Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron by Alexander Freed

Alphabet Squadron Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 18 June 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 408 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War of the Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

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Publisher: Hyperion (Hardcover – 4 June 2019)

Series: Royal Bastards trilogy – Book 3/Final

Length: 392 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

War, rebellion, magic and one hell of kickass story! Shvarts brings the outstanding Royal Bastards trilogy to an end with War of the Bastards, the relentlessly entertaining conclusion that rounds out the series with an epic bang. The Royal Bastards trilogy is the debut work of author Andrew Shvarts, who has produced an incredible young adult fantasy series that has been an absolute delight to read over the last three years. Set in the fantasy nation of Noveris, the series follows the adventures of its protagonist, Tilla, and her friends as they try to navigate the treachery and war that has engulfed their nation.

I had an absolute blast reading the second book in the trilogy, City of Bastards, last year. Not only did the book feature a compelling story style and an amazingly captivating plot, but it ended with an outstanding cliff hanger with the protagonist failing to stop the antagonist’s sinister plot, which results in the entire royal family being killed off and the enemy gaining control of the throne. This was such an epic ending, especially because the massacre of the entire royal family was just so unexpected (I really was expecting a last-minute rescue from the protagonists), and I have been extremely curious to see how this story ended for quite a while.

It has been a year since the destructive events that changed Noveris forever. After orchestrating the explosion that decimated the royal court of Noveris, killing the King and Queen and most of Noveris’s nobles, Lord Elric Kent has assumed the throne. With a huge number of powerful bloodmages under the command of his ruthless Inquisitor, Miles Hampstedt, Kent’s rule over Noveris looks to be nearly absolute. However, many are still fighting back against the despotic new rule, including Kent’s bastard daughter, Tilla.

Tilla is a member of the resistance group known as the Unbroken, which fights to return Tilla’s friend, the rightful Queen, Lyriana Volaris, back to the throne. With the help of her lover, Zell, and Lyriana’s cousin, Ellarion, Tilla and the Unbroken are engaged in a brutal guerrilla war against the new regime. However, the situation looks dire and victory near impossible to achieve, until a mission to rescue a major source of rebel intelligence reveals that their informant was none other than King Kent himself. Kent’s rule has been usurped by Miles, whose absolute control over the bloodmages has allowed him to take over Noveris without anyone noticing. While attempting to deal with the implications of capturing Tilla’s father, the Unbroken also free Syan Syee, a young woman from the Red Wastes with mysterious magical powers, who brings an urgent message to the people of Noveris. Syan warns of a coming apocalypse and believes that defeating Miles is the key to stopping it. Needing new allies, Tilla, Lyriana, Zell, Ellarion, Kent and Syan journey to the Red Wastes, hoping to recruit Syan’s people to their cause. However, what they discover in the Red Wastes will change everything. With this new knowledge, can Tilla and her friends save Noveris, or will Miles’s lust for power and control tear their world apart?

Before I started reading this book, I honestly thought that Shvarts was going to have an extremely hard time matching the awesomeness of City of Bastards. However, I am pleased to report that War of the Bastards is an incredible and massively compelling read that I enjoyed just as much as the second book in the series. While it may lack the shocking cliff hanger ending of City of Bastards, War of the Bastards has an excellent fast-paced story that proves extremely hard to put down once you start.

I really loved the story contained within War of the Bastards and felt that it was an amazing conclusion to the trilogy. The tale of an epic battle to free a kingdom is a classic, but the author has put some fantastic modern twists on it, and his entertaining writing style and dedication to bringing out huge moments, really turns this into something special. Shvarts has included a number of cool twists and turns throughout this book, and I really liked where the story went at times. There was also a slight turn away from fantasy towards another genre about two-thirds through the story that proved to be a bit surprising, but I found it to be an interesting addition to the story. Without giving too much away, I was very satisfied with the clever way that the antagonist was taken down at the end of the book, and it was a nice call-back to earlier events in the series. I really enjoyed how this story turned out, and it was an outstanding conclusion to the epic tale that had been told throughout the Royal Bastards trilogy.

In the previous books in the series, the author tended to only set the story in one general setting, such as the West for the first book and the Lightspire for the second book. In War of the Bastards, Shvarts continues to expand on his fantasy world, but this time he takes his characters to several new locations that had been alluded to in the other books. The story starts in the Heartlands and focuses on the characters fighting their guerrilla war there. This land has been transformed by the oppression of Kent and Miles, and it was intriguing to see how bad things had gotten under their rule. The protagonists also journey through the Southlands and the Red Wastes, both of which are pretty fascinating and distinctive locales. The Red Wastes was definitely the most unique location, ravaged by terrifying magical storms and featuring interesting new civilisation. Overall, these new locations are pretty cool, and readers will enjoy exploring more of this great fantasy world.

One of the major strengths of Shvarts’s previous books has been the excellent character work. Each of the major characters has gone through tremendous growth through the course of the first two books, and this growth has continued through the course of War of the Bastards. Tilla has gone from being two different types of social outcast (a bastard in the first book and a traitor’s daughter in the second) to a respected rebel warrior fighting the good fight. However, despite knowing she is fighting for what is right, Tilla is not natural killer and has to constantly deal with the guilt of her actions, keeping a running mental count of all those she has killed. She also has to finally come to terms with her strained relationship with her father once he joins them on their quest. Due to her status as a bastard, her father has always kept a certain distance with her. Now, with him joining their band, Tilla is forced to have several emotional confrontations with him over the terrible things he has done in previous books and how he treated her in the past. This results in some dramatic moments within the book, and the exploration of their relationship makes for great reading. Tilla still serves as the book’s narrator and point-of-view character, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. This is extremely fortunate, as her sassy and sarcastic outlook on the events occurring around her leads to a lot of the book’s humour. All in all, I have always found Tilla to be a pretty awesome main character, and it was great to see how her story ended.

