The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry – Audiobook Review

The Malta Exchange Cover

Publishers: Hodder & Stoughton and MacMillan Audio (5 March 2019)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 14

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of international thriller sensation Steve Berry comes the 14th book in his acclaimed Cotton Malone series, The Malta Exchange.

When the pope unexpectedly dies, opportunity and chaos grips the Vatican.  As the world’s cardinals arrive in Rome in preparation for the conclave to elect a new pope, one cardinal, the controversial Kastor Gallo, suddenly leaves for an impromptu visit to Malta.  He has been summoned for a clandestine meeting, the results of which could hand him the papacy.  The only witness to this meeting is United States Justice Department operative Luke Daniels, whose covert observations of the meeting is quickly compromised, forcing him to fight for his life.

While Daniels attempts to uncover what is happening in Malta, his former colleague, Cotton Malone, is in Italy working for British intelligence.  An Italian collector claims to have letters between Churchill and Mussolini that could prove extremely damaging to Churchill’s legacy, and MI6 is eager to recover them.  What is meant to be a quick mission for Malone is complicated when armed men kill the collector and steal the letters.  Malone is able to trace his assailants to the legendary Knights of Malta, and his chase to recover the letters leads him into a hunt from a mysterious document from the reign of Emperor Constantine.

This document, revered by the Knights of Malta and feared by the church, has been lost for hundreds of years.  Hunted by some of history’s greatest tyrants, including Napoleon and Mussolini, this secret document not only has the potential to influence the current concave if revealed, but it could also tear the church down completely.  As a secret society within the modern incarnation of the Knights of Malta and elements of the Entity, the church’s intelligence organisation, both attempt to claim the document, Malone and Daniels once again team up to recover the document and destroy the conspiracy threatening to envelope them and the entire Catholic world.

Steve Berry is a veteran author of thrillers that focus on complex conspiracies, having written a number of exciting books since his 2003 debut.  While Berry has written four standalone novels, including The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy and The Third Secret, he is probably best known for his long-running Cotton Malone series of books.  The Cotton Malone series, which began in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, is made up of 14 books, each of which features the series titular character, retired U.S. Justice Department operative Cotton Malone as he is forced to investigate a series of elaborate conspiracies or secrets with origins in history.

The Malta Exchange features several characters from the previous books in the series.  While this is the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange can easily be read as a standalone book, as no prior knowledge of the Cotton Malone series is required to enjoy this story.  While there are some mentions of previous adventures in the series, none of these brief references are really relevant to this book’s story.  Likewise, the series’ recurring characters are re-introduced in some detail, and no pre-existing knowledge of them is needed.  Those readers who are already familiar with this series will enjoy another amazing thriller from Berry, although there may be some repetition, as the protagonists once again dive into another elaborate conspiracy centred with a secret order associated with the Catholic Church.  As one of my reviewer colleagues who is somewhat more familiar with this series than me stated, “How many conspiracies can one man wander into?”  Still, for those people who have enjoyed Berry’s stories before, The Malta Exchange is another exceptional read with a thrilling mystery that is a lot of fun to unravel.

While I received a physical copy of this book to read, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Malta Exchange narrated by Scott Brick.  This book was an absolutely fantastic piece of thriller fiction as the reader is thrown into an extremely intriguing and wide-reaching conspiracy involving hidden documents, major historical figures and deep dives into the history and background of several fictional and real-life organisations.

This is an excellent book for thriller fans, as The Malta Exchange contains a number of intense and complex conspiracies and plots overlayed across each other to create an addictive and enjoyable read.  The main plot focuses on the search for a long-lost document that originated during the reign of Emperor Constantine, which has the potential to damage or destroy the Catholic Church.  As a big fan of the historical fiction genre, I loved how this central mystery cleverly utilised a number of massive historical events and figures in its overall conspiracy.  For example, this central conspiracy has ties to Emperor Constantine, the founding of the Catholic Church, Napoleon, Mussolini, the Crusades and important events in World War II.  It even features a number of cool flashbacks to Mussolini and Napoleon’s life, showing how they were embroiled in this conspiracy.  This results in a treasure hunt so large, mysterious and potentially world-changing you cannot help but be intrigued and eager to see how it ends.  On top of that, a number of secret organisations with conflicting agendas and plots are duking it out around the hunt for this document and the reader is uncertain of their true motivations until later in the story.  All these story threads come together incredibly well at the end of the story, resulting in an intense, intelligent and entertaining thriller storyline that I could not wait to fully uncover.

Except for a couple of chapters featuring flashbacks to historical figures like Mussolini or Napoleon, The Malta Exchange is told from the point of view of four main characters: Cotton Malone, Luke Daniels, Cardinal Kastor Gallo and a mysterious ‘knight’ who remains unnamed for most of the book.  Malone and Daniels serve as good central protagonists, and I liked the contrast in their styles and personalities.  While Malone is the older, wiser and occasionally more careful protagonist who puts together the various clues around the hidden location of ancient document, Daniels is the younger, more action orientated character who does a number of crazy stunts throughout the book while also hiding his intelligence and cunning behind a convincing “good ol’ boy” routine.  The unnamed knight is The Malta Exchange’s main antagonist, whose identity remains hidden for much of the book.  This knight is an interesting character, and it is always fun to see the antagonist’s point of view as they attempt to outwit the protagonists.  While the reveal of this character’s secret identity is somewhat obvious due to there only being a few significant secondary characters, the antagonist’s overall plan was quite ingenious and devious.  Kastor Gallo is another interesting character; a self-serving Cardinal who wants to become Pope, he skirts the line between protagonist and villain in this story.  While the character considers himself an honest and pious priest, he is not particularly likeable due to his extremely conservative religious views and unbridled arrogance.  Still it was fun watching him try to manipulate the other characters, as well as his plot to try and gain the papacy.  There are several other fantastic side characters whom I will not discuss in any detail lest I hint at the identity of the unnamed knight above, but they really add a lot to this story.

One of the things that really impressed me about this book was the way that Berry dived into several organisations and locations in extreme and intriguing detail, particularly when it comes to two specific organisations.  The first of these organisations is the Knights of Malta, otherwise known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta or the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.  Throughout this book, Berry spends a significant amount of time exploring this order, from their origins as the Knights Hospitaller and the Crusades, to their current existence as a massive charitable organisation.  Berry examines a large amount of their history, how they are organised, where they are located, what they do, their political status and how they have evolved over the years, and this amazing examination is further extended out into the incredible history of the nation of Malta.  Even the order’s leadership crisis between 2016 and 2018 is somewhat represented in the book, as the author describes a similar crisis affecting the organisation featured within The Malta Exchange.  All of this is deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed the author’s examination of this organisation and how he was able to utilise the Knights of Malta’s actual history to the degree he did, with only a few alterations to fit his story.

The second organisation that Berry dives into is the Catholic Church, as a number of key aspects of the church and the Vatican come into play throughout the plot.  Like with his deep dive into the Knights of Malta, the author included a number of detailed examinations about church history, organisation and key events, like the selection of a new pope, that I quite enjoyed learning more about, and which fit incredibly well into the story.  The part of the examination into the church that I enjoyed the most was the look at the church’s supposed intelligence organisation, the Entity.  While the church has never confirmed they have an official intelligence organisation, several historical books have discussed its potential activities, and a number of thriller writers have utilised such an organisation, often known as the Entity, to great effect.  Perhaps because thrillers are not a genre that I read an awful lot of, this was the first book I have read that featured a church intelligence agency.  I really liked the idea of a secret intelligence organisation working for the Vatican, and Berry really utilises them well throughout his book, making them out as one of the most elite and effective intelligence organisations on the planet, who people really should not mess with.  I absolutely loved all the Catholic Church inclusions that the author featured and that, combined with the captivating examination of the Knights of Malta, helped turn this into an amazing overall story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, which was narrated by Scott Brick.  This was not a massively long audiobook, only clocking in at around 13 and a half hours, and I was able to power through this really quickly, especially as I become more and more enthralled with the book’s compelling story.  I was quite glad that I chose to listen to this book rather than read it.  While you do lose out on some of the book’s visual elements, like some of the diagrams of anagrams or secret codes that feature throughout the physical copy, I found that listening to The Malta Exchange really helped me absorb the massive conspiracy storyline, as well as the history and organisation examinations, a hell of a lot more.  Brick has an amazing voice for thrillers, and I quite enjoyed listening him narrate this fantastic novel.  The voices he creates for the various characters in this book are quite good, and I liked some of the accents that he came up with.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of The Malta Exchange, although readers will still be able to get a huge amount out of the physical copy of the book.

