The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

The Lost Ten Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 351 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another excellent piece of Roman historical fiction, The Lost Ten.

Sidebottom is a particularly skilled historical fiction author who has written some amazing novels in the last 10 years, all of which have focused on the Roman Empire in the turbulent 3rd century AD. His works have included his excellent Warrior of Rome series, which features one of the first books I ever reviewed, King of Kings, and his well-researched Throne of the Caesars series. Sidebottom also wrote a fantastic historical fiction/thriller hybrid last year, The Last Hour, a truly awesome book that featured the protagonist of his Warrior of Rome series. The author has continued his intriguing experiment of combining historical fiction with other thriller sub-genres in his latest book, The Lost Ten, which I have been looking forward to for a while.

Rome, 265 AD. Junior Roman officer Marcus Aelius Valens is instructed to join a small squad of soldiers on a daring raid into Persia. Their objective is to infiltrate the country and make their way to the dreaded Castle of Silence, an impregnable prison high up in the mountains. Once there, they are to free young Prince Sasan, the King of Persia’s disgraced nephew, and bring him back to Rome.

Journeying to the Roman border, Valens joins up with an eclectic group of soldiers recruited from the frumentarii, Rome’s infamous secret agents. An outsider amongst these hard-bitten soldiers, Valens suddenly finds himself in command when an ambush kills their commanding officer. Aware of the consequences of abandoning their mission, Valens leads his troops onwards to Persia.

However, the closer they get to the Castle of Silence, the more misfortune seems to befall the small unit. As his soldiers die one at a time, Valens begins to believe that there is a traitor among them who does not wish for their mission to succeed. Can Valens unmask the saboteur before it is too late, or will the squad die trying to achieve their impossible mission?

This was another spectacular read from Sidebottom, who has once again done a fantastic job bringing modern thriller vibes to an ancient Roman historical setting. The Lost Ten is a fast-paced action adventure, with a clever plot hook and an excellent band of new characters that I had a lot of fun reading and which lived up to my high expectations for this novel.

While his Warrior of Rome books always had a bit of a thriller feel to them, as Ballista was usually hunting down some form of traitor or spy, Sidebottom has recently started to push the envelope even further by combining together Roman historical fiction with a variety of different thriller sub-genres. His previous novel, The Last Hour, was essentially 24 set in ancient Rome, and his next novel is apparently going to emulate a Scandi noir novel in the hills of Calabria. In The Lost Ten, Sidebottom utilises a special forces thriller storyline which sees Roman troops attempt an impossible infiltration deep into enemy territory. As a result, this novel reads a lot like an episode of Seal Team or The Unit if the team had to infiltrate antique Persia. In order to complete their objective, the team has to arrive at the border incognito, set up a cover story as traders, and then pass into Persian territory, fooling the locals and military as they near their goal. Once there, they have to find a way into the impenetrable fortress and then get their hostage out of Persia alive while being pursued by a massive army. This results in an extremely exciting and action-packed novel that was an absolute blast to read. I loved seeing all these classic spy scenarios play out in this classic Persian setting, and the special forces storylines work exceedingly well with the historical fiction background. Sidebottom has really hit onto a winning formula by mashing these genres together, and I am very excited to see how his next book turns out.

One of the aspects of The Lost Ten that I really enjoyed was the great characters who made up the Roman unit heading into Persia. Sidebottom has written a great group of protagonists with some rather interesting character traits and individual stories. The main character, Valens, who serves as the principle point-of-view character, has an intriguing arc that sees him go from being a naïve and disheartened young solider, to canny veteran troop leader throughout the course of the book. The rest of the Ten are a fantastic mixture of distinctive and rough killers who really don’t want to be going along on this mission. These troops help give the story a real Dirty Dozen vibe which I quite enjoyed, and it was also fantastic to see the group come together as they faced adversity.

In addition, it is revealed early on in the book that one of the squad characters is a traitor who is actively working to sabotage the mission. However, the identity of this double agent is not revealed until much later in the story. Instead, several chapters are shown from the perspective of the traitor, showing what actions he is taking to betray the team, such as killing the original commander or organising ambushes from bandits. As more and more misfortunes befall the group, Valens becomes suspicious and starts trying to identify the saboteur in the ranks, resulting in a wonderful storyline that plays into the thriller aspect of the book exceedingly well. Sidebottom does a clever job of hiding the identity of the traitor for the majority of the story, and the reader is fed a series of clues to slowly work out who it is. The reader is also shown the hidden character’s motivations for betraying the others, and the political and personal realities that are driving him. All of this comes to a fantastic conclusion, and this was an excellent part of the story that Sidebottom handles exceedingly well.

Sidebottom once again makes great use of the 3rd century Roman setting that has been a defining feature of all his previous novels. The Lost Ten is set in the same universe as all of Sidebottom’s other books and occurs in the same year as The Last Hour. There are actually several mentions of Sidebottom’s recurring protagonist, Ballista, and it sounds like he is getting into trouble campaigning in Gaul. The author does an amazing job showcasing the rough lands that lie between the Roman Empire and Persia and all the difficulties that would have occurred travelling to the Persian Empire. As the protagonists enter Persia, the readers get an interesting look at the landscape and Persian customs, many of which seem strange to the Romans and result in much contemplation and discussion. Sidebottom shows off several interesting areas of Persia, and it is clear that he has done his research into this location. The author also heads back to the familiar setting of ancient Rome, allowing the reader to get a good sense of the political situation in 265 AD. Sidebottom also examines the role of the frumentarii, Rome’s secret police/agents, who have appeared in several of his novels before. The various actions of this organisation are really intriguing, and it was cool to see modern spy tactics at work in this historical setting. There were some absolutely fascinating historical inclusions in this book that I had a lot of fun reading, and they proved to be an excellent backdrop to The Lost Ten’s thrilling storylines.

The Lost Ten is an outstanding book from Sidebottom that shows why he is one of the most captivating authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today. The author’s decision to combine a contemporary special forces thriller storyline with a well-researched historical setting payed dividends and resulted in a compelling and exciting read.   As a result, this book comes highly recommended and is a must-read for those people looking for an exciting historical thriller. I am looking forward to Sidebottom’s next book and cannot wait to see what he produces next.

DEV1AT3 by Jay Kristoff

DEV1AT3 Cover.jpg

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 17 June 2019)

Series: LIFEL1K3 – Book 2

Length: 423 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the most prolific young adult fiction authors, Jay Kristoff, comes the follow up to his electrifying 2018 smash-hit LIFEL1K3, DEV1AT3.

Over the last few years, Australian author Jay Kristoff has been one of the leading contributors to young adult fiction, writing several bestselling series. His works include The Lotus War series, the highly regarded The Nevernight Chronicles, and The Illuminae Files, which he co-wrote with fellow Australian Amie Kaufman. DEV1AT3 is actually the second of three Kristoff books being released this year, as he has already released the first book in his second collaborative series with Kaufman, Aurora Rising. Darkdawn, the third and final book in The Nevernight Chronicles, is set to be released in early September.

People who keep an eye on my blog may have noticed that I did a short review of DEV1AT3 a few weeks ago in a Canberra Weekly column. I have been meaning to write up an extended review of the book for a while now, as it was quite an enjoyable book with a lot of cool features. DEV1AT3 follows on from the incredibly popular first book, LIFEL1K3. The LIFEL1K3 series follows the adventures of four young friends in the dangerous post-apocalyptic remains of America, now controlled by rival mega-companies and gangs of religious fanatics.

