Review: Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Stratagem by Yoshiki Tanaka
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Remnants of the high nobility, manipulated by the third power of Phezzan, abduct the seven-year-old Emperor and, with the cooperation of the Free Planets Alliance, declare the establishment of a traditional Imperial government. Reinhard, however, has turned the tables by making a secret pact with Phezzan high officials, and plans a grand invasion of the Alliance by way of the Phezzan Corridor. So begins an epic battle to the death between Yang, who despite surmising Reinhard s true intentions must defend Iserlohn, and the Imperial Army's peerless fighter, von Reuentahl.
Getting my hands on this hasn't been an easy task. I preordered the paperback back in November 2016, yet still didn't get my copy until almost 3 weeks after its June 21st release. Likewise, there was no shortcut through an audiobook edition like with the previous three (please, go pick up Tim Gerard Reynolds' narrations!), so I was forced to wait it out.
Once I got it, I was through in a little over a week, despite many appointments and stressful nonsense going on. So let's see about this review, eh?

The Story:
"Remnants of the high nobility, manipulated by the third power of Phezzan, abduct the seven-year-old Emperor and, with the cooperation of the Free Planets Alliance, declare the establishment of a traditional Imperial government. Reinhard, however, has turned the tables by making a secret pact with Phezzan high officials, and plans a grand invasion of the Alliance by way of the Phezzan Corridor. So begins an epic battle to the death between Yang, who despite surmising Reinhard s true intentions must defend Iserlohn, and the Imperial Army's peerless fighter, von Reuentahl."

The Review:
Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Stratagem is the fourth of ten volumes in the classic japanese space opera series. Originally released during the 80s, it has only recently made its way to an english release. I could go on and on lamenting the sluggishness of US/UK publishers in picking up this well-loved classic, but I believe I've done that already. Right now I am actually happy that we'll be seeing the midway point later this year, and volume six by April 2018. Stratagem, being the most recent installment I got to read, has done nothing to blunt my enthusiasm for this series. If anything, I am more eager for volume five to find its way into my hands.
This being a good way into the series, expect spoilers for the first three books. I reviewed the previous volumes already, so if you're new to it, best to start there.

Unlike previous books, especially volume three, Stratagem focuses little on the Free Planets Alliance, and with it Admiral Yang Wen-li and his crew. Instead it turns the reader's eyes towards the Galactic Empire's capital of Odin, its semi-dictatorial ruler Reinhard von Lohengramm, and his dealings with the merchant-dominion of Phezzan. While I was initially a little disappointed with not getting to see as much of Miracle Yang and co, his role is a passive one in general. Unlike last time when he had to go up against a court of inquiry and rush back to Iserlohn Fortress in a last-minute defense against the empire, here he is stuck at the base, waiting for Reinhard to make his grand moves. He has little chance to take the initiative, which is in great parts down to the inertia of the Free Planets Alliance's bureaucracy and incompetent leadership.
So in my eyes it makes perfect sense to point the camera to where the history of the galaxy is being written: In the Lohengramm camp.

However, that is not to say that Yang and co have no relevance here. If anything, things are being set in motion to break the status quo at Iserlohn, in a multitude of ways, and put Yang on a path that has been hinted at for quite some time. For one, Julian Mintz, Yang's ward, is promoted and sent to Phezzan as a military attaché, on command of the bigwigs on the FPA's capital of Heinessen. Julian benefits from a good chunk of development throughout this novel, with more promised in the next installment, while Yang's own position is destabilized somewhat. Thankfully it is not all doom and gloom, and Yang, Julian and co offer some of the most amusing scenes in the series yet.

But let's turn towards Reinhard here. Last we saw, he had put down the nobility's rebellion, placed himself in the position of de-facto ruler of the Galactic Empire, while maintaining a seven year old child as the official emperor. Unable to deal with a child the same way he might with a full-grown despot, he is forced to wait for a chance to fully bury the old Goldenbaum Dynasty that has reigned for nearly 500 years. When Phezzan reaches out with an elaborate plan to abduct the child-emperor, Reinhard makes his move by allowing it to proceed and in doing so offer him a casus belli against the FPA and gain undeniable advantages in the coming war.