In addition to Tilla, the other three main characters from the previous Royal Bastards books all get great character arcs within this book. Lyriana spends this book as the Queen in exile of her people and is burdened with the responsibility of being a figurehead. However, she rises to the challenge and proves herself to be powerful badass and war leader thanks to her epic magical abilities. This was a massive change in her character from the second book, where she was devastated with loss and trauma, and it was great to see her at her full potential. Readers will also like the new relationship she finds herself in, and it was nice to see her finally get some emotional happiness. I would say that Zell is character least utilised in this book, but we do get to witness him trying to come to terms with guilt from the previous book thanks to the inadvertent role he had in facilitating the massacre. The character most impacted by the events of the previous book is Ellarion, Lyriana’s cousin and the most powerful magician in the lands. He lost his hands at the end of City of Bastards when defending his friends from the massive explosion and must now learn how to live without them and, more importantly, the magic they allowed him to perform. Shvarts did an amazing job portraying Ellarion’s despair at his situation and the longing he has for his lost magical arts. Some interesting things happen to him in this book and he has a major moment that readers will absolutely love.

Two new characters join the main characters in this book: Syan from the Red Wastes and Tilla’s father, Lord Kent. Syan is a pretty cool lesbian character who has some significant secrets in her past. Shvarts does a great job telling her entire story within this one book, and I found her to be quite an enjoyable character. Lord Kent was another fantastic addition to the main group of protagonists. While he has appeared in both of the previous books in the trilogy, we have never really gotten his side of the story before. In addition to all the drama surrounding his relationship with Tilla, we also get to see his motivations for his actions, as well as the regret for what he has brought about. I really liked the inclusion of Kent in War of the Bastards and thought it was a clever touch from Shvarts because of all the extra emotional complexities and drama he brings to the story.

I should quickly mention the main antagonist of this book, Miles. Miles has always been a pretty unlikeable character, especially after betraying the group in the first book due to his jealousy over Tilla choosing Zell. Shvarts really makes him even more despicable in War of the Bastards by showing him as the facilitator of all the worst things that have been done in Noveris in the last year. Later confrontations with him reveal that he has no remorse and really does not see himself as the bad guy. His continued obsession with Tilla is pretty messed up (cough, harem, cough), but I do like how that was used against him at times. Overall, Miles makes for an excellent series villain, and Shvarts did an amazing job utilising him in this final book.

The author has a very creative mind when it comes to the magic and fantasy elements contained within this series. The magical abilities and rules that govern the lands of Noveris are extremely interesting and have led to some impressive magical destruction and battles in the past. Shvarts continues to do this in the final book, and the exploration of the origins of magic and the devastating consequences of using it are really fascinating. Shvarts came up with some cool and unique new magical abilities in War of the Bastards, especially for the magic utilised by the people of the Red Wastes. The author has been really creative in this final book, and I am sure readers will like some of the ideas he comes up with.

Like the previous books in the series, War of the Bastards is being marketed towards the young adult audience. However, it should only really be read by the older teen audience, as it features a lot of adult content. While it does not have as much sex, drugs and drinking as City of Bastards did, it does feature a heck of a lot more violence, and some of the action scenes are pretty gruesome. This does mean the book is really easy for older readers to enjoy, and I would strongly recommend this to all adult fantasy readers.

While I am sad to see the Royal Bastards series end, War of the Bastards was such an incredible conclusion to the story that it does not seem too devastating. Due to its near perfect blend of electrifying story content, excellent characters and entertaining writing style, I found that it was near impossible to put War of the Bastards down, and I had an amazing time reading it. This is easily a five-star read, and I reckon this is my favourite young adult book of 2019 so far. With his debut trilogy, Andrew Shvarts has shown himself to be an extremely talented author, and I will be eagerly keeping an eye out for his next series.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn – Audiobook Review

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Publisher: Random House Audio (11 April 2017)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 16 hours and 56 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

While Disney are currently releasing quite a large number of Star Wars tie-in novels and comics, none of them quite had the history behind them that Thrawn did. Timothy Zahn is probably one of the best authors of Star Wars fiction of all time, having written several books in the previous Star Wars expanded universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends) before Lucasfilm was bought out in 2012. Without a doubt, his most iconic contribution to the Star Wars universe was the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who was introduced in his 1991 book, Heir the Empire, the first book in Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy. Grand Admiral Thrawn was the Empire’s greatest tactician and naval commander, who led the war against the protagonists of the original Star Wars trilogy following the events of Return of the Jedi and proved to be an effective major antagonist. Thrawn swiftly became a fan favourite, and Zahn revisited the character several times.

While Thrawn was an amazing character, many assumed that he was unlikely to be seen again after Disney shelved the original expanded universe to allow for their own stories and characters. However, Disney surprised many when they announced that Thrawn would be brought back to their extended universe in the Star Wars Rebels animated show. Thrawn was introduced as the show’s main antagonist for the third and fourth season and he shone as the villain of the show, bringing his tactical abilities and unique view of war to bear against the rebels. Brought to life with the voice work of the extremely talented Lars Mikkelsen, Thrawn is easily one of my favourite things about the show’s last two seasons and was a fantastic addition to the plot.

Disney also decided to include Thrawn in their slowly building collection of Star Wars novels, with a whole new Thrawn trilogy commissioned from Timothy Zahn. Given the unique opportunity to have a second go at introducing one of his most iconic creation, Zahn has so far written two books in this series, Thrawn and Alliances. I read and reviewed Alliances last year, but I unfortunately missed getting a copy of Thrawn when it first came out. With the third and final book, Treason, coming out at the end of July, I decided to finally go back and check out an audiobook copy of Thrawn.

In the Star Wars Legends canon, Thrawn was active for a long period of time, essentially from before the events of Attack of the Clones until several years after the events of Return of the Jedi, with a lengthy service in the Imperial Navy. In this book, however, Zahn has to reintroduce his character in a much earlier and compacted period of Star Wars history, as his character could only have come to prominence between Revenge of the Sith and the third season of Star Wars Rebels in the Disney canon. I was quite keen to see this new version of the character, especially as Zahn gets to once again show how an alien managed to rise to the highest of ranks in the xenophobic Imperial military.

Several years after the fall of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi, the Empire reigns supreme throughout the galaxy and is always looking to expand its control. A routine survey of an unexplored world in Wild Space uncovers a small, ramshackle settlement with items featuring writing in an unknown alien language. As the Imperial survey team investigates, they find themselves under attack from an unseen adversary who manages to inflict heavy causalities with minimal resources. Retreating back to their ship, the Imperials discover that their attacker, a blue-skinned, blue-haired alien, has stowed away on their transport. The alien identifies himself as Mitth’raw’nuruodo, a member of the Chiss Ascendency, a legendary race from the Unknown Regions. The Imperial commander takes Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn, to Coruscant to be presented to the Emperor, who he impresses with his tactical ability and his mysterious connection to the Clone War General, Anakin Skywalker.

