Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland

Star Wars - Out of the Shadows Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 27 July 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 10 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The marvels and terrors of the High Republic era of Star Wars history continues with the latest fantastic and exciting young adult tie-in novel, Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland.

The High Republic is an interconnected collection of novels, comics, audio dramas and other pieces of media produced by top Star Wars authors, set hundreds of years before the films.  Starting in January 2021, this compelling multimedia project features several great pieces of fiction, including the awesome introductory novel Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, the impressive The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, and the entertaining young adult novel Into the Dark by Claudia Gray.  The latest High Republic novel, Out of the Shadows, is another compelling young adult novel that continues several key storylines from previous High Republic novels.  This was the second Star Wars book from author Justina Ireland, who previously wrote the High Republic junior novel, A Test of Courage.

Death, destruction, pirates, and plant monsters!  The Republic may be at the height of its culture and influence, but it is in some major trouble.  Following the devastation that occurred during the Republic Fair at Valo, the Republic are at war with the marauders known as the Nihil, with the Jedi leading the efforts to hunt them down.  But in the far corners of space, the Nihil are planning something new, something that could change the very fabric of the galaxy.

Sylvestri Yarrow is a young pilot and captain of a dilapidated ship, who is doing the best she can to keep her crew above water after the death of her mother.  However, when her ship is suddenly pulled out of hyperspace in a remote area of space with a boarding party of Nihil raiders waiting for her, she has no choice but to abandon her home.  Determined to get some form of justice, Sylvestri heads to Coruscant to convince someone of the dangers, but no one is willing to listen to a teenage pilot from the frontier until the unscrupulous and ultra-wealthy Xylan Graf appears and makes her an offer she cannot refuse.

In exchange for a new ship and a substantial number of credits, Sylvestri will accompany Xylan to the area of space where she lost her ship to help him disprove rumours of a dangerous Nihil weapon and to convince a senator into giving his family access to valuable hyperspace lanes.  Despite her misgivings about the plan, and the trustworthiness of Xylan, Sylvestri agrees to accompany him.  However, the Senator has a caveat: Xylan must take along some unimpeachable observers of her choosing, Jedi.  Now accompanied by young Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh, her Padawan Imri Cantaros, Master Cohmac Vitus, his apprentice Reath Silas, and, awkwardly, Sylvestri’s ex-girlfriend Jordanna Sparkburn, the team heads out to the wilds of space.  But the Nihil are always watching and waiting from the shadows, and their plans could spell doom for everyone.  Can Sylvestri and her new Jedi friends survive the dangers ahead of them, or will terrible secrets from her past threaten to overwhelm everyone once they are dragged out of the shadows.

Out of the Shadows proved to be a fun and compelling entry in this great new Star Wars series that I had a fantastic time listening to.  Featuring a great story and some excellent characters, this novel continues several key storylines from the previous High Republic novels and presents a strong and action-packed adventure.

Ireland has come up with a pretty good story for Out of the Shadows, resulting in a very exciting read.  Set around a year after Ireland’s last novel, A Test of Courage, and a short period after the events of the last major High Republic novel The Rising Storm, Out of the Shadows ties together several intriguing story threads set around some compelling characters.  The book starts out quick, with each major characters introduced in short order through a series of separate point-of-view chapters.  These early introductions do a good job of establishing the characters’ histories, personalities and motivations, and sending them on their various story paths.  The first third of the novel moves quickly, with each character getting some compelling moments, such as Sylvestri getting involved with unscrupulous businessman Xylan Graf, while Jedi Vernestra and her friends get a taste of the dangerous frontier life on their way to Coruscant.  This results in a fun mixture of plot inclusions, from some captivating political intrigue in Sylvestri’s storyline to some more action in Vernestra’s story combined with some interesting examinations of the Jedi and the Force.

These storylines combine around halfway through the book, with the key characters (except for one point-of-view antagonist) coming together and working as a team.  While it did have some good moments, I felt the middle part of the novel dragged a little, and there was not a great deal of excitement there.  However, it did set up the conclusion nicely, with Sylvestri and the Jedi coming face to face with the Nihil in less-than-ideal circumstances.  After a short confrontation, the story goes into overdrive, with the characters racing through several events all the way up to the end, including one event that might have some major ramifications for the High Republic storylines.  Strangely enough, while the second act was a little slow, the final part of the novel was way too quick, with a lot happening in a very short amount of time.  Still there were some great moments in these end scenes, including a couple of good twists, and it also sets up some further adventures extremely well.  All the key characters get gratifying conclusions to their various storylines, and readers are left feeling pretty satisfied with how events turned out.  Ireland makes sure to layer her story with some great action sequences, and there are some entertaining moments spread throughout the book.  I had a wonderful time reading this cool story, and it ended up being a rather good Star Wars book.

This latest Star Wars novel is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I felt that it was a particularly good read for teenagers.  Not only does it feature several teenage characters kicking ass, including a girl who became a Jedi Knight at age 15, but it also contains a clever and enjoyable story that does not pander to the younger age group or shy away from violence or controversial topics.  Ireland did a great job diving into the teenage mindset, and I felt that the various teenage characters featured in this novel were well portrayed as competent and complex figures.  I also liked the strong LGBT+ elements that Ireland featured throughout the novel, especially between Sylvestri and Jordanna Sparkburn, and it is cool that it is being shown so prominently in these novels.  Like many young adult Star Wars novels, this book is can be easily enjoyed by older Star Wars fans, who will appreciate the intriguing story and fascinating developments to the wider High Republic universe.  Younger readers will also probably have a good time with this novel, especially as Ireland does not go too over the top with the violence and romance, and as such I felt that this was an accessible novel to fans of all ages.

Out of the Shadows’ narrative is a continuation of several previous High Republic novels, which readers may need a bit of pre-knowledge about to fully enjoy.  Not only does this novel continue to expand the High Republic series and make frequent references to characters and events primarily featured in Light of the Jedi or The Rising Storm; it also serves as a direct continuation of two previous books.  This includes Ireland’s first Star Wars novel, A Test of Courage, as well as earlier 2021 release, Into the Dark, with key characters and storylines continued in Out of the Shadows.  Readers unfamiliar with these previous novels might also have a hard time following what is happening in Out of the Shadows, although I did think Ireland had a good go at making this novel accessible to readers, no matter their knowledge base.  Some key events of previous novels are explored in some detail, and I had no trouble following what was happening or who the characters were, even though I haven’t read A Test of Courage.  Ireland also blended the various existing storylines together extremely well, and this helped to turn Out of the Shadow into a key entry in the overall High Republic series, especially as it continues to show the galactic machinations of the Nihil.  It also looks like several storylines, mainly surrounding Ireland’s primary protagonist Vernestra Rwoh, will be continued in some future novels and I will have to try to read Ireland’s next novel, Mission of Disaster, even though I have avoided the junior High Republic novels in the past.

One of the things that particularly impressed me about Out of the Shadows was the excellent collection of characters that Ireland fit into her narrative.  There is a substantial central cast in this book, including some new additions and some characters who have appeared in previous High Republic novels.  The author does a good job of introducing and exploring these key characters throughout the novel, and you get some interesting and intense character development occurring, which really adds to the narrative.

These characters include Sylvestri Yarrow, a young pilot who finds herself dragged into the middle of this adventure.  Sylvestri is a tough frontier girl with a big independent streak and a massive chip on her shoulder when it comes to both the Nihil and the Jedi, and she goes through a lot in this novel.  Serving as one of the main point-of-view characters, Sylvestri offers a very interesting view on the events occurring and has some deep connections to the Nihil plot without even realising it.  She also forms an intense and fantastic relationship with Jordanna Sparkburn, her ex-girlfriend, who suddenly re-enters her life.  Jordanna is a frontier deputy responsible for defending her planet from Nihil raiders, which has seen her fight in quite a few battles.  Brought into the story after the Jedi help her to defend her home, Jordanna accompanies them to Coruscant and then gets wrapped up the main story.  Mainly introduced as the tough girl still interested in Sylvestri, Jordanna gains a lot of depth as a character as the story progresses, especially as she has experienced a lot of trauma after being forced into multiple battles.  A lot of this comes out when Sylvestri is in trouble, and Jordanna goes on a bit of a killing spree with a unique Nihil weapon she has obtained.  This scene really adds a lot to how the reader sees her, and it proves to be quite fascinating.  I was also a big fan of Jordanna’s giant alien cat, Remy, a dangerous creature who is just a big kitten at heart, especially when she bonds with some of the other characters.

I also enjoyed the great Jedi characters featured in Out of the Shadows.  These include Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh and her Padawan Imri Cantaros, who were the main characters of A Test of Courage and are now Ireland’s go-to Star Wars protagonists.  These two Jedi make for a unique pairing, as Vernestra is a brilliant Jedi prodigy, becoming a Knight at a very young age, while Imri is only slightly younger and has a unique ability to perceive emotions.  Vern is a particularly striking character, particularly with her lightwhip (a lightsaber modified to also be used as a whip) and I enjoyed seeing the challenges that a very young Knight would face.  Her unique connection to the force also connects her to another interesting character in the High Republic canon, and it sets her up for some big storylines in the future.  The other major Jedi characters are Jedi Master Cohmac Vitus and his apprentice Reath Silas.  Cohmac and Reath were previously heavily featured in a previous young adult novel, Into the Dark, and it was great to see them again.  Despite being the apprentice, Reath is the more prominent character, with several point-of-view chapters to himself.  While it was great to see more of Reath and Cohmac, they are a little underutilised, and I would have liked to see more about them, especially with Reath’s unique connection to one of the antagonists.

The other two characters who were a lot of fun in this book are Nan and Xylan Graf, two complex figures who are playing their own games.  Nan is a young Nihil spy and infiltrator who previously encountered Reath while the two were trapped on a space station together.  Serving as one of Marchion Ro’s most loyal soldiers, Nan is entrusted with an important treasure and is subsequently forced to navigate the Nihil’s internal feuding and plotting to survive.  Nan provides a fantastic alternate perspective for much of the events of the novel as she is used to show what is happening in the Nihil camp.  I liked her use in this book, and while I would have enjoyed a much more intense confrontation with Reath when they are inevitably reunited, I did enjoy how Nan’s story arc dramatically changed towards the end of the novel, which should be interesting for future High Republic novels.  The other character is Xylan Graf, the ultimate rich-kid master manipulator.  Xylan is the scion to the exceedingly powerful and rich Graf family, who organises the entire expedition, seemingly to gain rights to a valuable sector of space.  Xylan is an extremely flashy and stylish figure, and it is quite entertaining to see the other characters react to his eccentricities.  He is also quite a sly operator, cooking up plans and spinning tales to keep everyone happy.  He is so slippery that you honestly don’t know what he is planning for most of the novel, and I felt that he was a very compelling and fun addition to the cast.  All of the above characters were really fun and I hope they reappear in some of the future High Republic entries.

I made sure to grab a copy of Out of the Shadows’ audiobook format, which proved to be an interesting experience.  While I tend to really enjoy Star Wars audiobooks due to the cool production inclusions they usually feature, I ended up being a little disappointed with Out of the Shadow’s audiobook.  This was mainly because it lacked the iconic Star Wars musical score or background sound effects that all the other Star Wars audiobooks have, which made for a more subdued listening experience.  While this didn’t make Out of the Shadows impossible to enjoy, it was a very noticeable departure from the typical fun I have with Star Wars audiobooks, and several scenes could have benefited from being enhanced by some emotional music.  Still, I enjoyed the production, mainly because narrator Keylor Leigh does a really good job telling the story.  Leigh, who previously narrated Ireland’s A Test of Courage, has a great voice for teenage characters.  I felt that Leigh gave each of the key protagonists a unique and fitting voice, and she also ensured that the narrative moved along at a quick and exciting pace.  In addition, with a runtime of just under 11 hours, this is a relatively quick listen, which dedicated listeners can power through in no time at all.  As a result, this is a good format to enjoy Out of the Shadows on, although I really do wish that it had featured the usual strong Star Wars production values.

Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland is an awesome and captivating High Republic tie-in novel, which continues to explore this unique period in Star Wars history.  Containing a fun story and some great characters, this novel serves as a key entry in the High Republic series, following several fascinating plot threads from some previous novels.  Readers are in for an excellent time with this novel, and Out of the Shadows proves to be an exciting and compelling experience.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber

Star Wars - Maul - Lockdown Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 28 January 2014)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 12 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is 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. 

