Review: Vaults of Terra: The Carrion Throne by Chris Wraight
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"In the hellish sprawl of Imperial Terra, Ordo Hereticus Inquisitor Erasmus serves as a stalwart and vigilant protector, for even the Throneworld is not immune to the predations of its enemies. In the course of his Emperor-sworn duty, Erasmus becomes embroiled in a dark conspiracy, one that leads all the way to the halls of the Imperial Palace. As he plunges deeper in the shadowy underbelly of the many palace districts, his investigation attracts the attention of hidden forces, and soon Erasmus and his acolyte Spinoza are being hunted – by heretics, xenos, servants of the Dark Powers, or perhaps even rival elements of the Inquisition itself. They eventually discover a terrible truth, one that if allowed to get out could undermine the very fabric of the Imperium itself."
I know I've been slacking lately. Please address complaints at Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIV team; the Stormblood Expansion just launched a week ago and I had to catch up on the story up to that point the rest of the month. Considering how much I adore the game's storyline and characters (the best you'll find in an MMORPG, I'd argue), reading actual books wasn't a priority lately.
But hey, this one's fantastic so I breezed through it anyway!

The Story:
"In the hellish sprawl of Imperial Terra, Ordo Hereticus Inquisitor Erasmus serves as a stalwart and vigilant protector, for even the Throneworld is not immune to the predations of its enemies. In the course of his Emperor-sworn duty, Erasmus becomes embroiled in a dark conspiracy, one that leads all the way to the halls of the Imperial Palace. As he plunges deeper in the shadowy underbelly of the many palace districts, his investigation attracts the attention of hidden forces, and soon Erasmus and his acolyte Spinoza are being hunted – by heretics, xenos, servants of the Dark Powers, or perhaps even rival elements of the Inquisition itself. They eventually discover a terrible truth, one that if allowed to get out could undermine the very fabric of the Imperium itself."

The Review:
The Carrion Throne is the kind of novel I've wanted Black Library to publish for years and years. I was honestly worried I'd be putting my expectations up too high - the announcement excited me like few Black Library releases had in recent years. But some things sound just a bit too good to be true, don't they? It has been a long time since BL had greenlit a proper, full-on Inquisition novel and now we're seeing two series kick off in 2017 (John French's Horusian Wars being the other). Fingers crossed that this would be good, then.

Spoiler: It was fantastic!

The novel delivered that sense of thick atmosphere of grit and intrigue that the setting has lacked a great deal in recent years, outside of some exceptions. There is no glorious war here, but plenty of misery under the vener of righteousness and piety. It is easy to think of Holy Terra, humanity's home and the God-Emperor's seat of power, as a jewel of the Imperium. Chris Wraight sets the record straight once and for all and makes it very clear that it is a terrible place to live for all but the elite few, including the Inquisition. People are afraid and driven to extremes, living off scraps and knowing little to no justice in life.

In a way, Wraight even leveled big criticisms against the Inquisition's modus operandi, both through his depictions of them in action and their hypocrisy throughout, but also by pitching Erasmus Crowl's philosophies against those of his new Interrogator, who previously served under a major hardliner. They clash in ideological ways, if not openly, which serves to keep things tense for the reader. It is easy to glorify the role of Inquisitors as the ultimate authority, the righteous gun to the head of heretics. The Carrion Throne explores the adverse effects of their creed in great detail and, by focusing on Interrogator Spinoza's shift from one master to another and all the uncertainties that come with it, forces the reader to reevaluate their views on the Inquisition's activities in more ways than one.

The bulk of the book is formed by two strings of investigation, one mainly led by Inquisitor Erasmus Crowl, the other taken over by Interrogator Luce Spinoza. As can be expected, both intertwine on various points, especially as the Sanguinala, a massive festivity on Terra, draws closer. As pilgrims once more swarm the hives of Holy Terra, misery grows stronger still and more subversive elements cause grief for the local law enforcement and Inquisition. What starts as a series of gruesome murders promises to endanger the Imperial Palace and the Sanguinala themselves. What better way to cause chaos than to bring down doom on millions of pilgrims in front of the Eternity Gate?

So Crowl and Spinoza are working against time, pursuing leads as to the killings while also looking for a missing Inquisitor, interrogating rogue traders, performing autopsies and infiltrating Mechanicus strongholds. I don't think we've ever seen as much of "modern" Terra as we do here. Not only does The Carrion Throne take us places on and around the planet, but it also showcases many walks of life on the Throneworld and the way their lives are governed by fear. I was particularly impressed by pious Spinoza's shock and disbelief at seeing a statue of a Space Marine defaced and demanding the crowds around her to show a similar reaction, only to realize they're numb to it all.
In other parts, it felt horrific with what supposed luxuries the people on Terra are somewhat content with, like living in tiny hab-units. Living plants are a miracle to this sorry lot and there is little light to illuminate the dark corridors of Terra's underbelly.

