Halo: Renegades by Kelly Gay – Audiobook Review

Halo Renegades Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gallery Books and Simon & Schuster Audio (19 February 2019)

Series: Halo

Length: 8 hours 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

In this review, I dive into the expanded media universe surrounding the popular Halo video game franchise, as I review one of their latest tie-in books, Renegades by Kelly Gay.

I remember way back in 2001 when we first got the X-Box, the original Halo (or Halo: Combat Evolved) was one of the first games we got on the system, and it was definitely one of the best games we had at the beginning of the platform.  The graphics on Halo were just incredible for the time, and it represented a fantastic evolution in the first-person shooter genre.  The Halo series has since expanded out in a number of addition games, including the five main games (Halo to Halo 5), two additional first-person shooters (ODST and Reach) and two real-time strategy games (Halo Wars 1 and 2).  I have ended up playing most of the games in this series and have quite enjoyed the fun action and excitement that come with the series.

Like many other video game franchises, writers have taken advantage of the Halo series’ popularity to create a range of tie-in novels, comics, animation and other media items.  There has even been talk of a live-action Halo movie for some time, although we are probably a long way off from that.  Halo is one of those games where the creators actually invested in a complex backstory and extended history, much of which is revealed within the game’s impressive cut scenes.  While I quite enjoyed the extended Halo backstory revealed in the games, I never got too into the media tie-ins associated with the franchise.  The only other book in this franchise I have read is Halo: Contact Harvest, which I bought in Philippines to supplement my reading material on an extended trip.  While I did actually really enjoy Contact Harvest, which focused on one of the most entertaining side characters in the original game trilogy, I did not have a chance to read any of the other books written about the games until now.  Since starting my blog, I am always keen to expand my range and decided to listen to the audiobook version of this book for something different.  I did have to choose between Renegades and the recently released young adult Halo book, Battle Born, but ended up going with Renegades in the end.  I may yet check out Battle Born at a later date.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the games are set in the 26th century, after humanity has journeyed away from Earth and formed an interstellar civilisation.  Some years before the events of the first game, humanity comes into contact with an advanced alliance of alien races, collectively known as the Covenant, who engage in a brutal war against humanity.  As part of this war, a human ship fleeing the Covenant lands on an artificial ring planet, known as Halo.  The Halo rings were created millennia ago by a now extinct race of beings, the Forerunners, to stop the creatures destroying their civilisation, the parasitic race known as the Flood.  However, the only way to defeat the Flood was to wipe out all life in the galaxy to starve the Flood, and then reseed life, including humanity, back into the galaxy.  Throughout the course of the first three games, the protagonist attempts to save humanity from the Covenant and the Flood, eventually forming an alliance with elements of the Covenant and bringing the war to an end.  Halo 4 and 5 are set a few years after the original trilogy, and feature the protagonist dealing with surviving members of the Forerunners and a whole set of other threats.

Renegades is set in the year 2557, approximately around the same times as Halo 4, and follows the adventures of the human salvage ship Ace of Spades.  After the events of the book Halo: Shadow and Smoke, the crew of the Ace of Spades are still reeling from the losses they experienced and are eager to get revenge of the Sangheili (Elite) Covenant commander Gek’Lhar.  Captain Rion Forge is also determined to use the information they recovered in their last adventure to locate and rescue her father’s missing ship, the Spirit of Fire.

However, Gek’Lhar is not the only enemy they have made.  The United Nations Space Command’s (UNSC) Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) works to collect or control all valuable or dangerous pieces off Forerunner technology in the galaxy, and the crew of the Ace of Spades are the only people aside from Gek’Lhar who have knowledge of a massive debris field filled with valuable Forerunner technology.  In the middle of a daring heist to steal information from Gek’Lhar, Forge and her crew find themselves captured by ONI operatives, who confiscate the coordinates to the debris field, as well as all the crew’s assets and salvaged technology.

Left with nothing but their ship, the Ace of Spades crew need to find the next big score, and information Forge secretly obtained from ONI during their arrest may provide them with what they need.  ONI are on route to secure a remote and desolate planet, which contains the remains of one of their ships, which apparently crashed with classified technology aboard.  The contents of the ship may be the crew’s best option to reclaim their stolen possessions, so they set out to get there first.  Beating ONI to the planet, the Ace of Spades crew make a surprising discovery of an advanced robot calling itself 313 Guilty Spark.

Halo: Renegades is a terrific novel from author Kelly Gay, who creates an exciting and compelling story with a huge number of connections to the Halo universe.  Gay is a well-established author of science fiction and fantasy fiction, best known for her Charlie Madigan series, and who also writes under the pen name of Kelly Keaton.  Renegades is the direct sequel to Gay’s 2016 novella Smoke and Shadows, but it also continues stories started in the games and introduced in The Forerunner Saga of books.

The first thing I have to talk about when it comes to Halo: Renegades is the sheer range of Halo references and backstory from across the Halo games and extended media utilised in this book.  Not only is the story set in the post-Halo 3 universe but the book takes place around the time of the events of Halo 4, with several of the events from the fourth game commented on and having some impact on the story.  In addition, one of the main protagonists of the book, Rion Forge, is the daughter of one of the main characters from the first Halo Wars, Sergeant John Forge, and Rion Forge spends a good part of this book trying to find her father and the ship from Halo Wars 1 and 2, the Spirit of FireRenegades also features 313 Guilty Spark, one of the main antagonists from the original trilogy, as a major point-of-view character in the book, and characters from the Spartan Ops additional content of Halo 4 appear in various minor roles throughout the book.  That is on top of all the information contained in the previous books in the Halo extended universe.  Renegades takes place directly after the events of Gay’s preceding Halo novella, Smoke and Shadows, and all the events that occur in that book are incredibly relevant.  In addition, the events and characters explored in The Forerunner Saga, a trilogy that dove deeply into several key Forerunner characters from the various games, also play a significant role throughout Renegades.

Now, with all these references to various games and books, how easy is the plot of Renegades to follow, especially for those with limited or only basic knowledge of the Halo universe?  I would say that Renegades is a perfect book for hardcore fans of the Halo series who have enjoyed some of the books mentioned above and who will appreciate all the references and discussion that occurs within.  People with slightly less knowledge of the franchise may struggle during certain parts of the plot and have a hard time understanding the relevance of what is happening.  Having played all the games and having done some background reading, I thought that I would be able to follow everything that was going on, but I actually struggled with some aspects of the plot, especially with the extensive discussion about ancient Forerunner characters.  While I did struggle a little, I found that as I stuck with the book, all the relevant parts were eventually explored in some additional detail, helping to fill in the picture.  I do think that the author took the reader’s knowledge of the events of all the video games a little for granted, and there were some gaps in the story that, while I was able to fill them in, people less familiar with the games might have trouble with.  That being said, Gay did a fantastic job of making the story accessible to those people who had not read her direct prequel story, Smoke and Shadows, and readers were quickly able to get a good understanding of Gay’s earlier entry into the Halo universe.  In the end, if you have very little knowledge of the Halo games, this probably is not the book for you, and while you might be able to enjoy the adventure within, you are extremely likely to get lost a number of times throughout the complex plot.