Almost the entire book deals with this situation, from inception to the military push spearheaded by Reinhard's fleet commanders Wolfgang Mittermeier and Oskar von Reuentahl. Both of these have been interesting to watch over the last few books, friends as they are, but here their paths might begin to diverge a little. Von Reuentahl receives the bulk of development, exploring his own ambitions and role at Reinhard's court. He goes up against big odds here, trying to prove his worth not only to the imperial marshall, but also himself. Tanaka is building up towards an eventful escalation over the coming book or two.

Meanwhile, Phezzan's meddling in the two big civilizations' respective political systems and businesses leads to quite a lot of tension. I loved seeing how arrogant and selfish the Phezzanese are depicted here. They are self-serving to a fault. This time they may or may not have miscalculated in their schemes, but then, we know from previous volumes that their real goals are far less obvious than people think.
Through Julian and some later chapters we actually get a good look at Phezzan's way of life, which I found to be an interesting contrast to the other two major powers. It also made it appear that, for all their mercantile talents, the Phezzanese might be living in a bubble of their own making.

Another thing that got satisfying developments was the relationship between Reinhard von Lohengramm and his chief secretary, Hildegard von Mariendorf. I really am quite fond of her, as she is presented as a character with a strong moral code yet also utterly loyal to her lord. Her role diminishes somewhat in the later chapters, but early on she scores a lot of points in my book. Her interactions with von Lohengramm are in a way reminiscent of those between the Golden Brat and his lost friend Siegfried Kircheis, who of course isn't forgotten either.

The big war efforts, however, are mostly confined to the later parts of the book, and most likely the next part. The book focuses instead on the build-up, the plan, the schemes that lead there and the way they may turn against their makers. This is the book where the breaking of the status quo between the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance truly begins, but also that for Reinhard and Yang respectively. Things are inevitably going to change, and Tanaka made an impressive show of how that could be achieved.
While the book errs on the shorter end of the spectrum, clocking in at just over 200 pages, it was full of character development and even explorations of the historical background of the Galactic Empire and its former rulers. Some of these excursions into history were actually pretty shocking and gruesome, giving another reason to the reader as to why Reinhard might be justified in burning the Goldenbaum Dynasty to the ground. But while the end may be laudable, it is questionable whether the ends justify the means.

But then, this series has been building up towards a variety of role reversals for a while. Stratagem continues hinting towards these, just how previous novels have made the empire under Reinhard appear fair and heading into a more liberal direction, whereas the FPA keeps regressing towards political tyranny. This, in my eyes, is one of the coolest, most satisfying aspects about this entire series; the perversion of ideals, the realization that to do good in the long run you might have to do bad in the short term, the reader's deliberations on who is on the right side of history, it all adds up to a hugely engaging, pseudo-historical narrative the likes of which you don't see often.

Considering how strongly Stratagem continues the series' trend of excellent character building and leads right up to what should be the mid-series climax, my love for Legend of the Galactic Heroes just got reaffirmed. The pendulum of human history keeps swinging and I wonder what repercussions the counter-swing will have in the future.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Vol.4: Stratagem on Goodreads
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Review: Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski
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Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety. In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike ...
I originally read Sword of Destiny for pleasure, to scratch an itch I had recently. Then I ended up finishing it very quickly and typed a bit of an informal review on Goodreads. I had concerns about reviewing this here, out of order, as the only Witcher review, but now I figured why the hell not and expanded on my thoughts a little. Be advised to read The Last Wish before you pick up this one, however!

The Story:
"Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety. In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike ..."



The Review:
Sword of Destiny reminded me again why I love the Witcher series so much. I originally read it many years ago, in German. I got struck by the desire to re-read it a while ago and just ended up going with it this week.
I can't help but breeze through Sapkowski's books. There's something comfortable about them, despite all the tragedy and pain. This one was, even on the second read, no exception. It expresses a lot of what I find fascinating about this setting and its characters, whether they're presented in the books, comics or indeed the video game adaptations.

This collection never bored me, quite in contrast to many other anthologies I tried reading. Often I find myself drifting off, not getting pulled into one story or another enough to keep my drive going. If anything, here I actually got a lot more out of it this time than during the first read. Not because of translation troubles (the German translations could be argued as being superior due to the variety in vocabulary compared to English, which suits the Polish original better, actually), but because having read all but Lady of the Lake and Season of Storms (which is being released in English in 2018 for the first time!) by now, and having played the games, there are many little tidbits and foreshadowing that I picked up on this time.

