Quick Review – Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep – Audiobook Review

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Publisher: HarperAudio (2 October 2018)

Series: A Crown of Shards series – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Kill the Queen is a fun young adult fantasy book that came out late last year. Written by veteran author Jennifer Estep, known for her work on fantasy books such as the Elemental Assassin and Mythos Academy series, Kill the Queen is the first book in her new Crown of Shards series. I listened to the audiobook version of it, narrated by Lauren Fortgang, earlier this year and I have been meaning to review it for some time. With the sequel, Protect the Prince, coming out in a couple of weeks, I figured that it was about time I finally wrote this one up.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

Initially I was not too sure about this book, especially as the opening scenes were a tad slow and less action-packed than I was expecting. However, since the blurb and several early parts of the book indicated that there was an upcoming massacre in the palace, I decided to stick around and keep listening to it. This proved to be quite a good decision; not only did the story quickly pick up pace but I ended up really liking this book.

The lead-up to the massacre at the start of the book was done exceedingly well, especially as the reader can see it coming and you find yourself becoming quite involved with the story at that point. The rest of the story is also fairly exciting. The massacre at the palace is surprisingly brutal for a young adult book, and I really enjoyed the next half of the story, which featured the character joining the gladiator troupe. This part of the book was a good combination of training montage, character development and romance, while also showing a small amount of the antagonist’s moves to solidify her hold on the country. The eventual assault on the palace by the protagonists and the final fight between Evie and Vasilia were good, although I was expecting something a tad more epic, such as a massive battle between all the gladiators and the guards. Still it sets up the future books in the series well, as there are still antagonists on the loose, secrets to be discovered and wars on the horizon.

While the story is very good, this it does feature a number of young adult and fantasy tropes that are a tad overused at this point. The ostracised girl finding her confidence is very familiar, as is Evie’s romance with Lucas, the bad boy she initially cannot stand. I was also a bit disappointed with the shared history with the antagonist that was hinted at throughout the book. It is made to sound like Vasilia did something horrible to Evie in the past, but the evil deed was revealed to be engineered social ostracism because Vasilia had no more use of Evie. This is just a tad disappointing, especially as Evie mentions several times how terrible the event was and several flashbacks are utilised to build up the reveal. Do not get me wrong, the social ostracism that Vasilia organises is cruel, but, honestly, it’s insignificant compared to some of the other traumatic events Evie experiences, and better suited to a high school drama than a fantasy book like this. In addition, I did find that Evie’s whole character arc was also a little bit predictable. It is clear very early on that Evie was going to a classic ‘chosen one’ character whose secret magical ability and mysterious status as Winter Queen will save the country in the future. While a tad predictable, it was still a very interesting story to listen to, and even led to the author including a fun, self-aware declaration from Evie about how she totally is not a chosen one. I hope that Estep cuts down on the young adult and fantasy tropes in the next book, but this was still an amazing piece of fiction that is well worth checking out.

Overall, I would give this book 3.75 out of 5 stars and would definitely recommend it to any reader who is looking for a good new young adult fantasy series. I had a great time listening to it and I managed to power through it in a short amount of time. The audiobook version of Kill the Queen is really well done, and Fortgang is an excellent narrator who contributes some superb voicework to this book. I am probably going to get the second book in the Crown of Shards series when it comes out and I am eager to see where the story goes, especially as the author did leave some interesting plot points open.

We are Blood and Thunder by Kesia Lupo

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Publisher: Bloomsbury YA (Trade Paperback – 4 April 2019)

Series: Standalone / Book 1

Length: 400 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From first-time author Kesia Lupo comes We are Blood and Thunder, a clever, inventive and at times dark young adult fantasy novel that represents a brilliant start to a bold new fantasy world.

In the nation of Valorian, a powerful magical curse has been laid upon the city of Duke’s Forest. The curse has wrapped the entire city in a mystical storm cloud filled with death, sickness and despair. Following a series of virulent pestilences brought on by the storm cloud, the city has been placed in quarantine, although passage in or out of the cloud is already extremely difficult. Now, six years after the curse first struck Duke’s Forest, the fate of the city and all who live within will lie upon the shoulders of two young women.

Lena is a cryptling, one of the deformed or marked offspring of Duke’s Forest’s inhabitants who live in the sprawling crypts underneath the city and watch over the Ancestors, the interred dead of the city, who are worshiped as gods. Lena, whose birthmark saw her abandoned as a baby, led a quiet life below the city until strange things started happening all around her. Accused of being a mage by the magic-hating Lord Justice, Lena just barely escapes execution when she encounters Constance in the mists outside the city. Constance is the daughter of Duke’s Forest’s ruler, the Duke, and has returned to the city to reclaim what is hers. Trained as a mage, Constance recognises the magic within Lena and sends her outside the mist while she continues back to Duke’s Forest. However, this fateful meeting will have huge consequences on the lives of both women.

Once outside the mists, Lena encounters the huntsman Emris, a magic user trained to locate untrained mages like Lena, known as Rogues, who has been pursuing Constance for magical crimes she has been accused of. Emris brings Lena back to the City of Kings, the capital of Valorian, where she attempts to learn how to control her magic. However, her unusual magical abilities and status as a Rogue bring her to the attention of some of the city’s worst inhabitants. Back in Duke’s Forest, Constance finds that her city and her father have fallen under the control of the tyrannical Lord Justice. Keeping her status as a mage hidden, Constance attempts to regain control of Duke’s Forest while also searching for the source of the curse surrounding the city. As both Lena and Constance attempt to survive in their respective cities, fate keeps bringing their destinies together. The future of Duke’s Forest rests in the hands of these young women. Can they save the city, or will they be the storm that destroys it?

We are Blood and Thunder is a clever and extremely captivating young adult fantasy novel that I read a little while ago but only just got a chance to review. I wish I had gotten a review of this book up a little earlier as it is a fantastic first book and I have been quite keen to sing the author’s praises for a while. We are Blood and Thunder is the debut novel of exciting new talent Kesia Lupo and presents a powerful story filled with magic, betrayal, personal growth and the hunt for power. At the moment, We are Blood and Thunder is a standalone novel, but the author has indicated on Goodreads that she may set future books within the same universe.

The story of We are Blood and Thunder is told from the perspectives of Lupo’s two main characters, Lena and Constance. Each character narrates about half the book and tells their separate narratives through alternating chapters. This allows Lupo to tell two separate stories that are not only very different in content but which help show a far wider area of the new fantasy world that Lupo has created. I found both of the storylines contained within this book to be extremely fascinating. The first storyline, which is narrated by Lena, follows the character as she journeys to the City of Kings to learn more about magic. While there, she learns more about her mysterious powers and finds herself embroiled in the conflict between the Temples that control magic and an influential mage outside the control of the Temples who has the ear of the King. The second storyline, which is narrated by Constance, is a darker story of political intrigue, murder and dark magic within the walls of Duke’s Forest, as Constance attempts to find the heart of the storm cloud before it is too late, while also attempting to neutralise the tyrannical Lord Justice.

While the magical learning, emotional growth and world building featured within Lena’s storyline are really good, I did prefer the Constance storyline a little more. All the dark political manoeuvring within the unique setting of the cursed Duke’s Forest and the battle between Constance and the Lord Justice were pretty darn compelling, and I had a very hard time putting down the book while I was reading the Constance chapters. While both of these storylines are really good, I was quite impressed by the way that Lupo was able to combine the two separate stories together into one amazing overarching narrative. I felt that the two storylines really complemented each other and helped make each respective storyline better. For example, the explanations of this fantasy universe’s magic in Lena’s chapters help the reader understand some of the magical elements occurring in Constance’s chapters. At the same time, many of the preparations and relationships Constance forged for her desperate return to Duke’s Forest impact Lena as she uncovers dark secrets within the City of Kings. There are also a number of excellent plot twists cleverly hidden throughout the book that are slowly revealed in both storylines. I thought some of these twists, especially a big reveal towards the end of the book, were just amazing and helped turn this into an epic and electrifying story. I felt that the author’s use of the two separate storylines was an incredible way to tell the story, and the overall narrative was quite outstanding.