The Malta Exchange by Steve Berry is an incredible and addictive ancient conspiracy thriller that I had an amazing time reading.  Once you get sucked into the book’s various conspiracies and mysteries it is hard to pull yourself out until each and every one of them is untangled.  What I enjoyed most about the main conspiracy was the author’s ability to explore fascinating history and famous organisations in outstanding detail, and then use these events to really enhance his story.  The end result is an awesome novel that comes highly recommend from me.  Appealing and accessible to established fans of the Cotton Malone series, as well as other fans of the thriller genre, I was really glad I decided to check this book out and I am curious to see what historical conspiracy Malone uncovers next.

In a Great Southern Land by Mary-Anne O’Connor

In a Great Southern Land Cover

Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback format – 18 March 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Historical drama author Mary-Anne O’Connor once again presents the readers with a powerful and moving journey through a number of iconic moments in Australian history with her fourth book, In a Great Southern Land, which focuses on Australia’s colonial history and the chaos surrounding the infamous Eureka Stockade.

In 1851, the colonised but still mythical continent of Australia represents many things for many different people.  For the Clancy family living in Ireland it represents freedom, as they seek their own land away from the British aristocracy that controls their country.  For young Eve Richards it represents a harsh prison; she is unfairly transported as a convict after losing everything that she cares about.

Once in New South Wales, Eve briefly encounters the wild but kind Clancy brother, Kieran, who manages to save her from a harsh life in the Tasmanian colonies.  Following a bad experience as he left Ireland, Kieran is wondering around Australia in search of a new purpose, while his family, including his brother, Liam, and his sister, Eileen, settle in Orange.  Despite the love of his family, Kieran’s temper and thirst for adventure leads him down to the goldfields at Ballarat, close to where Eve is employed as a convict servant.

It does not take long for Kieran and Eve to find each other again, and the two are soon drawn together romantically.  However, their plans for their future and a life together are imperilled by events occurring around the goldfields.  The corrupt colonial regime is imposing harsh taxes on the miners attempting to scratch a living at the fields, and resentment and hostility is growing.  When several shocking events become a catalyst for revolt among the miners, Kieran finds himself being forced to choose between supporting his friends or marrying Eve.  Can Kieran and Eve’s relationship survive the chaos of the Eureka Stockade, or will tragedy once again strike them both?

This is the fourth book from Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor, who specialises in historical dramas set in the backdrop of significant events in Australia’s history.  Her 2015 debut, Gallipoli Street, features aspects of World Wars I and II as well as the Great Depression.  Her second book, Worth Fighting For, is set in World War II, while her third book, War Flower, focuses on Australia in the 1960s, including the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  In a Great Southern Land is the author’s first foray into a 19th century setting, and her love and dedication to recounting parts of Australia’s complex and chaotic history once again shines through.

At its heart, In a Great Southern Land is a dramatic story of several individuals who are searching for a new beginning, and find love, loss and upheaval in their new home.  I have to admit that dramatic novels are not usually the sort of book that I am naturally drawn to, but something about this book really appealed to me and I had a great time reading it.  The main characters are extremely sympathetic and realistic, and the reader can not help but get drawn into their story.  A lot of bad stuff affects all of them, especially Kieran and Eve, and you are left hoping that they can hang on and find the happiness that they deserve.  I quite enjoyed the romance angle between Kieran and Eve; it came about quite naturally and had quite a satisfying conclusion.  I really got into this fantastic story and I was impressed by how this fantastic dramatic tale was woven so effectively into the book’s amazing historical elements.

One of the things I quite liked about this book was O’Connor’s ability to examine and bring several aspects of Australia’s colonial history to life.  Several iconic parts of the mid-19th century Australian experience are explored by the author, including the transportation of convicted criminals from England to Australia, the often terrible convict lifestyle, the resettlement of Irish settlers to various parts of Australia and the trials and tribulations of those seeking their fortunes in the goldfields.  On top of that, O’Connor also explores various Australian locations, including historical Sydney, Melbourne, Orange and Ballarat.  All of these examinations of history are deeply fascinating, and I really enjoyed reading about them.  The author has obvious skill at portraying all the historical aspects, and the reader gets a real sense of what it would have been like to experience these historical events, ordeals and locations.

The most significant historical event that occurs within this book is the Eureka Stockade, which plays a huge role in the overall story.  O’Connor does an amazing job examining this interesting and often venerated piece of Australia’s colonial history and explores so many of the key elements surrounding the event.  As such, the reader gets an excellent idea of what events led up to the Eureka Stockade, and why the participants thought it was necessary to organise as they did.  The actual battle at the Eureka Stockade is pretty brutal and tragic for the reader and becomes one of the major parts within the book.  I quite liked the examination of the aftermath of the event, especially the rather entertaining, but apparently accurate, courtroom sequence, which I was not as familiar with.  O’Connor does a fantastic job brining the Eureka Stockade to life, and I was quite impressed with how it was utilised in the telling of the book’s dramatic storylines.

I really enjoyed the author’s underlying examination of freedom and control that seemed to permeate a large amount of In a Great Southern Land’s plot.  Throughout the story, the main characters experience high amounts of oppression or prejudice, often from upper-class English characters, due to a wide range of social factors.  For example, before the Clancy family leave for Australia, they are oppressed by the rich, English family who controls their land and whose greed takes something precious from Kieran.  Eve is taken advantage of by the son of the household she works for and is then cast out when the affair is discovered without the son standing up for her.  Even when they reach the promised land of Australia, the characters are still oppressed.  The Clancy family still face discrimination for being Irish, with the police targeting Kieran, and one particularly dislikeable doctor refusing to leave a party to treat someone from Ireland.  Eve, on the other hand, is treated poorly as a convict, and even after she finds work with a nice, wealthy family, she and Kieran are forced to act a certain way with Eve’s employers in order to gain permission to marry.  This underlying oppression and the resentment and anger that these characters felt plays wonderfully into the events that led up to the Eureka Stockade, and it was intriguing to see how these events affected the characters’ decisions in relation to these events.

In this book, Mary-Anne O’Connor has produced another outstanding historical drama that the reader really gets drawn into.  The main story is deep and emotive and ties in well with O’Connor’s rich and detailed depictions of historical events that represent key points in Australia’s colonial history.  In a Great Southern Land is an amazing and powerful read that I was quite happy to find myself really enjoying.  I ranked this book 4.5 stars, and I will be quite interested to see what period of Australian history O’Connor decides to explore next.

Throwback Thursday – Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Moving PIcture Cover.jpg

Publishers: Corgi and ISIS Audiobooks (14 November 1991)

Series: Discworld – Book 10

Length: 332 pages or 10 hours and 8 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as 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.

Because my blog shares the name of a building featured in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, some people might have assumed that I am a fan.  You would be right, so very, very right.  I have loved Discworld since I was a small child, and my appreciation and respect for the complex writings of the late, great genius, Sir Terry Pratchett, has grown with me.  The Discworld series represents one of my ultimate comfort series of books.  It’s the series that I go back to at any time when I want something fun and familiar to enjoy.  I have read all of the adult books set in Discworld multiple times (I have yet to read all of the young adult ones), and it is an unusual year when I do not listen or read some of these books in my spare time.  Pretty much every single book in this series deserves five out of five stars or higher (with one or two exceptions that I may mark down to a 4.75 with a heavy, heavy heart), and you are unlikely to find any real criticisms about this book below.  After nearly a year of running this blog, the continued exclusion of a review of any of Pratchett’s Discworld is a travesty, and one that I seek to rectify in this somewhat late Throwback Thursday with a review of the 10th book in the series, Moving Pictures.