It is hard to pinpoint which story in here was the strongest. While it is an anthology of short stories that can be read individually and still enjoyed, progressing from one to the next benefitted the entire collection. Every story establishes something, often in relation to Yennefer of Vengerberg, though later also Cirilla, Geralt's destiny child. Unlike The Last Wish, there is no framing meta-story going on here, but this might have been for the better as it might have interrupted the flow of the wider narrative.

Every story, as with The Last Wish, comes with a moral, sometimes more obvious than other times. Every story also comes with an engaging twist, or three, and once again Sapkowski made sure that the titles of the individual stories are reflected within the tales themselves. As you read on through them, you'll end up finding more meaning to what you might have gotten out of reading just the title in passing. Something More especially has a fantastic impact after finishing up.

If you've ever wondered why Geralt's on-and-off relationship with Yennefer is so important to the series, or why players of The Witcher 3 opt for romancing Yennefer over Triss Merigold, then this is also the most important book in my eyes. It expresses so much about their relationship, their feelings for one another, their struggles and fears, that it defines both the sorceress and the White Wolf in extremely strong terms. Yennefer might come out of a few stories with a lot of criticism, but it is apparent that she's troubled, not malicious, and that Geralt is incredibly important to her. Neither can really handle it, both suffer from their roles as sorceress and witcher, and the downsides of each. But when they click, it is obvious that they are made for one another, despite all.

This is also the first real outing for Cirilla, Geralt's adopted daughter. I must stress that reading The Last Wish followed by this book is vitally important before going on with Blood of Elves. It is easy to dismiss the anthologies because they're not part of the five novel series and may be considered side stories from the big arc, but that'd be silly and actually detrimental to the experience. You'll struggle to understand why Ciri is so important without these two collections. You'll lose out magnificently if you skip out on reading Sword of Destiny (the short story) and the following Something More. There is so much passion in both tales, so much connective tissue, that you can't just cut it out.

Some of the stories are also incredibly sad, to the point of almost being real tear-jerkers. In general, the stories are full of emotion. Every one of them instills either a sense of wonder and love, frustration, hopelessness, fear, happiness, confusion or even just sheer joy at another silly adventure with Dandelion in Novigrad, involving a Doppler imitating a halfling merchant. There are some amazing characters to be found here, like Essi Daven the poet, one of Dandelion's friends and competitors, or Three Jackdaws the enigmatic traveller with his two warrior maiden bodyguards. Everybody is full of character, as usual with Sapkowski's works. While you may never meet them again, or maybe just in the video games for a cameo, their presence here adds much flavor to their respective tales and turns the world of Geralt of Rivia more colorful than a setting so full of misery, death, sex and war would usually look.

What may be seen as a bit lacking to people is the relative lack of monsters for Geralt to hunt down. There really aren't many, and those that exist tend to be story openers rather than the point of said stories. The first, The Bounds of Reason, for example, opens with Geralt slaying a Basilisk, but that isn't actually shown. What Sapkowski instead puts the reader's lens on is the townsfolk's reaction to it, and their doubts about the Witcher's ability to pull it off while he's in the beast's lair. A Shard of Ice opens in an even filthier spot than that, but deals with far more human problems throughout. While Witchers are, primarily, monster hunters by profession, job opportunities are rare in this age and more often than not it isn't them that people need to be concerned about. That is a theme that runs through the entire franchise and Sword of Destiny makes that point as well.

In my honest opinion, this is one of the strongest books in the wider series. I think what made this the better of the two anthologies in my eyes were the overall raised stakes for Geralt and his friends. Whereas the first book was more of a collection of introductions to the primary cast and their roles, this one utilized them in a way that made them grow from their experiences. It wouldn't have been able to do it this well without The Last Wish doing the groundwork, of course, but it was exceptional at what it did. Sword of Destiny holds many consequences for its characters, their lives and relationships. It gives and takes away in equal measure while changing the playing field bit by bit and get Geralt and Ciri ready for their great journey throughout the following five novels.

It is a damned shame that it wasn't translated to English in the correct chronological order, after The Last Wish, instead of between Baptism of Fire and The Tower of the Swallow. Whoever thought THAT was a good idea needs to get his priorities checked. Considering this was the first published book in the Polish original, it is even more mindboggling to me. If you're new to the series, please read it in chronological order rather than by the English publishing list.