DEV1AT3 is set in the immediate aftermath of the dramatic conclusion of LIFEL1K3, when the protagonist of the first book, Eve, found out the terrible truth of her origin: she is secretly a lifelike, an android who can ignore the Three Laws of Robotics. Worse, she is actually a replica of Ana Monrova, the daughter of the creator of the lifelikes, Nicholas Monrova, whose creations rebelled against him and killed his entire family. With the realisation that everything she has ever known is a lie, Eve begins to plot with the murderous Gabriel and the other lifelikes to find the comatose body of Ana. While Eve simply wants to kill the woman whose life she is imitating; the other lifelikes will use Ana’s body to unlock Monrova’s secrets in order to start a robot revolution.

Out in the post-apocalyptic wastelands surrounding Babel, Eve’s friends, Lemon Fresh, Ezekiel and Cricket, have seen better days. Not only were each of them forced to abandon Eve for different reasons but they must all face their individual consequence of the events that occurred within Babel. When unexpected events force them to separate, each of these friends find themselves in a whole world of trouble.

Lemon Fresh’s status as a deviate, a genetic mutant with the ability to manipulate electricity, has always landed her in trouble, but now she finds herself the ultimate pawn in a war between two of the major corporations that rule the land. Kidnapped by an agent of BioMaas Incorporated, Lemon eventually finds herself falling in with a band of fellow deviate teenagers, each with their own unique abilities, and whose leader, the Major, may hold the secrets to her past.

At the same time, the logika Cricket is stolen and sold to the Brotherhood, a group of religious fanatics determined to destroy every android, deviate and genetically modified being they can find. As the Brotherhood edges closer to a war with the Major’s deviates, Cricket is forced to fight as a robot gladiator while learning the dark secrets at the heart of the cult. Meanwhile, Ezekiel, the one lifelike with any love for humanity, teams up with an old enemy in order to track down Lemon Fresh and Cricket. However, when Ezekiel’s mission leads him into the path of Eve and his other lifelike brothers and sisters, he attempts to find a way to stop their destructive crusade and save his beloved Ana.

This was a fantastic piece of young adult fiction that does a wonderful job of following up the first book in the series. Kristoff tells an exciting story which not only continues the plot lines of the first book but which also takes the characters in some intriguing new directions. However, despite some differences in plot focus, the book continues to feature the cool allusions to other works of fiction that made the first book such a treat to read, and it continues to explore aspects of this intriguing post-apocalyptic setting. Readers who did not get the chance to read the first book, LIFEL1K3, last year will easily be able to start by reading DEV1AT3. Not only is the story quite accessible but it also starts off with an extremely detailed summary of the events and characters from the first book, which allows anyone to fully catch up with where the plot is.

One of the most interesting changes between this book and LIFEL1K3 is that the protagonist of the first book, Eve, is instead cast as an antagonist, and we end up seeing very little of the book’s plot from her point of view. Instead, the plot of DEV1AT3 is mostly split between the three perspectives of Lemon Fresh, Cricket and Ezekiel, who each have their own unique storylines. Each of these storylines is noticeably different, with all three of them making use of some unique features to help create an intriguing and emotionally strong story. The reader gets a real feel for all three of these point-of-view characters throughout the course of their individual plots, and several intriguing new side-characters are introduced. These separate storylines come together to form one amazing overall narrative, which ends with an amazing cliff-hanger for each of the main characters that will ensure readers will have to check out the final book in this series when it comes out.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the LIFEL1K3 series is that each of the books is marketed as a crazy mash-up of several different works of fiction. For example, the first book in the series had a real Alita Battle Angel crossed with Mad Max and Blade Runner vibe to it. Many of the references to the plots of various other media titles that were started in the first book are continued in DEV1AT3. For example, the whole Mad Max vibe of life in the wasteland is actually really enhanced in this book, as the vast majority of the story is spent out in the nuclear wastes and smaller outposts that make up the ruins of America, with a number of crazy car chases in souped-up doomsday vehicles featured throughout. We also get a deeper look at the whole Bladerunner aspect of the story, as Eve comes to terms with actually being a lifelike and attempts to get revenge for her creation.

In this second book, Kristoff’s plot also makes allusions to several other pieces of fiction in the three various storylines. For example, Lemon Fresh’s storyline is an interesting post-apocalyptic take on the X-Men, with the super-powered teen finding kinship with a group of similarly gifted individuals in a world that hates and fears them. The new deviates introduced in this storyline have a pretty cool range of powers, have all been attacked because of their abilities and even have a wise old mentor character in the Major. The various twists associated with this storyline are really clever, and it was interesting to see more deviates aside from Lemon. Ezekiel also has a great storyline within DEV1AT3. While much of his story is still tied up with his feelings for Eve, the lifelike copy of the woman he loves, and all the Bladerunner-esque emotions and thoughts he and his lifelike family experienced in the first book, Kristoff adds a fun new element to his storyline in this book. For much of his storyline, Ezekiel actually teams up with Preacher, the cyborg bounty hunter who was an antagonist of the first book. This is a very fun team-up, and it harkens back to a lot of classic odd-couple crime movies, with the two having a very rocky relationship that kind of improves as the story goes along.

I personally liked Cricket’s storyline the most. Cricket is a logika, a sentient robot who must obey the Three Laws of Robotics. Cricket, who was previously a small assistant robot, had his personality transferred into a massive combat robot in the last book. However, he is kidnapped by members of the Brotherhood, the insidious religious group fighting against Lemon Fresh’s new deviate brethren. Cricket, who has to obey all the orders given to him by the Brotherhood due to the Three Laws of Robotics, is forced to fight in a series of gladiatorial combats. This storyline gives the reader the best insight into the ranks of the Brotherhood, and Cricket uncovers certain secrets while working for them. With the whole Three Laws aspect, this storyline is obviously very reminiscent of the science fiction classic I, Robot; however, Kristoff comes up with some humorous takes on the Three Laws. Thanks to the assistance of the snarky logika Solomon (who I found to be one of the funniest characters in DEV1AT3), Cricket starts to learn how to utilise the loopholes in people’s statements, so he has a degree of freedom and he also makes use of a simple solution to counteract one of the laws, which was pretty funny. All of these references to these established pieces of fiction are great, and I really liked how the author adapted them to fit his compelling young adult story. I especially enjoyed seeing some complex science fiction ideas, such as Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, explained to a younger audience, with some cool tweaks to make a more entertaining and modern story.

In addition to fun story and clever references to other works, one of the most interesting things about the LIFEL1K3 series is the cool post-apocalyptic setting that the author has come up with. The nuclear ruins of America always makes for an intriguing setting for a story, and I really enjoyed the cool combination that Kristoff makes in this series with savage nuclear wasteland and high-tech cities. The sheer amount of creativity that Kristoff utilises for the setting is really impressive, as this book alone features wars between rival corporations, desert-dwelling religious nuts, mutants, rebelling androids, bandits and mutated monsters. All of these are utilised extremely well in the story, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects of this broken world become apparent in the next instalment of this series.

DEV1AT3 is another wild ride from Jay Kristoff that I had a lot of fun reading. Featuring an excellent story that makes great use of references to some classic pieces of science fiction and fantasy, DEV1AT3 is a fantastic read that refuses to slow down for everything. This is a highly recommended read for the older young adult market, and it will also appeal to older readers. I am extremely curious to see where Kristoff takes this story next and look forward to another electrifying adventure in this mad-cap world.

Knight of Stars by Tom Lloyd

Knight of Stars Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Hardcover – 27 June 2019)

Series: The God Fragments – Book 3

Length: 440 pages 

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lynx, Toil and the rest of the Cards are back for another rip-roaring fantasy adventure, as the “heroes” of Tom Lloyd’s The God Fragment series prepare to bring all manner of violence and chaos to another unsuspecting corner of their fantasy world.