The two leading characters Crowl and Spinoza were brilliant to read about too. Their dynamics as new mentor and adopted student were unique and full of tension due to clashing philosophies. Crowl himself has a lot of depth to him, not all of which has been explored just yet. There's much that I'd love to see covered bit by bit in future novels. Spinoza meanwhile already had a short story, Argent, to showcase her time under her former master and how she got honored by the Imperial Fists. Her development in The Carrion Throne was spot on and potentially more satisfying than Crowl's, simply because of her own crisis of faith and overall doubts after coming to Terra, whereas Crowl has a long history in his role already and, having been on Terra for a long time, adjusted his methods.

Crowl's retinue was, dare I say it, about as compelling as Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn retinue. Only of few of them were along for the ride for a substantial amount of time, but even the short scenes we got of some, like archivist once-Yulia Huk, are hard-hitting sections. It was compelling seeing her role in things and how both Spinoza and later Eresmus interact with her. There was a level of sadness there, of longing, that made Eisenhorn's group feel more happy-go-lucky than expected. Crowl's storm trooper captain Revus may not smile much, but his fierce dedication to the job and attitude complemented the Inquisitor's own tremendously well. Comedic relief comes in the form of sergeant Hegain, whose exchanges with Spinoza first felt a bit cringey due to the acolyte's stiffness, but opened up a good deal as characters developed and grew closer.

In my opinion, Wraight created a cast of characters that work exceptionally well together and are compelling to follow around, one and all. There was nobody I didn't care for in some capacity or wanted to learn more about. Each and every one of them deserves further exploration, whether in future novels or short stories like Argent.

The involvement of the Custodians had me excited and anxious both, seeing how Games Workshop had just printed rules for use of the Emperor's personal guard on the tabletop when they had been a defensive, reclusive force for the past 10,000 years. I was afraid that we'd be seeing a lot of them in action where they - in my opinion - do not belong. To my utmost relief, Wraight did not do that at all. In fact, I was surprised that they even relented to do as much as they did, which, until the climax, wasn't much beyond dialogue with Inquisitor Crowl.

On top of that I enjoyed the way these golden defenders of the Throne were presented, mainly through their "leader" Navradaran. In his interactions with Crowl it easily becomes apparent that his cohort have been very disconnected from the Imperium at large. They still maintain their exceptional martial prowess and intimidating presence, but their eyes are turned inward towards the Emperor's inner sanctum. In fact, Navradaran was the first Custodian Crowl had encountered or even heard of venturing outside the Palace's inner wards. His attitude and situation serve to strengthen what was known about the Custodes from a lore standpoint while making them as awe-inspiring as they needed to be here.

This is exactly what the novel needed to show. This book, for all its talk of glorious victories of ages past, the breathtaking views of the Imperial Palace, the sheer unlimited authority of the Inquisition, is one of vicious contrasts. While the wider Imperium reveres Holy Terra and considers life there a sign of immense status and luck, reality is a punch in the gut.

I cannot remember a book that has fleshed out the Imperium's society on a similar level since Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn and Ravenor novels. I guess it really is down to the Inquisition books to deal with the gritty details of these things. Even beyond the dynamic plot developments, Wraight managed to fill his book with little pieces of fluff. For example, there's a book mentioned alongside others called "My Wish to Generate Children with You is Only Exceeded by My Devotion to Him"! Nevermind what the Sanguinala brings to the table to shape Imperial culture, or the fantastic retinue Crowl has serving under him. It covers all the things I wanted out of this book.

It boggles my mind that it took Black Library this long to once again publish a novel of this caliber. The setting needs this in many ways rather cynical look at the Imperium's self-righteous hypocrisies. Seeing how well the Warhammer 40,000 universe has lent itself to this style of content featuring Inquisitors and their retinues in the past, I am happy to see its like back in production. But even aside from my relief in those regards, I still believe that Chris Wraight has truly outdone himself here and written one of his best books to date in The Carrion Throne.

Now, excuse me while I try to convince some friends to join me for a session of Fantasy Flight Games' Dark Heresy Pen & Paper Roleplaying Game (which the license expired on so FFG isn't selling it anymore, of course). I've been wanting to do that for years, but this novel has certainly increased my desire for more Inquisition adventures by a tenfold...