Sword of Destiny on Goodreads
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Review: River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
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In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.
I received this one as a review copy a good while ago. Such a while, the sequel already popped up in my inbox. Various reasons, like still not having moved back into my own apartment and all manner of shenanigans around it, among others, have made me delay a lot of reading-for-review in favor of more pleasure reading to de-stress. Thankfully I finally got around to Sarah Gailey's Hippo-Western, though I do have a handful of problems with it.

The Story:
"In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge."

Disclaimer
I received a review eCopy of this novella, and its sequel, from the publisher.

The Review:
River of Teeth is a novella with a quite frankly amazing premise. A Hippo Western, or rather Southern? Killer Hippos in the swamps? Gambling dens, betrayal, revenge? Awesome! Sign me up.
However, upon actually reading it, I felt noticeably disappointed with the story. Part of that is due to there not being as much focus on the hippo-aspects as expected, part of it because of the way it seemed to be more about having diverse characters than a well-paced story.

I still enjoyed the novella a decent amount, but nowhere near as much as I wanted to. Let me start with probably the most controversial criticism: The diversity of the cast felt needlessly forced and contrived.
That is to say, pretty much the entire cast of relevant characters is either gay/bi, gender-neutral, fat, pregnant-and-gay/bi or, well, a straight white guy who is hated by everybody and not missed by anybody and the butt of jokes.
And I didn't buy that, at all.

This is a story supposedly set in the late nineteenth century. Transferring modern sensibilities about LGBT issues into that time period, especially in the wild US, is anachronistic at best. However, when taken in bulk like this, even excuses like "they're one in a million" go out of the window. To have an entire band of misfits, everybody covering one aspect of the spectrum, just doesn't make much sense. Especially when everybody implicitly understands and respects one character's prefered pronouns without things ever getting specified for them.
On top of that, I felt kinda bludgeoned about the head with it here. I can understand the desire for wide-ranging representation of minorities, of course. In a way, it can be seen as an admirable effort. But I've got to ask myself if it wouldn't have been better to take it easier with this. Have one character be gender-neutral, by any means. But then focus on it a tad more, rather than having to split attention between a full crew of odd characters. I certainly didn't feel like all of them satisfied my curiosity.

It also didn't help that a lot of time is spent on the protagonist, Winslow Houndstooth, blushing and being awkward around his gender-neutral love interest, Hero. Yes, they're called Hero, you read that right. Hero's a genious with explosives and basically everything else and Houndstooth never grows tired of telling everybody they're smarter than everybody anyway, despite a pretty short acquaintance. Hero meanwhile teases him a lot and I actually found them pretty sexually aggressive, all things considered.

Meanwhile, a character gets murdered and all the crew does about it is mock him, disparage him, get upset over a missed opportunity for revenge, or that they now lack a "racist white boy" to buy groceries for them. Multiple crew members have a history with the guy and nobody even showed regret over his death. That really didn't sit well with me.
This character wasn't a good person. Not in any way, shape or form. He screwed things up mightily, but he also went through hell for it, despite it and in general. For all his problems and attitude, I found his role more tragic than offensive. He was used and abused by everyone and shown in no unclear terms that he is worth naught even to his team. Heck, it is even implied that he was raped and thrown away by the woman he loved so she could satisfy her own desire for offspring and then deny him his role as a father.
As a reader, my perspective is obviously going to differ from that of the characters within the story, but seeing the end of the line actually made me angry at the crew.

In a way, the crew didn't feel professional enough, though one was back from retirement, one a compulsive gambler and the rest still active scoundrels. There was a great deal of levity in most things, more than I expected to find. Apart from poor "white boy", everybody seemed awfully comfortable around the rest, to the point where I can't even clearly tell who didn't have a romantic interest in Houndstooth at some point. Houndstooth, as the leader, didn't have much visible authority either, and certainly could've been smarter, spending ages on his revenge without pinpointing the real culprit.
It really didn't help that the true villain was so entirely transparent from the first mention on. Considering the cast's reputations, it boggles my mind that nobody figured out who really hurt Houndstooth in the past and that his plans for vengeance were a little off the mark. It is a twist you'll see coming from many, many chapters away and every appearance of the character throughout only cements his role as arch villain further. Though of course, with such a large crew of diverse misfits, the amount of other characters you could comfortably squeeze in was pretty limited anyway.

