfen.  King does an awesome job highlighting the various ways in which the characters are changed, body and mind, throughout the course of Space Wolf, and there are some powerful scenes where they are forced to battle to control their new inner nature.  This really ends up being a particularly fascinating and well-balanced examination of the Space Wolves chapter, and I honestly could not think of a better introduction to this faction.  This cool lore, as well as the Norse-inspired aspects and Nordic-like wild settings, serve to beautifully enhance the entire narrative, and King’s choice to show all events from an uninitiated character’s perspective was just brilliant.  The use of Ragnar as a narrator also ensures that readers unfamiliar with the Warhammer franchise can also easily enjoy this novel, as they can learn about the wider universe at the same time as the protagonist.  Established fans, on the other hand, will get a lot of joy out of seeing the Space Wolves in this much detail, and they will no doubt have fun viewing the myths and unique interpretations that the various Fenris tribes place on the Space Marines and other elements of Warhammer lore.  As such, this is a novel that will really appeal to a lot of different readers, and anyone with interesting in fantasy, science fiction, or even historical fiction, will probably have a great time reading Space Wolf.

Finally, I must highlight how good Ragnar was as a point-of-view protagonist.  Not only do we get the great insights into Space Wolves initiatives that I mentioned above, but there are multiple intriguing personality and mental aspects to his character that come across extremely well in the narrative.  Ragnar starts the book as a young warrior whose life is changed in a single day as his tribe is destroyed by a rival clan, his family is killed, and he himself is killed and then resurrected by the Space Wolves.  Worse, he is resurrected alongside the man who killed him, Strybjorn Grimskull, and is forced to train and work with him, despite their hatred for each other.  This results in a great deal of inner struggle for Ragnar as he is constantly torn between his honour and new responsibilities to the Space Wolves and his desire for revenge against Strybjorn.  Watching these two constantly circle each other through the training parts of the novel is awesome, and their issues get even more intense once they undergo the genetic change and become Space Wolves with bestial urges.  These intense inner issues and rivalries proved to be an excellent central plotline for much of the novel, and I felt that they dramatically enhanced the entire narrative very well, adding in some much need drama, comradery, and character development.  I cannot wait to see more of Ragnar and his fellow Space Wolves in the future, especially after how his first mission turned out.

Overall, Space Wolf was just as impressive and awesome as I hoped it would be.  William King did an exceptional job writing a fantastic introductory Space Wolves tale, and he continues to remain one of my absolute favourite Warhammer authors, especially with the excellent range he showed here.  Readers will love this outstanding dive into the Space Wolves and the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe that this novel contains, and Space Wolf is a highly recommended novel to anyone looking for an action-packed and exciting read.

Space Wolf Cover

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 10 January 2012)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 14 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In my latest Throwback Thursday I look at one of the more interesting novels from the Star Wars Legends universe, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno.

With Star Wars day on the horizon, I have decided to go back and check out some of the key books in the now defunct Star Wars Legends universe.  While no longer canon, there are still some amazing books in the Legends range, including some that will no doubt serve as an inspiration for some future shows or movies.  I have already enjoyed several Legends books, such as Maul: Lockdown, Scoundrels and Death Troopers, but there are still more epic reads that I really want to check out.  Probably the one I was most interested in reading was the epic Darth Plagueis by James Luceno.  Luceno, who also wrote the fantastic novel Tarkin in the current Disney canon, is a very talented author, and I was very excited in checking out his take on the elusive and mysterious Darth Plagueis.

“Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?”

Throughout the long and bloody history of the Republic, many Sith lords have risen to threaten the peace and order maintained by their hated rivals, the Jedi.  While some have put complex and deadly plans into effect, few have reached the pinnacle of power, influence or mastery of the Dark Side of the Force as the mysterious Darth Plagueis, whose malign guidance shaped the galaxy in terrible ways and introduced a great darkness.

Upon killing his master and obtaining all the power he ever desired, Darth Plagueis set out to continue his order’s greatest goal: destroying the Jedi and claiming the Republic as his own.  Using his position as a powerful member of the Banking Clan, Darth Plagueis worked to manipulate the Republic into chaos and slowly lead the Jedi to a war they had no hope of winning.  However, even a Sith as powerful as Darth Plagueis is unable to do everything on his own, and he soon seeks out a powerful Force user to take on as his apprentice, a talented politician from Naboo known only as Palpatine.

Renaming Palpatine Darth Sidious, Plagueis begins manipulating events to ensure that his apprentice becomes a major power in the Senate, planning to elevate him to the role of Supreme Chancellor while also destroying those opponents who threaten their plans.  However, despite the importance of their plan, Plagueis’s main desire is not the defeat of the Jedi but of a far older enemy, death itself.  Diving into the mysteries of the Force, Plagueis will explore avenues of power not seen for millennia as he attempts to become the immortal master of the galaxy.  But his obsession with endless life could yet be his greatest undoing.

Wow, Luceno did not disappoint with this fantastic Star Wars novel.  Darth Plagueis is an impressive and captivating read that perfectly tells the story of a particularly elusive figure.  Bringing in some heavy Star Wars elements from the extended lore, Luceno has crafted a brilliant character-driven story that I had an extraordinary time listening to.

Luceno has come up with an interesting story for the Darth Plagueis novel that achieves several goals at once.  Not only does it tell the complete story of this legendary Sith Lord but it provides some interesting context for other pieces of Star Wars fiction, while also containing a powerful story of intrigue, betrayal and darkness.  Set over a period of roughly 35 years and told from the perspectives of Darth Plagueis and Darth Sidious (with a few scenes seen from other characters, like Darth Maul), this brilliant novel does an excellent job of exploring the primary characters while also showing their malicious actions across various theatres of the Star Wars universe.  While the novel starts off a little slow, you soon become engrossed in the story as you encounter multiple layers of manipulation and politics as Plagueis attempts to control the galaxy and make his major plans.  The story is broken into three distinct periods, the first showing some of Plagueis’s early movements as a Sith Master and his initial meeting and recruitment of Sidious.  The second part of the book, set 20 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, showcases Sidious as he becomes established as a Senator as Plagueis contends with some dangerous opponents and plots as he sets up the earliest stages of his master plan.  The final third of the novel is set in the lead-up/during the events of The Phantom Menace, where you see many of the storylines come together, as well as the final chapters of the relationship between Plagueis and Sidious.

I had a really great time with this compelling story, and it is one that I feel will appeal to a lot of Star Wars fans.  While I was a little surprised at the suddenness of some of the time skips, I felt that all three major parts of the novel were really good, and I loved how well they flowed together to create one coherent and fantastic read.  The three separate time periods allow for a massive story, while also featuring some of the key moments of the main character’s lives.  Featuring a ton of intriguing and heavy bits of Star Wars lore, parts of the story do drag a little in places, especially as there is a little less action than your typical Star Wars novel.  However, I found all the politics, machinations and expansions of the Star Wars lore to be extremely fascinating, and there is a brilliant story hidden in there.  The story is also not completely bereft of action, and there are some pretty cool fight sequences scattered throughout the book, including some that show off Plagueis’s full, terrifying abilities.  This story had an excellent tone and pace to it, and I feel that everything came together extremely well and I was pretty enraptured by every damn moment of it.

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover 2

This was a really good Star Wars novel, and it is one that will appeal to a wide range of fans, especially those who enjoyed the Legends range.  While Darth Plagueis is technically no longer canon, Luceno really went out of his way to connect it to the wider Star Wars canon, which is something I really appreciated about this book.  In many ways, Darth Plagueis serves as the ultimate companion to the prequel films as Luceno attempted to fill in some plot holes and unexplained bits of the movies, by exploring the entirety of the Sith’s rise to power.  Bringing in a ton of obscure lore, you get an unparalleled view of how Plagueis and Sidious manipulated events in the Legends canon to lead to the events of the films, and this really helps to fill in some gaps.  Luceno also includes multiple moments from The Phantom Menace film throughout the story, and it was pretty fascinating to see why parts of the antagonist’s plot came together like they did, as well as some excellent alternate views of certain key scenes.  I also deeply enjoyed how Darth Plagueis tied into a ton of other pieces of Star Wars Legends fiction, including books, comics and games.  Multiple prior novels are mentioned or connected to this novel in some way, and I felt that Luceno did a really good job of inserting elements from the already massive extended universe into his book and connecting the stories together and giving all of them more context and interest.  All these connections helped to create a novel that is particularly compelling and intriguing to dedicated Star Wars fans, who will love seeing the events of this book unfold.  While those fans who have only seen the movies will probably be able to enjoy this book easily enough (with only some minor confusion to some of the more obscure parts of the lore), this is a novel best enjoyed by readers who have checked out some other Star Wars Legends books and will appreciate how it fits into that wider version of the canon.

I did like a lot of the universe-building that Luceno did in this novel, as the author explored some fascinating parts of the Legends universe.  Not only does the reader get to experience a lot of obscure elements of Star Wars lore, including aliens, technology, locations and other cool things, but this also serves as one of the most impressive looks at the Sith and the Dark Side of the Force.  Due to the deep examinations of the Sith and its history by Plagueis, as well as other elements contained in the training of Palpatine, the reader is flooded with knowledge about these Dark Side users and their ways, which proves to be quite intriguing.  I had a brilliant time learning more about these deep elements of lore, especially as the characters talk about practicalities as well as history.  The difference between various forms of the Dark Side are very cool, as you see some comparisons between Plagueis’s more scientific based usage of the Force and the Dark Side sorcery preferred by Sidious.  I also found the characters’ own description and assessment of the Sith and the Force to be surprisingly deep, as the characters see themselves as more of a necessary force there to save the galaxy and the Republic from the Jedi.  Darth Plagueis also contains some fantastic detail about the history of the planet Naboo, which I also found really fascinating.  Darth Plagueis goes out of its way to explore the history of the planet and the reasons why it became a political and economic factor in the Republic in the lead-up to The Phantom Menace, and I loved seeing the political strife and manipulation that led to this initial war, as well as the rise of characters like Palpatine and Amidala.  These brilliant pieces of lore are so much fun to learn about, and I had an incredible time finding out more about the Sith in this canon.