In addition to her excellent twin storylines, Lupo also came up with two awesome fantasy cities: the City of Kings and Duke’s Forest. The City of Kings is your classic fantasy capital with massive temples and palaces, where everything appears to be perfect and harmonious on the surface. However, there are some dark secrets at the heart of this city, and the magical politics prove to be a major threat to one of the book’s main characters. While this is a great setting, I have to say that the city of Duke’s Forest is the far more impressive setting. Even before the city was cursed, Duke’s Forest would have been an amazing fantasy setting, with its massive crypts staffed by abandoned children and its rabid intolerance of magic. However, by turning it into a city on the brink of death, surrounded by dangerous magical mists and clouds, Duke’s Forest transformed into a much more intriguing and memorable fantasy setting. Lupo does an amazing job bringing this inventive location to life, and I was impressed by the sense of despair and hopelessness that seemed to hang in the air in each chapter set in this city. These two city settings were great, and I felt that they both enhanced the book’s narratives. Duke’s Forest in particular added a sense of urgency to Constance’s hunt for the heart of the storm cloud. I am very curious to see what other locations Lupo will create for the nation of Valorian in the future, and I look forward to exploring more of this clever fantasy world.

I also quite enjoyed the interesting magical elements that the author utilised in We are Blood and Thunder. Lupo has invented some great magical lore in this book, and I had a lot of fun exploring the various aspects of it. Not only is there a city-wide magical curse but there is also a whole new system of magic for the reader to enjoy. I quite liked the intriguing magical systems that Lupo came up with, and there are a number of great elements to them. These include the vision-filled practice of mages binding their magic to a god in order to control their power, which then influences their magical power and abilities, as well as mages who don’t bind their powers and then subsequently lose control and become a Radical, a destructive being controlled by the underlying darkness in magic. These magical elements are mostly explored by Lena. As a member of an ostracised minority who lived beneath a quarantined city where all knowledge of magic was punished, Lena is a perfect character to explore Lupo’s magical elements. Lena has the same lack of knowledge of this world’s mage as the reader, so the readers get a baseline explanation of magic that also makes sense to the plot. I quite enjoyed the various magical elements that the author came up with in this book, and I am sure that she will further expand upon them in later books in this universe.

We are Blood and Thunder is an outstanding debut from Kesia Lupo which combines some amazing and complex character-based storylines with inventive fantasy settings and cool magical fantasy elements to create an awesome overall book. Lupo has some considerable skill when it comes to a compelling young adult fantasy book, and We are Blood and Thunder is an excellent first outing for this talented author. I look forward to reading more of Lupo’s work in the future, especially if she returns to the excellent world she created in We are Blood and Thunder.

Throwback Thursday – The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden

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Publishers: Pan Macmillan Australia and Bolinda Audio

Books:

1. Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993)

2. The Dead of the Night (1994)

3. The Third Day, the Frost (1995)

4. Darkness, Be My Friend (1996)

5. Burning for Revenge (1997)

6. The Night is for Hunting (1998)

7. The Other Side of Dawn (1999)

Series Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this week’s Throwback Thursday review, I dive back into one of the most popular and iconic Australian fiction series of all times, John Marsden’s epic Tomorrow series.

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The Tomorrow series, by bestselling and award-winning Australian author John Marsden, is a powerful and thought-provoking young adult series that was released in the 1990s.  Made up of seven books, the series began in 1993 with Tomorrow, When the War Began and ended in 1999 with The Other Side of Dawn.  The Tomorrow series follows a small group of young teenage protagonists as they deal with a foreign invasion of Australia which forces them to hide in the bush and engage in a guerrilla war to win.  Thanks to its strong characters, frank depictions of war and trauma and its excellent utilisation of Australia’s bush and rural landscape, the Tomorrow series has become one of the most highly regarded and popular Australian series of all times, with millions of copies sold in Australia alone (which, considering our relatively small population, is pretty impressive).  It is also considered a must-read series for young Australian readers, and it is still required reading in many schools to this day.

I have been a major fan of this series for a very long time.  I remember reading these books while I was at school, both for classes and for my own enjoyment, and I was enthralled by its depictions of war and its captivating story, which stoked my imagination for years.  Re-reading it at an older age, I began to appreciate the more complex nature of its story and the characters portrayed within.  I have re-read or re-listened to these books many times over the years, and it still remains one of my most favourite series of all times.  I have actually been planning to review this as part of my Throwback Thursday series for some time, and after recently mentioning it in my First Ten Books I Reviewed list, where it placed No. 1 thanks to a review project at school, I have decided it was time to share why I love this series and why those who readers unfamiliar with it should check it out.

The Tomorrow series is set in the 1990s, around the same time as the books were written, in a fictional area of Australia.  The plot revolves around seven teenagers, Ellie, Corrie, Homer, Fiona, Lee, Robyn and Kevin, who live in and around the rural town of Wirrawee.  During the holiday period they decide to head out to a remote and mostly unexplored area of the bush, known as Hell, for a week of camping.  Isolated from the rest of the world, they are mostly unaware of events transpiring beyond their bush hideaway.  Once they finish their trip, they emerge from Hell to find their farms and houses abandoned and their town occupied by soldiers.  It soon becomes apparent that all of Australia has been invaded by a foreign nation, with Wirrawee being one of the initial points of occupation due to its proximity to a harbour that is vital to the invader’s supply network.  Using Hell as a base, the protagonists have to come to terms with the new reality they find themselves in, and they must band together to not only survive, but to try and find some way to oppose the invading army.

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The first book, Tomorrow, When the War Began, sets up the story and introduces the readers to the main characters.  The book starts with the seven main characters heading off into the bush, and then returning to find that their world has changed.  Not knowing what had happened and only initially finding that their families are missing, they venture into Wirrawee and encounter their first batch of enemy troops.  After some initial conflicts, which include Lee getting shot, Ellie blowing up an enemy patrol and Corrie’s house getting destroyed by a missile, the group retreats back to Hell with newcomer Chris, who had also managed to hide from the invaders.  Once back in the bush, they initially work on gathering information about the enemy forces and on turning Hell into a long-term home for themselves.  However, as it becomes obvious that the war is going poorly for Australia and the invading army is here to stay, they decide to attempt a major act of sabotage.  Their plan works, but tragedy forces two members of the group to surrender themselves to enemy custody while the rest of the group remain hidden in Hell.  Tomorrow, When the War Began is an excellent novel that does a great job introducing the reader to the characters and setting up an amazing story.  While Tomorrow, When the War Began would have been a great standalone novel, it also does an outstanding job setting up the rest of the series.  There are so many good parts to this novel, but I have to say that the early scenes in which the protagonists start putting the clues together and slowly begin to work out that their town and country have been invaded are among some of the best in the entire series, especially with the tension and uncertainty that the characters are experiencing.

The second book in the series, The Dead of the Night, starts only a few weeks after the events of the first book.  Still reeling from the loss of two of their friends, the remaining members of the group engage in more attacks or acts of sabotage, before finding a group of adult rebels who have managed to avoid capture.  However, the teenage protagonists quickly realise that the adult rebels have no idea what they are doing, and disaster strikes when they encounter the enemy.  The protagonists manage to escape back to Hell, where they successfully undertake another massive attack, although another unforeseen tragedy is revealed in the aftermath.  This is a great follow-up to Tomorrow, When the War Began and it continues several interesting story threads from the first book, while also setting up some new characters and situations.  The scenes with the teenage protagonists encountering the adult rebels are not my favourite, but the counterpoints between the two groups are extremely fascinating.  In addition, the various covert actions that the group undertakes in this book, as well as the characters starting to show evidence of war trauma, offers some well-written and powerful moments to the series.

