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.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno

Star Wars Tarkin Cover.jpg

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 November 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 9 hour and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

In this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out an amazing and compelling Star Wars tie-in novel that focuses on a fascinating character from the franchise, with Star Wars: Tarkin, written by veteran tie-in author James Luceno.

Since early 2014, Disney has done an excellent job installing a new and distinctive expanded universe for the Star Wars franchise. This new expanded universe, which supplanted the existing expanded universe (which is now known as Star Wars Legends), has featured some amazing books which I have been really getting into in the last couple of years. I have read a lot of Star Wars books in 2019 and not only have I tried to stay abreast of the latest releases (for example, the latest Star Wars novel, Resistance Reborn) but I have also been checking out some of the older novels in the franchise (such as Thrawn and Death Troopers).

Tarkin was released in late 2014 and was one of the first non-movie novelisations or young reader Star Wars novels that were released in this new canon. Tarkin was written by James Luceno, an author with a huge number of Star Wars tie-in novels from the Legends canon already under his belt, such as the intriguing-sounding Darth Plagueis. I had heard good things about this book, and I was curious to see how Luceno would alter the character of Grand Moff Tarkin.

To those familiar with the Galactic Empire, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin is a legendary figure. A former admiral, adjutant general, planetary governor and war hero of the Clone Wars, Tarkin was one of the Emperor’s most dedicated and capable servants. Determined to enforce the Empire’s authority throughout the galaxy by any means necessary, Tarkin was renowned for his merciless nature and his ability to out-think any opponent on the battlefield or in the political arena. But where did this nature come from: his past as a solider or as a politician, or are there powerful lessons in Tarkin’s upbringing that constantly drive him forward?

Five years after the end of the Clone Wars, Governor Tarkin holds the rank of Imperial Moff and is tasked with overseeing one of the Empire’s most sensitive and covert projects, the construction of a massive mobile battle station which the Emperor believes will become the ultimate symbol of Imperial power in the galaxy. Determined to bring order to the post Clone War chaos, Tarkin finds his plans for the construction of the station stalled when a mysterious ship launches an innovative attack against one of his bases. In the aftermath of this attack, Tarkin is ordered to work with Darth Vader to determine who orchestrated this incursion and deal with them.

Travelling to an isolated planet, Tarkin and Vader begin their investigation into the rebellious activity plaguing that area of the Empire. But when their opponents manage to out-manoeuvre them, Tarkin must call upon all of his experiences, including as a young hunter on his home planet of Eriadu, to stop them. However, even the lessons of his past may not be enough, as his new foes are as smart and determined as Tarkin and Vader and are willing to do anything to achieve their revenge on the Empire.

Tarkin was a smart and exciting Star Wars tie-in novel that did a fantastic job exploring the life of one of the franchise’s most complex characters. I had a great time listening to this book, and it is one of the better Star Wars novels that I have enjoyed this year. I really liked the deep dive into the history and mind of Tarkin, especially as the author wraps a compelling and multi-layered narrative around the character’s story. As a result, the novel gets four and a half stars from me and was a really good read.

This story is an interesting combination of an adventure that occurred five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith (roughly 14 years before the events of A New Hope), and a series of tales from various points in Tarkin’s earlier life. Grand Moff Tarkin has always been a fascinating Star Wars character to me; despite his lack of force abilities, he appeared to wield nearly as much power as the Emperor and was even able to command Darth Vader. This book does a wonderful job of not only showing how he was able to obtain so much power within the Empire but also exploring all of the formulative events of this character’s life that made him into the man capable of achieving so much. I personally think that this was a great combination of character narratives which come together extremely well, and I think that Luceno did a fantastic job getting to the root of Tarkin’s psyche and personality.

Despite it being the shorter part of the book, I personally enjoyed the various chapters that explore various moments of Tarkin’s past the most. In particular, I thought that the author’s examination of his training as a hunter to be a truly fascinating basis for the character’s tactical ability. The various scenes depicting him hunting the large beasts of his home planet are pretty cool, and it was really interesting to see the way that he utilised lessons from hunting creatures in his later careers. For example, he is trained to instil fear into all the beasts he encounters in order to establish dominance above them and to show them the consequences of acting in way he dislikes. A later scene in the book shows him using this training to successfully end a pirate menace in a very harsh and final manner, and it also explains why he considered blowing up a planet to be a viable fear tactic against rebels. In addition to its impact on future Star Wars stories, Tarkin’s early training and hunting background are utilised to great effect throughout the entirety of Tarkin, and it was great to see how it impacts on Tarkin’s thought process and planning. I also really liked how the focus on the hunt comes full circle, as the author works in a fun confrontation back at the Tarkin hunting grounds with the main antagonist of the book that I absolutely loved and which was a fantastic conclusion to the whole story. This hunting aspect was an exceptional addition to this canon’s depiction of Tarkin, and I like how other authors have expanded on it in other pieces of Star Wars expanded fiction. For example, the third volume of Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith features Tarkin using his hunting abilities against Vader in a contest of wills.

In addition to this new origin for Tarkin’s tactical ability and mental acuity, I also enjoyed the various flashbacks to his history before and during the events of the Clone War. Luceno comes up with some great storylines that show off, for example, when Tarkin first gained the attention of the Emperor, or his thoughts on the various events that occurred during the course of the prequel movies. It was fun getting his theories on the causes of the Clone Wars or the formation of the Empire, especially as he is pretty close to the mark every time. I also liked that Luceno worked a confrontation between Tarkin and Count Dooku into one of the flashbacks, which shows why Tarkin remained loyal to the Republic during the course of the Clone Wars. All of these examinations of the character’s past, especially in the context of several key events in Star Wars history, was really fascinating and proved to be a fantastic part of the book.

While I did enjoy the examination of the character’s past, the main story itself is also compelling, as it shows the events that led to Tarkin becoming the very first Grand Moff. These parts of the book are a lot of fun and feature a unique and personal hunt for the protagonist which ties in well with the journeys to his past. I also quite enjoyed the fun team-up between Tarkin and Darth Vader, who assists him to complete his mission. Tarkin and Vader form a very effective team in this book, and it was interesting to examine the relationship between them and the mutual respect that grew between them. It was also cool to find out that Tarkin was one of the few people in the whole Empire who guessed that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were the same person (the only other Imperial character who apparently guessed that was Grand Admiral Thrawn). This section of the book also features some intriguing looks at the early stages of the Empire, and I personally liked the examination of Imperial politics, the intelligence agencies and the ruling style of the Emperor. I also really liked the idealistic opponents that Tarkin faced off against, mainly because their leader becomes more and more aggressive the longer the fight against the Empire goes, until he starts to lack the moral high ground in this conflict.