Of course, one of the best bits of the lore that Luceno examines in this novel is the role that Darth Plagueis had in the Star Wars universe.  First mentioned in that iconic monologue in Revenge of the Sith, Plagueis remained a mostly shadowy and unknown figure until the release of this book, which serves as the ultimate guide to the character and his history.  Luceno, who at this point had been planning a Darth Plagueis story for years, does a brilliant job of telling the full story of this great character, and you get an outstanding focus on his entire life, especially his time as a Sith Master.  Plagueis, a Muun also known as Hego Damask, is portrayed as a thoughtful, powerful and manipulative being with a surprising nobility and dignity to him.  Fitted with an intriguing backstory and motivations, you see him grow into an extremely powerful Sith Lord throughout the course of the book, and it was fascinating to see all his plans and machinations.   The most significant part of the character’s motivations is his hunt for immortality through the force.  As such, you get a fantastic look at his obsessive experiments and research, as he tries to uncover this ultimate secret.  I felt that Luceno did an incredible job of working this mysterious character into the wider Star Wars canon.  There are some great moments throughout this book that show this shadowy figure manipulating key events from the shadows to bring about the events of the prequel films.  I particularly loved how Luceno fit Plagueis into some scenes from The Phantom Menace, and it is very fun to imagine him watching these moments from just outside camera shot.  This really was an incredible examination and exploration of this character, and I had so much fun finally finding out who Darth Plagueis was and how he was connected to the wider story.  Despite this story no longer being canon, this novel is really the only guide to Darth Plagueis, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is used as the primary source material for anyone wanting to introduce him in a future film or television series.

While this book does tell the story of Darth Plagueis, in many ways it is just as much about Palpatine as it provides readers with an outstanding look at his early history.  Essentially set during the time he was Darth Plagueis’s apprentice, you get some amazing insights into who Palpatine is and how he turned to the Dark Side of the Force.  Portrayed as manipulative and insidious since birth, you get to see Palpatine at his most evil and dangerous as he learns about the Force and the Sith.  I loved how you get to see various stages of Palpatine’s early life, from his teenage years where he first learns about his powers, to his middle age where he becomes a young ambitious senator and apprentice, to his time as an experienced manipulator and Force user just before coming Supreme Chancellor.  I had a brilliant time seeing Palpatine grow as both a Sith and a politician throughout this book, and you get some fantastic views of his early interactions with key players in the Star Wars canon.  I also deeply enjoyed seeing his intriguing dynamic with Darth Plagueis.  In pretty much all his other appearances, Star Wars fans only ever see the confident and controlling Palpatine who has no-one above him.  However, in Darth Plagueis, you see a somewhat more subservient Palpatine who is forced to bow to the will of one more powerful.  Watching working under another is an interesting change of pace, although some reveals towards the end of the book (and in some other novels, such as Maul: Lockdown), show that he is never as loyal as Plagueis believes.  This truly was an outstanding depiction of Palpatine and it was so awesome to see more about our favourite soon-to-be emperor.

Aside from Plagueis and Palpatine, the Darth Plagueis novel is loaded with a ton of interesting supporting characters, many of whom had roles in the films, animated series or other pieces of Legends fiction.  These intriguing characters help to create the novel’s rich tapestry of politics, intrigue and betrayals, and all of them served some fantastic roles in the book.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the inclusion of other Sith characters like Count Dooku and Darth Maul, especially as this novel serves as a bit of an origin story for both, as you see Palpatine obtaining and training Maul as well as Plagueis and Palpatine manipulating Dooku to leave the Jedi.  I also enjoyed the intriguing look at Plagueis’s own master, Darth Tenebrous, whose brief role showed a whole other aspect to the Sith as he had his own distinctive style.  I did think that the crowd of supporting figures with their own story elements slowed the pace of the novel down a little in the middle of the book, but I ended up having a brilliant time enjoying the story set around the awesome main characters.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to listen to Darth Plagueis on audiobook rather than seeking out a physical copy of this excellent novel.  I naturally had a very fun time listening to this version of the book, which not only featured a brilliant narrator but also made excellent use of the typical Star Wars audiobook production elements.  Darth Plagueis is loaded with cool sound effects and awesome Star Wars music, all of which add to the ambiance of the story in various ways.  I particularly liked the use of John Williams’s iconic scores throughout this audiobook, which did a great job of enhancing several scenes and increasing their emotional impact.  This was particularly true for some of the darker moments in the book, as some of the music associated with the Sith, the Dark Side and death/destruction, are blasted at full volume during some key moments, such as Palpatine discovering his destructive abilities for the first time, or during a couple of massacres.  This awesome music was so cool to hear during these scenes, and you really got an increased sense of the powerful emotions and dark deeds that were going on.

I also deeply enjoyed the epic narration, as this fantastic audiobook features the vocal talents of actor Daniel Davis (whom audiences of taste will recognise as Niles from The Nanny).  Davis gives a powerful and commanding performance here, bringing some major gravitas to the role and the characters.  His voice work for the titular character, Darth Plagueis, is really good, and you get a fantastic sense of the character’s power and wisdom as the novel continues.  Davis also does a brilliant job of voicing multiple characters and species from the Star Wars films, sounding quite close to their original actors.  I loved the voice work for Palpatine, capturing much of the villain’s iconic voice, while also giving it a youthful tilt for the earlier parts of the book.  Other characters, such as Count Dooku and Darth Maul, are also expertly portrayed here, and I particularly liked Davis’s take on Christopher Lee’s amazing voice.  This outstanding voice work, combined with the sound effects and music, helped to turn this into an exceptional listen that I deeply enjoyed.  With a run time just under 15 hours, this is a descent sized Star Wars audiobook, but listeners can power through it in no time at all.  This format comes highly recommended and you will have an outstanding time listening to the Darth Plagueis audiobook.

Overall, Darth Plagueis is an impressive and addictive Star Wars Legends novel that I had an incredible time reading.  James Luceno really excels at telling complex narratives that examine character origins, and Darth Plagueis did a wonderful and comprehensive job of expanding on a mostly unknown figure.  I loved learning everything about this awesome Star Wars figure, and Luceno wove an outstanding tale of intrigue and power around him and his apprentice.  An absolute must read for all fans of the Star Wars extended universe, I cannot wait until they finally introduce this complex figure into the current canon.

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover 3

Warhammer 40,000: The Twice-Dead King: Ruin by Nate Crowley

The Twice-Dead King - Ruin Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 9 October 2021)

Series: Twice Dead King – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 22 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author Nate Crowley presents one of the most complex and fascinating Warhammer 40,000 novels I had the pleasure of reading, The Twice-Dead King: Ruin, an epic and thrilling novel that explores one of the most intriguing races in the canon, the Necrons.

I have been having a lot of fun listening to a bunch of awesome Warhammer 40,000 (Warhammer 40K) novels over the last year, with some great examples including Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker, Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers, and First and Only by Dan Abnett.  While I have deeply enjoyed all these novels, I felt that it was time to go outside of the novels that typically focus on this universe’s human characters and instead read something with a more unique subject matter.  As such, when I saw that The Twice-Dead King: Ruin had recently been released, I instantly grabbed a copy, and I am really glad that I did.

Ruin is the first novel in The Twice-Dead King series, which looks set to explore the Necrons and their place in the current Warhammer 40K universe.  This was the second Warhammer 40K novel from author Nate Crowley, who previously released the intriguing Ork-centric novel, Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!, as well as several short stories/novellas set in the universe.  Crowley makes full use of his talent for getting into the mind of fictional aliens to create an excellent and enjoyable read that I had a wonderful time listening to.

In the chaotic and war-striven future of the 41st millennium, many powerful and dangerous races fight for domination and destruction.  However, no race is more mysterious or feared than the immortal beings known as the Necrons.  The Necrons are an ancient and ruthless race who, thousands of years ago, sacrificed their mortality and humanity to defeat a powerful enemy as well as death itself.  Forced into thousands of years of hibernation after their great victory, the Necrons are now slowly awakening to reclaim their empire by destroying all life in the galaxy.

However, despite their intense belief in themselves, the Necrons are a dying race, gradually being whittled down by time, madness, and the unceasing tide of organic life they are forced to constantly fight against.  None know this better that Oltyx, a bitter and resentful Necron Lord who has been banished to the wretched border world of Sedh.  Once heir to the throne of a mighty and glorious dynasty, he now only has control of a small garrison of degraded warriors who are slowly dwindling under constant attacks from Ork raiders attempting to invade the Necron empire.

As Oltyx dreams about vengeance and reclaiming his birthright, he finds himself facing an immense threat that could spell the doom of his dynasty and the entire Necron race.  The invading Orks are only the precursor of a larger and much more powerful enemy, one his small force has no chance of defeating.  With no other option, Oltyx is forced to return to his dynasty’s crownworld and beg for reinforcements from the court who cast him out.  However, his return uncovers something far more disturbing than he could have ever imagined.  A twisted horror now lies within the heart of Oltyx’s dynasty, bringing only madness and bloodshed with it.  To ensure his people’s survival, Oltyx must face the curse of the Necrons and the pure horror of a twice-dead king.

