Consulting Editor: Joss Whedon
Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 15 March 2021)
Series: Firefly – Book Five
Length: 377 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
One of my favourite tie-in series returns with another awesome Firefly novel by bestselling author James Lovegrove. This time, Lovegrove digs up an intriguing unaired plotline for the epic science fiction series and crafts an outstanding story out of it for Firefly: Life Signs.
Set between the events of the Firefly television series and the Serenity film, Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity are still scraping by, earning a living from barely legal jobs while also dealing with the consequences of their previous capers. Life seems to be normal (well, normal for this motley crew) until they receive some shocking news: former crewmember Inara is dying from a terminal illness.
Rushing to her side, a devastated Mal learns that Inara is suffering from Kiehl’s Myeloma, an incurable form of cancer. With only a few short weeks until Inara’s time is up, Serenity’s crew look set to lose one of their own, until a rumour reaches them of a potential cure. Esau Weng, a maverick scientist, was rumoured to be working on a medical breakthrough that could potentially treat Inara’s condition. However, the unethical and secretive nature of his work landed him in trouble with the Alliance, who arrested him and bundled him off to their most notorious prison.
Tracking Esau’s location, the crew are disheartened to learn that he has been sent to the prison planet of Atata, a dangerous and harsh place where the worst criminals and dissidents the verse has to offer are housed. Inmates are abandoned on its surface and are forced to survive with no guards, no protection, and limited resources. Worse, the planet is a frozen wasteland, nearly uninhabitable thanks to its failed terraforming, with its snow-covered surface filled with mutated animals. Determined to save Inara no matter what, Mal organises a desperate infiltration of the prison with Zoe, Jayne and Simon. However, finding Weng will prove to be harder than they imagined, as they are forced to deal with the deranged ruler of the prison. Can Mal and his team find Weng before it is too late, and even if they can, will his supposed cure be enough to save Inara?
Over the last couple of years, there has been an excellent resurgence in Firefly/Serenity tie-in fiction as new publishing companies have taken charge of producing content for the franchise. One of the best examples of this has been the new collection of Firefly novels that introduced some compelling original stories surrounding various members of Serenity’s crew. All of these novels have been pretty awesome so far, and I have really enjoyed the awesome and impressive stories they have created.
While other authors have been lined up for these books, such as Tim Lebbon (who wrote Firefly: Generations), the MVP of this series has been James Lovegrove, who has written four out of the five novels (including this one). His previous books have included Big Damn Hero (with Nancy Holder), The Magnificent Nine and The Ghost Machine, all three of which have been exceptional tie-in reads. In my opinion, each of Lovegrove’s Firefly novels has been better than the last, and this continues to be the case with Life Signs. Life Signs was an outstanding and clever read that explores some of the most interesting and compelling aspects of the Firefly universe while also getting to the very core of some of its iconic characters.
For his latest Firefly novel, Lovegrove comes up with an awesome narrative that is both exciting and emotionally powerful, as the crew engage in a prison break to save one of their own. Like the rest of the Firefly books that I have had the pleasure of reading, Life Signs is an extremely fast-paced novel, which makes great use of multiple character perspectives, including all the members of Serenity’s crew as well as several new characters, to tell a complete and intriguing story. The novel starts at pace, with the crew receiving the devastating news about Inara’s upcoming death, which hits all the characters, especially Mal, extremely hard. From there the story splits into two linked but separate story arcs: one on the planet and one in space. The storyline set on the prison planet is pretty good, and it was a lot of fun to see the more criminally minded Mal, Zoe and Jayne attempt to blend in, along with a faltering Simon. Their attempts to infiltrate the criminal inhabitants of the prison ends up producing several interesting issues that they need to overcome, and they eventually engage in a desperate battle for survival out in Atata’s snowy wasteland. There are some great twists associated with this part of the story, including a clever one surrounding an inmate who joins their team, and this was a fantastic part of the book. At the same time, the three other members of the crew are out in space aboard Serenity and must deal with a fanatical Alliance captain who is determined to capture them, resulting in some amazing space exploits which push River to the fore. Both these separated arcs are pretty awesome, and they come together extremely well, ensuring the reader gets a fantastic blast of action and character development. I also enjoyed the additional emotional weight that the life-or-death storyline surrounding Inara has, and it was definitely a powerful and compelling narrative that readers are guaranteed to want to finish off as quickly as they can.
