Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

Usagi 166.jpg

The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

Usagi 167.jpg

This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

Usagi 168.jpg

While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

Usagi 169.jpg

The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

Usagi 170.jpg

One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

Usagi 171.jpg

Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

Usagi 172.jpg

Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of 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.

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.

Xwing-SWB.jpg

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

Y Wing.png

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.

A-wing_DICE.png

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.

BWingsKillISD2-ST.jpg

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.

U-wing-SW_Battlefront.png

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.

God of Broken Things by Cameron Johnston

god of broken things cover

Publisher: Angry Robot (Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: Age of Tyranny – Book 2

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Those readers looking for the next entertaining grimdark fantasy adventure to sink their teeth into need look no further than God of Broken Things, the electrifying second book in Cameron Johnston’s Age of Tyranny.

It has only been a few short months since the devastating attack by the Skallgrim raiders on the city of Setharis, which severely weakened the city. Despite repulsing the Skallgrim and their monstrous hordes, Setharis is still in incredible danger. The Skallgrim forces are massing to launch another attack on Setharis, and the Skallgrim’s masters, the parasitic alien lifeforms known as the Scarrabus, are determined to enslave the entire city to their will. Setharis’s salvation once again rests in the hands of its most hated son, Edrin Walker.

Edrin is powerful magus whose rare abilities allow him to crack open and control the minds of all those around him. His breed of magus, known as tyrants, are feared throughout the world due to their propensity to lose control and use their magic to rule whole civilisations. Despite his role in saving the city from the Skallgrim, Edrin is still distrusted by both the common people and his fellow magus of the Arcanum. However, his skills may be the only thing that can win the war against the Skallgrim and the Scarrabus.

A massive force of Skallgrim are advancing over the mountain passes of the Clanholds, hoping to launch a fresh assault on Setharis. Against his will, Edrin is forced to lead a small army to reinforce the tribes of the Clanholds against the Skallgrim army. Accompanied by a small personal bodyguard of killers and thieves, Edrin leads his forces into the mountains, where far more dangerous things than the Skallgrim and their monsters lurk. Spirits, demons, gods and his own deadly past all lie in wait for Edrin, whose powers have been altered following his battle with a treacherous god. Can Edrin and his forces hold back the Skallgrim, or will he succumb to one of the many horrors in the mountains? And what happens when the tyrant comes out to play?

Johnston is a talented author whose debut novel, The Traitor God, really impressed me last year thanks to its awesome story and enjoyable main character. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the sequel, God of Broken Things, this year and was very happy when I received it a few weeks ago. God of Broken Things turned out to be a fantastic follow-up to the first book and I had an incredible time reading it. Not only does Johnston present another wildly entertaining story for the reader to enjoy, but he also does a fantastic job of expanding his dark fantasy world and exploring the complex mind of his main character.

I really liked where Johnston took the story in this book. While The Traitor God’s story of a hunt for answers in the dark fantasy city was cool, I really liked seeing the main character go to war in God of Broken Things. The whole storyline of Edrin leading an army up into the Clanholds, a dangerous mountainous environment filled with all manner of horrors and dangers was really cool, especially as he kept encountering worse situations and more terrifying opponents. This resulted in some epic moments and massive battles, and Johnston also took the opportunity to explore the history of several of the different races mentioned within the first books, including the Scarrabus, the Ogarim and some more mystical creatures like spirts and demons. This expansion of the Age of Tyranny universe was quite intriguing, and I wonder if there will be more exploration of the world and the various mentioned multiverses in future books. I also liked the deeper look that the author took into his protagonist’s past, showing some of the activities that occurred during the years he was exiled from Setharis. I loved the various twists and epic moments that Johnston sprinkled throughout the book’s plot, and there was never a dull moment in the entire story. I especially enjoyed how the final battle in God of Broken Things ended, especially as the author included a clever red herring in the book’s formatting to throw the reader off. Overall, this was an incredible story, and Johnston did an amazing job trapping me within this entertaining narrative.

One of the best parts of this book was the author’s continued focus on the protagonist, Edrin Walker, who serves as the book’s narrator and point-of-view character. Edrin was already a fairly complex character in The Traitor God, where he was portrayed as a powerful exiled magus hated, distrusted and ostracised by everyone due to the specific nature of his magical gift. Because of the way he is treated he acts hostile and uncaring to the world, while still participating in the odd act of heroism and compassion. This is continued in the second book, where Edrin continues to battle with his natural instincts and irritation while trying to do the right thing, especially for the few people who actually like or respect him. I really liked the way that the author continued to show Edrin exploring his moral side in this book as, against his better judgement, he actually attempts to help people and keep Setharis safe. The various sacrifices that he subsequently makes for the greater good are very much against the grain of his original character, and it is interesting to see this side of Edrin grow.

