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.

Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.

Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.

Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.

As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.

Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.

Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.

Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.

Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.

In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.

Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.

The New Achilles by Christian Cameron

The New Achilles Cover

Publisher: Orion (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: The Commander series – Book 1

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Christian Cameron once again returns to his favourite setting of ancient Greece with his latest novel, The New Achilles.

Greece, 223 BCE. War has come to Greece, as the various Mediterranean powers, including Egypt, Rome and Macedon, engage in a proxy battle on Greek soil. In a sacred sanctuary near the city of Epidauros, Alexanor, a former marine from Rhodes, has spent several years training to become a healer, seeking to escape his violent past. However, war will find Alexanor once again when the Spartans invade the nearby city of Megalopolis, forcing the surviving defenders to bring their wounded to Alexanor’s sanctuary.

Among the wounded is the leader of the men who attempted to fight against the Spartans at Megalopolis, a young man called Philopoemen. After saving his life, Alexanor finds his future tied into that of Philopoemen, who is destined to become one of ancient Greece’s greatest military leaders. Allied with the armies of Macedon against the Spartans and their Egyptian paymasters, Philopoemen proves to be a capable military commander. More importantly, his bravery and skill in battle earn the respect of his fellow Greeks, many of whom consider him to be Achilles reborn.

When prevailing political and military currents require Philopoemen to help with a civil war on Crete, Alexanor travels with him. There they will attempt to take on the powerful city-state of Knossos with an eclectic mix of troops and minimal support from Macedon and the Achaean League. Can Philopoemen and Alexanor succeed, or will the new Achilles fall short of his destiny?

Christian Cameron is a skilled author who has written a number of books throughout his career. While the author is probably best known for his historical fiction work, he has also branched off into fantasy under his pseudonym of Miles Cameron, including his Masters & Mages series, the first book of which, Cold Iron, I previously reviewed here. His latest book, The New Achilles, is the first book in his The Commander series, which will follow the life of the historical figure Philopoemen. This is the third of Cameron’s series which focuses on ancient Greece, with his Tyrant and Long War series both focusing on different periods of ancient Greek history. I have always found that Cameron has a very thorough writing style, and he tends to throw himself into the historical details of his books. This is continued with The New Achilles, as the reader is presented with a very complex tale that may prove a little harder to connect with. However, this book is well worth sticking with, as the author has created an outstanding historical tale that focuses on quite a remarkable character from history.

While The New Achilles does contain some other story elements, at its core it is an intriguing story about the life of Philopoemen. Philopoemen was a skilled general and political leader who was responsible for turning the Achaean League into a viable military power in Greece. He is sometimes known as “the last of the Greeks” (I believe that the next book in this series will be called The Last Greek) due to being one of the last great Greek generals before the Roman era. I have to admit that this was a historical character I had no real experience with, so I was extremely curious to see the author’s vision of his life and deeds. Cameron tackled the story with his usual highly detailed writing style, presenting a comprehensive novelisation of several key events of Philopoemen’s life, his earliest successes and his campaign on Crete. However, there is apparently a large amount of this man’s story left to tell, as he accomplished a great many deeds during his long life. I felt that the author did a fantastic job of capturing the personality of this larger-than-life figure, and I really enjoyed the well-paced story that showed his early rise to prominence.

The story is told from the perspective of the fictional character Alexanor, who, after healing Philopoemen, continues to encounter him and eventually becomes his friend and confidant, accompanying him on several adventures. I liked the use of an outside narrator to tell Philopoemen’s story, and Alexanor is an excellent character in his own right, as he constantly has to balance his duties as a medically trained priest with his desire to help Philopoemen win his battles and his wars. There are issues from his past that he has to deal with, including trauma from a previous war, a lost love and family strife, all of which make for an intriguing character. Another benefit of having a priest as a narrator is that it allows the author to spend time exploring ancient Greek medicine. This was a particularly fascinating element of the book’s story and it was extremely intriguing to see how ancient medicine compares to more modern techniques, and the differences and similarities in knowledge are quite interesting. It also results in some compelling ethical deliberations from the narrator about the dissection of human corpses, which, while strictly forbidden, could result in greater medical knowledge. Overall, I quite enjoyed the author’s use of Alexanor as a narrator, and his focus on his life was an intriguing and enjoyable addition to the story.