2021 has so far been a fantastic year for Star Wars novels with excellent releases such as the two Star Wars: The High Republic novels, Light of the Jedi and Into the Dark, and the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron trilogy, Victory’s Price.  I have been really enjoying these new Star Wars novels but I recently got a hankering for something a little different and decided to go back and check out some of the older Star Wars tie-in novels.  While there were several intriguing options (I was strongly eyeing off A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno and Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells), I eventually settled for the one of the last entries in the Star Wars: Legends range of books, Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber, an intensely exciting and dark novel with an amazing story to it.

Welcome to the space station Cog Hive Seven, the most dangerous prison in the entire galaxy.  Here inmates are forced to fight to the death in matches broadcast to millions of gamblers across the Republic determined to make a profit off the blood of the galaxy’s worst killers and criminals.  No one escapes from Cog Hive Seven, and every one of its deadly and evil inhabitants know that they will eventually die there.  However, not even these deranged inmates are prepared for the new evil that has been thrown into their midst, the lethal dark-side assassin, Darth Maul.  

Sent by Darth Sidious to contact a secretive weapons merchant, Iram Radique, Maul has disguised himself as a notorious mercenary and killer.  Determined to complete the mission his master has given him, Maul begins to upend the prison to find the elusive Radique, quickly establishing himself as a destructive force of chaos.  However, his notoriety also sees him forced into progressively more dangerous matches against some of the deadliest creatures in the galaxy. 

Bereft of his lightsaber, forbidden from using the force and with bombs injected into both his hearts, Maul must rely on his brutal combat abilities and own inner strength to succeed.  But the closer he gets to finding Radique, the more he realises that not everything is as it seems aboard Cog Hive Seven and that his target will do everything is his power to avoid meeting with Maul.  Worse, dangerous factions have taken notice of the prison and its deranged warden and soon Maul must contend with a death cult, the followers of Jabba the Hutt and a horrifying monster living within the walls of the prison.  Can even Darth Maul overcome the odds in front of him, or will the creatures of Cog Hive Seven swallow him whole?

I think readers of this blog will not be too surprised to hear that the moment I found out that there was a book that followed Darth Maul participating in death matches aboard a space prison, I knew I would have to read it, and boy am I glad I did.  Maul: Lockdown is an impressive and fantastic novel that I found to be instantly captivating and which I powered through in a short amount of time.  Author Joe Schreiber, whose previous novel, Death Troopers, featured an outstanding story about key Star Wars characters encountering a zombie horde (it is as awesome as it sounds) came up with a pretty epic narrative for this Star Wars novel, and I really enjoyed this cool, Darth Maul-centric book.

I have to say that I was really surprised about how complex and impressive Maul: Lockdown’s narrative turned out to be.  Based on the plot description, I would have expected a simple, action-orientated story, but instead Schreiber crafted together a dark and powerful Star Wars tale with some compelling mystery elements.  This book reads a lot like a prison thriller, with Maul thrust into the middle of a dangerous jail which he must navigate to find his target.  While there is a natural focus on the fights between Maul and the other dangerous inmates, which results in some exceptional action sequences, the author also works in some great mystery and crime fiction elements that combine perfectly with the Star Wars backdrop.  The author utilises a bunch of multiple perspectives to show the chaotic nature of the prison, and there are several great storylines based around supporting characters which twist their way around Maul’s central story of surviving and attempting to find the secretive arms dealer. 

As the story progresses, more and more dangerous elements and antagonists are thrown into the narrative, including monsters, deranged cultists and even Jabba the Hutt, intensifying the obstacles facing Maul and raising the thrilling stakes of the narrative.  I really enjoyed the main storyline of the hunt for Radique, and there were plenty of false leads and twists around who he was and where he was hiding.  I did think the eventual reveal of the character (spoiler ahead!!!) was a tad weak, mainly as it ended up being a character we hadn’t seen before (spoiler end), but it was still an interesting and exciting centre to the narrative.  Schreiber also weaves some excellent horror elements into the story, especially surrounding one unique creature in the prison.  The author makes this creature particularly horrifying to behold, both because of its appearance and its unsettling abilities, and there are some real terrifying sequences surrounding it.  All these great elements come together perfectly into one fantastic and captivating tale that proves to be extremely addictive and very clever.

This is an exciting Star Wars novel that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy.  Maul: Lockdown was one of the later entries in the previous Star Wars extended universe which is now known as the Star Wars: Legends range.  Despite no longer being considered canon, the Star Wars: Legends books still have some great stories, such as the impressive heist novel Scoundrels, and this was a pretty cool entry.  Set a year before The Phantom Menace, this book is loaded with a ton of references to other pieces of Star Wars media, including several previous Star Wars: Legends novels and comics, Schreiber’s previous book Death Troopers (featuring a clever cameo), and even an old Star Wars video game, Bounty Hunter.  There are lots of interesting pieces of Star Wars lore in here, and the author features a couple of major figures from the prequel films, as well as a few obscure characters from some of the older Star Wars novels, including a corrupted Padawan of Count Dooku I had not heard of before (she is not in the new canon).  I really enjoyed the author’s inclusion of a battle of intrigue between Darth Sidious and his master Darth Plagueis, and the story in Maul: Lockdown has some great connections to certain events in the Darth Plagueis novel.  While Schreiber has included a lot of high-level lore, I felt that this was quite an accessible Star Wars novel and anyone who saw Darth Maul emerge in The Phantom Menace will definitely enjoy this darker and captivating piece of Star Wars fiction.

One of the most intriguing things about this novel is the way in which the author attempts to dive into the mindset of fan-favourite character Darth Maul.  Ever since he whipped out his dual-bladed lightsaber in The Phantom Menace, Maul has been a much beloved figure in the Star Wars franchise, but you do not often get to see much of his inner thoughts.  While I would probably be happy reading a simple hack-and-slash adventure featuring Maul, I really appreciated the way in which Schreiber takes the time to examine Maul’s inner psyche, and you get an intriguing glimpse into his thoughts about his mission, his purpose in life and his loyalty to his master.  I found it quite fascinating to see the way in which Schreiber portrays Maul’s complex feelings about Sidious, as he is both simultaneous absolutely loyal to him while also being deeply suspicious about his intentions.  Maul spends most of the book believing that everything he is experiencing is a test or deception levelled at him by his Master and he also hints at his suspicions that he will eventually be betrayed.  While this examination of Maul’s more complex thoughts and feelings is quite interesting, it is also perfectly counterbalanced by a huge number of scenes that examine just how much of a badass Maul is.  Schreiber has loaded this book up with awesome and brutal fight sequences pitting Maul up against a range of deadly opponents, which are made even more awesome by the fact that Maul is unable to use either his lightsaber or force abilities.  Instead, Maul shows off his impressive unarmed fighting skills and his natural cunning, as he overwhelms his opponents in some brutal and clever ways.  The author also fits in some compelling hints and depictions of Maul’s training and early life, which I found to be very interesting, particularly as some of these events slightly differ from the current canon.  All of this makes for an exceptionally cool Darth Maul novel, and I loved seeing this great character in all his deadly glory.

I ended up checking out Maul: Lockdown on audiobook, which is easily the best way to enjoy a Star Wars book.  The Maul: Lockdown audiobook has a reasonable run time of 12 hours and 20 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through in a couple of sittings.  I absolutely powered through this audiobook myself, especially once I got caught up in the cool story, and I had a great time experiencing all the features of this format.  Like most Star Wars audiobooks, Maul: Lockdown makes excellent use of the iconic sound effects and musical scores from the Star Wars films and television series to enhance its story.  The sound effects are particularly impactful in Maul: Lockdown, and I liked the way they made the many fight sequences pop with the sounds of violence and weapons blasting.  They also made one horrifying creature even more terrible to listen to thanks to the slithering and sucking sounds that played when it appeared.  This audiobook also made great use of John Williams’ amazing scores.  I always love hearing the inspirational and moving Star Wars music during these audiobooks, and while it was more restrained in this audiobook than some others I have enjoyed, it still helped to make several emotional or exciting scenes just a little more epic.

In addition to the cool sound effects and awesome music, Maul: Lockdown’s audiobook also made great use of exceptional narrator Jonathan Davies.  Davies is a veteran narrator who has lent his voice to several Star Wars novels in the past, such as Doctor Aphra, Dooku: Jedi Lost, Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith.  He does a fantastic job bringing the various characters in Maul: Lockdown to life, and I really enjoyed the unique tones that each character received.  I really liked the voices that he used for established Star Wars characters, which were close, if not spot on, to how they appeared in the films or television series.  This includes the menacing tones he came up with for Maul, which contained all the character’s barely supressed anger and hatred, and he did a rather good Darth Sidious which was reminiscent of Tim Curry’s take on him in The Clone Wars animated series.  Davis also did a perfect Jabba the Hutt (not exactly sure that is a compliment, but please take it as such), and I loved hearing him do Jabba’s iconic laugh.  Overall, his narration was pretty damn awesome and, when combined with the fantastic sound effects and great musical inclusions, helped to really enhance Maul: Lockdown’s narrative and continued the trend of outstanding Star Wars audiobooks.

Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber is an outstanding and awesome novel that sees one of the best characters in the Star Wars canon fighting for his life in a dangerous setting.  Featuring a powerful and addictive narrative, loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and a whole lot of violence, this is a rich, clever, and dark Star Wars novel that comes highly recommended.  I had an incredible time reading this cool and captivating book and I really need to check out some of the other amazing sounding novels in the Star Wars: Legends range.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Into the Dark by Claudia Gray

Star Wars - Into the Dark Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 11 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

The journey into the new era of Star Wars fiction known as The High Republic continues as acclaimed author Claudia Gray presents the next entry into this sub-series with the young adult novel, Star Wars: Into the Dark.

The High Republic is a fantastic Star Wars multimedia project made up of novels, comics and other pieces of Star Wars expanded universe fiction, set hundreds of years before the events of the films, showing a completely different period of Star Wars history.  This project started in January 2021 with the excellent novel, Light of the Jedi, which served as an impressive introduction to the period and the turmoils facing it.  Into the Dark, which runs somewhat concurrently with the events of Light of the Jedi, is the first young adult High Republic novel and presents an intriguing new adventure with a great group of new characters.  This young adult novel was written by the amazing Claudia Gray, author of the Evernight series, who has been making a real splash with Star Wars fiction in recent years.  Not only did she write the awesome-sounding novels Star Wars: Lost Stars, Star Wars: Bloodline and Star Wars: Leia, Princess of Alderaan (all three of which I fully intend to read in the future), but she also wrote the outstanding 2019 novel, Star Wars: Master and Apprentice, which is one of my absolute favourite Star Wars novels of all time.  As a result, I was quite keen to see Gray’s take on The High Republic era and she did not disappoint with a captivating and fascinating novel that was a lot of fun to read.

Jedi Padawan Reath Silas is about to have the adventure of his life, whether he wants it or not.  Apprenticed to the powerful Jedi Master Jora Malii, Reath is happy with his life on Coruscant where he can pursue his academic and scholarly interests.  However, his master has just accepted a dangerous new posting aboard the Starlight Beacon, a gigantic Republic-controlled space station on the frontier of the Outer Rim, far away from everything Reath has ever known. 

However, fate has a funny way of changing even the best laid plans. Reath, leaving Coruscant a few weeks after his master’s departure, finds himself caught up in the disaster sweeping through the galaxy.  Travelling aboard the unusual spaceship known as the Vessel, Reath and three other Jedi, each of whom have their own reasons for leaving the Jedi Temple and journeying into the wilds, encounter a mysterious disturbance out in hyperspace, as the remnants of the ship know as the Legacy Run, splinter out at lightspeed, destroying everything in their path.

To avoid the high-speed fragments, the Vessel makes an urgent jump out of hyperspace and finds itself trapped in an isolated portion of space with several other ships.  Forced to seek shelter in a seemingly abandoned space station, the Jedi and the Vessel’s crew attempt to work with the other ships to find a way to survive until hyperspace can once again be travelled safely.  However, great danger lies in wait aboard this station, as the various crews fight for resources and each of the Jedi are forced to fight their own inner demons.  But there are things far darker and more ancient aboard this station, and Reath and his colleagues will soon be forced to face off against a deadly foe whose reappearance could change the galaxy forever.

Into the Dark is another epic and enjoyable Star Wars novel from Claudia Gray that takes the reader on a fantastic and exciting character driven adventure.  I have been really enjoying the new High Republic pieces of Star Wars fiction and Into the Dark ended up being an awesome and compelling young adult feature that not only contains a great story, but which dives into some fascinating subjects through the eyes of its amazing characters.