While I really enjoyed the team-up between Tarkin and Vader, I do wonder if the author perhaps featured Vader and the Emperor a little more than he should have. Do not get me wrong, I absolutely love Darth Vader as a character and I have deeply enjoyed a number of extended universe comics or books that have featured him (such as the Darth Vader and Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, or the Dark Visions limited series). However, I think that a book called Tarkin should have focused a lot more on the exploits of the titular character and shown how he dealt with the unique problems presented in the plot on his own. Instead, he received a fair bit of help from Vader and the Emperor, which kind of undermined the book’s message that he was an unsurpassed strategist and hunter. The author might have been better off only featuring a small amount of the Emperor in this novel, and perhaps introducing Vader in a later Tarkin novel, much like Timothy Zahn did with Thrawn: Alliances. Still, it was a fantastic book, and I am never going to seriously complain about too much Darth Vader.

Tarkin proved to be a really interesting book in the current Star Wars canon, and one that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. That being said, I would say that no real knowledge of the Star Wars extended universe is required to understand the plot of the book. While it does reflect on some of the events of The Clone Wars animated series, particularly the handful of episodes that a young Tarkin appeared in, there is no urgent need to go out and watch these episodes first, as they are more passing references. It is also important to note that this book was released back in 2014, two years before the release of Rogue One. As a result, it lacks the inclusion of Director Krennic as a rival for Tarkin, which is something most of the tie-in media released after 2016 features.

Like many of the Star Wars novels I have enjoyed in the past, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Tarkin rather than read a physical copy. The Tarkin audiobook was narrated by Euan Morton and runs for roughly 9½ hours in length. I found myself absolutely breezing through the Tarkin audiobook, and I was able to listen to all of it in a few short days, as I become enthralled in the awesome story. Star Wars audiobooks are always a fun production to check out thanks to their use of the iconic music and sound effects from the movies. Tarkin also makes great use of a number of the classic scores from the movies to enhance the various scenes, most notably The Imperial March, which is used a number of times when members of the Empire are being particularly ruthless or authoritarian. I also really liked the use of the various Star Wars sound effects, such as the sound of blaster fire, spaceship engines and even the iconic sounds of Darth Vader breathing, all of which are used to help set the appropriate atmosphere for the scene. While some of the Star Wars audiobooks greatly overused these sound effects and music scores, I think that the Tarkin audiobook had the just the right amount of these elements. At no point did the music or sounds overwhelm the narration nor distract the reader from the plot; instead they did a wonderful job of helping the reader stay glued to the story.

In addition to the excellent use of Star Wars music and sound effects, Tarkin also featured a fantastic narrator in the form of Euan Morton. Morton does a commendable job of imitating the voice of the titular character and helps bring the stern, intelligent and ruthless character to life with his voice work. In addition, Morton was also able to do good imitations of several other notable Star Wars characters, including the Emperor and Darth Vader. I felt that Morton produced a good replication of their voices, and the listener is instantly able to figure out who is talking. I also liked some of the voices that Morton came up with for the various supporting characters that featured in the book, and I was impressed with the voices he attributed to some of the different alien species that were encountered. I particularly enjoyed his Mon Calamari voice, for example, and felt that he was able to add some distinguishing vocals to each of these different species. Based on this strong narration, as well as the great musical and sound inclusions, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of this Star Wars book, and I know that I intend to check out more of this franchise’s audiobooks.

Tarkin was an outstanding piece of Star Wars tie-in fiction that I personally really enjoyed. Not only did it contain a compelling and exciting story in the early days of the Empire but it also did a wonderful job exploring the background of one of the franchises most fascinating characters. I had an amazing time learning more about Grand Moff Tarkin, and I am slightly disappointed that there have not been any more Tarkin-centric novels released since 2014. As a result, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in a good Star Wars tie-in novel, and I would also recommend the excellent audiobook format.

While the next Star Wars novel I read is going to be Force Collector, I am always considering what older Star Wars book to listen to in the future. I am currently weighing up between this canon’s Lords of the Sith (the Emperor and Darth Vader trapped on a planet being hunted by rebels) or the Star Wars Legends book Scoundrels (a heist novel written by Timothy Zahn). Both sound like a lot of fun, and I will probably end up listening to them both in the very near future.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight Cover 2.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Skyward – Book 2

Length: 461 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, Brandon Sanderson, comes Starsight, an outstanding and addictive young adult science fiction read which continues the wildly entertaining adventures of a young starfighter years in the future.

Starsight is the second book in the Skyward series and follows on from the 2018 release of the same name. Skyward was a fantastic young adult science fiction book that told a compelling tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie in humanity’s distant future. Skyward was an amazing read, and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2018. As a result, I have been looking forward to Starsight for a while now, and it was one of my most anticipated releases for the second part of this year.

The Skyward series is set on the planet of Detritus, a desolate world that houses a population of humans in the caverns beneath the surface. The humans on Detritus are the remnants of a once great intergalactic human civilisation that has been destroyed in a war with a superior alien civilisation. Forced into hiding within the planet for hundreds of years, humanity eventually returned to the surface utilising scavenged starfighters to escape and build a military outpost to fight back against the alien ships who continue to harass the planet.

In Skyward, the reader is introduced to Spensa Nightshade, a young woman determined to become a pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), the military organisation that fights the alien invaders. While talented, Spensa faced opposition to being accepted into the military due to an apparent act of cowardice by her father years before. Despite the odds, Spensa was accepted in the DDF and was trained to become a skilled pilot, fighting in a number of actions against the enemy, while also trying to find out what actually happened to her father. Along the way, Spensa discovered an ancient but advanced human ship that had crash-landed on Detritus. Upon repairing the ship, Spensa discovered it had an AI installed in its computers, which she called M-Bot. After stopping an extremely destructive alien attack with the help of M-Bot, Spensa was compelled to fly through Detritus’s atmosphere, where she made several startling discoveries, the first of which was that Spensa and her family are powerful cytonics, beings with mental powers who are capable of traversing vast distances through space with their ability. The second discovery she made was that the aliens attacking Detritus were not simply mindless aggressors determined to wipe out humanity; instead they are members of an interstellar conglomeration called the Superiority, who are attempting to contain humanity within the planet. The Superiority hold a great fear of humans, who they see as an extremely dangerous and violent species, and Detritus is actually a prison planet/wildlife preserve where humans can live without disrupting the rest of the galaxy. Unfortunately, the actions of the DDF in reclaiming the surface and utilising spaceships have forced the Superiority to reconsider their approach, and they are now working to kill all the humans.