Pacing-wise, more could have been done. I liked that a good amount of time was spent on introducing Houndstooth, the fat frenchwoman Archie, and Hero by way of Houndstooth going to recruit them. Even Cal Hotchkiss got a good showing of his character flaws in a casino scene. The pregnant killer Adelia Reyes however just... appeared, conveniently. Too conveniently, if you ask me. Considering her pregnancy, she is up to astounding things though. The same goes for Archie, who was probably the most likeable character for me, despite her gravity-defying actions towards the end - you just can't stand on a Hippo charging through the flood, swinging a hammer-on-chain overhead while also being severely overweight, and then make the shot count. I don't know, the scene felt less cool than unbelievable to me.

But I digress, as per usual. The novella dedicates a chapter or two to the characters, with interludes of Houndstooth travelling with Hero and starting (or continuing?) their flirting, brushing arms and blushing. At least this also gave an opportunity to tell of Houndstooth's tragic past - which was pretty damn terrible. In fact, I wouldn't object to a novella about those events back then, with the protagonist still being a hippo rancher. The cornerstones of Houndstooth's past were very intriguing, even if the twist was on-the-nose.
The book though proceeds to talk, flirt and sit planning without getting to the point of the whole escapade. The action comes late, very late, and while it was full of neat setpieces, I can't help but wish there'd been more buildup.

I did however feel that the danger of the feral hippos was expressed rather well. Not only do they fulfill the role of alligators around the gambling den ships, but there's one scene in particular that ends pretty grimly. It was incredibly satisfying, though the casualty was kind of obvious. I was still surprised it happened as early as it did. At least it established the hippos as a legitimate problem that the misfits have to deal with one way or another.

In the end though I wish it had focused more on the Western-aspects than the romance and quirks of the crew. I had a good time seeing Archie con somebody in her introductory chapter, or Cal Hotchkiss cheating at card games. Those scenes got me interested in the setting and felt like what I expected from the time period. Those aspects felt on point for the theme, unlike the content about people's sexual orientations and gender identities. I have a hard time believing that people in that age were as accepting, tolerant, even forthcoming about things like those. It wasn't an enlightened age by any means.
That, along with a too-predictable plot, resulted in a disconnect between me and the story as it unfolded. I wouldn't mind reading more in this alternate history setting with these characters, but hopefully with less of that attention on social aspects and more hippo gunslinging. The strongest point the novella has going for it is, by far, the unique theme. I just feel that more could have been done with it to deliver a thoroughly thrilling and engaging caper.

River of Teeth on Goodreads
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Review: Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
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The Emperor is dead, and the remnants of his former Empire are in retreat. As the New Republic fights to restore a lasting peace to the galaxy, some dare to imagine new beginnings and new destinies. For Han Solo, that means settling his last outstanding debt, by helping Chewbacca liberate the Wookiee’s homeworld of Kashyyyk.

Meanwhile, Norra Wexley and her band of Imperial hunters pursue Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and the Empire’s remaining leadership across the galaxy. Even as more and more officers are brought to justice, Sloane continues to elude the New Republic, and Norra fears Sloane may be searching for a means to save the crumbling Empire from oblivion. But the hunt for Sloane is cut short when Norra receives an urgent request from Princess Leia Organa. The attempt to liberate Kashyyyk has carried Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a band of smugglers into an ambush—resulting in Chewie’s capture and Han’s disappearance.

Breaking away from their official mission and racing toward Kashyyyk, Norra and her crew prepare for any challenge that stands between them and their missing comrades. But they can’t anticipate the true depth of the danger that awaits them—or the ruthlessness of the enemy drawing them into his crosshairs.

Ohhhh boy. Originally I wanted to read through all three Aftermath novels and review them together, but after this book? I can't hold out that long. I dropped Aftermath before, and gave it another try prior to this one, but... These books are pretty terrible.

The Story:
"The Emperor is dead, and the remnants of his former Empire are in retreat. As the New Republic fights to restore a lasting peace to the galaxy, some dare to imagine new beginnings and new destinies. For Han Solo, that means settling his last outstanding debt, by helping Chewbacca liberate the Wookiee’s homeworld of Kashyyyk.

Meanwhile, Norra Wexley and her band of Imperial hunters pursue Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and the Empire’s remaining leadership across the galaxy. Even as more and more officers are brought to justice, Sloane continues to elude the New Republic, and Norra fears Sloane may be searching for a means to save the crumbling Empire from oblivion. But the hunt for Sloane is cut short when Norra receives an urgent request from Princess Leia Organa. The attempt to liberate Kashyyyk has carried Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a band of smugglers into an ambush—resulting in Chewie’s capture and Han’s disappearance.