Ruin is an exceptional and captivating tie-in novel that perfectly combines an intriguing and addictive narrative with large amounts of Warhammer 40K lore and some great character work.  This is a perfectly paced story that does an exceptional job introducing the complex setting and character and placing them into an intense and emotionally rich adventure.  While the initial start of the book is a tad slow due to the necessity of throwing in so much Necron lore, it swiftly picks up speed and excitement within the first few chapters.  I personally became really attached to this novel a couple of chapters in when the protagonist and point-of-view character, Oltyx, attempts to determine the best way to defend his planet against the Ork invaders, while also simultaneously mulling over the failures of his personal history.  There was one amazing extended sequence that saw Oltyx attempting to analyse a vision from his past to come up with a perfect plan, while also watching a massive force of Orks approaching.  This scene perfectly blended a fun Warhammer battle with alien history and a complex character moment, all set to a timer that was counting down to the start of combat.  From there the story gets even more enjoyable, as after getting up close and personal with the real horrors of the Necrons, the protagonist discovers that there is a bigger danger approaching: humans.  From there, Oltxyx is forced to journey back to his home planet to beg for help, but instead finds a secret more terrible and disturbing than he could ever imagine.  After some severe lows, combined with a couple of family reunions of variable enjoyment, the story leads up to an impressive and epic conclusion, loaded with war, destruction and sacrifice.  This satisfying and moving conclusion wraps up this leg of the story extremely well and treats the reader to some outstanding action sequences and some major emotional moments that will define the protagonist for the entire series.  An overall brilliant and deeply memorable narrative, I powered through this cool book and loved every second of it.

Ruin was also a pretty impressive entry in the overall Warhammer 40K canon, especially as it contains an outstanding look at one of the franchises more unique races, the Necrons, who are extremely underrepresented in the extended fiction.  Crowley has done a brilliant job here with Ruin, and I loved the distinctive and compelling Warhammer 40K story it contained.  The author has made sure to load up this book with a ton of detail, information and settings unique to this massive franchise, and fans will no doubt love immersing themselves in this cool lore.  Ruin also contains several massive and well-written battle sequences that will easily remind readers of the table-top games that this franchise is built around and which really increase the epic nature of this novel.  The immense amount of somewhat more obscure lore may turn off readers new to Warhammer 40K fiction.  However, I think that most new readers can probably follow along pretty well here, especially as Crowley has a very descriptive and accessible writing style, and Ruin proves to be an excellent and compelling introduction to the Necrons.

I was deeply impressed by how Crowley featured the Necrons in Ruin, especially as he provides a deep explanation of their history and personalities, while also making this somewhat aloof race extremely sympathetic.  The Necrons are a very interesting race within the Warhammer 40K canon, with a look that can be best summed up as Ancient Egyptian Terminators.  They also have a backstory that is somewhat similar to the Cybermen from Doctor Who, in that they are formally organic beings who were transplanted into metal bodies, with only a few members (mostly the former nobility) maintaining their personalities, memories and emotions.  This makes them a very hard species to get a handle on, and most of their appearances in the expanded fiction feature them as cold antagonists.  However, Crowley really went out of his way to showcase the deep and rich culture, history and personalities contained within this race, and the reader ends up getting an impressive and comprehensive look at them throughout Ruin.

This book contains so many intriguing and compelling details about the Necrons, and the reader gets a real crash-course, including why they gave up their humanity to become metallic monsters.  Crowley attempts to cover every single detail about the Necron way of life in this book, and Ruin is filled with cool discussions about current Necron biology, how their components work, how they communicate, and what the mindset of these immortals truly are.  The readers are left with a vision into the complex and hierarchical minds of this unique race, and you get some compelling insights into who they are and why they do what they do.  In addition, Crowley really attempts to highlight just how tragic the Necrons really are as a race, with a deep and compelling look at what they truly gave up when they become the metal beings we all know.  Crowley paints the Necrons as a dying race, despite the apparent immortality bestowed upon them, as the finite members are slowly being worn down by combat, disrepair, and madness.  There is a particularly fascinating look at how the transition from flesh to metal has deeply impacted the psyche of many of its members, as some have been driven into a deep depression while others are turned into crazed cannibals.  This fascinating and comprehensive examination helps to turn the Necrons into quite a sympathetic race throughout Ruin, and you end up rooting for them as the book progresses, even when they are fighting humans.  While the Necrons have never been my favourite race/faction in the Warhammer 40K canon, I deeply appreciated seeing a novel from their point of view, and Crowley’s excellent writing has helped to alter my opinion about them.  I must admit that it was extremely fun to see their perspective on the events of the Warhammer 40K universe, as well as their opinions about the other races inhabiting it (the protagonist makes a very intriguing comparison between Necrons and Space Marines that really sticks in the mind).  This was a perfect Necron novel, and readers will come away with a whole new appreciate for their backstory and plight.

Another thing that I deeply enjoyed about Ruin was the complicated protagonist, Oltyx, a disgraced Necron noble who has been banished to a desolate and worthless frontier planet for his transgressions.  At the start of Ruin, Oltyx is an angry and arrogant creature, weighed down by his bitterness and resentment, and is not a particularly fun character.  However, as the story progresses, Crowley adds layer upon layer of complexity to him, using a mixture of flashbacks, personal insights, revelations, and alternate perspectives of his memories.  This slowly turns him into a sympathetic and compelling figure, showing him as one of the few nobles to truly care about the future of his people, whole also exploring his concerns about the madness and apathy that could one day claim him.  As the story progresses, and he reencounters the members of his family and has more visions of his past, Oltyx continues to evolve into a much more likable character, especially as he deals with great adversity and tragedy.  This adversity gives him some great appreciation for his race, even the lower tiers, and he soon comes away a well-rounded figure with an interesting future ahead of him.  This was an overall exceptional introduction to this character and Crowley has set up this figure up perfectly for the future entries in this series.

Aside from Oltyx proper, there were a couple of other fun figures I must highlight in this book.  Five of these characters are actually part of Oltyx himself, as the protagonist has installed five subminds into his head in order to help him achieve his mission.  These five subminds each provide different insights to a range of subjects, including doctrine, aliens, combat, strategy, and analytical analysis.  The various subminds each have their own personalities, based on their design, and it is fun to see them interact with Oltyx in his head and with each other.  While some of the subminds are focused on more than others, they prove to be an intriguing inclusion in the story, especially as they also grow and develop alongside Oltyx, especially once he comes to appreciate them more.  The subminds also help compensate for the general lack of other side characters in the novel, which are a result of both isolated planets and the general lack of remaining sentience amongst the Necrons.

The other major side character I want to talk about is Djoseras, Oltyx’s brother, who the protagonist blames for his exile.  Djoseras is an excellent mentor character who was just as deeply impacted by the transition to a metal body as his brother.  Despite Oltyx’s bitter memories about him, nothing about Djoseras is as cut-and-dry and you initially believe.  Once you encounter him in person and see some additional memories for Oltyx, you really grow to appreciate Djoseras more, especially once you see him lead an army in battle.  Oltyx’s multiple encounters with Djoseras add some outstanding emotional elements to the story, and each of his appearances were complex and compelling.  Other side characters are introduced in this book, although most of them were only featured for a short time.  However, they will probably have a bigger role in the future novels in this series, and Ruin serves as a good introduction to them.

I grabbed a copy of Ruin in its audiobook format, which proved to be an outstanding way to enjoy Ruin, especially as it allows listeners to really absorb all the cool and impressive details contained within this compelling read.  This novel has a decent runtime of over 11 hours and features some brilliant voice work from narrator Richard Reed.  Reed is a talented narrator who has been a major fixture of the Warhammer audiobook scene in the last few years, and I really loved the awesome job he did here with Ruin.  Reed has a great voice for this impressive science fiction epic, and he manages to move the story along at a quick and thrilling pace which allowed me to finish off this novel in a few short days.  Each of the major characters are gifted their own distinctive voice throughout Ruin, which fits them perfectly and ensures that the reader always knows who is talking.  I particularly enjoyed the fun voice work set around the protagonist’s five subminds, especially as they are similar, yet slightly different, to that of the protagonist.  I also really appreciated Reed’s voice work during certain big scenes, such as when attempting to emulate a crowd of mad, chanting Necrons, and his great narration really helped to enhance these scenes.  An exceptional and deeply entertaining audiobook outing, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in enjoying this fantastic epic.

With Ruin, the first The Twice-Dead King book, brilliant author Nate Crowley, has provided Warhammer 40K fans with an exceptional and powerful introduction to the mysterious Necron faction.  Featuring a captivating, action-packed narrative, a complex protagonist, and an excellent examination of the complex Necrons, Ruin is a must read for all fans of the franchise.  This is easily one of the best Warhammer 40K tie-in novels I have had the pleasure of reading and I cannot wait to see what Crowley adds to this franchise in the future.  This series is set to continue with the second entry, The Twice-Dead King: Reign, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Make sure to also check out my review for the second The Twice-Dead King novel, Reign.

Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers

Fire Made Flesh Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 5 June 2021)

Series: Necromunda

Length: 13 hours and 29 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to the violent and deadly world beneath the hive cities of Necromunda, as Denny Flowers presents an outstanding and compelling entry in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with Fire Made Flesh.

Over the last year or so I have been having fun exploring the immense extended universe that has sprung up around the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy tabletop games.  I have so far read several cool entries in the Gortrex and Felix fantasy series (Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer), as well as the awesome science fiction reads First and Only and Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker.  However, my favourite Warhammer novel so far was the deeply entertaining Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty, which was part of the Necromunda sub-series, another tabletop game set in the gothic Warhammer 40,000 universe.