Knight of Stars is the third book in The God Fragments series, which follows the adventures of Anatin’s Mercenary Deck, a band of skilled mercenaries otherwise known as the Cards, whose adventures have caused havoc across the Riven Kingdom. The Cards are so called as each member of the band are given a card number or description based on a fictional deck of cards from this universe, which corresponds to their rank within the band. This is the third series from Lloyd, who has previously written the Twilight Reign and The Empire of a Hundred Houses series. The God Fragments series has so far consisted of Stranger of the Tempest in 2016 and Princess of Blood in 2017, with each of the book titles referring to the rank one of that particular novel’s major or most significant character.

In this third book, the Cards are celebrating after surviving and getting paid for their previous adventures in the Labyrinth under the city of Jarrazir. However, their last adventure had unexpected side effects as several of the band have also been magically marked by the powerful Dugar artefact they discovered in the Labyrinth. Not only have these marks magically bound many of the Cards together but they have also had unexpected effects on the Deck’s mages, who have found their magical abilities greatly increased.

The Deck’s employer, the dangerous relic hunter and intelligence officer Toil, has found them a relatively simple job in the distant Mage Islands to take over the holdings of a defaulting gang for a powerful bank. With the prospect of good food, sun, booze, bar fights and the chance to let loose in combat, the Cards are treating it like a holiday, especially as it moves them out of reach of several powerful enemies they have recently made. While Toil seeks out allies and resources for her patron city, the company’s mages attempt to research the magical consequences of their time in the Labyrinth.

However, no mission for the Cards ever goes as planned, and the Mage Islands are a very dangerous place to visit. Between the rival mage guilds, the various gangs and the thousands of giant serpentine tsyarn that surround the city, any miss-step could lead to disaster, and none of the Cards are known for treading lightly, especially as their number includes an infamous exile from the Mage Islands who has left many enemies behind. Unsurprisingly, the members of the Deck soon find themselves in conflict with many powerful members of the Mage Islands’ hierarchy. However, the real trouble comes when several of the Cards accidently awaken something dangerous that dwells beneath the islands.

I was initially drawn to Knight of Stars by the cool plot synopsis, but I found the first 50 or so pages, which detailed the actual journey to the Mage Islands, to be very slow and a little hard to follow. This may have been partly because this was my first time exploring The God Fragment series; I have not had the pleasure of reading the first two books in the series. As a result, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come to grips with the story and the large number of returning characters who were featured in the opening pages of the book. While the summary at the start of the book does a great job of detailing the major points of the adventures that occurred in the previous books in the series, this summary only focuses on a few of the main characters. This means that new readers will not have a good basis for several of the important side characters and may struggle to work out who they are. After getting deeper into the book I was eventually able to come to grips with all of the characters, especially as more details about them were released; however, it was easy to become lost when trying to figure out who was who to begin with. It also didn’t help that the real action and intrigue didn’t really start until the characters got to the Mage Islands, as before that they are mostly stuck talking on a couple of barges. There is a brief fight with some elementals, although what they were and the reason for their presence was a bit unclear in my opinion. While I am glad that I continued past it and enjoyed the rest of story, the first part of the book might not be able to hold some new readers’ interest.

While this is not the most ideal start to the book, those readers who persevere will find that Lloyd has created an excellent and highly entertaining novel. The author has done a wonderful job of taking his band of rogues to a deadly new location within his fantasy universe and the allowing them to run wild, resulting in all manner of chaos. The overall story becomes extremely compelling the deeper you get into it, and the last 150-odd pages are pretty darn epic, featuring some big moments with some significant stakes for the protagonists. All of this results in a very enjoyable story, and I ended up have an absolute blast reading this book.

One of the main things that I liked about this book that was the non-stop fantasy action featured within it. It is obvious that Lloyd has a real talent for writing exciting combat sequences, which he uses to his full advantage by featuring a huge number of electrifying fight scenes throughout the course of his book. Many of these amazing scenes feature elements of the unique magical system that Lloyd has created for The God Fragments series, and I particularly liked the mage-guns that were a major feature of the action. Mage-guns are specialised weapons which all the Cards are armed with that fire various magical rounds of ammo to great effect. This includes electrical blast, ice shots, blasts of flame and devastating earth based shots designed to smash buildings and the ground. The author does an amazing job showcasing these unique weapons and the tactics behind them throughout the book, and they really add a whole new element to the combat sequences. While the combat for the first three quarters of the story is really cool, the fight between the Cards and the major opponents that they encounter in the last part of the book are extremely impressive and very ambitious. I would therefore heartily recommend Knight of Stars to those readers who are looking for a good piece of fantasy action, as it is an amazing feature of this book.

On top of the awesome action, the Cards of the Mercenary Deck are pretty fun. I really liked how Lloyd decided to set a story around a group of rough, fun-loving group of frankly oversexed mercenaries, as it makes for a very amusing tale. The story is told from the perspective of several members of the group, including Lynx, the original protagonist of the series; Toil, the secret agent who is funding the group; and Sitain, one of the group’s three mages. The Cards are a fun group of protagonists, most of whom have seen or done too much violence, so they now see the world through a rather cynical viewpoint. Their love for life is quite infectious, and they make for an entertaining group of narrators, with their rude and crude attitudes often coming to the fore. The Cards also have a very unique way of dealing with problems, and it is always fun to follow a group whose master plan involves starting a particularly violent bar fight. Several of the characters have interesting story arcs within this book, especially Teshen, the titular Knight of Stars, who returns to the Mage Islands to face the demons of his past. There are a couple of major developments for some of the characters in this book, and readers should be careful about some upcoming heartbreak. This is a wonderful group of characters, and I really enjoyed seeing how their story progressed in this book.

The location for this latest book, the Mage Islands, is a really cool setting for this action-packed story. The Mage Islands is a brand-new setting, located some distance away from where any of the previous books were set. The Mage Islands is home to a ramshackle city of canals, slums, lagoons and giant sloths as pack animals, and is a great backdrop for all the action and criminal activity that occurs throughout the book. Lloyd does an excellent job of portraying a hot, tropical location filled with all manner of dangers, criminals and pests. However, rather than the usual vast number of tropical bugs and insects, the city is surrounded by a huge swarm of giant monsters, the tsyarn (the monster on the cover). As you can probably guess from the name, the city is also home to a massive population of mages, and the Cards find themselves drawn into a conflict between some of the rival mage guilds. Overall, this was a fantastic location for this enjoyable story, and I look forward to seeing where the Cards end up next.

Knight of Stars is an exciting and captivating third instalment in Tom Lloyd’s The God Fragments series. While I did initially struggle to get into the story, once I stuck with it, I was able to enjoy its compelling plot, amazing action, great characters and excellent new location. This book is worth checking out, and I look forward to reading Lloyd’s future instalments in this series.

Star Wars: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Treason Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 25 July 2019)

Series: Thrawn – Book 3

Length: 333 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of Star Wars extended universe novels, Timothy Zahn, returns with a third incredible book in his outstanding Thrawn series, Treason, which features the final adventure of his most iconic protagonist, Grand Admiral Thrawn, before his last appearance in Star Wars: Rebels.

While the new Disney Star Wars extended universe has produced some truly exceptional entries in the last couple years, the Thrawn series of books has been a real bright spot amongst them. Grand Admiral Thrawn was the antagonist of Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy back in the 1990s, and quickly became a fan favourite character among the Star Wars fandom. After Thrawn was introduced into the new Star Wars canon as the primary antagonist of Star Wars Rebels in seasons 3 and 4, Zahn was brought back to write a series of novels that provided an updated history for this character.