Aside from the intensive amount of inclusions from the various Halo games and media tie-ins, I felt that Renegades was an overall awesome book that was a lot of fun to listen to.  Gay presents an entertaining character based novel that has a good amount of new, original story content while also utilising the main aspects of the Halo universe.  The author presents the story from a range of different character perspectives, allowing for a richer and fuller story for the reader to enjoy.  There is a little less action than you would expect from a Halo tie-in novel, but there are still a number of action sequences throughout the book to keep fans of combat and firefights interested.  I quite liked where the story went, and I was extremely glad that I decided to read this book.

I thought that the camaraderie of the crew of the Ace of Spades served as a good emotional heart to this story, and I liked the time that Gay spent exploring the familiar relationship that had formed among the members of the crew, and the strain that recent events had placed upon them.  I also enjoyed how the story focused on a gang of salvagers, and it was interesting to see how they fit into the wider Halo universe.  It also meant the story featured a few heists-like sequences, as the team uses intelligence rather than brute-strength to defeat their opponents.

One of the more interesting characters utilised in Renegades was the character of 313 Guilty Spark.  Spark was a Forerunner Monitor; an intelligence left behind to maintain the Halo rings and help activate them in case of another Flood infestation.  Spark appeared in all three of the original Halo games, including Halo: Combat Evolved as the main antagonist, and Halo 3, in which he was apparently killed.  However, The Forerunner Saga of books revealed he had survived the events of Halo 3 and was actually a former ancient human who had been transformed into a monitor long ago by the Forerunners.  Spark had quite a good redemption arc within this book, as well as good a redemption arc, as someone who killed off Sergeant Major Johnson deserves.  While Spark has his own agenda for most of the book, his time among the crew starts to rekindle his lost humanity and slowly turns him into a somewhat likeable character.  I did enjoy the duality that Gay portrayed within Spark, as the character tries to figure out who exactly he is: the ancient human, the Forerunner monitor or something entirely different.  His subsequent quest to find out who he is becomes a major part of the story, and it was interesting to see how it tied into the larger Halo universe, especially in relation to the Forerunners.  I was slightly disappointed that his role in the original three Halo games was not really mentioned or explored, but it was still a compelling character arc that I found to be most intriguing.

As I mentioned before, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, narrated by Justine Eyre.  Like many tie-in novels, this is a relatively short audiobook, only going for 8 hours and 37 minutes, making it fairly easy to get through this book quickly.  I quite enjoyed listening to this book rather than reading it, as it allowed me to absorb the deep dive into the Halo lore a little easier.  I also found that the audiobook format helped enhance some of the action sequences, such as the awesome spaceship fight sequences in the centre of the book.  Justine Eyre did a fantastic job of narrating this story, and the voice she provides for the base narration and the book’s central character, Rion Forge, is perfect, encapsulating the strong and determined nature of Forge that Gay sets forth in the book.  I quite liked the voices that Eyre utilises for the other human members of the Ace of Spades crew, and she does some decent and varied voices for the book’s alien characters.  I had a little trouble liking Eyre’s voice for Guilty Spark, mainly because Tim Dadabo did such an incredible job with the character in the games; however, this did not really negatively impact my experience with Renegades.  As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of this tie-in novel, as I found it to be an awesome way to enjoy this amazing story.

Kelly Gay did an excellent job following up her 2016 Halo novella, Smoke and Shadow, and I had an absolute blast listening to Halo: Renegades.  The book contains an outstanding story that goes deep into the lore of the Halo franchise and successfully pulls in elements from several games and novels to create a fantastic overall read.  While some readers may have trouble following some parts of the story, I had a great time reading it, and I know that established fans of this particular franchise will really love Gay’s new book.  I really hope that Gay continues the story of Rion Forge, 313 Guilty Spark and the rest of the crew of the Ace of Spades in the future, and I would be quite interested to see them try to navigate the post-Halo 5 universe.  This is definitely a series that I will be keeping an eye on.

Star Trek Discovery: The Way To The Stars by Dr Una McCormack

Star Trek Discovery - The Way To The Stars Cover

Publisher: Gallery Books (Trade Paperback Format – 8 January 2019)

Series: Star Trek Discovery – Book 4

Length: 276 pages

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Get ready to dive into the extended Star Trek universe with The Way To The Stars, the latest tie-in novel to the franchise’s current show, Star Trek Discovery.

While most people would be familiar with the iconic Star Trek television shows and movies, some may be unaware that there is an extremely rich and extensive Star Trek universe across a variety of different media formats.  This is particularly true when it comes to the vast number of Star Trek novels which utilise the franchise’s massive universe.  Since 1967, during the run of the original Star Trek television series, a bevy of authors have contributed to this extended universe by creating a huge number of novels made up a range of different series and publishers.  There are now over 840 Star Trek novels, not only complementing the various Star Trek movies and television shows but also creating a series of new adventures.

With the announcement of the latest Star Trek television show, Star Trek Discovery, in late 2017, a new series of related novels was commissioned for release around the same time.  This new series focused on several of the characters featured within Star Trek Discovery, providing intriguing character history and a series of new, exciting adventures.  The first book in this series, Desperate Hours, was released in 2017, days after the premier episode of Star Trek Discovery.  These books have so far covered several of the show’s key characters, including Michael Burnham, Saru, Gabriel Lorca and Philippa Georgiou, while a fifth book out later this year will focus on Christopher Pyke and the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  I actually have a copy of the second book in this series, Drastic Measures, on my bookshelf at home, and I have been intending to read it for some time.  I will hopefully get to that, and the other books in the Star Trek Discovery book range, at some point in the future.

I have to admit that I am more of a casual Star Trek fan and I have more of a preference for Star Wars (and with that, I lose several Trekkies reading this review).  That being said, I have watched a number of the movies and I am really enjoying Star Trek Discovery at the moment.  This book is the first actual Star Trek novel that I have had the pleasure of reading, and there are several cool-sounding upcoming Star Trek novels that I am probably going to try and check out.

The Way To The Stars focuses on the character of Sylvia Tilly, the young, brilliant and awkward Starfleet cadet and essential member of the U.S.S. Discovery’s crew.  However, when she was 16, years before she joined Starfleet, her life was going down a different path.  The daughter of a high-ranking United Federation of Planets (the Federation) diplomat, Tilly finds herself under intense pressure to succeed.  Forced by her domineering mother to abandon her love of science and engineering to pursue a career as a diplomat, Tilly is shipped off to an elite off-world boarding school.

Forced out of her comfort zone, and continuously micromanaged by her mother, Tilly begins to crack under the pressure until, for the first time in her life, she rebels.  Escaping the school and embarking on a dangerous off-world trip, Tilly seeks her own path in life, which will eventually lead her join Starfleet and adventure out into the stars.

The Way To The Stars is the fourth entry in the Star Trek Discovery book series, and it is written by veteran science fiction and tie-in novel author, Dr Una McCormack.  Dr McCormack is an expert when it comes to the novelisation of popular science fiction television shows, having written a number of Doctor Who tie-in novels throughout her career.  Dr McCormack also has a large amount of experience when it comes to the Star Trek extended universe, having authored several novels that continue the adventures of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine television series.