The next book, The Third Day, the Frost (released as A Killing Frost in the US and Canada), takes the protagonists out of their comfort zone as they leave Hell and the Wirrawee area in order to launch a seemingly impossible attack on the enemy’s nearby harbour complex.  Their hopes are buoyed when they manage to reconnect with a lost friend whose newfound knowledge may prove to be the key to pulling off their attack.  However, their success is short lived as they fall into the clutches of the enemy army and are soon sentenced to death.  They eventually manage to escape, but their freedom comes at a great cost.  This is easily one of the darker books in the Tomorrow series, especially the parts where the remaining main characters are caught and held in prison.  Some of the sequences in the book are pretty cool, especially the assault on Cobbler’s Bay, and this book is one of the ones I enjoy the most in the entire series.

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Following the events of The Third Day, the Frost, the series experiences a seven-month time-skip as the remaining main characters recover in New Zealand.  As a result, the fourth book, Darkness, Be My Friend, feels a lot like it is the beginning of a slightly different second half of this series, resulting in some significant changes and character developments.  This book starts with the protagonists being asked to return to Australia in order to escort a band of army commandoes to a high-value target in the Wirrawee area.  While initially reluctant to return, the protagonists eventually agree to head back for a short mission.  However, when the commandoes go missing, the protagonists find themselves once again trapped in occupied territory and are forced to use their wits and experience to survive and fight back.  Darkness, Be My Friend is a really interesting and significant instalment in the series.  Not only are there a number of major changes in Wirrawee, including several shocking deaths, but this is the book where the trauma and PTSD angles of Marsden’s storytelling really come into effect, as all of the main characters are completely shell-shocked after the events of the first three books, and it takes them a lot to get back to their former operational readiness.  This book does feature some great scenes, including a night-time escape on horseback and a failed attack on the enemy which necessitates another desperate escape.

The fifth book in the series, Burning for Revenge, sees the protagonists once again holed up in Hell, hiding from the enemy army.  With no chance of extraction back to New Zealand, the young guerrillas decided to leave their sanctuary and find a new target to attack.  Fate intervenes, and they find themselves in a position to do a lot of damage to the enemy.  I really enjoyed Burning for Revenge, even though it suffers from some pacing issues.  The major offence takes place in the middle of the book, and while the corresponding sequences are epic in their scale, destruction and savagery, the second half of the book, in which the characters hide out in a nearby city, really peters out in comparison.  The parts of the book set in the city do offer an interesting change of location, and also feature some compelling story points, but it does seem to be a bit lacking after the big attack.  But the major action sequence, the lengthy escape and the significant story developments that occur more than make up for it.

The next book, The Night is for Hunting, is set right after the events of Burning for Revenge and sees the protagonists still hiding out in the suburbs of Stratton.  Their new way of life is shattered when they witness troops capturing some of the wild street children who also haunt the ruins of Stratton.  Rescuing the small group from the enemy, the protagonists escape back to Hell, and must find a way to adapt to their new charges.  However, Hell may not be the safe haven they remember; violence visits them in the bush for the first time.  The Night is for Hunting is probably my least favourite book in the Tomorrow series, although it still is an extremely enjoyable book and an essential part of the series.  It is a little hard to deal with this book’s change of focus from war to childcare, but the focus on the new war orphans who require care allows for some interesting scenes and some intriguing character development.  Most of the child characters are pretty annoying, but their leader, Gavin, more than makes up for it, as the deaf badass has some amazing scenes through this book.  The final action sequences above Hell are also quite jarring, as the bush location that has been built up as a safe haven for your favourite characters is invaded.

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The seventh and final book in the Tomorrow series, The Other Side of Dawn, begins immediately after the conclusion of the sixth book.  After taking out the enemy patrol that infiltrated Hell, the protagonists need to escape before the soldiers are reported missing.  However, instead of an extraction back to New Zealand, they are given a new mission: to venture out and perform as many attacks as possible.  The war is in its final days and any damage they can do will help determine the future of Australia.  Setting off again, the protagonists prepare for their final battle.  Who will survive and what will the country look like after they are done?  This is a really good conclusion to the series that features a number of great scenes.  Not only are many of the story threads that ran through the entire series wrapped up but the protagonists find themselves drawn further into the wider war than they ever have been before.  Marsden tries some different stuff in this book, including a significant amount of the book focusing on an isolated Ellie, and it works to create not only an enjoyable novel but also an excellent end to this great series.

While all seven books in the series are deeply entertaining and extremely well written, their real strength lies in their continuation as a series.  Marsden does an outstanding job linking all of the books in the series together, creating one lengthy and captivating story that you cannot wait to get to the end of.  The sheer amount of character development that occurs throughout the series, as well as the various attacks and input in the war effort, is amazing, and the Tomorrow series really needs to be read in its entirety and in order.

The Tomorrow series is told from the first-person perspective of the main character, Ellie, who is chronicling the adventures of the protagonists so there is a record of what they did during the war in case they are captured or killed.  I always quite enjoyed having the story told in this manner, as it gave the series a lot of realism and is supposed to evoke other famous wartime chronicles.  Ellie is a unique narrator, as she really does not tell a straight story of the entire adventure.  While she endeavours to cover all the events that are occurring, she goes off on a huge number of tangents, recalling stories from her past, analysing the thoughts and feelings in her head, or engaging in some deep emotional debate about the situations the characters find themselves in.  While this may seem random, it goes a long way to explaining the narrator’s thought process, as it helps her break down events she cannot quite handle and interpret them as something more recognisable to her.  It is also through her eyes that we see the other characters, and as such we get a really good idea of their past and their potential motivations, as Ellie knows huge amounts about their past and tells a number of funny stories or analogies that help highlight their character traits and personalities.  Because all of the main characters are her friends, Ellie’s feelings of closeness and love for these characters really shines through and ensures that the readers really care for all the other characters.  One of the things I quite liked about the chronicle format of this series was that Marsden went out of his way to explain the text’s creation and how the protagonist was able to preserve them through the war.  The chronicles also have an impact on the story, especially in the second book, as the characters read and react to Ellie’s inner thoughts and observations about the series’ opening events.

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I absolutely love the overarching story concept of this series, which sees Australia being invaded by a hostile enemy force who quickly takes over the country, forcing a small group of young people to fight back.  While some comparisons with Red Dawn can be made, there are some significant differences to the story, such as its focus on Australia, character development and the more realistic story of young people surviving in a war zone.  I always felt that the idea that Australia, with its relatively small population and relative isolation from Europe and America, could be invaded and completely conquered in such a short period is a lot more realistic than similar events occurring in America.  In addition, the way that the teenage protagonists operate is a lot more realistic in the Tomorrow series.  The characters spend most of their time mainly trying to survive and avoid capture or death at the hands of their enemy.  Even when they attempt an attack, they plans usually attempt to avoid a direct fire fight, as they realise that any attempts to do so would likely see them killed.  Instead, they mostly travel without guns, hoping that if captured, the enemy would believe they were kids who were hiding and not actual guerrillas.  I also liked how the protagonists’ planned assaults on the enemy are more opportunistic in nature and rely more on improvisation and everyday items rather than training or proper military explosives or weapons.  Most of their attacks involve petrol, gas and weapons farmers would use (although one attack was achieved by toasters), and even when they receive some better equipment from the New Zealand army, they utilise it in a way adult soldiers would not think about.  The author’s depiction of Australia’s invasion is really interesting, and the attack and the international reaction to it feel quite realistic, even in more modern times.  I really love the ideas that Marsden comes up with when it comes to the actions his protagonists undertake to survive the war, and it is clear that he dedicated a lot of time and attention to coming up with these actions.  As a result of this, and the realistic depiction of Australia being invaded, the Tomorrow series has always fired my imagination about what I would do if Australia were invaded, and I have to admit I would be tempted to do what these protagonists would do and try and hide out in the bush.