Gray has come up with an excellent and enjoyable narrative for Into the Dark which not only ties in nicely with the previous entries in the High Republic line but which also sets several fantastic new characters on a captivating and emotionally trying adventure.  The author starts the story off well, introducing all the key characters in quick succession (indeed six main characters get introduced in one extended sequence), providing some hints at their compelling backstories before sending them on their way into space.  It does not take long before they get wrapped up in the chaotic events that featured in the previous High Republic novel, Light of the Jedi, forcing them to explore the main setting of the abandoned space station.  This naturally leads to a lot of exciting and intriguing events as the characters are forced to survive for a time on the station with the crews of several other ships.  During this time, a lot of story threads start to appear, such as mysterious statues, dangers from the other crews, strange writings on the wall that have significance to one key character and a lingering sense of darkness that assaults the Jedi. 

At the same time, the author dives into several of the main characters’ motivations and the events of the past that drive them, including through a series of interesting flashbacks that have some curious connections to modern day events.  The middle of the novel keeps up the excitement where, after a major event, the characters return home, only to continue to be assailed by the mysteries of the station.  There are several good twists at this part of the book, including a significant reveal about a side character that I really should have seen coming.  Eventually, all the characters reunite and return, only to get drawn into a dangerous confrontation on the station as gathered forces finally show their hand.  All of this results in an explosive and impressive conclusion that leaves some interesting story arcs open for the main characters while also ensuring that the reader gets some satisfying closure about the events of the book.  I really enjoyed this great narrative, which is filled with some clever story threads which come together extremely well into a fast-paced and compelling young adult tale that readers will get through extremely quickly.

Into the Dark is an interesting read which I felt had a wide range of appeal to a lot of different audiences.  This latest book has been marketed as a young adult novel and teenage Star Wars fans will enjoy it.  Not only is this a great Star Wars adventure but the book also features a couple of great teenage characters taking charge and attempting to initiate change, for better or worse, as the universe changes around them.  While primarily a Star Wars novel, Gray does try to make it a little more relevant to teenagers, with some discussions about relationships, drugs and sex that you wouldn’t typically see in a Star Wars novel but which fit the tone of the book quite well.  Like many Star Wars young adult novels, Into the Dark is a book that older readers will also enjoy, especially as it is tied into the main events of the High Republic era.  While I think readers unfamiliar with The High Republic could easily enjoy this book, as Gray makes the text extremely accessible, I would say that Into the Dark is probably best enjoyed by those who have read some of the previous entries in the media project, especially the opening novel Light of the JediInto the Dark has a lot of connections to Light of the Jedi, especially as a major event impacting the main protagonist of this book occurs in this preceding novel, and this latest book ties in well with the rest of the franchise while also enhancing it.  In addition, Star Wars fans will really appreciate the author’s attempt to explore deeper elements of the Force, with the Jedi characters engaging in complex rituals to combat the Dark Side energy they encounter.  The author does an amazing job examining some of the roots of the Force, as well as the mentality and abilities of the people who manipulate it, and it is a fascinating addition to the narrative.  As a result, Into the Dark can be enjoyed by a large range of people who are guaranteed to have a lot of fun with it.

Easily one of the best highlights of this book is the amazing group of new unique characters who Gray has populated this story with.  The author has come up with a great group of intriguing point-of-view characters, each of whom plays a major part in the book’s plot and who Gray spends substantial time introducing and providing some compelling development as the book progresses.  The main character of Into the Dark is Padawan Reath Silas, the bookish apprentice of a great Jedi Master.  Reath is a fantastic young adult fiction protagonist, being a teenager who is thrust into a dangerous adventure against his will and who must find his inner strength to survive and thrive.  The author does a great job developing Reath throughout the novel, especially as he experiences substantial loss and trauma that he must overcome and which changes his entire outlook on life.  This character also provides some fascinating insight into the experiences and troubles of a Jedi apprentice, especially when they encounter great uncertainty about their path.  All of this results in some excellent character moments, and it was a lot of fun to see how Reath developed. 

Another major protagonist of this book is Affie Hollow, the young teen co-pilot of the Vessel.  Affie is another great young adult character, although, as she is more worldly (or the outer space equivalent of worldly?) than the somewhat sheltered Reath, she has a bit more common sense and a heck of a lot more sass.  Affie has a pretty intriguing story arc that sees her investigate the mysterious involvement of her shipping guild, which is run by her adoptive mother, with the space station that the Vessel ends up on.  This investigation, and her own stubborn determination, places her in the middle of some dangerous situations, and she ends up having to make some emotional and ethical choices towards the end of the book.

Other major characters in the novel are two of the Jedi who accompany Reath aboard the Vessel, Orla Jareni, a Jedi set on becoming a Wayseeker, a Jedi independent of the Council, and Cohmac Vitus, a noted and hooded scholar, both of whom are leaving for the frontier for different reasons.  Orla and Cohmac are an interesting pair who are bound together by a long history and a shared trauma in their past.  The events of this novel impact both severely, as it reminds them of the first mission they completed together, which is shown to the reader through a series of intriguing flashbacks.  Despite being fully-fledged Jedi, both Orla and Cohmac are filled with doubts about their order and their purpose, although for very different reasons.  This makes them quite a fascinating pair to follow, as they admit their problems to each other and attempt to come to terms with what it is to be a Jedi Knight and the difficulties that all of them face.  There is also Dez Rydan, a younger Jedi knight who has a close connection to Reath due to them sharing the same master.  Dez is a hotshot, adventure-driven Jedi who, while fun to follow, does not get as much focus as the others, mainly due to the events of the book.  However, he goes through a substantial amount of trauma, which results in some intriguing sequences, and I quite enjoyed seeing his story progress.

While the above group of characters are all interesting and well developed, I have to say that my favourite two characters have the be the hilarious and comedic team of Leox Gyasi and Geode, the other two crewmembers of the Vessel.  Leox, the captain of the Vessel, is a space hippy, down to the outfit, speech pattern and mentality.  Described by the author as essentially being 1990s Matthew McConaughey in a spaceship, Leox has a lot of fun as he breezes through the events of Into the Dark with ease, passing out words of wisdom and advice, and generally being a nice and entertaining presence throughout the story.  While mainly the book’s comic relief (a role he fills perfectly), Leox does have a serious side, especially when it comes to protecting his young compatriot, Affie.  I also liked that the author portrays Leox as asexual, which think is great for the wider Star Wars universe, and I felt Gray introduced and handled it extremely well.  The other great character was the Vessel’s navigator, Geode.  As you may be able to guess from the name, Geode is in fact a large sentient alien rock who can apparently communicate and walk around.  If you had asked me before reading Into the Dark whether I would enjoy a character who is a mute rock, I probably would have had some issues with it, but Gray makes it work extremely well and I absolutely loved the inclusion of this character.  Since Geode does not speak out loud through the entire novel, the reader is a little uncertain whether Geode is actually alive or whether this is some elaborate joke from the characters aboard the Vessel.  Watching Affie and Leox apparently have detailed conversations with him, determine his emotional state just by looking at him, and suggesting that the character has a wild and outgoing personality is pretty hilarious, and I ended up really liking this fantastic character, who was a real solid (snigger) addition to the cast. 

Considering that the last Star Wars novel of Gray’s that I read ended up being one of the best audiobooks I read in 2019, it should come as no surprise that I chose to listen to Into the Dark’s audiobook.  Like pretty much every other Star Wars audiobook I have previously listened to, Into the Dark was pretty awesome in this format, thanks to the use of sound effects and music from the films and animated shows.  The Star Wars sound effects (which include the iconic sounds of blasters, lightsabers, star ships and so much more) add so much cool ambience to the narrative and the amazing music increases the emotional impact of a ton of awesome scenes, even though it was used a little more subtlety with this book.  I also quite enjoyed the narration of Dan Bittner, an experienced narrator whose work I have not previously had the pleasure of enjoying.  Bittner does an impressive job with Into the Dark, as he was able to move the story along at a swift pace while easily keeping the listener’s attention with his narration.  I particularly liked the cool voices that he came up with for the various characters featured in this novel, and he was able to produce distinctive voices that fit the characters really well.  I also loved the “hippie” voice that he came up with for Leox, and the good-natured, ethereal tone really stood out for me and made me laugh.  With a run time of 11 hours, this is not a very long Star Wars audiobook, and listeners should be able to power through it in short order while having a good time.  Overall, this was an impressive production, and audiobook remains my favourite way to check out a Star Wars novel.

Star Wars: Into the Dark is an outstanding and compelling young adult tie in novel that takes the reader on another amazing adventure in the Star Wars universe during the High Republic era.  The always awesome Claudia Gray has come up with a fantastic and captivating tale, anchored around several entertaining and wonderfully complex characters.  The result is an excellent Star Wars novel that will have a wide amount of appeal and is really worth checking out.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule

Star Wars - Light of the Jedi Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 5 January 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 13 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out 5 stars

Boldly venture into a bright new era of the Star Wars universe as acclaimed science fiction author Charles Soule introduces the first entry in the High Republic multimedia publishing project, Light of the Jedi.

We are all the Republic!

Two hundred years before the events of The Phantom Menace and the Skywalker Saga, the Republic was at its absolute height in influence, technology and culture, in a period of time known as the High Republic.  With the glorious Jedi Order leading the charge, nothing seems capable of slowing down the inevitable expansion of the Republic, especially with the creation of the Starlight Beacon, a vast space station designed to bring Republic influence to the darkest corners of the Outer Rim.

However, all it takes is one event to threaten everything.  In the depths of hyperspace, tragedy strikes when the transport ship Legacy Run, taking settlers to the Outer Rim, encounters something while travelling at light speed and is torn apart.  Shortly after, in the agricultural system of Hetzal, chunks of the ship emerge from hyperspace at incredible speeds and begin to rain down across the systems, planets and moons in an extinction-level event.  Disaster is only partially averted by the arrival of the Jedi, who work tirelessly and valiantly in an effort to save as many lives as possible.

As more pieces of debris begin to strike other systems within the Republic and the Chancellor initiates a hyperspace blockade, the Jedi are tasked with determining the origin of the crashed ship before more tragedies can occur.  As the Jedi, led by Master Avar Kriss, begin to investigate, they quickly determine that a mysterious new party has taken a twisted interest in the disaster, the Nihil.   The Nihil are a group of ruthless and chaotic raiders with dark secrets and a sinister origin, who appear out of nowhere and take what they want.  Armed with unique technology and abilities, the Nihil are about to engage in a deadly campaign against the Republic and the Jedi which the galaxy may never recover from.

I think it is fair to say that the High Republic is off to a smashing start with this exciting and captivating novel.  The High Republic is an intriguing new publishing campaign that aims to present a bold new era of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  Set around 200 years before the events of the earliest Star Wars film, the High Republic will consist of a series of connected novels, including adult, young adult and young reader books, as well as several comics, manga and audiobooks, all set in the same period of Star Wars history, with a whole new range of different characters and storylines.  The High Republic project has been in the works for some time, with several of the best Star Wars tie-in fiction authors banding together to come up with the overarching story and universe.  These various storylines are likely going to lead into some form of movie of television series in the future, especially after the success of shows like The Mandalorian, representing a whole new creative frontier for these amazing authors.

The subject of this review is Light of the Jedi, the first book in the High Republic range, which introduces readers to this fascinating time period in the Star Wars universe.  This essential introductory novel was written by the extremely talented Charles Soule, who is one of the main creative voices of this project.  Soule is a fantastic author who, in addition to writing several cool science fiction novels, is probably best known for his work in the comic book world, having authored a number of major series, such as Thunderbolts vol. 2, She-Hulk vol. 3, Death of Wolverine, and Daredevil vol. 5, just to name a few.  I personally know Soule best from his various Star Wars comics, including the very cool Poe Dameron series, The Rise of Kylo Ren miniseries and his current run on the main Star Wars series (I really need to review the first volume of that).  My favourite of Soule’s Star Wars comics is the exceptional Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith series, which followed Darth Vader in the immediate aftermath of his turn to the dark side.  This was a deeply impressive series (check out my reviews for Volume 2: Legacy’s End and Volume 3: The Burning Seas, the latter of which was one of my favourite releases of 2018), with some captivating and clever storylines, and it easily one of my favourite Star Wars comics of all time.  As a result, I have been eagerly awaiting this impressive author’s first Star Wars novel, and Light of the Jedi did not disappoint as Soule created a fantastic and epic tale that I really enjoyed.