Due to the way he is treated, Edrin is an incredibly jaded character, and the author utilises this in a number of clever ways. Not only does this ensure that Edrin is the most likeable character in the book, mostly because he stands in sharp contrast to all the other magus characters, who are elitist snobs, but it also makes him a really entertaining narrator. The character’s sarcastic and mocking manner permeates the entire way he tells the story, resulting in some great reactions and a very amusing overall story.

Edrin continues to get into all sorts of entertaining misadventures in God of Broken Things, and it is hard not to love the unorthodox way he deals with things. Not only does he lead a bodyguard of deranged killers into battle but he rarely ever takes things seriously, no matter who he is dealing with. I love the disrespect and mockery that the character shows when encountering anyone in authority, be it friend or foe, magus or human, god or monster, and I laughed out loud at the way he got his revenge on one of Setharis’s gods in this book. It was also great to see the character apply his particular brand of bastardry to the battlefield, coming up with all manner of unconventional traps and attacks for the forces that are up against him. I particularly loved the cool way he took down the main antagonist of this book, and it really reflected both his cunning and his growth as a character.

The main character’s mind-bending magic continues to be a really cool part of this series, especially as his abilities become even more powerful in God of Broken Things. Johnston’s portrayals of the way that Edrin’s powers to break into and manipulate the minds of all those around him is done extremely well and it results in a number of epic scenes. I never realised how many creative ways someone could magically manipulate a person’s mind until seeing some of the scenes in this book, as Johnston comes up with some very inventive ways to utilises his protagonist’s magic. I especially loved seeing Edrin using these powers in the middle of the battle, as there are some awesome ways he disadvantages his enemies and helps his allies. However, the author also explores the consequences of the tyrant powers, as Edrin continuously runs the risk of taking things too far and grossly abusing his powers. Several examinations of the character’s guilt over some of the mental actions he commits become a compelling part of the story, and the character’s mental magic is a great part of the book.

Those readers who are looking for an explosive amount of fantasy action are in for a real treat with this book. Johnston makes sure to include a ton of battles and fight sequences in God of Broken Things, as the ragtag defenders of the Clanholds face off against a massive horde of Skallgrim, Scarrabus, demons and monsters. All of these fight scenes are incredibly brutal as Johnston depicts some amazing battles throughout this book. Most of these scenes are enhanced through the use of magic, and the sheer destructive power of the various characters’ magical abilities is pretty impressive. The various demons and monsters the protagonist finds himself up against in this book are pretty gruesome and offer up some pretty great battle scenes as a result. Overall, the action in God of Broken Things is quite superb, and fans of bloody fantasy fights will not be disappointed.

Cameron Johnston’s second outing, God of Broken Things, is an amazing piece of grimdark fantasy fiction that proved to be just as much fun as his debut novel, The Traitor God. I had an incredible time reading God of Broken Things as the excellent combination of story, magical action and character work kept me trapped until the very last page. Readers are guaranteed to love this outstanding dark fantasy read, and I strongly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun and powerful adventure. The ending of the book makes it a little unclear if Johnston will continue the Age of Tyranny series, but I will be keeping a close eye out for any future books from this rising star in the grimdark fantasy genre.

Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher

Darkness on the Edge of Town Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

With the third season of the sensational and entertaining television show Stranger Things fast approaching (4 July cannot come fast enough), another tie-in novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher, has been released and offers another intriguing look into the wider Stranger Things universe. This story heads back into 1970s and focuses on the life of Hawkins police Chief Jim Hopper, portrayed in the show by David Harbour, and presents a thrilling and curious new adventure.

Stranger Things is one of the hottest televisions shows on at the moment, featuring a captivating plot, some incredible characters, amazing young actors and the fun use of 1980s nostalgia, all of which come together into one hell of a show. With the final season of Game of Thrones just wrapped up, the third season of Stranger Things is the next big release I am looking forward to (with the possible exception of Good Omens), and I fully intend to binge-watch it the weekend it comes out. It is not surprising that some tie-in material has been released to capitalise on the success of the show, and, truth be told, they have actually been a little restrained with it, with only one tie-in novel and one comic book series released so far. While I have not had a chance to the read the comic book series, The Other Side, which looks at Will Beyers’ time in the Upside Down in Season 1, I did previously read and review the first official Stranger Things tie-in novel, Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond, a few months ago. Suspicious Minds was set back in 1969 and looked at how Eleven was born and then subsequently stolen by the US Government, and it proved to be quite a thrilling read which explored some fascinating backstory to the television show.

As a result, I was very keen to check out what the next Stranger Things tie-in novel was like and what secrets it might reveal about the show. Darkness on the Edge of Town is set to be released on 4 June 2019, exactly one month before the release of Stranger Things’ third season, which is going to be set around Independence Day in 1985. Another Stranger Things book, which I will also try to get a copy of, Runaway Max, is also due out on 4 June, and this book will be aimed at a young adult audience.