This book was a little different to what I anticipated it would be.  Rather than featuring an action-packed adventure with Starfleet like the previous books in the Star Trek Discovery series, The Way To The Stars mainly focused on Tilly’s school and family life.  While this was still a very interesting and enjoyable read, I kept expecting pirates, aliens or some sort of antagonist to drop in and take over the school, forcing Tilly to use the engineering skills that her mother and school friends were so dismissive of to save the day.  So it was a tad disappointing to find this book only contained a mostly school-based story, more concerned with Tilly’s studies, her overbearing mother and her problems making friends.  Do not get me wrong; there are a lot of fun and enjoyable elements to these parts of the story, and the later part of the book in which Tilly runs away from school and tries to make her own way in space are very interesting.  It was, however, somewhat lighter than what I was expecting from a Star Trek novel, and its tone and writing style reminded me more of a young adult school novel.

That said, this was still a very enjoyable novel as Dr McCormack does an amazing job of bringing one of Star Trek Discovery’s most entertaining characters to life while placing her in a fun and interesting coming of age story.  The author makes great use of the Star Trek elements to tell her story, and I found it fascinating to see the advanced interplanetary schooling (rich boarding schools are rich boarding schools no matter what planet they are on), as well as Tilly’s adventures on human planets and ships outside of Federation space.  The latter parts of the book set on the Starfleet ship were fun, and it was great to see the adventures of a scientific ship, as well as Tilly’s contributions to their voyage.  The resultant first contact that they make was interesting, and it was cool to see elements from the part of the story set in the school come into play during this bit.  Overall, I did have a lot of fun reading The Way To The Stars, and found it to be a very well-written story with a lot of intriguing elements to it.  I really got into the story and managed to read it in only a couple of days, so many people should have fun reading it.

One of the things that I did like about The Way To The Stars was the way the author brought the book’s main character, Tilly, to life.  Within Star Trek Discovery, Tilly, as portrayed by Mary Wiseman, is a fun, brilliant and neurotic character who serves as the show’s moral centre and heart.  Despite mostly being a kind and thoughtful person, Tilly is regularly able to take control of a situation and act in a command capacity, often with humorous results.  I felt that Dr McCormack’s portrayal of Tilly within this book did an excellent job of either showing that these were already existing qualities/personality traits or else examined the first time that Tilly ever showcased these traits.  It was really good to see where Tilly came from and the sort of influences she had in her life to turn her into the character that is so beloved in the show.  As a result, The Way To The Stars is an excellent coming of age story, and I really enjoyed the way that the author wrote the character within the book.

This book is strongly related to the Star Trek Discovery television show; however, I do not believe that too much pre-existing knowledge or fandom experience is required to enjoy The Way To The Stars.  Dr McCormack has an inclusive writing style and I believe that anyone with even a basic knowledge of Star Trek will be able to pick this book up and enjoy the fun story within.  It should go without saying, though, that those people who are fans of the Star Trek universe will get a lot more out of this story.  This is especially true for fans of Star Trek Discovery, who will appreciate this deeper dive into the protagonist’s backstory and the examination of her early life.  I believe that The Way To The Stars is considered to be a canon story within the Star Trek universe; however, I doubt that the events within will have any impact on the show.  Still, it is quite an interesting inclusion that will really interest those who have come to enjoy the characters of Star Trek Discovery.

Star Trek Discovery: The Way To The Stars is a fun and enjoyable tie-in novel that does an amazing job of examining the past of a key character of the show.  Dr McCormack creates an interesting coming-of-age story that will appeal to hardcore Trekkies and casual science fiction readers alike.  I quite enjoyed my first foray into the Star Trek extended universe, and I am planning to try and get some of other Star Trek books coming out later this year.  Stay tuned to see me go further beyond the final frontier.

Waiting on Wednesday – Firefly: The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.
Firefly The Magnificent Nine Cover.jpg

After my recent review of the first book in the new Firefly series, Big Damn Hero, for this week’s Waiting on Wednesday I will be looking at the second book in the series, The Magnificent Nine.  I am massive Firefly fan, so I am extremely eager to read any new instalments in the Firefly series.  After James Lovegrove’s strong first entry with this series, I am very keen to check out his follow-up book, especially as it has an extremely intriguing-sounding plot.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The second original novel tying into the critically acclaimed and much-missed Firefly series from creator Joss Whedon.

An old flame of Jayne Cobb’s, Temperance McCloud, sends a message to Serenity, begging him for help. She lives on the arid, far-flung world of Tethys, and bandits are trying to overrun her town to gain control of their water supply: the only thing standing between its people and dustbowl ruin. Jayne tries to persuade the Serenity crew to join the fight, but it is only when he offers Vera, his favourite gun, as collateral that Mal realises he’s serious.

When the Serenity crew land at a hardscrabble desert outpost called Coogan’s Bluff, they discover two things: an outlaw gang with an almost fanatical devotion to their leader who will stop at nothing to get what they want, and that Temperance is singlehandedly raising a teenage daughter, born less than a year after Temperance and Jayne broke up. A daughter by the name of Jane McCloud…

One of the most amusing episodes from the original Firefly series was the seventh episode, Jaynestown, which focused on Serenity’s morally deficient mercenary and framed him in a vaguely good light for the first time in the series.  This plot synopsis sounds a bit like this episode, and I am very keen to see more of Jayne’s past, as well as some characters that can bring out the character’s better side.  The whole bandit situation is also reminiscent of the series’ 13th episode, Heart of Gold, which saw Serenity’s crew defend a settlement against a band of attackers.  The combination of both of these plots could result in some story magic, and I am looking forward to what is sure to be an action-packed bag of fun.  I am also very curious to see if the child, Jane McCloud, is actually Jayne’s daughter.  Personally, I think it could go either way.

The Firefly shows, comics and books have always been a fantastic combination of the science fiction and western genres, so I am quite excited about the name of this latest book, The Magnificent Nine.  Obviously, this is a reference to the famous western movie, The Magnificent Seven (or the movie it was based, the Japanese film Seven Samurai), which featured a band of highly skilled adventurers defending a village from a group of bandits.  So I am looking forward to seeing several scenes where the eclectic Serenity crew trains the villagers to defend themselves, before leading them into battle against the bandits, and I am sure this book will be a fun homage to this classic western movie.

The Magnificent Nine is set to be released in about a month, and I cannot wait to get a copy of it.  I did want to combine this review with a Waiting on Wednesday for the third book in this series, Generations, but only the very bare-bones synopsis of the plot has been released so far.  That being said, I am already in love with it and keen to check it out.  Bring on the next instalment of the Firefly universe!!!

Firefly: Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove and Nancy Holder

Firefly Big Damn Hero Cover.png

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover edition – 20 November 2018)

Series: Firefly

Length: 334 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

 

Ready for something shiny? Serenity flies again in this fantastic new Firefly tie-in novel that takes the reader back to the original television series and reunites the crew of your favourite spaceship for another amazing adventure.

Firefly, for those people unfamiliar with it, was a science fiction television show that ran for one season back in 2002-03.  Created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and The Avengers movie fame, Firefly is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction television shows of all time.  Featuring a fun group of main characters all played by amazing actors, this western-themed epic in space had some extremely clever and well-written storylines and an outstanding core concept.  Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after only one season (clearly the evillest thing that anyone at Fox has ever done), although it gained cult status after it was released on DVD.  Its post-airing popularity allowed Whedon to create the movie, Serenity, which closed one of the show’s major storylines, while also taking out a couple of major characters (I am still upset about one of those, he was a leaf on the wind, god damn it).  Following the movie, the Firefly universe has mostly continued in the form of several different comic books, usually created with Whedon’s direct input as either a writer or producer.  Do not be surprised if I review several of these Firefly/Serenity comics in the future, either as part of my Throwback Thursday series or when I review the collected edition of the current ongoing Firefly series.