The Thrawn series has so far consisted of two books, Thrawn and Alliances. In Thrawn, we are introduced to Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn, a member of the Chiss Ascendancy, a race of aliens from outside the known galaxy, who was marooned within Imperial Space. Thanks to a secret connection to Anakin Skywalker and a clear demonstration of his tactical ability, the Emperor takes Thrawn into his service and employs him as an officer in the Imperial Navy. Accompanied by a young officer, Eli Vanto, who serves as his translator, aide and student, Thrawn rises through the ranks all the way to Grand Admiral by defeating a series of rebel and pirate forces. Towards the end of the book, it is revealed that Thrawn is still in service to the Chiss Ascendancy, and his loyalty to the Empire may be conditional on the Empire not threatening his people. In addition, he has sent Vanto to the Chiss, as he believes that his tactical abilities, honed under Thrawn’s tutorage, may be of benefit to their forces. Alliances, which is set after the events of the third season of Star Wars Rebels, reveals the history between Thrawn and Anakin Skywalker, and has Thrawn work with Darth Vader to investigate mysterious events in the Unknown Regions. There the reader is introduced to the Grysk, a dangerous alien species living in the Unknown Regions who are making aggressive moves against both the Empire and the Chiss Ascendancy. Together, Thrawn and Vader are able to foil the Grysk’s immediate plans, although they remain a dangerous force.

I really enjoyed both of the previous books in the Thrawn series. Thrawn is probably the best expanded Star Wars book I have had the pleasure to read so far, while Alliances did a great job continuing the series and featured a fantastic team-up between two of my favourite Star Wars characters. I personally enjoyed the first book a lot more than the second, although this may be because I did read the series out of order, starting with Alliances and then going back to Thrawn. I have been looking forward to the third book in the series for a while now. Not only did I look at it for one of my Waiting on Wednesday articles, but it also featured on my recent Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases list.

In Treason, which is set in the midst of the fourth season of Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn is forced to postpone his campaign against the Rebels on Lothal when Grand Moth Tarkin informs him that funding for his Tie Defender Program is at risk of being reappropriated by Director Krennic’s secret program, Stardust. Placed in the middle of a political battle between Tarkin and Krennic, Thrawn must ensure the security of Stardust’s supply chains in order to retain his funding. What at first appears to be a routine mission against a dangerous form of alien space vermin quickly reveals that the supply lines are actually being targeted pirates who have knowledge about the materials being sent to Project Stardust.

The subsequent arrival of a Chiss ship with his former protégé Eli Vanto serving aboard raises further problems, when they reveal that a force of Grysk ships are active deep within Imperial Space. Now Thrawn must not only find out what the Grysk’s mission is but also foil a large-scale conspiracy from within the Empire. As Thrawn engages his opponents in space, the real danger comes when his loyalty to the Empire is called into question. Can Thrawn continue to serve both the Emperor and the Chiss Ascendancy, or will the Emperor finally tire of his treason?

Treason was another outstanding outing from Zahn, who once again produces an addictive and clever entry in the Star Wars expanded universe that does an exceptional job showing off his iconic protagonist. Treason was a real pleasure to read, and I found myself unable to put it down at times, as I was so engrossed by the excellent story and the fantastic examples of action in the Star Wars universe. The end result was amazing book which wraps up Thrawn’s current storyline and ties it into his appearances in the wider Star Wars universe.

Just like the previous books in the series, my favourite aspect of Treason is the focus on the titular character of Thrawn. Thrawn is one of the most tactically minded and analytical individuals in the entire Star Wars universe and is an unsurpassed military genius, able to defeat superior forces with his tactics and intelligence. Zahn has always done a spectacular job of portraying a character like this in his books, and Treason is no exception. Throughout the course of the book, Thrawn comes up with a series of tactical plans and deductions to confound his opponents and defeat their forces totally. The sheer range of different strategies and plans he comes up with are pretty ingenious, as are the ways that he is able to deduce how his opponents think, such as by analysing their artwork or their body language and movements. This results in some pretty amazing sequences throughout the book and included one extremely epic conclusion that sees Thrawn defeat a massively superior force without even being on the command deck of his ship. Instead, he leaves step-by-step instructions with his subordinate to perfectly counter and defeat his opponents. Honestly, I wish I could elaborate more because it was such an epic sequence, but that would require revealing some pretty big spoilers. I really love the focus on Thrawn and hope we get to see some more of his adventures and battles again in the future.

Despite the focus on Thrawn, much of the story is told from the perspective of some of his colleagues and subordinates, although many of these scenes also feature Thrawn’s observations on the other character’s body language and intentions. The use of all these point-of-view characters actually works really well, as it allows the reader to see Thrawn’s various tactical moves through the eyes of a normal character, thus requiring Thrawn or one of his protégés to explain in detail how he was able to come up with his actions, kind of like how Watson was used in the Sherlock Holmes novels. The characters of Eli Vanto and Commodore Faro have both served this purpose in the previous two books in the series, and it was good to see them both at it again in Treason. However, both have pretty major story arcs within this book, and it was interesting to see how their characters have evolved since first meeting Thrawn. This book also features several Chiss characters, such as Admiral Ar’alani, and it was intriguing to see their view on Thrawn’s actions and his role within the Empire. Zahn has also included a new character, Assistant Director Ronan, who has a major point-of-view role within the book. Ronan is a fairly annoying character most of the time, due to his arrogance and blind worship of his superior, Director Krennic. However, he does offer some pretty cool insights into Thrawn and the other character’s actions, and it was fun to see his respect for Thrawn reluctantly grow through the course of the book. These alternate point-of-view characters also allowed for some enjoyable speculation about Thrawn’s actual loyalties, and whether he currently serves the Emperor or the Chiss, and I felt that using all these side characters really added a whole lot to the overall story.

Like all of the other books in the Thrawn series, Zahn includes a huge number of action-packed sequences that are very exciting to read. Due to the focus on characters in the Imperial Navy, the vast majority of these battles are set within space and feature battles between the various spacecraft of the Star Wars universe. These space battle sequences are written extremely well, and they allow the reader to get an excellent idea of the cool fights that are occurring on the pages. Many of these sequences are enhanced by the various protagonists’ reliance on advanced tactics and stratagems, and as a result you get a much more complex and entertaining fight than some of the other space battles that occur in other examples of Star Wars fiction. I really enjoyed all the cool battles in this book, and the ones featured in Treason are a real highlight of the entire series.

Honestly, Treason is probably best explored by hardcore Star Wars fans. Not only does it deal with some quite obscure characters and aspects of the Star Wars universe but it is also the third book in a series with strong connections to Star Wars Rebels. I would therefore strongly recommend that readers check out the first two books in the Thrawn series first, as this will give them a more solid base to the story within Treason and provide them with some useful background into the Star Wars universe. However, for those readers who do not have any prior experience of the Thrawn books or some of the storylines explored in Star Wars Rebels, this is still an extremely accessible book, and Zahn does a good job of exploring key events of the previous stories featuring the character of Thrawn. I think that all readers, even those who only have knowledge of the franchise’s films, will also enjoy the deep dive into Star Wars lore that is featured within this book.

The entire Thrawn series so far has explored a number of aspects of the Empire before the events of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, which I have found to be exceedingly fascinating. This is continued in Treason, where the author continues to examine the running of the Imperial Navy and also looks at the creation of the Death Star, namely the supply lines heading out to the construction zone. This book also features an intriguing look at the rivalries and politics that existed at the highest echelons of the Imperial power structure. In particular, Thrawn finds himself in the middle of the conflict between Grand Moth Tarkin and Director Krenic, which was shown in the Rogue One film. This was a particularly intriguing part of the book, and it is always interesting to see Thrawn engaged in political activities, as it very much outside his wheelhouse, although the results of this political battle were extremely fun. Treason also features more details on the species that inhabit the mysterious Unknown Regions of space, in particular the Chiss Ascendancy and the Grysk. Neither has been explored too much in the current canon, and Thrawn has been the only Chiss featured so far. All these explorations of the Star Wars lore are a really interesting part of the book that I loved reading and found extremely fascinating.