At the heart of this great novel is an exciting and compelling narrative that takes the reader on a wild adventure into the depths of Star Wars space and beyond.  Soule presents a brilliant multifaceted tale in Light of the Jedi, told from the perspective of a huge number of different characters, each of whom add some fantastic perspectives to the wider narrative.  This novel has an amazing start, with the first third of Light of the Jedi showing the cataclysmic event that rocks the galaxy and the subsequent attempts to avert it in great detail.  This entire first part of the book is pretty fantastic, filled with destruction, heroics and amazing character introductions, all of which is overlayed to a countdown clock that hints at a bigger and more destructive event to come.  I really enjoyed this fast-paced and intense start to the book, especially as Soule adds in some fantastically written action-packed scenes, loaded with some dramatic and tragic moments, setting up the novel’s subsequent story perfectly.  The rest of the book splits into several separate but related storylines that show the aftermath of the opening chaos, introduces and highlights the overall antagonists of the book, and expands on the introduced characters.  All of the storylines featured in this part of the book are extremely interesting and compelling, presenting several unique adventures with some excellent twists, while also examining cool aspects of the Star Wars universe.  The huge range of storylines and character arcs complement each other really well, producing a balanced and captivating tale that comes together extremely well in the end.  All of this leads up to an epic conclusion that not only serves as a great ending to the various storylines featured in Light of the Jedi but which also sets up some intriguing storylines for the future High Republic novels.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is the huge extensions that Soule, and the associated High Republic creative brain trust, made to the Star Wars universe.  The High Republic period, as portrayed in this novel, is a gleaming beacon of civilisation and democracy, where unity and positivity run rampant, especially with their near-religious catchphrase of “We are all the Republic”.  Light of the Jedi serves as the perfect introduction to this period, and Soule does an amazing job exploring all the key aspects of it, including the technology, the set-up, the significant figures and the major differences between this period and future eras of the Republic that readers are more familiar with.  I liked the overall setting of this version of the Star Wars universe, especially as it has a very distinctive frontier feel to it, with people moving out from the settled core of the Republic and encountering some of the hidden and malicious dangers in the less settled regions.  There is also something shiny and exquisite about a lot of inclusions in this book, and I particularly liked all the depictions of the spaceships and technology featured.  This historical Republic is definitely at a high-point of culture and technology, and as such this book is loaded with a ton of elegant and beautiful battleships, which sound so much more impressive than rougher technology featured even in the prequel films.

I also appreciated the way in which the author portrays people having a general sense of naivety throughout the Republic, as they all believe that everything is peaceful and nice.  This will no doubt change in future entries in the series, and it will be interesting to see if this peaceful version of the Republic starts to go downhill a bit as a result of the events featured within this series.  For me though, one of the highlights of Light of the Jedi had to be the titular Jedi.  The Jedi featured in the High Republic series are at the height of their power and majesty, and they prove to be a very impressive bunch in their white and gold robes.  There is a really fascinating collection of unique Jedi throughout the novel, and it looks like Soule attempted to feature Jedi of nearly every Star Wars species he could think of.  The thing that really stood out to me were all the cool Jedi powers that they had, as the Jedi characters in this novel were doing a ton of amazing force techniques that none of the characters featured in the films seemed possible of doing.  All of this was really cool to see, and I think that Soule and Light of the Jedi did an amazing job of introducing this impressive setting.

Another very intriguing inclusion is the Nihil.  The Nihil, who are set to be the main antagonists of the entire High Republic range, are a group of ultra-violent raiders who live by a simple code of taking what they want, when they want, and are massively opposed the ideas of law and order imposed by the Republic and the Jedi.  Soule does an amazing job introducing these antagonists in Light of the Jedi, with their first scene showing them coming out of nowhere and brutally pillaging a fleet of ships.  There was something particularly savage and intense with this first sequence, and I was getting serious Mad Max or Firefly Reaver vibes in the way that they attacked, using harpoons and vicious boarding tactics.  The author continues to expand on these antagonists throughout the course of the book, and the reader is given a solid idea of their structure, tactics, history and general mindset, as a number of chapters are told from their perspective.  The Nihil have some very interesting and unique characteristics to them, and there is a certain Viking theme to them, especially with their storm motif.  I loved the portrayal of them throughout the book, and this group of mask-wearing, savage aliens really left an impression on me, especially with their gas-based weapons, under-handed battle tactics (there is one particularly awesome sequence around that) and unique hyperspace technology.  I was slightly worried that the Nihil were going to simply be portrayed as a group of common raiders throughout the course of this series, and it appeared at times within Light of the Jedi that this is what was going to happen.  However, this was a bit of clever misdirection from Soule, who produced a very compelling and well-written story arc around these antagonists that really sets them up as a major deadly force in the Star Wars universe.  A lot of this menace is due to the many cool hints and reveals about the Nihil’s hidden secrets throughout the course of the story, especially surrounding Nihil’s mysterious leader, the Eye, and I look forward to unravelling them in future entries in this series.

Soule introduces a large range of compelling characters in Light of the Jedi, including a range of intriguing new Jedi.  Due to the author going for a mass perspective story, this novel really does not have a main character; instead Soule splits the tale across many characters, each of whom have their own unique storylines and arcs.  I have to admit that before reading this novel I was slightly concerned that the High Republic series would have a bit of a hard time gaining traction with characters, as the only figure from the films to actually be alive at this point is Yoda (and apparently Yarael Poof, who I mostly recognise from a fun Robot Chicken sketch).  However, I quite enjoyed a lot of the characters featured within this book and I appreciated the way that Soule was able to build them up into compelling and unique individuals within the series of shorter story arcs that they had.

Some of the key characters include Jedi Master Avar Kriss and Jedi Knight Elzar Mann (the two humans on the cover), powerful Jedi with unique abilities who are being set up as two of the main characters of the entire franchise.  Kriss and Mann, who are lifelong friends, form an intriguing team, especially with their underlying romantic tensions that they cannot act on (Soule makes a fun joke about Jedi and their lightsabers earlier in the novel that works perfectly there).  Another fantastic pair are Twi’lek Jedi Loden Greatstorm (awesome name) and his Padawan, Bell Zettifar, a more action orientated pairing who get into some scrapes throughout the novel.  Loden and Bell have an excellent arc throughout the novel and I enjoyed their great master-and-apprentice relationship, which mainly consists of Loden throwing Bell off high locations for training purposes.  Both characters, especially Loden, end the novel in an interesting position, and it will be very cool to see how these two characters develop and change in future entries in the series.  Other highlights for me include the Trandoshan Jedi Sskeer, mainly because of his cool look and species, and the Wookiee Padawan Burryaga Agaburry, who the reader swiftly warms up to, even if he doesn’t say anything comprehensible throughout the book.

In addition to the Jedi mentioned above, I really have to highlight some of the chaotic and intense Nihil characters, who make for some great antagonists.  The main one of these is the mysterious Marchion Ro, a leader and mystic of the Nihil with a hidden past and a sinister agenda who is being set up as the major villain of this franchise.  Ro, is a unique new antagonist, with hints of other Star Wars villains in his inspiration (particularly Kylo Ren), who has a fun arc within Light of the Jedi, completely changing and manipulating his followers for his own betterment.  I also quite liked the Tempest Runner Kassav Milliko, the drugged up, vicious and opportunistic Nihil warlord who clashes with Ro throughout the book and who serves as a major catalyst for story advancement throughout the book.  All of these characters and more prove to be quite compelling to follow, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in future entries in this overarching publishing project.

Like I do for many Star Wars novels, I ended up grabbing Light of the Jedi in its audiobook format.  This proved to be a fantastic decision on my behalf, as the Light of the Jedi audiobook is really awesome, featuring the usual outstanding blend of great narration, epic music and clever sound effects to create an intense and enjoyable listening experience.  It had a reasonable runtime of 13 hours and 35 minutes, which listeners should be able to get through rather quickly; I personally was able to power through it rather quickly once I really got into the fantastic story.  The audiobook’s creative team did an exceptional job enhancing the story with the iconic Star Wars sound effects, and I loved the amazing ambiance that every single scene had, whether it was the sounds of destruction that occurred during a fight scene, or the simple sounds of people whispering that gave realistic life to group scenes.  The Star Wars music was also on point again, and I cannot emphasise how much emotion and excitement the awesome musical scores added to each scene in the novel.  For example, they expertly utilised John Williams’ tune of Anakin’s Betrayal during one particularly sudden and tragic scene, giving it an added layer of depth and despair that really struck me.  Many other different and iconic Star Wars musical scores were featured at various points throughout the novel, and I quite enjoyed the inclusion of several numbers that were a little less familiar to me, and which gave this audiobook a more unique flair.  Listeners will also really appreciate the cool heavy metal music that ran in the background of some of the Nihil scenes.  Identified as “wreck punk” by some of the characters (apparently created by instruments made from the metal of wrecked star ships), this heavy metal music adds an additional Mad Max edge to the Nihil in battle, and I loved how the audiobook’s creators went the extra mile to make these villains even more edgy.

In addition to the excellent musical inclusions and awesome sound effects, the Light of the Jedi audiobook also featured the superb vocal talents of veteran narrator Marc Thompson.  Thompson, who I recently mentioned in my review of Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising, did another fantastic job with Light of the Jedi, telling the story at a swift and enjoyable pace, while also giving voice to all the fun characters featured within the story.  Each of the characters gets their own unique voice, ensuring the reader can identify who is speaking at all times.  I felt that these voices fit each character perfectly, and Thompson has fun giving some of these character distinctive accents.  Thompson is also able to convey an amazing amount of emotion with his tone, adding fear, suspense and anguish into both his main narration speech, as well as the voices of the various characters.  This great outpouring of emotion in his dramatic voice helps to enhance several scenes, drawing listeners in with its realism and intensity.  I should note that listening to the audiobook did give me a clue at a fun little twist that Soule added to the story, as you can identify who a hidden speaker is at one point via his voice, something someone reading a physical copy of the book would not get.  This did not ruin the book for me in any way shape or form; indeed I kind of liked having this hint and it added a little more intrigue to the overall story.  Overall, this was some exceptional voice work from Thompson, which makes this audiobook an outstanding way to check out Light of the Jedi.

Star Wars: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule is a fantastic and exciting new novel that serves as an intriguing and powerful introduction into the new High Republic range of novels and comics.  Featuring an epic and action-packed narrative, some awesome new characters, and an impressive amount of universe-building, this is an incredible book that was really fun to read.  Thanks to the introductory nature of the story, it is very accessible to fans with various levels of franchise knowledge, and may even prove to be a good entry point into the wonderful world of Star Wars novels.  I am a little uncertain at this point how this new Star Wars franchise is going to proceed in the future and how some of the storylines will continue, but I am really looking forward to finding out.  The future of Star Wars tie-in fiction leading into the High Republic looks bright, especially if we get more outstanding novels like Light of the Jedi, and this should be an interesting new chapter in Star Wars history.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra written by Sarah Kuhn and performed by a full cast

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 21 July 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Script: Sarah Kuhn

Cast: Emily Woo Zeller, Jonathan Davis, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Sean Kenin, Nicole Lewis, Carol Monda, Euan Morton, Catherine Taber and Marc Thompson

Length: 5 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The most brilliant and conniving archaeologist in the entire Star Wars canon gets her own audio drama as author Sarah Kuhn and an exceedingly talented cast of audiobook narrators present Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, the audio drama.

Throughout the galaxy Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra is renowned as a criminal and bringer of chaos without peer, but in her own eyes she is simply an archaeologist and technology enthusiast, albeit one willing to sell her findings to the highest bidder.  However, her latest venture is about to get her into the worst type of trouble, the sort that will haunt her for the rest of her incredibly short life.  Attempting to steal a dangerous weapon from a restricted alien vault, Aphra finds herself surrounded and slated to die, that is until Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and overall badass suddenly appears and saves her. 

Vader is engaging in a high-risk power play against the Emperor and Aphra has just become his most useful pawn, whether she likes it or not.  Working as his agent, Aphra must utilise her skills as a con-woman, genius technician and criminal mastermind to help Vader achieve his goals: depose the Emperor and find his new obsession, the pilot who blew up the Death Star, Luke Skywalker.  Determined to stay on Vader’s good side, Aphra, with the help of her two friendly murder droids, Triple-Zero and BT-1, helps her new master engage in all manner of shenanigans across the universe, including kidnappings, torture and elaborate heists.  However, Aphra knows that all it will take is just one mistake or slip-up to earn her new employers’ deadly wrath.  To avoid her inevitable appointment with Vader’s crimson lightsaber, Aphra will need to pull out every trick in her impressive arsenal if she is to survive.  But can even the great Doctor Aphra outsmart Darth Vader and the entire Empire, or has the smartest woman in the galaxy finally met her match?