If my notations above did not give it away, I am a huge fan of the Firefly franchise (and generally anything written/created by Joss Whedon), so I was always going to love this novel.  However, all prior biases aside, I found that Big Damn Hero was an excellent tie-in novel, and I powered through this book in extremely short order.

Big Damn Hero is written by James Lovegrove with bestselling author Nancy Holder (author of nearly 20 Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in books) credited as coming up with the original story concept.  Joss Whedon is also acknowledged as the original creator of the Firefly universe and is credited as a consulting editor.  Lovegrove is a veteran writer who has published a number of books since his 1990 debut, The Hope.  Readers may be familiar with his long-running Pantheon series, his recent work on the 2011 Sherlock Holmes series or the three books he has currently written for his The Cthulhu Casebooks series, which also features Sherlock Holmes.  Big Damn Hero is the first novel in a new Firefly tie-in trilogy from Titan Books which brings fans a completely new set of Firefly adventures.  Two additional books are set to be released later this year, with The Magnificent Nine coming out in March and Generations being published in October.

The Firefly franchise is set approximately in the year 2517, where humanity has expanded out into a new star system and terraformed a number of planets and moons.  The central planets were fully terraformed and heavily populated, while the outer planets and moons are more rugged, desert-like and with smaller populations.  The television series is set six years after the end of a brutal war between the Union of Allied Planets (the Alliance) and the Independents (also known as the Browncoats, a name also given to the fans of the franchise), which saw the Alliance gain complete control of the star system.

The show and associated media follow the adventures of the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity as they travel across the system participating in a variety of illegal or barely legal jobs.  The ship is captained by Malcom “Mal” Reynolds, a former sergeant in the Independent army who named the Serenity after the bloodiest battle in the entire war.  Joining him are former Independent army corporal and second in command of the ship Zoe; Zoe’s husband and Serenity’s pilot Wash; mercenary Jayne; ship’s mechanic Kayle; companion Inara; Shepherd Book; and the fugitive siblings Simon and River Tam.  Most of the crew’s adventures in the show followed their various jobs, personal stories and a particular focus on the events surrounding the Tam siblings becoming fugitives.

Big Damn Hero is set a few weeks after the events of the television show’s 12th episode, The Message, and starts the same way most Firefly adventures start, with the crew taking on a new job.  Initially contracted to transport volatile explosives off Persephone for their regular booker, crime lord Badger, the crew decide to take on some additional cargo from a mysterious new contact.  However, the meet turns out to be a trap and Mal is kidnapped and taken off-world.

With the explosives nearing a point of instability, the rest of Serenity’s crew is forced to leave Persephone to continue their original contract.  With only limited leads and the Alliance on their tail, the crew split up in order to locate their captain and maintain the safety of the ship.  Meanwhile, Mal awakens to find that he has been kidnapped by a squad of former Browncoats who are fanatically hunting down former members of the Independent army who they deem responsible for the Independents’ defeat in the war.  Mal has been named a traitor and a coward by old friend from before the war and must now defend himself in an impromptu trial.  As secrets from Mal’s past are brought to the surface, he finds himself at the mercy of a frenzied mob of former friends and comrades demanding his blood.  Can the crew of the Serenity save him, or will Mal pay for his past sins?

Perhaps the best praise I could heap on this book is that I very easily saw this story as a new episode of the show.  Like several of Firefly’s episodes, Big Damn Hero contains a compelling story that is split between the current adventures while also examining the past of one of its characters, in this case Mal.  This exploration into the past then comes into play for the main adventure, as it not only shows the reader events that were formative in Mal’s current character but also explains the actions of the book’s antagonists.  I felt that the plot of Big Damn Hero was a bit of an homage to the show’s fifth episode, Safe, as there were a number of similarities.  Safe was also interspersed with character flashbacks and the main plot of that episode features members of Serenity’s crew being kidnapped and subsequently imperilled while the rest of the crew are forced to take Serenity away from the area for an urgent plot reason.  Safe also featured the crew of Serenity arriving to save the day at the last minute in order to be the “big damn heroes”, a term the crew coined in Safe.  I also felt that the author tapped into elements of the lasting impacts of the war that were featured in episodes such as The Message or in the movie Serenity.  Throughout this book, various characters are shown to be negatively impacted by the war, whether this has made them cold and determined or raging bags of revenge.  Overall, I felt that the author captured the heart of these episodes quite well and helped turn them into a fantastic new addition to the Firefly franchise.

While this is mainly a book about Mal and his past coming back to haunt him, Lovegrove does spend a bit of time focusing on the other members of Serenity’s crew.  As a result, nearly all of the other crew members have at least one chapter told from their point of view.  This allows the reader, especially those who are unfamiliar with the television series, to get a good idea of who the characters are and what their general personality or motivation is.  Aside from Mal, Zoe gets the most focus out of all the other characters, as she not only attempts to find her missing captain but must also take command of Serenity to ensure its safety from other threats encroaching on it.  Zoe is pretty awesome in these chapters, and I felt that the author captured her determination, badassery and extreme loyalty to Mal after serving with him during the war.  Shepherd Book also gets a few entertaining chapters throughout the book, as he leads the investigation into Serenity’s missing captain.  Lovegrove continues to expand on Book’s mysterious past, as the supposedly humble shepherd has high-level military contacts, investigative skills and tactical abilities (those curious to find out Book’s past should check out the comic book Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale).  Most of the rest of the characters also get their moments to shine: Jayne is his usual over-the-top violent self, Inara uses her position and companion training to manipulate several opponents, and River does River things, such as making fun of Badger’s accent or taking out armed goons surprisingly easily.  This focus on the whole crew of Serenity was very reminiscent of the show, and it is obvious that Lovegrove has a great appreciation for franchise’s characters.

In addition to looking at the main characters, Lovegrove also features a number of characters or references from the television show and movie that are likely to be extremely attractive to the franchises fans.  Lovegrove has included a huge range of stuff, from fan favourite side character Badger to Jayne’s fabulous knitted hat and a number of other call-backs to previous episodes and antagonists.  It is possible the author might have gone a bit overboard in places with these inclusions.  When the Hands of Blue are mentioned and it is implied that they could be nearby, that really got my hopes up and I was disappointed when they did not show up in any way.  However, I personally loved all the call-backs and references and it really played to my well-defined sense of nostalgia.

One of the inclusions I really enjoyed in Big Damn Hero was the new insight into main character Malcolm Reynolds’s backstory.  While the show and movie did provide some insights into his actions during the war against the Alliance, not a lot else about his past was ever shown.  Big Damn Hero, however, provides the reader with several chapters that delve into his past and show Mal as a rambunctious teenager on his home world of Shadow.  It is quite amusing to see several of Mal’s personality traits imposed on a younger version of the character, and fans will have fun getting this insight into the early days of this character.  I quite liked these flashback scenes, especially as they show some of Mal’s early tragedies and the events that led up to him joining the Independent army.  This is a fantastic addition to the plot, and I really appreciated this deeper look into one of my favourite characters.