Treason is set in the fourth season of the Star Wars Rebels television show. In particular, the start of the book mirrors a scene in the 10th episode, Jedi Knight, and ends with the set–up of the final two episodes of the series. Unfortunately, this probably means that Treason will be the last Thrawn book for a little while as Star Wars Rebels ended (spoilers! although it’s been over a year since the finale) with Thrawn and the protagonist of Rebels, Ezra Bridger, being transported off into an unknown area of space. While the end of the episode hinted that Ezra was still alive (and therefore Thrawn would be as well), it may be some time before we find out his eventual fate. While there are no current plans for a continuation or sequel to Star Wars Rebels, I could see them trying to do something after the release of the seventh season of the related The Clone Wars show. Zahn has also stated that he is planning to write some additional Thrawn novels, although these are tied up until the ninth Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker, is finalised. Whether these Thrawn books will be tied into any future animated versions of Thrawn or be set before the end of Star Wars Rebels remains to be seen, although I personally would love to see what happens to Thrawn and some of the other supporting characters from these series.

Treason by Timothy Zahn is another exceptional entry in the Thrawn series, which once again explores one of the best characters in the Star Wars universe. Thrawn is a fantastic character, and Zahn does an exceptional job showing off his tactical prowess through a series of intense and complex battles in space. I really loved seeing how this part of Thrawn’s adventure unfolded, and Zahn has really produced a compelling story that proved exceedingly hard to stop reading. A first-rate Star Wars tie-in novel, Treason is really worth checking out. I honestly can’t think of any character I would love to see more of in the future than Grand Admiral Thrawn.

The Kremlin Strike by Dale Brown – Audiobook Review

The Kremlin Strike Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (7 May 2019)

Series: Patrick McLanahan series – Book 23

Length: 13 hours and 18 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Dale Brown, perhaps one of the best current writers of military thrillers in the world today, returns with another exciting instalment of his Patrick McLanahan series, which takes America’s battle with Russia up into high orbit.

Following the recent defeat of his deadly combat robots in Texas, Russian President Geenadiy Gryzlov is desperate to strike back against the hated Americans. However, he no longer faces the inept US administration he enjoyed over the last couple of years. Instead, his failed attack on America has resulted in the election of a strong new president, John Dalton Farrell. With Farrell once again backing the innovative and resourceful private companies of former US President Kevin Martindale and former general Patrick McLanahan, Sky Masters and Scion Aviation International, America’s future looks bright. One of Farrell’s first priorities is the immediate resumption of America’s research into space flight and defence, resulting in Iron Wolf Squadron members Brad McLanahan and Nadia Roz being recruited by Sky Masters to head up their revamped space initiative.

However, the Americans are not the only ones with an eye to space. Knowing that Russia’s future world dominance depends on controlling the stars, Gryzlov has ordered the construction of a high-tech space station, Mars 1. Armed with devastating plasma weapons capable of shooting down every US satellite orbiting the planet as well as missile launchers that can rain down fire anywhere on the world, Mars 1 is an absolute game changer that will ensure Gryzlov finally achieves victory over the United States.

America’s only hope once again rests in the hands of the men of Sky Masters and Scion. As the Scion operatives attempt to determine a weakness in Mars 1’s defences, Sky Masters have created a number of advanced space planes and weapons that will allow Brad and Nadia to take the fight to the Russians in space. Will this new equipment be enough, or will Russia’s grip on high orbit propel them to a final, devastating victory?

Brown has been one of the best and most prolific authors of military fiction for over 30 years, having written 29 military thrillers in this period, as well as co-writing 18 books in the Dreamland series with Jim DeFelice. I only recently got into Brown’s books last year, when I read his 2018 release, The Moscow Offensive. After being drawn in by the promise of advanced military robots fighting it out in the American heartland, I fell in love with the awesome plot, intense action and analyses of real-world political strife, and as a result, The Kremlin Strike was one of the military thrillers I was looking forward to the most this year. The Kremlin Strike is the 23rd book in Brown’s Patrick McLanahan series, which follows the titular character and his allies as they attempt to keep America safe from a series of high-tech military threats. This book could also be considered to be sixth book in the Brad McLanahan series, as the overarching plot of the series started to focus more on Patrick’s son, Brad, in Tiger’s Claw, especially after Patrick McLanahan’s supposed death.

I absolutely loved the central concept of The Kremlin Strike, which looks at the potential of Earth’s high orbit to host the next major military conflicts that we see. This is not a new focus for Brown, as some of his previous books in this series, including Executive Intent and Starfire, have looked at the potential of space-born weapons. Before the story even starts, Brown makes it clear that he believes the United States needs to focus more on the possibility of a future war in space, and even includes some real-world news excerpts that look at recent advances in military technology that can be used to fight battles in space or destroy satellites orbiting the planet.

Based on this, Brown is able to come up with an incredibly intriguing military thriller that looks at the battles that could occur in the near future. I found it absolutely fascinating to see the author’s theories about how space warfare could be conducted, and the tactical advantages of having control of Earth’s orbit. While some of the technology in featured in the story, such as the Cybernetic Infantry Devices, are probably more advanced than what Russia or America can currently use (probably), Brown does examine a number of weapons and vehicles that are currently being tested in space. The various laser weapons, plasma launchers (OK, these are slightly less likely), missiles and other cool weapons or technology used in the battle in space make for some interesting reading. There were also some intriguing looks at the various limitations or downsides of the space technologies featured in this book, such as energy issues, fuel consumption or the gravitational backlash some weapons may experience. I especially liked how Brown was able to capture a more accurate view of space combat, with invisible laser beams rather than the colourful blasts you see in most science fiction movies.

All of the focus on combat in space is a superb basis for a story, and Brown backs that up with some first-rate storytelling to make this an outstanding read. The Kremlin Strike was an excellent blend of action, advanced technology and spy fiction that also has some intriguing mirrors to current world politics. The author tells the story from a range of different character perspectives, allowing for a widespread story that works incredibly well. I especially liked seeing the opposing views of the protagonists and antagonists, as it allowed the reader to see multiple sides of the overall conflict. For example, the reader gets to see the Russians plan their moves, and then you get to see the American countermoves. This view of the different sides of the conflict also works because neither the Americans nor the Russians have a solid idea of what the other side is planning. The reader is the only person who knows what is going on in both camps, and it is really fun to see the opponents slowly work out each other’s tactics during the course of the narrative, and then panic when they realise what their enemy is planning.

In addition to the combat in space, Brown also displays his detailed knowledge of modern warfare and military throughout the course of The Kremlin Strike. There are a huge number of scenes where modern military technology, techniques, strategies or standard operating procedures are featured, all topped off with a good helping of military terminology and acronyms. Brown utilises all of these extremely well, and there is nothing too overwhelming for readers who have a low understanding of the relevant jargon. All the action in this book is written incredibly well, and it was just plain thrilling to see some of the battles in the sky or in space take place. There were also some cool espionage sequences thrown in throughout the story as well, emphasising the benefit of human intelligence in current conflicts. All of these various aspects come together into a wonderful military thriller narrative, which proved extremely hard to stop listening to.

