Star Wars: The High Republic: Path of Deceit by Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland

Star Wars - Path of Deceit Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 4 October 2022)

Series: Star Wars: The High Republic – Phase Two

Length: 8 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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The second phase of The High Republic begins with an absolute banger as the team of Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland introduce Star Wars fans to a bold new young adult novel that ends up being epic in all the right ways with Path of Deceit.

For the last two years, Star Wars extended fiction has been firmly focused on the compelling multimedia project, The High Republic.  Set centuries before the prequel films, The High Republic takes readers to a whole new period of Star Wars history, where the Republic and the Jedi were at the absolute height of their power and influence.  However, not everything is perfect, and the Jedi characters are soon forced into conflict with dangerous forces bent on destroying them.  The first phase of The High Republic introduced readers to this new time period extremely well, while also setting up several fascinating characters, as well as the villainous Nihil, a group of space marauders who seek to destroy the order that the Republic represents.  I quickly fell in love with this cool new Star Wars subseries, and I enjoyed the massive range of different media present in this first phase, including comics, manga, children’s books, audio productions and a ton of novels.  The main story of this series is expertly told across the three main adult books, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, and The Fallen Star, while other compelling, and often vital, stories take place in young adult books like Into the Dark, Out of the Shadows and Midnight Horizon, the associated comic series, as well as the audio production Tempest Runner.  This entire first phase came together extremely well, and I was really impressed with the range of stories they told, as well as the excellent new characters and elaborate new universe expansions that occurred.

After completing the first phase earlier this year, the various writers associated with The High Republic project, have just embarked on their ambitious second phase of High Republic fiction.  The second phase goes back even further into Star Wars history by being set 150 years before the events of the previous High Republic books.  The idea is that the second phase will act as a prequel to the first, showing how the Nihil were formed and the reasons behind their leader’s hatred for the Jedi.  These details will no doubt become extremely important for the third phase, while also helping the reader understand why the events of the first phase unfolded.  The first book in this second phase is Path of Deceit, written by the team of Star Wars fiction newcomer Tessa Gratton and established Star Wars writer Justina Ireland, who made a name for herself in the first phase with her young adult and middle school books.  Both authors really throw their heart into Path of Deceit, and the result in a fantastic and captivating read that presents Star Wars fans with something very epic indeed.

It is a time of exploration and discovery in the galaxy as the Republic enters an age of expansion.  Under the guidance of the Jedi, teams have been sent into the furthest corners of the Outer Rim, seeking out new planets, civilisations, and people to add to the delicate tapestry of life, diplomacy and trade that forms the basis for the Republic.  However, not all the discoveries being made are good, and many dangers lurk out in the far reaches of space.

Of these dangers, the most benign appear to be a small Force cult on the remote planet of Dalna.  Known as the Path of the Open Hand, this group believe that the Force should be free, and that no one should have the power to use and abuse it, including the Jedi.  Led by the charismatic Mother, the Path of the Open Hand is small, but features a fervent congregation of believers, including a hopeful young woman, Marda Ro.

Marda Ro always dreams of leaving Dalna to preach the message of the Path throughout the galaxy.  However, protected by her free-spirited cousin Yana Ro and held back by the Mother, Marda appears destined to remain always on Dalna.  That is until two Jedi, Jedi Knight Zallah Macri and her Padawan Kevmo Zink, arrive on Dalna, investigating the theft of several Force artifacts from surrounding systems.  Believing that the thefts are related to the Path, the two Jedi begin to investigate the group, and Marda and the young Kevmo soon form a tight bond as their connection grows.  However, not everything is as it seems on Dalna, and soon the Mother reveals a dark secret that will reverberate throughout the galaxy for centuries to come.

I have to admit that even before I started reading Path of Deceit, I kind of had some doubts about whether I was going to really enjoy it.  Not only was I surprised that this second phase of the High Republic was starting out with a young adult book, rather than the upcoming adult novel, Convergence, but I was also apprehensive about the reverse time skip between phases.  Setting this second phase 150 years before the events of the first phase was a bold choice, especially considering that The High Republic is a prequel series in itself.  However, if Path of Deceit is any indication of what is to come, then the entire second phase of The High Republic is going to be pretty damn impressive and fit into the wider High Republic extremely well.  The team of Gratton and Ireland did a remarkable job here, producing a slick, slow-burn Star Wars story that introduces many key elements of this new timeline while also giving some fantastic hints of what is to come.  I had an absolute blast getting through this book, and it is has definitely gotten me excited for the next round of High Republic fiction.

I was deeply, deeply impressed with the captivating story that the authors came up with for Path of Deceit.  Due to its position in this new High Republic phase, Gratton and Ireland had to achieve quite a lot during the narrative, not only introducing key characters and settings, but also tying them into the wider High Republic history.  However, I think they achieved this goal extremely well, and the subsequent story is very intriguing and intense.  I do need to warn people that the Path of Deceit does start of fairly slow and takes a long while for all its excellent storylines to pay off.

The book is primarily set on the planet of Dalna and follows three young central characters as they find themselves caught up in the actions of the mysterious Path of the Open Hand.  These central characters include Marda Ro, a devout member of the Path, her cousin Yana Ro, who leads the Path’s covert unit that steal Force artifacts, and Kevmo Zink, who arrives on the planet to investigate the Path and the recent thefts.  The first half of the book sees the various characters gradually get to know each other, while Marda and Kevmo grow closer, despite their different viewpoints of the Force.  As the story continues, you start to see some cracks in the serene appearance of the Path, with Yana growing more and more determined to leave as she begins to see the Mother for what she really is.  However, even with a few action scenes and a great flood sequence, the story is still moving at a gradual pace, with the authors laying down some subtle hints of what is to come.  All that changes in the last quarter of the novel, as everything comes together in a big and shocking way.  While the narrative appears to be heading in one certain direction, the authors suddenly unleash a pretty major twist that really surprised me.  This twist was extremely brilliant, not only because of how well set up it was but because its execution was very sudden and a major gamechanger.  The entire tone of the novel changes after that, with the characters taking on new roles, and you see just how well-connected Path of Deceit is to the books of Phase One.  This twist honestly makes you really appreciate the slow and careful pace of the rest of the book, and you realise just how cleverly they were setting everything up.  The entirety of Path of Deceit ends on an excellent and powerful note, and the reader is left eagerly looking forward to seeing how the rest of this second phase comes together.

The team of Gratton and Ireland set out this story in a very awesome way, and I felt that everything came together extremely well to enhance the fantastic narrative.  The split between the three main perspectives helped to produce a balanced and multifaceted narrative, and I liked seeing the distinctive alternate viewpoints of the cool events occurring.  While the pacing was initially a bit slow and there was a little less action than your typical Star Wars novel, Path of Deceit makes up for it by focusing more on the characters, setting up the new version of the universe, and featuring a great young adult story that will really appeal to the teenage audience.  The way that the characters interact and focus on their attractions is very typical of most young adult books, but I felt that it didn’t get too over-the-top.  Instead, it is just enough to help bring the younger reader in, while also still being intense and compelling enough to keep older readers still attached and entertained.  I personally deeply enjoyed how the story was presented, especially once the pace increased towards the end, and this entire novel was an absolute joy to read.

As I mentioned before, quite a lot of importance is attached to whether Path of Deceit did a good job featuring the relevant Star Wars and High Republic elements.  I say that Gratton and Ireland strongly succeeded, as they not only provided a great viewpoint of this new period of Star Wars fiction but they also provided some captivating and clever links to the first phase.  While most of the focus of Path of Deceit is primarily on one planet, so you don’t get the full galaxy view, I did like the initial glimpse of this universe.  There is a real Western frontier vibe to the entire setting, with explorers, settlers, pilgrims, and people looking for a fresh start interacting with new elements from the Outer Rim.  There are also some hints about how this version of the Republic and the Jedi are set up, and there is a very good mixture of elements that I think are going to come together very well in the future.  I also really enjoyed the mysterious and captivating Path of the Open Hand, who were introduced as an alternative Force cult who are completely opposed to the actions of the Jedi.  Their curious viewpoint of the Force, and their methods for preserving it, make for quite a fascinating group and I deeply enjoyed how they developed.  As for connections to the first High Republic phase, well let us say that Path of Deceit is a very key novel regarding this, as several key characters with connections to the future are brilliantly set up here.  So many key elements or organisations from the first phase are introduced in a completely different form here, and you will be surprised at the origins of some of the best bits from the established High Republic books.  I loved some of the impressive set up that Gratton and Ireland featured in Path of Deceit, and this young adult novel is a very key part of this phase of the High Republic, with story elements from it set to reverb through certain upcoming books all the way to the future in the third phase.

Now, one of the main questions I am sure many people are wondering is how much knowledge of the High Republic and wider Star Wars universe people need to enjoy Path of Deceit.  Naturally, as the introductory book in the second phase of an established Star Wars sub-series, people who have read the previous High Republic books are going to have a better time with Path of Deceit that readers who have not.  Not only do you have a better idea of what the earlier Star Wars period are going to look like, but you also will appreciate some of the revelations that appear in this book and have a better ability to make connections between this phase and the previous one.  As such I would strongly recommend checking out all the key previous High Republic content first (the three adult books at the very least), as you a really going to have a better time with Path of Deceit that way, especially as the big twist towards the end makes a lot more sense if you do.  However, this isn’t the absolute worst book to start the High Republic with, and maybe reading the prequel second phase first is a better way of enjoying these books.  Either way, Gratton and Ireland do a good job of making this book pretty accessible to new readers, and I think that anyone with a decent knowledge of Star Wars fiction will probably be able to enjoy and appreciate this book.

Path of Deceit contains a great group of central characters that the authors do an excellent job of introducing.  This includes three intriguing teenage protagonists who have a complex and fascinating narratives that see them engage with this new world in very different ways.  Marda Ro is the devoted adherent to the Path of the Open Hand, who believes in their mission and their leader with all her heart.  Marda has a deeply compelling and well-laid-out story arc in Path of Deceit that eventually sees her question her believes and connections to the Path once she meets Jedi Padawan Kevmo Zink.  Already feeling disconnected from the galaxy and people due to her species, which is renowned and reviled for unknown reasons, Marda was a real emotional tinderbox in this book, and her relationship with Kevmo only complicates this further.  However, the events of the book change her in a way no-one could really predict, even with the hints her name contain, and her metamorphosis from sweet character to something else is very clever and quite impactful.  I have a feeling that she is going to have one of the best character arcs in the entire second phase, and I look forward to seeing how her narrative completely unfolds.

I also like the storylines surrounding the main Jedi character, Padawan Kevmo Zink, and Marda’s cousin Yana Ro, both of whom have their own distinctive arcs that I was quite intrigued by.  Kevmo Zink is a great young Jedi character who is drawn by his own romantic urges and desire for connections as much by the Force.  Kevmo serves as a great newcomer character to Dalna and the Path of the Open Hand and provides a great alternate perspective to Marda’s strict commitment to their ways.  He also serves as an intriguing love interest to Marda, and the classic Star Wars relationship between a conflicted Jedi and a forbidden girl made for some great reading, without being too silly or over-the-top.  I had a lot of fun with Kevmo, and I liked his infectious humour and his extremely positive view of the universe.  His storyline also goes in some very surprising directions, and this ended up being a very intriguing character to follow.  Yana Ro on the other hand is a more wild and exciting addition to the cast, who acts extremely differently to her cousin Marda.  A less indoctrinated member of the Path, Yana knows that there is something rotten at their heart, and seeks a way out, mainly by stealing Force artifacts for the Mother.  Her journey is very emotionally rich, and a little bit tragic, and I had a wonderful time seeing her storyline come to fruition, especially as it puts her in a very exciting position for future entries in the series.  Yana’s realistic viewpoint of the Path, as well as her own species’ inclinations and reputation, stands in great contrast of that of Marda, and her more grounded and aggressive mindset also makes her stand out compared to Kevmo.  As such, there is a good balance of personalities in Path of Deceit amongst the point of view protagonists, and this helps to produce a fantastic and compelling read.

There are also several great side characters who add their own spice to the story.  The most prominent of these is Kevmo’s Jedi master, Zallah Macri, an extremely serious Jedi Knight who serves as Kevmo’s mentor and guide.  Zallah is a suitable cautionary figure throughout the book, trying to keep Kevmo focused on the Force and their investigation, despite his obsession with Marda.  The other side character I really want to focus on is the Mother, the Path of the Open Hand’s mysterious leader who has managed to take over the cult through to her apparent strong connection to the Force.  The Mother serves as a rather compelling antagonist throughout the book, especially as you spend most of the time wondering if she is really Force sensitive, or whether she is running a long con on her followers.  An aloof and secretive antagonist, it soon becomes very clear that the Mother has her own objectives and plans that run contrary to that of her followers, and the full extent of them proves to be very exciting and destructive.  I felt that the Mother was an excellent alternative character for Path of Deceit, especially as her plans have some major long-term impacts on the point-of-view characters, and she has some dark secrets that need to be explored further.  These, and other characters, really add to the overall strength on the novel and I deeply enjoyed the way that Gratton and Ireland introduced them and took them through a fascinating emotional ride.

As with most Star Wars novels, I chose to check out Path of Deceit’s audiobook format, which was a pleasurable and fun experience as always.  At just over eight hours, this was a relatively quick audiobook, and I managed to knock it out pretty quickly.  This format did an excellent job of presenting Path of Deceit’s compelling narrative, and I had fun having this book read out to me.  However, the real joy of a Star Wars audiobook always lies in the excellent extra production elements that have been added in.  The classic Star Wars sound effects are used very well throughout Path of Deceit’s audiobook, and hearing blasters, lightsabers and even the sounds of people in the crowds, helps to drag listeners into the story and its surrounding universe.  However, I am always more impressed with the fantastic use of the iconic Star Wars musical score that is threaded through multiple scenes in the audiobook.  Path of Deceit has a pretty cool selection of scores playing throughout it, and I liked how the music often reflected the more rural setting and the mystical elements it was exploring.  The various bits of music work extremely well at enhancing key scenes throughout the book, and there were several times when the careful application of these tunes enhanced the emotional impact of the entire book.

On top of the cool sound effects and powerful musical inclusions, much of my enjoyment of Path of Deceit’s audiobook lies in the excellent narrator who was telling the story.  Path of Deceit is narrated by actress Erin Yvette, who has done a lot of voice work recently in the video game space.  While Yvette hasn’t provided narration for too many Star Wars books yet, she did a great job here in Path of Deceit, and I loved how she read out the book.  Yvette’s voice fits the young adult tone of this Star Wars novel extremely well, and she ensures that the compelling tale is effectively shared out to the listener.  In addition, she also provides a range of excellent voices to the various characters featured throughout the book.  Each of her voices really fits the respective character, and you get a real sense of their nature, their bearing, and their emotional state as you hear Yvette narrate them.  Not only does she capture the youthful nature of characters like Kevmo Zink and Marda Ro well, but she also gets the proper Jedi character Zallah Macri, the more self-serving voice of Yana Ro, and the mystical, manipulative voice of the Mother, down perfectly.  This voice work is pretty damn impressive, and when combined with audiobook’s sound effects and outstanding Star Wars music, it helps to turn the Path of Deceit audiobook into an outstanding experience.  This was such an awesome way to enjoy this latest High Republic novel, and audiobook remains my absolute favourite way to enjoy a Star Wars tie-in book.

I am feeling a heck of a lot better about the second phase of the High Republic after powering through Path of Deceit.  The wonderful team of Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland produced an outstanding young adult Star Wars novel that did a lot of remarkable things.  Featuring a well-crafted story that slowly but surely hooks you and some fantastic characters, Path of Deceit charts its own course while also brilliant tying into the High Republic novels that have come before.  I can’t wait to see where this phase goes following this impressive story in Path of Deceit and I am planning to read the next High Republic book as soon as I can.

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Warhammer 40,000: The Vincula Insurgency by Dan Abnett

The Vincula Insurgency Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 21 May 2022)

Series: Ghost Dossier – Book One

Length: 6 hours and seven minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of the leading authors of Warhammer fiction, Dan Abnett, returns to his iconic Gaunt’s Ghosts franchise in a big way with the compelling military thriller, The Vincula Insurgency.

Few people have excelled at tie-in fiction in the same way that acclaimed author Dan Abnett has over the years.  Not only has he written multiple awesome comics and several original novels but he has contributed tie-in books to several different fandoms, including Doctor Who and Tomb Raider.  However, his most significant work has easily been within the Warhammer extended universe.  Abnett has produced a ton of impressive and compelling Warhammer novels over his career in both the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy sub-series.  Some of his more notable works include some cool-sounding Warhammer comics, the Tales of Malus Darkblade novels (I’ve got a copy on my shelf waiting to be read), and some major Warhammer 40,000 novels, including multiple entries in the massive The Horus Heresy series, as well as his Eisenhorn, Ravenor and Bequin novels, which together paint one of the most complete pictures of the Imperial Inquisition).  However, I would say that his most notable series is probably the Gaunt’s Ghosts series of novels.

Set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels are part of the larger Sabbat Worlds crusades arc of fiction (which have come out of this series) following a unique regiment of soldiers, the Tanith First and Only.  The Tanith First and Only, also known as Gaunt’s Ghosts in respect to their commander, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, are a highly skilled unit who specialise in stealth and scouting missions.  Their planet, Tanith, was destroyed shortly after their formation, hence the designation First and Only.  The Gaunt’s Ghosts series follows their battles through the Sabbat Worlds as a major part of the crusades.  This series began back in 1999 with the awesome novel, First and Only, and the latest novel, Anarch, (book 15) came out in 2019.  Generally considered one of the most iconic and compelling series in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, I have been meaning to properly read this series for ages, although so far I have only had the chance to check out First and Only.  However, Abnett recently revisited this series with the intriguing The Vincula Insurgency.  The first entry in Ghost Dossier series, which presents never-before-seen stories of the Ghosts, The Vincula Insurgency acts as a prequel to the main series and tells an impressive and fun new tale of the early regiment.

Before the battles that would make them famous throughout the Sabbat Worlds Crusades, the Tanith First and Only, under the command of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, are still coming together as a unit.  After fighting a gruelling campaign on the planet of Voltemand, politics has forced the Tanith to remain and take over security for a backwater agricultural province and its capital, Vincula City.  Determined to get off-world and back to the frontlines, Gaunt and his regiment grudgingly prepare for the arrival of a new provincial governor and his administrators.  However, life is about to get very interesting for the Tanith forces.

A highly skilled and deadly insurgency movement has emerged within Vincular City, determined to cripple the Imperial forces within and disrupt their ability to assist the rest of the crusade.  After a series of brutal bombings, Gaunt and his troops attempt to keep the peace within the province.  However, their actions are countered at an impressive rate by the local insurgency elements, who are receiving outside help and training from a dangerous opponent who knows all the Tanith’s tricks.  Can Gaunt and his unit pull together to defeat this deadly foe?  And what happens when they discover that their mysterious opponent is linked to the Ghost’s long-dead planet?

This was another extremely awesome Warhammer novel from Abnett who has produced an intense and clever prequel to his existing Gaunt’s Ghosts novels.  The Vincula Insurgency is a relatively short novel, with a somewhat compressed story.  However, despite this length, Abnett manages to achieve quite a lot.  Not only does it set up plot points for the main series, but it also features a brilliant and very entertaining self-contained narrative that is guaranteed to keep the reader entertained.  Shown from the perspective of several of your favourite Ghosts, the author tells an excellent story that sees the protagonists under attack from a well organised insurgency group.  This results in a very fast-paced narrative that perfectly brings together the science fiction Warhammer 40,000 elements with a military thriller storyline as the Ghosts attempt to overcome the enemy attacking them from all sides.  The action flies thick and fast here, and features some impressively written battle sequences that really drag you into the heart of the fighting.  In addition, the author keeps the tension levels high throughout most of the story, and the feeling that some bad things are about to happen is never far from the reader’s mind.  The multiple character driven storylines come together extremely well within The Vincula Insurgency to create a comprehensive and powerful narrative, and I really appreciated some of the unique story elements that Abnett came up with.  This cool novel ends on an interesting note, and I will be quite intrigued to see what additional new Gaunt’s Ghosts’ stories Abnett has planned.

This was a very interesting addition to the Warhammer canon as Abnett dives back into the earlier days of his established series.  The Vincula Insurgency serves as an excellent prequel to the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, and it was great to see more of the early history surrounding this awesome unit.  Abnett makes sure to load up the book with a ton of references and hints of the events that are to come in the series, which established fans will really appreciate.  However, even those readers who are unfamiliar with the Gaunt’s Ghosts series can have fun here, as Abnett tells a very inclusive narrative that anyone can enjoy, with plenty of exposition about who the Tanith are and what is happening in the Sabbat Worlds Crusades.  Indeed, The Vincula Insurgency serves as a very good introduction to the series’ characters and storylines, and many readers could use this as a jumping point into the main Gaunt’s Ghosts novels.  Abnett also takes this opportunity to do an interesting bit of lore expansion with the Tanith troops.  Due to certain plot points, the characters dive into the Tanith culture and history, which proves to be very fascinating, especially when it may connect to a new enemy.  This also serves as a very good introduction to the wider Warhammer 40,000 canon, especially as it showcases the common trooper’s role in this chaotic universe.  I often say that stories about the common Imperial soldiers result in some of the best Warhammer 40,000 novels (Steel Tread and Krieg for example), and this was extremely true in The Vincula Insurgency.  Abnett really nails the feel of an armed insurgency in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and the parallels between the battles in this book and in some real-world conflicts are pretty uncanny (think Iraq or Afghanistan with laser rifles).  An overall excellent addition to both the Warhammer and Gaunt’s Ghost canon that is really worth checking out.

I had a lot of fun with the characters in The Vincula Insurgency, especially as Abnett features slightly younger versions of all your favourite original Gaunt’s Ghosts protagonists.  This is a slightly different version of the Ghosts that you have seen before, as they are still coming together as a regiment and aren’t yet a fully cohesive team.  Abnett does a brilliant job featuring multiple key Gaunt’s Ghosts characters in this book, with many getting their own distinctive storylines.  I liked his portrayal of unit leader Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, who is still relatively new in his command of the regiment.  While he is still incredibly confident, skilled and an absolute badass, it was interesting to see a few differences here, such as his inability to remember the names of the members of his unit.  Other key characters include Colonel Colm Corbec, the regiment’s second in command who is sent on an alternate mission for most of the book where he learns all the joys of interacting with the upper echelons of the Imperial Guard.  Major Elim Rawne, the rebellious member of the unit has a great outing in this book, not only showcasing his established resentment for Gaunt, but also featuring him in an intriguing romance with an Administratum official that deeply impacts him.  Brin Milo, the youngest member of the Tanith, also has a major arc in this book, with the novel focusing on both his uncanny insights, and his rise to become Gaunt’s official aid.  Other characters who get some good showings in this book include Ceglan Varl, Bragg, Tolin Dorden, Oan Mkoll, and more, with all of them getting their moment to shine in this book.  I had a brilliant time seeing earlier versions of these great characters, and Abnett clearly had fun revisiting them and showcasing their older attitudes.

I ended up grabbing The Vincula Insurgency audiobook, which proved to be an excellent adaptation of this book.  With a runtime of just over six hours, listeners can really speed through The Vincula Insurgency audiobook, and the story just flows along, especially with the impressive narration from Toby Longworth.  Longworth, who is one of the more prolific Warhammer narrators, having voiced all the previous Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, is a very talented voice actor who brilliantly brings this compelling story and its great characters to life.  Not only does he address every bit of action and exposition for a powerful and impressive tone, but each of the characters are given their own distinctive and fitting voice throughout the book.  I particularly liked how he gave all the Tanith characters similar accents to denote that they all come from the same planet, and it was a very nice touch, especially as it contrasts well with the various non-Tanith characters, some of whom have other, often strongly European, accents.  This incredible voice work really helped to drag me into this captivating story, and I found myself getting a lot more invested in the characters and the plot as a result.  Easily the best way to enjoy The Vincula Insurgency, this audiobook comes highly recommended.

The always impressive Dan Abnett returns with another awesome addition to his fantastic Gaunt’s Ghosts series with The Vincula Insurgency.  Featuring an outstanding and exciting prequel narrative, The Vincula Insurgency takes an earlier version of the Tanith First and Only on an intense and action-packed adventure in captured enemy territory.  Tense, fast-paced, and loaded with compelling characters, The Vincula Insurgency is an excellent and highly enjoyable Warhammer 40,000 novel that will appeal to wide range of readers.

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Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka

Three Assassins Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 14 April 2022)

English Translation: Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 254 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary Japanese author Kotaro Isaka brings us another fast-paced, intriguing and unique thriller with the English release of Three Assassins.

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the first English translation of Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beatle), which was released in the Western world as Bullet Train ahead of a movie adaptation of the same name.  I had a lot of fun with this impressive novel which set several distinctive and crazy assassins against each other aboard a speeding bullet train.  Now, with the Bullet Train film only a couple of months away, an English version of another of Isaka’s novels, the 2004 novel Gurasuhoppā (Grasshopper) has just been released.  This novel, translated by Sam Malissa and released under the title Three Assassins, presents another intense and clever thriller read that was incredibly fun to read.

Suzuki is a former schoolteacher who has joined the notorious Tokyo criminal gang, Fräulein, to get revenge for his dead wife by killing the murderous son of the gang’s leader.  However, his revenge mission goes downhill when, moments before his flimsy cover is blown, his target falls onto the road and is run over by a van.  With the shocked gang watching on, Suzuki is sent to chase after someone he sees fleeing the scene, who the gang believes killed the leader’s son.

Convinced the man responsible is the elusive assassin known as the Pusher, Suzuki’s Fräulein contact demands that he reveal the location of the person he followed.  However, Suzuki is uncertain about whether the man is actually responsible or just a random passer-by, especially when he meets the man’s young family.  But with the gang determined for revenge, Suzuki must decide whether to pass on the information or attempt to flee for his life.  Worse, his actions have attracted the attention of other notorious assassins, each of whom have their own reasons for hunting down the Pusher.

The Whale is deadly and forlorn soul who can convince anyone to kill themselves just by talking to them, while Cicada is a talkative and deadly knife expert.  The Whale wants revenge on the Pusher for his part in a prior death, while Cicada is determined to make his own rep by killing this notorious assassin.  Both are determined to find Suzuki and have him lead them to the Pusher by any means necessary.  Can Suzuki survive the barrage of killers, gangsters and monsters being unleased upon him, or will he be forced to compromise his principles and morals to survive?

This was an awesome and exciting novel from Isaka that proved to be extremely fun to read.  Written in Isaka’s distinctive style, and featuring some unique twists, turns and characters, Three Assassins is an entertaining read that I powered through in a day and which is really worth checking out.

Three Assassins has a brilliant fast-paced story to it that readers will swiftly become addicted to.  Written in a distinctive style that emphasises odd character traits and relies heavily on intriguing anecdotes, you are quickly introduced to three captivating point of view characters: Suzuki, the Whale and Cicada.  All three have unique and compelling storylines: Suzuki is thrust into survival mode as he hunts for the elusive Pusher, the Whale is involved in political assassinations before being forced to turn on his employer, while the wildcard Cicada balances his killing desires with frustrations with his overbearing boss.  These storylines soon start to come together when the Whale and Cicada learn about Suzuki’s situation and his apparent connection with the infamous Pusher, and both try to get their hands on Suzuki before the gang does.  However, nothing is as it seems, and all three must battle with their own demons (literally in the case of the Whale), while also trying to outsmart each other and some of the other unique people populating the streets of this version of Tokyo.

All three separate character-driven storylines come together perfectly as the story progresses, and you will love seeing these amazing characters interact as each reaches their own unique destiny.  There are several fantastic and impressive confrontations towards the later part of the book, as well as some great twists, the best of which will leave you reeling and completely change how you viewed the first three quarters of the novel.  While I saw a couple of twists coming, I was pleasantly surprised by several of the reveals, revelations and story turns that occurred, and there are some fantastic moments scattered throughout this book.  I loved how fast-paced Three Assassins turned out to be and there is honestly not a single slow moment to be found as you get through it.  That, combined with its shorter length, will encourage readers to power through it in a very short amount of time, and you will not be disappointed when you see what happens with this entertaining and amusing story.

Like Bullet Train, Three Assassins is a standalone novel that requires no familiarity with any of Isaka’s previous novels to appreciate the clever story or intense action.  It does however have some interesting connections to Bullet Train that fans will really appreciate.  Three Assassins is noticeably written in a similar style to Bullet Train, with a familiar plot focused on multiple unusual Tokyo assassins, as well as certain unique types of characterisations, interactions and writing flow.  These similarities are intentional as the original Japanese version of Three Assassins, Grasshopper came out several years before Maria Beetle.  This means that Three Assassins is actually a precursor to Bullet Train, hence the stylistic similarities.  As such, Three Assassins features a couple of characters who would end up having minor roles in Bullet Train, such as the Pusher, who has a few short point-of-view chapters as the character Morning Glory in Bullet Train, and the assassin duo known as the Hornet.  I have to admit that when I read Bullet Train, I did wonder about why these characters were featured, as some relevant context appeared to be missing.  However, after reading Three Assassins I see that they were there as a reference to this preceding novel and you actually get to understand their role in Bullet Train a little better after reading this book.  I really liked the cool connections this novel had to Bullet Train, and it is really worthwhile checking Three Assassins out alongside it.  While I do think that I preferred Bullet Train a little more than Three Assassins, as its story was stronger and the characters a little more entertaining, Three Assassins really stands on its own and proves to be an excellent read.

Isaka clearly had a lot of fun with the awesome characters contained within Three Assassins, as this book features an eclectic mix of unusual and entertaining figures who make Tokyo’s underworld seem like a weird and deadly place to explore.  This novel is primarily anchored by its three main point-of-view characters, each of whom is a particularly complex and unique being that will quickly drag the reader in with their intriguing stories or antics.  This includes central character Suzuki, the former teacher turned attempted gangster, who is initially involved with this plot for revenge, and who has done some dark things in order to get there.  However, when the target of his revenge is killed and Suzuki seems to find the life of the Pusher and his family in his hands, he starts to have a real crisis of conscience and must determine what he really wants to do.  Watching him attempt to weigh up the lives of the family he encounters versus some hostages Fräulein potentially has is extremely intense and results in some major examinations of his conscience.  Suzuki also serves the role of the unenlightened character for most of the book as he is mostly ignorant of the various assassins and outrageous characters running around out there.  As such, he serves as a good introductory character for many of these unique world elements, and it was very entertaining to see him interact with some of the other characters for the first time without a clue about who or what they are.

The Whale and Cicada are both complex and weird figures for very different reasons.  The Whale is a highly unusual assassin who specialises in arranging deaths to look like suicides.  A large man with an unnatural aura, the Whale is “blessed” with a near supernatural ability to talk people into killing themselves.  This is a pretty unique and cool character trait which Isaka does a wonderful job portraying throughout Three Assassins.  Watching this character slowly and calmly talk various characters into killing themselves results in some naturally dark scenes, but they are a great part of the book and really add something to the distinctive feel of the book.  At the same time, Isaka tries to humanise the Whale to a degree by showing him to be haunted by the ghosts of everyone he has killed.  These ghosts routinely appear before him, airing their grievances with him while also blotting out his ability to see other people or things.  This serves to be an intriguing handicap for this otherwise unstoppable figure, and it proved fascinating to see this merciless killer face some substantial reservations about his work and slowly start to rethink his life and choices.  The Whale easily has some of the most complicated and intriguing scenes in the entire novel and it proves extremely fascinating to see his entire arc unfold.

Cicada, on the other hand, is a somewhat less complex figure who serves as the book’s comic relief.  A skilled knifeman who lacks empathy, Cicada has earned a reputation as a man who can take on the unpleasant jobs and is often hired to kill women and children.  However, Cicada finds himself in a very hostile working relationship with his boss and handler, Iwanishi, who treats him poorly.  This toxic relationship becomes the imperative for Cicada to engage in the hunt for the Pusher, as a form of finding his own independence, although nothing goes to plan.  Cicada is an excellent and enjoyable character, and you will quickly find yourself getting attached to the quick-talking killer, even when he does some terrible things.  The most physically gifted of all the characters, Cicada is often dragged into some of the book’s best fight scenes, and it was exciting to see his knife skills in action.  Thanks to his unique humour and continual banter, Cicada proves to be a great counterpoint to the book’s darker or more emotionally distressed characters like Suzuki and the Whale, and I think that his inclusion really helped to balance out the tone of the book.  All three characters and their chapters play off each other extremely well, and they help to form a captivating and amusing overall story.

Three Assassins was another awesome read from Kotaro Isaka that takes readers on a wild and exciting journey to Japan’s outrageous underworld of assassins.  Filled with quirky characters, surprising turns and intense action, this is a fantastic novel and you will swiftly get addicted to its entertaining and captivating story.  A must read for fans of this legendary Japanese author, especially in advance of the upcoming Bullet Train film, Three Assassins comes highly recommended and is really worth checking out.

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Relentless by R. A. Salvatore

Relentless Cover

Publisher: Harper Audio (Audiobook – 28 July 2020)

Series: Generations – Book Three

Length: 15 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore brings his latest trilogy of novels to an epic conclusion with his 2020 release, Relentless, the third and final book in the Generations trilogy.

War has once again come to the Forgotten Realms, as the Drow hordes of Menzoberranzan march to reclaim the soul of one of their own, the previously dead sword master Zaknafein Do’Urden.  Centuries ago, Zaknafein sacrificed his life to save his son, Drizzt Do’Urden, allowing him to become the greatest hero the lands had ever seen.  Thanks to the help of a mysterious Drow priestess, Zaknafein has been returned to life and finally reunited with his son.  However, their reunion has been far from perfect, as Zaknafein has trouble understanding some of his son’s choices, including his unusual companions and his marriage to a human.  Worse, Drow fanatics, utterly loyal to the dark god of Chaos, Loth the Spider Queen, have declared war on the surface, determined to capture and kill Zaknafein and Drizzt and everyone who stands with them.

A massive army of demons has invaded the dwarven kingdom of Gauntlgrym, trapping Zaknafein, the rogue Jarlaxle, Drizzt’s life-long friends and the legendary Companions of the Hall inside, while dark forces attack their allies on the surface.  At the same time, the massed armies of the Drow city of Menzoberranzan have been forced to war and now occupy the tunnels surrounding Gauntlgrym, cutting off any chance of escape.  However, all of this pales in comparison to the greatest tragedy that has occurred in the lands outside of Gauntlgrym, where a demonic device of great power tracked and disintegrated Drizzt as he tried to destroy the mechanical creature.

While things seem dire, the Companions of the Hall are far from defeated, and every man, dwarf, halfling and rogue dark elf is ready to fight.  As Zaknafein, Gauntlgrym’s dwarf king Bruenor and their allies attempt to hold back the hordes besieging them by any means possible, the barbarian warrior Wulfgar works to reclaim the city of Luskan with a small force of warriors.  As the battle begins in earnest, heroes will rise, empires will fall, and the world will change forever.  However, the fate of everyone involved in this battle may lay in Zaknafein’s secret history, as demons from his past come back to haunt him once again.

R. A. Salvatore has produced another incredible and wonderful fantasy read that takes several of his most iconic characters on a dark and dangerous journey. Salvatore is one of my favourite fantasy authors, having produced an immense and awesome collection of novels over the years. While he has written several series, such the novels set in his Corona universe (including his other 2020 release, Song of the Risen God), his main body of work is set within the shared Forgotten Realms fantasy universe and primarily follows the adventures of the Drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden and his heroic companions.  Relentless is the third entry in the latest Drizzt Do’Urden trilogy of books, known as the Generations trilogy, which includes the preceding novels Timeless and Boundless.  This series continues the adventures of Drizzt and his companions, but features an intriguing new angle in the return of Drizzt’s father, who died in the 1990 novel, Homeland.  This has so far proven to be an impressive and exciting trilogy from Salvatore that contains an intriguing new narrative and pays homage to his earlier novels in the overarching series.  I have been looking forward to Relentless for some time, especially after the really cool cliffhanger that Salvatore featured at the end of Boundless.

In this latest book, Salvatore tells a complex and action-packed story that makes use of multiple character perspectives to tell an epic and exciting tale, especially after establishing so many excellent plot points in the previous two novels.  As he did in the other entries in this series, Salvatore features two distinct timelines throughout this impressive book.  Relentless is broken up into four separate parts (not including the prelude), with two of these parts set during in the universe’s modern era, depicting the current day battle for Gauntlgrym and the lives of the author’s beloved protagonist, while the other two parts of the novel are set deep in the past.  These two parts of the novel are set hundreds of years before the current events and follow Zaknafein, Jarlaxle and several other Drow characters during their younger days.  Both of these distinctive storylines have their own appeals, and I had a fantastic time reading both of them.

I probably enjoyed the prequel storylines the most, as I really enjoyed the deeper look at Zaknafein’s past and its intriguing implications on the events of Salvatore’s earlier books.  These prequel storylines are loaded with fantastic depictions of life in the chaotic and evil Drow city of Menzoberranzan, and it was extremely entertaining to see all the backstabbing, politics and brutal battles for supremacy that are a distinguishing feature of day-to-day Drow life.  These prequel storylines also contain some of the best action sequences in the book, mainly because they focus on the character of Zaknafein, the greatest sword fighter in the world, and Salvatore always portrays his epic fight sequences in intricate detail, capturing the sheer majesty of the character’s fighting ability.  I also quite enjoyed seeing more of the young, up-and-coming version of the Drow mercenary and conman, Jarlaxle, as he manipulates the entirety of the city, and all of his scenes are extremely fun.  This earlier storyline in Relentless is a great continuation of the other prequel storylines that appeared in the previous entries in the Generations trilogy, and I really enjoyed how this entire expanded storyline concludes.  It was fascinating to see how the events of Zaknafein’s past impacted the main storyline, and I felt that this was an outstanding addition to Relentless’s story.

While I did prefer the prequel storyline, the contemporary story contained within the other two parts of the book is still pretty epic in its own right, as it features a desperate fight for survival against the antagonists of the series.  Salvatore goes big for these parts of the book, featuring massive battles for supremacy, major character moments and some universe-changing twists and turns.  Like the prequel storyline, this main narrative thread flows on extremely well from the previous Generations books, and the author provides a satisfactory conclusion to the war which was set up in the last two novels.  The author more strongly utilises multiple character perspectives in these parts of the book, which I felt helped to tell a richer and more exciting story, especially as you got to see the action unfold from the eyes of many established characters.  A lot of the plot points established in the prequel storylines were masterfully exploited throughout these main parts of the book, and I think that the combination of time periods worked extremely well to create a powerful and memorable narrative.  The major events that occurred at the end of Relentless were rather interesting, and it looks like Salvatore has some intriguing plans for any future novels set in this universe.  Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable tale filled with some great action, well-established characters, and an incredible combination of compelling and varied storylines.

While I usually find all of Salvatore’s books to be extremely accessible to general fantasy fans who are unfamiliar with his prior works, Relentless is book probably best enjoyed by people who have read the rest of the entries in the Generations trilogy and who have some decent knowledge of the other Drizzt Do’Urden novels.  This is mainly because Relentless serves as the conclusion to the connected storylines established in Timeless and Boundless, and the story has gotten quite complex at this point, especially with the prequel storyline focusing on the young Zaknafein, which was carefully cultivated in the prior two novels.  While new readers can probably still follow and enjoy Relentless, fans of Salvatore’s work are going to be the ones who get the most out of it, especially as this latest book ties into some of the author’s earliest works.  For example, the prequel storyline has some extremely strong connections to one of the author’s earliest books, Homeland.  The Generations trilogy’s past-based storyline has primarily served as a compelling prequel to Homeland, and this latest book contains several scenes that shed new light on this previous book.  Indeed, some of the best scenes in Relentless serve as a direct precursor to key events of Homeland or provide alternate viewpoints to them, allowing for some fascinating new context and information.  I personally have always had a lot of love for Homeland, which is one of Salvatore’s best novels, and I really appreciated seeing this new take on the plot.  As a result, this is a must-read for fans of Salvatore’s fantastic series and readers are in for a real treat.

Another great part of this book were the excellent characters featured throughout the various time periods.  As has been the case with the other books in the Generations trilogy, much of the character development revolves around Zaknafein, as both time periods have a fascinating focus on him.  Salvatore continues to explore various parts of Zaknafein’s character throughout Relentless, both in the past and present, and it was great to see how he has evolved throughout the course of the trilogy.  I particularly enjoyed seeing Zaknafein’s development in the prequel storyline, especially as you get several extra scenes discussing Zaknafein’s conflicted feelings when Drizzt was born.  Salvatore spends a lot of time establishing how Zaknafein became the person who would eventually sacrifice his own life for his son, and it was great to see this whole new side of this iconic and fantastic character.

Several other characters featured throughout Relentless really stood out to me.  Foremost of these is of course the rogue Drow criminal and conman, Jarlaxle, who is a prominent character in both timelines.  Jarlaxle is so much fun to see in action, whether he is manipulating someone or getting involved in a fight with his fantastic arsenal of insane magical weapons and tools.  Drizzt, who is nominally the main character of this trilogy, and indeed most of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels, was notably absent throughout this book, having been disintegrated at the end of Boundless.  Salvatore works his apparent death into the story extremely well, creating some emotionally deep moments as his friends mourn his passing and try to work out how to move on.  I think that Salvatore utilised his absence from the story to full effect, especially as it allowed other characters to have their moment to shine.  Drizzt’s eventual resurrection, which was so predictable it is not even really a spoiler, was set up beautifully and I really liked how it tied into some of the more mystical events of some previous Salvatore novels.  Aside from these Drow characters, the rest of the Companions of the Hall have major moments throughout Relentless, and each of them has a key storyline set around them.  Bruenor, Wulfgar, Regis, Catti-brie, Artemis Enteri and more are all utilised throughout the story, and it was great to see all of them in action.  Salvatore also focuses on several other side characters who have appeared in prior novels, and there are some notable storylines and character arcs scatter amongst them that will no doubt bear fruit in future Drizzt Do’Urden novels.  Overall, Relentless continues Salvatore’s exceptional character work, and it was fantastic to see all these complex personalities come to life.

Rather than grab a physical copy of Relentless I ended up getting this cool fantasy novel on audiobook, which was a fantastic way to enjoy Salvatore’s latest release.  The audiobook format of Relentless has a run time of just over 15 hours, which, while fairly substantial for an audiobook, is easy enough to get through once you become engrossed in the excellent narrative and is definitely worth the time investment.  I really enjoyed listening to this great book and I found that it was the perfect way to absorb all the unique fantasy elements and Salvatore’s intriguing twists.  Part of the reason why I enjoyed this format so much was the excellent voice work from narrator Victor Bevine.  Bevine is a veteran audiobook narrator who has provided his vocal talents to a huge number of Salvatore’s previous novels, including the other two entries in the Generations trilogy.  It is cool having the continuity of Bevine’s voice after enjoying so many Salvatore audiobooks, and I really enjoy the tone that he uses for this story.  Bevine moves Relentless along at a quick pace, and the listener never finds themselves stuck in a slow part of the novel.  I also quite enjoyed the excellent voices that Bevine utilised throughout the book.  Not only did these voices perfectly fit the characters they were assigned to, helping to bring them to life, but I loved all the fun accents he used for the various races featured within the book, such as the Scottish brogue that each dwarven character had.  All of this really enhanced my enjoyment of Relentless and this is a fantastic novel to check out on audiobook.

Relentless is another exceptional and epic read from the master of fantasy fiction, R. A. Salvatore, as he wraps up another amazing trilogy with a remarkable and memorable bang.  Salvatore remains at the top of his game for Relentless, providing the reader with a complex, multifaceted storyline, studded with intense action, fantastic characters and some really clever story elements.  I had an outstanding time reading this awesome book and I cannot wait to see what magic and mayhem Salvatore comes up with in his next captivating read.  Highly recommended.

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Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Ascendancy - Chaos Rising Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 1 September 2020)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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The master of Star Wars fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with a brand-new series that explores the early days of his most iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, with the first book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Chaos Rising.

A long time ago, beyond a galaxy far, far away…

Beyond the edges of the known galaxy, past the borders of the Republic, beyond even the backwater Outer Rim, lies the Unknown Regions.  The Unknown Regions are a chaotic and barely explored section of space, where hyperspace travel is difficult and dangers lurk around every corner.  Despite this, many species flourish in this region, fighting for their survival and forming civilisations hidden from the eyes of the Republic and the Separatists as they fight their bitter civil war.  However, out of all these races, none are more mysterious, secretive and dangerous than the Chiss Ascendancy.

The Chiss have long considered themselves to be one of the most powerful races within the Unknown Regions.  Boasting vast fleets of powerful vessels which can appear anywhere within the Unknown Regions thanks to their great secret weapon, the force-sensitive children who can navigate hyperspace in the Unknown Regions, known as Skywalkers, the Chiss believe themselves safe and secure.  However, a sudden ill-fated attack on their home planet by a mysterious fleet quickly shatters this allusion.  While many, including the Chiss ruling council, are convinced that the attacking ships are a precursor to an invasion and begin preparations to withdraw their outer fleets, Supreme General Ba’kif believes that there is more to this attack then what is apparent.  In order to explore his suspicions, Ba’kif calls upon one of his most talented officers to investigate, the young tactical genius Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known as Thrawn.

Many years before he became the Emperor’s most effective weapon as a Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn, served his own people as a member of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Already renowned for his rare tactical ability, as well as his disregard for the politics and rules of the Ascendancy, Thrawn begins his investigation into the attack and swiftly determines that it was merely a feint, designed to draw the Ascendancy’s attention away from a much more dangerous threat.  A new malevolent alien empire is building strength in the Unknown Regions, and its eyes are firmly fixed on the Chiss.  With his hands tied by protocol and with his political enemies within the Ascendancy trying to take him down, Thrawn may be unable to stop the upcoming attack before it is too late.  However, Thrawn always has a plan, and the Unknown Regions are about to understand just how dangerous he truly is.

This was another fantastic outing from Timothy Zahn, who has produced a cool and intriguing prequel novel to his previous series.  Zahn is one of the most experienced and highly regarded authors of Star Wars tie-in fiction in the world today, having written several impressive novels for both the current Disney-owned canon, and the previous Star Wars Legends canon.  While he has written various Star Wars novels, such as the fun standalone novel Scoundrels, Zahn is probably best known for his 1991 release, Heir of the Jedi, which is generally considered to be the start of a whole new era of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  While there are a number of interesting aspects to Heir of the Jedi, one of the most important things about it was that it introduced Zahn’s most distinctive and popular creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a rare alien officer in the xenophobic Imperial Navy who was revered as their ultimate tactician.  Thrawn proved to be a very popular character whose backstory and characterisation was later expanded on in a number of Zahn’s other Star Wars Legends novels.

Due to the Disney purchase of the Star Wars franchise and the subsequent removal of everything except the movies and the animated series from canon, Thrawn was temporarily erased as a canon character until the third season of the Star Wars Rebels animated television series, where he was reintroduced with an altered backstory and history.  As part of this reintroduction, Zahn was contracted to write several new Star Wars novels examining this new history of the character, and thus he wrote the Thrawn trilogy, featuring the excellent novels Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which are among some of the best pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction I have so far read.  This trilogy ended in 2019, but Zahn is far from done, having started a new trilogy, the Thrawn Ascendancy series, last year.  The Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, of which Chaos Rising is the first entry, is an intriguing and detailed series that serves as a prequel to the novel Thrawn and which show a younger version of the character as he serves the Chiss during the same time period as the Clone Wars.  Chaos Rising is an excellent and enjoyable novel which I read a few months ago, but which I have only just had a chance to review.  It was fantastic to see this complex and compelling character in action again, as well as more of Zahn’s impressive world-building.

This new novel from Zahn contains an amazing story that looks at the earliest adventures of Thrawn.  This is a very clever and layered tale that explores the main character in more detail while also providing him a new opponent to face in this book as he attempts to engage in battle against a dangerous enemy threatening his people.  Zahn builds a great narrative around the fight against this new antagonist, with Thrawn forced to engage in a number of intricate campaigns in order to obtain information and determine which points of weakness to exploit, whilst also have to contend with the machinations of members of his own race who are concerned with the reckless Thrawn’s actions.  At the same time, the author builds up a number of intriguing side characters who help to tell the tale of Thrawn in greater detail and with some interesting personal arcs.  This main storyline proves to be an extremely enjoyable and captivating read which flows at a great pace for most of the book, broken up with a number of cool and impressive battle sequences.  The main story is also supported by a fantastic collection of flashback sequences that depict an even younger version of Thrawn, showing some of his earlier encounters with many of the characters featured in the novel and highlighting how different the character has always been.  These flashbacks are used to great effect throughout the novel, not only building up the various characters’ pasts and personalities but also creating a great pace for the novel, with several key events from the protagonist’s life introduced where necessary to the main plot.  All of this helps to turn Chaos Rising, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series, into an intriguing prequel to the Thrawn trilogy as it begins to set up the various reasons why Thrawn was sent away by his people and recruited by the Empire.  One part of Chaos Rising even directly ties into the events of one of the books from the previous trilogy, Alliances, with the reader seeing an alternate viewpoint to Thrawn meeting with Anakin Skywalker that gives an entertaining context to the events of that previous book.  All of this results in a fantastic and clever story that is easy enjoy and which sets up some more intriguing adventures in the later entries in this series.

One of the things I always try to address while reviewing a Star Wars novel is what level of franchise knowledge a reader needs to have in order to fully enjoy the story.  While most Star Wars novels are generally fairly accessible to new readers or casual fans, I would say that Chaos Rising is one of those books that should primarily be read by major fans of the franchise.  This is because Zahn loads this novel up with a ton of Star Wars references and details, including details of obscure parts of Star Wars lore and characters.  While the author does do a good job of explaining all the relevant aspects of this extended universe through the book, I would say that having some pre-knowledge about some of these elements is important.  At a minimum I would suggest that the readers read Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy first, especially as Chaos Rising serves as a prequel to them, although fans with some basic knowledge of the character of Thrawn should be able to follow along without too much difficulty.  For new readers who do get through Chaos Rising, you are going to experience a huge amount of new information about the Star Wars universe as Zahn does a substantial amount of universe building throughout this book.  In particular, the author explores the legendary Chiss Ascendancy, a mysterious alien empire existing outside of the main Star Wars galaxy.  This is the first time that the Chiss planets and culture have been explored in any real detail in the current canon, and it proves to be a fascinating experience learning more about them and seeing the culture that produced such a unique character as Thrawn.  This novel contains a lot of detail about this alien race, as well as many other aspects of life outside the main galaxy setting of the Star Wars franchise, and while it is a tad overwhelming at times, I had a great time expanding my Star Wars knowledge and exploring this new, intriguing region.  It seems likely that Zahn will go into even more detail about this part of the Star Wars universe in future novels in the trilogy, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects he comes up with.

One of the best things about this book was seeing the return of the amazing and compelling character of Thrawn.  Thrawn is a very unique and enjoyable character, mainly because he has an unfathomable mind and is able to tactically outthink and outmatch any opponent that he comes across.  A highly analytical being who is able to discern fantastic insights about a person or species’ intentions, personalities and general mindsets from viewing some aspects of their creativity, mainly their artwork, Thrawn is easily able to predict actions and provide effective or crazy counters that shock and surprise everyone watching.  This makes him an incredibly fun character to see in action, especially as he makes some amazing and credible leaps of logic off the smallest details that Zahn features in his descriptions.  These analytical leaps then lead into a number of awesome and cool scenes where he outsmarts everyone around them, including in the book’s various battle sequences, which are awesome to read as there are some truly outrageous and clever tactical moves that no one can see coming.  Because of his way of thinking, Thrawn has a very closed off and odd personality that unnerves a lot of the people he deals with and makes many wary of his motivations and actions.

Just like he did in the previous novels, Zahn portrays Thrawn as a little less vicious and dangerous than he appears in Star Wars Rebels, with a little more humanity (or the Chiss version of it) added into his character.  Zahn also continues to explore the character’s lack of political awareness, a major flaw in his thinking that continues to cause him trouble as he constantly battles against the overarching hierarchy to take actions he knows will benefit or save his people.  I felt that Chaos Rising took a very interesting look at the character’s history, personality and backstory, and I quite liked the examination of his earliest trials and battles.  Thanks to the author’s use of flashback sequences, the reader gets a great view at different parts of his history, and you see the various steps that he takes rising up the military ladder and the various aliens and people he crossed or destroyed on the way.  All of this proved to be really cool to see, and Thrawn remains one of my favourite characters in the Star Wars canon, especially after this great outing from his past.

One of the most distinctive parts of any novel that follows Thrawn is the fact that none of the story is shown from his point of view; instead other characters tell his story.  This is mainly done to really highlight just how brilliant Thrawn is and to ensure that his eventual plans and insights come as a major surprise to the reader, much in the same way that a Sherlock Holmes novel is told from Watson’s perspective.  Chaos Rising features several different point-of-view characters, including one or two antagonists, who encounter Thrawn throughout the course of this novel and witness him utilise his tactical acumen.  I love seeing the various characters react to Thrawn’s impressive and clever schemes, and it is always fun when they realise that the impossible is happening right in front of them.  Several of these characters, particularly Thrawn’s allies, also provide a much deeper examination of the main character’s personality and mentality, and you see a different side to the character as a friend and mentor.

While these characters are primarily there to follow Thrawn, Zahn does take the time to explore each of these characters, with a particular focus on Thrawn’s impact on their life.  Many of these characters have some excellent and enjoyable backstories to them, and it was fascinating to see these great characters have their carefully planned out lives completely thrown around when they meet Thrawn.  While I failed to connect to some of these point-of-view side characters (for example, I just could not get invested in the arc surrounding the Skywalker Che-ri), others proved to be quite intriguing to follow.  Examples include Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s former classmate at the academy, who becomes a lifelong friend and constantly finds herself trying to protect the protagonist from himself, or Thalias (Mitth’ali’astov) a former Skywalker whose encounter with a young Thrawn inspired her to join his clan and gave her a new vision for the future.  I also rather enjoyed following Qilori, an Unknown Regions navigator-for-hire, who secretly serves the Nikardun Destiny while also taking jobs for other clients like Thrawn and the Chiss.  It was immensely entertaining seeing Qilori attempting to manipulate Thrawn on the orders of the main antagonist, especially as Thrawn sees through every single one of his tricks.  Each of these great side characters added their own edge to the story, and I really appreciated having so many varied and unique viewpoints of the fantastic main character.

While I did receive a physical copy, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of Chaos Rising, not only because it made my reading schedule easier but because Star Wars audiobooks are always so much fun to listen to.  I think that I made the right decision here, as the Chaos Rising audiobook was a very awesome experience and I had a great time listening to it.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, this is a somewhat longer Star Wars audiobook, although once you get wrapped up in the story you don’t really mind.  Everything about this audiobook is cool, from the classic Star Wars sound effects, which help to drag the listener into the story (it is so much easier to imagine a dangerous fight scene when you can hear the blaster shots), to the outstanding use of John Williams’ iconic musical score, which just makes everything epic.  This audiobook also features the superb narration of the amazing Marc Thompson, who does a wonderful job.  Thompson, who has a vast experience voicing Star Wars audiobooks (for example, all the previous Thrawn novels, Dark Disciple, and roles in the Count Dooku and Doctor Aphra audio dramas), has an exceptional range of different voices which he uses to full effect throughout Chaos Rising.  Each of the characters is given a distinctive and enjoyable voice which allows the listener to easily follow who they are, while also getting an impressive and comprehensive idea of the character’s emotions and passion.  However, his most impressive work is saved for the main character himself.  Thompson has an excellent Thrawn voice, which very closely matches the voice of Lars Mikkelsen, the actor playing Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated show, which helps to bring the character to life in vivid and impressive detail.  Thompson’s take on the character captures the character perfectly, and you get an amazing sense of the character’s deep analytical nature and constantly calm façade.  This was an exceptional bit of voice work from Thompson, and it really added so much to my enjoyment of the story to have this character’s words read out to me.  An overall exceptional and outstanding audiobook, this is the perfect format to check out Chaos Rising.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is another outstanding novel from amazing Star Wars author Timothy Zahn that provides the reader with a captivating look at the early life of the incredible character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Featuring a clever and intriguing tale set deep in an unexplored area of the Star Wars universe, this novel serves as a fantastic and addictive prequel to Zahn’s impressive Thrawn trilogy and adds new layers to the author’s most iconic creation.  The second entry in this series, Greater Good, is set for release in a few months and looks set to be one of the most intriguing Star Wars novels of 2021, especially with renewed interest in the character of Thrawn after the second season of The Mandalorian.  I am extremely keen to see how the next novel turns out, but if it as good as Chaos Rising, then we should be in for a treat.

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#NoEscape by Gretchen McNeil

#NoEscape Cover

Publisher: Freeform Books (Hardcover – 8 December 2020)

Series: #MurderTrending – Book 0 (prequel)

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling author Gretchen McNeil returns with another murderous young adult thriller with #NoEscape, a gripping and fantastic prequel to her amazing #MurderTrending series.

Gretchen McNeil is a fantastic author who specialises in amazing young adult novels with horror or suspense twists to them.  She is probably best known for her Don’t Get Mad series of novels (which were adapted into the Netflix series, Get Even), and her 2012 novel Ten, which was turned into a Lifetime movie.  Other works of McNeil include Possess, 3:59 and I’m not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl, all of which sound like fun and entertaining reads.  I am most familiar with McNeil due to her latest series of novels, the #MurderTrending books.  This series started in 2018 with #MurderTrending, which followed a group of young felons, known as the Death Row Breakfast Club, who had to survive their brutal public execution on reality television.  #MurderTrending was an extremely fun and thrilling book that not only presented an exciting narrative for a group of great character, but which also parodied society’s love for social media and reality television shows.  McNeil followed up this first entry in the series with the sequel #MurderFunding, an awesome-sounding book that followed another deadly reality television show.  While I really liked the sound of the second #MurderTrending novel, I did not get a chance to read it, although I might try to read it later this year.  Her latest novel, #NoEscape, serves as a prequel to #MurderTrending and is set 20 years before the events of the first book.

Seventeen-year-old Persey has been beaten down her whole life by her abusive parents and her overachieving brother.  While everyone considers her to be useless, Persey knows that there is one thing she is good at: escape rooms.  After solving a supposedly unbeatable escape room, Persey is given a chance by the parent company, Escape-Capades Ltd, to compete in an elite escape room challenge with a multi-million-dollar reward for whoever wins it.

In desperate need of the money, Persey reluctantly accepts the invitation and is taken to the Escape-Capades headquarters in Las Vegas with several other gifted teen competitors, each with substantial escape room experience.  Persey and the other participants are shocked when the challenge begins almost as soon as they arrive at the headquarters.  Entering a series of elaborate rooms, the group are instructed to work together to succeed within the set time frames.  While at first the challenges seem like normal escape room fare, it soon becomes apparent that something is off.

After one challenge that puts each contestant in mortal risk, they players are shocked when someone is killed in front of them.  Convinced it was faked as part of the game, the escapees continue to advance until someone else is killed.  As each room becomes more and more deadly, it becomes apparent that someone is out for blood and is determined to make the escapees suffer.  Forced to solve a series of gruesome and bizarre puzzles to survive, Persey begins to realise that each of her fellow participants has a secret they would die to protect.  Each contestant is related to each other in some way, and whoever is running the game is seeking vengeance.  Can Persey and her new friends survive, or will they become the first victims of a sick killer with dangerous ambitions for the future?

In this latest novel, Gretchen McNeil has come up with an exceptional tale of manipulation and vengeance as the protagonist finds herself trapped in a series of deadly escape room with a group of unpredictable allies.  This is an extremely fun and exciting novel that blends a tense situation, excellent characters and a series of clever twists to create a deeply compelling and highly addictive read.  I read through this book in one night as I became deeply engrossed with the plot and couldn’t wait to see how the story unfolded.  I love the idea of a group of teenagers caught in an escape room designed to expose secrets and kill its participants, and McNeil utilised her plot design to maximum effect, creating a dark and high-stakes read.  The novel features a great collection of distinctive and fun characters, each of whom stand out in their own way and bring something different to the story while also bringing in some excellent drama with their conflicting personalities.  The main protagonist and point-of-view character, Persey, is particularly intriguing, and the author spends significant time exploring her past, showing a series of flashbacks that highlighted her emotionally abusive parents and damaged brother.  All of these characters have some major secrets, and McNeil cleverly weaves hints of them into the plot before they are eventually revealed.  This book features a lot of excellent and cleverly written twists and turns, and while I was able to predict a good deal of them, it was still a lot of fun seeing them unfold and I was every taken by surprise with several major reveals.  Overall, this is a fantastic and fast-paced narrative that readers will quickly become addicted to and which has an outstanding and powerful conclusion.

One of the major appeals of this book is that it serves as a great prequel to #MurderTrending and #MurderFunding.  This makes it an opportunity to highlight the origins of some of the characters (mainly the antagonists) that appeared in the later books in the series.  Fans of the series will really love the excellent way McNeil ties the narrative into the other #MurderTrending novels and there are a lot of clever and fun references scattered throughout this latest book.  There is really no requirement for someone to read either of the other novels in the series first before trying out #NoEscape, and new readers will be able to easily enjoy this cool and exciting tale.  Indeed, this novel could even serve as a fantastic entry point into the series, and I would definitely recommend that anyone who enjoyed #NoEscape should definitely read #MurderTrending next.  I personally wish that I had read #MurderFunding first, as there were a couple of reveals that did not have as significant an impact on me as I think they were supposed to.  Still, I had an outstanding time reading this latest book from McNeil and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.  After getting hooked on this latest book, I might try and read #MurderFunding this year, especially if McNeil is planning any additional entries to this awesome series.

I really liked how McNeil utilised escape rooms in this novel, and it proves to be a fantastic setting for this amazing young adult thriller.  The author has come up with a huge range of intriguing and clever challenges for her participants to try and overcome, and I loved seeing all the various riddles and puzzles.  As the escape room continues, the rooms become more and more deadly, and it was quite fun to see all the unique and elaborate murder contraptions that the author imagines.  Some of the challenges and the deaths in this book were really over the top, and it proved to be exhilarating and nerve-racking to watch the protagonists attempt to overcome them, especially when a particularly fun character’s life was on the line.  McNeil also uses her novel to examine and somewhat parody the current escape room trend, with each of the characters being a major escape room user with a huge amount of enthusiasm for them.  As a result, this ends up being a particularly fun read for anyone who has done an escape room in the past, although I can guarantee that you will be rather suspicious about the next challenge that you undertake.  I had a lot of fun getting through these deadly escape rooms in the story and I cannot wait to see what McNeil uses as the major plot setting in her next novel.

Like the previous entries in this series, #NoEscape was written for a young adult audience and follows several teenage protagonists.  This is excellent novel for teenage readers; I know I would have loved to read this when I was younger.  I particularly liked how the author did not write down for a younger audience, instead presenting a detailed and complex tale, filled with intriguing characters, compelling story elements and several very dark sequences.  I would say that, due to the sometimes gruesome content, this book is probably best read by older teenagers, especially those who have a love of escape rooms.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be easily enjoyed by adult readers, who will enjoy all the excitement and clever twists.  There are also a huge number of cool pop culture references throughout the book that will prove appealing to readers of many different ages, as McNeil covers a massive range of different genres and forms of entertainment, ranging from classic horror movies (there is a great clue hidden in one reference that older readers will particularly enjoy), anime, professional wrestling, books and movies (I loved one of the character’s Harry Potter themed shirt; shame it got blood on it).  Overall, this is a great young adult book, and I really appreciate the fact that McNeil has made it appealing to very wide audience.

#NoEscape is another fun and exciting young adult thriller from the amazing Gretchen McNeil.  Serving as a fantastic prequel to #MurderTrending, this is a clever and captivating read that is really worth checking out.  Readers are going to love this exhilarating and deadly narrative, and you are guaranteed to speed through this outstanding and thrilling novel in a very short amount of time.  Highly recommend.

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The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

The Evening and the Morning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 15 September 2020)

Series: Kingsbridge – Book 0

Length: 819 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Following three long years of waiting, one of the best authors of historical fiction in the world today (and one of my all-time favourite authors), Ken Follett, returns with another historical epic, The Evening and the Morning.

Follett is a highly acclaimed author who has written a number of impressive bestsellers over his 45+ year writing career.  After starting off with thriller novels, Follett really hit his literary stride when he moved on to massive historical fiction novels.  After experiencing great success with the iconic The Pillars of the Earth, he has gone on to produce several other epic books, including two sequels to The Pillars of the Earth and the outstanding The Century trilogy.  I have been a major fan of Follett for years ever since I had the great pleasure of reading The Century trilogy.  This was followed up with the second sequel to The Pillars of the Earth, A Column of Fire, which was easily one of my favourite books of 2017.  Thanks to how overwhelmingly compelling each of these previous novels were, I have been eagerly waiting to read his latest novel, The Evening and the Morning, for a while now, and it has been one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020.

The Evening and the Morning is a character driven historical fiction novel that is set near the end of the Dark Ages of England.  The novel actually serves as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth and is part of Follett’s Kingsbridge series.  The Kingsbridge novels are all set within the fictional town of Kingsbridge, which each novel exploring a different period of English history (for example The Pillars of the Earth is set between 1123 CE and 1174 CE, while its sequel, World Without End, starts in 1327 CE).  This prequel is once again set in the same area, with the novel running between 997 CE and 1007 CE.

At the end of the 10th century, England is far from settled and faces attack from external threats.  One particularly vicious Viking raid causes untold damage at the town of Combe, near the city of Shiring, and sets off a chain of events that will change the area forever.

Following the raid, one of the survivors, a young boat builder named Edgar is forced to abandon his home and follow his family to the small hamlet of Dreng’s Ferry.  Living amongst the unwelcoming locals and corrupt landlord, the brilliant Edgar chafes and tries to find a new way to provide for his family.  At the same time, a Norman noblewoman, Ragna, falls in love with the ealdorman of Shiring and travels to England to marry him.  However, she soon discovers herself engulfed in a brutal battle for power with her husband’s family, and any misstep could cost her everything.  These characters are joined by Aldred, a young and ambitious monk who wishes to turn the abbey at Stirling into an academic hub.  However, his strong sense of right and wrong gets him into trouble as he searches for justice in all the wrong places.

As all three of these characters try to survive the troubles of the location, they find themselves drawn into each other’s lives.  Together they have the power to solve each of their problems and prosper together.  However, each of them has run afoul of the area’s corrupt Bishop, who is determined to gain power and influence no matter the cost.

Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this new novel from Follett, who has once again composed an outstanding historical epic.  The Evening and the Morning is another exceptional book that takes the reader on a powerful and captivating ride through an exciting period of English history with an addictive story told through the eyes of several great characters.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and despite its length (at 800+ pages, it is one of the longest novels I have ever read), I powered through this book in relatively short order as I found the compelling narrative that Follett produced to be deeply addictive and hard to put down.  This was a fantastic read, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Evening and the Morning contains an impressive and addictive character driven narrative that sees three distinctive protagonists attempt to change their destiny and the destiny of the people they love over a period of 10 years.  Set during a turbulent period of England’s history, The Evening and the Morning follows these characters as they attempt to survive Vikings, hunger, bandits and the machinations of a dangerous bishop.  The scope of this book’s story is truly epic as Follett ensures that his protagonists are forced to contend with all manner of challenges and tragedies, from political intrigue, direct attacks, imprisonment and so much more.  The resulting story is deeply compelling, extremely intelligent and wildly entertaining, especially as Follett comes up with a ton of unique and intriguing scenarios for his characters to work around.  I had an incredible time reading The Evening and the Morning’s story and it proved extremely hard to put down.

As I mentioned above, The Evening and the Morning is part of the Kingsbridge series and serves as a prequel to the first book in the series, The Pillars of the Earth.  Despite this, I would say that readers really do not need to have any prior knowledge of the rest of the Kingsbridge books to enjoy The Evening and the Morning.  This latest novel from Follett is extremely accessible, and as it is set more than 100 years before the events of The Pillars of the Earth, readers really should consider this a standalone novel that any historical fiction fan can easily enjoy (that is true for every entry in this series).  That being said, long-term fans of Follett and the Kingsbridge series will no doubt really appreciate seeing this early version of this iconic fiction setting, especially as the author includes a number of clever connections to the future novels in the series.  I particularly liked seeing how the titular Kingsbridge of the series was created, and you also get more of a look at how important the clergy were to the early inhabitants of the town, which is fascinating if you consider how the relationship between the church and the townspeople changes over the course of the series.  As a result, I would say that The Evening and the Morning is a book that most readers will be able to enjoy, while also serving as an intriguing entry in the Kingsbridge series.

The Evening and the Morning’s story follows three major point-of-view characters, Edgar, Ragna and Aldred, and shows the reader 10 key years of their lives.  These three characters form the heart of this story, and it does not take long for you to get really drawn into their individual stories.  Each of these characters has their own intriguing and emotionally charged story arcs, such as the creative Edgar’s attempts to rebuild his life in a hostile new village after experiencing a series of terrible losses, Ragna’s marriage and the subsequent battle to gain power and influence, and Aldred’s bid for justice and knowledge.  I really enjoyed each of these character’s individual arcs, but their real strength lies in the way that their stories and lives tie into one and other.  All three major characters becoming incredibly entwined as the book continues, as they form a strong friendship between themselves and attempt to help each other come the various struggles they encounter.  These separate character storylines come together extremely well into one powerful and cohesive narrative which sees the reader become deeply engrossed in all their lives.  You really grow to care for all three of these characters as the story progresses, becoming deeply invested in their wellbeing and happiness.  While this is evidence of some outstanding writing on Follett’s behalf, it is a little unfortunate as a lot of bad things happen to each of these characters (especially Ragna), and it makes for some emotionally hard reading at times.  There is also a rather intriguing love triangle between these three characters with some interesting LGTB+ elements attached, which adds an additional level of drama to the story.  I ended up being quite satisfied with how these character arcs unfolded, and readers are going to have an incredible time seeing how they turn out.

In addition to the main three characters, there is also another major point-of-view character, Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring.  Wynstan is the book’s main antagonist, a cunning and ruthless manipulator who is desperate to gain power and influence at the expense of others.  Wynstan is the half-brother of Ragna’s husband, who uses his familiar connections and his corrupted followers to control much of Shiring and the surrounding area.  Follett has created an extremely despicable and aggravating villain with Wynstan, who comes into conflict with all three major protagonists, as each of them cross him in some way or another.  Wynstan is an extremely vengeful and dangerous opponent, who manages to do some fairly evil deeds throughout the book, while avoiding too many repercussions.  I found myself really growing to hate Wynstan and his followers as the book progressed, becoming fairly aggravated whenever he managed to weasel his way out of trouble.  This emotional response to Wynstan is exactly what you want when you write an antagonistic character, and I think that he helped add a lot to the overall narrative.

Follett has also loaded up his story with a ton of side characters who the point-of-view characters interact with throughout their lives.  There are quite a substantial number of side characters in this book, but thanks to Follett’s excellent writing the reader is able to keep track of each of them; at no point during this book did I become lost working out who someone was.  Many of these supporting characters have their own minor story arcs throughout the book, and it is interesting to see how they evolve and change over the years.  While quite a few of them are fairly despicable (indeed, at times it seems like the three main characters are the only decent or sensible people in the story), you do grow attached to them and become wrapped up in what happens to them.  That being said, readers are advised not to get too attached to them, as they have a much higher mortality rate, although there are a few happy endings in there which are guaranteed to satisfy.  Overall, Follett does an exceptional job with all the characters in this novel, and watching their lives unfold was a real emotional rollercoaster.

I also quite enjoyed the author’s fascinating depiction of England (with a bit of Normandy thrown in for good measure) during the late 10th and early 11th century.  While the setting of this book, Shiring and its surrounding environs, are fictional, they come across as period-appropriate settlements and the reader gets a real sense of what life in the various villages and towns would have been like.  Due to the broad scope of the story and what the characters witness, the reader gets a look at a huge range of different people who would have existed during this period, including the nobility, the various members of the clergy, the common people and even slaves.  Follett does an amazing job of highlighting how these various characters would have lived, what their professions or stations were like and the problems they would have typically experienced.  The author really replicates the hard nature of the times, allowing the reader a fascinating glimpse into the harsh and dangerous lives of our ancestors.  Follett also works in some broader historical elements, such as the increased attacks from the Vikings and the political situation at the time.  A lot of these historical inclusions, such as having King Ethelred the Unready appear as a minor character, proved to be really intriguing, and I loved how the author dived back into history to enhance his tale.

With The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett has once again shown why he is one of the top historical fiction authors in the world today.  This latest novel presents the reader with an exceptional and captivating tale of love, connection and triumph over adversity at the end of England’s dark ages.  Serving as a prequel to Follett’s bestselling The Pillars of the Earth, The Evening and the Morning contains an amazing story that follows some driven and likeable protagonists during this dark period.  The end result is an epic and incredibly addictive read that comes highly recommended and is easily one of the best books of 2020.  There is a reason why Follett is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I cannot wait to see what elaborate novel he comes up with next time.

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Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by E. K. Johnston

Queen's Peril Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 6 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive back into a galaxy far, far away, as bestselling young adult author E. K. Johnston presents the very first Star Wars novel of 2020, Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.

Padmé Naberrie has always wanted to serve the people of her home planet of Naboo, and she knows that the best way to do that is to become Queen. Entering the competitive election, the 14-year-old politician is elected as ruler of Naboo. Casting aside her real identity for the protection of herself and her family, Padmé takes on a new name, Amidala, and moves into the royal palace, determined to bring change to Naboo. However, even a ruler as brilliant and diplomatic as Padmé is unable to do everything by herself, and she finds out that she is going to need help.

In order to keep her safe and to assist her with her needs, Padmé is introduced to a group of talented young women who will serve as her handmaidens. Acting as her assistants, confidantes, bodyguards and decoys, each of her handmaidens brings something different to the group, and it is up to Padmé to turn them into an effective team. Together, Padmé and her new friends seem capable of dealing with any challenge that may impact them.

However, there is a dark plot at work within the Republic, and its mastermind has Naboo in their sights. Soon Naboo is invaded by the armies of the Trade Federation, who seek to capture Queen Amidala and force her to sign away the planet. Forced to flee in disguise, Padmé sets out to reclaim her home and will do anything to free her planet. While Jedi, soldiers and a young chosen one may rally to their cause, the fate of Naboo ultimately rests on the shoulders of a young queen and her loyal handmaidens.

Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and enjoyable new addition to the Star Wars canon from bestselling author E. K. Johnston. I have been rather enjoying some of Johnston’s recent Star Wars releases, and I had a fun time reading her 2016 novel, Ahsoka, as well as last year’s fantastic release, Queen’s Shadow. Queen’s Peril is the first of several Star Wars books being released in 2020 (although some have been delayed), and I have been looking forward to seeing how this book turns out. This new novel acts as a prequel to Queen’s Shadow and is set both before and during the events of the first Star Wars prequel film, The Phantom Menace. This ended up being a fun and interesting read that explores some unique parts of Star Wars lore.

This latest Star Wars novel contains an intriguing tale that starts from the moment that Padmé is elected queen and takes on the Amidala persona. The first two thirds of this book follow the early days of Amidala’s reign, introducing Padmé and her handmaidens and showing how they became such a tight-knit team. There are a number of great moments during this first part of the story, and it was interesting to see the origin of a number of elements of the Amidala character that are shown in The Phantom Menace, such as her voice, the establishment of the decoy system, and a huge range of other compelling features. There are also several scenes that are dedicated to exploring why the Trade Federation decided to target Naboo and what the origins of their conflict were. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, and I feel that the final third kind of let it down a little. The last part of the book focuses on the invasion of Naboo and follows the events of The Phantom Menace. While it was cool to see some different perspectives on the events of the film, this part of the book felt rather rushed, as the narrative jumped between a number of sequences from the movie in rather quick succession. Despite the problems with the ending, this was still a rather compelling story, and I did enjoy Johnston’s additions to the Star Wars universe.

While on the surface this book appears to be purely about Padmé, Queen’s Peril is actually about a number of different characters who made Padmé’s role as Queen Amidala possible. Padmé is naturally one of the main characters of the book, but all five of her handmaidens are just as important to the story. Johnston previously introduced each of these handmaidens in Queen’s Shadow, and briefly explored their unique skills and what they brought to the group. She does this again in Queen’s Peril, although this is done in greater detail, as this book shows each character’s history and how each of them became a handmaiden. Each of the handmaidens is given a distinctive personality, and all five get a number of scenes told from their point-of-view. I really enjoyed learning more about these characters, and it was great to see them come together as a group and work towards ensuring that Padmé was protected and an effective queen. While each of the characters are explored in some detailed, the biggest focus is on Sabé, Padmé’s first handmaiden and her main decoy (played by Keira Knightly in the film). The author spends time showing the unique relationship between Sabé and Padmé, and it was captivating to see the trust between them grow. Because she was so heavily focused on in the movie, Padmé does not get a lot of scenes in the last third of the book, so quite a bit this part of the story is told from the perspective of all the handmaidens. It was rather interesting to see how each of these characters went during the course of the film, and it was particularly cool to see some scenes with Sabé as she pretended to be the Queen.

In addition to Padmé and her handmaidens, Queen’s Peril also featured point-of-view chapters or scenes from pretty much all the key characters from The Phantom Menace film. The use of all these extra characters was an interesting choice from Johnston, and I liked how it expanded the story and showed some fresh perspectives and backstory for several major Star Wars protagonists. Most of these appearances are rather brief, with characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn only getting a few minor scenes. However, other characters do get some extended sequences, especially Captain Panaka, the head of Amidala’s palace guards. Several chapters are told from Panaka’s perspective, and he becomes quite a key character within the book, mainly because he is the person who finds and recruits all of the handmaidens. Panaka is a major driving force of the plot, and it was interesting to see his role expanded from the films, especially as you get more insight into why he is so dedicated to the Queen. I also really liked how the book features several sequences told from the perspective of Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious. These scenes were fun, as they showed a lot of Palpatine’s earliest manipulations, including how he was able to organise the invasion of Naboo. Overall, I rather appreciated how the author utilised all the characters within Queen’s Peril, and watching their development and interactions proved to be quite compelling.

Like the author’s other Star Wars novels, Queen’s Peril is intended for a young adult audience, and Johnston does a fantastic job tailoring it towards younger readers. This book has a lot of great young adult moments to it, especially as it focuses on a group of teen girls working together to outsmart a variety of adults and then eventually save their entire planet from an invasion. Queen’s Peril has some fantastic portrayals of these teen protagonists, and there are a number of sequences which show them stepping up or dealing with complicated issues that younger female readers will appreciate. While it is intended for younger readers, Queen’s Peril, like most young adult Star Wars novels, is also very accessible to all readers who are major fans of the franchise, and it is easy for older readers to get into and enjoy the plot of the book and its intriguing new additions to the Star Wars lore.

I did have a minor complaint about the release order of the books in Johnston’s series about Padmé. While I enjoyed both Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow, I really do think that it was an odd decision to release Queen’s Shadow first, and then release a prequel novel a year later. It would have been better to release Queen’s Peril first to introduce the various handmaidens and help build up the emotional connection between them and Padmé, making their use and inclusion in Queen’s Shadow a bit more impactful. It might also have made a bit more sense to have Queen’s Peril only focus on events before The Phantom Menace, have another book focus exclusively on what was happening with the handmaidens and Padmé during the course of the film (which would have ensured that Queen’s Peril did not feel as rushed as it did towards the end), and then release Queen’s Shadow. While I am sure that there is some reason why the order for these books was a bit off, probably at the publisher level, I think they could have planned this out a little better.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Queen’s Peril, and I had a great time listening to this book. Queen’s Peril has a short run time of just over six hours, so it is rather easy to get through this book quickly. Like all Star Wars audiobooks, this version of Queen’s Peril was a real auditory treat, due to the excellent use of the iconic Star Wars sound effects and scores from the movies, which are used to enhance each of the scenes. While it was great to once again hear all the fantastic music and intriguing background noises, Queen’s Peril’s greatest strength as an audiobook comes from its fantastic narrator, Catherine Taber. Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clones Wars animated television show, and, short of getting Natalie Portman in, is the perfect person to narrate a novel about the character. Taber also narrated the previous Johnston book about Padmé, Queen’s Shadow (indeed all of Johnston’s Star Wars books have featured the character’s voice actor as a narrator for their audiobook), and it was great to see her return. She naturally does a perfect voice for the character of Padmé, as well as for the handmaidens, who had similar speaking patterns due to their role as decoys. There are some great vocal scenes between these characters, especially when they are trying to perfect the Amidala voice, and they go through several variations throughout the book. In addition, because Queen’s Peril features nearly every major character from The Phantom Menace, Taber also had to voice several different people who were brought to life by some amazing actors in the original film. I felt that Taber did a fantastic job as imitating some of these voices, and it proved to be a real showcase for her skills as a voice actor. Overall, I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Queen’s Peril.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and exciting new young adult Star Wars release from E. K. Johnson that acts as a sequel to her previous awesome novel, Queen’s Shadow. Johnston comes up with another compelling story that explores the early life of Padmé/Queen Amidala and her loyal handmaidens. While it does have some flaws, it is a very good book, and it should prove to be a fun read for established fans of the franchise and younger readers who are interested in breaking into the expanded universe. I had an amazing time listening to this book and I look forward to seeing what sort of Star Wars story Johnston produces next.

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Cover

Publisher: Scholastic Audio (Audiobook – 19 May 2020)

Series: The Hunger Games – Book 0

Length: 16 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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It is time to return to Panem as bestselling young adult fiction author Suzanne Collins presents the thrilling prequel to her acclaimed The Hunger Games series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

It has been 10 years since the third and final book in The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Since then the series has gone from strength the strength, thanks to the four films that converted these books into an ultra-popular franchise. Like many, I jumped onto The Hunger Games bandwagon after the first film was released, and I ended up listening to all three of the novels in quick succession. This of course turned me into a pretty major fan of the franchise, and I eagerly watched the next three films as they were released. As a result, I was extremely intrigued when I heard that Collins was writing a prequel novel, and I have been looking forward to it for some time. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes right after its release, and it proved to be an extremely interesting book that I rather enjoyed.

It has only been a decade since the Capitol won the war that ravished Panem, defeating the Districts and forcing them back under Capitol control. As punishment for their crimes, every year two children from each of the 12 surviving Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal fight to the death from which there is only one survivor. While many in both the Capitol and the Districts view the Games as distasteful, for one young man it represents an invaluable opportunity.

Coriolanus Snow is a young academy student whose family has fallen on hard times after the war. Coriolanus’s one chance to get into the Capitol university and have a chance at wealth and prestige is to successfully mentor one of the tributes in the annual Hunger Games and ensure that they win. The odds seem to be against him when he is given the female tribute from District 12, generally considered the lowest tribute with the worst odds of surviving. However, when his tribute, the wild and alluring Lucy Gray Baird, sings on stage at the reaping, Coriolanus’s hopes rise, as her antics capture the attention of everyone in the Capitol. Determined to succeed no matter the cost, Coriolanus soon finds his fate entwined with that of Lucy Gray. But as he gets closer and closer with his tribute, just how far is Coriolanus willing to go, and how will his decisions now affect the future of Panem forever?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a captivating and entertaining read that serves as a fascinating prequel to the original Hunger Games novels. Collins comes up with a fantastic, character-driven story that focuses on the main antagonist of the first trilogy, President Snow, while also diving back into the past of her unique dystopian future, showing the early days of the Hunger Games. I have to admit that I had rather high expectations going into this novel, and I ended up being a little disappointed at times with how it turned out. This was a rather less exciting read than the previous Hunger Games books, as Collins spends a lot of time exploring society, human nature and the psyche of the villainous protagonist. It was also way too long, and I think it could have been shortened down a little. Despite probably being my least favourite Hunger Games novel so far, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is still a really good book that I had an amazing time listening to it.

This book contains an intriguing plot that follows the protagonist as he becomes involved in the events of the 10th annual Hunger Games. The story is broken up into three distinctive parts, each of which takes up about a third of the book’s narrative. The first part deals with the lead-up to the Hunger Games, the second part follows the actual Hunger Games as Snow watches from the outside, while the last third of the book details the aftermath of the games, and features a new adventure for the protagonist. Each of these three parts proved to be enjoyable in their own right, and together they formed a rather compelling overall narrative. I was a little surprised that the actual Hunger Games ended about two-thirds of the way into the story. When the novel suddenly jumped to a post-Hunger Games storyline with third of the book still to go, I honestly thought that Collins had made a mistake, and would have been better off portraying an extended Hunger Games. However, this third part served as a rather good conclusion to the entire novel, and I actually really liked some of the major plot elements that occurred there, especially as they were the most transformative part of the novel for the main character. There are a lot of cool moments within this story, as well as a bevy of supporting characters, many of whom Collins is able to give a bit of depth to with a few short paragraphs. I actually really enjoyed where this story went, and while I did envision it going in a different direction, I think that Collins did a good job with it in the end.

One of the key things about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that it serves as an origin story for President Snow, the main antagonist of the original Hunger Games trilogy. It features an 18-year-old Snow as the main character and is told completely from his perspective. I understand that quite a few people were not exactly thrilled that President Snow was the focus of this novel, and many did not want to see a book that followed a young version of him. While I can understand their feelings about this, I personally enjoyed seeing something that focused on Snow and his early history. I have read and enjoyed many stories in the past that focus on a villain, or which features them as a major protagonist, and it can often be quite fun to see their perspectives and motivations. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a good example of this, and I found it fascinating to see a younger Snow and watch his involvement in his first Hunger Games.

Collins has an interesting take on the character of the young President Snow, and presents the reader with some key moments from his life, as well as some of the people who helped shape him into the villain we know in the later books. The author spends time exploring elements of his childhood, such as showing how he suffered during the war, not only losing both his parents, but also nearly dying from starvation as the Districts besieged the Capitol. There are also some intriguing examinations of his family, such as the grandmother who gifted him his love of roses, and the revelation that the character of Tigress, who appeared in the third book (fourth movie), is actually Snow’s cousin and closest living relative. However, despite these more humanising elements, Snow is shown to be a truly irredeemable person even before the transformative events of the novel. From the very start of the book, Collins portrays him as a manipulative and conceited individual, constantly sucking up to people in order to get what he wants, resentful of those around him who have more than he does and concerned most of all with status. While there are some intriguing nature versus nurture elements to his early behaviours, Snow is shown to be just an unpleasant person. This of course makes him a hard protagonist to get behind for this book, and for most of the story you really were not rooting for him to succeed. Despite this, I found his story to be rather compelling and I enjoyed seeing this mostly amoral teenager attempt to succeed, while presenting the reader with various, weak or selfish justifications for his actions in his mind.

While he is already a pretty despicable person, it is the events of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes that truly turn him into the cutthroat person that takes control of the Capitol in the future. Thanks to a combination of his experiences and some perceived betrayals (which are always worse from his point of view), as well as the mentorship of the Capitol’s sadistic head gamemaker, Doctor Gaul, Snow becomes much more ruthless and ambitious, and some of his actions towards the end of the book show just how evil he has become. It was also cool to see him embrace the philosophy around the Hunger Games, as well as developing a hatred of District 12 and certain other symbols and songs, all of which the character would carry with him to the main trilogy 60 years in the future. All of this analysis of Snow’s character formed a captivating heart to the story, and I liked the more villain-centric novel, even if this great antagonist did come across as a winy child at times. I will be intrigued to see more of the events that influenced Snow in the future, although I can appreciate that many others would prefer stories based around Collins’s protagonists.

The other major character that I have to discuss is Snow’s tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray is an entertaining and likeable character who steps off the page right at the moment of her introduction and sticks in the mind. Lucy Gray is a very different tribute to that of Katniss from the main trilogy, being a singer and rebellious entertainer who effortlessly makes everyone fall in love with her, and who relies on cunning and underhanded tactics to survive rather than martial prowess. She also serenades both the reader and the other characters with a variety of different songs, and I quite enjoyed seeing several of the musical numbers she came up with, especially as you find out the origins of one of the musical pieces that appear in the original trilogy. Lucy Gray is the character who the reader is most drawn to, and you find yourself even hoping that Snow succeeds, as this will ensure Lucy Gray’s survival. Snow and Lucy Gray end up having a bit of an awkward romance, which on the surface seems nice, although you only see it from Snow’s point of view, and he becomes rather possessive of her in his own mind. I would have been interested to see Lucy Gray’s thoughts on Snow, as it could have really changed the whole dynamic of their relationship. Overall, though, Lucy Gray is a great new character, and the way her arc in this book ends really helps drive home how terrible Snow can be.

The thing that I think most people, especially established fans of The Hunger Games novels, will enjoy about this prequel novel is the substantial world building that Collins does. The author does an outstanding job showing off an early version of Panem, which is still recovering from the impacts of the war, and where control over the Districts is not yet complete. This is a rather different Capitol to what you see in the other The Hunger Games books, as there are no elaborate costumes, outrageous styles, strange cosmetic surgery or excessive luxuries. Instead it is a far more subdued Capitol, with less food, traumatised people and rubble still in the streets. This made for a curious contrast to what we see in the future books, and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities. There are also some exciting flashbacks to the war itself from the memory of Snow, and it was cool to learn a little more about that. Naturally, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes contains a lot of foreshadowing to the events of the original Hunger Games trilogy, and fans will enjoy seeing historical views of certain key events, locations and people.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this world building is the author’s exploration of the early Hunger Games and how they took place. These Games are very different to the elaborate affairs shown in the original trilogy. Up until this point the Hunger Games are rather basic, with the tributes simply thrown into an abandoned sports arena with a bunch of weapons. There are some great comparisons between these more basic games and the games that we are more familiar with, such as the way that the tributes are treated, as rather than the luxurious train with all the fancy food that Katniss and Peeta travelled in, the tributes for these Hunger Games arrive starved and injured in a livestock train. This is also the games where they start to experiment with some of the elements that are recognisable from the main games, such as having a mentor, brief interviews with a Flickerman (in this case, Lucky Flickerman, the local news weatherman and amateur magician), gambling and sponsors. It was really cool to see the origins of these ideas, and why they were implemented, and it makes for a truly fascinating addition to the book. Collins also really dives into the philosophy behind the Games, and why the leaders of the Capitol were so eager for them to succeed and why they believed that they helped control the Districts. The origin of the Games is also revealed, as well as some of the key players, and I think it served as an invaluable piece of this universe’s lore. I quite liked learning more about the early days of the Hunger Games, and I imagine that a lot of readers will love to find out how such a terrible event came to pass.

The actual Hunger Games that took place in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a shorter and more barebones affair than what we have seen before. The tributes are fighting in an actual sporting arena, rather than a terraformed zone, and most of them spend the time hiding in the tunnels. Due to the fact that we are seeing it from Snow’s point of view, and because the arena only has a couple of cameras that only cover a fraction of the area, there are a lot of periods of inactivity and blank time, where the reader has no idea what is going on. This made for a much more disrupted experience, and while it was interesting to see the games unfold from the outside (something we saw a little bit of in the movie, but not in the books), it was nowhere as exciting as it could have been. That being said, there are still some really cool moments of child murder, and I did like seeing the mentor’s role in winning the games. The way in which the games came to an end was also rather clever, and it played into the events occurring outside with Snow. While it could have been longer, more exciting and perhaps more intense, this was still a fun part of the novel, and I look forward to seeing more fights to the death in any future Hunger Games novels Collins writes.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes rather than grab a physical copy, and I am rather glad that I did, as it proved to be a great way to enjoy this book. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes audiobook is narrated by Santino Fontana and has a run time of just over 16 hours. This was a rather extensive run time for a Hunger Games novel; it was around five hours longer than any of the previous audiobooks in the series. That being said, I was able to get through this audiobook in a rather short period of time, and I found myself really engaged by this format, as it helped explore all the elements of this earlier version of Panem. Santino Fontana proved to be a very good narrator for this novel and he does an excellent job bringing the book’s large host of characters to life. The various voices he does fit the characters rather well, and I thought that his narration helped to highlight how horrible Snow could be at times. I also liked how Fontana’s narration worked with the multiple songs that Collins featured throughout the novel, and his spoken version of them sounded rather cool. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes to people interested in checking this book out, as it was a wonderful format to enjoy this great story with.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a curious and unique new addition to The Hunger Games franchise, which I thought turned out to be a rather good read. Collins ended up writing an intriguing, character-based narrative that showed a new side to the main antagonist of her original trilogy. While this book is not without its flaws, I had a wonderful time reading it, and once I got into its plot I had a hard time putting it down. Ideal for those fans of the previous Hunger Games novel, this book should make for an interesting movie in the future, and I am planning to grab any future novels from Collins set in this universe.

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Star Trek: Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack

Star Trek - Picard Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 11 February 2020)

Series: Star Trek: Picard – Book One

Length: 11 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready to dive back into the Star Trek universe with Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack, the latest Star Trek novel which ties into the events of the Picard television show. The Last Best Hope is an outstanding novel that serves as a bridge between Star Trek: The Next Generation show and the current Picard series.

Nearly 20 years before the events of Picard, both the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire faced an unprecedented calamity. Scientists have just discovered that the Romulan sun is in the process of going supernova, turning into a destructive force that will devastate the Romulan home system and have significant negative follow-on effects on the remaining planets within Romulan Space. In order to ensure the evacuation of their people, the Romulans grudgingly request aid from the Federation, who assign Jean-Luc Picard to the mission.

Picard, promoted to the rank of admiral, quickly finds himself in charge of the largest and most difficult operation in Starfleet history. The evacuation mission is a vast undertaking, requiring Starfleet to relocate hundreds of millions of Romulans to distant planets in only a few short years. Lacking resources and manpower, Picard begins the evacuation process as best he can, with the invaluable help of his new first officer, Rafaella “Raffi” Muskier. Meanwhile, back in the Federation, Geordi La Forge attempts to come up with new ways to increase Starfleet ship production on Mars. The best solution is the creation of a new, synthetic workforce, and La Forge calls in an old colleague, the brilliant scientist Bruce Maddox, who reluctantly halts his lifelong work on artificial life to help build these new synthetics.

As the evacuation progresses, Picard takes solace in every small victory his team can achieve, but this mission seems doomed to fail. Debates from ambitious Federation politicians, distrust and fear from the Romulans they are trying to help, and interference from the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police, all hinder the mission. However, Picard is not one to give up easily and is determined to save every Romulan he can from the impending disaster. But even the great Jean-Luc Picard is unprepared for how his mission will end. Everything is about to change, and Picard and the galaxy will never be the same again.

Star Trek is one of those popular franchises that always produces a ton of extra content each year in the forms of novels and comics, so it was no surprise that material related to Picard would eventually be released. The Last Best Hope is the very first Picard tie-in novel, although I expect that additional books will come out in the future. Indeed, IDW has already released a Picard tie-in comic, Countdown, which I will probably check out at some point. This first Picard novel was written by veteran tie-in author Una McCormack, who has previously delivered several great Star Trek books, including last year’s Star Trek: Discovery tie-in, The Way to the Stars. McCormack does an amazing job with The Last Best Hope, producing a captivating and incredible read that expertly leads into the new show.

Before I dive too deep into this review, I think that it is necessary to point out that this book was released on the 11th of February, between the third and fourth episodes of Picard. That means that this book contains quite a few mentions of events and reveals that occur in the initial episodes of the show, especially as McCormack clearly had early access to the show’s scripts. While this ensures The Last Best Hope a much more complete and in-depth tie-in novel, it does mean that this book contains some spoilers for the television series. In addition, as I have been religiously watching Picard every week, my review is influenced by the events of the first six episodes and it also contains some spoilers from the show.

The Last Best Hope is a wide-ranging Star Trek canon novel, set across several years of Star Trek history (2381 to 2385) that explores one of the biggest prequel events mentioned within Picard, the explosion of the Romulan sun and the attempts by Picard to evacuate them. This leads into a powerful and clever novel which shows all the trials and tribulations associated with this exercise, as well as several other events that lead into the show. McCormack makes excellent use of a number of different character perspectives to create a full and rich narrative around this plot, which also explores some major Picard characters. While I did think that parts of the story ended rather suddenly, with no real lead-in to the disaster on Mars that changes everything, this book is a first-rate novel which I powered through in extremely short order.

One of the major appeals of this book is the fact that it serves as a prequel to the events of Picard and provides readers with additional background and context to the adventures currently happening in the show. This is done in a number of ways, from providing the reader with greater background about certain characters, showing the origins of a number of the storylines from the show and serving as a bridge between the events of Picard and The Next Generation. The Last Best Hope features an excellent introduction to several of the newer characters in the show, such as Agnes Jurati, Raffi, Elnor and the Qowat Milat nuns, and it was intriguing to see how these characters slotted into the pre-history of the show. At the same time, McCormack also examines what happened to several established characters from The Next Generation after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, including Picard, Bruce Maddox, Geordi La Forge and even a little bit about Worf (he becomes captain of the Enterprise!). McCormack also provides an explanation about several key occurrences and storylines that are touched on within the show, such as the creation of the synthetic workers that destroyed Mars, Picard’s resignation from Starfleet and the extent of several key relationships. There are also some potential hints at where the show might go in the future, and I will be interested in seeing if those pan out at all. I was pleasantly surprised with how much background that McCormack was able to fit into The Last Best Hope, and the different revelations and expansions on the information provided in the show make this a fantastic read for those currently watching Picard.

The Last Best Hope features some very impressive character work, and I feel that McCormack did an excellent job capturing the personalities and histories of several key characters from the new show. I really appreciated her portrayal of Picard, and this book featured several key aspects of his character, such as his dark moods, his determination and his ability to inspire absolute loyalty in his subordinates. I liked how the reader gets to see how Picard deals with the seemingly impossible task assigned to him, especially as his emotions throughout the book range from hope to absolute despair, as multiple obstacles and problems seem to dog everything he does. One of the major parts of his character explored in this book is the way that Picard’s ideals and beliefs seem a little out of touch with the world he lives in. This is something that is shown throughout the Picard television show, as the old-school captain is now living in a much darker and more desperate world. I am really glad that McCormack tried to capture this in her novel, and it was really compelling to see Picard being completely oblivious about the darker realities of the galaxy. All of this is really compelling to see, and I think that it serves as a good basis for some of the ways Picard acts in the current show.

Aside from Picard, a number of other characters are featured throughout the book, many of whom have some really interesting and compelling stories. I personally found the tale of Raffi, Picard’s new first officer, to be particularly good, as the reader gets to see how she became so messed up and obsessed with proving that the Romulans where behind the destruction of Mars. You also get a better understanding of why she was so mad that Picard quit on her and the mission, especially after she sacrifices everything for him, thanks to the way he inspired her. McCormack also spends significant time exploring the character of Bruce Maddox, and it was especially intriguing to see this character between his appearances in The Next Generation and Picard. You also got to see the origins of his relationship with Agnes Jurati (indeed, based on release dates you learn about this relationship in this book before it is mentioned in the show), and it was great to see how it unfolded and how close the two of them were. Of course, this also has a more sinister and heartbreaking edge to it if you look back at this relationship after the events of the fifth episode of Picard. I also liked the Geordi La Forge storyline; it was interesting to see his struggle to increase Starfleet ship production. However, the best part of this portrayal occurs at the end of the book, and I will be curious to see how they show off his survivor’s guilt if the character ever appears in Picard.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was the way McCormack slowly starts to alter the tone of the novel to represent the change between the lighter The Next Generation and the darker Picard shows. At the start of the book, the story is more in line with the tone of The Next Generation, with Picard embarking on a humanitarian mission with his idealism and belief in the greater good intact. However, as the mission progresses, things start to get darker, as the various obstacles to the Romulan relief mission become more apparent. The dark and callous manipulation of the Romulan leaders and Tal Shiar as well as the xenophobic politics of certain Federation politicians becomes more and more apparent, resulting in a darker tone. McCormack also attempts to replicate the more adult tone of the current show with a greater reliance on swearing (never have I seen so many F-bombs dropped in a Star Trek novel, oh the humanity!) and hints of mass murder, genocide and extinction-level events. All of this makes for a slightly different Star Trek tie-in novel experience, and I personally enjoyed some of the subtle changes McCormack made to the tone.

I personally really enjoyed seeing the entirety of Picard’s attempts to evacuate the Romulans from their soon to be exploding sun. This has been one of the most fascinating events mentioned in the show, with several parts shown or alluded to in Picard. McCormack really dived into this event, showing many of the various aspects of such an operation, including the science, politics and diplomacy associated with it. From the start, this whole mission is painted as a near impossibility, not just because of the scale of calamity and the number of people affected but because of the mindset and suspicion of the Romulans they are trying to save. To put it into context, this operation would be like the United States trying to evacuate a similar sized country that had North Korean levels of state led secrecy and distrust towards the organisation trying to save them. The sheer scale and difficultly of this mission are constantly raised, and yet Picard and his team seem to find a solution to many of the problems presented to them. Of course, anyone who has seen the first episode of the show knows how this is going to end, so seeing the characters getting so invested in their mission is a bit of an emotional blow. That being said, this book contains a lot more context for some of the Federation’s decisions, and in particular the character of Admiral Kirsten Clancy (Starfleet’s CNC in the second episode of Picard), comes across as a whole lot more sympathetic. Overall, I felt that this was an amazing expansion on the events mentioned in the show, and it was really cool to see how the whole operation unfolded.

Another great facet of The Last Best Hope which made it such an intriguing book was its compelling examination of the Romulan people. McCormack really dives into Romulan culture and society in this book, presenting some intriguing details about this race. In particular, she examines the Romulans’ deep-seated need for privacy and secrecy, which is a defining part of their species. McCormack does an excellent job highlighting how this desire for secrecy impacts them as a race and a culture (secret multi-room Romulan music for the win!), and how they barely trust other members of their own species, let alone members of the demonised Federation. Seeing how this obsession with lies, secrecy and the appearance of saving face with the Federation impacted the species’ chance for survival is a compelling and intriguing part of the book. McCormack also dives into other parts of Romulan culture and society, mainly the role of the Tal Shiar, the Romulan secret police, who have long been a shadowy force within Star Trek lore. Seeing the fear and apprehension that this organisation causes amongst ordinary Romulan citizens, as well as the lengths they will go to maintain secrecy and security, is pretty crazy and it certainly enhances an established Star Trek antagonist species. I also enjoyed seeing more of the Qowat Milat, the Romulan warrior nuns who Picard befriends and helps evacuate from Romulan space. The Last Best Hope contains several encounters with the Qowat Milat, and we get to learn a bit more about them, the role they play in Romulan society and how they interact with the Tal Shiar, with whom they have an adversarial relationship. All of this is deeply, deeply fascinating, especially for those readers who love learning about Star Trek lore, and I really enjoyed seeing all the Romulan inclusions featured in this book.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Last Best Hope, which is narrated by Robert Petkoff. This new Star Trek audiobook runs for 11 hours and 40 minutes, which can be listened to fairly quickly, especially once you get stuck into the compelling story. I really enjoyed listening to The Last Best Hope, mostly thanks to the incredible voice work of Robert Petkoff. Petkoff seems to be the go-to narrator for all things Star Trek these days, as he has lent his superb vocal talents to a huge number of other Star Trek audiobook adaptions in recent years. I have previously enjoyed his work on such books as The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox, The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett and Available Light by Dayton Ward. In each of these previous books, I have been greatly impressed by Petkoff’s ability to recreate the voices of key characters from the Star Trek television shows, including most of the characters in The Original Series and The Next Generation. He continues this amazing voice work in The Last Best Hope, providing near-perfect impressions of characters like Picard and La Forge, which really helps the reader immerse themselves into the story. While his impressions of some of the newer characters from Picard are not as accurate (keep in mind Petkoff would have recorded this book before Picard aired), he does provide clear and distinctive voices for each of the characters utilised in the books. I also love the accents he provides to the various alien races and nationalities in this book, and I especially enjoy hearing him attempt to replicate the speech patterns of certain aliens, like the Vulcans. Thanks to this incredible voice work, I absolutely loved listening to the audiobook for The Last Best Hope, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in this latest Star Trek novel.

Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack is an excellent and deeply captivating read which serves as a perfect prequel tie-in novel to the current Picard show. There is so much information and detail about the Star Trek universe prior to the events of the current television series contained within in this novel, and I loved seeing the author expand on the intriguing new universe that has been hinted at in the show. This is a must-read book for all Star Trek fans, especially those who have been loving Picard, and even non-Star Trek fans will enjoy this book’s powerful story and the fantastic plot device of the Romulan rescue mission. The Last Best Hope is probably the best Star Trek novel I have had the pleasure of reading so far, and I am extremely excited to see what other tie-in novels they release around the awesome new Picard series.

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