Life Signs is an intriguing and clever addition to the wider Firefly canon. While the story is quite open to new readers or those who are unfamiliar with the franchise, this is definitely a novel best enjoyed by fans of the Firefly television show and additional tie-in media, as there are a number of fun references and major character moments that they will find particularly appealing. One of the most interesting parts of this book is the storyline surrounding Inara having cancer. As some Firefly fans may be aware, members of the show’s creative team have revealed that they initially planned a whole major storyline around Inara suffering from a terminal illness, which would have appeared in a future episode of the show. They even layered a few hints about this in the first season, such as her mysterious syringe and the reasons why she was travelling on Serenity rather than a more luxurious ship. I was very excited to hear that parts of this storyline were being used in Life Signs and I think that Lovegrove did a great job examining this interesting character thread surrounding Inara. Not only does this result in some brilliant and dramatic moments, but Lovegrove makes sure to make mention of several of the hints that were shown in the television series, which fans will deeply appreciate. Lovegrove provides several additional references that eagle-eyed fans will appreciate, such as the very start of the book containing a fun follow-up to one of the crew’s previous adventures. Lovegrove also subtly ties Life Signs into some of the previous Firefly novels he wrote, including through a key supporting character, and I quite liked the continuity of the novels. As a result, this is a perfect read for Firefly fans, although general science fiction buffs or those who enjoyed the show will have a great time with this novel as well.
As usual with Lovegrove’s Firefly novels, one of the most impressive highlights of this book is the fantastic depiction of the fantastic characters from the show. Lovegrove has always done an amazing job of bringing these great characters to life within his novels and I really love his attention to character detail, emotion and their inner selves. Life Signs continues this trend by thoroughly examining several members of the crew and I deeply enjoyed the emotional and enjoyable inclusions to the plot.
You can probably guess that Inara gets a bit of focus in this novel, due to the reveal that she is dying. As I mentioned above, I really enjoyed that Lovegrove utilised this story arc in Life Signs, and the author leverages this plot to provide a fantastic and powerful dive into Inara’s character, a re-examination of her actions during the television show, as well as an exploration of her relationship with the other people aboard Serenity. This serves to be one of the more intriguing portrayals of Inara in this series of novels, although it is rather brief as Inara spends most of the novel in a near-death state. Due to Inara’s illness keeping her out of much of the plot, a lot of the story’s emotional weight fall to Mal, who ends up getting most of the focus of this novel. While you do get his typical cocky attitude, fun humour and ability to annoy anyone around him, you also get to see Mal on the emotional edge during this book. Mal is naturally devastated by the news that his unspoken love interest is dying, and he quickly latches on to any hope for her survival. As a result, he dives into the hunt for a cure with reckless abandon and ends up taking some big risks. Lovegrove did an amazing job portraying Mal as a bit deranged in this novel, and it was fascinating to see the usual conscientious captain seemingly prioritise Inara’s survival over the safety of his crew. There are some amazingly dramatic and moving moments throughout this book as Mal struggles to deal with the emotions surrounding Inara’s potential death, and Firefly fans will be left on the edge of their seats as Lovegrove provides some new angles to their complex relationship.
While a good portion of the novel focuses on Mal and his concerns for Inara, the rest of Serenity’s crew also appear throughout the novel, as each of them has at least one chapter shown from their point of view. Interestingly enough, both Tam siblings get a decent chunk of focus, with their storylines not as connected to each other’s as usual. Simon has a great arc down on the prison planet after he is dragged along to determine if Weng can actually help Inara. Due to his lack of criminal believability, Simon ends up having a very interesting time in the prison, especially after he befriends a seemingly innocent female inmate, who forms a romantic attachment to Simon. This ends up causing many problems with Simon, due to his poor lying abilities and conflicted feelings over Kaylee, and it was really interesting to see how his arc ended up. On the other hand, River spends her part of the story aboard Serenity, and is called into action when the ship is threatened by Alliance military vessels. I loved that Lovegrove spent time exploring River’s piloting Serenity, something that is shown at the end of the Serenity film, and it was really cool to see her do some complex and insane manoeuvres. The chapters shown from River’s point of view are amongst some of the most entertaining parts of the book, and it is always great to see this crazy genius in action.
Zoe, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne round up the main cast of this book, although each of them has more of a supporting role. Zoe does have an intriguing storyline that sees her bond with a fellow former soldier in the prison, and there were hints back at her past as a Dust Devil, something that was initially introduced in one of Joss Whedon’s comic books. All these characters are portrayed in exquisite detail however, and Lovegrove does a good job replicating their personalities and characteristics throughout the story. Overall, fans of the franchise will love the way that each of the characters are utilised throughout Life Signs, and I cannot wait to see which characters are featured in the next Firefly novel.
Firefly: Life Signs is another exceptional and clever Firefly tie-in novel from the impressive James Lovegrove. Lovegrove has come up with an exciting and clever tale that successfully utilises a planned storyline from the show and produce an addictive and memorable narrative with it. Readers will love the awesome call back to this iconic science fiction show including the excellent portrayals of the main cast of characters. I had an amazing time reading this book and Firefly fans are going to love every second they spend reading it. While I cannot wait to get my hands on the next entry in this series, which looks set to be Carnival by Una McCormack, Life Signs is an outstanding novel to check out now and comes highly recommended.