The Necromunda games and extended universe are all set in and around the towering and immense hive city, Hive Primus, capital of the industrial planet of Necromunda.  Hive Primus is a city of billions, with the inhabitants crammed together in a massive hive structure located both above and below ground.  Necromunda fiction is primarily based in the Underhive, the foundational layers of the hive and below, made up of tunnels, habitation zones and caverns, most of which have been abandoned as the hive was built up.  The Underhive is filled with various gangs and feuding families who fight in these tunnels for riches, dominance and glory.  This unique landscape makes for some impressive stories, such as the awesome narrative of the latest Necromunda novel, Fire Made Flesh.

Deep underneath Hive Primus many secrets and treasures lay hidden in the darkness, waiting to be found by bold adventurers, but none are spoken of with more reverence than the lost habitation dome, Periculus.  Periculus was once a flourishing base of commerce where both sanctioned trade and illicit dealings were held, and vast wealth was accumulated.  However, Periculus was mysteriously abandoned years ago when its inhabitants were killed, and all knowledge of its location has been lost.  Now, after years of searching, someone has rediscovered the dome, and all hell is about to break loose.

Believing that the ruins of Periculus hold innumerable treasures and opportunities, various gangsters, Guilders, hive scum and opportunists have descended into the Underhive, hoping to stake their claim.  However, none of the people moving towards Periculus are more dangerous than the revered Lord Silas Pureburn of the Guild of Fire.  Holding a monopoly on energy production in the Underhive and gifted with a holy flame from the God Emperor himself, Pureburn inspires loyalty and religious fervour wherever he goes.  However, behind his holy facade of purity and flame lies a dark soul determined to dominate everything and everyone he encounters.  One of the few people to see the truth about Pureburn is young Guilder Tempes Sol.  Sol, a scion of the Mercator Lux, the Guild of Light, has found himself bested by Pureburn many times, and he is determined to discover the truth behind his improbable works.  After an unholy accident scars Sol and leaves him with an unusual power, he is forced to flee his guild and travel to Periculus, where his only hope of redemption lies in exposing Pureburn as a fraud.

However, upon arriving at Periculus, Sol discovers a settlement on the edge.  Pureburn has gathered around him an army of religious fanatics who control Periculus through fear, fire and bloodshed.  Determined to stop his insidious influence before it is too late, Sol attempts to forge alliances with other newly arrived inhabitants of Periculus who have been disadvantaged by Pureburn.  However, the deeper Sol dives into Pureburn’s actions, the more danger he finds himself in, as this seemingly holy man hides a dark and disturbing secret.  Worse, even more terrible dangers are affecting people within the dome, as twisted creatures roam the shadows, and the humans are struck with a dark rage that drives them to great acts of violence.  As the forces within gather for a final deadly confrontation, the fate of both Periculus and the entirety of Hive Primus hangs in the balance.

Fire Made Flesh was an interesting and impressive read that did an amazing job of bringing the twisted maze of the Necromunda Underhive to life.  This was actually the debut novel of author Denny Flowers, who has previously written some fun Necromunda short fiction and novellas but had yet to produce a full-length book.  This turned out to be a pretty awesome first novel from Flowers, and I had an outstanding time getting through the intense story, especially with its unique locales and outrageous characters, and it was a fantastic piece of Necromunda fiction.

At the heart of Fire Made Flesh lies a compelling and intense story that showcases the unique and deadly battle for control of Periculus.  After some set-up to show the rediscovery of the lost dome, Flowers starts establishing the various characters and their motivations, exploring how and why they are heading to Periculus.  Told from multiple character perspectives, the reader gets an interesting look at each point-of-view character, as well as the people they travel with.  While this was a good introduction to the many complex aspects and figures of the novel, it did make the pacing of the first third of Fire Made Flesh a tad slow, with a couple of difficult sections.  However, these pacing issues are resolved around halfway through Fire Made Flesh, once all the primary characters make it to Periculus.  From that point onward, the book really picks up, especially as the reader has grown attached to protagonists by this point.  From there the rest of the story is extremely fast, with a big moment two-thirds in, resulting in utter bedlam across Periculus and thrusting each of the characters into extreme danger.  After several intense and action-packed sequences, the entire narrative gets wrapped up extremely well in a satisfying conclusion, with each of the fun character arcs set up throughout the book coming together wonderfully.  I had an absolute blast with this narrative, and I felt that it had the right blend of action, intrigue, character development and Warhammer 40,000/Necromunda detail, to keep every reader happy.  I was really impressed by how Flowers was able to bring the disparate storylines together into one entertaining read, and I ended up powering through the last half of the novel in less than a day.  I also deeply enjoyed some of the cool twists and reveals right near the end, as they contained some excellent character moments.  Interestingly, the story is left open for a sequel, and I know I will be curious to see what happens in the Underhive next time.

Fire Made Flesh is an excellent addition to the Necromunda range of fiction, and I appreciated how Flowers attempted to examine and recreate the various elements of the unique landscape and culture featured within this fictional location.  Flowers really dived into the lore surrounding Necromunda, and the reader is soon engulfed in discussions about the social order, technology, and religious zeal of the Hive City.  While the author did a good job of trying to give context to this setting and its various features, readers may get a little overwhelmed with all the unique lore elements that are shovelled into it, especially at the front of the book when Flowers was trying to set everything up.  While I managed to keep my head around what was happening and what the characters were talking about, I could easily see a reader who has less experience with Warhammer 40,000/Necromunda lore, being a bit more confused and potentially getting lost.  Still, this ended up being a great Necromunda novel, and I loved the way in which the author featured the various gangs and controlling interests.  I especially enjoyed the in-depth examination of the Guilders, Hive Primus’s merchant class, who provide the various services to keep the settlements running.  Fire Made Flesh features members from the various guilds, each of whom have different professions, including slavers, energy providers, fuel dispensers and corpse grinders (people who process bodies to produce corpse-starch, the hive’s primary food source).  Readers get a pretty intense crash course in Necromunda lore in this book and will end up having a good understanding of how Underhive works.  There are a lot of details that will appeal to long-term fans of the Necromunda game and its associated extended fiction, and they will no-doubt love to see another entertaining and dark adventure.  While there are some connections to previous novels, including some of Flower’s short-fiction, I would say its easy enough for most people familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe to jump into this book without getting too lost, and even general science fiction fans should be able to have fun with this novel.

Flowers also makes great use of the dark and dangerous setting that is the Underhive throughout Fire Made Flesh.  The Underhive is already an awesome and well-established setting, but Flowers really tried to show just how hostile and unpredictable it could be.  There are some great descriptions of the tight walkways, giant caverns and isolated settlements which prove to be an outstanding backdrop to the dark narrative, and I had a lot of fun exploring some new locations in this novel.  Periculus itself is also an impressive setting, as the reader is treated to an intriguing look at a newly formed town that is slowly getting to its feet in the ruins of an abandoned settlement, and all the strife that comes as a result.  The depictions of the town surrounded by monsters, coated with powdered bone, and filled with fractious groups with enflamed personalities, really helps to set the mood for much of the novel, especially as it all comes crumbling down again.  I deeply enjoyed this cool setting and I think that it was an exceptional addition to a fun novel.

I also had a lot of fun with the compelling collection of characters featured in Fire Made Flesh.  Flowers made use of several entertaining point-of-view characters throughout this novel, including several protagonists of his previous short fiction reads, and this results in a vibrant and well set-up blend of personalities and compelling personas.  The central protagonist is Tempes Sol, the young Guilder genius who spends his days attempting to understand power, electricity, and technology.  Tempes has a rather rough journey in this novel, mostly brought on by his obsession with stopping the book’s antagonist, Pureburn, who has bested him in several prior encounters.  However, this time Tempes is suffering from the after-effects of a psychic attack, which has gifted him strange lightning abilities associated with his cybernetic upgrades.  Cast out of his guild and on the run, Tempes is a desperate figure in this novel, attempting to show the hypocrisy of Pureburn while also trying to redeem himself and understand his new powers.  I felt that Tempes had a very interesting storyline in this novel, and I found his personal growth and the exploration of his personal technology to be quite fascinating.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of his impulsive behaviour and self-righteous personality, but he did start to shed those as the novel progressed, while also developing a certain amount of savviness, especially when it came to some of his supposed allies.  It looks like Flowers is setting Tempes up for some interesting storylines in the future, and I would be quite keen to see this protagonist in another book at some point.

I was also a big fan of the antagonist of Fire Made Flesh, Lord Silas Pureburn.  Pureburn is another Guilder character who specialises in bringing fire and fuel to isolated communities, even when it shouldn’t be possible.  This, and his family’s legacy as keepers of a holy flame, sees him given religious reverence by the general population, as well a collection of devoted, if deranged, followers, who view him as a celebrated champion of the Emperor.  However, Pureburn is really a deceitful and manipulative being, who cares only for profit and his own selfish goals.  Flowers does an amazing job setting this antagonist up and the reader is soon pretty sick of his hypocrisy and arrogance, something that become really apparent after you read a few of his point of view chapters.  Pureburn ends up annoying or alienating every single protagonist in this book, which results in a loose alliance as everyone attempts to take him down.  I love a villain so evil that he brings different people together, and this was a great antagonist to hate, especially once you find out the true source of his power.