Darkness on the Edge of Town was written by New Zealand-born author Adam Christopher, who has some experience with tie-in novels, having previously written three books that tie in to the Dishonoured video game and two books that tie in to the Elementary television show. Christopher is probably best known for his 2012 debut novel, Empire State, as well his Ray Electromatic Mysteries and Spider Wars series. I have not previously read any of Christopher’s work before, but several of his books, especially Empire State (a noir superhero thriller with parallel words, yes please!), sound like a lot of fun and I may have to check them out in the future.

Darkness on the Edge of Town’s story starts in December 1984, around two months after the end of the second season of Stranger Things. While enjoying a quiet Christmas with his adopted daughter, Eleven, Jim Hopper is suddenly brought back to his past when Eleven pulls out a cardboard box marked “New York”. Despite his reluctance, Hopper begins to tell Eleven the story of the greatest case he solved before tragedy forced him back to Hawkins.

On Independence Day in 1977, after returning from the Vietnam War, Jim Hopper is living in New York City with his wife, Diane, and his daughter, Sara. While the city deals with bankruptcy and a heatwave, Hopper, a rookie NYPD detective, finds himself investigating a series of brutal, ritualistic murders with his new partner, Rosario Delgado. The murderer has already killed three people, leaving a mysterious card at each crime scene. Before Hopper and Delgado can make any progress, their investigation is shut down by shadowy federal agents who order them off the case. Disobeying orders and putting his career on the line, Hopper continues to investigate the murders and is able to connect the deaths to the mysterious leader of the Viper gang, who is reputed to have paranormal powers. Going undercover to infiltrate the Vipers, Hopper makes some startling revelations about the scope and devastation of the gang leader’s sinister plans, and he must do everything he can to protect his city from an upcoming evil.

This was quite an interesting and engaging novel from Christopher, who not only manages to examine some interesting aspects of the Stranger Things television show but also creates his own intriguing story set during an interesting time in American history. The story is split between two separate time periods. Some of the story is set in December 1984 and follows the older Hopper as he tells the story to Eleven, while the majority of the book is set back in 1977 and follows Hopper and his partner as they investigate the brutal murders and the Vipers. Most of the book comes across as a dark murder mystery thriller that also spends significant time examining the psyche of its protagonist. I quite liked the murder mystery angles of the 1977 storyline, and it provides an interesting counterpoint to the more science fiction/horror/young protagonist focus of the television show.

The previous Stranger Things novel, Suspicious Minds, explored in detail events that featured in the show in flashbacks. Darkness on the Edge of Town, however, is a character study that may not have too much relevance to franchise’s overall story. While this might not appeal to some Stranger Things fans, it does allow Christopher a lot more freedom to explore the character of a younger Hopper. The result is a fantastic story that dives deep into the psyche of this great character and really lets the reader see what drives Hopper and what initially convinced him to become a police officer. There are some amazing parts to this examination of the character, but I personally liked the way that Christopher decided to focus on the lasting effects of Hopper’s service in Vietnam. This is explored in some detail, and the reader gets a really good idea of how emotionally vulnerable Hopper was even before his daughter became sick and his wife left him. I also thought that the author did a great job showing Hopper’s relationship with Eleven in the 1984 storylines, and their oddball father-daughter relationship comes across quite well.

In addition to the focus on the character of Hopper, this book also contains a few plot points that tie into the wider Stranger Things universe. The contents of the mysterious box Hopper had hidden in his house, which Eleven uncovered in Season 2, becomes a major part of this book’s story. In addition, there are several things that could potentially become significant in the future, and which the reader can leave to their own imagination. The first thing that comes up is a physic prediction about clouds or tendrils of darkness covering the world, mentioned a few pages in and repeated throughout the book. While events that occur later in the book do fit in with some of these predictions, the imagery of the Mind Flayer from the show comes to mind every time this vision is mentioned, and in some ways, it fits the predictions a little better. In addition, quite early in the book the antagonist is rumoured to have mental abilities as a result of government experiments. For a large part of the book, the reader is left wondering whether he actually has abilities like Eleven and, if he does, how he is connected to the institute that Eleven was being tested in. All of these, plus some other great references, will prove to be deeply appealing to fans of the television show, and I will be really intrigued to see if any of these references might appear in the third season of the show (do these authors have the inside track on the series?).