Breaking away from their official mission and racing toward Kashyyyk, Norra and her crew prepare for any challenge that stands between them and their missing comrades. But they can’t anticipate the true depth of the danger that awaits them—or the ruthlessness of the enemy drawing them into his crosshairs."

The Review:
Aftermath: Life Debt is a terrible book, and an especially bad Star Wars novel. I rarely make statements like these. I actively try to avoid it. I'd rather not review something I didn't enjoy and don't give it more effort and attention than it deserves in my eyes. This time, though? I can't get around venting my frustrations. This will not be pretty. You have been warned.

My main reason for sticking with this novel, and for having to read book three as well, is my own OCD sense of having to complete the new Canon books. I made a checklist to tick off all novel, novella, short story, comic and series releases. I'm still behind on a lot of things, of course, but I didn't want to keep pushing this trilogy ahead of me any longer. I'd attempted to read the first one and didn't finish it. I finally got through it recently and figured hey, let's get through the second as well. I wouldn't call it a mistake per se, because I'd have to read it one way or another, but I can't say I don't regret the time and money I spent on it.

The book's description alone is deceptive already. It promises grand action around the liberation of Kashyyyk, but that's barely an afterthought. All the actual liberation activities outside of taking out the Imperial leader on the Wookiee homeworld happen off-screen. Heck, Han's initial dilemma isn't even shown here - that happened between Aftermath and Life Debt. It is the same for many of the actual WAR scenes in this Star WARS novel. I often found myself thinking I'd skipped a chapter on accident, but no, the content is just not there. One battle we "see" is actually covered more in a short story by another author, it seems. Published after the fact, of course. That doesn't stop Wendig from telling the reader, as he is wont to do, how important this stuff was. You know, the things you did not even get to be shown because the author was too busy writing bad romance plots.
By the 200 page point, things finally got a little interesting as Han Solo finally makes an actual appearance. He didn't really feel like Han in many scenes and got little actual screentime to boot, but hey, the Scoundrel is back. To be sidelined.

Before that point, however, the book is an exceptional chore. Norra Wexley and her team of Chuck Wendig's original characters are often painful to read about. They're supposedly hunting imperial leaders, which we at least get to watch once. The twist the book throws into the mix in those early chapters is... pointless, expected and a waste of time, though. Not just that, it leads right into one of the most aggravating things in this novel:

Everybody feels like they're entirely too horny, hormone-controlled juveniles.
Jom Barell, the supposed hard-ass, special forces Rebel soldier repeatedly forgets all his objections, problems and moral views when bounty hunter Jas Emari "mashes her lips into his". Oh, I was mad about her supposed betrayal? Nevermind, let's go and bang. By the time Han Solo finally shows up, this happened THREE TIMES. Their relationship spins through the entire book and it is tiresome, typical, unhealthy and frankly just bullshit. Especially as Jas keeps harping on and on and on about how she has trust issues but actually loves everyone. She's doing it for the money but not really. You could've replaced her with a cardboard cut-out of the stereotypical soft-hearted scoundrel and that'd have had the same results.

Jom meanwhile goes through hell in one section of the book and they barely even talk about it. In fact, the way he gets into peril, the things that happen to him and his personal losses, are simply mentioned in hindsight. He's not important, not really. We still don't even know much of his history before these books. He may have some of the most growth as a character in the book, especially when compared against his time on page, but as Wendig's Sinjir and Solo will remind us every so often, he's just Jas's "boy toy". My god how I loathe that expression. It is one of the many used by Wendig in this trilogy that feels altogether un-Star Wars and far too much [Current Year]. For somebody who has a history of criticizing representation of women and minorities, I find it pretty ironic that Barell gets such a tag plastered onto him.

The book also features Wedge Antilles. You know, that one guy Luke Skywalker meets at Yavin, one of his two buddies during the Death Star Run? The one who survives the ordeal and goes on to be pretty important within the Rebellion? An ace pilot? A character who raised hell in the old Expanded Universe?
...he's a cripple and basically only exists in the story to be a love interest for Chuck's Norra Wexley. As soon as she's reminded that hey, she was/still is actually married, he's relegated to the back ranks of characters. He gets exactly one appearance in the action and.... as usual, it gets skipped. Who cares about a squadron of X-Wing fighters taking on a trio of Star Destroyers anyway?
This whole plotline with Norra and Wedge is incredibly awkward and so obvious it makes absolutely no sense for none of the crew to take notice. They act like awkward teenagers around one another.