Aside from this compelling protagonist and entertaining antagonist, this novel also featured a great range of additional characters with whom the reader gets to spend time with.  My personal favourite had to be Lord Credence Sorrow, a corpse grinder contracted to bring food to Periculus against his will.  Sorrow is a lover of fine things, and his enjoyment of delicate items and gourmet food is at odds with his profession of turning corpses into edible powder.  This character has a brilliant amount of flair, and all his scenes are particularly entertaining, especially as he keeps finding himself stuck between some dangerous employers, resulting in quite a fun and fitting overarching storyline.  I also had a great time with the oddball partnership of Caleb Cursebound, the self-proclaimed ninth most dangerous man in the Underhive, and his silent Ratskin partner Iktomi.  These two make a great pair, especially as Caleb has all the bluster and personality, while Iktomi has a wicked amount of lethal skill, making them a surprisingly effective team, and I loved the entertaining odd-couple vibes that they gave out throughout the book.  I also must highlight Anquis, a member of the notorious Delaque family of spies and infiltrators.  Anguis spends most of the novel helping Tempes achieve his goals with her intelligence-gathering and manipulations.  However, it soon becomes quite clear that Anguis is playing her own games, and no one, especially Sol, knows what she is really after.  The final character I want to talk about is Virae the Unbroken, a Chain Lord (slaver) and pit fighter, who is hired to capture unlucky civilians and bring them to Periculus for labour purposes.  Despite initially appearing as a blunt and unforgiving figure, Virae soon proves to be one of the most complex and best-written characters in the entire novel.  Virae is a former slave herself, who proved herself to be tough and unbreakable, resulting in her title and her eventual promotion to slaver.  However, she really struggles with her profession in this novel, especially after many of her charges die on the journey to Periculus.  Her battles for survival, especially in the face of Pureburn’s evilness are pretty excellent, and I loved her eventually transformation into a bloody figure of vengeance.  This turned out to be an outstanding collection of characters, and I deeply appreciated how Flowers used them to enhance Fire Made Flesh’s great narrative and make it even more exciting and compelling.

I decided to grab the audiobook version of Fire Made Flesh.  This format has a decent run time of around 13 and a half hours, and I ended up powering through it in only a few days, especially once the story started to get very exciting and fun.  I had an outstanding time getting through this audiobook, and one of the main reasons for this was the impressive narration of Joe Jameson, whose work I have previously highlighted in awesome fantasy audiobooks like King of Assassins by R. J. Barker, and The Kingdom of Liars and The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell.  These previous works by Jameson have been some of best audiobooks of their respective release year, and Jameson is easily one of my favourite narrators.  He has an outstanding voice for fantasy and science fiction, and I love the way he can make a story move at a fast pace while also ensuring that the listener is absorbing all the detail and obscure lore with interest.  Jameson did a really good job of voicing each of the characters within Fire Made Flesh, and while some of the voices were very similar to those he used in the other books, I think that they fitted this new group of characters extremely well.  You get a real sense of the various emotions and personalities of each of these characters, and his affinity for voicing outrageous figures such as religious zealots and conniving businessmen proved very useful here.  I had a great time with this audiobook, and it was an amazing way to enjoy this dark and compelling story.

Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers is an exciting and captivating novel in the Necromunda series.  This is an entertaining and intense science fiction read that makes full use of the unique Warhammer 40,000 universe, the cool setting of the Underhive, and some great and memorable new characters, to produce an electrifying tale.  I had a fantastic time reading this book and I cannot wait to see what other adventures wait for this outrageous group of characters in any future Necromunda novels Flowers writes.

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Greater Good Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 27 April 2021)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5

One of the most impressive authors of Star Wars fiction in the world today, the legendary Timothy Zahn, returns with another epic entry in his Thrawn Ascendancy series, Greater Good, which continues to explore the early life of that awesome Star Wars character, Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Zahn is an outstanding author who has been writing Star Wars fiction since 1991, with the highly regarded Heir to the Empire.  Since then, Zahn has written several amazing Star Wars novels in both the current canon and the Star Wars Legends canon.  While I have not read all of Zahn’s Star Wars novels (yet!), the ones I have were all incredible and are some of my all-time favourite Star Wars novels (such as the awesome Star Wars: Scoundrels).  However, his most distinctive works have all surrounded the awesome character of Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is an alien officer in the Imperial Navy, renowned for his amazing tactical knowledge, brilliance in battle and ability to discern insights about his opponents by observing their personality or culture, especially art.  Ever since his introduction in Heir to the Empire, Thrawn has been a firm favourite among the fans, so much so that he was one of the few characters from the Legends extended universe reintroduced in the new canon.  This reintroduction was done in the third season of the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, where he served as an impactful antagonist for the third and fourth season.  It also looks like Thrawn will also be getting a live-action appearance at some point in the future after his name was dropped in The Mandalorian, which is pretty damn exciting.

The character has been heavily featured in the current range of Star Wars novels, as Zahn was brought back in to write some exciting new Thrawn-based novels.  This started with a brand new Thrawn trilogy in 2017, made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which showed how Thrawn joined the Imperial Navy and his early career as an officer.  These novels were all incredible reads (Thrawn got a five-star review from me, and Treason was one of the best books I read in 2019), and I loved the character’s unique adventures.  Thrawn’s story was furthered expanded last year with Chaos Rising; the first novel in Zhan’s Thrawn Ascendancy series, which examines the character’s pre-Empire life. 

While the armies of the Republic and the Separatists battle for supremacy in the Clone Wars, another deadly conflict is occurring beyond the bounds of known space.  Deep in the unexplored regions, known as the Chaos, the mighty Chiss Ascendancy have just defeated the forces of General Yiv the Benevolent, shattering his empire, the Nikardun Destiny, and bringing peace back to their territories.  As the Chiss Ascendancy returns to normal, they are unaware that they are still under attack from a malevolent and clever foe that is determined to finish off the Chiss once and for all.

On a Chiss agricultural planet, a group of peaceful and seemingly harmless aliens have arrived, seeking to temporarily make a home.  In addition to their good nature, kind hearts and unique spices, these aliens have also brought something of great value that many people will kill for.  As news of the alien’s resources spread, cracks begin to appear in the very foundation of the Ascendancy, as the various powerful families fight for supremacy.

With civil war on the horizon, the future of the Chiss Ascendancy may lay in the hands of the brilliant and infamous Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Thrawn, who is personally responsible for the defeat of Yiv and the Nikardun, is currently investigating the origins of their attack on the Ascendancy and, in doing so, comes across a previously unknown planet destroyed by its own deadly civil war.  As Thrawn attempts to explore this new mystery, he soon finds himself in the midst of a dark conspiracy.  An unseen force is attempting to take control of the entire Chaos, and the Chiss are the greatest obstacle to their plot.  Hamstrung by politics, family ties and his own inability to see the deeper motivations of his fellow Chiss, can Thrawn stop the oncoming conflict before it is too late, or will the Chiss Ascendancy burn from the inside out?

Zahn has once again produced an exceptional and outstanding piece of Star Wars fiction that further explores the fantastic early adventures of his greatest creation.  Greater Good is an excellent middle novel in this cool trilogy, and readers will deeply enjoy this book’s blend of intricate storytelling, great characters and impressive universe-building.  All of this results in an exciting and compelling novel that quickly draws readers in and has absolutely no trouble keeping their attention.  I had an outstanding time getting through this great novel and I was able to power through its audiobook format in no time at all.

At the heart of this outstanding novel is a clever and addictive narrative that follows Thrawn and a bevy of supporting characters as the Chiss Ascendancy finds itself in danger from an indirect attack.  Greater Good follows on immediately after Chaos Rising, and examines the next stage of a compelling conspiracy against the Chiss, while also focusing on Thrawn’s battles during this period.  The author utilises a substantial number of alternate perspectives to tell a rich and varied story and, while Thrawn is the centre of much of the book’s plot, Zahn has widened the focus of the novel with several compelling storylines and characters.  These include an investigation into the origins of a Nikardun attack on a remote planet, several jaunts out into different parts of space, internal political conflicts that are a threat to Thrawn, and exciting encounters with other inhabitants of the Chaos.  There is also a substantial focus on a new plot to destroy the Chiss, which includes several compelling flashback sequences that examines the origins and initial planning of the conspiracy.  This use of flashback is pretty impressive, and while certain aspects of the antagonist’s storyline are a tad odd, it was still an interesting tale.  I really enjoyed the vast array of different storylines and character arcs that really highlighted the richness of the setting and the unique plotlines they could inspire.  While some of these storylines might seem rather disconnected at times, Zahn cleverly brings them together at the end of the novel, resulting in a very impressive and intriguing conclusion.

As with most of Zahn’s novels, Greater Good is loaded to the brim with Star Wars lore and intriguing universe-expanding ideas as the author dives deeper into the origins, culture and history of the Chiss Ascendancy.  Zahn really expands on what he introduced in his previous Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, especially Chaos Rising, and highlights the proud Chiss warrior culture.  A vast amount of new information of the Ascendancy is featured within this latest book, and the reader gets a fascinating look at the planets, political makeup and social hierarchy of this race, especially at the family level.  Not only is this really intriguing, especially for those readers who have enjoyed Zahn’s previous additions to the Star Wars canon, but the author uses it extremely well within the plot.  Much of the main narrative, including the conspiracy that threatens to destroy the Chiss, is based on their family makeup and the accompanying politics and family mentalities that go along with that.  I felt that Zahn integrated this into the narrative extremely well, forcing the characters to navigate their unusual and insane politics in order to survive.

The author also expands the reader’s knowledge of the previously unexplored area of the Star Wars universe known as the Chaos.  The Chaos, thanks to certain celestial anomalies, is harder to navigate and transverse than regular space; it is a mess of isolated planets, unknown societies and new alien races.  Zahn introduces several new aliens throughout this novel, with each unusual race playing an interesting role in the overall story.  I love the unique Star Wars setting of the Chaos, especially as many of the established Star Wars rules and technology are not as present.  For example, the various warships have some different armaments and shielding, such as acid-filled missiles, resulting in some unique and previously unseen battle tactics.  It was also interesting to see the different takes on the Force that the inhabitants of the Chaos have come up with.  Without any Jedi present, the various races within the Chaos each have their own interpretations or uses for the Force, such as the Chiss Sky-Walkers, young children who can use the Force to help ships navigate the Chaos more effectively, and it was intriguing to encounter different views of this throughout Greater Good.  Hardcore Star Wars fans will enjoy the intriguing additions that Zahn makes to the expanded universe, and the final few pages hint at some major lore introductions occurring in the next Thrawn Ascendancy novel that I am rather curious about.