Another part of The Kremlin Strike that I enjoyed was the use of the fantastic prime antagonist, Russian President Geenadiy Gryzlov. Gryzlov has been a key villain in the last few books of the Patrick McLanahan series, and his angry, vindictive nature and his sheer inability to admit his own mistake makes him an amazingly easy character to dislike. I always find that a great antagonist can add so much to a story, and this is especially true in this book, where you can’t help but root for the protagonists and enjoy when the antagonist’s plots come to naught. You also cannot help but feel sorry at times for Gryzlov’s subordinates, who are forced to obey his wild orders, despite knowing that they will be punished when they fail. I really enjoyed a fun story development that occurs around this character in The Kremlin Strike, which I thought that Brown planned out very well, and which was one of my favourite highlights of this book.

While I absolutely loved The Kremlin Strike, the author has included a few right-wing political issues that might not be appealing to every reader. Right at the start of the book, Brown is very supportive about recent decision by the current US administration to form a specific armed force for space warfare, and this book examines the necessity of such a force. In addition, if you read between the lines a little, the US president in The Kremlin Strike, Farrell, could be a partial stand in for the current real-life United States president, while the previous incompetent president, Stacy Anne Barbeau, could be seen to represent this president’s real-life opponent at the 2016 election. Farrell is a political outsider, disliked by the media, whose tough talk and determination to cut through the bureaucracy of Washington (drain the swamp, if you will), won the support of the American people. The book’s apparent support of the current US president and some of his controversial decisions may be off-putting to some readers, although I do not believe that it harmed the entertainment value of the story. I personally found it interesting that in this scenario Brown once again painted Russia as America’s greatest enemy, which is something the current US president appears extremely reluctant to do, although perhaps I am reading into this too much.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Kremlin Strike, which is narrated by William Dufris. The audiobook version of this book runs for a moderate 13 hours and 18 minutes, and I found it to be a great way to enjoy this exciting and detailed military thriller. Having only read Brown’s work before, I felt that having the audiobook book version playing in my ear helped ramp up the action sequences as well as increase the sense of urgency of the events occurring in the book. Dufris is also an excellent narrator, coming up with a huge number of great voices for the various characters that make up the cast of this book. The voices he attributed to these characters were really good and captured their personalities extremely well, such as, for example, the anger, ruthlessness and paranoia exhibited by Gryzlov. Dufris also did a good job with the character accents, continuing utilising a number of Russian accents throughout the book, as well as accents from other Eastern European countries such as Poland. I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of The Kremlin Strike and I think I will check out this format for any future books in the Patrick McLanahan series.

In this latest book in his long running Patrick McLanahan series, Dale Brown has once again created a first-class military thriller that is an absolute treat to read. The author’s focus on the future conflicts that may occur in our planet’s orbit were extremely fascinating, and the story created around it was a captivating and electrifying read. Easily accessible to those readers who have not previously had the pleasure of reading the Patrick McLanahan series before, The Kremlin Strike was a deeply enjoyable book, and a must for all fans of both the science fiction and military thriller genres.

Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed

Alphabet Squadron Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 18 June 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 408 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Star Wars expanded universe continues to grow as Alexander Freed presents a new and exciting adventure in the Star Wars canon, Alphabet Squadron.

Following the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star during the Battle of Endor, the Empire has fragmented. Without the Emperor’s leadership, the various Imperial commanders have devolved into infighting and are faltering in the face of opposition from the united forces of the Rebel Alliance, who have renamed themselves as the New Republic. However, pockets of Imperial power still exist throughout the galaxy, many of which have the destructive potential to fulfil the Emperor’s final order, Operation Cinder, the devastation of as many planets as possible.

Yrica Quell is a former Imperial TIE fighter pilot who deserted in the face of the Emperor’s final order. Living in exile with other Imperial deserters, Quell is recruited by Caern Adan from New Republic Intelligence to hunt down the remnants of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, Quell’s old unit. Known as Shadow Wing, the 204th, under the command of Colonel Nuress, has taken command of the planet of Pandem Nai, and is using it as a base to launch raids against New Republic targets.

In order to find and defeat Shadow Wing, Quell and Adan bring together a group of talented pilots who have experienced loss at the hands of the 204th pilots. Flying an assortment of starfighters and given the name of Alphabet Squadron, these pilots must learn to work together if they wish to have a chance against Shadow Wing. As Alphabet Squadron launches under the command of New Republic General Hera Syndulla, they must face not only some of the most skilled pilots in the galaxy but also some dangerous secrets from Quell’s volatile past.

Those readers who have followed my blog for a while will know that I have been really getting into the new Star Wars expanded universe in the last year. Alphabet Squadron has been high on my to-read list for a while now, and I had high hopes that this book would represent the start of an intriguing new series within the overarching Star Wars franchise. I have to say that I was in no way disappointed. Freed, who has written several Star Wars novels in the past, creates an intriguing new addition to the franchise which was a real pleasure to read.

Alphabet Squadron is set shortly after the events of the third original Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, and focuses on the chaotic aftermath of the Rebels’ victory at Endor. In addition to that, Alphabet Squadron also crosses over with Marvel Comics’ latest Star Wars comic, TIE Fighter, which follows the exploits of the elite TIE fighter flight known as Shadow Wing. The trade paperback version of Alphabet Squadron even contains the first few pages of TIE Fighter Issue #1 in the centre of the book. The artwork in it actually looks pretty cool, and I think I will pick up a collected edition of it in the future.

This latest addition to the Star Wars universe contains an entertaining and at times emotional story that not only expands on the Star Wars universe, but which also features examinations of the horrors of war, the emotional toil of combat and characters attempting to find their place in a new reality. Alphabet Squadron is split among a huge range of perspectives, including of protagonists and antagonists, which really works to tell a complex and multifaceted story. In addition to this fantastic original story, Alphabet Squadron also features exciting starfighter combat, a new and at times darker perspective on the franchise lore and some excellent character work. There is also a lot of potential for the story to continue into additional books in the series, which I think would be good.

One of the big focuses of this book is the starfighter combat between the protagonists flying as Alphabet Squadron and the antagonists flying as Shadow Wing. The space combat in this book flies thick and fast, and there are a number of high-energy and action-packed sequences as the various starfighters engage in all sorts of combat. There are some great space fight sequences in this book, such as the protagonist fleeing from her old squadron or the continuous attacks of Shadow Wing against a New Republic cruiser and its fighter escort over a sustained period of time. Freed also does an exceptional job using multiple character perspectives to show various sides of the battle, which really helps to make these action sequences even more impressive. This all leads up to a massive final battle sequence that has some pretty epic moments and a whole lot of destruction.

One of the aspects of the focus on the starfighters that was particularly intriguing was the makeup of the titular Alphabet Squadron. Alphabet Squadron was so named because each of its five members fly a different Rebel Alliance fighter, each of which has been featured in the various movies. These include: (add photos)

Yrica Quell – X-wing. X-wings are the iconic fighter seen in most of the movies and serve as the main fighter of the Rebel fleets.

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Nath Tensent – Y-wing. Y-wings were seen in all three of the original movies and are the Rebel Alliance’s bombers.

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Wyl Lark – A-wing. A-wings have appeared in a couple of the movies and television shows and were the fastest ships in the Rebel Fleet.

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Chass na Chadic – B-wing. One of the more usual ships in the Rebel arsenal, these are slower ships with a huge amount of firepower.

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Kairos – U-wing. The Rebel Alliances troop transports. A couple of them first appeared in Rogue One and have been a feature of the Rebel Fleet ever since.

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Having all five different ships in one squadron was a really cool concept that I really liked. Not only did it give a cool name for both the book and the squadron, but it showcased the various pros and cons of the various Rebel starfighters. Having a group made up of one of each of these ships makes for some intriguing problems, as well as giving the protagonist some unique advantages. The various tactics these mixed ships can employ in battle are really interesting, and it was a great concept that Freed did a good job exploring. The focus on starship combat was a real highlight of this book, as it allowed for some extremely exciting and enjoyable scenes that really set this book apart from some other Star Wars novels.