Well this is an exceedingly fun and entertaining entry in the Star Wars expanded universe which provides a new angle to the tale of Doctor Aphra.  Doctor Aphra is an incredible and complex character who has only been recently added into the canon.  Introduced in the opening issues the 2015 Darth Vader comic book series, Doctor Aphra served as a major supporting character for much of the series run, entertaining readers with her antics and ability to survive working for Darth Vader.  Aphra proved to be an extremely popular character, and this resulted in the character getting her own comic book series (which ironically lasted more issues than the Darth Vader series she was introduced in).  The Doctor Aphra series ended up being an amazing hit thanks to some exceptional writing and it is one of my favourite pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction (make sure to check out my reviews for the last two volumes in the series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon and A Rogue’s End), and there is even a second Doctor Aphra series on its way.  It seems that Aphra’s popularity has continued to grow as earlier this year this Doctor Aphra audio drama was released, written by talented author Sarah Kuhn.  This proved to be an exceptionally impressive audio release that does an amazing job bringing this fantastic character into an entirely new format.  This audio drama has a run time of around five and a half hours, which listeners are able to breeze through in no time at all.

The Doctor Aphra audio drama contains an intriguing and captivating story that follows the character as she engages in all manner of adventures in service to Darth Vader and her own survival.  Told entirely from the perspective of Aphra as she makes a series of recordings to an unknown person, and set shortly after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, this story follows Aphra through the entirety of her ill-fated association with Darth Vader.  This employment places her in all manner of danger, as she completes a series of tasks important to Vader, including an elaborate heist; gets in the middle of a deadly conflict between Vader, one of his rivals in the Empire, and the protagonists of The Original Trilogy; and finds herself a prisoner of the Rebel Alliance before eventually attempting to manipulate the Emperor for her own ends.  At the same time, Aphra is constantly balancing on a knife’s edge, as her beloved boss has made it abundantly clear that he will kill her the moment she displeases him.  This forces Aphra into a number of tense and dangerous situations as she needs to convince Vader to keep her alive throughout the entire book.  This struggle to stay alive adds a substantial amount of suspense to the audio drama, as the listener really wants this entertaining character to survive, and it eventually leads to an outstanding and epic conclusion.  All of this proves to be an exceedingly captivating adventure, and listeners are in for an exciting and hilarious time, especially with Aphra’s entertaining and over-exaggerated narration of the events occurring. 

While I did really enjoy the story contained within this audio drama, I do need to point out that it is not actually an original tale; instead it is an adaption of several canon comic book series, namely the comics that featured Aphra’s early adventures.  The first part of the audio drama adapts most of the first two volumes of the 2015 Darth Vader comic series, Volume One: Vader and Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets.  From there the story follows the course of the crossover limited series, Vader Down, before moving on to the events of the fourth volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic, Rebel Jail.  Finally, the story returns to the Darth Vader comic, utilising parts of the fourth and final volume, End of GamesDoctor Aphra proves to be an exceptional adaptation of these comics although they only show off the events that Aphra herself witnessed or was a part of.  I had an amazing time listening to this adaptation and I really enjoyed seeing several of the amazing events that originally occurred on the page being brought to life by this enjoyable performance. 

People interested in listening to this audio drama do not need to have read the adapted comics first, as Kuhn provides Aphra with a great deal of narration that explains her role in the story and all the events leading up to the comics.  As someone who has read the comics before listening to this audio drama, I found that there was a lot in this production for fans of the comic.  I personally really enjoyed seeing these events from Aphra’s perspective (as the original comics mostly followed main characters such as Vader, Luke, Leia, and Han), and it was extremely interesting to see her thoughts on the various events occurring.  The author also comes up with a lot of additional backstory that helps to enrich Aphra’s involvement in the narrative, which fans of the character will really appreciate.  While I had a great time listening to this audio drama, I did notice that several events were glossed over, mainly because Aphra did not witness them occur in the comics.  For example, you have no idea who is behind several of the battles or attacks that Aphra finds herself in the middle of, with Aphra herself giving limited explanations for them.  While I knew full well what was going on, people who haven’t read the comics are going to be full of questions and this may make the audio drama a little confusing at times.  That being said, this was still an outstanding and deeply enjoyable production, and perhaps it will encourage listeners to check out some of the adapted comics (trust me, they are awesome).

One of the best things about this audio drama was the way in which the narrative explored the complex and exceedingly likeable character of Doctor Chelli Aphra.  Aphra is a clever, impulsive and chaotic rogue archaeologist who is obsessed with ancient technology, particularly unusual droids and dangerous weapons.  Aphra is a wildly entertaining character who is essentially an amoral version of Indiana Jones that has no problems cheating or betraying people who she encounters, as long as she gets to hold onto the valuable antiques or can sell them for vast amounts of money (none of her loot belongs in a museum!).  Aphra appears to have a relentlessly positive personality, providing the listener with a string of continual jokes and funny observations with an infectious amount of enthusiasm.  However, deep down Aphra is actually a deeply damaged individual who has suffered a number of losses and betrayals that impact her current outlook on life and other people. 

Despite the fact that Aphra is the very definition of an unreliable narrator (she literally deletes or edits the parts of the story she does not like to suit her agenda), I felt that this audio drama does an amazing job exploring this wily protagonist.  Having Aphra’s inner monologue about the events occurring during this story proved to be not only entertaining but also very enlightening, and it showed some fascinating glimpses of her inner personality and emotional state.  While much of Aphra’s story was previously explored in the comics that Doctor Aphra is based on, this adaptation does go a little further, pulling in some backstory that was introduced in the later Doctor Aphra comics and expertly working it into this narrative.  Kuhn also comes up with some additional history that is unique to this production, including a number of scenes that explore her previous romantic relationship with Sana Starros.  While this relationship has been mentioned and discussed in several of the comics, this is probably the most in-depth examination of it in the canon and it becomes an important part of the overall plot.  I really enjoyed the way in which Doctor Aphra examined its titular protagonist and I felt that the story really captured her essence and outrageous personality.

This audio drama sports an amazing voice cast and each of them does a fantastic job in this production.  However, I really must highlight the performance of Emily Woo Zeller, who portrayed the titular character.  Zeller is an experienced and talented narrator who has contributed to a huge raft of audiobooks, including several I am quite interested in checking out, such as Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas.  Due to how the audio drama is written, Zeller’s voice is the one we hear the most throughout Doctor Aphra, as she recounts all of the characters dialogue and the overall narration of this book.  I really loved the way that Zeller portrayed the character of Aphra in this audio drama and I thought she got all the aspects of the character down perfectly.  Zeller gives a particularly energetic performance throughout this adaption, and listeners get a real sense of the mischievous and over confident outer shell that Doctor Aphra portrays to everyone she meets.  However, Zeller also captures the vulnerable nature of this complex protagonist, showing off the character’s full range of emotions when she is scared, angry or contemplating her many regrets.  This rich and amazing performance from Zeller really helps to make this audio drama something special, and I am really glad that she was able to bring Doctor Aphra to life in such an exceptional way.

Doctor Aphra also makes use of several other impressive voice actors throughout this audio drama, each of whom are portraying major Star Wars characters who Aphra interacts with through the course of this adventure.  This audio drama features a who’s who of Star Wars audiobook narrators, many of whose works I have previously enjoyed in a range of productions including the previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.  These additional narrators include Jonathan Davis (who I previously enjoyed in Star Wars: Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith), Sean Kenin (Death Troopers), Euan Morton (Tarkin), Catherine Taber (Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow), Marc Thompson (Thrawn, Thrawn: Chaos Rising, Dark Disciple and Scoundrels), Sean Patrick Hopkins, Nicole Lewis and Carol Monda.  Each of these voice actors did an exceptional job of bringing their various characters to life throughout Doctor Aphra.  I particularly enjoyed Marc Thompson’s Darth Vader and Euan Morton’s Emperor, as both voice actors brought some realistic menace to these iconic villains.  Catherine Taber, who is best known for her portrayal of Padme Amidala in The Clone Wars animated series, does an excellent Princess Leia in this production, and I really appreciated the choice to cast her.  Sean Patrick Hopkins does a really cool Luke Skywalker, and I was really struck by how close he got to a younger Mark Hamil’s voice.  I also really enjoyed Sean Kenin’s Triple-Zero, and I felt he really captured the essence of this crazy character.  Each of these side characters added a lot to the production as a whole and, while they were not as heavily featured as Aphra, each of them had their own entertaining moments and interactions.  I particularly loved the threatening aura that Darth Vader exhibited towards Aphra, and there is also a very entertaining interaction between Aphra and Han Solo that results in some of the best jokes in the entire production.  You also have to love the fact that Aphra ends up with a posse that essentially reflects the main characters from The Original Trilogy, with a protocol droid (Triple-Zero), an Astromech (BT-1) and a Wookie (Black Krrsantan).  Of course, Aphra’s friends are all dangerous killers, which makes for some extremely entertaining and deadly encounters.

In addition to featuring an impressive voice cast, Doctor Aphra also features the full range of iconic Star Wars sound effects and musical scores that were made famous in the movies.  Pretty much every action that occurs within the book is accompanied by a sound effect, whether it be blaster fire, the sound of engines or even a susurration from other people in a crowded room.  I always love how these sound effects helped to create an atmosphere throughout the course of a Star Wars novel, and I felt that they were particularly useful for this audio drama format due to the lack of narration that a standard audiobook would have.  I also have to talk up the excellent use of the incredible Star Wars musical score that features during several key scenes of the novel.  Hearing this music during some of the most pivotal, dramatic or action-packed sequences makes the narrative seem that much more epic, and I absolutely loved hearing this music throughout this production.  The use of the sound effects and music enhances the story in immeasurable ways, and it helps to turn this audio drama into an exceptional treat for the ears. 

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra is an impressive and deeply enjoyable audio production that brings fan-favourite character Chelli Aphra into a whole new light.  Cleverly adapting several amazing Star Wars comics, the Doctor Aphra audio drama features an interesting story from author Sarah Kuhn that shows the events from the perspective of the chaotic and duplicitous titular protagonist.  Featuring an exceptional voice cast, Doctor Aphra proves to be an extremely entertaining and exceedingly addictive listen that I had a very hard time turning off.  I personally think this was one of the best audio productions of 2020 and it comes highly recommended both to general Star Wars fans and to those who have read the adapted comics.  I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama and I hope that they think about adapting the later Doctor Aphra comic book series next as there are some impressive storylines featured in there.

Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing by John Jackson Miller

Die Standing Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 14 July 2020)

Series: Star Trek: Discovery

Length: 12 hours and 15 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of media tie-in fiction, John Jackson Miller, returns with his second Star Trek: Discovery novel, Die Standing, an awesome and captivating read that follows the adventures of an excellent protagonist, the evil version of Michelle Yeoh’s Philippa Georgiou.

After the dramatic conclusion of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, Emperor Philippa Georgiou, former ruler of the Terran Empire, a power-hungry and xenophobic human interstellar empire from a twisted alternate universe, has been stranded in the main Federation’s universe.  Biding her time while trapped on the Klingon home planet of Qo’noS, Georgiou is finally given a the opportunity she has been waiting for when Starfleet’s covert spy organisation, Section 31, offers her a chance to work as one of their agents.  However, Georgiou is far more interested in gaining her freedom and plotting to use Section 31’s resources to flee beyond Starfleet’s control.

Georgiou’s plans change when she receives news about a mysterious attack on one of Starfleet’s military vessels by a malicious and dangerous cosmic entity, one that her counterpart in this universe may have seen years before.  Intrigued by the description of the attack, Georgiou decides to remain with Section 31, especially as it bears a striking similarity to a powerful superweapon that was kept from her when she was Emperor.

Determined to use this weapon to regain her stolen power and take control of this weaker universe, Georgiou accepts Section 31’s proposal to travel to an isolated section of space where the creature was first witnessed.  Travelling with two mismatched minders who are already well out of their depth, Georgiou attempts to contact an old flame of this universe’s Georgiou, one who has a lot of influence in this quadrant of space.  Forced to conduct a subtle investigation amongst the secretive alien races of the sector, Georgiou and her companions follow the clues that will lead them to the entities they seek.  But what will happen when the former Terran Emperor has ultimate power within her grasp?  Will she ensure the safety of the Federation she despises, or will another universe bow before her might?

This was a fun and impressive new novel from bestselling author John Jackson Miller.  Miller is an interesting author who has a lot of experience writing tie-in stories, having previously written several pieces of Star Wars fiction as well as some notable Star Trek novels.  I have not previously read anything from Miller before, although I think that will have to change due to how much I enjoyed Die Standing.  Miller has written a couple of books that have been on my radar for a bit, including a previous Star Trek: Discovery novel, The Enterprise War, and the Star Wars: A New Dawn novel, which ties into the Star Wars: Rebels animated show.  This latest novel from Miller is an exceptional read, as he has come up with a wildly entertaining and clever novel based around the excellent character of Philippa Georgiou.  Backed up with an extremely compelling story, some interesting side characters and some wonderful universe-building, this is one of the better if not the best Star Trek novels of 2020, and ended up being an awesome read.