Taking Thrawn into his service, the Emperor makes him an officer in the Imperial Navy, along with his translator, cadet Eli Vanto. As Thrawn and Vanto are first enrolled in the Imperial Naval Academy and then assigned junior roles on a ship, they face opposition and resentment from other members of Navy. However, thanks to Thrawn’s unparalleled tactical and strategic mind, as well as his ability to understand and predict the actions of his opponents on the battlefield, the two are able to rise in the Imperial hierarchy.

As Thrawn is quickly promoted up the ranks, he starts to become obsessed with the enigmatic Nightswan, a brilliant rogue tactician who has been helping criminals and dissidents defy the Empire across the galaxy. At the same time, Thrawn’s inability to understand the political realities of the Imperial Navy proves to be a major threat. Luckily the politically ambitious Arihnda Pryce is willing to provide help, as long Thrawn assists with her plans to gain political power and become governor of her home planet of Lothal. As rebellion spreads through the galaxy, Thrawn leads the assault to cut it down as he heads towards his promotion as Grand Admiral.

This was a pretty outstanding novel. I absolutely loved Thrawn and it is probably the best canon Star Wars novel in that I have so far had the pleasure of reading. Zahn did an amazing job revamping his iconic character by presenting a fantastic new story that not only harkens back to the author’s original novels but also fits the character perfectly into the Disney timelines. Thrawn is an excellent balance of character work, action, political intrigue and exploration of the Star Wars universe, all of which adds up to an incredible novel that I was nearly unable to stop listening to and which results in an easy five-star rating from me.

The events of this book take place over the course of nine years, between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. More specifically, it starts 11 years after Revenge of the Sith, and continues directly at the start of the third season of Star Wars Rebels, approximately two years before A New Hope. Thrawn is split into two separate storylines: one that follows the rise of Thrawn through the Imperial Navy and another that focuses on the machinations of Arihnda Pryce as she becomes governor of Lothal. The Thrawn storyline is mostly told from the perspective of Thrawn’s companion, Eli Vanto, although a few chapters are shown from Thrawn’s perspective alone. While the two storylines start off showing Thrawn and Pryce’s separate rises to power and are not initially connected, once the two characters start working together, their stories mesh together a lot more. While I had a stronger preference for the parts of the book focussing on Thrawn, I did quite enjoy the sections focusing on Pryce, as they had some compelling elements and showed a different side of the Empire. The two separate storylines mesh together quite well, and together they tell a complete and intriguing story that highlights how the characters obtained the relevant positions in the Imperial hierarchy that they had when introduced in Star Wars Rebels.

At the heart of this book is the focus on Thrawn, an absolutely amazing central protagonist, whose escapades and adventures are some of the best parts of the book. Zahn has done an amazing job reinventing Thrawn for this new era of Star Wars history, keeping all the character traits that made him such a hit in the original expanded universe, while fitting his character timeline into a much shorter period. Thrawn is still the same highly intelligent alien with an unmatched tactical mind and an appreciation for the culture and art of the various people he encounters. However, in this universe, he achieves his rank of Grand Admiral in a far shorter period of time. Starting with his rescue on a remote planet after ambushing Imperial forces (the entire scene is a rewrite of Zahn’s 1995 short story, Mist Encounter, although with a few necessary changes), this book shows him joining the Imperial Academy, and then climbing the ranks all the way up to Grand Admiral within a few short years. The entire story of Thrawn’s early career in the Imperial Navy is absolutely fascinating, and I really enjoyed this look at the character’s history, especially as his rapid promotions were due to the multiple intriguing military actions he oversaw. His entire storyline is extremely well paced out, and the reader gets a full story that is incredibly captivating. This was a really clever reimagining of the character’s history, and it is a great story to tell.

Zahn does a great job showcasing Thrawn as an utterly brilliant individual who is clearly smarter than everyone else he encounters. There are some great characteristics to Thrawn, like the way he is able to get into his opponents’ heads and anticipate their actions and intentions. His shear analytic ability is showcased so many times throughout the book, most notably in the way that he analyses the emotions and body language of all the people he encounters. For example, whenever Thrawn is talking with someone, the reader gets a short description of the facial reactions or emotions that the character talking to Thrawn is exhibiting. I’m unsure what this looks like in the hard copy of the book, but in the audiobook version the narrator uses his chilling Thrawn voice rather than his baseline narrator voices. From these short descriptions, the reader gets an idea of what Thrawn thinks the other character is thinking, and it is deeply fascinating to see how this affects Thrawn’s actions. I loved that the author continued to show how Thrawn gains insight into a people’s culture and personalities through their art. Throughout the book, Thrawn is shown appreciating a potential opponent’s art and culture, and then using the conclusions and observations he gleams from the items to alter his strategies or the way that he deals with them. This is a fantastic character trait that I am glad Zahn continued to use in his works.

Probably one of the best things about the character of Thrawn in this book is the inventive and brilliant strategies that he comes up with to defeat his enemies. Throughout the course of the book, Thrawn utilises some deeply inventive plans for both large-scale conflicts and smaller battles, and it is always very entertaining to watch these plans come to fruition. I loved some of the strategies that Thrawn used in this book; whether he is swamping a shielded fortress with artificial tidal waves or using Clone Wars era buzz droids to take out a pirate ship, the end result is just spectacular. In many ways, the Thrawn in this book is a bit like Sherlock Holmes, if Sherlock worked for an evil space empire. His opponent, Nightswan, is essentially Moriarty (a man nearly as smart as Thrawn, who sells his tactical abilities to members of the underworld), and the author uses this to make the battle scenes even more intense, as a brilliant attack from Nightswan is countered by an even more sophisticated move from Thrawn. In addition, Thrawn also has a loyal sidekick in Eli Vanto, who is essentially the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock. Not only are there certain similarities between the two within the story, such as the way that Thrawn takes Vanto and train him in his methods, turning Vanto into an extremely competent strategist, but Zahn also uses him in a similar literary way to Watson in the Sherlock Holmes novels. Vanto is used as a proxy for the audience, so when he questions Thrawn on how he came up with his plans or anticipated his opponents, the audience gets a full explanation within the scope of the story. Thrawn was an extremely awesome character in this book, and his presence helps turn this into an outstanding read.