Big Damn Hero is a superb new addition to the Firefly franchise that sees the crew of Serenity go on another dangerous adventure.  Not only does the author dive into the past of one of one of the show’s main characters but he presents a compelling and moving story of the harsh life at the edge of the verse while expertly utilising each of the show’s major characters.  The result is a fantastic tie-in novel that does a great job of capturing the Firefly universe and continuing one of my favourite science fiction series.  I had a lot of fun reading Big Damn Hero, although I am aware that a lot of that is due to my love of the show and movie.  People who are unfamiliar with the Firefly franchise will probably have a harder time following this novel, although I felt that Lovegrove did a good job setting this up as a book any science fiction fan could enjoy.  I am giving this book a rating of 4.25, although some of this rating is due to my nostalgia and love of the series as a whole.  I am very much looking forward to the next two Firefly tie-in novels that Titan Books are releasing later this year, and 2019 is going to be a great year for fans of the Firefly franchise.

Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

Stranger Things Suspicious Minds Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 301 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Gwenda Bond comes this first official tie-in novel to the television sensation, Stranger Things.

It is 1969, and while America languishes in the midst of the Vietnam War, shadowy events with long-term implications are starting to take place in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana.  The enigmatic Dr Martin Brenner has arrived at the Hawkins National Laboratory to start conducting a series of experiments as part of the CIA’s secretive MKUltra program.  Arriving with him is the doctor’s most gifted test subject, a young girl simply known by the number Eight, who can create illusions with her mind.

In a nearby college campus in Bloomington a young student, Terry Ives, signs up as a test subject for a government experiment at her university.  When she meets Dr Brenner her determination and curiosity impresses him enough to include her in his new experiment.  Travelling to and from the Hawkins National Laboratory in an unmarked van, Terry meets her fellow participants in the experiment, Alice, Gloria and Ken.  Each of the participants has a unique set of skills or abilities, which Brenner hopes to draw out through administration of psychedelic drugs and other invasive techniques.

As the months pass and the experiments become harsher and even more unethical, Terry attempts to find out more about who Dr Brenner really is and what the objective of his experiments are.  When Terry discovers Eight, she begins to question everything that Dr Brenner has done.  With their academic and personal lives deeply tied to the experiment, Terry and her fellow test subjects must find a way to leave the program.  But Dr Brenner is determined to keep each of them involved in his project, and he will do whatever he can to not only trap each of them, including doing the unthinkable to Terry.

It is near impossible to be unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, the Netflix show that takes its audience on a dark journey into a world of alternate universes and psychokinetic powers with a healthy dose of 80s nostalgia.  Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel to the television series, and it provides its readers with a prequel story that not only reveals some much-needed backstory to one of the series’ most beloved protagonists (no, not Barb), but also highlights the true nature of a sinister character from the first series.  Suspicious Minds is written by young adult author Gwenda Bond, who has significant experience writing tie-in novels, having previously written the intriguing-sounding Lois Lane series, which focuses on a younger version of the famed comic book journalist.

Despite Bond’s background as a young adult fiction author, this book is much more targeted towards an older audience.  The overall story can be quite dark in places, featuring canon-typical violence and horror themes, and the final chapters of the book show the antagonist doing some exceedingly cold and ruthless actions towards the protagonists.  Due to me being a fan of the television series, I did have a good inkling about how this story was going to end, but I still really enjoyed the dark twist regarding the main character and antagonist at the conclusion of the book and thought that it was quite cleverly done.  One of the other reasons I enjoyed Suspicious Minds was due to Bond’s outstanding story that contained some excellent allusions to the Stranger Things television show and a brand-new historical context to set the story within.

It does need to be said that Suspicious Minds is really a story for those fans of the Stranger Things television show.  This book is set some years before the television show and reveals how Eleven came to be in the custody of the Hawkins National Laboratory.  As a result, one of the main characters of this book is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who was briefly seen in Season 1 and Season 2 of the show.  Some investigation in the first season and pretty powerful flashback in the second season have revealed some of these events, but not a lot of context was given.  As a result, viewers were uncertain about how Terry came to the attention of the government, who or where Eleven’s father was, or why Eleven was considered to be so special even before she was born.  All of these questions and more are answered within Suspicious Minds, and Bond is able to construct a fantastic background for this part of the television show.

In addition to the focus on Terry Ives and the origin of Eleven, Bond spends a significant amount of time focusing on the character of Dr Martin Brenner.  Dr Brenner is one of the main antagonists of the first season of Stranger Things, as he is not only the person responsible for containing and abusing Eleven but also the man in charge of the cover-up surrounding Will Byers’s disappearance.  For a good part of Season 2 of the show, it was assumed that Dr Brenner had died in the Demogorgon attack in the Season 1 finale; however, it was eventually revealed that he was alive and in hiding.  This probably means that he will be a major character again in Season 3 of the show, which means that the content of this book is extremely interesting for fans of the show.  Throughout Suspicious Minds, Bond goes out of her way to highlight what a cold and calculating character Brenner really is and to examine in more detail the crimes that he perpetuated against Eleven’s mother.  I found this examination of Dr Brenner to be absolutely fascinating, and the battle of wits that occurred between Terry and Brenner was a fantastic plot focus for this book.  By the end of the story, Brenner has been built up as a considerable antagonist, and it will be extremely interesting to see how much of Suspicious Minds’ characterisation of him will appear in future episodes of the show.

Aside from the necessary focus on these main two characters and their creation of Eleven, Bond also included a few curious connections to the show that I did quite enjoyed.  For example, there is a bit of a focus on the character of Eight/Kali, who appeared in a second season episode of the television show.  Suspicious Minds shows her as a young child, and focuses on her relationship with the Dr Brenner and some other characters.  There are also a few obligatory references to the Upside Down and the Demogorgon which, while interesting, do not overwhelm the rest of the plot.  I was also rather amused by Bond spending some time explaining how a photograph of Dr Brenner and his test subjects was taken so it could fit into the plot of Season 1.  Overall, I did enjoy these references, but I was relieved that Bond did not go too overboard with them and instead focused on her own unique story, resulting in a narrative that stood by itself and could potentially be enjoyed by someone who has not watched the show.

One of the most beloved parts of the Stranger Things television show is its use of 80s nostalgia, as it provides its viewers with epic amounts of cultural and historical references.  Bond does a good job replicating this scene-setting in the book by highlighting parts of that late 60s and early 70s American culture and society.  While there are several fun cultural references throughout the book, I liked how a large amount of the plot and background story focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was dominating society at this point.  Suspicious Minds contains a number of references to the war, and Bond spends a good amount of time highlighting the various attitudes towards the war, including the divide between younger students and the older generations.  Several key events of this time are either shown or alluded to, such as Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, the 1969 National Draft Lottery and the Kent State University Massacre.  These result in some great settings for the story, and the impacts that they have on the characters and the overall plot of this book are really quite clever and interesting.  I also quite enjoyed how Bond tried to replicate the fantasy roleplaying vibe of the Stranger Things kids in this book by having her protagonists take inspiration from a fantasy source.  As Dungeons & Dragons would not be released until a few years after the events of this book, Terry and her friends refer to themselves as the Fellowship of the Ring, as each of them are major fans of The Lord of the Rings books.  I really enjoyed Bond’s decision to include this as a reflection of the show, and I loved how she chose a more time-appropriate series to serve as their inspiration.