At the heart of this fantastic novel is a captivating and intense narrative that sees the protagonist and her companions venture into an unknown area of space in search of a creature with deadly potential.  This was an extremely clever and well-written character-driven story that features an excellent Star Trek narrative, filled with all manner of espionage, betrayal and war.  I really liked the way that the author blended together familiar Star Trek elements with a thrilling espionage narrative, especially one that was centred on a morally ambiguous protagonist who plans to betray everyone she encounters.  This makes for a number of great scenes, and I really liked the fascinating and clever places that the story went.  There are a number of particularly good twists featured throughout the book, and while I was able to predict where some parts of the story were going to go, I found myself pleasantly surprised and intrigued at some of the other reveals.  I also enjoyed the way in which Miller worked in some compelling comparisons between the two mirror universe, one mostly good and the other mostly evil, and it served as a clever and distinctive part of the book, especially as Miller does a lot with only one scene set in the Terran universe.  All of this makes for an exciting and powerful story that readers are going to have a wonderful time reading.  I really enjoyed the dark, thrilling and twist laden narrative and it honestly did not take me long to become hopeless addicted to this incredible Star Trek novel.

Die Standing is one of those tie-in novels that require some prior knowledge of its associated content to fully enjoy.  In this case, readers really do need to have a good understanding of the Star Trek: Discovery television show, as much of the story is derived from key events in the first and second seasons.  In particular, knowing the full tale around the character of Philippa Georgiou (both versions) is quite essential to fully appreciate the book’s story elements and character work.  At the very least, having some general knowledge of the Star Trek universe and the events of some of the shows would be useful, especially as the book is fairly dependent on some established story elements, such as the evil alternate universe.  That being said, Miller does do a really good job making this novel accessible to those readers whose knowledge of the genre might be lacking, and many of the key elements are explained in sufficient detail to follow the story and enjoy it.  However, this is definitely a novel most suitable for established Star Trek fans, especially as the author loads it up with a ton of fun or clever references to Star Trek: Discovery and some of the other television shows.  For example, this novel features the great inclusion of a younger version of the Dax symbiont (see more below), and I personally really liked how a major part of the book’s plot revolved around a key moment from Captain Kirk’s backstory (from The Original Series episode Obsession), not only showing the event from a different perspective, but also adding in some explanation for its origins and the reaction from Starfleet.  Die Standing also serves as a rather good bridge between the first and second seasons of Star Trek: Discovery, and it does an excellent job setting up the main character for her reintroduction to the show.

While this book did have an exceptionally captivating story and some cool Star Trek elements, the absolute highlight of this book has to be its wonderful protagonist (and occasional antagonist), the evil Terran version of Philippa Georgiou.  Die Standing features Georgiou in all her evil glory and she quickly makes an impression of the reader, especially after one particularly brutal and entertaining prison break sequence at the start of the book.  Pretty much every scene that features Georgiou is highly entertaining, and the snarky, arrogant personality she displays to anyone she meets proves to be spot on to how she is portrayed in the television show.  While I really enjoyed this character in Star Trek: Discovery (she is easily one of the best parts of the show) I personally felt that Miller actually helped to make Georgiou an even more compelling character throughout the course of this book.  The author really dives down into her personality and motives, showing just how twisted and self-serving she can be while also reflecting on all the things she has lost and the changes she is forced to deal with.  Georgiou goes through some fascinating self-examinations in Die Standing, especially when she is confronted with the legacy of her dead counterpart in this universe, and this serves as a fantastic emotional centre of the book.  The author’s impressive use of this fantastic character works extremely well, and it certainly helps Die Standing stand out from some of the other Star Trek novels of 2020.

Die Standing also features an excellent cast of side characters who add a lot to the story.  There are two characters who particularly stand out, Emony Dax and Sean Finnigan, who both serve as alternate protagonists, with significant parts of the book told from their perspective.  While Dax and Finnigan are nowhere near as dynamic as Georgiou, they are both distinctive in their own ways, and Miller does a good job at making them both likeable and compelling parts of Die Standing.  Emony is a young Trill gymnast who is the third host of the Dax symbiont.  This makes her an earlier incarnation of the Dax character who appeared in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine television in two different guises (Jadzia Dax and Ezri Dax).  Thanks to her youth, both as a symbiont and a host, this version of Dax is a little more unsure and scared then her later counterparts, but is determined thanks to the terrible things she witnesses at the start of the book.  While she is initially extremely cowed by Georgiou’s overwhelming personality, Dax grows throughout the book and is eventually able to influence Georgiou.  Deep Space Nine fans will no doubt enjoy seeing this earlier version of Dax, and I rather appreciated the excellent character growth she experienced.  The other main character, Sean Finnigan, is definitely one of the more entertaining characters in this book.  Finnigan is an unashamedly Irish character who serves as the book’s comic relief.  A wild and unruly former Star Fleet officer, Finnigan is drafted into the mission due to an interesting connection he has to Georgiou, as a murderous, brainwashed version of himself served as the Emperor’s assassin in the mirror universe.  While Finnigan is a mostly entertaining character, joking, drinking and socialising with all everyone he meets, there are some deeper elements to his character, especially as he spends a good part of the book trying to balance his real personality with the more insane version of himself that Georgiou tries to bring out.  Dax and Finnigan form a compelling team with Georgiou, and they ended up being an extremely good trio the anchor the story around.

I also quite enjoyed the intriguing Star Trek universe-building that Miller featured throughout Die Standing.  A key part of this book’s story is set within an isolated section of space that is home to three distinctive alien races who are attempting to stay separate from the Federation.  All of these species are quite intriguing and inventive, and include a race of giant living spindles, an intensely warlike species of living tanks and a group of gaseous psychics.  Miller does an exceptional job exploring each of the three new alien species throughout the course of the book and giving them each unique characteristics, histories, and personalities.  Not only are these aliens quite fascinating in their own right but each of their specific traits plays into the overall story extremely well, with some fantastic twists tied into them.  In addition, Miller also spends time exploring some of the differences between the main Star Trek universe and the mirror universe that contained the Terran Empire.  Not only is there an excellent opening sequence set in this mirror universe that showcases the brutal nature of this alternate reality, but there are a number of fantastic discussions that examine how different these universes could be.  Miller ensures that the protagonist Georgiou spends a good amount of time recounting some of the horrifying details of her universe to her companions (mostly to unnerve them), and it proves quite entertaining to hear all of her various stories, especially as most are apparently not exaggerated.  I also loved the fun way that Miller altered famous historical quotes to show how different the universes could be, with a number of classic lines twisted into something far more brutal and cynical, such as “Let them eat field rations” from General Antoinette.  The book itself is also broken up into five separate sections, based upon the Terran stages of grief (for coping with a loss of status): defiance, murder, plundering, destruction and vengeance, with each sections starting up with a quote from the Terran universe that describe its history.  Needless to say that Star Trek fans are going to love the cool additions that Miller works into the expanded universe in this novel, and I personally had a wonderful time seeing all the inventive and entertaining things that the author could come up with.

Like most of the Star Trek books I have had read in the past, I chose to check out Die Standing’s audiobook format.  This was, as always, an excellent way to enjoy this clever Star Trek novel, and I had a wonderful time listening to the story unfold.  Die Standing has a run time of 12 hours and 15 minutes, which is actually the longest Star Trek audiobook that I have so far listened to, but I was still able to breeze through it in relatively short order once I got hooked on the story.  In order to tell this amazing book, Die Standing makes use of the vocal talents of narrator January LaVoy.  This is the first audiobook I have heard narrated by LaVoy, although she did voice a minor character in Star Wars: Dooku: Jedi Lost.  She has also served as narrator for several books I have physically read, such as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire, Star Wars: Last Shot and The Night Swim, and she has also narrated a couple of books I am hoping to checking out in the future, including Star Wars: Phasma.  I have to admit that I was initially a little thrown to have LaVoy as narrator, as this was the first Star Trek audiobook I have listened to that was not narrated by Robert Petkoff.  However, it makes a lot more sense to feature LaVoy as narrator due to the female lead, and I really enjoyed listening to her narration of this book.  LaVoy did an incredible job bringing the characters to life throughout Die Standing and she ascribed some very apt and distinctive voices to each of them.  I was particularly impressed with the fantastic voice she utilised for Philippa Georgiou, and I felt it was very similar to how the character was portrayed in the television show.  LaVoy makes sure to channel all of Georgiou’s scorn and sarcasm to the reader, and it was an absolute treat to listen to her villainous rants throughout the book.  I also quite enjoyed the voice that LaVoy utilised for Sean Finnigan, Irish accent included, and it helped to enhance him as a fun and entertaining character.  All of this leads to quite an exceptional Star Trek audiobook and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Die Standing.

Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing is an amazing and impressive Star Trek novel from John Jackson Miller that was an absolute joy to read.  Miller has crafted together a captivating and clever narrative for this book that follows several excellent protagonists on a high-stakes adventure through all manner of intrigue and betrayal.  Featuring some compelling story elements, fantastic world-building and an awesome evil protagonist, Die Standing was an exceptional novel and it ended up being one of my favourite Star Trek novels I have so far had the pleasure to read.  A highly recommend piece of tie-in fiction, fans of the Star Trek: Discovery television show really need to check this fantastic book as soon as possible.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 4 August 2020)

Series: The Locked Tomb – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 51 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sensational author Tamsyn Muir follows up her incredible 2019 debut with another epic, complex and infinitely entertaining hybrid novel, Harrow the Ninth.

Tamsyn Muir burst onto the writing scene with a real vengeance last year with her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in The Locked Tomb series.  Gideon the Ninth was an extremely clever and compelling novel that followed a group of spacefaring necromancers who were summoned to the house of their Emperor and god, and given an opportunity to learn from him and become Lyctors, immortal beings with immense necromantic power who are considered to be living saints.  What they instead found was a haunted manor filled with secrets, weird experiments and mysterious hints at the past.  The protagonist of this first novel was the titular Gideon, a smart assed, foul mouthed lesbian swordswoman who was reluctantly serving the necromantic lady of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.  I absolutely loved Gideon the Ninth and it was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019.  As a result, I was rather intrigued when I heard about its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (which, as you can see above, featured another intense and beautiful cover by the talented Tommy Arnold) and I eagerly grabbed an audiobook copy of it when it came out.  I have to say that I am extremely glad that I decided to do so as Harrow the Ninth turned out to be a truly outstanding book and I had an incredible time reading it.

Harrow the Ninth is set shortly after the dramatic conclusion to Gideon the Ninth and switches the focus of the novel over to Harrowhark, who has succeeded in becoming a Lyctor at great personal cost.  Now alone, mentally scarred and more powerful than ever, Harrow finds herself in the personal care of the Emperor of the Nine Houses, who is determined to use his new Lyctor in a deadly war against an ancient and powerful terror, a Resurrection Beast, the insane and vengeful ghost of a murdered planet.

Travelling to the Mithraeum, the Emperor’s isolated sanctum, Harrow finds herself trapped aboard a desolate space station with her god and her fellow Lyctors.  Each of her companions on the station has their own agenda and motive for being there, and all of them are seeking to use Harrow for their own ends.  Worse, as Harrow attempts to learn the full extent of her new powers and abilities, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong with her transition to Lyctorhood.  Her body keeps failing her, her swordcraft is shoddy, her blade makes her nauseous and her mind keeps presenting her with impossible scenarios.

As the Resurrection Beast comes ever closer to the Mithraeum, Harrow desperately attempts to understand everything that is happening to her and learn how to survive the oncoming attack.  However, she finds herself distracted with the machinations and plots of her untrustworthy rival and the attitudes of her three ancient tutors, especially as at least one of them is trying to kill her.  Can Harrow unwrap all of the dark secrets that lie hidden on the Mithraeum before it is too late, or will the entire Empire fall into ruin before them?