While this was a great book and piece of Star Wars fiction, I did feel that it required some pre-knowledge of Zahn’s prior works.  The narrative of Greater Good is heavily linked to the events of its preceding novel, Chaos Rising, and while the author does re-explain some of the elements or storylines, a lot of the plot does rather assume you read the first book.  Having greatly enjoyed Chaos Rising, I was able to follow this quite easily, but I could easily see some newer readers getting a little lost or overwhelmed in places.  In addition, parts of the Thrawn Ascendancy series are heavily linked to the events of the previous Thrawn trilogy, and certain references or comments might not make much sense unless you had already read these books.  As a result, I would suggest newer readers check out some of Zahn’s earlier novels first, although it is still possible to enjoy Greater Good without it.  Those readers who have enjoyed these prior books are definitely in for a great treat though and will find the deeper dive into the Chiss and Thrawn’s past to be really enjoyable.

I cannot review one of Zahn’s Thrawn-centric novels without talking about the awesome space battle sequences they contain.  Each of these awesome books features some impressive and detailed space battles as the protagonists encounter a range of ships and fleets that they must fight against.  Greater Good is a particularly good example of this, as Zahn has written several outstanding sequences that are attention-grabbing and fun.  The sheer level of detail and planning that Zahn puts into these action sequences is incredible, and you get an amazing sense of what is occurring during the battle as well as the associated tactics and plans.  The sequences involving Thrawn are easily the best, as Zahn goes out of his way to showcase the character’s tactical brilliance.  This results in some very elaborate sequences, as Thrawn quickly determines the weaknesses of his opponents and uses that knowledge to craft intricate and somewhat insane strategies to utterly defeat them.  Watching these plans come to fruition is always amazing, especially as the reader has no idea in advance what is going on in Thrawn’s mind.  Instead, you only get to see the brilliance and impact of his tactics at the same time as the other characters, and it is always a lot of fun seeing how Thrawn was able to come to his conclusions about his opponents and use them against him.  Zahn comes up with some outstanding sequences for Greater Good that are guaranteed to leave readers on the edge of their seats.

In addition to the awesome narrative, action and universe-building, Greater Good also features an awesome collection of characters, each of whom add so much to the novel.  Naturally, the most impressive character is Thrawn himself.  Even amongst his own people, Thrawn is a strange being who sees the world in a very unique way, and everyone he encounters is impressed by his tactical know-how and unnatural observational skills.  I always enjoy the way in which Zahn depicts Thrawn’s actions in the novel, as Thrawn is one of the few characters whose perspective we do not see.  Instead, Thrawn is only portrayed through the eyes of the major point-of-view characters who observe and react to his actions.  Not only does this remove the inherent difficulties in depicting Thrawn’s mind, but it really enhances the impacts of his deductions and subsequent reactions.  The observing characters view Thrawn making his moves or claiming some impossible bit of knowledge, and then slowly work out how he did it, either through their own observations or thanks to comments by Thrawn.  This is done in a similar manner to the classic Sherlock Holmes novels, with the supporting characters in Greater Good acting in the role of Watson to witness and be impressed by the protagonist’s intelligent leaps.  Like with Sherlock Holmes, the use of the outside narrator in Greater Good deeply enhances the impact of Thrawn’s action, resulting in some awesome scenes.

One of the intriguing aspects of Thrawn’s character in Greater Good that I appreciated was the way in which Zahn continued to highlight his character’s one major weakness: politics.  Thrawn has absolutely no concept of politics, family alliances or some of the inner conflicts impacting the Chiss, and as such is unable to defend himself or others against political ambitions or vindictiveness.  I always really enjoy this trait in the Thrawn novels, especially as it gives Thrawn a noticeable weakness, while also enhancing the impact his fellow supporting characters have, as all of them understand politics better and can help Thrawn in this arena.  This blindness to political realities is particularly important in Greater Good, as not only is Thrawn being attacked by politicians from within his own family but the main threat facing the Chiss is more political than militaristic in nature.  This results in a rather intriguing handicap for Thrawn throughout Greater Good, and it was cool to see the sort of plan that the character came up with to compensate for it, as well as the mistakes he then makes.  Overall, Thrawn is a pretty awesome and fascinating character to follow, and I cannot wait to see what events happen to him in the final book in the trilogy.

Aside from Thrawn, I also really enjoyed some of the supporting characters featured throughout Greater Good.  In addition to being perfect conduits to observing Thrawn’s actions, each of these characters have their own intriguing storylines, many of which are continuing from Chaos Rising.  Examples of this include Thrawn’s old friend, Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s second in command Mid Captain Samakro, the former Sky-Walker Thalias, who has tied her fate with that of Thrawn, and the powerful Mitth family politician, Thurfian, who serves as a secondary antagonist.  Each of these characters is further developed in Greater Good, and I enjoyed some of the cool storylines that Zhan is coming up for them.  Thurfian’s storyline is particularly intriguing going into the next novel, as the final scenes hint that he is going to come into possession of some very interesting knowledge soon.

Zhan also introduces several great new characters throughout Greater Good, many of whose narratives are tied into the malevolent plot to destroy the Chiss.  I found myself quite intrigued by the character of Lakinda, a fellow Senior Captain in the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet, who serves alongside Thrawn.  Not only does Lakinda offer an intriguing alternate observation angle on Thrawn, tinged with a bit of jealously and mistrust, but this character provides greater insight into the Chiss family structure.  Lakinda is an extremely loyal member of a mid-tier Chiss family, and she often finds her loyalties conflicted as she attempts to choose between family and the fleet.  This results in some captivating and emotional sequences which really help to highlight the unusual nature of Chiss society.

I also quite liked how Zahn spends time following the main antagonist of Greater Good, the mysterious alien Haplif.  Haplif and his people have been hired by a mysterious third party to orchestrate chaos and dissent within the Chiss Ascendancy to destroy them.  As a result, he masterminds an ingenious plot to promote conflict between various members of the Ascendancy.  I really enjoyed the complex and clever plot that this character came up with, and it was really cool to see him manage to manipulate several people throughout the course of the book, and he was an interesting alternative to the previous antagonist, Yiv.  It was a little odd to see Haplif, a supposedly brilliant planner and master manipulator, find his plans constantly stymied by a spoiled teenager and a backwater rancher, but it was fun to see his arrogance work against him.  All of these characters are amazing, and I really appreciate the time and effort that Zahn put into developing them.

It will not surprise anyone that I ended up listening to this Star Wars novel’s audiobook format rather than seeking out a physical copy of the book.  I absolutely love Star Wars audiobooks, and this was another excellent example that comes highly recommended.  The Greater Good audiobook has a runtime of just over 16 hours, which, while substantial for a Star Wars novel, is extremely easy to get through, especially once you become engrossed in Zahn’s cool story.  Like most modern Star Wars audiobooks, Greater Good makes amazing use of the classic Star Wars sound effects and film score to enhance the story.  I particularly enjoyed its use in Greater Good’s various space combat sequences, and it really amps up how epic those scenes were.

The real standout of this audiobook was the outstanding narration by Marc Thompson.  Thompson is an experienced narrator of Star Wars fiction who, aside from contributing his voice to all the books in the Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, has also narrated awesome audiobooks like Light of the Jedi, Doctor Aphra, Dooku: Jedi Lost, Dark Disciple and more.  Thompson does an incredible voice for Thrawn that is filled with the character’s control, intelligence, and gentle menace, and which is very, very close to how the character is portrayed in Star Wars: Rebels.  This amazing voice for Thrawn is easily one of the best parts of the audiobook, and it is fun to listen to the character lay out his elaborate strategies in Thompsons’s awesome tones.  Aside from Thrawn, Thompson also produces a great range of different voices for Greater Good’s supporting characters.  Each character gets their own distinctive voice, which matches their personality and physical qualities, and the listener is never in doubt about who is talking.  I also quite enjoyed how Zahn makes fun accommodations for the various different species featured within the audiobook, tailoring his voices to make them sound more alien at times.  Zahn also gives more rural accents to some of the Chiss characters featured in this novel who are from, or are located on more backwater planets, which I thought was a very nice touch.  All of these amazing features help to turn the Greater Good audiobook in an absolute treat for your ears, and it is an incredible way to enjoy this epic novel.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good is another exceptional piece of Star Wars fiction from Timothy Zahn.  Featuring his iconic and impressive creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Greater Good serves as an outstanding second entry in the Thrawn Ascendancy series, which charts the early life of this great character.  With a clever and exciting story, chock full of universe building, fantastic characters and some unique and memorable battle moments, Greater Good is an excellent novel that comes highly recommended.  I have so much love for Zahn’s Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels and, after really enjoying Greater Good, I am very excited to see how this series ends.  The final book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Lesser Evil, is coming out in November 2021, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber

Star Wars - Maul - Lockdown Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 28 January 2014)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 12 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read. 

2021 has so far been a fantastic year for Star Wars novels with excellent releases such as the two Star Wars: The High Republic novels, Light of the Jedi and Into the Dark, and the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron trilogy, Victory’s Price.  I have been really enjoying these new Star Wars novels but I recently got a hankering for something a little different and decided to go back and check out some of the older Star Wars tie-in novels.  While there were several intriguing options (I was strongly eyeing off A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno and Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells), I eventually settled for the one of the last entries in the Star Wars: Legends range of books, Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber, an intensely exciting and dark novel with an amazing story to it.