Gwenda Bond’s novel, Suspicious Minds, is a compelling new addition to the Stranger Things universe which serves as a fantastic prequel to the television series.  Utilising an excellent combination of Stranger Things characters and intriguing historical events, this novel paints a dark and tragic picture of the origins of one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, while also examining the dark side of an early antagonist.  Highly recommend for those readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the Stranger Things’ universe, this book is also a dark and captivating story that will stick in the reader’s minds even if they are not fans of the franchise.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber

Death Troopers Cover.jpg

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook Edition 13 October 2009)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 6 hours 42 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 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 look at an entertaining blend of horror and Star Wars with Death Troopers, a book from the Star Wars Legends collection which I listened to in its audiobook format.

Death Troopers is set a short time before the events of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.  The Imperial prison barge Purge is the temporary home of the galaxy’s worst criminals, rebels and murderers.  Carrying over 500 prisoners, as well as guards, stormtroopers and other personnel, the ship is a floating hive of scum and villainy, where the guards are just as bad as the inmates.  En route to a permanent prison facility, the engines fail, stranding the Purge in an uninhabited area of space.  Rescue appears to be weeks away, unless the crew can fix the engines.  The discovery of an apparently deserted Star Destroyer offers hope to the Purge’s crew, but the ghost ship contains a dark secret.

A boarding party sent to scavenge parts for the Purge inadvertently brings back something lethal: a virus that spreads incredibly fast and soon infects everyone aboard the ship.  Within hours, only a few survivors are left alive: the ship’s compassionate doctor, the sadistic captain of the guards, two young teenage brothers and a certain pair of smugglers.  However, these survivors soon discover that the sudden and bloody death of everyone on the ship is the least of their problems.  Shortly after dying the bodies of the Purge’s crew and passengers violently reanimate.  These creatures are driven, unstoppable and have a hunger for the flesh of the living.  As the survivors attempt to flee the Purge, they soon find that the Star Destroyer above is not as abandoned as they had believed.  The dead have risen, and their greatest desire is to infect the entire Star Wars universe.

Zombies!  In a Star Wars book!  How can I possibly resist that?  No seriously, tell me how it is even possible not to check out a book with that sort of premise.

Death Troopers is a 2009 release from horror, thriller and tie-in novel author Joe Schreiber, who wrote several fun-sounding books between 2006 and 2015.  These novels include two additional Star Wars novels, all of which fall in the Star Wars Legends line of novels.  Indeed, his third Star Wars novel, 2014’s Maul: Lockdown, was actually the last novel released in the Star Wars Legends series of books.  His other Star Wars novel, 2011’s Red Harvest, is a prequel to Death Trooper, and is set in the Old Republic, thousands of years before the events of Death Troopers.

The Star Wars Legends series of books is the current incarnation of the old Star Wars expanded universe, which, in addition to the six Star Wars movies that George Lucas produced, included all the books, comics, video games and television series that were endorsed by Lucasfilm.  All of these entries were considered canon, so at one point there were actually proper zombies in the Star Wars canon.  While the original expanded universe did have a dedicated fan base, it did not survive the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm intact.  In order to allow for the new movies, Disney declared that, with the exception of the films and The Clone Wars television show, everything created before 25 April 2014 would no longer be considered canon.  However, rather than disavow all of these previous Star Wars media items, Disney rebranded this original expanded universe as the Star Wars Legends collection and kept it as a deep pool of ideas and characters for any future writers of the franchise.

It’s no secret that I am a bit of a Star Wars fan, having reviewed several tie-in books and comics in the last year.  While my current interest mostly lies within Disney’s expanded universe, I did grow up with a number of books and games in what is now the Star Wars Legends range.  Star Wars books and comics are going to form a significant part of my upcoming Throwback Thursday entries, but I had not intended to dive back into the Star Wars Legends range until I had gotten through all the books in the Disney expanded universe, as I wanted to stick with what is currently canon.  However, I happened to come across the cover and plot synopsis for Death Troopers the other day, and the moment I saw it I knew that I had to read it.  I immediately grabbed an audiobook copy, narrated by Sean Kenin, and started listening to it.

While I loved the plot synopsis, I was worried that Death Troopers was going to be a Star Wars novel first that featured some light zombie elements and minimal gore.  However, what I was not expecting was an extremely terrifying and well-written zombie novel that makes full use of its Star Wars setting to create a dark, gruesome and somewhat scary story.  I was very impressed with Schrieber’s ability to craft an amazing zombie novel.  His creations are pretty darn terrifying, especially as the author paints some detailed and horrifying descriptions to go along with his story.  The introduction of the zombies is done perfectly, in my opinion, as Schreiber goes for a slow burn approach.  Following the introduction of the virus, the book’s survivors slowly explore the ship, searching for a way to escape.  The author slowly builds up the tension by having things move around out of the characters’ sight, the bodies slowly disappear, bloody handprints appear in places and the characters hear all sorts of noises.  The characters of course have no idea what is happening, and blame their imagination or paranoia, but the reader knows full well what is happening.  Even when the first zombie is actually seen, panic and realisation still does not immediately set in for the rest of the characters, much to the reader’s frustration.  It is not until well after halfway through Death Troopers that the zombies are revealed in all their horror, and from there the pace of the book picks up, as the characters must find a way to quickly get away from the creatures hunting them.  This slow introduction of the zombies was a fantastic part of the book and represents some outstanding horror writing from Schreiber.

Despite this being a Star Wars novel, Schreiber does not dial back on the blood, gore or horror, and there are quite a few dark scenes throughout the book.  I was on the edge of my seat for quite a lot of it and felt that this was a great piece of horror fiction.  There are quite a few dark scenes, such as cannibalism, jaunts in rooms full of body parts and some fairly gross surgical scenes, all of which Schreiber describes in shocking detail.  I did find the story to be a bit predictable in places, and it was pretty easy to predict which of the characters would live or die.  There were also quite a few unanswered questions (what the hell was the lung room for?), although they may be answered in the prequel book Schreiber wrote a couple of years later.  I also thought that the way Schreiber ended the plot line about the zombies attempting to escape the Star Destroyer and infect the rest of the universe was a bit of an anti-climax, but overall this was a pretty fun story that I quite enjoyed.

I felt that Schreiber was quite clever in his use of the Star Wars elements throughout Death Troopers.  It is quite obvious that Schreiber is a fan of the franchise and he has a wonderful understanding of the history, technology and characters that have appeared in other Star Wars works.  As a result, he is able to craft an excellent Star Wars setting for this story that presents the reader a good idea of how this book appears in relation to the rest of the franchise.  However, what I really liked was how Schreiber did not overuse the Star Wars elements, and the reader’s focus was never taken away from the zombie part of the book.  I also felt that several of the Star Wars elements really helped to enhance the horror aspects of the book.  Having the familiar turn into something different can often be quite scary for people, and to see the often-ridiculed Imperial Stormtrooper turned into a ravenous, mutilated zombie was quite something.  The inclusion of fan favourite characters Han Solo and Chewbacca was also a nice touch.  Not only do you have some familiar characters for the readers to enjoy but you also raise the stakes of the story when both of these beloved characters come close to being eaten by zombies.