Alphabet Squadron is an interesting new addition to the overarching Star Wars canon that ties into the movies and other additions to the expanded universe and also helps set up a new series of books. One of the main things I enjoyed about the book was that the story was set in a fascinating part of Star Wars history, immediately following the events of Return of the Jedi. During this period the Rebel Alliance is achieving victory after victory while the Empire fragmented. I found this examination of the aftermath of the original film trilogy to be extremely enjoyable, especially as the ending of Return of the Jedi always seemed to imply that the Rebels won completely and the Empire was no longer a threat. Alphabet Squadron instead shows it as a far darker period, filled with mass desertions from the Imperial Army, uncertainty and lawlessness throughout the galaxy and the devastating results of Operation Cinder. Freed does and amazing job examining this period, for example, I really liked how he highlighted the sense of victory coming of the Rebel Alliance characters and the hints of desperation and despair that the Imperial characters were feeling. Freed also does a good job examining the general feeling of weariness that both sides are feeling by this point in the extended war.

This book ties into a bunch of entries in the current Star Wars expanded universe. It is going to run side by side with the TIE Fighter comic book series, and it has links to the Star Wars: Battlefront II video game and the Star Wars Rebels television show. The whole concept of Operation Cinder was first introduced in Star Wars: Battlefront II, as the protagonists were trying to stop it. Alphabet Squadron shows more of this intriguing piece of Star Wars lore, as the main character Quell was there when Operation Cinder was undertaken at one of the planets, becoming a key motivation for her. Having not played the Battlefront games, I thought this was an incredibly interesting and dark inclusion to the overarching Star Wars story, and I really enjoyed how Freed explored it. I was particularly intrigued by the inclusion of the Sentinel droids, scary red droids that project the Emperor’s face on a screen and which were sent out after his death to deliver his final order. Not only are these droids a cool and sinister inclusion from the Battlefront game, but I find anything that could potentially explain the Emperor’s presence in the upcoming film, The Rise of Skywalker, to be extremely fascinating.

As I stated in the Waiting on Wednesday I did for this book, one of the things I was excited for was the presence of Hera Syndulla. Hera was one of the main characters in the Star Wars Rebels television show, serving as the group’s pilot and the leader of a Rebel fighter squadron. Since the end of Star Wars Rebels, Hera has had a number of small appearances in other pieces of Star Wars media, including the Star Wars comic book series and cameo mentions in the Rogue One movie. Hera was a good supporting character in this book, serving as the New Republic General overseeing Alphabet Squadron’s missions and as a confidant for several of the main characters. Fans of Rebels will love seeing more of Hera in this book, and I know I was happy to get another snapshot of this character’s history. I was slightly disappointed there were no mentions of the other surviving characters from the show, but there were probably restrictions on what the author was allowed to say about them in case of contradictions with a future show.

For this book, Freed drew together a great bunch of central characters to serve as the heart of the story and as the book’s various narrators. Each of Alphabet Squadron’s members has their own intriguing story to tell, including Yrica Quell, Alphabet Squadron’s leader. Quell is a former Imperial TIE pilot who is still haunted by the events surrounding her defection and the guilt of participating in Operation Cinder. Thanks to her status as a former Imperial, Quell is a bit of an outsider in the New Republic forces but is determined to stay and fly for them. However, her connection to Shadow Wing and certain secrets she is hiding become a major part of her character and a really intriguing central focus for this book. Quell was a good central protagonist for this book with a really cool story arc about her past and her attempts to find redemption. I also liked seeing her thoughts on the pros and cons of the various Rebel starfighters compared to the TIE Fighters she was used to flying, which really helped with the book’s focus on starfighter combat.

Alphabet Squadron also includes Nath Tensent, who acts like a bit of a rogue operator, with his own objectives and cons to run. He is recruited into Alphabet Squadron because Shadow Wing killed his entire squadron and he wants revenge. There are also Wyl Lark and Chass na Chadic, the surviving members of two squads of fighters devastated by Shadow Wing earlier in the book. Both of these characters are impacted by the recent losses of their previous squads, which affects how they act within this book. They are also somewhat antagonistic towards each other due to the guilt and anger they feel over being the sole survivors of their group. Both Wyl and Chass have their own fun personalities and unique quirks, including Chass’s love of music while she flies. The final member of the squadron is Kairos, a mysterious alien of indeterminate species who is covered in bandages. Kairos’s lack of past or connection to Shadow Wing are an intriguing anomaly within this book that I hope is explored in future books.

As an overall group, Alphabet Squadron is an intriguing bunch of characters who the reader finds themselves getting rather attached to. Each of them has their own emotional or personal damage, and it is great watching them try to redeem themselves by flying as part of this mismatched group, and each of them has a certain Rebel spirit to them. I really liked how Freed spent time looking at their various motivations for joining the Rebel Alliance in the first place, especially as they each have some interesting stories about the oppression of the Empire or inspiration from certain characters. The Squadron also has a certain everyman or outsider status to them, and I found it pretty interesting to hear their various opinions or takes on the events that happened in the movies or about Luke Skywalker’s Jedi abilities.

Freed has also included a few great characters from outside of Alphabet Squadron. For example, there is Caern Adan, the New Republic intelligence agent who recruits Quell at the start of the book. Despite being a member of the New Republic, Adan is something of an antagonistic in this book, as his obsession with finding and neutralising Shadow Wing drives him to control and manipulate members of Alphabet Squadron. Adan is accompanied by IT-O, a repurposed Imperial torture droid, who acts as a therapist for Alphabet Squadron and who provides Adan with psychological analyses of the various members of the squadron. Freed also seeks to tell the story from the perspective of the Imperials by including Colonel Nuress as a point-of-view character. Nuress, who is a character in the TIE Fighter comic book series, offers an interesting counter viewpoint into the fall of the Empire, especially as she views the Empire as more of a stabilising force than a destructive one. Her desire to rebuild the Empire and serve the will of the deceased Emperor is rather intriguing to read, and I liked how the author has included a character from the comic. While they were never specifically named, I assume that the group of highly skilled TIE fighter pilots that the protagonists faced off against where the main cast of the TIE Fighter comics, and I look forward to seeing them in any future books in this series.

Alphabet Squadron is an outstanding piece of Star Wars fiction that was an absolute blast to read. Not only has Freed created a compelling story filled with electrifying starfighter action and a great array of characters, but he has made some truly intriguing additions to the Star Wars canon. Like all pieces of the Star Wars expanded universe, Alphabet Squadron will be most enjoyed by fans of the franchise. However, I would say that readers who are not familiar with Star Wars fiction will find a lot to love in this book, and no real prior knowledge of other expanded universe entries is required to follow the exciting story. This is another amazing addition to the Star Wars canon that comes highly recommended. I am looking forward to seeing if Freed will continue the storylines he started here in any future books and I hope that Alphabet Squadron flies again.

The Emerald Tablet by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

The Emerald Tablet Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 25 June 2019)

Series: Benedict Hitchens series – Book 2

Length: 404 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It’s time for another exciting archaeological adventure in the turbulent 1950s as Meaghan Wilson Anastasios returns with the second book in her Benedict Hitchens series, The Emerald Tablet.

Anastasios is an Australian academic who started writing fiction back in 2014 when she co-wrote her first historical fiction novel, The Water Diviner, with her husband, Andrew Anastasios. This first book was fairly successful and was loosely adapted into a film of the same name featuring Russel Crowe. Last year, Meaghan Anastasios wrote her first solo novel, The Honourable Thief. The Honourable Thief serves as the first book in the Benedict Hitchens series, which follows the adventures of the series’ titular protagonist, Benedict Hitchens, an ambitious American archaeologist living in Turkey.