Well damn, now that was a truly enjoyable and incredible read.  Harrow the Ninth is a complex, clever, entertaining and exceptionally well written novel that does an awesome job following on from Muir’s impressive first novel.  I had an absolutely amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I think in many ways is somewhat stronger than Gideon the Ninth.  Not only does Harrow the Ninth have a deeply captivating story that successfully utilises elements from a range of different genres, but it also features some memorable and compelling characters, excellent universe building and a magical system that really stands out thanks to its descriptive necromantic powers.  Harrow the Ninth also serves as a marvellous follow-up to Gideon the Ninth, continuing the clever story from the first book with the same distinctive tone and writing style, while also featuring an intriguing reimagining of prior events.  All of these makes for an epic read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this amazing novel is an intense and multilayered narrative that presents a compelling tale of love, tragedy, treachery and self-discovery.  The story is actually split into several distinct sections, with the main storyline focusing on Harrow after her transformation to Lyctorhood as she spends time in the Mithraeum with the Emperor and the other Lyctors.  This part of the book expertly jumps back and forth through time and is an extremely entertaining part of the book, detailing Harrow’s education under the Emperor and the other Lyctors and her attempts to survive the various internal politics, plots and personal chaos.  The other major part of the story shows a curious alternate version of the events of Gideon the Ninth, shown from Harrow’s point of view, made distinctive due to the complete lack of Gideon, who appears to be erased out of existence.  This alternate version of the prior book is a really intriguing part of Harrow the Ninth’s story, and while I was initially a little confused about why it was included and where Gideon had disappeared to, it proved to be an extremely clever and compelling part of the book, especially when everything becomes fully revealed.  Due to this reimagining of already existing narrative, as well as the continued references to the events of the first book, readers interested in checking out Harrow the Ninth really do need to have read Gideon the Ninth first, as the story gets a little confusing and significantly less impactful without this established knowledge.

These separate storylines complement each other is exceedingly cleverly.  This novel does start off a tad slow, but this is mainly because Muir is re-establishing the narrative from the previous book and loading up the front end of the story with hints and foreshadowing about the multitude or revelations that come throughout the course of the plot.  A lot of big events and reveals occur towards the end of Harrow the Ninth, including a few reveals that were hinted at in the previous novel, and I felt that the author set all of these up perfectly.  This results in an extremely epic conclusion to the novel and I was really impressed by how it all turned out.  This novel contains a unique blend of genres, as Harrow the Ninth features elements from the fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller and murder mystery genres.  All of these disparate features work together extremely well in the story and it helps to produce a distinctive and entertaining narrative, especially as Muir adds on a rather good comedic edge.  The end result is a fascinating and exceedingly captivating overarching narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting pleasantly blindsided by the inventive twists and turns.

This excellent and unique story is expertly supported by a distinctive writing style that I felt did an amazing job enhancing the narrative.  Perhaps one of the most noticeable elements is the clever narration that accompanies the story.  While Harrow is the point of view character for most of the novel, she is not actually the one narrating the story.  Instead Harrow’s actions, emotions and thoughts are identified, summarised, and relayed back to Harrow by an unidentified second person narrator.  Naturally, this proved to be an interesting and unusual way to tell this story, although it works well in the context of the overall narrative, even if it takes a little to get used to.  This narrative format plays into certain character reveals and plot points of the novel and it makes a lot of sense once you get further into the book, with the style itself actually being a hint about what is happening with Harrow.  This narration style changes at a certain point towards the end of the book in accordance with certain plot developments and the subsequent deviation is clever and reminiscent of past events.  I also really must highlight the author’s extremely descriptive form of story writing, as every event, person or location is described in overly vivid detail.  Not only did this ensure that the reader got the full breadth of certain magical action and developments but it also helped to enhance the overall gothic feel of the book and ensure that reader was able to easily imagine the various locations the protagonist found themself in.  This really helped the story to shine and I have a lot of love for how Muir was able to work story elements into this style.

In addition to the great story that Muir has come up with for this book, Harrow the Ninth also boasts an impressive array of amazing characters.  The central protagonist is the titular Harrow, who takes over from Gideon as the main character after the first book.  Harrow is a vastly different character to Gideon as she has a much more subdued personality, less self-esteem, and a more restrained, subtler sense of humour.  Due to Gideon’s somewhat biased narration in the first novel Harrow was mostly viewed as an extremely arrogant, confident, and brilliant person, and this is how Harrow attempts to act throughout most of the novel.  However, certain vulnerabilities in Harrow’s character that were previously explored in Gideon the Ninth once again come to the fore in this second novel.  Harrow was already an extremely complex individual, having been birthed by dark magic, ended up being responsible for the death of her own parents and having an interesting love interest.  However, following her alteration into Lyctorhood, Harrow is a much more damaged person due to the absorption of her cavalier.  Harrow’s already fractured psyche is made even worse throughout the course of the book, as she sees all manner of things that are not there and has some very different ideas of the past or how she perceives the world.  In addition, Harrow bears an immense amount of guilt on her shoulders as a result of various events in her past and the many deaths on her conscience.  Harrow needs to work through all these issues throughout the course of the story if she has a chance to survive, and this becomes a major and dramatic part of the story that was really intriguing to explore.  I had an amazing time seeing the story primarily through Harrow’s eyes and it was a refreshing and compelling change of pace from the first book.

Harrow the Ninth also focuses on a great collection of supporting characters who add some intrigue and drama to the story.  Perhaps the most distinctive side characters in this novel are the five beings that Harrow finds herself trapped with aboard the Mithraeum, the Emperor of the Nine Houses and his four other Lyctors.  This is an extremely fascinating collection of people and much of the story revolves around Harrow’s unique interactions with them as each of them attempts to teach her, manipulate her or kill her at various points within the book.  These characters are really entertaining and distinctive, from the seemingly kind, patient, and infinitely calm Emperor, to the three ancient Lyctors, the cool and confident Augustine, the exceedingly self-involved Mercymorn and the ultra-focused and lethal Ortus.  In addition, we see the return of the manipulative Ianthe, who became a Lyctor at the same time as Harrow and who forms a very distinctive relationship with her throughout the course of the book.  I really enjoyed the complex interactions and relationships that forms between all of these characters (including some wild relationships between various participants), with the Emperor acting as the father figure, the three existing Lyctors portrayed as older siblings who have a complicated power dynamic with each other, while Ianthe and Harrow are the younger sisters learning the ropes from the others.

I also have to highlight the inclusion of several other characters who previously appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  It was rather intriguing to see many of these characters return, especially as most of them died or appeared to die in the prior novel.  Muir does a fantastic job working them into the fabric of this novel, such as by featuring some of them in the alternate version of the events of the first book, changing their roles and impacts on the story as a result.  I particularly enjoyed the extended role of Ortus, cavalier of the Ninth House.  Ortus, not to be confused with the Lyctor mentioned above (although the names are actually a clever clue to a big reveal), died early on in the events of Gideon the Ninth.  But in this book the dour Ortus serves as a fantastic yet reluctant companion to Harrow, with surprising hidden depths and an entertaining obsession with gloomy epic poems and verse.  He is also essentially the complete opposite to Gideon, resulting in a very different dynamic between necromancer and cavalier then we saw in the prior book.  Overall, I have to say that I was exceedingly impressed with the characters featured within this amazing novel.  Each of these complex and memorable characters added a heck of a lot to the story and it was deeply fascinating to see each of their storylines unravel and come to their compelling conclusions.

One of the major elements of this series that I love so much is the weird and wonderful necromantic magical system complements the science fiction of the book.  Pretty much all of the main characters in this book are powerful necromancers, specialising in a different form or style of necromantic magic.  All of this magic is extremely cool, and it was really awesome seeing it utilised in fight sequences and other scenes throughout the book.  Most of the magical elements revolve around Harrow’s bone magic, as she creates skeleton and bone constructs, manipulates her own bones to either enhance herself or detach them to make weapons or other creations, as well as elements of biological alteration.  Muir does an outstanding job explaining the full range of different powers that Harrow has, and there are some amazing scenes where the young necromancer does some really inventive and clever things with her bones.  There is one sequence in particular that sticks in the mind, and I’ll certainly remember it when eating soup in the future. 

In addition to Harrow’s abilities, Muir also showcases the creative and impactful abilities and magical powers that some of the other characters have.  These various abilities are all biological or spiritual in nature, and it was quite fun to see what the different necromancers can do, especially when they go up against Harrow’s bone magic.  All these magic scenes feature some rather vivid imagery and descriptions from Muir as she tries to show the full biological manipulations that are occurring, which really help to make these scenes pop.  The author also does a truly fascinating deep dive into the origins and mechanics of her unique magical system.  A lot of these new magical elements are explained to protagonist in some detail from one of her teachers, so the reader is able to understand these elements really well, and a lot of the lessons and explanations of magic have major impacts on the story down the line.  This proved to be an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of the book and I have a lot of love for Muir’s creativity when it comes to her version of necromantic magic.

I also have a lot of love for the distinctive gothic settings that Muir has imagined up for this series.  Each of the central story locations are filled up with all manner of dark and macabre trappings and features, which the author does a fantastic job bringing to life with her descriptive writing.  This includes the dreary and dark Mithraeum, a vast and mostly abandoned space station where most of the story takes place, as well as an alternate version of the First House that appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  All of these locations are described in great detail and each of these fun and distinctive settings helps to present a darker vibe to story and helps makes this series more unique and memorable as a result.  Harrow the Ninth also contains some rather captivating and inventive universe building expansions as the author attempts to introduce new things into her universe.  All of these extensions to this universe are really clever, playing into the story really well and I loved learning more about this fun fictional setting which does so much to enhance the story. 

I found that the audiobook format of Harrow the Ninth proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing novel.  With a run length of just under 20 hours the Harrow the Ninth audiobook does require a bit of a commitment to get through it, although I felt that it was really worth the time investment.  I do have to admit that it took me a little while to finish this audiobook, especially at the start.  However, I absolutely flew through the second half of the novel once I became extremely invested in the story, and I managed to knock out the final six hours in rather short succession.  I have to highlight the fantastic narrator for this audiobook, Moria Quirk, who does an outstanding job telling the story and bringing the various characters to life.  I felt that Quirk utilised perfect voices for each of the main characters and you get a real sense of each character’s personalities and emotions from this vocal work, from the calm, composed tones of the Emperor to the exceedingly petulant voice of the Lyctor Mercymorn.  This excellent voice work really added a lot to this audiobook. I really think that Harrow the Ninth translates well into the audiobook format, and listening to it really added to my enjoyment of this second novel, especially as I absorbed a lot more of the detail and gothic atmosphere through the narration.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was an epic and exceptional piece of fiction that I deeply enjoyed, and which comes highly recommended.  Not only did Muir present an impressive follow-up to her amazing debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, but she was able to turn out a complex and beautifully written sequel that proved extremely hard to stop listening to.  Powerful, cleverly written and just generally outrageous, Harrow the Ninth is an outstanding read and you have no discovered Tamysn Muir and her fantastic pieces of literature, you are really missing out. 

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Stormblood Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2020)

Series: The Common – Book One

Length: 538 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for an epic and elaborate science fiction debut?  Then you will definitely want to check out Stormblood by Australian author Jeremey Szal, a compelling and ingenious novel that was a heck of a lot of fun to read.

In humanity’s far future, our species has just emerged from a brutal and destructive civil war between the seemingly benevolent Harmony and the ruthless Harvester empire.  Harmony were able to win the war by creating the Reapers, elite soldiers who were injected with stormtech, the DNA of an extinct alien race, which permanently altered their bodies, making them stronger, faster and more effective soldiers.  However, stormtech also had terrible side effects, making the host become addicted to their own adrenaline, which impacted on their minds and dramatically increased their natural aggression.

When the war ends, millions of Reapers are left shells of their former selves, having to deal with the terrible addictive impact of the alien DNA in their system, while stormtech became widely traded as an illicit drug across the galaxy.  Amongst these former soldiers is Vakov Fukasawa, a member of an elite Reaper fireteam, who has managed to overcome his addiction to stormtech and now makes a living taking on dangerous odd jobs on Compass, a mega-city built into a massive asteroid.  Vakov has grown vastly disillusioned with Harmony and their methods, but when he is approached by their agents to assist with an investigation, he is once again compelled into their service.

Somebody is killing his fellow former Reapers by poisoning the stormtech being passed around the city.  In order to save the comrades he fought beside, Vakov agrees to help with the investigation, especially when it is revealed that Harmony’s only lead is Vakov’s estranged brother.  However, the more Vakov investigates, the more people keep trying to kill him, and he soon finds himself caught in a vast conspiracy that threatens Compass and the entirety of Harmony.  Can Vakov put a stop to this horrifying plot, or will untold death and destruction rain down on him and everything he fought for?

Stormblood is an intriguing and impressive new science fiction novel that takes the reader on an action-packed thrill ride.  This is the debut novel from Australian author Jeremy Szal, which also serves as the first book in his The Common series of books.  I have been looking forward to this science fiction release for a while as I thought it sounded like a rather interesting novel, and I was really glad when I received a copy.  I ended up having a fantastic time reading this amazing and clever novel, and it is one of the best debut books I have so far read this year.