Before I review Moving Pictures, here is some quick context of the Discworld series for those people unfamiliar with these books.  Discworld is the main series of Sir Terry Pratchett, set upon the Discworld, world and mirror of worlds.  The Discworld, or the Disc, is a flat world that rests on the backs of four massive elephants, who themselves stand on the back of a gigantic turtle swimming in space, Great A’Tuin.  The Discworld itself features a huge range of different nations and continents that bear striking similarities to real-world locations.  This series is, without a doubt, the best series that utilises a combination of fantasy and satire in the entire world.  The seamless blend of the two elements is just incredible, and both elements do an unbelievable job at enhancing each other.  Before his death, Pratchett wrote 41 books in the Discworld series, six of which are considered young adult books.  While the books can be read in any real order, the series were mostly written in chronological order (with the exception of Small Gods), and events from earlier books in the series are often referenced.  Although most of the Discworld stories are self-contained, a number of the books are linked together by a recurring main character and are subsequently grouped together into subseries.  These include the Rincewind, Witches, City Watch, Death, Tiffany Arching and Moist von Lipwig subseries, in addition to a few standalone books that fall outside of any of the subseries.  Characters often appear in other Discworld books outside of their subseries, and there are a string of side or secondary characters who appear in multiple subseries and standalone books.

The book I am reviewing, Moving Pictures, is a standalone book that does not really fall within any of the main subseries.  It is sometimes considered part of minor subseries, called the Industrial Revolution subseries, with The Truth and Monstrous Regiment, but I am not a big fan of that distinction.  As it is the first Discworld book I am reviewing, you might think that it is my favourite book in the entire series, which is not true; although it does get five out of five stars from me and I have enjoyed it an amazing number of times, it is not my absolute favourite Discworld book, although it is high on the list.  It is, however, an easier one for me to review as there is a lot I can say about it.

Goodreads Synopsis:

‘Holy wood is a different sort of place. People act differently here. Everywhere else the most important things are gods or money or cattle. Here, the most important thing is to be important.’

People might say that reality is a quality that things possess in the same way that they possess weight. Sadly alchemists never really held with such a quaint notion. They think that they can change reality, shape it to their own purpose. Imagine then the damage that could be wrought if they get their hands on the ultimate alchemy: the invention of motion pictures, the greatest making of illusions. It may be a triumph of universe-shaking proportions. It’s either that or they’re about to unlock the dark terrible secret of the Holy Wood hills – by mistake…

The blurb above is a bit vague on the details of what is actually happening in Moving Pictures.  Essentially, the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork, the largest city on the Discworld (and a central location for many of the books), suddenly develop filmmaking, which they call moving pictures, and set up a filming base at the ancient and abandoned Holy Wood.  The moving pictures issue a weird siren call to the inhabitants of the Discworld, dragging all manners of people and creatures from across the lands and infecting them with their magic (not a metaphor).

Among those drawn to Holy Wood are Victor Tugelbend, a former student wizard, and Theda “Ginger” Withel, a small-town girl with big dreams.  Thanks to the magical on-screen chemistry between them, Victor and Ginger quickly become the superstars of the fledgling moving pictures industry, especially when the Discworld’s most infamous salesman, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, comes to town and takes over the studios.

However, reality on the Discworld is always a bit thin, and Lovecraftian monsters (a favourite recurring antagonist of Pratchett’s early Discworld novels) are revealed to be the ones who planted the idea of moving pictures and Holy Wood in the alchemists’ heads.  Using the new sort of magic created by Holy Wood, the creatures start to break through.  With the wizards of Unseen University, the people who are supposed to guard against these sorts of incursions, distracted by the arrival of an unconventional new Archchancellor, it is up to Victor, Ginger and a ragtag band of other Holy Wood characters to save the day.

This book has so many moving parts to it that it’s hard to know where to begin when reviewing it.  While the main story is concerned with the introduction of moving pictures into the Discworld, there are a number of other entertaining storylines going on throughout the book, each one complementing the main story and creating an amazing overall narrative.  The major appeal of this book is its sharp and intelligent satire of the movie business, which also examines the nature of a film industry in a world as crazy as the Discworld.  I also quite like all the amazing characters, either introduced or built up in this book, many of whom appear in later books in the series.

This book is absolutely hilarious and filled with a huge number of clever and outrageous jokes and observations about the film industry, all of which lie on top of Pratchett’s usual humour about day-to-day life in the Discworld and his random observations, many of which are perfectly introduced in the book’s footnotes.  The main storyline is an amazing portrayal of the hectic early days of the film industry, placed in a fantasy setting.  The cameras are powered by miniature demons (who paint the pictures really, really fast), the lighting is done by salamanders, actors of all species make up the cast, the audience eat ‘banged grains’ while watching the ‘clicks’ and the film’s monsters and villains are all trolls in crude costumes.  However, literal movie magic is making people do strange things (strange even for Discworld folk), talking animals are showing up looking for work, Dwarfs are singing “Hihohihohiho” as they work, characters routinely burst into song and dance in the rain, and one producer keeps threatening to turn people into stars, all while the book’s few straight-characters look on in bemusement.  All of this is amazing, and the sheer number of fantasy-assisted jokes throughout the book is pretty unbelievable.

At its heart, Moving Pictures is a satire and a critique about the film industry as a whole.  Quite a large amount of the story is dedicated to parodying the real-life the crazy effect that movies can have on audiences and the people who make them, as the book shows some ridiculous events.  The story also reflects the insubstantial nature of fame and the fragility of dreams surrounding the movie industry.  The fast-moving world of the film industry is also shown, although sped up even more for comedic and story value, as they film creators are constantly searching and finding new advancements in their field.  A great example of this is shown when Cut-My-Own-Throat Dibbler invents and then continually advances the art of advertisement, so that, within a few short weeks, the film industry goes from ineffective text advertisements to eye-catching posters and explorations of product placement and subliminal messages.  Pratchett handles these critiques very skilfully, and you cannot help but laugh aloud as he skewers the film industry quite cleverly throughout Moving Pictures.

Pratchett also filled Moving Pictures with a ton of references to iconic films and elements of the film industry.  Many of the characters involved with the films are caricatures of famous movie actors, with Victor playing all the typical romantic or manly male heroes of the day, and Ginger is essentially Marilyn Monroe.  Several films are parodied throughout the book, such as Gone With The Wind, which becomes Blown Away, an epic love story set around a famous Ankh-Morpork Civil War.  There is a rather good King Kong parody, in which a gigantic woman kidnaps a poor defenceless Ape (the Librarian) and drags him to the roof of the tallest tower in Ankh-Morpork, all while two wizards on a broomstick shoot at it with a crossbow, with one shouting “If it bleeds, we can kill it!”  That is only scratching the surface of the references featured within this book.  A golden figure with a name starting with O plays a big part in the story, the various studios are all parodies of real-life studios, and there a huge number of funny and subtle references to various famous films.  Examples of these include Wizard of Oz, Lassie, Lawrence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Looney Tunes, Blues Brothers, Casablanca, Tarzan and Star Trek just to name a few.  Readers can go through this book multiple times and not pick up every detail, which is a testament to the cleverness of Pratchett and his ability to come up with some hilarious references.

I have always found the way that Pratchett utilises or re-uses his characters to be extremely fascinating; while some characters appear in multiple books, a number of his main characters, especially from his earlier books, are only used once. There are several examples of this, including Mort from Mort, Pteppic from Pyramids and Esk from Equal Rites (who did appear in a later young adult novel, but there was a significant time gap between the writing of these two books).  While Pratchett may have simply had only one story in mind for these characters, I have a feeling that he simply did not like how they turned out and decided not to use them again under any circumstances.  Mort is probably the best example of this.  Despite being the protagonist of the first Death subseries book Mort, he never appears in any of the Death subseries books again (aside from one brief flashback), and is instead replaced by his own daughter, Susan.  It is interesting to note that most of the main characters who were never or rarely used again are somewhat similar to each other, being young heroes without too many obvious flaws to them.  On the other hand, the unique main characters Pratchett creates with notable flaws, such as Rincewind, the wizard who has turned cowardice into an art form, or the overly cynical and dangerous alcoholic Sam Vimes, helm multiple books.

If I have to make one criticism about this book, it is the weak and somewhat inconsistent main characters, Victor and Ginger.  Ginger is a generic female character, and while she is a good parody of Marilyn Monroe and other early screen actresses, she is pretty one-dimensional and unlikeable.  Victor starts out with some very interesting character traits, as he is described as an extremely lazy person, whose unique brand of laziness forces him to become a brilliant student wizard in order for him to succeed in his quest to fail every test he ever takes by a certain point margin to ensure he remains a student.  However, these character traits are pretty much thrown out the window a few chapters in and he becomes a typical male hero for the rest of the book.  While this sort of straight-man character was needed for this wacky adventure, it is surprising that the character never again really shows the slightest hint of some of these earlier established character traits.  It is interesting to note that neither Victor or Ginger appear in any of the subsequent Discworld novels, so I think there is a strong possibility that Pratchett might also have disliked how these characters turned out.