But if you think this was the last of the love-centered subplots, you'd be mistaken. Because Sinjir is gay, if you remember, and he's sitting in a bar with his new boyfriend who we see, I believe, 3 times across the entire novel, never in an important situation, and laments how oppressed gay people still are even in the New Republic. It felt entirely too preachy and has nothing to do with Star Wars. After Wendig had to make sure in the first Aftermath that everybody knew Orphan XY had two daddies and Norra's son was supposed to live with his two lesbian aunts, none of which seemed to have any negative effects from their sexuality alone, this preaching feels especially hollow.
Heck, Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp had an imperial Moff hold female sex partners and nobody really cared beyond the fact that the character was a lazy, self-indulgent mess (who then went on to be one of the coolest characters the book has to offer). And that was during the pre-ANH time, not after the fall of the oppressive Galactic Empire.

Likewise, when the enslavement of the Wookiees is discussed by the author, he first makes sure everybody knows it is down to Xenophobia more than, you know, them being exceptionally strong workers with high endurance and all that. Thankfully those points are made later, ironically by the imperials seeing them as animals to be made to work.
And do I need to mention that [Current Year] pronouns you'd find on sites like tumblr have made their way into Star Wars Canon thanks to this book? There's a pirate...king? queen? I can't even tell you which because this character is, after looking up what the pronouns are supposed to signify, gender neutral. "Zhe" and "zher" are incredibly awkward things to use in a Star Wars book. The scene wasn't even bad. It was too short, again skipping the actual action involved in pirates boarding a smaller vessel, but at least it had a cool core idea behind it that I enjoyed, even if the execution wasn't up to snuff. Maybe this would've been a great scene if the author had focused more on the scene than being obnoxious.

I want to stress that I have no problem with having gay characters, gender-neutral characters and the likes in principle. The worst I can say about it is that it isn't within my range of interests. What I do object to is the entirely too shoehorned and non-organic way these things are pressed into this Star Wars trilogy. They do not belong here, not like this. When the sexual identity of a character overshadows the actual role they have within the story or the author has to write sitcom-tier "maybe I had the hots for you too, my straight friend" scenes into the book, then the least I'll do is cringe or groan in frustration. It is hamfisted and annoying, not clever, fitting or improving the IP.

That's one of the big problems I have with this trilogy so far, not having read Empire's End yet. A lot of it seems entirely too self-serving. To push modern mentalities rather than a desire to write Star Wars. It feels very disrespectful if you ask me. This author got to play in one of the greatest creative sandboxes of the last 40 years, given mostly a free pass on things, and then goes to not tell stories about the Star Wars but about petty things like these, awful soap opera (not Space Opera) romance plotlines and doesn't make use of the things that only Star Wars can give.

Ah, but there's another point about the supposed romance-related plotlines here. One of the characters I enjoyed a great deal turns out to just be a puppet for the big bad, because how could it be otherwise. The motive? Apparently getting under his sheets. Wookiees can't groan hard enough to express my disappointment... Why is everybody here so... so... needy?

Don't get me started on Mister Bones, Temmin Wexley's reprogrammed and heavily modified battle droid. I know he has plenty of fans and is often held up as the best character in the trilogy, but my god was he annoying and cringeworthy. He was obviously there for comedic relief for the readers, as if they'd need more of that considering how the crew is constantly snarking at one another even in the direst of circumstances. But Bones, while occasionally entertaining, was just too much. Multiple times he's being used as a cheap way to get out of trouble and I don't even remember how many times Temmin has rebuilt the droid so far. It was funny the first time, granted, but after this many appearances stressing his love for violence? It got old. Older than the droid model he was based on.
Temmin himself remains a petulant, edgy teen with daddy issues. Sometimes I felt he may be getting there, especially when he's shown early on with Wedge Antilles, but then it stooped right back to soap opera level teen drama.