Usually this is the part of the review where I would give a brief plot synopsis of the new book and then go into an analysis of what I liked about it. However, this is going to prove a little hard to do without revealing some spoilers. While I don’t typically avoid talking about plot points that occur around 50-100 pages into book (I don’t particularly consider something happening that early to be a spoiler), I am a little more wary with Starsight. This is mainly because the plot of the book features some immediate substantial changes from the story that appeared in Skyward, none of which are really hinted at in any of the official online plot synopsis or book blurbs. As I am publishing this review a week before Starsight’s official release date, I think it is best that I put up a spoiler alert below, before I start going into the book in any real detail.

For those readers who do not want to risk any spoilers, I will say now that Starsight is an incredible book that I really, really enjoyed. Sanderson tells a wildly entertaining and highly addictive story that features some memorable characters, high-stakes events, some of the best science fiction action I have ever read and a ton of inventive world building. I honestly think that this is one of the best releases of 2019, and it easily gets a full five-star rating from me (if only I could go higher). I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an epic science fiction read, and if you loved Skyward, you are going to love this book.

Anyway, if you are not interested in learning any more details about this book’s plot or characters (which I do explore to a substantial degree), I would suggest you stop reading now, as everything below this paragraph has a spoiler alert in effect.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

 

Starsight is set a few months after the events of Skyward, and humanity has been busy. Thanks to Spensa and Skyward Flight, as well as the advanced technology contained with M-Bot, the DDF has managed to capture several of the planet’s ancient orbiting defensive platforms, which have allowed them to push the Superiority forces out of Detritus’s obit. However, despite these successes, humanity is still trapped on Detritus, and the eventual Superiority mass retaliation will likely wipe out everyone on the planet. Their only chance at survival is to flee from Detritus and find a new planet to make their home, somewhere the Superiority cannot find them. However, the only way to do this is with some form of hyperdrive, which humanity lacks access to, and Spensa’s cytonic teleportation abilities are too restrictive for mass use.

The crash-landing of an unknown alien spacecraft on Detritus may provide the solution that will ensure humanity’s survival. The pilot of this craft is a member of a non-Superiority species who has been invited for diplomatic reasons to enlist in a new Superiority fighter squadron, and she is able to pass on the cytonic coordinates to the squadron’s base to Spensa. Disguised with M-Bot’s holographic technology, Spensa travels to the Superiority space city, Starsight, in order to infiltrate the Superiority military and find and steal a working hyperdrive.

Joining the new Superiority squadron, Spensa discovers that she and her fellow recruits are being trained to fight the delvers, titanic inter-dimensional beings that dwell in the nowhere, who are capable of devastating planets if they are drawn into our dimension by an over-use of cytonic ability. But as Spensa attempts to complete her mission, she finds herself caught amidst the politics of the various Superiority races, many of whom wish for the complete and utter destruction of her people. Can Spensa navigate the strange new world she finds herself in, or will her actions result in the destruction of all she knows?

As you can see from the above synopsis, Starsight goes in some very interesting and unpredictable directions. I personally loved all of these new story elements, and the idea of Spensa having to infiltrate a mostly unknown alien society was a really clever and intriguing central plot idea that I think worked extremely well. The subsequent narrative is a fantastic blend of different story elements, which includes some great new characters, settings and plot directions, as well as some of the best parts of Skyward. For example, not only do you get to see a whole new take on the excellent space fighter training plot point that made the first book so amazing, but you also get a science fiction spy thriller story filled with all manner of political intrigue. This was a fantastic book to get into, and Sanderson has made sure that the plot is accessible to readers who did not get a chance to check out Skyward last year. However, I would strongly recommend reading Skyward first, not only because it will give you a better idea of the characters and certain plot elements, but because it is such an awesome book in its own right.

One of my favourite things about the first book in the Skyward series was the excellent group of characters that Sanderson focused on, including Spensa, M-Bot and the members of Skyward Flight. Throughout Skyward the reader got to know and care for these characters, and it was actually a little bit distressing when bad things happened to them. Skyward continues to look at several of the characters from the first book, although readers who grew attached to Skyward Flight might be a tad disappointed as Sanderson shifts the focus away from them and introduces the reader to a whole new group of alien characters.

Spensa is still the main point-of-view character for this second book and serves as a fantastic central protagonist. In many ways, Spensa is still the same impatient and reckless pilot that was such to see in the first book. However, it soon becomes obvious that the experiences, relationships and life lessons that she has faced since joining the DDF have tempered her in many ways, especially as she has to deal with the intense responsibility of being her people’s greatest hope for survival. I really enjoyed watching Spensa as she was forced to assimilate into the alien cultures on Starsight, and it was interesting to see how she reacted when she realised not everyone there is as evil as she believed. The opinions and support she gives to her alien friends result in some emotional moments, and it was really heart-warming to see how far she has progressed since the last book.

While Spensa is a great central protagonist, to my mind the best character in the entire book is still her sentient ship, M-Bot. M-Bot is the snarky and hilarious artificial intelligence that Spensa discovered crashed on Detritus, and together they form an efficient and enjoyable team. M-Bot honestly has all the best lines in the book, and nearly every interaction with Spensa results in some excellent jokes or banter. Despite the humour, M-Bot is a pretty complicated character, especially as in this book he is attempting to work out the full limits of his consciousness and code. He is continuously attempting to prove that he is actually alive, and these attempts result in safeguards in his system attempting to shut him down. I really enjoyed the way that Sanderson continues to utilise M-Bot. Even though he is a ship, he is still a fantastic and highly enjoyable character to focus on and we even get a reason for his mushroom obsession in this book.

Spensa’s new flight of Superiority comrades features an eclectic bunch of aliens, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. These include a figment called Vapour, who is essentially a sentient smell that can take control of ships and pilot them. Vapour is the ultimate spy and requires Spensa to be constantly on her toes. There is also the dione draft, Morriumur. Dione are a race of non-violent aliens high up in the Superiority hierarchy, who have a unique breeding system that combines the parents into one new being. This is a process that can take several goes, as the family of the newly bred dione may choose to reform a young dione so that they have an ideal personality. Morriumur is a draft, spending the first few months of their life testing out their personality to see if they are an ideal member of the species. Morriumur, who has slightly more violent tendencies than most of their species, is trying to prove that they belong as a starfighter, but the combined expectations of their family and the inner thoughts that they are not worthy, are a constant hindrance to them as a pilot.