While one or two of his earlier main characters were somewhat unimpressive, Pratchett always managed to make up for this by creating a range of memorable and enjoyable side characters.  It was always interesting to see which of these side characters would appear in various later books, as you knew Pratchett had to like them as well.  For example, Granny Weatherwax was a supporting character in Equal Rites, but Pratchett must have liked writing her, as she became a major character in the Discworld series, even getting her own subseries with several other witch characters.  Moving Pictures is perhaps the best example of Pratchett’s love of side characters; while Victor and Ginger never appear in the Discworld again, many of the side characters introduced or developed in this book have major roles later in the series.

For example, I was always impressed with how this book turned two minor characters from Guards! Guards!, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and Detritus the troll, and gave them more expanded roles in Moving Pictures.  Dibbler was an opportunistic merchant who got a couple of good, if minor, scenes in Guards! Guards!, but in Moving Pictures, Pratchett transformed him into a ruthless and extremely savvy salesman who gets in the front door of every major new opportunity inflicted on the Discworld, but is often forced by circumstances back to becoming a sausage-in-a-bun merchant.  Dibbler was absolutely fantastic as the stereotypical sleazy film producer, and it is unsurprising why he suddenly became a major recurring character throughout the Discworld books, not only appearing in nearly every book set in Ankh-Morpork but also having clones of him appear in the other nations and cities, all of whom sell disgusting local delicacies.  Detritus is another great example, as he goes from the simple bouncer introduced in previous books to a troll seeking love and a new way of life.  Pratchett comes up with a great personality for Detritus in this book, and it carries through to the City Watch subseries when he joins the Watch in Men at Arms and becomes a major recurring character in this subseries and other books set around Ankh-Morpork.  Other recurring characters, Death and the Librarian, are as awesome as ever, but Dibbler and Detritus are the real standout stars of this book.

Several new characters introduced in this story also make a number of reappearances throughout the rest of the Discworld series.  A good example of this is the talking dog, Gaspode, who is a fantastic and sarcastic character through the book.  He has some great scenes, with the highlight being his friendship with Laddie, a Lassie parody and idiot who Gaspode takes under his wing.  The idea of a clever, underappreciated and sarcastic talking dog side character apparently worked so well that Pratchett found a way to return his magical intelligence and ability to speak a few books later in Men at Arms (the same book Detritus reappeared in) and he then featured in several additional books.

You also have to love the new wizard characters that Pratchett also created for this book.  Before Moving Pictures, the faculty of Unseen University, with the exception of the Librarian and Rincewind, were replaced each book with a new group of senior wizards, thanks to the competitive nature of succession in the university.  However, this 10th book introduces a brand new and more permanent faculty of Unseen University, led by Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully.  Ridcully is a fantastic character as he is big, loud and sporty man who is generally the complete opposite to any other wizard previously shown in the Discworld series.  I really enjoyed his storyline and found it to be one of the most entertaining in the entire book.  Pratchett must have agreed, as Ridcully became the only recurring Archchancellor in the Discworld series.  This also allowed for the creation and stabilisation of unique characters to make up the senior faculty of Unseen University, including the Bursar, the Dean, the Chair of Indefinite Studies and the Lecturer in Recent Runes.  While the other wizards have a fun romp breaking out to go see the moving pictures, the Bursar has a great story, as you get to see the first signs of madness that would afflict him throughout every other book he appears in, as he first encounters the stress associated with working under Ridcully.  I also liked the introduction of a young Ponder Stibbons, whose bad day while trying to escape from the university is pretty humorous, but also the complete departure from his later role as the only serious member of the faculty.  Thanks to their entertaining storylines, the wizards would appear in multiple books in the rest of the Discworld series, and while they never had their own specific subseries, they would get major inclusions in several other subseries, including substantial stories in The Last Continent, Soul Music, Lords and Ladies and The Hogfather, as well as their own novel, Unseen Academics.

While I have physically read most of the books in the Discworld series, including Moving Pictures, these days I tend to only listen to the audiobook formats of these books.  The Discworld audiobooks are pretty awesome, and the two narrators for the series, Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs, both do an incredible job.  I find that the humour in the Discworld novels is massively enhanced by the narration, and I love listening to the stories this way.  At 10 hours and 8 minutes, this is not a long audiobook, and I always tend to power through these books really, really quickly.  Planer is a comedy veteran and has an awesome audiobook voice, and it is quite impressive the sheer range of different and distinctive voices he can come up with.  I also like his incredible consistency when it comes the multiple books in the Discworld series; for example, voices he creates for Moving Pictures are generally the same used for that character in later books he narrated.  The audiobook format of Moving Pictures is my preferred way to enjoy this book, and it is really worth trying out.

As you can see from my extremely long rant above, I absolutely love Moving Pictures and the Discworld series.  Pratchett created an incredibly complex and extremely funny novel that laughs right at the heart of the film industry.  The sheer range of references in this book is amazing, and the creation and enhancing of the various side characters featured in this book has massive ramifications for many of the later Discworld novels.  If you have yet to experience the joy of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, get on it as soon as you can.  It is well worth it, and Moving Pictures is a great place to start your Pratchett adventure.  I fully intend to review more books in this series in the future.

Halo: Renegades by Kelly Gay – Audiobook Review

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Publishers: Gallery Books and Simon & Schuster Audio (19 February 2019)

Series: Halo

Length: 8 hours 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

In this review, I dive into the expanded media universe surrounding the popular Halo video game franchise, as I review one of their latest tie-in books, Renegades by Kelly Gay.

I remember way back in 2001 when we first got the X-Box, the original Halo (or Halo: Combat Evolved) was one of the first games we got on the system, and it was definitely one of the best games we had at the beginning of the platform.  The graphics on Halo were just incredible for the time, and it represented a fantastic evolution in the first-person shooter genre.  The Halo series has since expanded out in a number of addition games, including the five main games (Halo to Halo 5), two additional first-person shooters (ODST and Reach) and two real-time strategy games (Halo Wars 1 and 2).  I have ended up playing most of the games in this series and have quite enjoyed the fun action and excitement that come with the series.

Like many other video game franchises, writers have taken advantage of the Halo series’ popularity to create a range of tie-in novels, comics, animation and other media items.  There has even been talk of a live-action Halo movie for some time, although we are probably a long way off from that.  Halo is one of those games where the creators actually invested in a complex backstory and extended history, much of which is revealed within the game’s impressive cut scenes.  While I quite enjoyed the extended Halo backstory revealed in the games, I never got too into the media tie-ins associated with the franchise.  The only other book in this franchise I have read is Halo: Contact Harvest, which I bought in Philippines to supplement my reading material on an extended trip.  While I did actually really enjoy Contact Harvest, which focused on one of the most entertaining side characters in the original game trilogy, I did not have a chance to read any of the other books written about the games until now.  Since starting my blog, I am always keen to expand my range and decided to listen to the audiobook version of this book for something different.  I did have to choose between Renegades and the recently released young adult Halo book, Battle Born, but ended up going with Renegades in the end.  I may yet check out Battle Born at a later date.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the games are set in the 26th century, after humanity has journeyed away from Earth and formed an interstellar civilisation.  Some years before the events of the first game, humanity comes into contact with an advanced alliance of alien races, collectively known as the Covenant, who engage in a brutal war against humanity.  As part of this war, a human ship fleeing the Covenant lands on an artificial ring planet, known as Halo.  The Halo rings were created millennia ago by a now extinct race of beings, the Forerunners, to stop the creatures destroying their civilisation, the parasitic race known as the Flood.  However, the only way to defeat the Flood was to wipe out all life in the galaxy to starve the Flood, and then reseed life, including humanity, back into the galaxy.  Throughout the course of the first three games, the protagonist attempts to save humanity from the Covenant and the Flood, eventually forming an alliance with elements of the Covenant and bringing the war to an end.  Halo 4 and 5 are set a few years after the original trilogy, and feature the protagonist dealing with surviving members of the Forerunners and a whole set of other threats.

Renegades is set in the year 2557, approximately around the same times as Halo 4, and follows the adventures of the human salvage ship Ace of Spades.  After the events of the book Halo: Shadow and Smoke, the crew of the Ace of Spades are still reeling from the losses they experienced and are eager to get revenge of the Sangheili (Elite) Covenant commander Gek’Lhar.  Captain Rion Forge is also determined to use the information they recovered in their last adventure to locate and rescue her father’s missing ship, the Spirit of Fire.

However, Gek’Lhar is not the only enemy they have made.  The United Nations Space Command’s (UNSC) Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) works to collect or control all valuable or dangerous pieces off Forerunner technology in the galaxy, and the crew of the Ace of Spades are the only people aside from Gek’Lhar who have knowledge of a massive debris field filled with valuable Forerunner technology.  In the middle of a daring heist to steal information from Gek’Lhar, Forge and her crew find themselves captured by ONI operatives, who confiscate the coordinates to the debris field, as well as all the crew’s assets and salvaged technology.

Left with nothing but their ship, the Ace of Spades crew need to find the next big score, and information Forge secretly obtained from ONI during their arrest may provide them with what they need.  ONI are on route to secure a remote and desolate planet, which contains the remains of one of their ships, which apparently crashed with classified technology aboard.  The contents of the ship may be the crew’s best option to reclaim their stolen possessions, so they set out to get there first.  Beating ONI to the planet, the Ace of Spades crew make a surprising discovery of an advanced robot calling itself 313 Guilty Spark.

Halo: Renegades is a terrific novel from author Kelly Gay, who creates an exciting and compelling story with a huge number of connections to the Halo universe.  Gay is a well-established author of science fiction and fantasy fiction, best known for her Charlie Madigan series, and who also writes under the pen name of Kelly Keaton.  Renegades is the direct sequel to Gay’s 2016 novella Smoke and Shadows, but it also continues stories started in the games and introduced in The Forerunner Saga of books.

The first thing I have to talk about when it comes to Halo: Renegades is the sheer range of Halo references and backstory from across the Halo games and extended media utilised in this book.  Not only is the story set in the post-Halo 3 universe but the book takes place around the time of the events of Halo 4, with several of the events from the fourth game commented on and having some impact on the story.  In addition, one of the main protagonists of the book, Rion Forge, is the daughter of one of the main characters from the first Halo Wars, Sergeant John Forge, and Rion Forge spends a good part of this book trying to find her father and the ship from Halo Wars 1 and 2, the Spirit of FireRenegades also features 313 Guilty Spark, one of the main antagonists from the original trilogy, as a major point-of-view character in the book, and characters from the Spartan Ops additional content of Halo 4 appear in various minor roles throughout the book.  That is on top of all the information contained in the previous books in the Halo extended universe.  Renegades takes place directly after the events of Gay’s preceding Halo novella, Smoke and Shadows, and all the events that occur in that book are incredibly relevant.  In addition, the events and characters explored in The Forerunner Saga, a trilogy that dove deeply into several key Forerunner characters from the various games, also play a significant role throughout Renegades.

Now, with all these references to various games and books, how easy is the plot of Renegades to follow, especially for those with limited or only basic knowledge of the Halo universe?  I would say that Renegades is a perfect book for hardcore fans of the Halo series who have enjoyed some of the books mentioned above and who will appreciate all the references and discussion that occurs within.  People with slightly less knowledge of the franchise may struggle during certain parts of the plot and have a hard time understanding the relevance of what is happening.  Having played all the games and having done some background reading, I thought that I would be able to follow everything that was going on, but I actually struggled with some aspects of the plot, especially with the extensive discussion about ancient Forerunner characters.  While I did struggle a little, I found that as I stuck with the book, all the relevant parts were eventually explored in some additional detail, helping to fill in the picture.  I do think that the author took the reader’s knowledge of the events of all the video games a little for granted, and there were some gaps in the story that, while I was able to fill them in, people less familiar with the games might have trouble with.  That being said, Gay did a fantastic job of making the story accessible to those people who had not read her direct prequel story, Smoke and Shadows, and readers were quickly able to get a good understanding of Gay’s earlier entry into the Halo universe.  In the end, if you have very little knowledge of the Halo games, this probably is not the book for you, and while you might be able to enjoy the adventure within, you are extremely likely to get lost a number of times throughout the complex plot.

Aside from the intensive amount of inclusions from the various Halo games and media tie-ins, I felt that Renegades was an overall awesome book that was a lot of fun to listen to.  Gay presents an entertaining character based novel that has a good amount of new, original story content while also utilising the main aspects of the Halo universe.  The author presents the story from a range of different character perspectives, allowing for a richer and fuller story for the reader to enjoy.  There is a little less action than you would expect from a Halo tie-in novel, but there are still a number of action sequences throughout the book to keep fans of combat and firefights interested.  I quite liked where the story went, and I was extremely glad that I decided to read this book.

I thought that the camaraderie of the crew of the Ace of Spades served as a good emotional heart to this story, and I liked the time that Gay spent exploring the familiar relationship that had formed among the members of the crew, and the strain that recent events had placed upon them.  I also enjoyed how the story focused on a gang of salvagers, and it was interesting to see how they fit into the wider Halo universe.  It also meant the story featured a few heists-like sequences, as the team uses intelligence rather than brute-strength to defeat their opponents.

One of the more interesting characters utilised in Renegades was the character of 313 Guilty Spark.  Spark was a Forerunner Monitor; an intelligence left behind to maintain the Halo rings and help activate them in case of another Flood infestation.  Spark appeared in all three of the original Halo games, including Halo: Combat Evolved as the main antagonist, and Halo 3, in which he was apparently killed.  However, The Forerunner Saga of books revealed he had survived the events of Halo 3 and was actually a former ancient human who had been transformed into a monitor long ago by the Forerunners.  Spark had quite a good redemption arc within this book, as well as good a redemption arc, as someone who killed off Sergeant Major Johnson deserves.  While Spark has his own agenda for most of the book, his time among the crew starts to rekindle his lost humanity and slowly turns him into a somewhat likeable character.  I did enjoy the duality that Gay portrayed within Spark, as the character tries to figure out who exactly he is: the ancient human, the Forerunner monitor or something entirely different.  His subsequent quest to find out who he is becomes a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see how it tied into the larger Halo universe, especially in relation to the Forerunners.  I was slightly disappointed that his role in the original three Halo games was not really mentioned or explored, but it was still a compelling character arc that I found to be most intriguing.

As I mentioned before, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, narrated by Justine Eyre.  Like many tie-in novels, this is a relatively short audiobook, only going for 8 hours and 37 minutes, making it fairly easy to get through this book quickly.  I quite enjoyed listening to this book rather than reading it, as it allowed me to absorb the deep dive into the Halo lore a little easier.  I also found that the audiobook format helped enhance some of the action sequences, such as the awesome spaceship fight sequences in the centre of the book.  Justine Eyre did a fantastic job of narrating this story, and the voice she provides for the base narration and the book’s central character, Rion Forge, is perfect, encapsulating the strong and determined nature of Forge that Gay sets forth in the book.  I quite liked the voices that Eyre utilises for the other human members of the Ace of Spades crew, and she does some decent and varied voices for the book’s alien characters.  I had a little trouble liking Eyre’s voice for Guilty Spark, mainly because Tim Dadabo did such an incredible job with the character in the games; however, this did not really negatively impact my experience with Renegades.  As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of this tie-in novel, as I found it to be an awesome way to enjoy this amazing story.

Kelly Gay did an excellent job following up her 2016 Halo novella, Smoke and Shadow, and I had an absolute blast listening to Halo: Renegades.  The book contains an outstanding story that goes deep into the lore of the Halo franchise and successfully pulls in elements from several games and novels to create a fantastic overall read.  While some readers may have trouble following some parts of the story, I had a great time reading it, and I know that established fans of this particular franchise will really love Gay’s new book.  I really hope that Gay continues the story of Rion Forge, 313 Guilty Spark and the rest of the crew of the Ace of Spades in the future, and I would be quite interested to see them try to navigate the post-Halo 5 universe.  This is definitely a series that I will be keeping an eye on.

Nemesis by Rory Clements

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Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback Format – Australia – 3 March 2019)

Series: Tom Wilde – Book 3

Length: 317 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Historical thriller and murder mystery author Rory Clements returns with the third book in his electrifying and clever Tom Wilde series, Nemesis.