The way that the war is depicted in this series is quite intriguing.  Due to the story being told from Ellie’s perspective as a chronicler, the reader only gets a fairly narrow view of the war, as the protagonists lack any knowledge of what is happening due to their isolation.  Having the protagonists only finding out about the invasion days after it occurs, and then retreating to their hidden base for long periods of a time is quite a cool concept, and I always found that it added so much to the story, especially realism; you cannot expect teen civilians in the bush to have knowledge of troop movements.  Another clever plot device that the Tomorrow series makes use of is the fact that the series has no singular antagonist; instead, the protagonists see every member of the invading army as an equal threat.  While the character of Major Harvey in the second and third book is an antagonist, he is really just a cog in the military machine that is conquering Australia.  Much more negative focus is put on the enemy army as a whole, even though they are fairly faceless, with only one member of their forces ever really named, and that was in the last book.  I always felt that Marsden considered war and the reasons for it as the book’s primary villain, as the harsh depictions of it and its aftermath are very convincing.

As you would expect from a series that focuses on invasion, war and guerrilla attacks, there is a heck of a lot of action going on within these books.  Marsden has some real skill when it comes to writing these scenes, and the reader is dragged right into the middle of the carnage as the narrator describes everything that they see.  I was also impressed with how realistic these scenes were, and the author does not pull any punches when it comes to describing the carnage, with some truly gruesome or violent events occurring all over the place.  There are a huge number of scenes that come to mind in the series, but the one that I would say is the most descriptive is the airfield sequence in Burning for Revenge.  The devastation, destruction and fire that occur in the scene is just insane, and you can’t help but feel the heat of the flames and explosions that are occurring all around the narrator.  This intense action adds so much to the story and really highlights the author’s skill as a writer.

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One of the most distinctive aspects of the Tomorrow series is Marsden’s extremely realistic and insightful depictions of emotional and psychological trauma as a result of war and death.  The inclusion of this sort of trauma is prevalent throughout the entire series and affects all of the characters in some way or another.  Marsden started featuring these depictions of trauma quite early in the series, as within the first book alone two of the characters suffer from panic attacks after seeing or being forced to commit severe acts of violence.  This trauma continues to define many of the characters throughout the rest of the books, and large parts of the series deal with them trying to come to terms with the various traumatic experiences, the deaths of loved ones and all the horrendous acts of violence they have committed.  The most obvious example of these occurs in the fourth book, Darkness, Be my Friend, where at the start all the surviving characters are deeply shell-shocked and emotionally distraught after everything they have done, as well as only narrowly escaping from the death sentence at the enemy prison and witnessing another one of their friends dying.  Even after months recovering in New Zealand, none of them have come close to coming to terms with what happened to them, and the stream of emotion that followed the discussions about heading back to Australia really cuts to the reader’s core.  This is especially true when at least two characters have mental breakdowns when back in Australia, especially Kevin, whose mind essentially shuts down for most of the fifth book in response to everything that happens.  Some of Ellie’s descriptions of the depression or despair she experiences throughout the course of the series are just heartbreaking, but they really drive home how the war has affected her and how devastating the events of the book are.

The Tomorrow series features a fantastic core group of characters who are thrust unprepared into a war setting.  The characters are a diverse and interesting bunch.  Due to his background as a teacher in a rural area of Australia, Marsden has a good idea of the lifestyle of rural kids, and he incorporates this into his characters.  After the various adventures with these characters, the reader does really start to care for them, and they really feel the dark points strongly, such as when they are imprisoned.  I liked the way that Marsden portrayed their relationship, as the characters become dependent on each other in their isolation and situation.  Each of the main characters goes through some significant character development throughout the books, as the situations they face force them to become more responsible or more vicious, depending on their circumstances.  None of the characters are unaffected by this, whether it is the initially rebellious Homer turning into a compassionate leader, or the initially pampered Fiona becoming a more independent and resilient person.  Perhaps the best example of character changes is Lee.  In the first book he is a more easy-going character whose main story arc involves his romance with Ellie.  However, when he witnesses the brutality of the enemy in the second book, he starts to show more signs of violence and anger, killing several soldiers in brutal fashion.  When he finds out that his parents have died, he becomes eager for vengeance, acting out more against the group and putting them in danger with his decisions.

As the narrator, we spend the most time with Ellie, and as a result we really get a deep dive into her character, personality and motivations.  Throughout the series, so many things happen to Ellie that fundamentally change her as a person.  One of the things I really liked about this series as a whole is the way that Ellie maintains her quirky outlook on life even when terrible things happen to her or when she is forced to do terrible things to survive.  Ellie is the first one of the characters to kill someone, and the many deaths she witnesses or is forced to participate in haunt her for all of the books.  With her strong and overwhelming personality, I always thought that Ellie was an outstanding main character for this series, and she is a fantastic creation of Marsden.

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Much of the Tomorrow series is set in the Australian bushland.  Marsden is a very descriptive author, and throughout the course of his books, he really brings the bush to life with his fantastic writings.  The reader really gets a sense of the beauty and strangeness of the bush, and the narrator, who has spent her entire life near the bush, gives several poetic and inspiring accounts of why she loves the bush so much.  There are a number of great bush locations featured throughout the series, and this landscape takes on a life of its own at times.  I loved the location and thought that it contrasted well with some other locations, such as the city the characters spend time in during the last three books.  The immortal bush remains undamaged through the entire series, while the city becomes more and more devastated every time the characters visit.  I loved the use of the bush, and it is an outstanding location that adds so much to the series.

These books are an excellent young adult series that are a must read for its intended audience.  Some of the violence and other content may be considered a bit much for some younger audiences, although I did read this when I was quite young and I personally think that the underlying lessons and themes well outweigh the risks.  Marsden, as a teacher who worked with teenagers, really wanted to portray a group of teenage protagonists in a positive light by showing them as capable beings rather than as the lazy troublemakers of popular media.  Without a doubt, Marsden was able to achieve this, showing a group of teenagers who able to adapt and survive in the most hostile of locations, becoming heroes and survivors where their contemporaries were mostly captured in the early days of the invasion.  Even those adults they encounter after the invasion are mostly incompetent, especially the group known as Harvey’s Heroes in The Dead of the Night.  These characters, including some of their antagonists, actually try to treat them like children, which is galling when the protagonists are far more capable.  However, the protagonists are able to survive where the adults do not, and even some of the professional soldiers they work with in the later books are unable to do the things they do.  As a result, this book does a great job of showing what teenagers are capable of when they face adversity.  However, while it does show them stepping up, the books do not glorify war for young people, as all their actions are done out of necessity, and they are left with some terrible mental and physical scars.  I would strongly recommend this series for all young readers, and I believe that older readers will become enthralled in the story contained within.

As the Tomorrow series is one of the most popular and well-known book series in Australia for the last 20 years, there have been a couple of attempts at adapting the books to the screen.  While this is not necessarily important to enjoying the story, it is intriguing to see how these adaptations have gone, especially as I do not think either of them gets the story 100% correct.  The first adaption the Tomorrow series had was the 2010 film, Tomorrow, When the War Began, which stared a young, mostly Australian cast, a couple of whom have gone on to some international success.  I quite liked the film, which I felt mostly captured the heart and intent of the first book.  However, there were some scenes that were way over the top or slightly stupid, such as having the religious Robyn killing a whole bunch of soldiers while the camera pans sadly to a playground to represent innocence lost, or the final scene showing the protagonists outfitted like a major paramilitary group.  The film also did a really good job of moving the story out of the 90s and setting it in 2010 by cleverly inserting recent technology into the story.  For example, there is one memorable scene where all the characters simultaneously check their cell phone reception when they first discover Ellie’s farm abandoned, rather than having one person checking the landline.  The second adaptation was a television show that ran for one season in 2016.  While it roughly covered the events of the first book, they really took a lot of artistic licence, which honestly did not pay off.  For example, they spent a huge amount of time focussing on what was happening with the captured parents, even though the parents where pretty much non-entities in the first book.  Stuff like this really added nothing to the story, and I personally thought it was quite stupid and kind of ruined the show for me.

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Marsden actually continued the story of the Tomorrow series in a sequel trilogy known as The Ellie ChroniclesThe Ellie Chronicles ran between 2003 and 2006 and focused on Ellie as she struggles to adapt to life in post-war Australia.  I have actually not had the chance to read or listen to The Ellie Chronicles before, which is weird considering how much I love the Tomorrow series.  I have a copy of these books and I will try to get through them at some point in the future as I am deeply curious to see what happens to these beloved characters in peace time (Is the leader of the Australian terrorist group mentioned in the synopsis Lee?  He was still pretty murderous at the end of the series).

While I originally read the physical copies of these books, I mostly choose to listen to the stories on audiobook.  The audiobooks are all narrated by Suzi Dougherty, and mostly run for around seven hours, with the final book, The Other Side of Dawn, running for over nine hours.  When I do my re-listen of these books, I try to get through the entire series in one go and I am generally able to do so quite quickly, as the compelling story keeps me enraptured for all seven books.  Doherty does an amazing job when it comes to these books and she comes up with some outstanding voices for all the characters she portrays.  I especially feel she gets the character of Ellie down perfectly, which has a real trickle-down effect to the rest of the book, as Ellie is the character narrating the entire series.  I really enjoy listening to the series and I think I become a lot more attached to the series when I do.  I would strongly recommend listening to the Tomorrow series on audiobook; it is an amazing way to enjoy these fantastic books.

As you can see from my rather long review, there is so much about the Tomorrow series that I enjoy.  To my mind it is one of the best book series I have ever read, and even after the many years since I first read it, I am still enthralled by the epic story it contains.  Each of the books within the Tomorrow series is excellent, but when taken as a whole, the series becomes some sensational.  I highly recommend this entire series and I am so glad that many Australian schools still require their students to read it.

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Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña

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Publisher: Penguin Books (Trade Paperback – 5 March 2019)

Series: DC Icons – Book 4

Length: 290 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bestselling young adult fiction author Matt de la Peña attempts to put his own spin on the classic origins of one of DC Comics’ most iconic superheroes, Superman, in the fourth and final instalment of the DC Icons book series.

The DC Icons series is made up of four young adult books that present new and modernised origin stories for four of DC Comics’ most iconic and recognisable characters.  Written by some of the world’s best young adult fiction authors, this series has so far looked at Wonder Woman, Batman and Catwoman, and this final book, Dawnbreaker, takes a look at Superman.  Each of the stories in the DC Icons series stands alone and does not connect to either the main DC comic universe or the other DC Icons books.  I have so far only had the opportunity to read one of the previous books in the DC Icons series, Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas, which presented an imaginative and captivating new version of Catwoman’s origin story.  I really liked Soulstealer when I read it late last year, and I have been looking forward to Superman: Dawnbreaker for a while.

In Dawnbreaker, the reader is taken to the sleepy Kanas town of Smallville, home to awkward high school student Clark Kent.  Clark has always been different to the other young people around him, as he is gifted with abilities that make him stronger, faster and resistant to injury.  Afraid of these powers and the potential reactions of the people around him if they found out, Clark tries to live a more ordinary life, hiding his abilities and only confiding in his parents.  However, Clark is finding it harder and harder to disguise what he can really do, especially when he has the power to help those around him.

However, Clark is not the only person with secrets in Smallville.  When Clark finds fellow student Gloria Alvarez crying one day after school, he begins to see that there is something dark at the heart of the town he loves.  People are disappearing; men are skulking around the Kent farm attempting to enter a barn that his father always keeps locked, a large corporation is buying up land around town, and several wealthy young people, including the mysterious Lex Luthor, are suddenly taking an interest in both Smallville and Clark.

Teaming up with his best friend, Lana Lang, Clark attempts to uncover what is really happening in his town.  But the further down the rabbit hole they go, the more Clark begins to realise that only his abilities will be able to stop the terrible events occurring around them.  Can Clark become the hero that his town and the world needs?

De la Peña is an award winning young adult author who has written a number of intriguing and thought-provoking books which often look at young people from disadvantaged or ethnic backgrounds.  De la Peña debuted in 2005 with Ball Don’t Lie, which was later developed into a motion picture of the same name.  Some of his other notable works include We Were Here, I Will Save You and the highly acclaimed children’s book, Last Stop on Market Street.  His most famous book is probably his second novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, which was actually banned in Tucson for five years due to its “critical race theory”.  Dawnbreaker is de la Peña’s first foray into comic book fiction.  While he has previously written some science fiction books, such as The Living and his instalment of the Infinity Ring series, Curse of the Ancients, I was interested to see how he went writing in this new genre.

I personally think that de la Peña did a great job with this book, as he was able to craft together a compelling and exciting novel that contains an excellent combination of mystery, superhero origin story and teen drama.  The mystery and young adult storylines are particularly good, and I quite enjoyed seeing where those parts of the story went.  However, I did have some minor issues with the Superman origin story part of the book, namely because I had seen this origin story so many times before.  I honestly found parts of Dawnbreaker to be very similar to some of the previous versions of Superman that I have seen in both comics or screen adaptions like the Smallville television show (which I may mention again a few times, as I was a massive fan of the show).  Of course, readers who have not already been exposed to so many iterations of Superman’s origin story will not have the same problem.

I fully recognise that this was always going to be a problem for any author attempting to write this sort of book.  For the last 81 years, Superman has been one of the most, if not the most, iconic and recognisable comic book superheros in the world.  As a result of the commercial appeal of the character, there have been so many different versions of Superman over the years, nearly all of which at some point have shown him as a younger Clark Kent living in Smallville.  Because of all of these comics, novels, movies, television shows, games and animated features, the character’s origin story has really been done to death.

Still, de la Peña does do a great job portraying the character of Clark Kent and presenting a more modern version of the hero.  In particular, he did an outstanding job of capturing the character’s identity issues.  An important part of Clark Kent/Superman’s character has always been his fear of hurting anyone with his power or exposing his family to danger.  De la Peña’s take on this character aspect is fantastic, as his version of Clark is extremely vary of using his powers anymore after he previously lost control and hurt someone.  As a result, he finds himself somewhat socially isolated in this book, as he attempts to distance himself from others to make sure they do not realise that he is different and subsequently reject or fear him.  However, events keep conspiring against him, as he keeps finding himself drawn into situations where his powers could help or save people and he has to decide what to do.  I felt that de la Peña covered this part extremely well, and the emotional and ethical internal debates that occur within the protagonist during these events were spot on and some of the best writing in the entire book.  The eventual creation of the Superman identity later in the book is a great result of some of these events, and it is shown to be a natural progression for the character.

Another issue I had with this book was how compacted the origin story felt.  While some origin stories would build up to Clark becoming Superman and an alien saviour over an extended period (although perhaps Smallville’s 10 seasons were a bit over the top), Dawnbreaker covers all of this rather quickly.  At the start of the book, Clark is a teenager with powers (mostly strength and invulnerability at that point), but he has no idea where they come from or what their full extent is.  Within a few days, he finds out that his an alien, he learns all his additional abilities (x-ray vision, heat vision, artic breath and the ability to fly) and he takes on the Superman identity for the first time.  While I certainly understand de la Peña’s desire to portray all these iconic Superman elements in this book, it did make Dawnbreaker’s story feel a bit rushed.

There is some great utilisation of characters within this book.  As I mentioned above, the examinations of Clark’s inner self are done perfectly and really cover important aspects of the character.  I also felt that de la Peña made good use of several classic Superman comic characters, specifically Lana Lang and Ma and Pa Kent, and there were a few clever references to other major characters associated with Superman.  I was a tad disappointed in the portrayal of perennial Superman villain, Lex Luthor.  While he is a key character with his own agenda, there are no real signs of the super scientist and utterly ruthless businessman he is in the comics, nor was there the close friendship that devolved into antagonism that features in some comics, as well as the excellent version that appeared in Smallville.  Still the new, original characters that appear in this book are really well done and offer some unique new inspirations for Superman that I quite enjoyed.

I also quite liked the way that de la Peña attempted to introduce relevant and divisive political and social issues into Dawnbreaker, such as racism and immigration.  This can be mainly seen in treatment of Mexican immigrants (both legal and illegal) in Smallville.  Not only have several of these immigrants gone missing without the police caring, but also people in the town are harassing some of the remaining immigrants, and there are attempts to pass a targeted stop-and-search law.  I thought this was an intriguing and thought provoking inclusion for this book, and it was interesting to see such issues discussed in a comic book tie-in novel.  A Superman book is a great place for this sort of storyline to be explored, as the character is probably the most famous illegal alien in fiction, and Clark’s empathy for these immigrants once he finds out the truth of his past is an interesting inclusion.

Like the other books in the DC Icons series, Dawnbreaker is targeted at a young adult audience.  This is quite a good book for younger audiences, as not only does it present an exciting and fun adventure at an American high school, but it would also serve as an excellent introduction of this iconic character’s origins for this younger cohort.  Younger readers will no doubt appreciate the author’s more modern take on this beloved superhero and be intrigued by how his story starts.  There is also quite a lot for older readers in this book, especially fans of comic books and Superman, and an adult audience can easily enjoy Dawnbreaker.

Superman: Dawnbreaker by Matt de la Peña is a compelling and exciting story that attempts to present an updated origin of one of comic’s most iconic superheros.  Featuring some new takes on the character of Clark Kent, as well as bringing some more contemporary issues to bear in the story, this is an fantastic and enjoyable book and one a wide range of readers can appreciate.  Dawnbreaker is an excellent conclusion to the DC Icons series, and I still fully intend to check out the first two instalments in this series in the near future.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 6 May 2019)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book 1

Length: 470 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The superstar team of Australian young adult fiction authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff comes together once more to create an outstanding, heartfelt and deeply entertaining new novel that may prove to be one of the best young adult books of 2019.

Kaufman and Kristoff are two of the biggest and most creative authors currently writing young adult fiction.  Kaufman is probably best known for her work with Meagan Spooner, where they have co-authored the Starbound trilogy and Unearthed series of books, the second book of which, Undying, was released earlier this year.  She is also in the process of writing her own Elementals series, with the second book, Scorch Dragons, released a month ago.  Kristoff first came into prominence with The Lotus War series, which debuted in 2012.  Since then he has also written The Nevernight Chronicle, the final book of which is set to be released in September, while his latest book, Lifel1k3, was one of the most talked about young adult releases of 2018.  Kristoff’s sequel to Lifel1k3, Dev1at3, is set to be released in a month, and he is currently working on an epic fantasy series, Empire of the Vampire, with the eponymous first book set to be released in September next year.

Kaufman and Kristoff have previously collaborated on the bestselling and award winning The Illuminae Files, a space opera epistolary series made up of three books which ran between 2015 and 2018.  Their latest collaboration, Aurora Rising, is another epic piece of young adult science fiction and is the first book in their planned Aurora Cycle series, which is currently set to feature another two books, released in 2020 and 2021.

Aurora Rising is set in the year 2380 and follows a spacefaring team of young adventurers as they attempt to save the galaxy.  In the future, humans have expanded out deep into the Milky Way, with fast intergalactic travel made possible through the Fold, dangerous space found on the other side of literal folds in the universe.  The Aurora Legion are an independent peacekeeping force made up of humans and several friendly alien races.  In order to complete their various humanitarian, exploration and peacekeeping missions, the Aurora Legion sends teams of young legionnaires, who can better withstand the rigors of the Fold, into the field.  Each team is made up of six highly trained and skilled individuals, who together can solve any problem they encounter.

Tyler Jones is the star graduating cadet of the Aurora Academy, who, thanks to his dedication and ability, will be given first pick of his fellow graduating cadets to form an elite team.  However, when an unscheduled joyride forces him to perform a risky rescue in the Fold, he misses the cadet draft, leaving him with a team of the cadets none of the other graduating squad leaders wanted.  These include (the descriptions were copied from the blurb due to accuracy):

  • His sister, Scarlet – A cocky diplomat with a blackbelt in sarcasm;
  • His best friend, Cat – A tomboy pilot who’s totally not into her squad leader, in case you were wondering;
  • Zila – a sociopath scientist with a fondness for shooting her bunkmates;
  • Finian – a smart-ass tech-whiz with the galaxy’s biggest chip on his shoulder;
  • Kal – an alien warrior with anger management issues.

Forced to make the most of his bad luck, Tyler leads his team on a routine mission that quickly turns hairy when a hostile force of aliens seek to destroy them.  However, genocidal aliens are the least of their problems, when they discover that the girl Tyler saved in the Fold, Aurora O’Malley, has stowed away on their ship.  Aurora, the only survivor of a colony ship long thought lost, is 200 years out of time and desperate to figure out what happened to her colony and the family she left behind.  The squad discovers that she is far more significant than they could ever imagine when she displays strange abilities and impossible knowledge of both the past and future.  When shadowy government agents attempt to arrest Aurora, the squad are forced to go rogue to solve the mystery and end up in a race to save the galaxy.

Aurora Rising is a spectacular read, as these skilled authors take the reader through an intense young adult science fiction adventure in an intriguing new universe.  The book’s story as a whole is an outstanding mixture of intense action, enjoyable science fiction elements and excellent character work, all wrapped up with clever storytelling that is both compelling and humorous.  There are a number of great scenes and epic moments throughout this book that really highlight this book’s unique style and the writer’s ability to tell a story.  For example, I personally liked an extended sequence that followed the protagonists as they embarked on an elaborate and seemingly impossible heist on a massive space station ruled by a vicious crime lord.  The overall result is a near perfect read that I had an absolute blast checking out.  This is an amazing piece of young adult fiction, with enough action and relatable characters to appeal to all manner of potential teen readers.  Older science fiction readers will also have a great time with this book, especially as it sets up a captivating and ambitious new trilogy that will appeal to a huge and diverse audience.

This book is told from the first-person perspectives of the book’s seven protagonists, which includes Aurora and all six members of Tyler’s squad, each of whom gets a series of chapters throughout the book to tell the story.  Kaufman and Kristoff make good use of the chapters each of the characters narrate and the reader gets a good idea of each character’s individual personality, as well as important snippets into their individual backstory.  The authors also try to differentiate these chapters out a bit for some of the characters.  For example, Zila’s chapters are rather short, blunt and analytical in nature, matching her personality, while Scarlet’s chapters feature her listing off the humorous pros and cons of her ex-boyfriends, figuring out which ones to stay in contact with.  I really enjoyed how the authors told the story through these seven separate narrators, as not only did it bring me closer to the characters but it allowed the authors to showcase various perspectives of some of the more impressive sequences and events, allowing for a fuller and more intense story.

Aurora Rising features an outstanding complement of main characters, as each member of the squad, including Aurora, are looked at in some detail.  I was very impressed with how the authors where able to create such expansive and intriguing backstories for all seven main characters, as each of them has their own issues or concerns.  For example, Tyler and Scarlett are living in the shadow of their dead father’s heroics and trying to make him proud, Cat is deeply in love with Tyler and is having a hard time keeping her feelings in check, and Zila struggles with her disconnection with other people brought on by her tragic past.  Other examples include the team’s two alien members: Finian, who to hides his feelings of abandonment behind his brilliance and snark; and Kal, who is torn between guilt about what his race’s warrior caste, of which he is a member, has done to his home planet and his surprising feelings for one of the other members of his squad.  Aurora is perhaps one of the most complex characters, waking after 200 years to find that everything and everyone she knew is dead and parts of her past have been hidden for nefarious reasons.  Add into that her discovery of uncontrollable mental abilities and the feeling that something mysterious is guiding her and she has a lot to worry about.  One of the best things about this book is that whilst all seven characters are fairly complex individually, the book’s true strength revolves around the fact that when these characters come together they are an extremely dysfunctional crew.  The crew starts off as a rebellious and overly sarcastic mess unable to work together effectively, even with their individual abilities and strengths.  However, as the book continues, they do learn to cooperate to a degree, and the reader is made to really care for them, both individually and as a whole.  I loved how these character relationships expanded and strengthened throughout the book, and I had a lot of fun with this humorous and entertaining group of people.

I really enjoyed the universe that Kaufman and Kristoff crafted to fit around this enjoyable and intriguing story.  Visions of humanity’s future can always be a bit hit or miss, but I thought that the science fiction setting that the authors utilise in this book, which sees humanity expanding and interacting with other races while dark secrets and wars build up in the background, to be a fun and well-thought-out setting.  The characters visit an interesting and inventive number of locations through the book, all of which really add to Aurora Rising’s adventure and action.

I liked the author’s concept of the Aurora Legion, an intergalactic peacekeeping organisation that sends teenage operatives into action due to science fiction reasons.  One of the things I quite enjoyed about this was how these teams were designed to have six members whose joint abilities and specialities would allow them to anticipate and overcome any problem.  As a result the teams are made up of:

  • Alphas – leaders
  • Faces – diplomats
  • Aces – pilots
  • Gearheads – mechanics/inventors/technicians
  • Tanks – combat specialists
  • Brains – science officers/medics

This team breakdown proved to be quite an interesting concept, even if they do sound like party roles in a MMORPG (tank, healer, DPS etc).  I liked this idea and the various characters slid into the roles quite effectively.

I also had a lot of fun with the universe-expanding insertions that Kaufman and Kristoff placed before a number of the book’s chapters.  These insertions are written as information pages being read by Aurora on her uniglass, an AI tablet called Magellan, who has a playful sense of humour and who also provides some amusing commentary within the story.  These information pages provide the reader extra information about the universe, including about the Aurora Legions, the roles of the squads’ various members, the history of the universe, alien species, locations the protagonists visit and other relevant inclusions.  While each of these pages contains universe factual information, Magellan adds humorous twists to each of these pages which are very entertaining and really fit into the easy going and entertaining mood of most of the book.  However, these information pages do change and get more serious in the darker parts of the book, which also helps prepare the reader for the shift in mood.  I loved these inclusions, not only appreciating the inventive universe building they allowed, but also the fun take on the classic idea of in-universe media inclusions.

Aurora Rising is an absolutely fantastic book that blasts off with action, humour and amazing characters to create a deeply compelling and relentlessly entertaining story.  Australian authors Kaufman and Kristoff are an outstanding writing duo, and their latest collaboration is an amazing piece of young adult fiction that brilliantly establishes their new trilogy and ensures that future instalments of the Aurora Cycle will be some of the most sought after young adult books for 2020 and 2021.  Aurora Rising comes highly recommended from me, and it is one of my favourite new young adult books of 2019 so far.

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston – Audiobook Review

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Publishers: Disney Lucasfilm Press and Listening Library (5 March 2019)

Series: Star Wars Extended Universe

Length: 8 hours 22 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The female protagonist of the Star Wars prequel movies, Padmé Amidala, gets a story mostly worthy of her, as young adult fiction author E. K. Johnston attempts to bridge the character gap between the first two Star Wars prequel movies in Queen’s Shadow, the first Star Wars novel of 2019.

While The Phantom Menace had its flaws, one of the things that the first Star Wars prequel film did right was the character of Queen Amidala, the young, fierce and strong democratically elected Queen of Naboo, who was able to lead her people to freedom.  Portrayed by a young Natalie Portman, the character appeared in the other two prequel movies, where her relationship with Anakin Skywalker became a key plot point of the entire series.  While I am not the biggest fan of how Padmé was portrayed in the second and third prequel films, I was quite excited to read a novel that explored the character in more detail, especially one written by Johnston, who did such a fantastic treatment on the popular character Ahsoka Tano in her one previous foray into Star Wars fiction.  After my previous awesome experiences with Star Wars audiobooks, such as Ahsoka, I chose to listen to this book’s audiobook format, which was narrated by Catherine Taber.

Four years after ensuring the defeat of the Trade Federation on Naboo, Queen Padmé Amidala has served the last elected terms of office and is no longer Queen.  Now free of the responsibilities of ruling, Padmé and her loyal handmaidens now have time to think about a new future.  However, before Padmé can put any plans in place the new Queen of Naboo presents her with a job she cannot refuse: become the new representative of Naboo in the Galactic Senate.

Accepting the role, Senator Amidala travels to Coruscant, the capital of the Galactic Republic, to take up her seat, accompanied by a completely new support staff.  She is quick to discover that her experiences as a ruler have not prepared her for the demanding and treacherous world of galactic politics.  The Senate is a hotbed of corruption and bureaucracy, and Padmé is already considered by many to be a puppet of Chancellor Palpatine.  She also has number of powerful enemies throughout the galaxy who seek not only to discredit her but also to kill her.

However, Padmé Amidala is used to being underestimated, and with Sabé, her former decoy and shadow, watching her back, she begins to forge the political alliances she needs to finally bring some change the galaxy.

This was an interesting piece of Star Wars fiction that I quite enjoyed.  However, it is not without its flaws, and there were a few things that I disliked about the story that resulted in me dropping my overall rating slightly.  But before I talk about the parts of the story that I had issue with, I want to mention the elements of this book that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Queen’s Shadow is an amazing Padmé Amidala story that helps redeem the character after her less than stellar showings in the second and third Star Wars prequel movies.  This book helps make people forget about the helpless, pregnant damsel from Revenge of the Sith (although some deleted scenes from that movie do show some of the politics she was involved with), and instead focuses on her role as a canny political operator.  I was also quite happy that Anakin did not appear as a character in this book; I preferred to see Amidala stand on her own without being defined by her relationship with a Jedi.

Johnston did a spectacular job of creating a novel that bridges the gaps in Padmé’s story between the first and second prequel movies.  At the end of The Phantom Menace Padmé is still queen of Naboo, but by the start of Attack of the Clones she has become a senator, with very little discussion in the movies concerning how this came about.  While I am sure that some of the books and comics in the old Star Wars extended universe would have covered this period of Padmé’s life, Queen’s Shadow is one of the first stories to explore this in the new Disney owned and operated Star Wars extended universe.

The author spends a significant amount of time focusing on Padmé’s early days in the Galactic Senate, including how she formed some of her early alliances, such as with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, and how she became such a significant force in the Senate.  In addition to this, we get to see how and why several of the minor Naboo characters from The Phantom Menace left Padmé’s side, and how several new characters, such as her new handmaidens and her security guard, Gregar Typho, came into her service.  In addition to serving as a bridge between the two prequel movies, Queen’s Shadow also ties into The Clone Wars animated television show, showing Padmé’s first contact and initial relationships with some of the characters who originated in the animated show, such as Senators Rush Clovis and Mina Bonteri.  While the book does spend time setting up events for Attack of the Clones, Johnston ensures that Padmé and the other main characters reflect on the events that occurred during The Phantom Menace, and the people that helped them during these adventures, such as Qui-Gon Jinn and little Anakin Skywalker.  Overall, I felt that this really helped tie in the events between the two books and is an excellent new piece of Star Wars cannon.

In my opinion, one of the cleverest parts of The Phantom Menace was the revelation towards the end of the film that Queen Amidala was actually being played by two separate actresses: Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.  In the context of the film, Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé, was the real queen of Naboo, while Keira Knightley’s character, Sabé, was a decoy used for security purposes.  While Padmé portrayed the Queen at the start of the movie, when the Trade Federation invaded there was a subtle switch and Sabé took on the role while Padme could be seen disguised as a nondescript handmaiden in the background.  The two characters would then switch between portraying Queen Amidala throughout the film, with Sabé taking on the role whenever there was a chance the Queen could be captured or killed, while Padmé took on the role herself when official discussions or speeches needed to be made.  Handmaiden Padmé also got her own scenes when Sabé was taking on the role as Queen, allowing the viewers to see this side of the character.  This was and still is an amazing and ingenious part of the movie, which worked due to the similarity in appearances between the two then relatively unknown actresses, a downplaying of Knightley’s role in the film, as well as because of the elaborate makeup, hairstyles and dresses that Queen Amidala wore.  As a result, the general audience were quite surprised at the time, especially as cast lists were not as easily available on the internet at the time.

As a result, I was extremely happy that Johnston chose to explore the utilisation of the queen’s decoy in some detail throughout this book.  Quite a lot of time is spent discussing the techniques behind the Amidala persona, from the distracting makeup and costumes, to the quick-change techniques that Padmé and her handmaidens utilise, and even several discussions about the ‘Amidala voice’, the imperious tone that Portman and Knightly both performed in The Phantom Menace.  I found this entire exploration of this decoy angle incredibly fascinating, and it gave me a completely new appreciation for how the decoys were utilised in the first prequel film.  The decoys were also a key part of Queen’s Shadow, as Padmé still continues to utilise them as a senator, allowing her to avoid danger and slip away at social gatherings so she can undertake other covert tasks.  The scenes where they utilise them are quite intriguing, and I liked the author’s thoughts on the psychology behind the effectiveness of the decoys and how they are still an effective technique in an advanced science fiction society.  It was interesting to note that both of Padmé’s decoys who appear the films, Sabé and Cordé (who was blown up at the start of Attack of the Clones), have major roles in this book, with both taking on the Amidala persona at some point in the story.

While it was intriguing to see Cordé learn to take on the role of Amidala in this book, the original decoy, Sabé, was a much bigger part of the plot.  Sabé has a significant role within the book and is actually Queen’s Shadow’s secondary protagonist, performing undercover work on Padmé’s behalf.  The relationship between Padmé and Sabé was a really interesting and emotional subplot to explore, as Sabé is quite loyal to the former queen.  How Sabé defines herself as Padmé’s friend and confidant is a significant part of Sabé’s story, and Johnston spends time attempting unravel this complicated relationship.  The overall result is a fascinating inclusion to this story, and one that adds some real emotional depth to the story.

In addition to the focus on the decoy characters, Johnston also spends time looking at the role of Padmé’s royal handmaidens, the young hooded women who followed Padmé around in the first film.  I had never really given the handmaidens much thought before this book, apart from how Padmé was able to hide her identity by taking up a handmaiden’s garb for several parts of the film.  However, Johnston does a fantastic job of explaining the actual role of these characters as Padmé’s confidants, covert operatives, undercover bodyguards and potential body doubles.  I really liked how Johnston was able to turn these minor characters from the films into a significant part of her book, and it was quite interesting to see them be deployed to help with Padmé’s political moves.  Each of the handmaidens, both those who only appeared in The Phantom Menace and those who only appeared in Attack of the Clones, are explored in some detail throughout the book.  The reader gets a real sense of each of the characters personalities, what skills they bring to Padmé’s table and the fates of those handmaidens who served Padmé during the invasion of Naboo are also explained by this book.  This look at the handmaidens is an excellent part of the book, and one that I actually found quite fascinating.

Aside from the look at Padmé and her associates, Queen’s Shadow also examines a number of other aspects of the Star Wars universe during this time period.  For example, there is quite a large focus on politics, both on Naboo, and within the Galactic Senate.  The galactic politics in particular is quite intriguing, and I liked seeing Padmé’s initial impression of Senate procedure and its many shortcomings.  Johnston has also included some fun media articles throughout the book, showing how negative news coverage is being used to disadvantage or advantage Padmé’s political ambitions, which I found to be quite amusing.  There are also some hints at the coming Separatist movement, as several planets are showing discontent with the Republic and certain actions are taking place to undermine security throughout the galaxy.  All of the features are pretty interesting, and I had fun reading about them throughout this book.

Now, while I obviously quite enjoyed many of the elements that Johnston explored in this book (having gone on about them for over two pages), I have to admit that the overall story is actually a bit boring in places and the story really does not go anywhere.  There are some big points, including a quick assassination attempt, piracy, large-scale disasters and potential political crisis, but many of these events has any real significance, follow through or any sort of actual conclusion.  This could potentially be alright if Queen’s Shadow is the start of a larger storyline or a new book series, but I am not too sure how likely that is.  Not only is there no real indication that Johnston will be continuing this story, but the epilogue of the book kind of puts a damper on that, which I will discuss below.

 

BEWARE SPOILERS BELOW:

The epilogue of the book shows Padmé’s funeral, as shown at the end of Revenge of the Sith.  While I did like how Johnston alluded to the funeral at the start of Queen’s Shadow’s by using the same descriptions of Padmé’s floating flower-covered body, and the funeral does put a final end to the story.  The epilogue did show Sabé talking with Senator Organa, so this book could potentially set up a follow-up book focusing on the former decoy either joining the Rebel Alliance or investigating Padmé’s death.  However, this does not really fit with some of the open story points from this book, as the Trade Federation are the most likely people behind the assassination attempts and the piracy, and who cares about the Trade Federation after Revenge of the Sith?  In addition, this book only really explored around a year of Padmé’s life as a senator, and I think it would make more sense to follow more of Padmé’s early political career, especially as there is still around five more years until Attack of the Clones begins.  I suppose you could maybe do a split-timeline story that follows Padmé and Sabé before and after Revenge of the Sith, with the two storylines coming together, although I am not sure how well that would work.  I would like to see Johnston explore this more and give her overall story more shape, I just do not know how likely that is at this point.

END OF SPOILERS

 

While the somewhat pointless story does bring Queen’s Shadow rating down a bit, its audiobook features really help raise it up again, especially with its excellent narrator Catherine Taber.  The audiobook version of Queen’s Shadow runs for around eight hours and 20 minutes, so it is an easy book to get through quickly.  Catherine Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clone Wars animated show and is also the most recent person to portray the character on screen.  As a result, she is the perfect narrator for this book, as she already perfected a great Natalie Portman imitation voice for the show.  Taber did a fantastic job narrating this book, as she not only is the perfect voice for Padmé but also has an amazing range for the other characters featured in the book.  I appreciated how she was able to craft similar voices for the handmaiden characters, many of whom were chosen to be handmaidens because they were physical and audible matches to Padmé.  This is particularly true of Sabé, and as a result Taber ensures she has pretty much the same voice that Padmé does.  Other high points of Taber’s narration include her rendition of the Amidala voice, as well as the creepy tones she utilises for Chancellor Palpatine, especially when he kept saying “my dear”.  As always, the producers of this Star Wars audiobook load up this version with all sorts of sound effects and classic Star Wars music.  I felt that these sound effects and music really helped enhance the story, and gave it some real atmosphere, and I liked the way that certain things, such as holo-messages between the characters, were altered to make them sound more realistic.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Queen’s Shadow as the best way to enjoy this story, and I thought it was just wonderful.

Queen’s Shadow is marketed as a young adult novel, and it is quite a good novel for a younger audience to enjoy, with only minor sexual references, coarse language, drug use and violence throughout the book.  However, there really is not any upper age limit on enjoying this book, and older readers can just as easily explore Johnston’s story.  While there is no age limit, readers should ideally be a Star Wars fan to fully enjoy Queen’s Shadow.  At the very least, readers should have watched all of the prequel films first to get a full handle on what is happening.  While I imagine someone with no prior knowledge of Star Wars might be able to enjoy reading this, it is probably not the best young adult science fiction book to pick out.  As a result, this book is recommended more for established fans of the franchise, and as a pretty hard-core Star Wars fan myself, I know I enjoyed all of the references and character exploration that Johnston did a lot more.

In the end, I decided to award Queen’s Shadow four stars out of five.  While I really loved all the intriguing elements that Johnston explored in this book, the lagging story did make it a little harder to enjoy.  That being said, I would not hesitate to grab another Star Wars book from Johnston, as she has an outstanding understanding and appreciation of the Star Wars universe.  I do hope that this story is continued in some way, and if it does, I will definitely check out the audiobook version of it, especially if it is narrated once again by Catherine Taber.  Interesting reading, Queen’s Shadow is worth checking out, especially if you are an established fan of the Star Wars franchise.