While both of the above characters are pretty cool, and Sanderson spends a good amount of time exploring them, two members of Spensa’s new flight really stood out. The first of these is Brade, a human from another prison world who has been recruited as a cytonic enforcer by one of the book’s central antagonists. Brade, after being taken from her parents as a child, has essentially been brainwashed all her life to consider humans as evil and inferior, and this has a major damaging effect on her psyche. The interactions between her and Spensa throughout the book are quite fascinating, and she proved to be one of the most complex characters in this book. My favourite new character, however, had to be Hesho, who is totally not king of the kitsen. The kitsen are a race of tiny gerbil-like aliens who have recently converted from a monarchy to a democracy in an attempt to become a Superiority race. Hesho leads a group of around 50 kitsen who pilot one heavily armed fighter in Spensa’s squadron like it’s a capital ship. Hesho and the kitsen are really hilarious characters, mainly because Hesho is attempting to convince the Superiority that he is no longer ruling his people as a king, and instead the kitsen have embraced democracy. Unfortunately, despite Hesho insisting he is no longer a monarch in every interaction he has, his people continue to worship him, which kind of undercuts this message. I also found the similarities in the personalities between the kitsen and the Spensa we first encountered in Skyward to be very amusing, as the kitsen attempt to compensate for their size with extreme confidence and boasting like Spensa used to (for example, the first ship we see the kitsen flying is called Big Enough to Kill You).

All of the above characters are great, and I really loved the way that I was once again drawn into their various personalities and histories. It was a bit of a shame not to see too much of the characters I liked so much from the first book (although we do get an idea of what various members of Skyward Flight are up to), but I think the new characters that Sanderson introduced more than made up for it.

In addition to the fantastic character work, one of the other best features of Starsight is the epic and fast-paced action sequences that punctuate much of the book. Just like in Skyward, Sanderson presents a huge number of different scenes where Spensa is fighting or training in a fighter. The sheer amount of detail that goes into these various action sequences is pretty amazing, and I was able to picture all the flying and manoeuvres perfectly. The author comes up with a number of clever new scenarios in this book, including the fancy flying and combat required to fight a delver, or having Spensa fly in the type of craft she has been fighting against for her entire military career. All of the action in this book is first-rate, and I can guarantee that you will get lost in some of the incredible action sequences.

I have always been impressed by the elaborate worlds that Sanderson can create for his stories. Whether it is the vast fantasy world that he came up with for The Stormlight Archive, the supervillain dominated alternate version of Earth that appeared in The Reckoners trilogy, or the fantastic science fiction planet of Detritus that was the main setting for Skyward, Sanderson always delivers complex and intricate settings for his story, complete with huge amounts of backstory. In Starsight, Sanderson once again produces a huge and detailed new setting for his outstanding story. The alien civilisation that is living on Starsight is very impressive, and I love all the different alien races that he has come up with for this story. Many of the aliens have some very complex and fascinating history, a great deal of which featured in the story. I really look forward to seeing how Sanderson expands this universe even further in the final book in the trilogy, and I cannot wait to see what new aliens or civilisations he comes up with.

As you can see from this rather lengthy review, there is a lot to love about this book. Sanderson does an impressive job of combining the intriguing new story direction, the amazing characters, intense action and fascinating new setting into one concise narrative, and the end result is a perfect book. While Starsight is being marketed as a young adult book, and indeed it would prove appropriate for most young readers, it is really a novel that can be enjoyed by any reader of any age. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series (which seems to be 2021 at this point, so far away!).

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey

Tiamat's Wrath Cover

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 26 May 2019)

Series: The Expanse – Book Eight

Length: 19 hours and 8 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

With 2019 coming to an end, it is about time I got around to writing a review for one of the best science fiction books of the year, Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey, the eighth book in the extremely popular The Expanse series. James S. A. Corey is the collaborative name of co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, but for the purposes of this review it is simpler to treat Corey as an individual.

Tiamat’s Wrath is an outstanding piece of science fiction that I had an amazing time listening to earlier in the year. Despite being extremely keen for this book, I did not get around to reading it until a month or two after it came out, but when I did get a chance to listen to Tiamat’s Wrath, I absolutely loved it and it was one of my favourite books from earlier in the year. However, I completely failed to write a review immediately after finishing it, and it kind of got lost in the pile of books I needed to review as I read more and more stuff.

The Expanse books, which started in 2011 with Leviathan Wakes, are an extremely complex and outstandingly well-written science fiction series, which have also been turned into a very popular television show of the same name. It is important to note that while all the books in The Expanse are connected by the same universe, overarching plot and central characters, the story can be broken up into three separate trilogies of novels. After the success of the first eight books, the authors are starting to wrap up the series, with the upcoming ninth book (hopefully coming out sometime in 2020), being the last in the series. Not only is Tiamat’s Wrath the penultimate book in the series; it is also the second book in the last trilogy of the series, which started with 2017’s Persepolis Rising.

Tiamat’s Wrath is set a short time after the events of Persepolis Rising, when the Laconian Empire, under the command of High Consul Winston Duarte, successfully utilised advanced alien technology to take control of the entire gate network and destroy the navies of Earth and Mars. The Laconians now rule the entire galaxy, and the crew of the Rocinante (the central protagonists of The Expanse series), are wanted criminals as they fight a guerrilla war. This was another incredible addition to The Expanse series that not only contains a vast and captivating story in its own right but which sets up a fascinating scenario for the final book in the franchise.

Goodread’s Synopsis:

Thirteen hundred gates have opened to solar systems around the galaxy. But as humanity builds its interstellar empire in the alien ruins, the mysteries and threats grow deeper.

In the dead systems where gates lead to stranger things than alien planets, Elvi Okoye begins a desperate search to discover the nature of a genocide that happened before the first human beings existed, and to find weapons to fight a war against forces at the edge of the imaginable. But the price of that knowledge may be higher than she can pay.

At the heart of the empire, Teresa Duarte prepares to take on the burden of her father’s godlike ambition. The sociopathic scientist Paolo Cortázar and the Mephistophelian prisoner James Holden are only two of the dangers in a palace thick with intrigue, but Teresa has a mind of her own and secrets even her father the emperor doesn’t guess.

And throughout the wide human empire, the scattered crew of the Rocinante fights a brave rear-guard action against Duarte’s authoritarian regime. Memory of the old order falls away, and a future under Laconia’s eternal rule — and with it, a battle that humanity can only lose – seems more and more certain. Because against the terrors that lie between worlds, courage and ambition will not be enough…

For the plot of Tiamat’s Wrath, Corey tells the story from the perspective of several separate point-of-view characters, each of whom has a number of chapters throughout the book. This was a very interesting combination of character perspectives that helped explore various aspects of the galaxy following the rise to power of the Laconians. Three of the main point-of-view characters are former Rocinante crew members Naomi Nagata, Bobbie Draper and Alex Kamal, each of whom is involved in the war against the powerful Laconian Empire. Another point-of-view character is returning character Elvi Okoye, who, despite her loyalties to her friends upon the Rocinante, finds herself employed by High Consul Duarte as one of his primary scientists exploring the alien technology, and later finds herself drawn into the Laconian inner circle. The fifth main character is new protagonist Teresa Duarte, daughter of the High Consul, who provides insight into growing up in the Laconian Empire and the political intrigue of the capital. In addition to the five characters mentioned above, the book’s prologue, epilogue and interludes are narrated by former Rocinante captain James Holden, who is being held prisoner on Laconia and who is attempting to manipulate the system from within.