In addition to the character of Thrawn, Zahn also looks at Governor Arihnda Pryce, another major antagonist from Star Wars Rebels. Zahn spends a good amount of time showing Pryce’s past and how she went from a nobody to a powerful planetary governor with major political connections and a history working with Grand Admiral Thrawn. I liked this look at Pryce; her story is pretty compelling and it offers a great look at the political side of the Empire. Pryce is already a pretty despicable character in Star Wars Rebels (she is responsible for the tragic death of one of the main characters), but this book does a masterful job of showing just how evil she is. While it starts off showing her experiencing early hardship and difficulties, she quickly stops being a character you can root for the moment she has any sort of power within her grasp. The way she turns on her friends and her extreme act of self-preservation towards the end of the book are pretty dark, and you cannot help but dislike the character even more after reading her full arc in this book. This was some really good character work, and Zahn does an amazing job showcasing Pryce’s motivations and despicable nature.

If you are a fan of massive and electrifying space battles, there is a lot for you to love in Thrawn. Zahn has packed this book with a huge number of large and impressive battles between Imperial ships and the various pirates and rebels that are encountered throughout the story. There are some really fun ship-to-ship battles throughout this book, and they are absolutely spectacular to watch unfold. Thanks to the brilliant adversary that Thrawn faces for most of the book, the characters face some unique opposition, such as Clone War era ships, like the vulture droids, and an impressive island base with massive guns. These result in some amazing sequences, especially when Thrawn comes up with a surprising strategy to defeat the opposition. I had a lot of fun listening to these battle sequences, and they are a real highlight I feel that many readers will enjoy.

Thrawn takes quite an interesting look at certain parts of the Star Wars universe, and fans of the series will enjoy the author’s canonical deep dive into the Empire at the height of its power. Quite a lot of time is spend showcasing the ins and outs of the Imperial Navy, and readers get a good idea of how it operates and its system of command as the main character rises through the ranks during the course of the book. In addition to the military side of the Empire, the storyline focusing on Governor Pryce highlights how brutal Imperial politics is during this period, as she attempts to gain power and influence. Zahn also includes a number of key characters from Star Wars lore and inserts them into his story. Characters such as Grand Moth Tarkin and Colonel Wullf Yularen (a background Imperial character in A New Hope who was given an expanded role in The Clone Wars animated show) are used quite successfully in this book and offer some interesting insights into additional aspects of the Empire. There are also the obligatory hints at the Death Star (seriously, nearly every piece of Star Wars fiction set in the period has some mention of a “secret Imperial project”) and other elements of the Star Wars movies. I quite enjoyed this intriguing look at the Empire between the events of the first two trilogies, and it helped with the story.

Like most Star Wars tie-in novels, Thrawn is intended more for dedicated fans of the franchise, although I felt that this book would be particularly accessible to those readers with only a basic knowledge of the Star Wars franchise. Zahn does an excellent job explaining key aspects of the Star Wars universe that fans who are only familiar with the movies might not understand, and the book features some really fun and exciting moments. As a result, this might be the perfect book to try if you are interested in exploring the Star Wars expanded universe for the first time, especially if you happened to enjoy Thrawn in Star Wars Rebels. There really is so much in here for dedicated Star Wars fans to enjoy, and those readers who grew up with Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy will no doubt be extremely curious to see this new version of the character.

Like most of the Throwback Thursday books I review, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Thrawn rather than read the physical copy. The Thrawn audiobook is narrated by veteran Star Wars audiobook narrator Marc Thompson and runs for 16 hours and 56 minutes. I have mentioned before that listening to a Star Wars audiobook is an intriguing experience, as the productions are filled with all manner sound effects, including a number of iconic sounds from the Star Wars franchise. Thrawn continues this tradition, featuring a huge number of sound effects in pretty much every scene. These sound effects are really effective at creating an ambiance and atmosphere, and the reader gets a whole other experience of the events occurring in the book. This includes a background susurration during parties and large gatherings or the sound of blaster fire during a battle sequence. While I really love how most of these sound effects work, I did have a slight issue with an effect used to alter the voices of a certain alien species. The producers added a high-pitched screeching echo to the voices of the aliens known as the Afe in order to simulate their unique vocal patters as described in the book. However, this sound effect is extremely distracting and unpleasant, and I found it hard to listen to the dialogue of the Afe characters. While these characters were only in the book for a short while, their voices were extremely memorable and it is hard to forget that screeching sound. On the plus side, the audiobook also featured several pieces of John Williams’s epic music from the Star Wars films at key parts of the book, which helped enhance several of the scenes and bring the audience into the story.

In addition to all the sound effects and music, the Thrawn audiobook also featured the vocal talents of narrator Marc Thompson. Thompson is an extremely talented voice actor, and his work in Thrawn was pretty amazing. He has an excellent voice for the character of Thrawn that not only sounds like Lars Mikkelsen from Star Wars Rebels but which also carries all of the character’s intelligence and charm. Thompson comes up with a great voice for Eli Vanto, utilising an accent that screams space yokel and which stands out from the voices of other Imperial characters in this book. I was also quite impressed with how Thompson was able to imitate key characters from the Star Wars universe. For example, Thompson does a great Emperor Palpatine voice and also comes up with passable imitation of Grand Moth Tarkin. I felt that Thompson really got the heart of many of the characters he narrated, whether by showcasing Thrawn’s cool intelligent manner or by replicating the arrogance that comes off many of the book’s Imperial characters. As a result, I would wholeheartedly recommend the audiobook version of Thrawn, as not only do the producers continue to make good use of sound effects and music, but they also use an amazing narrator to bring this story to life.