August 1939.  War is on the horizon, and while most of the world is preparing for the next great conflict, Cambridge Professor Tom Wilde is enjoying a holiday in France with his partner, Lydia.  That is, until a mysterious man alerts him to the fact that one of his former students, an idealistic young man by the name Marcus Marfield, is currently being held in an internment camp on the France-Spain border after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.  When Wilde finds Marfield at the camp he moves quickly to secure his release, and they flee the country just as the Germans begin their invasion of Poland.

Back in England, the country moves to a war footing, as the Allies attempt to persuade America to join them against the Nazis.  While many Americans oppose joining the war, the sinking of the passenger ship the SS Athenia may be the spark that brings them into the war.  With the Nazis attempting to convince the world that Churchill orchestrated the sinking of the Athenia to galvanise American support against Germany, Wilde and his companions return to Cambridge.

Once back in the city, Wilde begins to notice a change come over Marfield.  At first attributing it to his shell shock following his battles in Spain, a series of mysterious deaths around Cambridge all seem to link to the recently returned Marfield.  These events are tied to a deadly conspiracy to keep America out of the war for good.  A spy ring is active in Cambridge, and Wilde must find a way to uncover it before it is too late.  Can Wilde once again avert disaster, and what role does Marfield play in this conspiracy?

After the excellent first two books in his Tom Wilde series, Corpus and Nucleus, Clements continues the adventure of his series’ titular character, Tom Wilde, as he investigates a series of Nazi espionage activities around Cambridge in the lead-up to World War II.  I have quite enjoyed this series in the past and was looking forward to continuing the story in Nemesis.  The latest book is a thrilling story that takes place just at the outset of the war and utilises the several historical events and figures to turn this into quite an intriguing tale.

Nemesis is a really good historical thriller which combines a great spy story with the historical context of early World War II.  The previous books in the Tom Wilde series have all contained compelling and complex mysteries with huge implications for England and the allies, and Nemesis is no different.  Clements has crafted together an excellent mystery that has massive, worldwide implications, and I really enjoyed unravelling the mystery, especially as the author presents all sorts of doublecrosses, twists, cover-ups and mysterious deaths to confuse the reader away from the main goal of the antagonists.  The antagonists’ master plan is quite out there, and it is one of those plots that would have had massive historical implications.  I quite like the role that new character Marcus Marfield played in this plot, as the protagonists and the reader are constantly trying to work out what his secrets are and what kind of person he truly is.  Overall, I found the thriller and mystery elements of this book to be quite clever and captivating, and readers will enjoy uncovering the full extent of the antagonist’s overall plot.

One of the most interesting parts of the Tom Wilde series so far was its setting during the chaotic pre-World War II period.  In Nemesis, Clements sets his story right at the start of the war and immediately shows all the panic and preparation that followed this declaration of war.  Clements did a fantastic job portraying the low-key sense of dread and paranoia that the inhabitants of England would have felt in the build-up to the war in the previous books in the series, and in Nemesis these feelings are realistically amplified now that the war has begun.  The author has quite a good grasp on a number of historical events and feelings during this period, and I quite liked seeing the Cambridge viewpoint of the war.  The Cambridge setting has always been a fantastic highlight of this series, but it was quite intriguing to see the author incorporate all the various changes to the city that occurred as a result of the war into his novel.  Clements dives deep into the Cambridge lifestyle when it comes to the war, whether it involves the removal of the rare books from the colleges, the preservation of the stained glass windows, the roles that the professors were being assigned in the war effort or even the many Communist professors throwing away their party membership cards when it became clear that the Soviets were supporting the Nazis.

Clements also ties his story in quite closely with one of the more interesting early events of World War II: the sinking of the passenger liner the SS Athenia as it sailed across the Atlantic.  I was deeply fascinated not only with the depictions of this event, but the discussions and conspiracy theories that resulted from it.  This was especially true when it came to the examination about the sinking of the ship being used to bring the United States into the war.  The likelihood of America joining in the war became a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see what the European characters thought about America’s reluctance to enter the war, especially as one of the protagonists is an American character, and one of the chief architects of America’s isolationist policy, Joe Kennedy, was the United States Ambassador to England at the time.  I thought that the historical elements that Clements explored were a real highlight of this book, and readers will enjoy his literary examination of these events.

While the main focus of the book’s story is a conspiracy and the start of the war, Clements does take his time to continue to develop a number of the characters introduced in the previous books.  For example, Wilde continues to deepen his relationship with his romantic partner, Lydia, and I quite liked the role that Lydia played in investigating the case alongside Wilde.  There is also a significant focus on Wilde’s American friend Jim Vanderberg and his family, especially as Vanderberg’s family are passengers aboard the Athenia.  Phillip Eaton, the British spy who was hit by a car in the last book of the series makes a return in Nemesis, and the reader gets to see his struggles to recover from his horrific injuries while still working as an intelligence officer.  A number of intriguing new characters are introduced in this book and it will be interesting to see what role they and the existing characters will play in any future entries in this series.

In the latest book of his enjoyable Tom Wilde series, Nemesis, Rory Clements once again delivers a captivating historical thriller that brings the reader into the early days of World War II.  Featuring an incredible overarching mystery and some detailed examinations of intriguing historical events and settings, Nemesis is a deeply interesting book that is well worth checking out.  I am very curious to see where Clements takes the series next, and I look forward to seeing what impact Thomas Wilde will have on the rest of World War II.

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston – Audiobook Review

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Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press and Listening Library (5 March 2019)

Series: Star Wars Extended Universe

Length: 8 hours 22 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The female protagonist of the Star Wars prequel movies, Padmé Amidala, gets a story mostly worthy of her, as young adult fiction author E. K. Johnston attempts to bridge the character gap between the first two Star Wars prequel movies in Queen’s Shadow, the first Star Wars novel of 2019.

While The Phantom Menace had its flaws, one of the things that the first Star Wars prequel film did right was the character of Queen Amidala, the young, fierce and strong democratically elected Queen of Naboo, who was able to lead her people to freedom.  Portrayed by a young Natalie Portman, the character appeared in the other two prequel movies, where her relationship with Anakin Skywalker became a key plot point of the entire series.  While I am not the biggest fan of how Padmé was portrayed in the second and third prequel films, I was quite excited to read a novel that explored the character in more detail, especially one written by Johnston, who did such a fantastic treatment on the popular character Ahsoka Tano in her one previous foray into Star Wars fiction.  After my previous awesome experiences with Star Wars audiobooks, such as Ahsoka, I chose to listen to this book’s audiobook format, which was narrated by Catherine Taber.

Four years after ensuring the defeat of the Trade Federation on Naboo, Queen Padmé Amidala has served the last elected terms of office and is no longer Queen.  Now free of the responsibilities of ruling, Padmé and her loyal handmaidens now have time to think about a new future.  However, before Padmé can put any plans in place the new Queen of Naboo presents her with a job she cannot refuse: become the new representative of Naboo in the Galactic Senate.

Accepting the role, Senator Amidala travels to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic, to take up her seat, accompanied by a completely new support staff.  She is quick to discover that her experiences as a ruler have not prepared her for the demanding and treacherous world of galactic politics.  The Senate is a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy, and Padmé is already considered by many to be a puppet of Chancellor Palpatine.  She also has number of powerful enemies throughout the galaxy who seek not only to discredit her but also to kill her.

However, Padmé Amidala is used to being underestimated, and with Sabé, her former decoy and shadow, watching her back, she begins to forge the political alliances she needs to finally bring some change the galaxy.

This was an interesting piece of Star Wars fiction that I quite enjoyed.  However, it is not without its flaws, and there were a few things that I disliked about the story that resulted in me dropping my overall rating slightly.  But before I talk about the parts of the story that I had issue with, I want to mention the elements of this book that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Queen’s Shadow is an amazing Padmé Amidala story that helps redeem the character after her less than stellar showings in the second and third Star Wars prequel movies.  This book helps make people forget about the helpless, pregnant damsel from Revenge of the Sith (although some deleted scenes from that movie do show some of the politics she was involved with), and instead focuses on her role as a canny political operator.  I was also quite happy that Anakin did not appear as a character in this book; I preferred to see Amidala stand on her own without being defined by her relationship with a Jedi.