I really enjoyed the author’s use of these multiple viewpoints, especially as it allowed them to tell a complex and widespread story set across several different solar systems. Each of these various viewpoints provides the reader with different information and insight into the both the Laconian Empire and the unknown alien threat that has sprung up. While Elvi and Teresa’s story arcs are pretty fascinating and I quite enjoyed the combination of politics and alien science that filled their chapters, my favourite parts of the book are the chapters told from the perspectives of Naomi, Bobbie and Alex. This is mainly because these chapters focused on their fight against the Laconian Empire, and I really enjoyed the detailed and captivating accounts of a large-scale guerrilla conflict in a massive space location. Each of these three characters shows off a different aspect of this fight, including Naomi acting as the resistance’s master strategist while living in a supply crate, Bobbie’s work as a marine and drill sergeant on the frontline and Alex’s job piloting various combat craft into battle. Thanks to these three characters, you get an amazing idea of how this war is being fought, and the various issues involved with facing a seemingly invincible opponent. I also liked how all the various character arcs came together extremely well as the book progressed, creating a first-rate narrative that proved to be extremely addictive.

I am a man who loves his science fiction action, and I have to say that I had an absolute blast with the action sequences in this book. Corey has absolutely packed this book full of various battle sequences in space, as the protagonists go up against the various Laconian forces in both smaller skirmishes and one massive full-system assault. Not only are the battles pretty spectacular in their own right, but I love how realistic the author has tried to make them, with things like gravity, the lack of sound in space and communication delays across vast distances all taken into account. All this consideration really makes the combat in Tiamat’s Wrath stand out, and it added a lot to my overall enjoyment on this novel.

While this is an excellent piece of science fiction and an amazing read, due to its position as the eighth book in the series, and the middle book in the final trilogy, Tiamat’s Wrath is probably not the best book to start exploring The Expanse with. While Corey does a pretty good job of making this book accessible to new readers, I would strongly suggest that readers at least check out the previous book in the series, Persepolis Rising, first, as it will help readers understand more of the complex science fiction and story elements. There is no doubt in my mind that existing fans of The Expanse will love this fantastic book, especially as it takes the story in some interesting directions and sets up the series for a pretty epic conclusion. That being said, some of the developments that occur during the book are going to make dedicated The Expanse readers very sad, especially if they have grown attached to certain characters.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Tiamat’s Wrath, narrated by Jefferson Mays. This is a pretty substantial audiobook, running for just over 19 hours (indeed it would have just made the top 20 on my Longest Audiobook list), but I ended up getting through it rather quickly as I had a hard time turning it off. I found the audiobook to be a fantastic way to enjoy this book, and I think I absorbed a lot more of the detailed science fiction plot by listening to it. Mays has a great voice for narration, and I really enjoyed his take on the various characters in the book. All in all, listening to the audiobook version of Tiamat’s Wrath was a great experience, and I will probably end up doing the same for the final The Expanse book when it come out.

Tiamat’s Wrath is an exceptionally powerful novel that is easily one of the best books I have read so far this year. The Expanse’s authors have absolutely outdone themselves with this eighth book, which tells a complex and intriguing science fiction story. Featuring a first-rate story, a great group of core characters, some impressive action and the author’s typical attention to scientific detail, Tiamat’s Wrath comes highly recommended, and I am still kicking myself for taking so long to review this.

Star Trek: The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 13 August 2019)

Series: Star Trek: The Original Series

Length: 11 hours and 34 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My bold new voyage down into the depths of Star Trek extended fiction continues as I review the latest exciting novel tied into Star Trek: The Original Series, The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox.

Get ready for a good old-fashioned “gold rush” on the outskirts of Federation space, as vast quantities of a rare and valuable mineral vital for energy production is found on the remote planet of Baldur-3. The sparsely populated planet is quickly overrun by a horde of opportunists from all over the galaxy, seeking to make their fortunes as miners and prospectors. Hailing from a variety of planets and made up of a number of different species, these determined but often under-prepared prospectors are pushing Baldur-3’s infrastructure to its limit. Despite not being part of the United Federation of Planets, Baldur-3 requests assistance from Starfleet, which dispatches Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise to help in any way they can. However, upon their arrival in the sector, Kirk discovers several major problems that require him to split his personnel.

While Kirk and the Enterprise remain above Baldur-3, Sulu and a small contingent of the ship’s crew are left behind at the local Deep Space Station S8 to help manage the prospectors in transit to the planet. While there, Sulu is forced to deal with a multitude of issues, including a malevolent saboteur, the return of an old romantic flame, and foolhardy adventurers attempting to cross the dangerous Antares Maelstrom to find a fabled shortcut to Baldur-3. At the same time, Spock and Chekov travel to a nearby planet, inhabited by a pre-spaceflight race of humanoids, where alien items have started appearing in the hands of the locals in what is clearly a severe violation of the Prime Directive. As Spock and Chekov investigate, they find themselves dragged into a sophisticated smuggling ring involving a rare tea that could prove disastrous for the planet’s future development. Each of these groups will experience mortal peril as they attempt to uphold the values of Starfleet and assist all those in need.

I have really been on a roll with Star Trek novels lately, having already read several fantastic pieces in the last few months, including The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett, Available Light by Dayton Ward, The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack and the first volume of the Boldly Go comic book series. The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox is another fun and enjoyable Star Trek novel that I had a wonderful time listening to on audiobook. Cox is an experienced writer of tie-in fiction, having written novels related to a number of different media franchises, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Underworld, The Librarians and titles from DC and Marvel comics. However, his most consistent body of work has been his Star Trek tie-in novels. Since 1995, Cox has written around 20 Star Trek books, set across the various television series. He has already written several books related to The Original Series, as well as three books that show the life and times of iconic franchise villain Khan.

This particular Star Trek adventure is set during the Enterprise’s five-year journey (2265 – 2270), meaning that this story occurred around the same time as the episodes of The Original Series. The Antares Maelstrom turned out to be an interesting change of pace from some of the other Star Trek books I have previously read, as it is a standalone novel that does not seek to explore character backgrounds or continue several ongoing storylines from previous novels. Instead, the episode reads a lot like an episode from The Original Series, with the crew of the Enterprise getting involved with a number of adventures in space and helping those in need.

Cox has populated his latest book with three separate storylines, each of which features various members of the Enterprise’s main crew. This includes Sulu’s stay aboard Deep Space Station S8 and Spock and Chekov’s investigation of the tea smugglers on the nearby planet. Both of these storylines branch off from Kirk’s storyline as he, Scotty, McCoy, Uhura and the Enterprise stay above Baldur-3 and provide assistance to the surface. Each of these storylines is quite interesting and has a number of great moments. While Spock and Chekov’s storyline is one extended adventure, the other two parts of the book feature a series of interconnected adventures and mysteries. This is a very interesting blend of stories, from the examination of a futuristic “gold rush” in space, to a covert investigation on an alien planet. I personally enjoyed Sulu’s storyline the most, as it featured a number of exciting moments between spaceships, a compelling investigation, several great new characters and a huge amount of action. The other two storylines are really good, and in my opinion the story benefited from having this great mixture of storylines, which did not dilute or overwhelm the overall quality of the book. Indeed, all of the storylines form a compelling overarching narrative which I found to be extremely fun and surprisingly addictive, and I was firmly glued to the story.

Like most tie-in novels, The Antares Maelstrom is intended for fans of the franchise it is based on, meaning that this is an ideal read for hardcore Trekkies. However, no great knowledge of the original series is required to enjoy this book. There are no real pre-existing storylines to follow, and anyone who has a basic knowledge of the show or who has seen the latest trilogy of movies will be able to follow along without any issues. Cox does pepper the story with a number of references to some of the past adventures of the Enterprise, and there is even a major connection to one of the more interesting episodes from the first season. The book does feature the first appearance of the titular Antares Maelstrom, which itself is a rather obscure reference to the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, as the Antares Maelstrom is featured in one of Khan’s iconic monologues. While these many references and call-backs to previous episodes will prove to be enjoyable to fans of the franchise, most of them have no real bearing on the plot, and any that do are well explained.

I also felt that Cox did a fantastic job of capturing the original tone of the Star Trek television show in this novel. The focus on the prospectors arriving on Baldur-3 is used by the author to mirror the bold explorative and chance-taking stance that the crew of the Enterprise undertake, and there is a lot of discussion about new opportunities and venturing into the unknown. While these prospectors are initially viewed as greedy and reckless, they eventually come together as part of the book and show how, deep down, people are basically good. All this focus on unity, compassion and logic is classic Star Trek, and Kirk makes sure to accompany many of these examples with his trademark speeches, talking about the ideals of Starfleet and his crew. In addition to this, each of the major characters is strongly featured throughout the book, and the author makes sure that each of them gets a substantial amount of story time. Cox does an amazing job capturing the various personalities of the original series cast members, and it was great seeing them back in action in this new book.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to The Antares Maelstrom on audiobook, narrated by Robert Petkoff, which ran for 11 hours and 34 minutes. I absolutely flew through this audiobook, and I really enjoyed having this cool story narrated to me. Petkoff is still an impressive narrator, and I have previously mentioned how much I enjoyed his work narrating the voices of The Original Series cast members for The Captain’s Oath. In The Antares Maelstrom, Petkoff continues to amaze, coming up with a huge range of different voices for the various characters featured throughout the book. Just like in the previous book, his Kirk, Spock, Sulu and McCoy are darn near perfect, and I was really glad I got to hear a lot more of his Scotty, as he manages an awesome Scottish accent. I also got my first real experience of Petkoff’s Chekov in this book, and I have to say it was near perfect. The narrator expertly captures Chekov’s Russian accent, and there were a number of amazing instances where Petkoff had to imitate Chekov’s classic mispronunciations of English words. This is truly some first-class voice work and it really helps make the entire audiobook stand out. Petkoff seems to be one of the main Star Trek audiobook narrators at the moment, as several recent and upcoming books all feature his talents, and this makes me a lot more eager to check out these books in the future.

The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox proved to be another amazing piece of Star Trek fiction. It presents the reader with three fantastic adventures that come together to create an exciting and captivating book. While probably best read by established Star Trek fans, this book can be easily enjoyed by readers who have less Star Trek experience but who love sci-fi, intriguing mysteries, iconic characters and fast-paced action. Another great outing from Cox, The Antares Maelstrom is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.

The Kremlin Strike by Dale Brown – Audiobook Review

The Kremlin Strike Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (7 May 2019)

Series: Patrick McLanahan series – Book 23

Length: 13 hours and 18 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Dale Brown, perhaps one of the best current writers of military thrillers in the world today, returns with another exciting instalment of his Patrick McLanahan series, which takes America’s battle with Russia up into high orbit.

Following the recent defeat of his deadly combat robots in Texas, Russian President Geenadiy Gryzlov is desperate to strike back against the hated Americans. However, he no longer faces the inept US administration he enjoyed over the last couple of years. Instead, his failed attack on America has resulted in the election of a strong new president, John Dalton Farrell. With Farrell once again backing the innovative and resourceful private companies of former US President Kevin Martindale and former general Patrick McLanahan, Sky Masters and Scion Aviation International, America’s future looks bright. One of Farrell’s first priorities is the immediate resumption of America’s research into space flight and defence, resulting in Iron Wolf Squadron members Brad McLanahan and Nadia Roz being recruited by Sky Masters to head up their revamped space initiative.

However, the Americans are not the only ones with an eye to space. Knowing that Russia’s future world dominance depends on controlling the stars, Gryzlov has ordered the construction of a high-tech space station, Mars 1. Armed with devastating plasma weapons capable of shooting down every US satellite orbiting the planet as well as missile launchers that can rain down fire anywhere on the world, Mars 1 is an absolute game changer that will ensure Gryzlov finally achieves victory over the United States.

America’s only hope once again rests in the hands of the men of Sky Masters and Scion. As the Scion operatives attempt to determine a weakness in Mars 1’s defences, Sky Masters have created a number of advanced space planes and weapons that will allow Brad and Nadia to take the fight to the Russians in space. Will this new equipment be enough, or will Russia’s grip on high orbit propel them to a final, devastating victory?

Brown has been one of the best and most prolific authors of military fiction for over 30 years, having written 29 military thrillers in this period, as well as co-writing 18 books in the Dreamland series with Jim DeFelice. I only recently got into Brown’s books last year, when I read his 2018 release, The Moscow Offensive. After being drawn in by the promise of advanced military robots fighting it out in the American heartland, I fell in love with the awesome plot, intense action and analyses of real-world political strife, and as a result, The Kremlin Strike was one of the military thrillers I was looking forward to the most this year. The Kremlin Strike is the 23rd book in Brown’s Patrick McLanahan series, which follows the titular character and his allies as they attempt to keep America safe from a series of high-tech military threats. This book could also be considered to be sixth book in the Brad McLanahan series, as the overarching plot of the series started to focus more on Patrick’s son, Brad, in Tiger’s Claw, especially after Patrick McLanahan’s supposed death.

I absolutely loved the central concept of The Kremlin Strike, which looks at the potential of Earth’s high orbit to host the next major military conflicts that we see. This is not a new focus for Brown, as some of his previous books in this series, including Executive Intent and Starfire, have looked at the potential of space-born weapons. Before the story even starts, Brown makes it clear that he believes the United States needs to focus more on the possibility of a future war in space, and even includes some real-world news excerpts that look at recent advances in military technology that can be used to fight battles in space or destroy satellites orbiting the planet.

Based on this, Brown is able to come up with an incredibly intriguing military thriller that looks at the battles that could occur in the near future. I found it absolutely fascinating to see the author’s theories about how space warfare could be conducted, and the tactical advantages of having control of Earth’s orbit. While some of the technology in featured in the story, such as the Cybernetic Infantry Devices, are probably more advanced than what Russia or America can currently use (probably), Brown does examine a number of weapons and vehicles that are currently being tested in space. The various laser weapons, plasma launchers (OK, these are slightly less likely), missiles and other cool weapons or technology used in the battle in space make for some interesting reading. There were also some intriguing looks at the various limitations or downsides of the space technologies featured in this book, such as energy issues, fuel consumption or the gravitational backlash some weapons may experience. I especially liked how Brown was able to capture a more accurate view of space combat, with invisible laser beams rather than the colourful blasts you see in most science fiction movies.

All of the focus on combat in space is a superb basis for a story, and Brown backs that up with some first-rate storytelling to make this an outstanding read. The Kremlin Strike was an excellent blend of action, advanced technology and spy fiction that also has some intriguing mirrors to current world politics. The author tells the story from a range of different character perspectives, allowing for a widespread story that works incredibly well. I especially liked seeing the opposing views of the protagonists and antagonists, as it allowed the reader to see multiple sides of the overall conflict. For example, the reader gets to see the Russians plan their moves, and then you get to see the American countermoves. This view of the different sides of the conflict also works because neither the Americans nor the Russians have a solid idea of what the other side is planning. The reader is the only person who knows what is going on in both camps, and it is really fun to see the opponents slowly work out each other’s tactics during the course of the narrative, and then panic when they realise what their enemy is planning.

In addition to the combat in space, Brown also displays his detailed knowledge of modern warfare and military throughout the course of The Kremlin Strike. There are a huge number of scenes where modern military technology, techniques, strategies or standard operating procedures are featured, all topped off with a good helping of military terminology and acronyms. Brown utilises all of these extremely well, and there is nothing too overwhelming for readers who have a low understanding of the relevant jargon. All the action in this book is written incredibly well, and it was just plain thrilling to see some of the battles in the sky or in space take place. There were also some cool espionage sequences thrown in throughout the story as well, emphasising the benefit of human intelligence in current conflicts. All of these various aspects come together into a wonderful military thriller narrative, which proved extremely hard to stop listening to.

Another part of The Kremlin Strike that I enjoyed was the use of the fantastic prime antagonist, Russian President Geenadiy Gryzlov. Gryzlov has been a key villain in the last few books of the Patrick McLanahan series, and his angry, vindictive nature and his sheer inability to admit his own mistake makes him an amazingly easy character to dislike. I always find that a great antagonist can add so much to a story, and this is especially true in this book, where you can’t help but root for the protagonists and enjoy when the antagonist’s plots come to naught. You also cannot help but feel sorry at times for Gryzlov’s subordinates, who are forced to obey his wild orders, despite knowing that they will be punished when they fail. I really enjoyed a fun story development that occurs around this character in The Kremlin Strike, which I thought that Brown planned out very well, and which was one of my favourite highlights of this book.

While I absolutely loved The Kremlin Strike, the author has included a few right-wing political issues that might not be appealing to every reader. Right at the start of the book, Brown is very supportive about recent decision by the current US administration to form a specific armed force for space warfare, and this book examines the necessity of such a force. In addition, if you read between the lines a little, the US president in The Kremlin Strike, Farrell, could be a partial stand in for the current real-life United States president, while the previous incompetent president, Stacy Anne Barbeau, could be seen to represent this president’s real-life opponent at the 2016 election. Farrell is a political outsider, disliked by the media, whose tough talk and determination to cut through the bureaucracy of Washington (drain the swamp, if you will), won the support of the American people. The book’s apparent support of the current US president and some of his controversial decisions may be off-putting to some readers, although I do not believe that it harmed the entertainment value of the story. I personally found it interesting that in this scenario Brown once again painted Russia as America’s greatest enemy, which is something the current US president appears extremely reluctant to do, although perhaps I am reading into this too much.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Kremlin Strike, which is narrated by William Dufris. The audiobook version of this book runs for a moderate 13 hours and 18 minutes, and I found it to be a great way to enjoy this exciting and detailed military thriller. Having only read Brown’s work before, I felt that having the audiobook book version playing in my ear helped ramp up the action sequences as well as increase the sense of urgency of the events occurring in the book. Dufris is also an excellent narrator, coming up with a huge number of great voices for the various characters that make up the cast of this book. The voices he attributed to these characters were really good and captured their personalities extremely well, such as, for example, the anger, ruthlessness and paranoia exhibited by Gryzlov. Dufris also did a good job with the character accents, continuing utilising a number of Russian accents throughout the book, as well as accents from other Eastern European countries such as Poland. I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of The Kremlin Strike and I think I will check out this format for any future books in the Patrick McLanahan series.

In this latest book in his long running Patrick McLanahan series, Dale Brown has once again created a first-class military thriller that is an absolute treat to read. The author’s focus on the future conflicts that may occur in our planet’s orbit were extremely fascinating, and the story created around it was a captivating and electrifying read. Easily accessible to those readers who have not previously had the pleasure of reading the Patrick McLanahan series before, The Kremlin Strike was a deeply enjoyable book, and a must for all fans of both the science fiction and military thriller genres.

Planetside by Michael Mammay

Planetside Cover.jpg

Publishers: Harper Voyager

                        HarperAudio

Publication Date – 31 July 2018

 

Well, that was an unexpectantly awesome book!  I am usually pretty good at predicting how good a book is going to be by its plot synopsis or my prior knowledge of the author.  When I first heard about Planetside I thought it sounded like an interesting concept from first-time author Michael Mammay.  While I had high hopes for the book, I did somewhat assume that it would just be another solid but enjoyable science fiction mystery.  What I was not expecting, however, was one of the best science fiction books of 2018 that easy achieves a five-star rating from me.