I had an absolute blast going back and listening to Thrawn for the first time. This is an exception piece of Star Wars fiction and Zahn does an outstanding job bringing his iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, into the new Disney canon. Featuring a ton of amazingly entertaining moments and some excellent character work, Thrawn is an exceedingly fun book that will prove to be extremely appealing to both hardcore Star Wars fans and novice readers. This was a wonderful five-star read, and I cannot wait to see how Zahn wraps up this trilogy.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

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

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tombland by C. J. Sansom

Tombland Cover

Publisher: Mantle

Publication Date – 18 October 2018

 

One of the best historical fiction authors in the world today creates another exceptional piece of literature with Tombland, the epic historical crime fictional book set during the fictionally unexplored events of Kett’s Rebellion.

It is the summer of 1549, and King Henry VIII has been dead for two years.  The young Edward VI is on the throne, while his uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset, rules the country as Lord Protector.  However, the country is slowly descending into chaos as a long, unsuccessful war with Scotland, religious conflict, poverty and the corrupt actions of the rich landowners are raising discontent among England’s peasant population.

In the midst of this, Matthew Shardlake is working as a lawyer for the King’s sister, the young Lady Elizabeth.  When a distant relative of Lady Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, is found murdered near Norwich and her husband, John Boleyn, is accused of the crime, the case could have political implications for Elizabeth.  Matthew is sent to organise a legal defence of John and to investigate whether or not he committed the crime.  Travelling with his assistant Nicholas, Matthew travels to Norwich and begins to examine the details of the case.  Meeting up with their old friend Jack Barak, the three friends are convinced of John’s innocence, but malevolent forces intervene to disrupt their defence.  As several deaths occur around Norwich, Matthew’s investigation is disrupted by events outside of his control.

A well-organised peasant rebellion erupts around the city, throwing everything into chaos.  Led by the charismatic Robert Kett, the rebels march on Norwich and set up a large camp outside the city, filled with thousands of disenfranchised peasants.  Captured by the rebels, Matthew and his companions find themselves in the midst of a dangerous and divisive situation.  Nicholas’s established views about the superiority of gentlemen sees him imprisoned, while Barak finds much in common with the peasants and their cause.  Matthew is forced to make a decision about where his loyalties lie, as Kett wishes him to assist in organising trials for the landowners they have captured.  As the rebellion drags on, Matthew finds evidence about the Boleyn murder case in the camp.  Following these leads, Matthew soon uncovers a terrible conspiracy that will not only endanger John Boleyn and his lawyers but could affect the fates of every peasant in Kett’s Rebellion.

C. J. Sansom is one of historical fiction’s most highly regarded authors, having written a series of amazing novels in the genre. His most significant body of work is the Matthew Shardlake series, which follows the titular lawyer as he finds himself forced to solve a series of elaborate mysteries during the Tudor period. All the books in this series are extremely impressive, as they all feature clever mysteries and an excellent use of the book’s historical setting.  In addition to this series, he has also written a standalone historical thriller, Winter in Madrid, as well as an alternate history novel, DominionTombland is the seventh book in the Matthew Shardlake series and Sansom’s first book since 2014, but considering the sheer amount of detail and the length of the text, this is hardly surprising.

Tombland is another epic novel from Sansom and one that I really enjoyed reading and ranked as one of my top 10 reads for 2018.  This book contains an outstanding combination of an intense and complex murder mystery and some amazing historical settings and storylines.  All of these elements are extremely amazing by themselves, but together they create one of the best reads of the year.  While I really loved this book, potential readers really need to set aside a lot of time to get through Tombland.  It has over 800 pages of story, with an additional 50 plus pages of the author’s historical notes and discussions about what events he included.  In addition, each page has such a rich amount of detail and plot that I found myself getting through this book at a lot slower pace than I usually would.  While it does take a while to get through Tombland, I personally believe it is well worth the effort, as the incredible story within had me hooked from the very first page.

This book has an intricate and powerful investigation angle, as Matthew and his associates attempt to solve a terrible murder that they believe their client has been wrongfully accused of.  The mystery part of this book is very well done and features an elaborate and intriguing solution that is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book.  Sansom introduces a significant number of potential suspects, all of whom have substantial motives to kill the victim, designed to throw the reader off the scent of the real solution.  I liked how the case continued to expand out as the book went on, as the protagonists not only attempt to solve the original murder but must also investigate several murders committed to cover up the initial acts, as well as several attempts to eliminate John Boleyn.  There are several major and surprising twists throughout the investigation, as a number of small clues and characters that at first appear minor turn out to have major implications for the overarching mystery.  The solutions to the mysteries at the end of the book reveal a dark and powerful motive that has severe consequences for several of the characters involved.  Overall, Tombland contained an outstanding central mystery, which is guaranteed to keep the reader deeply curious and engaged with this fantastic text.

One of the most interesting features of Tombland is the fact that Sansom has set it during Kett’s Rebellion of 1549.  This is a somewhat obscure piece of history that many readers might not be familiar with, but it is an incredibly fascinating event of English history.  Sansom does a masterful job of portraying the entirety of the rebellion throughout the novel and use it as a fantastic secondary storyline as the protagonists witness the beginning and end of the mystery.

Sansom does an outstanding job covering the events of this rebellion, including the events that led up it and caused the peasants to rise up against the rich landowners.  As a result, he expertly examines all the events and conditions that were making the peasants and poor of Norwich, and the rest of England, discontented with the way the country was being run.  In order to do this, a number of relevant elements are effortlessly inserted into the story and become key parts of the plot.  These elements include discussions about the poorly run war in Scotland contributing to armed deserters on the rebels’ side, talks about the political structure of the country and thoughts about the religious disagreements and schisms that were rife in the country during that period.  One of the most fascinating and significant elements that apparently led to the rebellion was the rich landowners’ focus on sheep farming and the creation of large sheep enclosures rather than the growth of traditional crops.  Before reading Tombland I would never have thought that sheep farming would have the potential to be a cause of rebellion; however, Sansom is able to explain in some significant detail how sheep farming and enclosures were negatively impacting many poorer individuals in England, and how it became a key part of Kett’s Rebellion.