Welcome to the space station Cog Hive Seven, the most dangerous prison in the entire galaxy.  Here inmates are forced to fight to the death in matches broadcast to millions of gamblers across the Republic determined to make a profit off the blood of the galaxy’s worst killers and criminals.  No one escapes from Cog Hive Seven, and every one of its deadly and evil inhabitants know that they will eventually die there.  However, not even these deranged inmates are prepared for the new evil that has been thrown into their midst, the lethal dark-side assassin, Darth Maul.  

Sent by Darth Sidious to contact a secretive weapons merchant, Iram Radique, Maul has disguised himself as a notorious mercenary and killer.  Determined to complete the mission his master has given him, Maul begins to upend the prison to find the elusive Radique, quickly establishing himself as a destructive force of chaos.  However, his notoriety also sees him forced into progressively more dangerous matches against some of the deadliest creatures in the galaxy. 

Bereft of his lightsaber, forbidden from using the force and with bombs injected into both his hearts, Maul must rely on his brutal combat abilities and own inner strength to succeed.  But the closer he gets to finding Radique, the more he realises that not everything is as it seems aboard Cog Hive Seven and that his target will do everything is his power to avoid meeting with Maul.  Worse, dangerous factions have taken notice of the prison and its deranged warden and soon Maul must contend with a death cult, the followers of Jabba the Hutt and a horrifying monster living within the walls of the prison.  Can even Darth Maul overcome the odds in front of him, or will the creatures of Cog Hive Seven swallow him whole?

I think readers of this blog will not be too surprised to hear that the moment I found out that there was a book that followed Darth Maul participating in death matches aboard a space prison, I knew I would have to read it, and boy am I glad I did.  Maul: Lockdown is an impressive and fantastic novel that I found to be instantly captivating and which I powered through in a short amount of time.  Author Joe Schreiber, whose previous novel, Death Troopers, featured an outstanding story about key Star Wars characters encountering a zombie horde (it is as awesome as it sounds) came up with a pretty epic narrative for this Star Wars novel, and I really enjoyed this cool, Darth Maul-centric book.

I have to say that I was really surprised about how complex and impressive Maul: Lockdown’s narrative turned out to be.  Based on the plot description, I would have expected a simple, action-orientated story, but instead Schreiber crafted together a dark and powerful Star Wars tale with some compelling mystery elements.  This book reads a lot like a prison thriller, with Maul thrust into the middle of a dangerous jail which he must navigate to find his target.  While there is a natural focus on the fights between Maul and the other dangerous inmates, which results in some exceptional action sequences, the author also works in some great mystery and crime fiction elements that combine perfectly with the Star Wars backdrop.  The author utilises a bunch of multiple perspectives to show the chaotic nature of the prison, and there are several great storylines based around supporting characters which twist their way around Maul’s central story of surviving and attempting to find the secretive arms dealer. 

As the story progresses, more and more dangerous elements and antagonists are thrown into the narrative, including monsters, deranged cultists and even Jabba the Hutt, intensifying the obstacles facing Maul and raising the thrilling stakes of the narrative.  I really enjoyed the main storyline of the hunt for Radique, and there were plenty of false leads and twists around who he was and where he was hiding.  I did think the eventual reveal of the character (spoiler ahead!!!) was a tad weak, mainly as it ended up being a character we hadn’t seen before (spoiler end), but it was still an interesting and exciting centre to the narrative.  Schreiber also weaves some excellent horror elements into the story, especially surrounding one unique creature in the prison.  The author makes this creature particularly horrifying to behold, both because of its appearance and its unsettling abilities, and there are some real terrifying sequences surrounding it.  All these great elements come together perfectly into one fantastic and captivating tale that proves to be extremely addictive and very clever.

This is an exciting Star Wars novel that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy.  Maul: Lockdown was one of the later entries in the previous Star Wars extended universe which is now known as the Star Wars: Legends range.  Despite no longer being considered canon, the Star Wars: Legends books still have some great stories, such as the impressive heist novel Scoundrels, and this was a pretty cool entry.  Set a year before The Phantom Menace, this book is loaded with a ton of references to other pieces of Star Wars media, including several previous Star Wars: Legends novels and comics, Schreiber’s previous book Death Troopers (featuring a clever cameo), and even an old Star Wars video game, Bounty Hunter.  There are lots of interesting pieces of Star Wars lore in here, and the author features a couple of major figures from the prequel films, as well as a few obscure characters from some of the older Star Wars novels, including a corrupted Padawan of Count Dooku I had not heard of before (she is not in the new canon).  I really enjoyed the author’s inclusion of a battle of intrigue between Darth Sidious and his master Darth Plagueis, and the story in Maul: Lockdown has some great connections to certain events in the Darth Plagueis novel.  While Schreiber has included a lot of high-level lore, I felt that this was quite an accessible Star Wars novel and anyone who saw Darth Maul emerge in The Phantom Menace will definitely enjoy this darker and captivating piece of Star Wars fiction.

One of the most intriguing things about this novel is the way in which the author attempts to dive into the mindset of fan-favourite character Darth Maul.  Ever since he whipped out his dual-bladed lightsaber in The Phantom Menace, Maul has been a much beloved figure in the Star Wars franchise, but you do not often get to see much of his inner thoughts.  While I would probably be happy reading a simple hack-and-slash adventure featuring Maul, I really appreciated the way in which Schreiber takes the time to examine Maul’s inner psyche, and you get an intriguing glimpse into his thoughts about his mission, his purpose in life and his loyalty to his master.  I found it quite fascinating to see the way in which Schreiber portrays Maul’s complex feelings about Sidious, as he is both simultaneous absolutely loyal to him while also being deeply suspicious about his intentions.  Maul spends most of the book believing that everything he is experiencing is a test or deception levelled at him by his Master and he also hints at his suspicions that he will eventually be betrayed.  While this examination of Maul’s more complex thoughts and feelings is quite interesting, it is also perfectly counterbalanced by a huge number of scenes that examine just how much of a badass Maul is.  Schreiber has loaded this book up with awesome and brutal fight sequences pitting Maul up against a range of deadly opponents, which are made even more awesome by the fact that Maul is unable to use either his lightsaber or force abilities.  Instead, Maul shows off his impressive unarmed fighting skills and his natural cunning, as he overwhelms his opponents in some brutal and clever ways.  The author also fits in some compelling hints and depictions of Maul’s training and early life, which I found to be very interesting, particularly as some of these events slightly differ from the current canon.  All of this makes for an exceptionally cool Darth Maul novel, and I loved seeing this great character in all his deadly glory.

I ended up checking out Maul: Lockdown on audiobook, which is easily the best way to enjoy a Star Wars book.  The Maul: Lockdown audiobook has a reasonable run time of 12 hours and 20 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through in a couple of sittings.  I absolutely powered through this audiobook myself, especially once I got caught up in the cool story, and I had a great time experiencing all the features of this format.  Like most Star Wars audiobooks, Maul: Lockdown makes excellent use of the iconic sound effects and musical scores from the Star Wars films and television series to enhance its story.  The sound effects are particularly impactful in Maul: Lockdown, and I liked the way they made the many fight sequences pop with the sounds of violence and weapons blasting.  They also made one horrifying creature even more terrible to listen to thanks to the slithering and sucking sounds that played when it appeared.  This audiobook also made great use of John Williams’ amazing scores.  I always love hearing the inspirational and moving Star Wars music during these audiobooks, and while it was more restrained in this audiobook than some others I have enjoyed, it still helped to make several emotional or exciting scenes just a little more epic.

In addition to the cool sound effects and awesome music, Maul: Lockdown’s audiobook also made great use of exceptional narrator Jonathan Davies.  Davies is a veteran narrator who has lent his voice to several Star Wars novels in the past, such as Doctor Aphra, Dooku: Jedi Lost, Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith.  He does a fantastic job bringing the various characters in Maul: Lockdown to life, and I really enjoyed the unique tones that each character received.  I really liked the voices that he used for established Star Wars characters, which were close, if not spot on, to how they appeared in the films or television series.  This includes the menacing tones he came up with for Maul, which contained all the character’s barely supressed anger and hatred, and he did a rather good Darth Sidious which was reminiscent of Tim Curry’s take on him in The Clone Wars animated series.  Davis also did a perfect Jabba the Hutt (not exactly sure that is a compliment, but please take it as such), and I loved hearing him do Jabba’s iconic laugh.  Overall, his narration was pretty damn awesome and, when combined with the fantastic sound effects and great musical inclusions, helped to really enhance Maul: Lockdown’s narrative and continued the trend of outstanding Star Wars audiobooks.

Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber is an outstanding and awesome novel that sees one of the best characters in the Star Wars canon fighting for his life in a dangerous setting.  Featuring a powerful and addictive narrative, loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and a whole lot of violence, this is a rich, clever, and dark Star Wars novel that comes highly recommended.  I had an incredible time reading this cool and captivating book and I really need to check out some of the other amazing sounding novels in the Star Wars: Legends range.

Throwback Thursday – Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 April 2000)

Series: Dresden Files – Book One

Length: 8 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For my latest Throwback Thursday I finally check out the first novel in the epic and highly acclaimed Dresden Files series, Storm Front, by legendary author Jim Butcher, which is an amazing and impressive read.

Jim Butcher is an outstanding author who has been dominating the fantasy market for nearly 20 years.  While he has written a couple of series, including his Codex Alera books, and some standalone novels, such as the tie-in novel Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, Butcher is easily best known for his Dresden Files novels.  These books follow the adventures of titular protagonist Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only official wizard, who solves magical crimes and serves as a protector of the innocent against a range of supernatural threats.  This series has been running since 2000 and with 17 current entries (the 18th is on the way) it is generally considered to be the gold-standard of urban fantasy series.  While I have always heard amazing things about these books, I arrived a little late to the party, having only read the 17th book, Battle Ground, last year.  Battle Ground was a pretty epic read, containing an off-the-chain fantasy war in the heart of the city, and it ended up being one of my favourite novels (and audiobooks) of 2020.  Due to how much I enjoyed this latest book, as well as a general desire to explore the rest of the series, I decided to go back and read the first entry in the series, Butcher’s debut novel, Storm Front.