Johnston did a spectacular job of creating a novel that bridges the gaps in Padmé’s story between the first and second prequel movies.  At the end of The Phantom Menace Padmé is still queen of Naboo, but by the start of Attack of the Clones she has become a senator, with very little discussion in the movies concerning how this came about.  While I am sure that some of the books and comics in the old Star Wars extended universe would have covered this period of Padmé’s life, Queen’s Shadow is one of the first stories to explore this in the new Disney owned and operated Star Wars extended universe.

The author spends a significant amount of time focusing on Padmé’s early days in the Galactic Senate, including how she formed some of her early alliances, such as with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, and how she became such a significant force in the Senate.  In addition to this, we get to see how and why several of the minor Naboo characters from The Phantom Menace left Padmé’s side, and how several new characters, such as her new handmaidens and her security guard, Gregar Typho, came into her service.  In addition to serving as a bridge between the two prequel movies, Queen’s Shadow also ties into The Clone Wars animated television show, showing Padmé’s first contact and initial relationships with some of the characters who originated in the animated show, such as Senators Rush Clovis and Mina Bonteri.  While the book does spend time setting up events for Attack of the Clones, Johnston ensures that Padmé and the other main characters reflect on the events that occurred during The Phantom Menace, and the people that helped them during these adventures, such as Qui-Gon Jinn and little Anakin Skywalker.  Overall, I felt that this really helped tie in the events between the two books and is an excellent new piece of Star Wars cannon.

In my opinion, one of the cleverest parts of The Phantom Menace was the revelation towards the end of the film that Queen Amidala was actually being played by two separate actresses: Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.  In the context of the film, Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé, was the real queen of Naboo, while Keira Knightley’s character, Sabé, was a decoy used for security purposes.  While Padmé portrayed the Queen at the start of the movie, when the Trade Federation invaded there was a subtle switch and Sabé took on the role while Padme could be seen disguised as a nondescript handmaiden in the background.  The two characters would then switch between portraying Queen Amidala throughout the film, with Sabé taking on the role whenever there was a chance the Queen could be captured or killed, while Padmé took on the role herself when official discussions or speeches needed to be made.  Handmaiden Padmé also got her own scenes when Sabé was taking on the role as Queen, allowing the viewers to see this side of the character.  This was and still is an amazing and ingenious part of the movie, which worked due to the similarity in appearances between the two then relatively unknown actresses, a downplaying of Knightley’s role in the film, as well as because of the elaborate makeup, hairstyles and dresses that Queen Amidala wore.  As a result, the general audience were quite surprised at the time, especially as cast lists were not as easily available on the internet at the time.

As a result, I was extremely happy that Johnston chose to explore the utilisation of the queen’s decoy in some detail throughout this book.  Quite a lot of time is spent discussing the techniques behind the Amidala persona, from the distracting makeup and costumes, to the quick-change techniques that Padmé and her handmaidens utilise, and even several discussions about the ‘Amidala voice’, the imperious tone that Portman and Knightly both performed in The Phantom Menace.  I found this entire exploration of this decoy angle incredibly fascinating, and it gave me a completely new appreciation for how the decoys were utilised in the first prequel film.  The decoys were also a key part of Queen’s Shadow, as Padmé still continues to utilise them as a senator, allowing her to avoid danger and slip away at social gatherings so she can undertake other covert tasks.  The scenes where they utilise them are quite intriguing, and I liked the author’s thoughts on the psychology behind the effectiveness of the decoys and how they are still an effective technique in an advanced science fiction society.  It was interesting to note that both of Padmé’s decoys who appear the films, Sabé and Cordé (who was blown up at the start of Attack of the Clones), have major roles in this book, with both taking on the Amidala persona at some point in the story.

While it was intriguing to see Cordé learn to take on the role of Amidala in this book, the original decoy, Sabé, was a much bigger part of the plot.  Sabé has a significant role within the book and is actually Queen’s Shadow’s secondary protagonist, performing undercover work on Padmé’s behalf.  The relationship between Padmé and Sabé was a really interesting and emotional subplot to explore, as Sabé is quite loyal to the former queen.  How Sabé defines herself as Padmé’s friend and confidant is a significant part of Sabé’s story, and Johnston spends time attempting unravel this complicated relationship.  The overall result is a fascinating inclusion to this story, and one that adds some real emotional depth to the story.

In addition to the focus on the decoy characters, Johnston also spends time looking at the role of Padmé’s royal handmaidens, the young hooded women who followed Padmé around in the first film.  I had never really given the handmaidens much thought before this book, apart from how Padmé was able to hide her identity by taking up a handmaiden’s garb for several parts of the film.  However, Johnston does a fantastic job of explaining the actual role of these characters as Padmé’s confidants, covert operatives, undercover bodyguards and potential body doubles.  I really liked how Johnston was able to turn these minor characters from the films into a significant part of her book, and it was quite interesting to see them be deployed to help with Padmé’s political moves.  Each of the handmaidens, both those who only appeared in The Phantom Menace and those who only appeared in Attack of the Clones, are explored in some detail throughout the book.  The reader gets a real sense of each of the characters personalities, what skills they bring to Padmé’s table and the fates of those handmaidens who served Padmé during the invasion of Naboo are also explained by this book.  This look at the handmaidens is an excellent part of the book, and one that I actually found quite fascinating.

Aside from the look at Padmé and her associates, Queen’s Shadow also examines a number of other aspects of the Star Wars universe during this time period.  For example, there is quite a large focus on politics, both on Naboo, and within the Galactic Senate.  The galactic politics in particular is quite intriguing, and I liked seeing Padmé’s initial impression of Senate procedure and its many shortcomings.  Johnston has also included some fun media articles throughout the book, showing how negative news coverage is being used to disadvantage or advantage Padmé’s political ambitions, which I found to be quite amusing.  There are also some hints at the coming Separatist movement, as several planets are showing discontent with the Republic and certain actions are taking place to undermine security throughout the galaxy.  All of the features are pretty interesting, and I had fun reading about them throughout this book.

Now, while I obviously quite enjoyed many of the elements that Johnston explored in this book (having gone on about them for over two pages), I have to admit that the overall story is actually a bit boring in places and the story really does not go anywhere.  There are some big points, including a quick assassination attempt, piracy, large-scale disasters and potential political crisis, but many of these events has any real significance, follow through or any sort of actual conclusion.  This could potentially be alright if Queen’s Shadow is the start of a larger storyline or a new book series, but I am not too sure how likely that is.  Not only is there no real indication that Johnston will be continuing this story, but the epilogue of the book kind of puts a damper on that, which I will discuss below.

 

BEWARE SPOILERS BELOW:

The epilogue of the book shows Padmé’s funeral, as shown at the end of Revenge of the Sith.  While I did like how Johnston alluded to the funeral at the start of Queen’s Shadow’s by using the same descriptions of Padmé’s floating flower-covered body, and the funeral does put a final end to the story.  The epilogue did show Sabé talking with Senator Organa, so this book could potentially set up a follow-up book focusing on the former decoy either joining the Rebel Alliance or investigating Padmé’s death.  However, this does not really fit with some of the open story points from this book, as the Trade Federation are the most likely people behind the assassination attempts and the piracy, and who cares about the Trade Federation after Revenge of the Sith?  In addition, this book only really explored around a year of Padmé’s life as a senator, and I think it would make more sense to follow more of Padmé’s early political career, especially as there is still around five more years until Attack of the Clones begins.  I suppose you could maybe do a split-timeline story that follows Padmé and Sabé before and after Revenge of the Sith, with the two storylines coming together, although I am not sure how well that would work.  I would like to see Johnston explore this more and give her overall story more shape, I just do not know how likely that is at this point.

END OF SPOILERS

 

While the somewhat pointless story does bring Queen’s Shadow rating down a bit, its audiobook features really help raise it up again, especially with its excellent narrator Catherine Taber.  The audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow runs for around eight hours and 20 minutes, so it is an easy book to get through quickly.  Catherine Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clone Wars animated show and is also the most recent person to portray the character on screen.  As a result, she is the perfect narrator for this book, as she already perfected a great Natalie Portman imitation voice for the show.  Taber did a fantastic job narrating this book, as she not only is the perfect voice for Padmé but also has an amazing range for the other characters featured in the book.  I appreciated how she was able to craft similar voices for the handmaiden characters, many of whom were chosen to be handmaidens because they were physical and audible matches to Padmé.  This is particularly true of Sabé, and as a result Taber ensures she has pretty much the same voice that Padmé does.  Other high points of Taber’s narration include her rendition of the Amidala voice, as well as the creepy tones she utilises for Chancellor Palpatine, especially when he kept saying “my dear”.  As always, the producers of this Star Wars audiobook load up this version with all sorts of sound effects and classic Star Wars music.  I felt that these sound effects and music really helped enhance the story, and gave it some real atmosphere, and I liked the way that certain things, such as holo-messages between the characters, were altered to make them sound more realistic.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Queen’s Shadow as the best way to enjoy this story, and I thought it was just wonderful.