One of the most interesting parts of Darkness on the Edge of Town was its setting in 1970s New York City. The 1970s, especially 1977, were a pretty chaotic period in the city’s history, which serves as an excellent backdrop to this dark and gritty tale. Not only was the city suffering through a severe economic downturn but there was also a tremendous heatwave, especially in July of 1977, when the vast majority of the storyline is set. The Son of Sam killer was also active during this time, a fact commented on in several parts of the book, which also ties into the darker ‘70s crime nature of this book. I liked the way that Christopher was able to bring the atmosphere of this period to life in his book, as well as the way he was able to tie the story into a certain major event that occurred in New York in July 1977. This great use of setting really added a lot to the story and helped turn Darkness on the Edge of Town into quite a compelling read.

One of the reasons why Stranger Things is such a success is the show’s writers and creators have such an amazing ability to channel its viewers’ nostalgia for the 1980s into each episode. Writers of these tie-in novels also attempt to capitalise on this nostalgia by highlighting aspects of that decade’s culture in their writing. I previously felt that Gwenda Bond did an amazing job of that in Suspicious Minds, and Christopher also did his job exploring parts of that culture, specifically when it relates to New York City. As a result, there are several fun references to relevant movies, television shows, books, sports and music for fans of the 1970s to notice and reminisce about. Whether the characters are having fun thoughts about M*A*S*H or cheeky discussions about whether Princess Leia will end up with Luke or Han in Star Wars, there are some really fun inclusions throughout the book, and Christopher luckily does not go too overboard loading his story up with these references. I personally quite liked the way that the author envisioned the New York City gangs at this point, and the main one that Hopper encounters has a very Warriors vibe around it. An extended sequence later in the book kind of put me in mind of Escape from New York (although that was released in ’81). I really enjoyed the strong nostalgia included in the book, and it added a certain amount of fun to the book that fans of the show will greatly appreciate.

Darkness of the Edge of Town is a fantastic new addition to the burgeoning Stranger Things extended universe, and Adam Christopher does an amazing job of exploring one of the show’s main characters. The author’s examination of Jim Hopper is a deep and emotional dive into the character’s psyche, and it proves to be an effective and compelling centre to this book. Christopher is also able to utilise ’70s nostalgia and fan interest in the franchise quite effectively and turn this into an excellent tie-in novel to this complex and enjoyable show. The end result is an excellent character-driven story that will greatly appeal to fans of Stranger Things. This book is really worth checking out, especially before the third season of the show is released, and I look forward to seeing what other tie-in novels Christopher produces in the future.

Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray – Audiobook Review

Master & Apprentice Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (16 April 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

2019 is shaping up to be an amazing year for fans of the new Star Wars extended universe, a group of which I consider myself to be a proud member, with so many awesome Star Wars books and comics being released.  After reviewing the first Star Wars book for 2019, Queen’s Shadow, a few weeks ago, I have been really looking forward to getting to grips with the franchises second 2019 novel, Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray.

Master & Apprentice is a canon Star Wars novel set around eight years before the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  It focuses on two of the main characters from this prequel movie, Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Qui-Gon Jinn is an experienced and powerful Jedi Knight, having been trained in the Force by the legendary Count Dooku, who himself was trained by Master Yoda, and is ready to face any threat or danger that lies in front of him.  However, his greatest challenge may prove to be his own Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The two Jedi are polar opposites to each other: while Obi-Wan is by-the-book and rigid in his respect of rules and protocol, Qui-Gon routinely shows very little regard for the rules and laws that bind the Jedi and constantly finds himself at odds with the Jedi Council.  Despite years of working together, the two Jedi struggle to understand each other.  Qui-Gon sees every mistake of Obi-Wan’s as his own, while Obi-Wan is unable to understand the reasoning behind Qui-Gon’s actions, nor his obsession with the ancient Jedi prophecies that many see as dangerous and unreliable.  Their tenuous and strained relationship is further tested when Qui-Gon is unexpectantly offered a place on the Jedi Council, a move that would likely end their partnership.  With feelings of betrayal and failure hanging over both of them, they are suddenly assigned a critical mission that is likely to be their last as master and apprentice.

Fellow Jedi Rael Averross, another former apprentice of Dooku, has requested Qui-Gon’s help with a difficult political dispute on the planet of Pijal.  Averross has been serving as regent for the planet’s young queen, who is days away from ascending to the throne and signing an important treaty.  A series of attacks which has rocked the planet is apparently the work of The Opposition, a band of political performance artists turned terrorists.  Once the two Jedi arrive on the planet, they quickly find that the situation is far more complicated than initially believed.  With corruption and secrets around every corner, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan attempt to get to the bottom of everything, even utilising a pair of jewel smugglers to help with their inquiries.  However, their investigations are hampered by their opposing points of view, which only worsen when Qui-Gon places great stock in a dark vision of the future he has foreseen.  Can they overcome their differences to unravel the plot, or will they fail their mission?