Harry Dresden is a man who leads an interesting life.  As the only openly practicing magic user in Chicago (his name is even in the phonebook under wizard), Harry scrapes a living investigating small and unusual cases, such as finding lost items and performing paranormal investigations while trying to avoid the attentions of the White Council, a governing body of magical practitioners who have placed Harry on a lethal probation.  However, his latest cases are about to make his life very complicated in ways he never expected.

Two people have been murdered in a particularly gruesome manner, with their hearts bursting out of their chests during an act of passion.  Called in by the Chicago P.D., which has him on retainer as a magical consultant, Harry determines that their deaths were caused by the darkest of spells.  Despite being forbidden by the White Council to know anything about the deadly arts, Dresden begins to dive into the case, determined to find out who is responsible and how they did it.  At the same time, Monica Sells, a local housewife, has provided Dresden with a great deal of money to find her missing husband, someone who has apparently had his own recent misadventures with magic.

As Harry investigates both the murder and the disappearance, he finds himself under attack from all sides.  Not only does the most feared gangster in Chicago want him to drop the case, but the White Council views him as the prime suspect in the deaths due to his deadly past.  Worse, a shadowy figure wants him dead and is unleashing dangerous magical creatures upon him.  However, you cannot keep a good wizard down, and Harry plans to use every trick at his disposal to stay alive long enough to find the killer, even if it burns every bridge he has.

Well, that was a pretty awesome read, and one that I wish I had checked out a very long time ago.  Storm Front is an exciting and clever book that combines a compelling story with some great characters, an interesting urban fantasy setting and a fantastic, humour laden tone, all of which come together into an impressive novel.  Storm Front also serves as an excellent first novel in the wider Dresden Files series, and it was extremely interesting to see it after previously reading a more recent entry in the series.  I had an amazing time with this novel and, while it is a tad rough in places, especially compared to Butcher’s later work, I must give Storm Front a full five-star rating.

At the centre of Storm Front lies a particularly good fantasy murder mystery narrative that sees the protagonist take on some challenging cases that result in death and destruction raining down on his life.  The story starts up quickly with Dresden, whose role as a wizard is more like a supernatural PI, being employed to find a missing husband, while also helping the police solve a twisted magical double murder.  This results in a fast-paced narrative that sees Dresden investigate both cases in his own unique way, which results in dangerous complications as people attempt to either discourage him or outright kill him.  I loved how the story read a lot like a hardboiled detective fiction novel, albeit with a lot more quips and amusing jokes, and this style of writing worked extremely well with the magical elements featured throughout the book.  The narrative gets more complex as the book progresses, with additional side characters, greater lore inclusions and more sophisticated dangers, and I felt that the author was able to work all of this into story extremely well, ensuring that the reader becomes enthralled with the intense magical action, entertaining characters, and outlandish threats.  The author also throws in some clever twists, which includes the protagonist becoming the main suspect in the murders, resulting in a lot of tense and dangerous situations as he tries to avoid everyone coming after him.  All of this leads up to an epic and fantastically written conclusion which pulls all the threads of the story together and ensures that the reader is left wanting more.  If I had to make one criticism about the book, it would be that the identity of the main antagonist/murder is extremely obvious right from the outset, and that ruins a lot of the surprises that the author was clearly hoping for.  However, I still really enjoyed Storm Front’s captivating tale, and it is worth hanging around to see the story unfold.  Overall, I felt that this was an exceedingly strong story and it honestly does not take long to get hooked on it.

Easily the top highlight of this book is the outstanding protagonist and narrator, Harry Dresden (full name: Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, named after famous stage magicians), the rogue and public wizard.  Dresden is an amazing and entertaining protagonist who the reader quickly becomes attached to thanks to his antics, morality, unpredictable nature and skills as magic user.  I always enjoy smartass characters, and Dresden is one of the better ones I have read.  A lot of the book’s excellent comedic undertones are thanks to Dresden’s dry and timely sense of humour as he provides some excellent quips and commentary, both out loud and in his head.  Despite being a mostly funny character, Butcher ensures that his protagonist has a hard and dark edge to him that helps to make him even more compelling and intriguing to follow.  Not only does the reader get an in-depth and comprehensive look into his troubled psyche, especially when he is experiencing guilt, trauma or despair, but there are some intriguing hints at his dark past, some of which come into play throughout the book.  I also liked how the author set up and explored Dresden’s magical ability, especially as the protagonist is not the most powerful magical user out there, although he makes up for it through trickery, training and intelligence.  I particularly liked the way in which he was able to defeat an antagonist with substantially more raw magical power with some simple tricks or the use of some psychology, and the author did a great job highlighting his protagonist’s analytical thinking as one of his key strengths.  I also have to say that I really enjoyed the fantastic look that Butcher sets up for his character, with the black duster, the staff and the Blue Beetle car, making him a very distinctive figure.  This ended up being an outstanding introduction to the character, and it will be interesting to see how he develops to the powerful badass that later appears in Battle Ground.

In addition to Dresden, the author also features an interesting collection of characters throughout Storm Front who add some additional, exciting layers to the overall story.  Each of the supporting characters in this novel is very well-written and layered, featuring some intriguing histories (although they all have secrets that will be revealed later).  Many of these characters become major figures in the larger Dresden Files series, and this serves as an excellent introduction to them.  Of all the characters a few really stood out to me, including Bob, an air spirit who inhabits a skull in Harry’s lab.  Bob is a fun, if unusual, character who has a somewhat perverted/voyeuristic streak that causes Harry all manner of trouble and leads to some very entertaining moments throughout the book.  I also quite liked the introduction of Karrin Murphy, the hardnosed Chicago detective who utilises Dresden as her magical consultant.  Karrin is a great no-nonsense character who is one of the few people to call Dresden out on his actions and who has a complex relationship with him in this book.  I really must highlight the introduction of “Gentleman” John Marcone, Chicago’s premier crime boss who is antagonistic towards Dresden for much of the book.  Marcone is portrayed is a stone-cold killer with a hidden past, and there are some great hints at what sort of recurring character he becomes in future entries in this series.  I also thought that the overall antagonist of this novel was pretty good and served as a great counterpoint to Dresden throughout the book.  Despite the identity of the antagonist being rather obvious for much of the novel, I felt that Butcher provided them some complex motivations for their actions in Storm Front, and it was intriguing to see how they slid down into using dark magic.  This antagonist has a couple of fantastic scenes in this novel, and I particularly liked the clever way in which their storyline came to an end.  Each of these side characters added so much to the book’s plot, and I had an amazing time getting to know them.

I also really enjoyed the amazing urban fantasy setting that Butcher came up with for Storm Front.  This series is set in a world where magic is semi-hidden from mortals, although there is substantial dangerous magical activity occurring in the underbelly of cities like Chicago.  The author does a great job of setting up the basics of this fantasy reality throughout the first book, and the reader is given an effective rundown of all the unique features and limitations of magic and magical creatures for these books.  Butcher made the smart choice of starting small with this first book, and while there are mentions of the wider magical world, enough to draw the curiosity of the reader, for the most part the magical elements are limited to what is relevant to the story.  I liked that the reader was not overwhelmed with lore right off the bat, especially as this allowed them to enjoy the cool story, but it is clear a lot of what was mentioned will be explored in far greater detail in the future.  The grimy and dangerous magical cityscape also served as an awesome background to the noir style story contained within Storm Front, and it was great to see the character get involved with both the criminal and magical underbelly of the city.  I had a lot of fun with this setting, and I look forward to learning more about the rules and hidden magical lore in the future.

Considering how outstanding my previous experience with a Dresden Files audiobook was, there was no way that I was not going to check out Storm Front’s audiobook format, especially as it was once again narrated by Spike himself, James Marsters (I also loved him in Torchwood and Smallville, but he was at his best in Buffy and Angel).  Unsurprisingly I had an incredible time listening to Storm Front’s audiobook and I ended up knocking it out in a couple of days, especially as it has a relatively short runtime of 8 hours.  This was an incredible audiobook, not only because the great story translated really well into the format, but also because of Marsters’ fantastic narration.  Marsters did an outstanding job narrating this story at a quick pace, drawing listeners into the story while also utilising a voice that perfectly fits Storm Front’s tone.  I also really appreciated the way in which Marsters dove into the role of the central protagonist, Harry Dresden, and he really brings this maverick character to life throughout the production, especially when it comes to encapsulating Dresden’s dry wit, strange sense of humour and enthusiasm.  Marsters did use similar voices for some of the supporting characters, however listeners are able to easily follow the story without getting confused about who is talking.  Overall, this was a pretty good performance from Marsters (this was actually one of the first audiobooks he narrated), and I know that he gets a lot better in later books, with some varied voices and even greater enthusiasm as a narrator.  As a result, I fully intend to check out the rest of the Dresden Files novels in their audiobook format and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in this series do the same.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and captivating debut novel that more than lives up to all the hype that has been generated about it in the last 20 years.  Thanks to the cool story, great characters, and fantastic setting, this was an awesome book to read, and I loved seeing this maverick wizard solving supernatural crimes in Chicago.  Storm Front also served as an incredible introduction to the wider Dresden Files novels, and I was glad to see how this entire epic series started.  I fully intend to go back and check out this entire series over the next couple of years and I am very excited to see what over intense and entertaining adventures Butcher has come up with in.

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

Star Trek - Picard Cover

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

Series: Star Trek: Picard – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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