Queen’s Shadow is marketed as a young adult novel, and it is quite a good novel for a younger audience to enjoy, with only minor sexual references, coarse language, drug use and violence throughout the book.  However, there really is not any upper age limit on enjoying this book, and older readers can just as easily explore Johnston’s story.  While there is no age limit, readers should ideally be a Star Wars fan to fully enjoy Queen’s Shadow.  At the very least, readers should have watched all of the prequel films first to get a full handle on what is happening.  While I imagine someone with no prior knowledge of Star Wars might be able to enjoy reading this, it is probably not the best young adult science fiction book to pick out.  As a result, this book is recommended more for established fans of the franchise, and as a pretty hard-core Star Wars fan myself, I know I enjoyed all of the references and character exploration that Johnston did a lot more.

In the end, I decided to award Queen’s Shadow four stars out of five.  While I really loved all the intriguing elements that Johnston explored in this book, the lagging story did make it a little harder to enjoy.  That being said, I would not hesitate to grab another Star Wars book from Johnston, as she has an outstanding understanding and appreciation of the Star Wars universe.  I do hope that this story is continued in some way, and if it does, I will definitely check out the audiobook version of it, especially if it is narrated once again by Catherine Taber.  Interesting reading, Queen’s Shadow is worth checking out, especially if you are an established fan of the Star Wars franchise.

Throwback Thursday – The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

The Andromeda Strain Cover.jpg

Publishers: Brilliance Audio (Audiobook Edition – 26 May 2015)

                        Knopf (12 May 1969)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 8 hours 15 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as 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.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take a look at a classic techno-thriller from legendary author Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain.

The Andromeda Strain was released nearly 50 years ago, in May 1969, and represented a bold new direction from Crichton, who had previously done several pulpy crime novels, such as Odds On and Scratch One, under the name John Lange, as well as the medical crime thriller A Case of Need, which he wrote under the name Jeffrey Hudson.  The Andromeda Strain was considered to be part of the new techno-thriller genre and is still considered to be a major example of this genre.

I have only read three of Crichton’s books before, including Jurassic Park (for obvious reasons), The Lost World and Pirate Latitudes.  While I have always intended to go back and read some more of Crichton’s works, I have never had the time to do so.  However, with the recent announcement that The Andromeda Evolution is being released in November to correspond with the 50-year anniversary of The Andromeda Strain, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to check out one of Crichton’s earlier books.  For that reason, I listened to the audiobook version of The Andromeda Strain narrated by David Morse.

When a military satellite comes down in the small town of Piedmont, Arizona, nearly all the residents in the town die.  They are victims of a mysterious new pathogen that either instantly clotted all the blood in their body or drove them to suicide.  The military quickly activate the Wildfire protocol, and a small government team of scientists and doctors take command of Piedmont and the satellite.

Believing that the satellite contains an extraterrestrial organism, the team bring it and the two survivors of Piedmont, an old man and a baby, to a secret and secure underground Wildfire laboratory for study.  Deep in the laboratory, the team attempt to identify and categorise the organism which has been given the codename Andromeda.  However, Andromeda is evolving a way no member of the Wildfire team believed possible, and not even the laboratory’s nuclear bomb safeguards may be enough to keep it contained.

After listening to The Andromeda Strain over a couple of days, I found it to be an extremely thrilling and complex novel that I really got into and which I am eager to review.  However, after 50 years and thousands of reviews I am not too sure how much I can really say about this book that has not already been said.  That being said, when looking at this book from a 2019 perspective, I feel that The Andromeda Strain is still an extremely strong techno-thriller, with some expert storytelling and an in-depth scientific base that is still relevant in this modern era.

In this book, Crichton utilised a very dry, detailed and scientific approach to his writing, slowly covering every aspect of the events unfolding before each of the protagonists, while also providing the reader with backstory on the characters and briefings on the various relevant scientific and political components of the book.  Despite this somewhat less exciting writing style, Crichton is still able to create quite a thrilling atmosphere throughout the book as the story gets closer to the inevitable disaster part of the plot.  Crichton really adds to the suspense by mentioning the various mistakes that the protagonist are making and hinting at all the problems going on around them that will eventually lead to the release of the Andromeda microbe.

I did feel that the book ended rather suddenly, and I was surprised that the investigation part of the story was still going with only a short amount of the book left to go.  I found it interesting that the part of the story that dealt with the release of Andromeda and the subsequent race to stop the nuclear explosion about to wipe out the lab was introduced so late in the book and solved so very quickly.  I was expecting a large portion of the story to focus on the main characters getting past all of the impressive contamination protocols in order to stop the nuclear explosion.  Instead, this was all solved within about 10 minutes of audiobook narration, or probably five to 10 pages of a normal book.  While I was surprised about this, I suppose it does make sense in the context of the rest of the story, where the characters and briefing material did mention several times that there was a three-minute delay between the bomb arming and the explosion.  This was all extremely thrilling, and I felt that the book is still capable of keeping authors on the edge of their seats.

One of the things that really surprised me about the book was the advanced level of technology that was featured within a story written and set in 1969.  Perhaps this is simply ignorance as a result of being a child of the 90s, but I feel it is more likely the result of Crichton having a great understanding of technology and potential future advances that might be utilised within a high-level government laboratory.  Certainly, the scientific features of this book are extremely impressive, and I felt that they were still extremely relevant and understandable in a 2019 context.  For example, all the extreme quarantine methods surrounding the Wildfire laboratory sound like perfectly reasonable steps that modern laboratories could use to keep pathogens contained.  All the discussions about viruses and micro-organisms were also incredibly detailed, and I felt that much of the information discussed around those is still relevant today, and modern audiences will still be able to understand and consider it quite easily.

I did find the concept of the Odd-Man Hypothesis to be extremely interesting.  In essence, the Odd-Man Hypothesis states that out of all the humans in the world, unmarried men are the most likely to make the best and most dispassionate decision in the face of an emergency.  This becomes a key part of the story, as one of the characters is designated as the Odd-Man and is the only person with the ability to shut off the laboratory’s nuclear self-destruct device.  Now this is one theory that does not translate to more modern times, although, in fairness, most of The Andromeda Strain’s characters did not take it that seriously either.  That being said, it was an extremely intriguing element to read about, and I enjoyed the discussion around its viability and use within the context of the story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to The Andromeda Strain in its audiobook format.  There are actually a number of different audiobook versions of The Andromeda Strain out there, each with different narrators, such as an earlier version narrated by Chris Noth.  I ended up listening to the most recent audiobook version of this book, although I imagine a new version is sure to follow soon, especially with a sequel about to come out.  The version I listened to was narrated by actor David Morse and was released in 2015.  This version is 8 hours and 15 minutes long, and I found myself powering through it very quickly.

I think that the audiobook was a really great way to listen to The Andromeda Strain, as it allows the reader to absorb the huge amount of scientific detail and discussion a lot easier.  I felt that David Morse was an excellent narrator for this book, and that his basic narration voice perfectly fit the books tone and style.  Morse also comes up with some great voices for this book, and I was particularly impressed by his weary old man voice.  As a result, I would highly recommend the audiobook version of The Andromeda Strain, as it is definitely an outstanding way to the listen to this fantastic story.

Overall, I loved this dive back into the past and I had a lot of fun listening to this classic techno-thriller.  Crichton is an amazing author, especially when it comes to a more science-based story, and I am incredibly impressed that his story still holds up 50 years after it was first published.  I am extremely curious to see where the upcoming sequel, The Andromeda Evolution, takes the story, and how well new author Daniel H. Wilson replicates Crichton’s style.  This book has also encouraged me to check out some more of Crichton’s works, and I am looking forward to reading some more of this author’s excellent techno-thrillers, as well as some of his intriguing historical fiction pieces.