Set in the far future of Earth’s expansion, Planetside follows Colonel Carl Butler, a war hero living out a peaceful semi-retirement on a training base.  However, when his old friend General Serata calls him late at night and drags him all the way to headquarters, he obliges for old times’ sake.  Serata needs him to travel to the planet of Cappa, humanity’s current warzone, where members of a resilient and intelligent alien race known as the Cappans are fighting a gruelling insurgency against the humans attempting to exploit their planet.  Once there, he will head up an investigation into the disappearance of a young lieutenant who went missing after being wounded on the planet.  By all accounts, the wounded lieutenant was successfully evacuated from the surface, but the military hospital claims that he never arrived at their facility.  To makes matters worse, the lieutenant is the son of a high councillor, and the disappearance has become a highly publicised affair.  Despite knowing that there is more to the case than Serata is letting on, Butler agrees to find the missing officer.

Arriving at Cappa Base, the space station hovering over the planet, Butler soon finds that his investigation is going to be a lot harder than he anticipated.  All the soldiers he speaks to have the same rehearsed story, the head of the base’s military hospital flat out refuses to cooperate with him, the head of Special Ops is continuously unable to come off-planet to speak to him, and any witnesses or evidence that could point him in the right direction mysteriously disappears.  It is also damn suspicious that any time he takes a step in the right direction, somebody tries to have him killed.  Under pressure to wrap this investigation up, Butler decides to drop down onto the surface of Cappa, but what he finds down there will change everything.  Forced into an increasingly desperate situation, Butler must find the answers he needs before it is too late.

This is the first book from Michael Mammay, but it was more than enough to make me a dedicated fan of this author.  With a sequel already set to be released in 2019, Planetside is an extraordinary introduction to an amazing new series.  I chose to listen to this book in its audiobook format, read by R. C. Bray, and at 8 hours 38 minutes, this is a fairly quick way to enjoy this fantastic book.

Planetside’s story is based around the protagonist’s investigation into a missing human soldier on an alien planet that has been occupied by the human military.  As Butler arrives at the military base the solider was stationed out of, he begins to realise that there is something much more to the case than what was advertised.  Every single person he speaks to is hiding something, he seems only to uncover more lies, and some shadowy figures are actively trying to sabotage his investigation in any way they can.  Despite all these setbacks, the protagonist persists with his investigation throughout the course of the book and slowly begins to uncover the underlying conspiracy that the soldier’s disappearance is just one small part of.  There is so much about this mystery investigation to enjoy, as the author seamlessly combines the mystery and conspiracy part of this story with the science fiction element, creating a unique and captivating overall narrative.  The full scope of this conspiracy is very impressive, and Mammay’s slow burn reveal of the extent and implications of what Butler uncovers is well done to keep the reader in suspense.  I was intensely intrigued by this multilayered conspiracy, and was left constantly guessing at what the potential solution was.

The book is told from the point of view of its protagonist, Colonel Butler, and Mammay has created an excellent central character for this story that the reader is instantly drawn to and cannot help but like.  The author has done a fantastic job conveying the fact that Butler is a straight-shooting, no-bullshit, wily veteran soldier who has had enough of war and is just looking forward to retirement.  He is an amusing and intriguing choice to investigate the book’s intricate and potentially wide-reaching conspiracy, as he powers through the expected political niceties other investigators may have worried about without any concerns for his future or career.  His years of service also ensure that he has impeccable instincts when it comes to the people he is dealing with and is fully aware of when the other characters are bullshitting him, which occurs frequently throughout this book.  I had fun observing this rough and seemingly uncomplicated old-school soldier get to grips with this elaborate conspiracy and blow through all the careful plans of the book’s antagonists.  The colonel also has a sense of humour, something that the other characters encounter to various degrees of frustration, especially the people he is intentionally pissing off.  I also appreciated the self-deprecating and extremely honest reflections about the situation that Butler presents to the reader, as it made me like him even more.

The military aspects of this book are another amazing part of Planetside, as Mammay has perfectly captured elements of the modern day military and transplanted them into this science fiction storyline.  The majority of the story is set within Cappa Base, and the reader is made to feel like they are in a real military base.  The author also seeks to capture the full minutiae of military life throughout the book, and the reader is given insight into what tasks are undertaken on the base, the main characters experience and the respect he commands of the other soldiers in the story.  While most of the focus is on the investigation, there are a couple of action scenes throughout the book, including an extended battle sequence that see’s the protagonist and his allies engage in a protracted firefight with enemy forces on the planet’s surface.  The author’s use of the first-person perspective is perfect for these battle sequences and the reader is dragged right into the middle of these firefights, really experiencing the action through Mammay’s skilled and descriptive writing.  This battle sequences felt very realistic and had some noticeable similarities to real-life skirmishes in modern day battlefields.  The tactics the humans use during these conflicts on Cappa are highly reminiscent of American forces in the Middle East, although the inclusion of more science fiction appropriate weapons and technology allow for some interesting differences.

While the impressive investigation storyline does a fantastic job holding onto the reader’s interest, and the solution to the entire mystery arc is creative and clever, nothing compares to the book’s epic conclusion.  Without going into too much detail, I thought that the way that Mammay ended this book was just incredible, and is one of the main reasons why I am giving this book a five-star rating.  I also loved how, towards the end of the book, the protagonist becomes fully aware of how everything has to end, and at the same time he starts to understand that his oldest friend had sent him on this mission because he knew exactly how Butler would act upon uncovering the full extent of the conspiracy.  The final scene of the book was just perfect as the protagonist reflects on everything that has happened with one of the book’s side characters.  During this scene there is an excellent use of the end of a subtle countdown that has been occurring throughout the entire book, represented by a depleting number of whisky bottles, as well as an appropriate moment of happiness for Butler as he finally gets to have a whisky in a proper glass, which was just perfect.  As mentioned above, Mammay already has a sequel planned, and I am extremely curious to see where the story goes next.

The audiobook version of Planetside is a great way to enjoy this fantastic book, and I had a lot of fun listening to this format.  The audiobook’s narrator, R. C. Bray, manages to capture the gruff and grizzled personality of Butler perfectly, and for most of the book it really sounded like the old colonel was telling you his story.  Bray also does a good job producing distinctive voices for the rest of the characters in book, including several female characters, and the listener is able to distinguish between the various people without too much difficulty.  I also felt that listening to this story really helped bring me into the book’s awesome battle sequences as well as ensuring that I was fully invested in the success of the enjoyable main character.  Overall, I would recommend the audiobook format as an excellent way to enjoy this book, although readers will of course get a lot out of this book if they choose the paperback format.

Michael Mammay’s debut novel, Planetside, is an incredible piece of science fiction and is one of my favourite books of 2018.  Featuring a captivating mystery storyline that places the book’s likeable protagonist in the middle of a massive conspiracy, this book completely grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let go until its powerful and memorable conclusion.  I cannot recommend this book enough and it is essential reading for all fans of the science fiction genre.  I am very much looking forward to Mammay’s sequel to Planetside, which is already at the top of my must-read list for 2019.

My Rating:

Five Stars