But I have yet to say anything about one of the worst parts of the book, which should, by rights, have been the coolest: Freeing Chewbacca and other prisoners. Instead of a great prison break story however we are treated to a weird, entirely too high sci-fi super AI being all-too-meta. Heck, her name is even an anagram for Portal's "GLaDOS"! Just without the charme or wit. In fact, most it does is repeat people's replies to the altogether silly code phrase query.
“‘What the hell is this?’ is not an acceptable passcode. Two out of three attempts used. Please speak the passcode aloud to continue.”
Wendig even wastes time coming up with zabrakian translations for queries and repeating this stuff three times.

The whole prison scene quickly devolves into a miasma of rip-offs from other franchises. Portal is but one of them, but there's some distinct Matrix stuff in here as well. Stuff that does not fit into Star Wars. Reading this book especially it makes me wonder if the author even understands the thematic tone of the franchise. This is reinforced by his use of modern slang terminology. From "When I give the say-so" coming from a high-ranking imperial admiral over the use of pronouns, "straight punches", "stay frosty" and "won’t release because spiders, spiders, there are so many spiders" and on and on and on, the book is filled with things characters in this universe, especially the important ones, would not use or say.

Then you have odd issues like Leia Organa being described as an idealist while Mon Mothma is the realist. Are we looking at the same people? Even this book and the previous contradict this assessment! Leia is willing to take risks based on the situation whereas Mon Mothma constantly drives the idealistic route. She's a big annoyance because of it. Heck, it is because of her that the New Republic was established in the previous book as preparing to disarm their military early. She constantly goes on about how the New Republic should be this, needs to act like that, to reach her idealistic standards whereas Leia is realistic enough to see what needs to be done. That simple statement about their roles, especially coming in a Leia-focused scene, baffled me.

But I'd be lying if I was saying this was all, 100% awful. Like I mentioned before, some of the interludes are actually cool. They often have better ideas behind them than Wendig knows how to execute, granted, but especially the interludes dealing with the actual aftermath of the wars are good. There are shell-shocked veterans, people in need of therapy, and even the reporter from the first book's interludes comes back to witness more tragedy. They could have been written better but these scenes are where I had to wonder what the book could have been had it less hung up about the author's original cast's entanglements and more about the aftermath of the Empire's defeat at Endor.

And while I didn't like the way the book got there, or the lackluster focus on the lead up, the climax of the novel wasn't half bad. That was the first time I actually felt the book had gotten exciting and showed me something instead of just telling me about it. Just that then again it skipped things between chapters and wasted another opportunity to show the disastrous aftermath properly.

I won't go into the prose here. I mentioned the awkward terminology but can't bring myself to even find a way to word it properly. Wendig at least learned to ease off on the staccato sentences and written-out sound effects, but the rest is par for the course. He still tells the reader things that the characters think just to then have said character say the thing out loud, verbatim, right after. Many dialogue scenes felt choppy because of the author's insistence to throw in as many bracketed bits of character thoughts or side info as possible before continuing with a simple reply. It made me think that all these characters are so far up their own backsides, it is no wonder there was so little room for other things left.

The worst offense the book made, in my opinion, was presenting events that by rights should have been the focus of the novel as barely worth mentioning, tangential and quite frankly boring. The characters flip-flopped so much throughout that I can't say I cared for their development. It was nice to see Han and Chewie all emotional and Leia had a few nice scenes, but the majority of these 480 paperback pages were poorly utilized. This is one of the rare instances where I'd actually recommend just reading a summary on Wookieepedia or the likes if all you want is relevant information going forward without the nonsense drama. There are some interesting bits for fans, a bunch of questionable things that don't really go hand in hand with established canon as well as they ought to, but they're tangential to the ongoing plot around Norra Wexley and co. I'm not sure whether to be glad or disappointed about that, actually.

I cannot say which of the two Aftermath books I disliked more, though I tend towards this one. After all, this one had a fantastic premise and many opportunities it blatantly wasted or abandoned halfway. I sincerely pray that Empire's End will be better. It has to be. Please let it be. But frankly, if Chuck Wendig never got to write another Star Wars story again, I wouldn't shed a tear.

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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...

Vaults of Terra: The Carrion Throne on Goodreads
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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.

Star Wars: Rebel Rising on Goodreads
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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.

Leman Russ: The Great Wolf on Goodreads
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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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DarkChaplain's bookshelf: read

The Dragon Engine
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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Adaptation #3
Deathwatch: The Last Guardian
The Harrowing
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The Awakening
Blackshield
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