Claudia Gray, also known as Amy Vincent, is a prolific and experienced author, best known for her first body of work, the Evernight series, which started in 2008.  Since then she has written a number of other series, including the Spellcaster, Firebird and Constellation series, as well as the standalone novel Fateful.  Gray also has a huge amount of experience writing Star Wars fiction, having previously written three Star Wars tie-in novels in the new extended universe, including Lost Stars, Bloodline and Leia, Princess of Alderaan.  As a result, the story of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi is in safe hands as Gray produces an outstanding, compelling and character-driven novel that delves deep into the Star Wars lore to create an amazing story.

Master & Apprentice presents a clever and exciting story that sees the protagonist attempt to uncover the mysterious events unfolding on Pijal, while also dealing with their many personal and emotional issues.  The story is told from the perspective of a range of characters in the book, and each of them adds their own thoughts and experiences to the story.  The overall story arc on Pijal becomes quite complex, with many different and intriguing sides to the conflict, and the people behind the events are not who you think.  I had an amazing time enjoying this book.

In this fantastic piece of fiction Gray goes into some intriguing parts of the Star Wars universe and lore.  This is actually the furthest back the new extended universe books go, so it offers the reader a great opportunity to see some of aspects of the pre-movie Star Wars universe.  While there are some hints at the events to come, as well as references to some major characters in the upcoming movies, the book contains a significant amount of new content and antagonists.  It is actually quite refreshing to read a Star Wars book that is not tied into the Skywalker family or featuring the Empire or the First Order as an antagonist.  I quite enjoyed the look at the pre-The Phantom Menace universe, including the new planet of Pijal, and the inclusion of the immoral Czerka Corporation, who previously appeared in the pre-Disney Star Wars universe.  While those fans of the Star Wars franchise who like to consume more than the movies will absolutely love this book, Master & Apprentice should prove to be fairly easy to read for those people who have at least seen The Phantom Menace, as it is a pretty intriguing science fiction adventure.

Those readers who are interested in a deeper dive into the Jedi of the Republic era are in for a real treat in this book, as Gray delves into aspects of their history and lifestyle.  Throughout Master & Apprentice there are a number of scenes set in the Jedi Temple, as well as a number of discussions about how and why the Jedi do what they do.  Perhaps one of the key things highlighted in this book is how the traditional Jedi master and apprentice program worked.  Several different apprenticeships are shown, and the reader gets a good idea of what is entailed in this relationship, what training the Padawans go through and how the process turns them into the eventual guardians of peace in the galaxy.

One of the most unique and fascinating aspects of Star Wars and Jedi lore that Gray examines are the fabled Jedi prophecies.  The prophecies were created long ago by an ancient group of Jedi sages, and are reputed to reveal events from the future.  The prophecies become a key part of the story, as not only do they drive a wedge between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan but they are also shown to have a major influence over Dooku when Qui-Gon was his Padawan.  The prophecies have been mentioned in the movies before, with the most famous prophecy about the coming of a chosen one who will bring balance to the Force, referring to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.  While the chosen one prophecy is referenced in Master & Apprentice, several other prophecies are mentioned, including one that comes true in this book.  I was really quite intrigued by the author’s examination of the prophecies; while they have been mentioned in the movies, I did not know too much about them.  Dedicated fans will no doubt have fun trying to tie some of these prophecies into the movies and other associated pieces of Star Wars media.  For example, there is one that clearly refers to Princess Leia that is repeated a couple of times.  I personally was very curious about one prophecy that was mentioned towards the end of the book, which was referenced as being obsessed over by Count Dooku.  It was a particularly portentous-sounding prophecy, and I wonder if it will have anything to do with recent revelations in the trailer for the next Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker.

The story contained within Master & Apprentice is a strong, character-driven affair which features a compelling central cast, each of whom gets an in-depth analysis from Gray.  Not only is there some compelling examinations of the main two characters, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, but Gray also introduces several intriguing and entertaining new characters who really add a lot to the story.

There is a great examination of the younger Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in this book, as Gray examines not only the relationship between the two characters but also aspects of their past and their personalities.  When the two characters are introduced in the first prequel film, The Phantom Menace, very little is known about them, save that Obi-Wan is nearing the end of his apprenticeship and the two of them disagree on certain matters, such as the future of Anakin Skywalker.  Master & Apprentice offers a whole new, deeper examination of these characters and explores how these two Jedi came together and appeared so close, despite some differences in their personalities and styles.  I thought that this deep dive into the relationship between these key movie characters was utterly fascinating, and it made me reconsider aspects from the movie.  The strained relationship between the two characters becomes a major factor of the book, and Gray creates an emotional storyline around it as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan work to overcome their issues while facing external threats.  This was an excellent part of the book which readers will quite enjoy.