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Review: Star Wars: Rebel Rising by Beth Revis
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When Jyn Erso was five years old, her mother was murdered and her father taken from her to serve the Empire. But despite the loss of her parents she is not completely alone—Saw Gerrera, a man willing to go to any extremes necessary in order to resist Imperial tyranny, takes her in as his own, and gives her not only a home but all the abilities and resources she needs to become a rebel herself. Jyn dedicates herself to the cause—and the man. But fighting alongside Saw and his people brings with it danger and the question of just how far Jyn is willing to go as one of Saw’s soldiers. When she faces an unthinkable betrayal that shatters her world, Jyn will have to pull the pieces of herself back together and figure out what she truly believes in...and who she can really trust.
Here we go again with another Star Wars novel. Catching up more and more with the New Canon material, thankfully!
This one's a somewhat unexpected treat in my eyes, seeing how it wasn't part of the Del Rey lineup of adult novels. Like Lost Stars, Rebel Rising proves these classifications foolish once again.

The Story:
"When Jyn Erso was five years old, her mother was murdered and her father taken from her to serve the Empire. But despite the loss of her parents she is not completely alone—Saw Gerrera, a man willing to go to any extremes necessary in order to resist Imperial tyranny, takes her in as his own, and gives her not only a home but all the abilities and resources she needs to become a rebel herself. Jyn dedicates herself to the cause—and the man. But fighting alongside Saw and his people brings with it danger and the question of just how far Jyn is willing to go as one of Saw’s soldiers. When she faces an unthinkable betrayal that shatters her world, Jyn will have to pull the pieces of herself back together and figure out what she truly believes in...and who she can really trust."


The Review:
Rebel Rising is, essentially, the Jyn Erso Story. If Rogue One didn't give you enough about its protagonist or seeing her parents Galen and Lyra in Catalyst wasn't enough either, this novel (oddly billed as a Young Adult novel and not published by Del Rey like usual) has you covered.

I would, however, recommend reading Catalyst first. Maybe I would even say to watch Rogue One ahead of time too, or at least read the novelization's prologue sections. The reason for that is very simple: Rebel Rising fills out the time between Galen Erso's abduction by Orson Krennic and Jyn's forced recruitment by the Rebel Alliance. It covers the better part of Jyn's life and a good chunk of Saw Gerrera's terrorist acts. I am actually sad that this released so long after the movie did, because it did a bang-up job fleshing out their relationships.

In the movie, Saw and Jyn never quite felt as "close" as they should have been, all things considered. The novelization by Alexander Freed did a better job having Jyn reflect on her time with Saw, but Rebel Rising invests a lot of time in making the rebel leader and the Erso girl feel like an odd patchwork family. Saw's love for the girl bleeds through in a lot of places, even if Jyn herself is plagued by doubts. It was a highly compelling dynamic to follow for about half the book, before their paths inevitably diverged.

But Rebel Rising does not simply set Jyn on her path to become a stubborn young woman, but sees her trained by Saw and his rebel bands. It was a lot of fun seeing her confrontations with some rivals for Saw's appreciation and have her stumble headfirst into the horrors of the rebel terrorism against the Empire. It really helped showcase Saw Gerrera as a dangerous individual who the Rebellion might want to steer away from just as much if not more than he does want to stay out of their business of unity.

Yes, there are plenty of gruesome, traumatic experiences waiting here. Jyn is being remade by the events in the book, inevitably losing the rest of her innocence. There's even a romance plotline popping up at some point that turned Jyn's life even more tragic. She's lost a lot of things throughout her life. With all that is shown here, I cannot really understand why Rebel Rising was billed as a Young Adult novel. Thematically it is as strong as most of the "Adult" lineup. Don't let this classification deter you from the novel!

Beyond some much-needed character development for Jyn and Saw, there's a bunch of decent action to be found. Once Jyn leaves Saw's group, things become more adventurous for the young woman. She is constantly forced to reevaluate her stance on rebels and imperials and forced to work with some slimey scumbags to save her bum. Beth Revis shows Jyn as a person of character, however, which tremendously helped make her a compelling and engaging subject for the novel.

On top of all that, Rebel Rising subtly references things and even just turns of phrase from Catalyst and the Rogue One novelization. It slots in so neatly with these that, if you want a comprehensive and satisfying collection, there's no way you should pass up on this book. It clearly is the missing link that I wanted out of the Rogue One arc for a long while now.

You're right, of course. I am gushing a little much. That should show you how much I enjoyed it, of course. Another thing I appreciated though was the choice for relatively short chapters. If you've read my Leman Russ: The Great Wolf review, you'll know that I have a distaste for bloated, overly-long chapters. Here they were easily digestible and well-paced. I cannot stress enough how much it helps me stay invested in a book!

If there's anything negative I can say without going too deep into spoiler territory, it would be that the novel didn't have room to cover everything. There are a few missing years just before the events seeing Jyn imprisoned and ready for the movie. It only makes quick reference to some of the things she got up to in that timeframe, with some of them being interesting enough to warrant further explanation (for example, apparently Jyn spent nearly a year on Takodana, where Mas Kanata's castle is located. If that doesn't hold potential for some more fiction, I don't know!).