In addition to covering the causes of the rebellion, Sansom’s narrative grows to cover the entire length of this intriguing event.  All sorts of elements of it are explored, and readers get an excellent idea of how the peasants were organised, what their motivations were, what sort of actions they were undertaking, how the government reacted to it and what the overall attitude of the participants was.  This was all boundlessly fascinating, and as the reader gets deeper and deeper into the book it becomes harder to put the book down as they become extremely curious about what the overall fate of this group of people was, especially after the reader gets an idea of how big the rebellion was and what sort of victories they were able to obtain.  The final results of this rebellion and the long-term impacts it had on the country are really interesting to hear about, and I had an amazing time seeing all the significant events that occurred during this underexamined historical rebellion.

As always, I was immensely impressed with the sheer amount of research that Sansom did and the historical detail that resulted from it.  Tombland includes over 50 pages of the author’s notes about the event and the conclusions he drew from his extensive research.  While these 50 pages are extremely interesting to read, the revelations about how many of the events the protagonist witnesses actually occurred were astounding, and it sounds like Sansom was able to recreate nearly every significant event of Kett’s Rebellion throughout the course of Tombland, with some necessary dramatic flourishes to create the overall story.  It was amazing how many of these events actually occurred, and how many of the secondary characters were actually real-life people who had significant impacts on the outcome of the rebellion.  Readers will also be amazed by the historical details that Sansom has included on every page of this book and will have a hard time forgetting the events of 1549 and Kett’s Rebellion.

There are several other elements I enjoyed in this book, including the seamless ways that the investigative storyline combines with the historical background of Kett’s Rebellion.  So many characters that are potential witnesses or suspects in the murders that the protagonists are investigating become key figures in the historical events that occurred around Norwich.  Suspects and witnesses are also found in the rebel camp, and I liked how the key to crime and the downfall of the rebels were both in the same place.  I also enjoyed the examination of 16th century English legal procedures and the depictions of murder trials, and found the scenes featuring them very fascinating.  The book’s focus on the divide between the rich and the poor is also a great addition to the story and gets a significant look in throughout the entire book, and it is a discussion that is still relevant to this day.

C. J. Sansom once again hits his literary ball out of the park with Tombland, another five-star historical mystery that has the perfect combination of compelling mystery and intriguing historical elements. With an incredibly addictive overall narrative and a focus on a fascinating historical event that is rarely used in other pieces of historical fiction. One of my favourite reads of 2018, I highly recommend this book, especially for people who love a great mystery.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston

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Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press

                        Penguin Random House Audio

Release Date – 11 October 2016

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

The apprentice lives.  One of the best Star Wars characters that originated outside of the live-action movies returns in this action-packed, character-driven novel, which follows Ahsoka Tano’s adventures after the destruction of the Jedi Order.

Those people familiar with my previous reviews may have noticed that I am a bit of a Star Wars fan, having reviewed several pieces from the current Disney Star Wars extended universe in the last few months.  Therefore, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that I have watched and enjoyed the Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels animated television shows.  Both of these shows are very well done, can be appreciated by a varied audience and contain a large amount of the classic Star Wars heart and respect for the franchise’s lore and history that was missing in some of the more recent movies.  While many memorable characters were introduced in these shows, perhaps the most significant to the lore is the titular character of this book, Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice.

For those of you failing to remember Anakin having an apprentice in the live-action movies, you are not going crazy; Ahsoka has yet to appear in any live action movie.  She was instead introduced in The Clone Wars animated movie and served as one of the main characters of The Clone Wars television series, all of which take place in the years between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Despite being one of the most popular characters on the show, Ahsoka would leave the Jedi Order at the end of the fifth season of The Clone Wars and only appear in the sixth season as part of a short vision sequence.  As a result, fans of the both the show and the character were frustrated and confused about what Ahsoka’s fate was and whether she had survived the events of the third prequel movie.  Fans didn’t get their answer until a couple of years later, at the end of the first season of Star Wars Rebels, where it was revealed that Ahsoka had survived the Jedi purge, becoming a member of the early Rebel Alliance.  Ahsoka, now wielding a pair of white lightsabers, became a key character in the second season of Star Wars Rebels, in which she was still an incredibly cool and powerful warrior.  She was utilised to perfection in this new show and had what is easily the best scene in the entire run of Star Wars Rebels: her long-awaited confrontation with Darth Vader.  The sheer emotion and intensity as Ahsoka finally came face-to-face with her old master and discovered that he was responsible for the fall of the Jedi was just amazing and is one of my favourite moments from all of television.

Following her appearance in Star Wars Rebels, Disney commissioned a young adult Ahsoka book, which was announced on 31 March 2016, one day after the Star Wars Rebels season 2 finale.  This book was released in late 2016 and was written by young adult author and Star Wars fan E. K. Johnston.  Ahsoka was Johnston’s first foray into Star Wars fiction, although she is currently working on Queen’s Shadow, a young adult novel focused on a post The Phantom Menace Padme Amidala, set to be released next year.  I have no doubt that a review for Queen’s Shadow will appear on this website in due time.  Now, with the recent announcement of a seventh season of The Clone Wars and the reveal that Ahsoka will be appearing in this new season, I decided to check out this book to see if it did the character any justice.  I chose to enjoy this as an audiobook, rather than read a physical copy.

During the Clone War, Ahsoka Tano was a fierce warrior and a commander of the Republic’s clone troopers.  However, after the devastation of Emperor Palpatine’s Order 66, which saw the clones turn on the Jedi, everything changed.  Fighting on Mandalore, far away from her master, Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka is unaware of his fall to the dark side of the Force, and only just manages to escape the purge of the Jedi Order.

Now, one year after the fall of the Republic and the rise of the new Galactic Empire, the former Padawan is in hiding on the outskirts of the galaxy, trying to avoid any Imperial attention.  Living under an assumed name and with her trusty dual lightsabres gone, Ahsoka scrapes a living as a mechanic, intentionally distancing herself from the Force in order to hide her Jedi abilities.

Ahsoka journeys to a remote farming settlement on the Outer Rim moon of Raada.  Settling into her new life and making connections with its inhabitants, Ahsoka believes that she has finally found her sanctuary.  But her hopes of a peaceful life in her new home are quickly dashed when the Empire arrives, imposing their totalitarian rule on the people of Raada.  The agricultural potential of the moon is vital to the future of the Empire, and the workers are being forced to farm a new and mysterious plant.  Determined to help her new friends and wanting to make a difference, Ahsoka uses her wartime experience to help form a resistance in order to undermine Imperial control.