In addition to looking at their relationship and how the two characters become close, Gray also looks at other aspects of their past.  This is particularly true for Qui-Gon, as Gray spends time highlighting Qui-Gon’s apprenticeship to Dooku and his friendship with Rael through a series of flashbacks.  These flashback scenes are quite interesting as they show several key events that were responsible for turning Qui-Gon into the character he was in the movie and go a long way to explain why he was such a hesitant master for most of Master & Apprentice.  There was also an intriguing and extended look at how and why Qui-Gon became so obsessed with the Jedi prophecies.  Qui-Gon’s research and fascination with the prophecies becomes a major part of the book, which really appealed to me, and which also explains a lot about the Qui-Gon’s actions in The Phantom Menace.  For example, it explains why Qui-Gon was so sure that he had found the Chosen One in Anakin Skywalker, and why he was determined to train him, even if it meant defying the will of the council.  These storylines also explain certain aspects of Obi-Wan’s personality that occur within the movies.  For example, the bond and respect that are formed between Obi-Wan and his master explain why he was so willing to take on Anakin as an apprentice after Qui-Gon’s death in The Phantom Menace.  It also adds another layer to Anakin’s betrayal in Revenge of the Sith, as Anakin has not only betrayed Obi-Wan and the Jedi but also Qui-Gon’s memory and his belief in Anakin as the chosen one.  This might explain why Obi-Wan, upon defeating Anakin, so passionately shouted “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE.”  There were also some cute aspects to Obi-Wan’s life that are explained, such as why he had such an aversion to flying and how he was able to ride the lizard mount in Revenge of the Sith.  I quite liked how both characters developed over the course of the book, and I felt that Gray did an amazing job bringing these characters to life and providing an excellent story about their past.

While Gray’s portrayal of the main two characters is really good, I also have to say how much I loved some of the side characters that the author introduced in this book.  My favourite has to be Rael Averross, the unconventional Jedi who has a connection to Qui-Gon’s past.  Rael Averross is pretty much the opposite of all the Jedi readers would mostly be familiar with.  He’s a hard drinking, womanising (which he claims is technically not against the rules of being a Jedi), death stick using scoundrel, who hates nearly every aspect of being a Jedi Knight.  He was an extremely entertaining character whose actions and scruffy appearance are part of a persona the character has created to disguise the guilt, fear and resentment from his past.  I also liked how he was the only character able to identify and point out what the actual result of someone fulfilling the prophecy and finding the chosen one, something that every other Jedi apparently missed.  Rael was such an interesting counterpoint to the other Jedi characters in Master & Apprentice, and his influence on a young Qui-Gon was quite intriguing.  It will be interesting to see if Rael shows up again (I believed he is used in a recent Star Wars audiobook, Dooku: Jedi Lost) as he has the potential to be a key character in the new Disney expanded universe.

Other characters utilised within this book are the two jewel smugglers co-opted by the Jedi to be their guides on Pijal, Pax and Rahara.  While both these characters are a lot of fun, the standout one has to be Pax.  Pax is a gaudy and socially inept character whose inability to interact with other people is due to the fact he was raised by a ship full of protocol droids.  Pax is full of sass, sarcasm and insults, and is easily the most entertaining character in this entire book.  Rahara is also a great character.  A former slave of the Czerka Corporation, Rahara is the more normal of the two characters.  However, her former enslavement still haunts her and drives much of her more noble actions in this book.  Individually, both these characters are pretty cool, but together they form a great team who play off each other well.  Their emotional attachment to each other is another great part of the book and seeing the lengths that the usually pragmatic Pax will go to for Rahara is very heart-warming.

There were also a few flashback scenes featuring Qui-Gon’s mentor and future Star Wars antagonist Count Dooku.  All of these scenes were shown from the point of view of Qui-Gon as Dooku’s apprentice, and they paint a picture of a rigid and severe Jedi who was already showing signs of being tempted to the Dark Side of the Force.  This was a very intriguing portrayal, although I believe that the audiobook Dooku: Jedi Lost, which was released around the same time as Master & Apprentice, contains a lot more of Dooku’s backstory and motivations, and I am definitely going to check this other audiobook out at some point.

As usual, I was deeply, deeply impressed with the audiobook version of this Star Wars book.  The company behind these audiobooks really go the extra mile to make them special, and these tie-in novels are quickly becoming my favourite series to listen to rather than read.  The Master & Apprentice audiobook runs for 11 hours and 42 minutes, and I found that I was able to get through this book quite quickly.  I always find I absorb a lot more of the story with the audiobook format, and with this book I was really able to enjoy the character strife, as well as the new world building that Gray included.  Props need to be given to the amazing sound effects that seem to permeate nearly every single scene in this book.  Firstly, I absolutely love how the incredible and iconic music from the Star Wars movies is used during some of the book’s major scenes.  The music, especially some of the big orchestral moments that defined key parts of the original Star Wars movies, is quite incredible and it does an amazing job of forcefully dragging the reader into the story.  The additional sound effects used throughout the book easily replicate the actions going on around the characters, often using established and recognisable sound from the movies.  I also loved how some of the sound effects could be so effective at creating an appropriate background for the scene by adding in engine noises or the susurration of a loud crowd.