Beth Revis managed to fill a large gap in character development that desperately needed plugging. She defied the Young Adult descriptor in how she approached the matter and made her book a compelling read for even older fans of the franchise. Thanks to her work, I can finally say I get Saw Gerrera and Jyn's reluctance in joining the Rebel Alliance. As an extension to the past year of Star Wars material, I'd call it a must-read. Thankfully Disney/Egmont have finally gotten around to publishing their books in standard B-Format Trade Paperbacks now so it lines up neatly next to the rest of the Rogue One saga. So if you're like me, with shelf-OCD, you should be pleased.

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Review: Leman Russ: The Great Wolf by Chris Wraight
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At the the height of the Great Crusade, Leman Russ and his Dark Angel brother, Lion El'Jonson, come into conflict as they pacify the world of Dulan.

Many are the sagas of Leman Russ, Lord of Winter and War, most fearsome of the Emperor’s primarch sons. At the height of the Great Crusade, his Space Wolves fight to bring the rebel world of Dulan to compliance. Enraged by the defiance of the tyrant Durath, Russ has pledged to strike him down personally – but his brother Lion El’Jonson of the Dark Angels advises more caution. With the might of two Legions arrayed against Durath, tensions nevertheless run high, and the rivalry between the Wolf and the Lion threatens to engulf them all.

This one's a few months overdue and following Magnus out of order. It took me a while to get through it, and another while to figure out my feelings on it - and how to put them best. Hopefully I managed to find a good way to do just that here.

The Story:
"At the the height of the Great Crusade, Leman Russ and his Dark Angel brother, Lion El'Jonson, come into conflict as they pacify the world of Dulan.

Many are the sagas of Leman Russ, Lord of Winter and War, most fearsome of the Emperor’s primarch sons. At the height of the Great Crusade, his Space Wolves fight to bring the rebel world of Dulan to compliance. Enraged by the defiance of the tyrant Durath, Russ has pledged to strike him down personally – but his brother Lion El’Jonson of the Dark Angels advises more caution. With the might of two Legions arrayed against Durath, tensions nevertheless run high, and the rivalry between the Wolf and the Lion threatens to engulf them all."

The Review:
Leman Russ: The Great Wolf left me conflicted. I struggled to get invested in this Primarchs novel for quite some time before I decided to just sit down and get it done. Despite having some brilliant moments that left me in awe, the almost overwhelming amount of action, especially early on, left me struggling to enjoy the book.

A big part of my problems with this one isn't just down to content, or specifically a big focus on battles. The structure of it all is what made it feel as exhausting to me as it did. Leman Russ comes along split into a mere six chapters. The first and last of these form the meta narrative, putting the rest of the book into the context of Russ telling the story of his feud with the Lion of Caliban. They are, however, not labeled as prologue and epilogue like you might expect.
The remaining four chapters in between focus on the war for Dulan, the Wolf King and the Lion's many disagreements and ends in, as lore would have it, them punching the living hell out of one another. This iconic and highly anticipated moment in 40k history was handled exceptionally well, in my opinion, whereas the early parts and what may constitute as the main plotline felt underwhelming to me.
I digress, however. While reading the book, I found many, many scene changes that could have easily warranted a chapter break. I've always been in favor of having a good amount of chapters. As long as you're not as ludicrous with it as the Star Wars: Rogue One Junior Novelization which has over 60 chapters for a mere 192 pages, I'd say a few redundant chapter breaks are preferable to having endlessly long ones. Leman Russ, to my dismay, has plenty of those.

I honestly don't know what went wrong here. A lot of times the book lent itself to thematic breaks left and right, splitting battles from more profound and introspective moments, but instead it all runs together into one mess that I found tough to keep excited over. If you're anything like me in this regard, you might struggle.

But aside from these structural issues, I found the novel too loaded with battle scenes and all they entail. The first Dulan-plotline chapter kicks off with a massive boarding action, for example. Yes, it did a good job showcasing the Wolves' way of war, their howling and single-mindedness, but it dragged on a bit too much for my liking. It isn't that Wraight didn't make an effort to make me appreciate the Jarl of the 13th Great Company. I quite liked Jorin Bloodhowl of Dekk-Tra. His role within the Legion is fairly unique, due to being one of Russ's old guard on Fenris. It is just that I never really felt much for the Dulanians. They were the stand-in antagonists. The only thing they actually had going for them for the biggest part of the novel was their advanced and odd technological level. But if that's the only thing I can associate with them for the majority of the story, then I cannot claim to find that very interesting or engaging.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase an advanced civilization that rejects the Imperium's rule, yet the only part that came close to that was the Lion's final meeting with the "Tyrant" of Dulan. That was about where I got curious about this civilization. Sadly, that's also where it became irrelevant to the rest of the book.

I guess it is to be expected somewhat to have the war on Dulan be more of a backdrop for the Wolf vs Lion story of old. We didn't really know much about the conflict before and all the interesting bits were about how Russ and Jonson started their Legion feud for good. But for that, I feel that this happened a bit too late in the book. The buildup was decent, if action-heavy, but the blows landed only in the final stages of the book. As a climax it worked wonders and made me appreciate Wraight's skill at handling Primarchs once again. But between this rivalry plotline, the Dulan war and the third plotline involving the curse of the 13th Great Company, I felt like it didn't take center stage enough.
All three plotlines needed more to them to really shine. They were serviceable, but in the end I felt that the book needed more room to properly build them up. They play into one another just well enough to not make the book feel shizophrenic, but not well enough to properly satisfy me.

Having a big timeskip after the conclusion of the big brawl, rushing through the Heresy-to-come up until the aftermath of the Imperial Palace, was awkward in my opinion as well. It is clear that Wraight wasn't going to spoil Heresy-series events, and that the book needed to work stand-alone and not hold anything mandatory for the flagship series. The encounter between the two brothers also needed to be in the book. But after being relatively slow and bogged down with battles for 80% of the book, having one of the 4 chapters available to the core-part of the novel rush through decades into the future of the HH series, felt awkward. It seems more like a pacing issue to me than anything down to Wraight's skills as an author. In fact, this chapter was one of the most engaging parts of the book for me. It just didn't fit as neatly as I've come to expect from Wraight after all I've read from him.

But this is all so very negative, isn't it? I honestly don't like being this way. My disappointment has a lot to do with the high expectations I had for this novel, based on Wraight's own work with the Space Wolves both in and out of the Horus Heresy series. And truthfully, he did a bang-up job showcasing the Great Crusade-era Legion, with quite a few bits of foreshadowing and easter eggs. The Wolves felt dangerous in many scenes, and the Lion too felt authentic to his core character archetype. He is proud, deeply arrogant, but also insanely competent. Despite all of that, Wraight made it clear that the Lord of Angels wasn't quite as cold-hearted as he often appears. It was great to see Lion El'Jonson this way. The scenes putting the lense on him were some of the best in the book.
Russ, too, did get some neat additions to his character and the fears he held for his Legion. This is a Wolf King that wants his Legion to be seen as more than simple-minded barbarians, quite in contrast to his appearance in Prospero Burns, where he seemed mostly comfortable with the idea of being underestimated by all. It is interesting to see how many aspects of Leman are the same as in chronologically later depictions, while subtle changes were made to accomodate his pre-Heresy Great Crusade incarnation.

Yes, Leman Russ: The Great Wolf is well worth reading. It may be my least-favorite Primarchs novel out of the first three and took me a good while to slog through, but it is still a competent novel that does a lot of good things for the Vlka Fenryka. I'd say the final chapters where everything comes to a head alone make this book worthwhile, despite the pacing and structural issues. It is, however, one of the books that I wish hadn't gotten the short novel treatment but instead been a full-length novel. I believe that, had that been the case, Wraight could have fully lived up to expectations and made all three plotlines compelling in their own right. Either way, it is a great read for fans of the Wolves, but also the Dark Angels and people like me who wanted to see more Great Crusade depictions of the Legions than we got so far.

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Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
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After Thrawn is rescued from exile by Imperial soldiers, his deadly ingenuity and keen tactical abilities swiftly capture the attention of Emperor Palpatine. And just as quickly, Thrawn proves to be as indispensable to the Empire as he is ambitious; as devoted as its most loyal servant, Darth Vader; and a brilliant warrior never to be underestimated. On missions to rout smugglers, snare spies, and defeat pirates, he triumphs time and again—even as his renegade methods infuriate superiors while inspiring ever greater admiration from the Empire. As one promotion follows another in his rapid ascension to greater power, he schools his trusted aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, in the arts of combat and leadership, and the secrets of claiming victory. But even though Thrawn dominates the battlefield, he has much to learn in the arena of politics, where ruthless administrator Arihnda Pryce holds the power to be a potent ally or a brutal enemy.

All these lessons will be put to the ultimate test when Thrawn rises to admiral and must pit all the knowledge, instincts, and battle forces at his command against an insurgent uprising that threatens not only innocent lives but also the Empire’s grip on the galaxy—and his own carefully laid plans for future ascendancy.

I breezed through this novel within about 4 days give or take. Timothy Zahn's done a fantastic job reviving his classic villain from the Star Wars Expanded Universe and I am pretty excited to be reviewing it.

The Story:
"After Thrawn is rescued from exile by Imperial soldiers, his deadly ingenuity and keen tactical abilities swiftly capture the attention of Emperor Palpatine. And just as quickly, Thrawn proves to be as indispensable to the Empire as he is ambitious; as devoted as its most loyal servant, Darth Vader; and a brilliant warrior never to be underestimated. On missions to rout smugglers, snare spies, and defeat pirates, he triumphs time and again—even as his renegade methods infuriate superiors while inspiring ever greater admiration from the Empire. As one promotion follows another in his rapid ascension to greater power, he schools his trusted aide, Ensign Eli Vanto, in the arts of combat and leadership, and the secrets of claiming victory. But even though Thrawn dominates the battlefield, he has much to learn in the arena of politics, where ruthless administrator Arihnda Pryce holds the power to be a potent ally or a brutal enemy.

All these lessons will be put to the ultimate test when Thrawn rises to admiral and must pit all the knowledge, instincts, and battle forces at his command against an insurgent uprising that threatens not only innocent lives but also the Empire’s grip on the galaxy—and his own carefully laid plans for future ascendancy."

The Review:
Star Wars: Thrawn is easily one of the most satisfying novels in the new Disney Canon. Not only does Timothy Zahn reintroduce his classic Expanded Universe character in great detail and style, but it also makes for a cracking read. Thrawn, a master tactician by anyone's measure, is presented as brilliant, calculating and possibly menacing, but also compassionate and mysterious.
If you've never heard of this Grand Admiral before (which would be a pity), then this novel does a damn good job showcasing just why Mitth'raw'nuruodo, more commonly known as Thrawn, has been a fan-favorite for decades and has been one of the most-celebrated re-introductions to the Star Wars canon to date (and may remain so until Disney finally gets around to bringing Mara Jade back...).

Personally, I only ever scratched the surface of the Expanded Universe. I was about to dive fully in when news of Disney's acquisition of LucasFilm hit and the EU got thrown out the window - including Timothy Zahn's classic Thrawn trilogy. A few months back I tried to squeeze in Heir to the Empire, the first book, but didn't get more than maybe 10 chapters in before other reads called. However, what I read of Thrawn was thrilling and engaging. I'm happy to say that this new Thrawn book is just as satisfying as what I read then. But I don't intend to compare the two works. I honestly don't care to do that and there are plenty of analysis videos and articles on the net already. Instead I want to look at it more from the perspective of somebody who hasn't read much EU stuff, hasn't seen the "Yuuzhan Vong" invade the galaxy, or Thrawn's untimely demise. At least not in detail.

The reason for that is simple: Thrawn can stand very well on its own, without the nostalgia or big links to the old material. It simply is a great book exploring incredibly compelling characters and a complex mystery that spans many years of the Empire's history, up to just shortly before Grand Admiral Thrawn's appearance in the animated Rebels series. You do not have to watch the TV show to enjoy it either - in fact, I've seen very little of it outside of choice bits - but it will greatly enhance your understanding of various characters.

The novel primarily focuses on three characters: Thrawn himself, his translator/aide Eli Vanto and Arihnda Pryce. Eli crosses paths with Thrawn when the latter is rescued from lonely exile and the Chiss quickly adopts him as his translator. From then on, their paths are invariably intertwined and we follow their rise through the imperial ranks from the academy to admirality.
In many ways I found their relationship quite resembled that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson; Thrawn is analytical, seeing patterns and studying his opponents' moves, both on the battlefield and in conversation. Eli, meanwhile, has a good degree of understanding but lacks the ability to quickly put things together. Thrawn, like Holmes, attempts to tease out his aide's potential, asking questions and letting him puzzle things out on his own. This also extends to the rest of his command staff later in the book - Thrawn is hugely intelligent, but tries to cultivate his allies for their mutual benefit.

Eli meanwhile has some misgivings about the situation. The encounter with Thrawn means that his career path changed drastically and he becomes the target for a lot of the political fallout of the Empire's upper classes. Having a non-human gain the favor of Emperor Palpatine just doesn't sit right with the higher echelon of the navy or the ruling classes and the duo face stiff opposition on a political level. Thrawn seems relatively oblivious to this - as much of a genius as he is, he isn't presented as flawless. He has his blind spots, and Eli, and later Arihnda Pryce, offer a way to balance those problems out.

Miss Pryce, who also appears in Rebels, gets her origin story here, up unto her introduction in the TV series. It is her that shows the most drastic changes in character and morals over the course of the book. Having grown up as the heir to a mining company on Lothal, she gets thrust into the political power play of Coruscant after her family's properties are taken from them under duress. Her goal? To take back what is rightfully hers and take revenge on the politicians that caused the fall of her family.
But as much as you may root for her success, as she gets further entangled in Coruscant's politics, attempting to raise her own status and forge convenient alliances, her character becomes far more dubious and devious. I loved it. She was never much of a nice person to begin with, but her course throughout Thrawn gives a fantastic view of the political intrigue of the Empire and its corrupting influences.

All these political shenanigans, whether within the army or government, make the book. There is little direct action for most of it, especially as far as Thrawn himself is concerned. Instead you get treated with fleet maneuvers, smartly orchestrated attacks to force surrender rather than devastate needlessly and mysteries rooted in the Empire's secret projects.
Thrawn's hunt for the book's antagonist Nightswan really felt more like something you'd expect from a mystery/detective novel rather than one on science fiction warfare. There are wild goosechases, but they were more considered than what you could find in, say, Battlefront: Twilight Company. Thrawn usually is in a bird's eye position, orchestrating rather than directly engaging, though there are exceptions to that throughout.

At first I was a little concerned by how disparate the Thrawn/Eli and Pryce plotlines seemed. There was the occassional crossover, but only late in the book did the two converge fully. That convergence was hugely satisfying to me, though, and well worth the setup. Both plotlines delivered different things that just clicked into place effortlessly as the story progressed.
Another thing I quite enjoyed were the depictions of Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin and Colonel Wullf Yularen. Both of them felt authentic to their other depictions and Tarkin, for as little time was spent on him, slotted right into place with his appearances in Catalyst, Tarkin and Rogue One. There were even cool little references to Tarkin throughout which served to make the universe and new canon feel even more connected.

The end of Thrawn will have a few very exciting implications for fans of the new canon. Taken along with the recent Rebels season 4 trailer, certain assumptions can be made. Adding to that knowledge of Palpatine's plans for the galaxy as a whole and teases of the threat coming from the unknown regions, you're in for a treat. It doesn't say too much on any of these matters, but just enough to get you speculating and anticipating the next piece in the puzzle. Zahn shows a satisfying kind of subtlety here.

I found much to love about Zahn's return to Thrawn. He maintained the essence of his original creation while reassessing his role and character for the new canon and timeline. Nowhere did the book feel bogged down and exciting twists and shifts of perspective occured throughout. Thrawn himself has proven to be a very complex character with a lot of depth, and pitching Eli Vanto as his aide was the perfect decision to build up the character. Their dynamic shaped the book into what I expect to be seen as a canon classic for years to come. It wouldn't surprise me if Thrawn was cementing the titular character's popularity for another twenty-five years - both with veterans and newcomers alike.

Star Wars: Thrawn on Goodreads
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Review: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
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After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
I had been holding on to a review copy of this for months now. Months. I figured I'd best save it for around March, getting the review out shortly before release in early April. Look how that turned out. The release brought with it an audiobook version, which I bought on Audible to make up for the lost time in some fashion, at least. Good reading courtesy of Gabra Zackman, by the way.
I finished the book a few days later, and have been thinking on it since. What do I really want to say about it? I think I've figured it out now, so here's my review.

The Story:
"After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature."

Disclaimer
I received a print ARC from the publisher upon my own request. I love Lovecraft's works, so getting my hands on it was a given. I also picked up the audiobook via Audible.

The Review:
Winter Tide was a great extension of Lovecraft's mythos. Ruthanna Emrys impressed me with the original Aphra short story The Litany of Earth when I read it last year and this sequel novel continues that trend. While not exactly dark and disturbing on Lovecraft's level, the angle Emrys based her approach around is a very satisfying one to see explored.
This novel almost didn't happen. Litany was a stand-alone story with no planned sequels. Thankfully, the author got enough requests and encouragement that she ended up writing this book. For what my opinion is worth, I believe that this was a fantastic thing to happen to fans of Lovecraft and the Mythos as a whole.

Over the years, especially the past five or so, Lovecraft has received a lot of flak from all sides for his personal views on race, sex and the likes. Many of his views are, of course, reflected in his writing. His stories have been taken apart systematically to expose and theorize on his xenophobic tendencies, and sometimes that even resulted into pretty weird new interpretations of his works.

One of these stories is The Thing on the Doorstep. Fun fact: I believe that was the first HPL story I ever read, and I still have a soft spot for it. In the story, the protagonist details the reasons why he supposedly murdered his best friend. It develops into a weird mind-frying body-switching tale full of odd concepts and horrifying ideas. One interpretation of the story comes down to topics of sexual identity. I personally am not a fan of these, because I'm more intrigued by the Cosmic Horror angle, but speculation was rampant for a while. It is an interesting topic to discuss, at any rate.

Now, I'd highly recommend reading The Thing on the Doorstep before you read Winter Tide, because Emrys used it as a somewhat big factor in her novel. To her credit, she combined some of the literal Lovecraft message of the story with the more out-there interpretations and allowed both sides to co-exist within the setting, while maintaining the "canonicity" of the Cosmic Horror angle.
I've seen a lot of attempts to modify the Mythos canon, as far as it can be said to exist, to better suit modern sensibilities, which often makes me want to gouge my eyes out and beg great Cthulhu to take my sanity. I credit Emrys highly for finding her own niche, in a lot of ways, to tell her stories in, all with their own little interpretations, viewpoints and messages, without attempting to reinvent the wheel. It is obvious that she has a lot of respect and passion for HPL's fiction, and while likely very at odds with the man on an "ideological" level, her way of showing that in Winter Tide and Litany is for the most part subtle and effective.
This was very important to me on a personal level, so excuse me for spending so many words on elaborating on that. I believe that the concern is worth addressing, however.

Now on to Winter Tide itself.
Aphra Marsh is a survivor of the Innsmouth raids, which are based around Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth. Again I would highly recommend reading this one first to get the most out of Emrys' novel. Aphra, as told in Litany, made a contact with the FBI and this time around she is asked to accompany agent Spector to old Arkham to counter a supposed plot by russian agents to learn the art of body-switching magic.
Spector offers her and her brother Caleb the opportunity to study the collection of books taken from Innsmouth during the raids and kept at Miskatonic University. Getting their hands on their family and friends' old books, journals and so on wasn't something Aphra could have passed up on.
Other characters join the trip from San Francisco to Arkham, and yet more get introduced along the way, leading to an unexpectedly large cast to look out for.

And here lies one of the problems I have with the novel. There's just so many intriguing little bits that I wanted more from some than the book could realistically deliver. Neko, Aphra's "sister" of her adopted japanese family that she and Caleb met during her time in the camps over the course of the second World War, could have used more of a role here. I loved the scenes involving her, and her relationship with Aphra was beautifully explored, but for large sections her role in the ongoing events was very negligible. As new characters got introduced, old ones were sidelined more and more. Of course, the new characters can join Aphra's growing circle of students; it was nice to see her own little family growing, but some of it happened a little too fast and easily here.

That is not to say I didn't also appreciate the new characters that appeared. Not at all! Audrey, one of Aphra's new students, was one of the most exciting and dynamic parts of the book. She was clever, had depth and saved some butts. Professor Trumbull too added a LOT to the book that I didn't expect. It just bugs me a little that some of the early themes from closer to home had to make way for emergent themes to the degree that they did.

This also includes the initial contrivance for Aphra going to Arkham and Innsmouth: To find out about the russian spy plot and foil it. Less than halfway through, I was feeling like nobody really cared about this point anymore. Other things took center stage easily and unopposed, and the way this plotpoint was resolved in the book felt... weak. It really felt more like a MacGuffin than a vital part of the book.

Much of the narrative is spent commuting between Professor Trumbull's home, two universities, Innsmouth and even a museum. There are a lot of sections where Aphra and co are simply researching texts and finding familiar handwriting in journals. Introspection and musings on the future of the Deep Ones are prominent, whereas action is left by the wayside. The novel has a lot to say, whether through dialogue or Aphra's narration, so at times it could be considered a little slow. When the climax appears on the page, things get a bit frantic but damn exciting, however. That, too, strikes me as pretty lovecraftian.

I'm aware that this may seem very negative. Please don't take it that way. The book as a whole was insanely enjoyable to me. There were so many little nuggets for Mythos fans, so many very human moments and relationship developments, I got deeply invested in Aphra's journey and the people in her life. For all the cosmic horror and magic, at the core Emrys has written a strong, human novel that bridges cultural differences easily but not cheaply. It was very charming.
Not exactly as dark and desperate as Lovecraft's works would be. Not nearly as cynical and nihilistic (though definitely not weak on it either), but full of relatable feelings and invitations to take a different approach to people's differences. It is also very pro-family, which is to say it triple-underlines the importance of having a home and people to rely on and trust. In that, it is very different from HPL, who would usually write stories about suspicion, distrust and doubt. His narrators are unreliable, whereas Aphra is very honest and caring under all the painful experiences.

It is a strange thing that a book that is in many ways almost antithetical to Howard's works can feel so familiar and respectful while shifting the perspective on the Mythos as a whole in such a profound way. It didn't contradict the horror inherent in HPL's cosmos, but it added a layer of understanding that Lovecraft himself would likely never have offered. It maintains the dangers and risks while establishing a level of control.

Honestly, this is very tough for me to put into words. I adored Winter Tide. It has problems. But it also has a certain charme that pulled me in and makes me ask for more. Emrys wrote many characters I cared for, and if one of my biggest complaints is that I didn't get to see enough of every single one of them to satisfy my curiosity, then that seems more good than bad to me. They all appealed to me for one reason or another.
As a fan of cosmic horror, I am pleased. I want to read more about Aphra Marsh and her Confluence.

Winter Tide feels like a journey of discovering one's place in a ever-changing world full of mystery and the mundane. It defies many expectations while fulfilling a lot of hopes I had for it. Despite a few nitpicks, it feels like a logical and passionate extension of the Mythos and incorporated many elements thereof while adding much of its own to it. It can't have been an easy task, but it was one Ruthanna Emrys nonetheless succeeded in.


Winter Tide on Goodreads
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DarkChaplain's bookshelf: read

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