Another benefit of combining Star Wars and zombie fiction is that for once characters are completely justified in not knowing what a zombie is.  There are quite a few other major zombie movies or television shows set in fictional worlds that are supposed to mirror ours, and yet the protagonists have no idea what zombies are, despite how much they are used in fiction.  This always frustrates me, and while it was a minor thing, I was very happy to read a book where the character’s lack of understanding about zombies is completely understandable.  Overall, I really liked how the author presented the Star Wars elements within the book, and I was impressed by the way he used it to make the zombie elements even scarier.

If you are tempted to check this book out, I would highly recommend that you listen to the book in its audiobook format.  At just over six and a half hours, this did not take me a long time to get through, but I was absolutely amazed at how much the audiobook format enhanced the story.  This is mainly down to the fantastic sound effects that were scattered throughout the story.  The producers of this book did a superb job inserting a range of zombie sound effects throughout the background of the book’s narration.  This includes sounds such as screams, disturbing eating sounds, moans and other assorted sounds of horror, with the continued screams being particularly off-putting.  None of these sounds overwhelm or totally distract from the narration, but I found hearing them when the narrator describes a horror scene really enhanced the tension and dread I experienced.  I also thought that the disconnected, whispered and screamed echoes of the chapter names was a very nice touch and it really added to the overall atmosphere of the book. In addition to these horror based sound effects, there are quite a few classic Star Wars sound effects for the reader to enjoy and get nostalgic about, including some of the classic music from the movies.

Sean Kenin’s narration was also extremely well done, as the narrator was able to create a series of fun and distinctive voices.  I thought that Kenin’s Han Solo was very convincing, and it sounded a lot like the movie version of the character.  I also found that having this horror story narrated to me helped bring me into the centre of the action and really experience the horror and dread that was present there.  The narration of the descriptions can be a bit disturbing at times, and I would recommend not eating during one or two scenes; trust me on that.  As a result, I would highly recommend that people wanting to check out Death Troopers should definitely use the audiobook version of it, as in my opinion it does an amazing job enhancing this already fun story.

I am happy to say that I was not disappointed by this entertaining combination of zombie literature and the iconic Star Wars universe.  This was a pretty dark story, which also includes some familiar elements from a franchise that I truly love.  Because of this I had an outstanding time reading Death Troopers and felt that it was a great example of both a zombie novel and a piece of Star Wars fiction.  In my mind the book itself is four stars out of five, but I had so much fun with its audiobook format that I am raising it up to four and a quarter stars.  An overall fantastic and unique read, Death Troopers is really worth checking out for fans of either zombies or Star Wars and is perfect for those who love both.  I am very curious to check out Schreiber’s other Star Wars books in the future, as both of them sound like a lot of fun.

Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente

Mass Effect Annihilation Cover.jpg

Publishers: Titan Books

                        Blackstone Audio

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

A new galaxy, a ship full of disparate alien species, what could possibly go wrong?  Veteran author Catherynne M. Valente brings to life a new adventure in the Mass Effect universe with Mass Effect: Annihilation, the third official tie-in novel to the 2017 video game, Mass Effect: Andromeda.

This was a really good piece of science fiction that expertly built on the intricate extended universe that has been created around the Mass Effect video game franchise.  I should preface this review by mentioning that I am a huge fan of this video game series, and one of the best things about it is the great universe and intriguing storylines that have been produced as a result.  While I know that many people had some valid criticisms about the latest game in the series, Andromeda, I actually really enjoyed the new addition to the series’ story and lore and had a lot of fun playing it and exploring all the additional plot that is hidden outside of the main missions.  One of the many mysteries that I hoped to get an answer about was the fate of Quarian ark, so I was very eager to read this book when I first heard about what it was going to focus on.

For those unfamiliar with the Mass Effect franchise, the first game was released in 2007 and is set in a universe where humanity has gained spaceflight and by 2183 has expanded throughout the Milky Way galaxy.  Once they were outside of our solar systems, humans met with several alien races which governed large portions of the galaxy.  The three main species, the Asari, the Salarians and the Turians, formed a ruling council on the ancient alien space station, the Citadel, which served as a capital city for these races and several other allied species.  The game series followed the human protagonist, Commander Shepard, as he (or she, depending on your settings), investigates the resurgence of the Reapers: ancient, sentient space ships who appear every 50,000 years to destroy all sentient organic life.  While Shepard is able to delay the appearance of the Reapers in the first two games, they launch a full-scale attack in Mass Effect 3, leading to significant, galaxy-changing events.

The game Mass Effect: Annihilation is based on, Mass Effect Andromeda, is the fourth Mass Effect game released and a loose sequel to the original series.  Andromeda is set over 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 3, and follows a group of explorers and colonists from the Milky Way galaxy as they travel to the Andromeda galaxy in an epic one-way trip to find new planets to settle on.  This was a result of the Andromeda Initiative, a joint exercise from a number of Citadel species in order to settle in the new galaxy.  The Initiative launched their ships to Andromeda in the period between Mass Effect 2 and 3.  Each of the main Citadel races, humans, Asari, Salarians and Turians sent an ark ship to Andromeda, each filled with 20,000 cryogenically frozen members of their respective species.  These four arks were launched at the same time, and the plan was for them to dock in the Nexus, a miniature version of the Milky Way Citadel sent in advance of the arks, which was to be used as a staging ground while the Pathfinders found and explored new planets for their races to settle on.  During the events of Mass Effect: Andromeda, mention was made of a fifth ark, built by the Quarians and filled with several other alien races, that was supposed to launch soon after the initial four arks.  However, this fifth ark made no appearance during Andromeda, and was one of the game’s unsolved mysteries, perhaps destined to never be solved, as there is currently no plans to continue the Mass Effect game franchise (although it is too big a franchise for them not to do something else with it in the future).

The Mass Effect games have inspired a number of additional media releases over the years.  Four Mass Effect books were written between 2007 and 2012 to correspond with the original game trilogy, as well as a number of comic book series.  Following the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda in 2017, a new trilogy of books was commissioned which further explored key events or characters mentioned in the fourth game.  Annihilation is the third and final book in the Mass Effect: Andromeda book trilogy.

As the Reaper fleet begins to appear in the Milky Way galaxy, a fifth ark is launched by the Andromeda Initiative to bring another 20,000 settlers to the Andromeda galaxy.  Built by the planetless Quarians, the ark Keelah Si’yah is the only ark to hold colonists from a number of different races, including Quarians, Drell, Elcor, Batarians, Volus and Hanar.  Despite having different outlooks, opinions, biological requirements and reasons to leave the Milky Way, these races are united in their decision to reach the new galaxy and find new planets to settle on.

As the ship reaches the end of its 600-year long journey, problems are soon identified aboard the ship.  One of the ark’s Sleepwalker teams, a small team of individuals tasked with checking on the status of the ark as it flies through space, is suddenly awoken years before the Keelah Si’yah is scheduled to dock with the Nexus.  The ship’s virtual intelligence has identified certain discrepancies in the readings of several Drell cryopods.  Investigating the pods, the Sleepwalker team find that their inhabitants have died from a disease, something that is supposed to be impossible while frozen.  Even worse, the ships systems are all reporting that everything is fine, and that the inhabitants of the pods are still alive.