This book is set during quite a chaotic period of Mediterranean history, with a huge number of different ancient empires and city-states engaging in various wars and conflicts, many of which have an impact on The New Achilles’s story. Cameron makes sure to examine the various political implications of many of the conflicts occurring around the same time as the events Philopoemen was involved with, and it is quite fascinating to see what effect something like the war between Carthage and Rome could have on the inhabitants of Greece. In addition to the consequences of these distant wars or events, Cameron also looks at the political and national makeup of the various forces arrayed in the conflicts that Philopoemen and Alexanor are involved with. These could get quite complex at times, with a range of alliances, competing city-states and mercenary forces involved or attempting to intervene in a conflict. An example of how complex things could get could be seen in the protagonists extended conflict on Crete, where Philopoemen led a force of Achaean League troops to support one Cretan city state against the on the behest of Macedon. The opposing Cretan city-state was supported by the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, whose Spartan allies joined in and led the fight against Philopoemen. Various other mercenary groups of different nationalities such as the Thracians and the Illyrians were also employed in this conflict and had various roles in the battles and politics. While the sheer number of different historical groups can get a bit overwhelming at times, Cameron does a great job explaining their history and their allegiances, and it is quite fascinating to see the roles they played in various conflicts.

Like many of Cameron’s previous books, the author’s dedication to historical detail and accuracy in The New Achilles is extremely impressive. Each page is full of intriguing elements from history, and it is easy for the reader to find themselves transported to this classical historical landscape. The author not only looks at the military and political aspects of this historical setting; he also examines day-to-day life for the various Greek civilisations. Cameron also makes use of a whole glossary of historical Greek terms and names throughout The New Achilles, all of which gave his story a greater sense of authenticity.

The New Achilles features a huge number of battle scenes and sequences, as the author captures a number of the historical fights Philopoemen was involved with. These battle sequences were extremely exciting, as the author presents some gritty and blood battle scenes. These were quite spectacular, and I loved the realism contained within the story as even the victors find themselves covered in all manner of wounds, and rarely is there a battle where the main characters come out unscathed. This is particularly true for Philopoemen, who tends to suffer injuries in nearly every battle he gets involved with, due to throwing himself into the heart of the fight. I thought this was a clever inclusion from the author, as not only does this reflect some historical accounts of the relevant battles but it is incredibly refreshing to see a hero that does not emerge from a battle unscathed. I quite enjoyed the examination of Greek battle tactics and weaponry, and the battle sequences in this book are fairly spectacular and well worth checking out.

Christian Cameron’s latest book, The New Achilles is a detailed and compelling examination of a truly remarkable, if overlooked, historical figure. The story of Philopoemen’s life proves to be an amazing focus for the plot, and Cameron brings a number of intriguing aspects of the ancient Greek period to life with his trademark detail orientated writing style. This was an incredibly interesting and captivating read, and I am looking forward to seeing how Philopoemen’s life progresses from here in future instalments of The Commander series.

We are Blood and Thunder by Kesia Lupo

We are Blood and Thunder Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury YA (Trade Paperback – 4 April 2019)

Series: Standalone / Book 1

Length: 400 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From first-time author Kesia Lupo comes We are Blood and Thunder, a clever, inventive and at times dark young adult fantasy novel that represents a brilliant start to a bold new fantasy world.

In the nation of Valorian, a powerful magical curse has been laid upon the city of Duke’s Forest. The curse has wrapped the entire city in a mystical storm cloud filled with death, sickness and despair. Following a series of virulent pestilences brought on by the storm cloud, the city has been placed in quarantine, although passage in or out of the cloud is already extremely difficult. Now, six years after the curse first struck Duke’s Forest, the fate of the city and all who live within will lie upon the shoulders of two young women.

Lena is a cryptling, one of the deformed or marked offspring of Duke’s Forest’s inhabitants who live in the sprawling crypts underneath the city and watch over the Ancestors, the interred dead of the city, who are worshiped as gods. Lena, whose birthmark saw her abandoned as a baby, led a quiet life below the city until strange things started happening all around her. Accused of being a mage by the magic-hating Lord Justice, Lena just barely escapes execution when she encounters Constance in the mists outside the city. Constance is the daughter of Duke’s Forest’s ruler, the Duke, and has returned to the city to reclaim what is hers. Trained as a mage, Constance recognises the magic within Lena and sends her outside the mist while she continues back to Duke’s Forest. However, this fateful meeting will have huge consequences on the lives of both women.