In The Honourable Thief, Hitchens, a respected academic and war hero, was seduced by the beautiful Eris, who showed him a fabulous collection of artefacts she had apparently recovered. The seduction and the artefacts were revealed to be part of an elaborate con which ended up ruining Hitchens’s academic reputation and forced him to live a life of exile in Istanbul. The incident also provided Hitchens with a series of clues which eventually leads him to the hidden tomb of Achilles. However, this was revealed to be part of a further con: while he was able to find the tomb, Eris and her employer, Garvé, a man who Hitchens had significant history with during World War II, subsequently stole the tomb’s greatest treasure, the Shield of Achilles.

Now, a year later in 1956, Hitchens’s excavation of Achilles’s tomb has helped restore his academic reputation, and his life is back on track. However, he has never forgotten Eris, who still has a hold on his heart even after she betrayed him. When he finds out that Eris, now calling herself Essie, is in Istanbul researching a rare and ancient document, he decides to investigate what she is up to. He quickly discovers that she and Garvé are searching for the Emerald Tablet, a legendary artefact rumoured to hold powerful alchemical secrets that could alter the world.

Determined to keep the Emerald Tablet out of Garvé’s hands, Hitchens begins his own hunt for the tablet. With his friend the crooked antiques dealer Ilhan Aslan at his side, Hitchens follows a series of clues deep into the Middle East. However, this is a dangerous time, as tensions between Egypt, Israel and the European powers are at an all-time high. Hitchens and Aslan soon find that the Emerald Tablet’s trail leads them right into the middle of the chaotic Suez Canal crisis. With agents of the various world powers also searching for the tablet and a murderous assassin following Hitchens’s every move, can he recover the tablet before it is too late, or will Garvé once again outsmart him? And what will happen when Hitchens once again comes face-to-face with the woman who stole his heart?

This was a fantastic follow-up to Anastasios’s first solo novel, and the author has done a great job continuing the story from the first Benedict Hitchens book. The Emerald Tablet has a fast-paced and exciting story focused on the search for an intriguing artefact and featuring an interesting look at a major historical event of the 1950s. In addition, Anastasios tries out some new storytelling methods and a focus on one of the villains from the first novel, which work well to create a fascinating overall narrative. All of this results in an amazing book which I had a fun time reading.

While the first book in the series, The Honourable Thief, employed several separate timelines spread out through the book, Anastasios chose a different format for The Emerald Tablet. This second book is told in a linear way, with the events occurring in a chronological order. This time, however, the story is told from the perspectives of Hitchens and Eris/Essie, who show two different sides of the hunt for the Emerald Tablet.

I really enjoyed the central hunt for the Emerald Tablet that formed the main part of the book. Not only has Anastasios chosen an absolutely fascinating artefact for all the characters to chase but she has created a compelling archaeological and historical mystery surrounding its hidden location. The point-of-view characters are forced to follow a series of elaborate historical clues, many of which can be interpreted in different ways thanks to historical context or locations. Having the two-separate point-of-view characters works incredibly well for this part of the story, as both Hitchens and Eris receive different hints or have conflicting interpretations of the same historical clues, which results in them searching in different locations. This central story is filled with a number of great twists and betrayals, and I quite liked how the protagonists had to contend with agents of the various world powers who have an interest in the tablet for their own ends. Agents of the American, Soviet, British, Israeli and Turkish governments all have a role to play in the adventure, as well as agents of the central antagonist, Garvé. Not only does this increase the action and intrigue of the book but it also raises the stakes of the hunt for the artefact. The reader is constantly left guessing about the location and nature of the artefact Hitchens is hunting for. This was an excellent central narrative for this book, and I had a great time exploring this new archaeological mystery.

Just like she did with The Honourable Thief, Anastasios has chosen a fascinating treasure that the book’s various characters are trying to locate. The Emerald Tablet is an intriguing item out of history and mythology, which is rumoured to hold the secrets to transmutation. The author does a fantastic job of exploring the various myths and theories about the origins and nature of the tablet and the reader gets a great idea of its potential and why it has been hidden. It was a great summary of such an intriguing and unique item from history, especially as the author plays up the mystical side of the whole artefact. There are also outright hints that magic or alchemy, especially the alchemical transmutation of the Emerald Tablet, are real in this universe, which not only makes this story just that little more entertaining, but it could result in some fun adventures in the future. The whole mystical angle also allowed the author to explore some of the occultist groups of the early 20th century, such as the followers of Aleister Crowley, who was quite a peculiar historical figure. Readers will find all of this incredibly riveting, and I felt that these curious subjects added a lot of interest to the overall story.

Anastasios’s use of historical Turkey and Crete was one of the highlights of The Honourable Thief, and I loved that she has once again chosen another captivating historical setting to use as the backdrop for this sequel. While the author does set a bit of The Emerald Tablet in Turkey, this book also explores the Suez Crisis of 1956, as the point-of-view characters spend time in Egypt and Israel and witness some of the crisis firsthand. Most of the course of the war is shown through the excellent use of realistic newspaper clippings set at the front several chapters that showcase how the situation between Egypt, Israel, France, England, the United States and other nations broke down and led to conflict. However, the accounts from Hitchens and Eris reveal that parts of the crisis where instigated as a cover for some of the sides to attempt to seize the Emerald Tablet. This makes for a fun tweak to history which fits the rest of the story quite well. The use of two separate point-of-view characters also allowed for a broader vision of the crisis, as one character mostly viewed it from Egypt, while the other saw it from within Israel, and both characters interacted with members of the country who had opinions about the upcoming conflict. I once again really enjoyed Anastasios’s use of 1950s historical settings, especially the Suez Crisis, and I feel it is one of the best parts of her Benedict Hitchens books.

There is a lot of good character work included in The Emerald Tablet. Not only do we finally get a close look at the mysterious character from the first book, Eris, but we get to further explore the psyche of Hitchens following the traumatic events of the previous book. Eris’s background is revealed in this book and it is a pretty interesting tale. I really enjoyed seeing her side of the story in this book. Not only does it allow the author to showcase this character’s past and her association with the villainous Garvé but we also get to see her motivations for the actions in this book and The Honourable Thief, including her feelings for Hitchen’s following her betrayal of him. Hitchens was already a fairly emotionally damaged character in the first book due to the death of his wife during World War II. However, Eris’s betrayal in the previous book has also had a marked impact on him, and he is obsessed with finding her again. This becomes one of his main motivations in The Emerald Thief, and he goes to extreme lengths to try and claim the tablet before she does, partially to frustrate her and partially in case it leads him to her. Their eventual meeting is an excellent part of the book, and we finally get to see how their relationship might be without the manipulations of Garvé. Certain complications will likely make this relationship an intriguing part of any future books in the series, and I look forward to them reuniting again. Can I also say: thank goodness that Hitchens wised up a little in this book. After some serious blunders from the genius archaeologist in the first book, I was glad that it took a little more to fool him this time.

I feel the need to comment on some of the rather racy scenes that Anastasios included in this book which may prove to be a bit surprising for some readers. Not only is there a rather disturbing ritualistic orgy as part of the story but there was a rather explicit scene in the first few pages of the book that nearly threw me off right at the start. I personally thought that these scenes were a bit unnecessary and somewhat distracting from the main story, but there were some plot reasons for them, and the rest of the story is really enjoyable.

Overall, The Emerald Tablet is an extremely entertaining novel, which does a superb job building on the foundations of the first book in the series. Anastasios has done an outstanding job combining together a fascinating archaeological mystery with emotional character work and an excellent historical setting. The Emerald Tablet is an amazing read, and I look forward to seeing what crazy artefact Benedict Hitchens attempts to find in his next book.