The Sleepwalker team quickly discover that the dead colonists have all been infected by a virulent disease, one that seems capable of jumping across to the vastly different alien species.  The team are desperate to find out the cause of the disease, but their investigation is severely hampered by a number of system failures across the ark, while the ship’s computers continue to insist that everything is all right.  As the failing systems start to randomly unfreeze more and more colonists, the disease quickly spreads across the ark.  It soon becomes apparent that the disease has been artificially created, and that someone is launching a deliberate attack against the Keelah Si’yah and its crew.  As the various colonists turn on each other in fear and confusion, can the Sleepwalker team find a cure and uncover who is behind the attack, or will everyone on the ark die before reaching Andromeda?

The author of this book, Catherynne M. Valente is not an author I was very familiar with before listening to Annihilation, but she appears to have produced a wide range of different novels, some of which are quite quirky in content.  I do remember seeing and trying to get a copy of her 2018 release, Space Opera, earlier this year, mainly because it sounded like such a fun read, what with it essentially being Eurovision in space.  Luckily, I was able to obtain a copy of Annihilation a week ago and powered through its audiobook format, narrated by Tom Taylorson.

Mass Effect: Annihilation has an exciting and intriguing story that expands on the established lore of the Mass Effect universe while also providing the reader with a compelling science fiction mystery.  The story is broken up into three main parts: the characters attempting to identify and cure the disease, the attempts to fix the ship’s broken system and an investigation into who or what initiated the attack on the ark and its inhabitants.  As a result, there is a good combination of medical, technical and investigative scenes that come together into a rather intriguing overall narrative.  There is not a lot of action, but the focus on the various problems around the ship is very interesting.  The link between the various parts of the book and the final solution to who is behind them was also quite clever and the reasons behind it were quite interesting.  There are some certain dark moments, especially when it comes to the reveal of who was behind it.  Annihilation is obviously going to appeal a lot more to readers who are familiar with the games and who enjoy the backstory of this series, but this is a great story with plenty for other readers to enjoy, and I felt that Valente makes this story accessible for outside readers.

One of the most interesting parts about Annihilation is the fact that the book focuses on the less prominent alien races in the Mass Effect universe.  Aside from one prologue that follows a human, every single character is a member of six less common races in the lore and games, the Quarians, Drell, Volus, Batarians, Hana and Elcor.  This is unique, as the games and the previous novels tend to mostly focus on human characters, or feature a significant number of characters from the games more prominent races, such as the token sexy alien species, the Asari, or the gigantic and war loving Krogan.  The other main council races, the Turians and the Salarians, are also extremely prominent compared to the six races featured within this book, with great Turian and Salarian characters appearing frequently in the games or the books (I am the very model of a scientist Salarian).  In pretty much all of the games, the protagonist can choose members of the above aliens to be a part of the team.  However, Annihilation completely changes this around, as four of the six races that the book focuses on have never had usable characters in any of the games and are mostly minor side characters.  Of the other two races, the Quarians do get a good examination within the games, with one of their members quite a key character.  The Drell are explored to a much lesser degree, although badass Drell assassin Thane Krios as a useable teammate in the second game.

I was pleasantly surprised to read a book where these six less commonly featured races were so prominent.  Valente has a great understanding of these races and spends a significant part of the book exploring each race’s various quirks, important parts of their biology, culture, society or lifestyle, as well as certain parts of their history.  The author does a fantastic job expressing all these racial traits throughout the book, and even new readers to the franchise can quickly gain an understanding of what these species are and what is key to all of them.  For example, Valente is able to expertly capture the various speech characteristics of each of the races featured in Annihilation.  This includes the heavy breathing of the Volus, the lack of personal pronouns in the Hanar’s dialogue, the rolling stream of Drell memories that they say aloud when flashing back to important memories, and even the Elcor habit of prefacing their sentences with their emotional state.  These are all done incredibly consistently throughout the book and really add a lot of authenticity to the story.  These vocal patterns can also be particularly entertaining, especially when it comes to the Elcors, as nothing is more amusing than having an angry Elcor calmly telling everyone how enraged he is.  The various alien species did have the potential to make the investigation into the virus hard to understand, but the author cleverly got around this by having the characters compare the disease, cures and other relevant aspects to common and recognisable human disease.  Overall, these alien inclusions are fantastic, and it was great to see these more obscure fictional species finally get the limelight in a Mass Effect story.

While the alien races as a whole are great inclusions in Annihilation, Valente has also created some amazing characters to make up the Sleepwalker team investigating the issues plaguing the ark.  These characters include the team’s leader, Quarian Senna’Nir vas Keelah Si’yah, Drell detective Anax Therion, Elcor doctor Yorrik, former Batarian crime lord Borbala Ferank, Volus tailor Irit Non and a religiously fanatic Hanar apothecary.  Each of these characters is pretty fun, and all of them have demons in their past that are explored throughout the book.  For example, Senna’Nir is obsessed by computer intelligences, something that is forbidden by the other Quarians following a terrible event in their history.  As a result, Senna’Nir spends large portions of the book coming to terms with his secret obsession, and it is quite an interesting subplot which also allows the introduction of one of the best side characters, a sassy Quarian grandmother virtual intelligence.  Each of the characters’ backstories is fairly compelling and each add a lot to the story.  Borbal Ferank’s crime lord persona is also a lot of fun throughout the book, as she casually mentions her previous crimes and familiar betrayals that are quite common for Batarians.  There are also the mysteries around Anax, as the ultimate infiltrator gives several versions of her past throughout the book to various characters to get the answers and stories she requires.

Easily the best character in Annihilation is Yorrik, the Shakespeare-obsessed Elcor doctor who spends the entire book trying to cure the virus infecting the ark.  He was extremely amusing throughout the entire book, as he spend significant parts of the book dropping jokes in his emotionless tone, or attempting to engage his companions in discussion about his extremely long Elcor adaptions of Hamlet or Macbeth.  Yorrik is a fantastic character throughout the entire book, and he is definitely the person the reader gets the most attached to.  Never have Shakespearian quotes been more appropriate for the fate of an alien.  I also really loved the unique partnership between Anax and Borbala.  The detective and criminal make a great team, and the two have a lot of fun investigating the attack on the ship, and it was great seeing the two of them get closer to each other through the course of the book.  Valente has done an incredible job with the characters in this book, and their histories, relationships and unique viewpoints really make this novel awesome.

I listened to the audiobook version of Annihilation, which I found to be an amazing way to enjoy this book.  At just under nine hours long, this is an easy audiobook to get through, but it is one I had a lot of fun with.  One of the best things about the audiobook version was the fact that they got Tom Taylorson, the voice of the male protagonist in Mass Effect: Andromeda, to narrate this audiobook, which is just awesome for those people who have played the game.  Taylorson does an excellent job portraying each of the characters in this book and I loved all the voices he came up with.  He also managed to get all of the unique voice patterns and vocal particularities of the various alien species down perfectly, and each alien species sounded exactly as they did in the games.  This is an outstanding piece of audiobook narration, which really added a lot to how much I enjoyed this book.

Overall, I am going to give Mass Effect: Annihilation a rating of four and a half stars.  I will admit that one of the main reasons I am giving it such a high rating is because of my love of all things Mass Effect and because of how much I love the franchises lore and expanded fictional history.  I am aware that people who are not as familiar with Mass Effect may not enjoy it as much, but I hope that most readers will appreciate the great characters, interesting story and excellent audiobook adaption.  This is great piece of science fiction and an excellent tie-in novel that is a perfect read for fans of the Mass Effect franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars