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

QueensShadow Cover.jpg

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.

The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly

The Secret Runners of New York Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Format – 26 March 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The end of the world has nothing on the horrors of high school in this fast-paced and widely entertaining new book from bestselling Australian author Matthew Reilly.

When Skye Rogers and her twin brother, Red, are forced to move to New York city, they are enrolled in the prestigious The Monmouth School, learning institute of choice for the city’s ultra-wealthy and social elite.  Even among the children of the rich and powerful there exists a well-established hierarchy, and in The Monmouth School, the top of the social ladder are the friends and cronies of the Collins sisters, Misty and Chastity.  Despite only wanting a quiet existence in her new school, Skye finds herself drawn into their orbit against her better judgement.

Skye soon discovers that hanging out with the Collins sisters is very different from the usual high school cliques.  The social group is probably the most exclusive in New York, and it comes with certain privileges.  Thanks to an ancient family secret, the Collins sisters are able to activate an ancient tunnel beneath Central Park that allows teenagers to run through an alternate version of New York: a post-apocalyptic nightmare littered with ruined buildings and filled with crazed survivors.

When Skye and her fellow runners find evidence that the New York they are visiting is actually a future version of their own timeline, they need to find a way to come to terms with the end of the world, especially as the apocalypse appears to be only days away.  As society starts to crumble and the poor rise up against the rich, Skye tries to find a way to use her knowledge of the future to save everyone she loves.  However, Skye is about to learn that her new friends are far more concerned with revenge and are planning to use the end of the world to take her down.

Matthew Reilly is a veteran author of weird and electrifying fiction, having written a number of intriguing books in the last 20 years, many of which fall within the techno-thriller or science fiction genres.  In addition to a number of fun sounding standalone novels, Reilly has also published two substantial series, the Shane Schofield series and the Jack West Jr series.  Matthew Reilly is one of those authors that I have been meaning to check out for some time, as a number of his novels sound absolutely bonkers and really creative.  I am particularly drawn to his 2014 release, The Great Zoo of China, which essentially sounds like Jurassic Park with dragons; his 2013 historical thriller The Tournament; and the books in the Jack West Jr series, which features secret organisations fighting for control of ancient artefacts with world-and universe-ending potential.

I was therefore very excited to get an advanced copy of The Secret Runners of New York, due to its intriguing time travel and armageddon concepts.  I actually really enjoyed The Secret Runners of New York and had a lot of fun reading it.  The book features a surprisingly entertaining use of over-the-top high school drama that actually combines really well with the interesting science fiction elements mentioned above.  The result is an unpredictable and amusing overall story that I had a very hard time putting down and which I powered through in very short order.

The book revolves around the students at The Monmouth School (you have to say the “The”; it’s that type of place), New York’s premier high school for the rich and snooty.  Please remind me to never send any of my theoretical children to any school thought up by Reilly, as the author creates a learning institution that is essentially a viper’s nest of bitchiness, enforced social hierarchy and petty revenge, all of which is enhanced by the fact that the characters are all ultra-rich or have massive superiority complexes.  The quote below from main character Skye, one of the few well-adjusted characters in the book, shows her experiences within the first few minutes at The Monmouth School:

“In the space of a few minutes I’d seen a taunt about sluttiness, a threatened punch to the uterus, some humble bragging by the Head Girl about the school’s social status and a dose of good old-fashioned mean-girl passive aggressiveness from Misty.  School, I reflected sadly, was school no matter how high the tuition fees were.”

I have to admit I did find Reilly’s portrayal of most of the rich teenage girls in this book to be a tad extreme and unrealistic (yes, in a book featuring time travel, that’s what I am finding unrealistic).  I have never been and never will be a teenage girl, but I hope that teenage girls in high school couldn’t possibly be as petty and vicious as the girls portrayed within this book, even if they are the daughters of the uber-privileged.  That being said, I found this over-the-top viewpoint of high school life to be extremely entertaining and it was a fantastic element throughout the book.  Watching the level-headed and somewhat cynical protagonist have to deal with this insanity was a lot of fun, especially when you would imagine most people would be more concerned with the end of the world than with who made out with which guy.  An unbelievably amusing part of the story, these high school elements are great, just try and avoid thinking about it too much.

In addition to the look at the mean girls of high school, I did quite enjoy Reilly’s critique of the ultra-rich and powerful in New York City.  The protagonist finds herself drawn into the world of debutant balls, society politics and the other classy responsibilities of being rich in New York.  Again, this is an interesting part of the story, and the rich characters with their extravagant lifestyles do offer a nice disconnect from reality.  I liked Reilly’s examination of how the rich would be targeted during apocalyptic events such as the one portrayed within this book, and it played nicely into some of the current protests and perceptions of the 1%.  it’s another glorious over-the-top element for this book that provides the reader with a lot of entertainment and a real dislike of most of the privileged characters.

The science fiction parts of this book are incredibly well done and are an excellent part of this book.  Not only is there a devastating cosmic storm that will wipe out most of humanity in hours, but there is an unrelated magical tunnel that the protagonists can use to visit the future.  Reilly does an amazing job creating a devastating and crazy post-apocalyptic New York City for the readers to explore.  I was really impressed with all the brutal descriptions of how the city was in ruins and had been dramatically reclaimed by nature as the infrastructure falls into disrepair, and the whole thing is an amazing setting that Reilly uses to full effect.  I really liked how the author uses the time travel elements within the book.  Watching the protagonists slowly work out that this world is a future version of their own timeline is amazing, and it was great seeing them see all the testimonials and letters from their families describing the events that are yet to happen in their future.  The various time travelling shenanigans used by both the protagonists and antagonists of this book helped enhance this already exciting story, and I loved the way that the characters are able to see the consequences of their actions in both timelines before they actually happen.

The author has also utilised some eye-catching visual elements throughout the book to enhance the story being told.  There are a number of maps used to show the key locations of the book, and there are even a couple of diagrams used to explain the potential time travel issues in this book.  I personally liked the way that the font changed to signify the characters going into a different timeline and thought it was a nice touch.  A range of other text techniques are used to signify angry or desperate messages on different locations, such as walls or the entirety of buildings, often conveying the emotion behind these messages.  All these visual treats are great, and they really make this book stand out.

The Secret Runners of New York is currently being marketed to the teen and young adult audiences, but this book is really on the edge of what young adult fiction is.  While it is focused on teenage characters in high school, there are a significant number of very adult inclusions throughout the book.  It is interesting to note that in an interview at the back of the book, Reilly himself indicates that he does not see this story as being as a piece of young adult fiction, and I think that is shown in the way that he wrote this over-the-top story.  There is a high level of violence, drug use, coarse language and sexual references featured throughout this book, and as a result, I would say it is not really appropriate for the younger audiences and is probably more suited for older teenage readers.  This is definitely one of those young adult marketed books that adult readers can really enjoy, and there is no upper limit on enjoying this crazy tale.

This was an incredibly entertaining and captivating book that I had a lot of fun with.  Matthew Reilly pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the book’s petty and vicious teenage rich girl antagonists, which turns an already intriguing science fiction book into a wild thrill ride of revenge, betrayal and insanity.  I have to say that I quite enjoyed my first taste of Matthew Reilly’s writing and I am extremely keen to check out some of his other works in the future.  At the moment The Secret Runners of New York is a standalone book, although the author leaves a number of storylines open for sequels or prequels, and I would be interested to see where he takes the story next.

Waiting on Wednesday – War of the Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

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.

This week, I look at War of the Bastards by Andrew Shvarts, the third book in the incredibly entertaining and addictive Royal Bastards young adult fantasy series.

War of the Bastards Cover.jpg

Before I start talking about the series and why I want to read this book, can I just say how much I love this cover.  It is an incredibly eye-catching piece of artwork, and I think it matches the dark tone of this series extremely well.

The Royal Bastards is Shvarts’s debut series, and it follows the adventures of a group of rebellious teenagers as they attempt to save the fantasy nation of Noveris.  The series is told from the perspective of Tilla, the bastard daughter of a powerful western lord, whose life changes when she forms an unexpected friendship with the princess of Noveris, Lyriana.  In the first book in the series, Tilla finds out that her father, Lord Elric Kent, is plotting a rebellion against Lyriana’s father, and acts quickly to save Lyriana’s life.  In the second book, after escaping from the west, Tilla, Lyriana and Tilla’s love interest, Zell, arrive at the Lightspire, the capital of Noveris, and attempt to start new lives in the city.  However, the western forces, led by fellow royal bastard Miles Hampstedt, manage to enact a brutal takeover of the city utilising a powerful new form of magic.

To be honest, I have been really looking forward to this book for months, ever since I finished City of Bastards, the second book in the series.  City of Bastards had one hell of an ending, with the sudden and bloody death of the entire royal family and court, from which the protagonists were only just able to escape.  I also really enjoyed Shvarts’s writing style in the second book, and I hope that War of the Bastards is written in a similar manner, but potentially with a darker tone.  I am deeply intrigued to see where the story goes from here and I am already excited about the book’s awesome plot summary.

Goodreads Synopsis:

A year has passed since the fall of Lightspire. The Inquisitor Miles Hampstedt has usurped the throne and rules Noveris with a blood-soaked iron fist. Tilla and her friends have become hardened rebels in the Unbroken, a band of guerilla fighters hiding out in the fringes of the Kingdom. Tilla is plagued with doubt and regret; Lyriana struggles with the burdens of being a fugitive Queen; Zell atones for his guilt by killing for the cause. And even as they all fight, they know their cause is doomed, that with very passing day Miles’ power grows, his army of Bloodmages spreading to cover the continent.

Then a raid on an outpost produces two unexpected prisoners: Lord Elric Kent himself, now a prisoner obsessed with revenge, and Syan See, a strange girl from the Red Wastes. Tilla struggles with the emotional weight of confronting her father, but it’s Syan that offers the true revelation. She demonstrates a new incredible kind of magic, and speaks of a secret civilization hidden in isolation in the mysterious Wastes. With Miles’ forces closing in, Tilla and her friends (alongside a hostage Lord Kent) set out to make contact with Syan’s people, to make an pact that could turn the war. The journey will test their character, forge unlikely alliances, reveal the horrifying true nature of magic, and set in motion a battle that will determine the fate of Noveris itself.

There are quite a few amazing-sounding plot elements contained within this synopsis.  The year-long gap since the last book in the series is going to be extremely interesting, and I am looking forward to seeing the main characters evolve once again into hardened resistance fighters after all the betrayals of the second book.  A hopeless fight against impossible odds followed by a dangerous quest for lost magic is always a winning story combination in my book, and I will look forward to seeing how Shvarts portrays this in War of the Bastards.  I believe that this will be the final book in this series, so I am expecting some massive twists and possibly one or two major character deaths to round out the story.

One of the best things about City of Bastards was Shvarts’s examination of the emotional trauma and damage experienced by the protagonists following their adventures in the first book.  The synopsis seems to support that this interesting inclusion will be a major feature of War of the Bastards, and after the events of the second book, you have to imagine that the trauma and guilt that each character will be experiencing is going to be amplified even further.  Tilla will no doubt feel guilty about the terrible things her father has made possible, and the impacts it has had on her friends.  Zell, whose actions in the second book partially led to the bloody coup, is also going to have massive regrets.  I also expect that Lyriana is going to be suffering quite a lot in this book.  She already experienced severe survivor’s guilt in the second book following the death of her love interest, Tilla’s half-brother Jax, and now with most of her family killed, this is likely to be amplified by a significant degree.  I am also curious to see what will happen to side-character Ellarion in this book.  Ellarion is Lyriana’s cousin and he inherited the role of Royal Archmagus following the murder of the previous Royal Archmagus in the first book.  As he avoided most of the trauma in the first book, he was one of the more buoyant characters in City of Bastards.  However, at the end of the book, his attempted to shield his friends from a massive magical explosion and lost his hands as a result.  I am very curious to see how Ellarion is portrayed in this final book, as not only has he lost most of his family like Lyriana but the loss of hands will also be extremely devastating to him, not just because of their physical use but because it will have a negative impact on his magical ability.

I have a feeling that Tilla’s character relationships will be a key part of War of the Bastards, and I am looking forward to seeing what happens when she is forced to team up with her father.  The two characters have always had a complex relationship due to Tilla’s status as a bastard, but following all the revelations of the first two books, I think that their relationship in this book will be incredibly dramatic.  I am also curious to see how Tilla’s love angle with Zell goes.  Despite coming together in the first book, their time in Lightspire really affected their relationship, as the two lied to each other.  I imagine that they will get back together in this final book, but we will have to see what happens (especially as Zell is the main character most likely to die in my opinion).  I am also expecting an appearance from antagonist Miles Hampstedt in this book.  Miles was once a friend of Tilla, but his extreme jealousy after she chose Zell over him resulted in him betraying the group.  Since then he has taken control of the west and the entirety of Noveris with complete dominance over the blood mages.  No doubt, he will appear at some point, portray himself as the victim because Tilla did not choose him and be an extra despicable villain as a result.

I have a strong feeling that War of the Bastards will be an amazing and thrilling piece of fantasy fiction, and I am really looking forward to getting my hands on this book.  Shvarts is an exceptional new fantasy author, and I have high hopes that he will do an outstanding job with this final book in the Royal Bastards series.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

Lady Smoke Cover.png

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

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Review – OtherEarth by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

OtherEarth Cover.jpg

Publisher: Rock the Boat

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From the superstar team of comedian Jason Segel and young adult author Kirsten Miller comes the second book in their Last Reality series, OtherEarth.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Simon saved his best friend, Kat, from the clutches of the Company and their high-tech VR gaming experience, Otherworld. But it was at a steep price. Now he, Kat, and their friend Busara are on the run. They know too much. About the Company’s dark secrets. About the real-life consequences of playing Otherworld. And about Kat’s stepfather’s involvement in everything. The group is headed to New Mexico to find Simon’s old roommate, who is a tech genius and possibly the only person who can help them reveal the truth about the Company before it’s too late and the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy is erased… forever.

Imagine a future in which you can leave reality behind and give in to your greatest desires. That future is now. And the future is terrifying.

Segel and Miller are an interesting team with some history, having previously written the Nightmares series together.  While Segel is best known for his film, television and comedy work, Miller is an established young adult author, having written two additional series.

I read the first book in this series, Otherworld, late last year, and it was one of the first young adult books I actually reviewed, as I had not professionally looked at this genre much before.  After reading and enjoying the first book a lot, I started checking out more young adult books in the last year, resulting in some really fun finds and some truly excellent reads.  As a result, I was very excited to check out the follow-up to this book and I was curious to see if I would enjoy OtherEarth the same way I enjoyed Otherworld.  I have to say that overall I had a lot of fun with this second book in the Last Reality series, and it had a lot of great and memorable elements to it.

OtherEarth follows on straight after the events of Otherworld, with the protagonists on the run from the Company.  During their previous adventure, the protagonists were able to determine that the Company had been experimenting on coma victims, installing them into their high-tech video game Otherworld, and killing anyone who learns about their secrets.  Simon, Kat, Busara and newcomer Elvis are now determined to expose the sinister actions of the Company while also saving the sentient programs that have come to life within the game.

One of the interesting things I liked about OtherEarth was the way that the authors split the story between the characters going on adventures within the Otherworld game and their attempts to evade and manipulate the company in the real world.  In order to solve their real-world problems, the protagonists are forced to venture into Otherworld in order to locate the consciences of people the Company have trapped within the game in order to obtain the information or resources to shut the Company down for good.  The blend between these in-game adventures and the subsequent real-world actions they take while evading and attacking the Company works really well and helps create an intriguing story.  Both parts of these stories have some great moments, and there are some fantastic twists throughout the book that will keep the reader keen to check out the final book in this series.

The focus on video games continues to be a major part of this book, and the authors offer up a bit of a critique of the future of this medium.  In OtherEarth, every player of Otherworld is a certifiable psychopath, as the world’s richest gamers buy up the extremely exclusive access to the game.  Watching the various players use the game to fulfil their violent desires and use the game to act as gods is quite eye opening, as is the protagonist’s growing addiction to the game and the combat mechanisms within it.  The programs within Otherworld who have gained sentience also offer a unique edge to the story and it is fascinating to watch them react against the players and creators they encounter.

There is a certain amount of humour and comedy throughout the book, although it is not as strictly comedic as other works by Jason Segel.  However, there are some pretty fun and amusing sequences throughout the novel.  The one that springs to mind the easiest is one particularly entertaining high-stakes sequence that suddenly devolves into a weird and comedic discussion about Dame Judi Dench in some very unusual contexts.  The combination of OtherEarth’s humour and the mostly serious nature of the story gives the book an unique flavour which comes together in a very enjoyable way.

From a young adult perspective, this book is probably best intended for an older teen audience as it contains some adult content.  While not as bad as the first book in the series, which contained a pretty inappropriate early scene in which the protagonist blackmails a couple of bitchy high school girls with their nudes, the intense action and some sexual content is probably not ideal for younger readers.  However, this book will be perfect for the older teen market, and most adult readers will have a good time reading this book.

Overall, OtherEarth is an excellent follow-up to Segel and Miller’s Otherworld, and continues their fun techno-thriller adventure.  With some great humour, an intriguing story and some interesting examinations of the gaming medium, OtherEarth is another exciting read for the older young adult audience.  This is a brilliant read that is well worth checking out.  I will personally am looking forward to the third book in the Last Reality series, OtherLife, which is coming out in October 2019.

My Rating:

Four stars

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gollancz

                        Audible Studios

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

Legendary fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Sanderson once again delivers an incredible five-star read with Skyward, a brilliant young adult science fiction story that follows the journey of an energetic young protagonist at she attempts to claim the stars.

As of right now, I have only had the opportunity to read one of Sanderson’s novels, the epic fantasy book, The Way of Kings, which was easily one of the best fantasy reads of the last decade and which I gave a five-star review here.  After enjoying The Way of Kings I was keen to see how Sanderson’s writing ability translated to the young adult science fiction genre.  I have to say I was in no way disappointed, as Sanderson once again creates an amazing and exciting piece of literature, all set within an incredibly detailed new fictional landscape.  Skyward is the first book in Sanderson’s planned Skyward series, which is to be made up of a total of four books.  The second book in this series, Starsight, has apparently already been written, with a release planned for November 2019, while the third and fourth books, both yet untitled, already have tentative release dates in 2021 and 2022.  Starsight is already on my must-read list for next year, and will appear in my Waiting-on-Wednesday series of blog posts the moment the cover gets released.

Far in the future and on another planet, humanity has been under constant attack for hundreds of years.  A mysterious alien race known as the Krell pursued the human fleet across the stars, forcing it to crash on a desolate planet.  Those humans that survived were forced to flee below the planet’s surface, hiding in caves and only re-emerging when they gained the ability to create space fighters capable of fighting off the alien craft.  Now the Defiance Defence League (DFF) fights a constant war against the Krell, who are determined to wipe out the DFF’s main base and the production facilities beneath it.

Since she was a young girl, Spencer Nightshade has always dreamed of becoming a DDF pilot, the elite defenders of humanity, in order to claim the stars.  However, years ago, her father deserted during the most famous battle in DDF history and was shot down by his comrades.  Having been forced to live for years as a daughter of a coward, Spencer is eager to forge her own heroic destiny, but the DDF will never accept her into their flight program.

But with the war going badly and new pilots needed, Spencer is given a chance to join the DDF, thanks to the actions of her father’s old wingmate.  Joining a class of misfit cadets who dub themselves Skyward Flight, Spencer learns to fly the DDF’s ships against the Krell and quickly shows her determination and skill.  However, her father’s legacy is constantly weighing her down, whether by the sabotage of the DDF or the constant fear that deep down she might also be a coward.  With the Krell attacks getting worse, will Spencer find her place as a pilot, or will a terrible secret from the past come back to haunt her?  And through it all, what role will the ancient spaceship Spencer discovers have on the fate of humanity?

I not only received a physical copy of Skyward from Hachette Australia, but I also listened to a copy of this book in its audiobook format, which is narrated by Sophie Aldred and goes for just a little over 15 hours.  Both versions are pretty cool.  The trade paperback version of this novel contains a couple of great maps at the start of the novel that some readers may find useful when it comes to navigating around the story.  There is also a series of intriguing drawings throughout the book that show off several of the ships, both human and alien, that are featured in the story, all of which are juxtaposed against the main ships that the protagonist and her wingmates train and fight in.  The later parts of the book also contain some fantastic illustrations of flight manoeuvres and abilities, which prove informative when utilised with Skyward’s many aerial flight sequences.  I personally preferred the audiobook format of Skyward to the physical copy, as it allowed me to enjoy the many action-packed aerial scenes a whole lot more.  I also loved the narration by Aldred, who was able to create a number of excellent voices for the book’s various characters.

The reason I am giving Skyward such a high-star review is because it is an incredible piece of young adult science fiction that not only has an amazing story but which also contains several outstanding characters and some of the best ship-to-ship action sequences I have ever seen, all of which is combined with Sanderson’s trademark knack for large-scale world building.

I had a lot of fun with the story contained within this book, as Sanderson sets forth a layered and powerful narrative for the reader to enjoy.  Told primarily from the point of view of the protagonist, Spencer, Skyward contains a fantastic coming-of-age storyline set within a flight academy where the cadets learn how to fly in defence of their planet.  I always love a good school based learning narrative, and Sanderson has created an outstanding version of this, where the main characters spend most of the story learning the theory behind flying, while also engaging in real-life combat situations as they train.  As a result, there are heartbreaking losses, great emotional connections forged, and secrets and hints about the overall story slowly released to the reader, all while the protagonist is forced to contend with the machinations of a biased authoritarian figure who even gets to narrate a few chapters to highlight the reasons for her actions.  Overall this is an addictive and exciting story that will really stick in the reader’s imagination.

Sanderson has once again created a detailed and captivating new world in which to set his new series.  The book is set within a new planet that humans from Earth crashed upon years ago in the past, fleeing from a mysterious alien force.  For years the humans lived a nomadic lifestyle in the caves beneath the planet before finally fighting back using newly fabricated fighter craft.  Sanderson has created a fantastic world to host this story, exploring a society forced to live in caves and eventually creating a military base on the surface.  I love how the author has created a ton of new societal rules and features, as well as a world above and beneath the surface of this alien planet.  There is also some really cool and unique technology that comes into play throughout the book, especially in the many aerial combat sequences.  The aliens are mostly a mystery for the entirety of the novel, although I did really enjoy the reveals about them.  I imagine Skyward’s fictional universe will be expanding out in the future instalments of this series and I am very excited to see where this goes.

Some of the best things about this book are the excellent characters that the author has populated his story with.  Of particular note is the main protagonist and point-of-view character, Spencer, who is a really fun and complex character to see this story through.  Spencer is a great character whose life has always been defined by her father’s legacy.  As a result, she puts on an extremely brave and aggressive front to everyone she meets as she tries to convince people she is not a coward.  Because of this, Spencer is quite an eccentric character, spouting out long expositions about how she will harm her opponents, which is quite amusing at times.  However, as the reader gets further into the book, they find out how vulnerable she truly is, as deep down her father’s actions and legacy have had quite an impact on her.  As she progresses into flight training and becomes more and more like her father, she must content with the trials of war, emotional issues with her friends and loved ones, the DDF’s indoctrination against cowards and the secrets that have been kept from her.  The internal conflict and fear that follows is really well written by Sanderson and forms a captivating emotional centre for this amazing narrative.

Quite a lot of time is spent looking at the other cadets that make up Skyward Flight.  Each member of this flight has a unique personality and is given a callsign to make them more distinctive.  There is a fun camaraderie between these characters, and they form quite a close-knit team.  Sanderson spends significant time building up several of these characters, and Spencer, much like the reader, gets quite attached to them.  As a result, when tragedy hits the team, there are some significant emotional blows that come with it.  I liked how the different friendships and relationships help Spencer grow as a character, as she started out the book a bit of a loner.  These side characters are absolutely fantastic, and add another great emotional feature to Skyward’s story.

While Spencer and Skyward Flight are all great characters, my favourite character in all of Skyward had to be the sentient spaceship, M-Bot.  M-Bot is an advanced spaceship who, for various reasons, is obsessed with mushrooms, spends much of the book cracking bad jokes and forms a close relationship with Spencer, the human who discovers it.  M-Bot has to be one of the funniest and quirkiest characters in the whole book, providing several of the book’s best jokes and funniest lines.  The ship’s relationship with Spencer is really well written, as it attempts to balance its existing command code with its new friendship.  This results in some amazing scenes, and I never thought before this book that I would get emotional about a spaceship.  M-Bot is particularly great in the audiobook version, as Aldred gives the ship an excellent Irish accent that really fits the character’s personality perfectly and makes M-Bot stand out throughout the book.

Easily my favourite thing about Skyward has to be the insane and incredibly well-written aerial combat sequences that fill this book.  All of the battles take place within the planet’s atmosphere among falling debris fields, resulting in some elaborate and exciting dog-fights between the DDF fighters and the Krell.  Quite a number of battles feature throughout Skyward, as the protagonist and her companions attempt to stop the Krell destroying humanity’s only hope of leaving the planet.  The author spends significant time exploring the physiology of these aerial fights, including the various tactics, training and technology utilised by the DDF and the Krell.  In particular, Sanderson has created some unique technology to help create some truly amazing combat sequences, including light-lances, which are energy beams that the DDF fighters use to not only throw Krell fighters around but to also help their ships do precise and elaborate manoeuvre around the falling debris.  I also loved how Spencer and her flight got better as the book progressed, reflecting their training and their ability to work together as a team.  All of these battle scenes are fast paced and incredibly well written, and the reader constantly finds themselves placed into the middle of these epic battle sequences.  I found that the audiobook version of Skyward was particularly effective at bringing me into these combat scenes, and I was often on the edge of my seat as I listened to them.  There are a number of these amazing sequences throughout the book, whether they were real battles or simulations.  Highlights for me have to be a high-speed chase through a giant, ancient factory crashing down to the ground, or the final high-stakes battle that serves as an epic conclusion to the whole story.  These battles are truly an amazing feature of Skyward, and I cannot wait to see what incredible aerial battles feature in the future books of this series.

Skyward is one of my favourite books of 2018 and is definitely one of the best young adult books I have read this year.  Brandon Sanderson once again cements his legacy as one of modern fiction’s best fantasy and science fiction authors, as readers are treated to an epic science fiction read set in a rich and detailed new world.  Featuring some amazing characters and outstanding depictions of aerial combat between humans and aliens, this book comes highly recommended.  I have made no secret about how much I am looking forward to future entries in this series and cannot wait to see where Sanderson takes this story next.

My Rating:

Five Stars