The audiobook format of Master & Apprentice is narrated by Jonathan Davis, who has previously provided his voice to several other Star Wars audiobooks.  I was deeply impressed with Davis’ incredible voice acting range in this book, as the voices he comes up with for the characters are outstanding.  For example, he produces incredible voices for the book’s two main characters, Qui-Gon and Ob-Wan as he damn near succeeds in replicating the two actors voices from The Phantom Menace.  On top of that, his Yoda voice is spot-on, and sounded just like Frank Oz in the movies.  I also liked the voices that the narrator came up with for some of his new characters.  His voice for Rael, for example, does an amazing job capturing the character’s personality, including his more carefree attitude, and the simmering anger that exists for most of his interactions with Qui-Gon.  I also quite like the voice and tone he uses for Pax, and the character’s inbuilt arrogance and emotional shallowness really shine through.

Master & Apprentice is so far my favourite Star Wars book of 2019, and I absolutely fell in love with its excellent story and powerful character work.  Gray takes her readers deep into the Star Wars lore, allowing fans of the franchise to further examine two of the best characters from The Phantom Menace movie.  The combination of Jonathan Davis’ exceptional narration and the production company’s perfect use of classic Star Wars music and sound effects resulted in an absolutely fantastic audiobook that comes highly recommended.  This is one hell of a book, and I cannot wait to see how the rest of the year’s Star Wars books turn out.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

Dawnbreaker Cover.jpg

Publisher: Penguin Books (Trade Paperback – 5 March 2019)

Series: DC Icons – Book 4

Length: 290 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bestselling young adult fiction author Matt de la Peña attempts to put his own spin on the classic origins of one of DC Comics’ most iconic superheroes, Superman, in the fourth and final instalment of the DC Icons book series.

The DC Icons series is made up of four young adult books that present new and modernised origin stories for four of DC Comics’ most iconic and recognisable characters.  Written by some of the world’s best young adult fiction authors, this series has so far looked at Wonder Woman, Batman and Catwoman, and this final book, Dawnbreaker, takes a look at Superman.  Each of the stories in the DC Icons series stands alone and does not connect to either the main DC comic universe or the other DC Icons books.  I have so far only had the opportunity to read one of the previous books in the DC Icons series, Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas, which presented an imaginative and captivating new version of Catwoman’s origin story.  I really liked Soulstealer when I read it late last year, and I have been looking forward to Superman: Dawnbreaker for a while.

In Dawnbreaker, the reader is taken to the sleepy Kanas town of Smallville, home to awkward high school student Clark Kent.  Clark has always been different to the other young people around him, as he is gifted with abilities that make him stronger, faster and resistant to injury.  Afraid of these powers and the potential reactions of the people around him if they found out, Clark tries to live a more ordinary life, hiding his abilities and only confiding in his parents.  However, Clark is finding it harder and harder to disguise what he can really do, especially when he has the power to help those around him.

However, Clark is not the only person with secrets in Smallville.  When Clark finds fellow student Gloria Alvarez crying one day after school, he begins to see that there is something dark at the heart of the town he loves.  People are disappearing; men are skulking around the Kent farm attempting to enter a barn that his father always keeps locked, a large corporation is buying up land around town, and several wealthy young people, including the mysterious Lex Luthor, are suddenly taking an interest in both Smallville and Clark.

Teaming up with his best friend, Lana Lang, Clark attempts to uncover what is really happening in his town.  But the further down the rabbit hole they go, the more Clark begins to realise that only his abilities will be able to stop the terrible events occurring around them.  Can Clark become the hero that his town and the world needs?

De la Peña is an award winning young adult author who has written a number of intriguing and thought-provoking books which often look at young people from disadvantaged or ethnic backgrounds.  De la Peña debuted in 2005 with Ball Don’t Lie, which was later developed into a motion picture of the same name.  Some of his other notable works include We Were Here, I Will Save You and the highly acclaimed children’s book, Last Stop on Market Street.  His most famous book is probably his second novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, which was actually banned in Tucson for five years due to its “critical race theory”.  Dawnbreaker is de la Peña’s first foray into comic book fiction.  While he has previously written some science fiction books, such as The Living and his instalment of the Infinity Ring series, Curse of the Ancients, I was interested to see how he went writing in this new genre.