At the centre of this novel lies a captivating and exciting narrative that follows the adventures of the book’s primary protagonist, Vakov Fukasawa, as he tries to uncover who is trying to kill all his fellow former soldiers.  This results in a fast-paced military thriller storyline filled with all manner of action and adventure as Vakov jumps from one lead to the next in order to get to the bottom of the plot he is investigating.  This story goes in some dramatic directions, and I had fun unravelling the complex conspiracy storyline that emerged.  The combat comes very hot and heavy throughout the entirety of the story, with some unique science fiction elements added in to really make them pop.  Readers should also be prepared for some rather dark sequences, such as a rather claustrophobic torture scene.  Szal also spends a lot of time building up and exploring his protagonist, Vakov, showing him to be a complex character who is haunted by his past and strongly concerned for the people he is close to.  Several chapters within this book are dedicated to showing the events that formed him, including his traumatic childhood and his military service.  There is also a compelling focus on the strained relationship between Vakov and his brother, which becomes a major part of the plot as the two eventually face off as adversaries in some fantastic dramatic scenes.  I became really engrossed with this elaborate storyline and I ended up reading the entire book rather quickly, despite its somewhat substantial length.  An overall outstanding story, I cannot wait to see what happens in the next books in the series, but I have a feeling I am really going to enjoy them.

One of the key highlights of Stormblood is the outstanding new science fiction universe that Szal has come up with as a setting for the story.  Szal clearly has considerable imagination, as he produces a vast and exhilarating science fiction location populated with a multitude of different people and alien races.  The majority of the story is set within the gigantic space city of Compass, an amazing expanse of different places, climates and structures, all laid out in vertical levels.  This was a really cool place to explore, and this is clearly the tip of the iceberg as Szal hints at a number of other intriguing locations and planets throughout the book, and I can easily see future entries in the series expanding out to a bunch of other locations.  I was also extremely impressed with all the different technology, biological enhancements, spaceships, and alien races that appeared throughout the novel.  There are a number of new and fantastic science fiction ideas here, and I really enjoyed the way that Szal worked all of these technologies and aliens into the book’s plot, especially as most of them provide some amazing enhancements to the story.  A number of the book’s intense sequences really stand out due to the technology that the author comes up with, such as weird weapons, advanced combat suits, all manner of enhanced opponents, and a particularly freaky security room that is keyed to a person’s biology (you do not want to know what happens when the owner dies).  All these proved to be a lot of fun, and Szal has an awesome and imaginative vision of the future.

Out of all the cool science fiction elements in this book, I really have to highlight stormtech, the alien DNA that is injected into humans to give them enhanced abilities.  Stormtech is a key part of Stormblood as a plot device and because of the impacts that it has on the book’s point-of-view character.  Quite a lot of the story is dedicated to examining the transformative qualities of stormtech and the effects that it has had on former Reapers like Vakov.  In particular, the alien DNA has left him addicted to his own adrenaline, and it is constantly driving him to perform risky or aggressive acts so that he can get the accompanying adrenaline high.  This proved to be a fascinating part of Stormblood’s story, as the author spends a lot of time examining how stormtech impacts his protagonist’s mind and his constant struggle to control it.  Several of the flashback scenes are particularly well utilised here, as they show Vakov and his fireteam’s initial experiences with stormtech during the war and the terrible effects it had on them the more action they saw.  The version of Vakov who was introduced at the start of the main story is one who has managed to gain command over his addiction, although he is constantly struggling to maintain that control, especially as the events of plot compel him into more and more dangerous situations and new experiences with experimental stormtech, resulting in some dramatic consequences.  This was an extremely captivating aspect of the Stormblood’s narrative, and Szal does an outstanding job examining the impacts of addiction on the protagonist and then using it to add additional compelling layers to his main character.

Stormblood is an excellent and exciting science fiction novel from talented new Australian author Jeremy Szal.  Szal’s creativity and ability to tell a complex and thrilling story really shines through in his debut book, and I had an outstanding time enjoying this epic read.  I fully intend to grab the second book in this series when it comes out and I have a feeling that Szal is going to have a major impact on the science fiction genre in the next few years.

Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick

ForceCollector-Cover

Publisher: Listening Library (Audiobook – 19 November 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 8 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

We are less than a week away from the final movie in the main Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker, so it is about time that I got around to reviewing the final Star Wars novel of 2019, Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick.

This is a book that I have been looking forward to for some time. Force Collector is a curious Star Wars young adult novel with an intriguing-sounding plot behind it, and it would have ordinarily been on my reading list anyway. However, as it is one of several books being released under the title of Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (other examples of which include Resistance Reborn), it was one I definitely needed to check out before the movie comes out in a few short days.

This book was written by Kevin Shinick, who is probably best known for his work writing and developing television shows such as Robot Chicken, the 2017 Spider-Man animated show, Mad and Disjointed. In addition, Shinick has also written several comics for DC and Marvel, including Avenging Spider-Man, Superior Carnage and Axis: Hobgoblin. Force Collector is actually Shinick’s debut novel and he has produced a great Star Wars book with a rather interesting concept that provides a clever new viewpoint into the events of the Star Wars films.

Set shortly before the events of The Force Awakens, Force Collector revolves around Karr, a teenage boy living on a backwater planet. Karr lives a difficult life; anytime he touches an item that has witnessed an important or traumatic event, he gets a searing headache and blacks out. However, these items also impart onto him a vision of the history associated with it, allowing him to glimpse into the past. While his parents search for a rational explanation for his episodes, Karr’s grandmother knows the real reason for strange visions: he is gifted with the Force.

Attempting to learn how to control his abilities, Karr struggles with his training and hopes to find someone who can teach him in the ways of the Force. However, all the Jedi are long dead, and no-one on his planet knows what happened to them. Determined to learn more, Karr begins to collect historical items which he hopes will allow him to have some vision of the Jedi and learn where to find them. However, the few meagre artefacts he can lay his hands on are unable to provide him with the knowledge he seeks.

When Karr’s grandmother dies and his parents attempt to send him away to a school on the other side of the planet, he finally has enough. Determined to find an actual Jedi to help him, Karr, his droid RZ-7, and his school’s new troublemaker, Maize, steal a First Order ship belonging to Maize’s father and set out on an adventure. Travelling from one planet to the next, Karr and his friends attempt to trace the history of the Jedi. Finding obscure item after obscure item, Karr is eventually able to piece together the events that led to the downfall of the Jedi order and the rise of the Empire. However, the greatest secrets may lay even closer to home than he imagined.

Force Collector is a fun and intriguing novel which provides a unique and clever examination of the events of the Skywalker Saga, and which I am very glad I decided to check out. Featuring a great group of central characters (Karr, Maize and RZ-7) who grow closer as they progress in their adventure, and a rather captivating story, this was an amazing Star Wars read. I particularly liked the idea of a character who could revisit the Star Wars past through the objects he touches, as it allows Shinick to take the reader on a journey through a number of events in the Star Wars canon. Some really interesting bits of Star Wars history are examined through the course of this book, and it features some compelling visits to a number of iconic locations. That being said, this is a rather low-stakes novel, as the protagonists’ great adventure comes across at times like an unusually eventful school excursion (indeed, that is the explanation they give to the people they encounter). As a result, this might not be the best book for people looking for an exciting or action-packed novel (Thrawn: Treason or Master and Apprentice might be a better 2019 Star Wars release for those readers), however, the examination of Star Wars history makes this book an outstanding read for major fans of the franchise.

In order to tell his story, Shinick has filled his novel with all manner of references to the wider Star Wars universe. Not only does the reader get to see a number of visions from the past as part of the protagonists’ quest to find out more about the Jedi, but they also visit a number of familiar locations. These include Jakku (where Rey was living), Utapau (where Obi-Wan killed General Grievous) and even Batuu (the planet where the Galaxy’s Edge theme park area is set, and which has also served as the setting for several books such as the recent release Black Spire), just to name a few. Our protagonists encounter a number of unique individuals or items which witnessed some of the most iconic moments out of the films. For example, at Utapau he discovers the walking stick of the planet’s leader, which reveals the conversation the leader had with Obi-Wan when he landed. On another planet he runs across a pilot who witnessed Obi-Wan cutting the hand off Ponda Baba in the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine. There are some really cool and, in some cases, obscure items that Karr touches throughout the story, and the events they showed were really interesting.

In addition, Shinick also focuses on exploring the Star Wars universe just prior to the events of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Force Collector appears to occur just before the start of The Force Awakens, and there are a number of references to the shape of the universe and the plans of the First Order. Shinick also uses this to allow the protagonists to visit and have some fascinating interactions with a couple of characters who appeared in the movie, such as Unkar Plutt or Maz Kanata. The meeting with Maz Kanata in particular was intriguing, and it was cool to see all these characters just before the events of the film rained down hellfire on their locations. In the end, this book contained all manner of references from across the films, the animated television shows and even some of the other books that make up the current Star Wars canon, making this a perfect read for dedicated fans of the franchise.

One of the most intriguing things that I liked about the story was its examination of how the characters in the wider Star Wars universe during this period perceived the Jedi and the events of the Skywalker Saga. Shinick makes it clear quite early on in the book that, during the period that novel was set, most of the galaxy saw the Jedi as a myth and barely anyone knows that much about them anymore. Even the protagonists, Karr and Maize, both of whom consider themselves somewhat more knowledgeable on the subject that most people, barely have any idea of what they were capable of or why they were destroyed. The various theories and histories of the Jedi that are postulated at the start of the novel are so obviously wrong to anyone who has seen the movies that it is quite a jarring experience. I found it deeply fascinating to see how it only took a generation or so for the legend of the Jedi to be degraded, and it explains why characters like Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens barely knew anything about them. The subsequent search for the truth is also interesting, and I liked how the characters attempted to piece together the events of the film. This search was hampered by the fact that the information they received was a random selection of events that were not in any chronological order. This ensures that they get a confused picture of all the events of the Skywalker saga, which they need to try and piece together to fully understand the lessons of the past. All of this was a really cool and unique take on the events of the films, and it was fun trip down memory lane.

While I really enjoyed all the cool references to the rest of the Star Wars franchise, I struggled to see how this book will actually tie into the events of the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker film, despite that being one of the major advertised features of the book. While this book did spend a bit of time expanding on the overall universe around the current trilogy of Star Wars films, there was nothing specific about The Rise of Skywalker in it. While this did not massively impact my enjoyment of the novel, I kept waiting for the story to kick off in another direction, perhaps after some of the galaxy-altering events that were shown in The Force Awakens took place, or feature a more major character from the films. It never did, and I very much doubt that the main character in this book is going to show up in the new movie (although I could be mistaken). The main connection I could find in this novel was the confirmation that a certain character is at the heart of all the major events of the Skywalker Saga, so much so that only touching an item of theirs was enough to make Karr understand all of the events of the films completely. This is something I believe that the Star Wars creative team wishes to reinforce, as the trailers and rumours indicate big things are happening to this character in the final movie, which will help signal the fact that the Skywalker Saga is truly over. There is also a mention of Karr holding onto a couple of certain Jedi items in case they will be needed in the future, but again I doubt this is going to feature in The Rise of Skywalker. As a result, while Force Collector serves more as an interesting recap for some of the prior Star Wars events, don’t expect any major revelations about the upcoming film.

Rather than grab a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the Force Collector audiobook, which was narrated by Euan Morton. Running at just over eight hours in length, this is a pretty short audiobook that most people should be able to get through rather quickly. As usual, I had a lot of fun listening to this Star Wars audiobook, as it featured all of the classic Star Wars music and sound effects, which really help to make the franchise’s audiobook formats so unique. Narrator Euan Morton is an old hand at narrating Star Wars audiobooks; I recently enjoyed his narration of Tarkin, for example. He does another fantastic job with the narration in Force Collector, coming up with a number of unique and distinctive voices for the characters who only appear in this novel, while also doing great impressions of characters who previously appeared in the film. I was particularly impressed with the realistically teenage voices he was able to come up with for Karr and Maize, and I also like how he did not really recycle any of the voices he used in the previous Star Wars audiobook of his I heard. All of this results in another outstanding audiobook adaption of a Star Wars novel, and it is easily one of my favourite franchises to check out in this format.

Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick is a fantastic book that features a captivating and unique story, which is richly layered in references to the prior movies and other pieces of Star Wars fiction. While it does not contain an obvious connection to the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker film, it is still a really interesting and exciting novel that is worth checking out, especially as it provides a compelling recap of some of the previous films in the franchise. Aimed towards a younger audience, Force Collector will be easily enjoyed by all Star Wars fans, especially those who are familiar with the expanded fiction. However, even those readers who have seen the films will be able to appreciate the story in this book. An overall great read, this book is a lot of fun and is an excellent piece of Star Wars fiction.