But when she is forced to reveal her full powers in order to save her friends, she once again finds herself on the run.  However, this time her actions have not gone unnoticed.  Her old ally, Senator Bail Organa wants her to join his fledgling rebellion, while the sinister Inquisitor, the Sixth Brother, arrives on Raada with plans to capture her, using Ahsoka’s friends as bait.

Because I am a fan of the titular character, I did go into Ahsoka with some rather high expectations.  Luckily I quite enjoyed Ahsoka, powering through this book quickly while appreciating how Ahsoka’s new adventure fit into the existing Star Wars chronology.  This story is very good, with an excellent blend of character development, Star Wars lore and some scintillating action and adventure.  The book contains a well-paced narrative that not only features Ahsoka’s personal story, but also examines the viewpoint of several side characters, in order to move the plot along, while also showing the impacts of Ahsoka’s actions from a different viewpoint.

This book is mainly focused on the adventures of Ahsoka, and fans of the animated show will appreciate seeing how she not only managed to survived the purge of the Jedi, but how she became the hardened rebel agent we encountered in Star Wars Rebels.  I feel that anyone who reads this book will appreciate the considerable amount of character development and insight that occurs with the titular character.  At the start of the book, Ahsoka is afraid, hiding who and what she is from the world while also denying herself access to the Force.  She is filled with regrets, concerns for her missing Jedi family and guilt not just about surviving but also about leaving the Jedi Order before its fall.  Throughout the book, her adventures, the new friendships she develops, the people she helps and the role she plays on Raada all help her to find a new purpose, as well as re-establishing her connection with the Force.

There are a number of great scenes featuring or concerning Ahsoka in this book.  These include her battle with the Sixth Brother, the forging of her new white lightsabres and the epic scene where she unleashes her Force abilities for the first time in a year.  It was also intriguing to see her advising the farmers in guerrilla tactics and helping them sabotage the Imperial occupation.  Fans of Ahsoka will appreciate the similarities this has to one of the character’s most significant arcs from The Clone Wars that featured her training a guerrilla army to combat a Separatist invasion, including a young Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker’s character in Rogue One).  I also enjoyed Johnston’s focus on the connection between Ahsoka and the female character Kaedan Larte.  It was great seeing this character help get Ahsoka out of her shell, and the subtle romantic feelings between the two of them was an interesting character direction for Ahsoka.  Overall, I thought Ahsoka contained an incredible take on its titular character, as Johnston not only provides the reader with a much clearer picture of Ahsoka’s fate following The Clone Wars, but also provides a powerful look at her thoughts and feelings following the destruction of the Jedi.

In addition to exploring the fates of one of their favourite characters, fans of the franchise are also treated to another intriguing look at events in the Star Wars universe not covered in the movies or television shows.  Ahsoka is set one year after the events of Revenge of the Sith, and shows the early days of Imperial control in the galaxy.  There is a palpable and well-utilised feeling of dread throughout the book as the various point-of-view characters encounter the steady increases in Imperial control as their military expands its influence.  It is fascinating to see the early Imperial military machine in action, especially when it comes to controlling and pacifying smaller planets and moons.  One of the most interesting aspects of this is the type of troops being utilised.  By this point in the Star Wars’ chronology, the Empire has started to phase out their clone troopers, replacing them with the human stormtroopers that appear in the original trilogy.  During her encounters with them, Ahsoka notes that these stormtroopers are still quite green and are nowhere near the clones’ level of competency when it comes to battle, controlling territory or dealing with Jedi.  This changeover in troop type for the Empire has not really been covered in too much detail before and is quite fascinating to see.

The exploration of the Empire’s methods of hunting down the remaining Jedi is also intriguing, as one of Vader’s Inquisitors serves as the book’s main antagonist.  The Sixth Brother is shown not only hunting fully trained Jedi like Ahsoka but also tracking down Force-sensitive children for his masters.  The extent of the Inquisitor’s power and influence is explored in some detail here, and I enjoyed seeing Ahsoka’s impression of these Inquisitors’ skills and actions, especially as the Inquisitors were also trained by Darth Vader.  Readers will also note the obligatory hints at the creation of the Death Star throughout the plot of the book, which is an important part of the overall Star Wars chronology.

These early days of the Imperial military is not the only thing covered in the book, as Johnston also explores the opening actions that would lead to the formation of the Rebel Alliance.  Johnston uses minor Star Wars character Bail Organa to great effect here, showing the work he beings immediately after his heroics in Revenge of the Sith to oppose the Emperor.  Ahsoka also features several cameos from other characters in the Star Wars cannon, and readers can look forward to seeing fan favourite characters Darth Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2D2, a young Princess Leia and the Grand Inquisitor.  This is a compelling and insightful addition to the Star Wars extended universe, and readers will be amazed by this new viewpoint into one of the franchise’s most volatile periods.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Ahsoka rather than track down a physical copy to read.  This was mainly because the creators of the Ahsoka audiobook managed to score Ashley Eckstein as the narrator.  Eckstein is the actor who voices Ahsoka in both The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and I loved the idea of having the definitive voice of the character narrate this crucial Ahsoka story to me.  As Ahsoka is the most prominent point-of-view character, this works out incredibly well, and the reader can enjoy hearing Ahsoka tell the story of what is around her.  Eckstein also provides excellent voice work for all the other speaking characters that feature in the book, as each of these characters were given a distinctive voice that does not feel out of place.

While I really enjoyed hearing Eckstein narrate the story, another benefit of listening to Ahsoka on audiobook is the use of the iconic Star Wars music, as well as the book’s cool use of sound effects.  The creators of the Ahsoka audiobook have inserted John Williams’s iconic score from the movies into a variety of the book’s scenes.  While this is slightly distracting in one or two places where the music did not quite fit properly, it works incredibly well for most of the book.  Several of the story’s big scenes, such as the pivotal battle sequence where Ahsoka reveals her Jedi powers for the first time since she went into hiding, are underscored by this music.  With this grand and powerful music playing in the background, these scenes are given a real epic quality that you just do not get from reading a psychical copy of the book.  It also serves to make Ahsoka feel a lot more connected to the movies, as the listeners are provided with a score that is instantly recognisable as belonging to this franchise.  In addition to the spectacular musical inclusions, the audiobook also features a range of relevant sound effects that really add to the book’s atmosphere and authenticity.  These sound effects range from droid noises and the sounds of ships starting up, to background music when the characters hang out in the cantina.  None of these sound effects distracts from the story and for some of the battle scenes, the lightsabers and blasters sounds really add to the reader’s excitement and involvement in the action.  Another thing I found fun while listening to Ahsoka on audiobook was the producer’s use of some sort of voice modulator for when Eckstein narrates the voices of stormtroopers or other characters wearing helmets.  This is a nice touch and really speaks to the producer’s attention to detail.  I am unsure how effective this would have been if Darth Vader had appeared in the book, but I’m sure I would found the end result amusing one way or another.