Once outside the mists, Lena encounters the huntsman Emris, a magic user trained to locate untrained mages like Lena, known as Rogues, who has been pursuing Constance for magical crimes she has been accused of. Emris brings Lena back to the City of Kings, the capital of Valorian, where she attempts to learn how to control her magic. However, her unusual magical abilities and status as a Rogue bring her to the attention of some of the city’s worst inhabitants. Back in Duke’s Forest, Constance finds that her city and her father have fallen under the control of the tyrannical Lord Justice. Keeping her status as a mage hidden, Constance attempts to regain control of Duke’s Forest while also searching for the source of the curse surrounding the city. As both Lena and Constance attempt to survive in their respective cities, fate keeps bringing their destinies together. The future of Duke’s Forest rests in the hands of these young women. Can they save the city, or will they be the storm that destroys it?

We are Blood and Thunder is a clever and extremely captivating young adult fantasy novel that I read a little while ago but only just got a chance to review. I wish I had gotten a review of this book up a little earlier as it is a fantastic first book and I have been quite keen to sing the author’s praises for a while. We are Blood and Thunder is the debut novel of exciting new talent Kesia Lupo and presents a powerful story filled with magic, betrayal, personal growth and the hunt for power. At the moment, We are Blood and Thunder is a standalone novel, but the author has indicated on Goodreads that she may set future books within the same universe.

The story of We are Blood and Thunder is told from the perspectives of Lupo’s two main characters, Lena and Constance. Each character narrates about half the book and tells their separate narratives through alternating chapters. This allows Lupo to tell two separate stories that are not only very different in content but which help show a far wider area of the new fantasy world that Lupo has created. I found both of the storylines contained within this book to be extremely fascinating. The first storyline, which is narrated by Lena, follows the character as she journeys to the City of Kings to learn more about magic. While there, she learns more about her mysterious powers and finds herself embroiled in the conflict between the Temples that control magic and an influential mage outside the control of the Temples who has the ear of the King. The second storyline, which is narrated by Constance, is a darker story of political intrigue, murder and dark magic within the walls of Duke’s Forest, as Constance attempts to find the heart of the storm cloud before it is too late, while also attempting to neutralise the tyrannical Lord Justice.

While the magical learning, emotional growth and world building featured within Lena’s storyline are really good, I did prefer the Constance storyline a little more. All the dark political manoeuvring within the unique setting of the cursed Duke’s Forest and the battle between Constance and the Lord Justice were pretty darn compelling, and I had a very hard time putting down the book while I was reading the Constance chapters. While both of these storylines are really good, I was quite impressed by the way that Lupo was able to combine the two separate stories together into one amazing overarching narrative. I felt that the two storylines really complemented each other and helped make each respective storyline better. For example, the explanations of this fantasy universe’s magic in Lena’s chapters help the reader understand some of the magical elements occurring in Constance’s chapters. At the same time, many of the preparations and relationships Constance forged for her desperate return to Duke’s Forest impact Lena as she uncovers dark secrets within the City of Kings. There are also a number of excellent plot twists cleverly hidden throughout the book that are slowly revealed in both storylines. I thought some of these twists, especially a big reveal towards the end of the book, were just amazing and helped turn this into an epic and electrifying story. I felt that the author’s use of the two separate storylines was an incredible way to tell the story, and the overall narrative was quite outstanding.

In addition to her excellent twin storylines, Lupo also came up with two awesome fantasy cities: the City of Kings and Duke’s Forest. The City of Kings is your classic fantasy capital with massive temples and palaces, where everything appears to be perfect and harmonious on the surface. However, there are some dark secrets at the heart of this city, and the magical politics prove to be a major threat to one of the book’s main characters. While this is a great setting, I have to say that the city of Duke’s Forest is the far more impressive setting. Even before the city was cursed, Duke’s Forest would have been an amazing fantasy setting, with its massive crypts staffed by abandoned children and its rabid intolerance of magic. However, by turning it into a city on the brink of death, surrounded by dangerous magical mists and clouds, Duke’s Forest transformed into a much more intriguing and memorable fantasy setting. Lupo does an amazing job bringing this inventive location to life, and I was impressed by the sense of despair and hopelessness that seemed to hang in the air in each chapter set in this city. These two city settings were great, and I felt that they both enhanced the book’s narratives. Duke’s Forest in particular added a sense of urgency to Constance’s hunt for the heart of the storm cloud. I am very curious to see what other locations Lupo will create for the nation of Valorian in the future, and I look forward to exploring more of this clever fantasy world.

I also quite enjoyed the interesting magical elements that the author utilised in We are Blood and Thunder. Lupo has invented some great magical lore in this book, and I had a lot of fun exploring the various aspects of it. Not only is there a city-wide magical curse but there is also a whole new system of magic for the reader to enjoy. I quite liked the intriguing magical systems that Lupo came up with, and there are a number of great elements to them. These include the vision-filled practice of mages binding their magic to a god in order to control their power, which then influences their magical power and abilities, as well as mages who don’t bind their powers and then subsequently lose control and become a Radical, a destructive being controlled by the underlying darkness in magic. These magical elements are mostly explored by Lena. As a member of an ostracised minority who lived beneath a quarantined city where all knowledge of magic was punished, Lena is a perfect character to explore Lupo’s magical elements. Lena has the same lack of knowledge of this world’s mage as the reader, so the readers get a baseline explanation of magic that also makes sense to the plot. I quite enjoyed the various magical elements that the author came up with in this book, and I am sure that she will further expand upon them in later books in this universe.

We are Blood and Thunder is an outstanding debut from Kesia Lupo which combines some amazing and complex character-based storylines with inventive fantasy settings and cool magical fantasy elements to create an awesome overall book. Lupo has some considerable skill when it comes to a compelling young adult fantasy book, and We are Blood and Thunder is an excellent first outing for this talented author. I look forward to reading more of Lupo’s work in the future, especially if she returns to the excellent world she created in We are Blood and Thunder.

Emperor of Rome by Robert Fabbri

Emperor of Rome Cover

Publisher: Corvus (February 2019)

Series: Vespasian – Book 9

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After eight years of being one of my favourite yearly highlights of the Roman historical fiction scene, Robert Fabbri brings his bestselling Vespasian series to an end with the ninth and final book, Emperor of Rome.

Rome, 68 AD. Vespasian started his life as the second son of a rich but rural Roman family from the Sabine Hills. Looked down upon by the older Roman families for his family’s humble origins, Vespasian was never expected to obtain any major power in Rome. But after nearly 40 years of political intrigue, unusual adventures and a distinguished military career, Vespasian may actually be in a position to claim the ultimate prize: becoming Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Ever since he first arrived at the city of Rome at the young age of 16, Vespasian has lived under several unhinged or easily manipulated emperors of the Julio-Claudian line, each of whom was worse than the last. The latest of these emperors, the ruthless and insane Nero, has ordered Vespasian to put down a major rebellion in the Roman province of Judaea. However, this appointment is the ultimate no-win situation. If he fails in his task, his family’s prestige and political future are over. But if he succeeds in bringing the rebellion to an end with a successful military campaign, he will incur Nero’s lethal jealousy for obtaining glory that could make him more popular than the Emperor. As Vespasian debates what course of action to take, news from Rome will change everything.

The rebellion of several legions and their noble commanders has forced Nero to commit suicide, and his death results in a massive power vacuum. Vespasian, being in charge of two legions and having allies governing key provinces, is now a major contender for the throne, especially with his brother Sabinus lobbying for him back in Rome. Moreover, for years Vespasian has been gifted with signs and portents of his eventual rise to power, and he wants to claim his destiny. However, Vespasian is not the only person with dreams of imperial power, and several others are marching on Rome. The Year of the Four Emperors has begun, and only one man will be left standing.

Robert Fabbri’s Vespasian series are fun and at times over-the-top novelisations of the life of one of Rome’s most important emperors. The main series is made up of nine books, but there is also a related standalone novel, Arminius: The Limits of Empire, as well as the ebook-only Crossroads series. I have been a huge fan of the series for some time and have read and reviewed several of the books in the series, as well as the Arminius novel, although only my review for the previous Vespasian novel, Rome’s Sacred Flame, is currently featured on my blog. This series really has been a favourite of mine for some time, and I have been looking forward to Emperor of Rome for a few months. Unfortunately, this book does mark the end of the series, as Fabbri brings his epic story to a close and finally brings his chosen Emperor to the throne.

Emperor of Rome is a fantastic new addition to this awesome series. It tackles the chaotic period following the death of Nero, known as the Year of the Four Emperors. I felt that Fabbri did a fantastic job finally showing the ascension of Vespasian to the throne and covering a number of other interesting historical events, many of which would have widespread implications in the future. The overall story is a great blend of action and politics, and it also ends the story of several important characters from the series, as well as the rise of some of the next generation of Roman politicians and rulers.

Emperor of Rome is primarily told from the point of view of its protagonist, Vespasian, as he campaigns in the east of the Roman Empire. This allows for Fabbri to tell a different story to some of the other historical fiction novels that feature the Year of the Four Emperors. Rather than get bogged down in the politics happening in Rome, the focus is instead completely on Vespasian and his companions as they observe the chaotic events occurring in Rome from afar while trying to decide the best time for Vespasian to make his move. I thought that this was a rather clever way to look at the story as it let Fabbri examine the potential political, military and personal implications of each of Vespasian’s actions during this period, especially as early moves on Vespasian’s part might have seen him be overthrown by some other potential candidate for the throne. Emperor of Rome also showcases the early reign of Vespasian to a degree, and it was great to finally see the character gain the throne after nine books.

In addition to the examination of Vespasian’s bid to become emperor, Fabbri also focussed on Vespasian’s campaign in Judea, which is a significant event in Middle Eastern history. For much of the book, the province of Judea (modern Israel/Palestine) and its Jewish population are in revolt against the Romans. Vespasian, and later his son Titus, lead a particularly vicious campaign against the population, killing or enslaving thousands. Fabbri spends quite a lot of time describing the events of this conflict, sometimes known as the First Jewish-Roman War, and mostly relies on the accounts of the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote several works on the subject and actually appears as a character in Emperor of Rome, as a basis for this story. Fabbri does an amazing job providing an account of this conflict. A number of key events of this war are covered in this book, including several ridiculous events that apparently actually occurred around the siege of Jotapata. I was greatly intrigued by the author’s novelisation of this conflict, as I had not read too much about it before in other works of historical fiction. The author brings a gritty realism to the conflict and does not hold back on the probable violence, cruelties and dehumanisation of the Jewish people that would have occurred during this war. This was a captivating but essential part of Vespasian’s story, and one that was necessary to explore in order to fully understand the actions required to become Emperor.

Several of the previous books in the Vespasian series have had an enjoyable supernatural edge to them, as the protagonist encountered ancient gods, prophets and sorcerers, as well as some biblical figures from early Christianity. This is continued in Emperor of Rome, mainly in the form of omens and prophecies that Vespasian has received in the previous books that show he is destined to be a great ruler, such as his viewing of a phoenix while on a mission in Africa. In this book, many of these signs come together, encouraging Vespasian to finally make his bid for Emperor. The look at the influence of such omens and prophecies added an intriguing element to the overall story. I also liked how some of the prophecies and predictions of the some of the characters were relevant to larger historical events in the future, such as the spread of Christianity or the current conflict in modern Israel/Palestine. These supernatural elements have always been one of the things that helped distinguish the Vespasian books from other Roman historical fiction series out there, and it was great to see so many of the events from the previous books finally come together here in the final chapter of the book.

Emperor of Rome is an amazing conclusion to this outstanding and entertaining historical fiction series. Fabbri has always had the fantastic ability to turn historical fact into wild and captivating tale filled with action, intrigue and historical excesses, and in this final book he once again takes several intriguing historical events and uses them to craft another excellent story. I will miss reading the Vespasian series each year, but at the same time I am also very excited, as Fabbri’s next series, The Alexander Legacies, is set to be released next year, and it sounds like it will look at some other exciting times in ancient history.

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

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

Series: Star Wars Extended Universe

Length: 8 hours 22 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BEWARE SPOILERS BELOW:

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

END OF SPOILERS

 

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

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

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

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

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Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.