I personally think that de la Peña did a great job with this book, as he was able to craft together a compelling and exciting novel that contains an excellent combination of mystery, superhero origin story and teen drama.  The mystery and young adult storylines are particularly good, and I quite enjoyed seeing where those parts of the story went.  However, I did have some minor issues with the Superman origin story part of the book, namely because I had seen this origin story so many times before.  I honestly found parts of Dawnbreaker to be very similar to some of the previous versions of Superman that I have seen in both comics or screen adaptions like the Smallville television show (which I may mention again a few times, as I was a massive fan of the show).  Of course, readers who have not already been exposed to so many iterations of Superman’s origin story will not have the same problem.

I fully recognise that this was always going to be a problem for any author attempting to write this sort of book.  For the last 81 years, Superman has been one of the most, if not the most, iconic and recognisable comic book superheros in the world.  As a result of the commercial appeal of the character, there have been so many different versions of Superman over the years, nearly all of which at some point have shown him as a younger Clark Kent living in Smallville.  Because of all of these comics, novels, movies, television shows, games and animated features, the character’s origin story has really been done to death.

Still, de la Peña does do a great job portraying the character of Clark Kent and presenting a more modern version of the hero.  In particular, he did an outstanding job of capturing the character’s identity issues.  An important part of Clark Kent/Superman’s character has always been his fear of hurting anyone with his power or exposing his family to danger.  De la Peña’s take on this character aspect is fantastic, as his version of Clark is extremely vary of using his powers anymore after he previously lost control and hurt someone.  As a result, he finds himself somewhat socially isolated in this book, as he attempts to distance himself from others to make sure they do not realise that he is different and subsequently reject or fear him.  However, events keep conspiring against him, as he keeps finding himself drawn into situations where his powers could help or save people and he has to decide what to do.  I felt that de la Peña covered this part extremely well, and the emotional and ethical internal debates that occur within the protagonist during these events were spot on and some of the best writing in the entire book.  The eventual creation of the Superman identity later in the book is a great result of some of these events, and it is shown to be a natural progression for the character.

Another issue I had with this book was how compacted the origin story felt.  While some origin stories would build up to Clark becoming Superman and an alien saviour over an extended period (although perhaps Smallville’s 10 seasons were a bit over the top), Dawnbreaker covers all of this rather quickly.  At the start of the book, Clark is a teenager with powers (mostly strength and invulnerability at that point), but he has no idea where they come from or what their full extent is.  Within a few days, he finds out that his an alien, he learns all his additional abilities (x-ray vision, heat vision, artic breath and the ability to fly) and he takes on the Superman identity for the first time.  While I certainly understand de la Peña’s desire to portray all these iconic Superman elements in this book, it did make Dawnbreaker’s story feel a bit rushed.

There is some great utilisation of characters within this book.  As I mentioned above, the examinations of Clark’s inner self are done perfectly and really cover important aspects of the character.  I also felt that de la Peña made good use of several classic Superman comic characters, specifically Lana Lang and Ma and Pa Kent, and there were a few clever references to other major characters associated with Superman.  I was a tad disappointed in the portrayal of perennial Superman villain, Lex Luthor.  While he is a key character with his own agenda, there are no real signs of the super scientist and utterly ruthless businessman he is in the comics, nor was there the close friendship that devolved into antagonism that features in some comics, as well as the excellent version that appeared in Smallville.  Still the new, original characters that appear in this book are really well done and offer some unique new inspirations for Superman that I quite enjoyed.

I also quite liked the way that de la Peña attempted to introduce relevant and divisive political and social issues into Dawnbreaker, such as racism and immigration.  This can be mainly seen in treatment of Mexican immigrants (both legal and illegal) in Smallville.  Not only have several of these immigrants gone missing without the police caring, but also people in the town are harassing some of the remaining immigrants, and there are attempts to pass a targeted stop-and-search law.  I thought this was an intriguing and thought provoking inclusion for this book, and it was interesting to see such issues discussed in a comic book tie-in novel.  A Superman book is a great place for this sort of storyline to be explored, as the character is probably the most famous illegal alien in fiction, and Clark’s empathy for these immigrants once he finds out the truth of his past is an interesting inclusion.

Like the other books in the DC Icons series, Dawnbreaker is targeted at a young adult audience.  This is quite a good book for younger audiences, as not only does it present an exciting and fun adventure at an American high school, but it would also serve as an excellent introduction of this iconic character’s origins for this younger cohort.  Younger readers will no doubt appreciate the author’s more modern take on this beloved superhero and be intrigued by how his story starts.  There is also quite a lot for older readers in this book, especially fans of comic books and Superman, and an adult audience can easily enjoy Dawnbreaker.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña is a compelling and exciting story that attempts to present an updated origin of one of comic’s most iconic superheros.  Featuring some new takes on the character of Clark Kent, as well as bringing some more contemporary issues to bear in the story, this is an fantastic and enjoyable book and one a wide range of readers can appreciate.  Dawnbreaker is an excellent conclusion to the DC Icons series, and I still fully intend to check out the first two instalments in this series in the near future.