Clocking in at just over seven hours long, this is an easy book to get through and the inclusion of the classic Star Wars music, fun sounds effects and the definitive voice of the titular character make it an excellent way to experience this fantastic story.

Ahsoka has been written with a young adult audience in mind, and is definitely an enjoyable book for younger readers who are curious about the Star Wars universe, are fans of the animated shows, or are just looking for an exciting adventure in space.  That being said, the book does not pull any punches, and features an extended torture scene and quite a few deaths, including one particularly gruesome kill by the Sixth Brother.  While some of this can be a tad heavy, I personally feel that anyone mature enough to be familiar with the Star Wars franchise is probably going to be mature enough to not be affected by this violence.  Despite being intended for a young adult audience, Ahsoka, like many of the Star Wars young adult range, is definitely a series that can be appreciated by an older audience, especially those familiar with the franchise and the titular character.

Overall, I was very happy that I checked out Ahsoka, as it not only provided greater insight into the history of one of my favourite Star War’s characters but also painted a detailed and intriguing picture about the early days of the Empire.  Featuring a surprisingly deep and emotional story, this is a fantastic addition to the Star Wars extended universe that will appeal to fans of the amazing animated show, while also offering character based adventure to the more casual reader.  Definitely best to check out in the audiobook format, readers will love how this morphs this impressive Star Wars story into a memorable experience that becomes very difficult to turn off.

My Rating:

Four stars

If you enjoy Star Wars fiction, check out some of my previous reviews:

https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/08/12/star-wars-thrawn-alliances-by-timothy-zahn/

https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/05/30/star-wars-last-shot-by-daniel-jose-older/

Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian

Ash Princess Cover

Publisher: Pan

Publication Date – 24 April 2018

 

From an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy fiction comes a powerful tale of independence and freedom.

Ten years ago the Kalovaxians invaded the peaceful island nation of Astrea, killing its guardians and enslaving the entire populace to work in the island’s magical gem mines.

Theodosia was only six when Astrea was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. Since then she has lived in her former palace as a prisoner to the cruel and despotic Kaiser, who seeks to destroy all trace of the Astrea culture and language. Given a new title, the Ash Princess, and forced to endure constant humiliation and punishment for her people’s rebellion, Theodosia has become a subservient creature, trying to survive as she waits for any sort of rescue.

When the Kaiser forces her to perform a terrible act, Theodosia is no longer willing to stand back and watch her people suffer. With unexpected allies suddenly close at hand, Theodosia stops a plan for her escape and instead chooses to remain at court to obtain information for the rebellion.

However, the Kalovaxians are a cruel and merciless race of warriors who excel at raiding and destroying the lands they conquer. Theodosia soon realises that supplying information to her companions is not enough; she needs to find a way to strike at the heart of the Kalovaxians and disrupt their tight control of Astrea. When opportunity presents itself, she must risk everything to give her people a shot. It is time for the Ash Princess to rise.

Ash Princess is the debut novel from Laura Sebastian and the first book in a young adult trilogy with a lot of potential.

This story is told completely from the point of view of the main protagonist, Theodosia, with a large amount of the book dedicated to her growth as a leader. Theodosia starts the book as a completely broken person, having been oppressed and abused for years and kept as a symbol of humiliation. As the story continues, Theodosia detaches herself from the persona she created to survive and starts to finally oppose her captors. Watching her obtain the courage to fight back is an integral part of the book, and her attempts to become the ruler her people need are touching and emotive. There is also a riveting inner conflict within Theodosia as she debates whether to hurt people that she cares about, even if her actions could bring relief to her people. While Theodosia strongly wishes to save her people and defeat the invaders, there is also a great desire to not become like the enemies she hates. The character runs a fine line throughout the book as a result, and many readers will enjoy how Sebastian examines this inner conflict.

Sebastian has included an intricate background setting for her electrifying story. The nation of Astrea had been brutally subjugated 10 years before the start of the story and is currently ruled by the Kalovaxians. Because of how total this subjugation has been, with a large number of deaths and the rest of the populace forced to do heavy labour, very few characters originating from Astrea are featured within the story. This background of a near-obliterated country is dark and grim, but serves as the perfect setting for an inspiring story of freedom and rebellion. The antagonists of the story, the Kalovaxians, are also the perfect villains for such a story, as they are undeniably evil. All of the Kalovaxians–even the milder ones that consider themselves Theodosia’s friends–are power hungry, destructive and feel that they are superior to all other peoples. The use of the setting and the antagonists within Ash Princess adds significant impact to the main story and forces the reader to care about the fate of the main character.

Readers of Ash Princess will enjoy the covert activities that take place as part of the main story. In order to find a way to liberate her country, Theodosia needs to infiltrate and influence parts of the oppressive Kalovaxian society. The scenes were she attempts to seduce, manipulate and commits acts of sabotage are compelling and one of the more intriguing parts of the books. In addition to the protagonist’s actions, there are also the secret plans that the Kalovaxians are undertaking. These plans are rather dark and include magical experiments on Theodosia’s people. These Kalovaxian plans result in some interesting actions from Theodosia and play a significant part in the plot. The fascinating gem magic of the Astrea plays an interesting role in the clandestine actions of both the protagonist and antagonists, and fantasy-minded readers will enjoy the resultant exploration of this branch of magic.

Ash Princess is a poignant tale of hidden strength and the fight for freedom. This is a satisfying start to Sebastian’s first series which introduces a memorable main character and a powerful story that makes full use of its awesome background story elements. This is an ideal choice for readers looking for their new fix of young adult fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars