INTO THE DARK (Star Wars — The High Republic) by Claudia Gray

Into the Dark
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Claudia Gray
Del Rey Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781368057288
— Hardcover — 425 pp.


Set concurrently to events in the High Republic novel Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, Claudia Gray’s new YA novel Into the Dark expands readers’ introduction to details of this Star Wars period, but works equally well as a stand alone adventure. Those who’ve already read some of Gray’s canon Star Wars novels know her reputation for penning some great ones, whether marketed for the general adult (e.g. Master & Apprentice) or young adult (e.g. Leia: Princess of Alderaan). For any new Star Wars readers, you could start out with anything by her, including this exciting new release.

With the opening of the Republic’s Starlight Beacon station in the ‘wilds’ of the Outer Rim, Jedi long-based in the Temple on the Republic capital of Coruscant feel the Force guiding them to new opportunities and needs at that galactic edge. When Jedi Padawan Reath Silas learns that his master, Jora Malli, is one of those who will be leaving the comfort and calm of the Temple for the chaos and unknown of the Outer Rim for a posting at the station, he meets the development with worry and disappointment. A historian and bookworm, Reath has gravitated toward more academic Jedi pursuits, spending time in the library where others maximize lightsaber training and seek more extroverted action. But, Master Jora reminds her apprentice that Jedi must seek balance in all things, and push themselves through the difficulties of doing things they feel naturally disinclined toward or fear. That is, of course, except the Dark Side of the Force.

Reluctantly, Reath agrees, and promises to push himself toward being a better Jedi; be better attuned to the Force like those Masters he looks up to. Three of these Jedi join Reath on an Outer Rim based transport hired to take them to the Starlight Beacon dedication, where Jora already has arrived. Dez Rydan was Jora’s first Padawan, and the Knight is now already a legend to Reath, representing the dashing skills at adventure that elude him. Orla Jareni has just declared herself a Wayseeker, given official leave to operate outside of the Jedi Council’s purview to discover her place in the Force. Third is Cohmac Vitus, a respected Jedi with scholarly specializations into folklore that match Reath’s interests.

The transport taking the Jedi is a cargo ship blandly named the Vessel, run by the Byne Guild, an organization based in the outer reaches where Starlight Beacon is located. The motley crew consists of an eccentric trio: captain Leox Gyasi, an affable low-key guy who is protective of his crew; co-pilot Affie Hollow, a teenager whose parents died while in Guild employ, and who was then taken in by the leader of the Byne Guild; navigator Geode, who is a Vinitian appearing to be nothing more than a featureless, immobile, mute, rock.

Soon after departing Coruscant via hyperspace, the “Great Disaster” that features in Light of the Jedi occurs. The occupants of the Vessel suddenly find themselves surrounded in hyperspace by dangerous debris that looks frighteningly similar to the Byne Guild flagship the Legacy Run. This supposedly impossible hyperspace encounter is worsened by the fact that hyperspace itself seems tumultuous and wrong. Expert maneuvers by Affie and Geode allow the Vessel to leave hyperspace. The crew and their Jedi passengers find themselves in the middle of empty space, at a location that was in the Vessel’s computer for inexplicable reasons given its lack of planets or features. All they find is an abandoned station, whose architecture reminds Cohmac and Reath of a long-vanished people. Left stranded and unable to reenter hyperspace until the mysterious disaster can be dealt with and travel is again ‘assured’ safe, the Legacy occupants join the crews of other ships stranded in this location to board the station and investigate.

There they find a jungle of plants, cared for and protected by an army of droids. Stopping other crews from plundering the station and infighting, the Jedi try to keep the peace and manage the unexpected situation. However, they also sense something off, something of the Dark Side. Dark visions of violence seem to warn them of a danger there, and this seems tied to a group of small idols they discover, items they speculate may somehow have been imbued with power of the Sith, or worse.

It took me awhile to get into Into the Dark, and for awhile I wondered if this would be the first Star Wars novel by Claudia Gray that I would find middling. Mostly this is because it takes time to get elements of the plot going, and even once stranded upon the strange garden station, the true trajectory of things makes it somewhat hard to find footing and become invested. Within that first third of the novel, everything involves Gray’s establishment of the characters, and building the themes of the novel. I guess I didn’t quite take to the characters at first, particularly Reath. Earnest and well-intentioned, his fresh naïveté make him so unlike other Jedi I’ve encountered/read, even if a Padawan. As he grew, and I kept reading, I began to appreciate this much more.

By the middle of the book I was firmly hooked, and the revelations of its close tie together the themes of the novel so well, while also tying the plot into the grander picture of The High Republic and its Nihil adversaries introduced in Light of the Jedi. The characters all grew on me, particularly the crew of the Vessel. We got a rock with Geode, but the absurdity of the character and the symbolic physical nature of Geode’s steadfastness and resilience just puts a smile of joy and chuckles on the reader’s face. Affie bears similarity to Reath in her ethics, but unlike him has the experiences of a hard life, and far less trust. They are able to learn from one another. Leox serves as a guardian for Affie, but really more of a mentor, guiding her to independence, but also realizing that he in turn can learn a lot from her and begin to follow her inherent leadership. He also seems like a Star Wars version of “The Dude” from the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski. Complete with “medicinal” Spice.

The relationship between Leox and Affie is very much one of Master and Apprentice, a ‘secular’ parallel to the Jedi relationship that Jora and Reath have. And the health of those mentorships contrasts with the more exploitative one that Affie has with the leader of the Byne Guild. (Or another I shouldn’t say more on.) Gray has already written a novel titled Master and Apprentice about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. But this novel could equally be titled the same, for it continues and expands those themes in fascinating ways then both within the Jedi Order and outside perspectives of the Vessel crew and also (as we eventually learn) the Nihil.

Reath may be Padawan to Jora, but he equally looks to the examples and strengths of the other Jedi he travels with. And he begins to also see their weaknesses and where they themselves struggle with dedicating themselves to the Force or the Jedi ways just as much as Reath does. As a Wayseeker, Orla very obviously exists as a questioning, uncertain soul, despite being an adult. But she also has shared a past traumatic mission with Cohmac, and these events continue to weigh on them – particularly Cohmac. (Aside: The reader learns more about this backstory through a series of passages spread through the novel that are given in flashback. They connect to the present plot, but overall I found this organization of this backstory to be intrusive, and the only part of Into the Dark that I never ended up appreciating.) Dez also expresses doubts and challenges that he still faces. Through them all Reath learns beyond his idealistic foundation that he began upon, and the uncertainty of reality both eases his feelings of guilt over his own struggles and gives him a sense of shared experience to fight for helping not just non-Jedi others, but also his fellow adherents.

Several times the various Jedi wonder how good it is that the Order completely eschews the Dark Side while striving to keep balance in all other things. Does this make the dangers of the Dark Side even worse? Does it leave them more vulnerable? Yet, the dangers of it now also seem all too clear and real as they discover more on the station, and are met with catastrophe and painful loss.

Into the Dark really delves into Good/Bad and Master/Apprentice dichotomies so well, and on so many levels. On the one hand the novel is an entertaining Star Wars adventure with a teen character coming-of-age that sets it in that YA fold. But underneath that is so much more complexity, not just of plot, but of these basic themes that make the Star Wars universe so effective and endearing.


A CONTEST OF PRINCIPLES (STAR TREK) by Greg Cox

A Contest of Principles
(Star Trek: The Original Series)
By Greg Cox
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) — November 2020
ISBN: 9781982134709
— Paperback — 387 pp.


Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are ordered to the planet Vok, where the government there is holding its first democratic elections after a long period of authoritarian military rule. The Federation has been invited to watch over the elections as non-aligned observers, and ensure that the computer-based voting system proceeds without controversy or tampering. The outcome of the election will have broad repercussions for nearby systems as well. Vok has territorial eyes set on the planet Braco, viewed as their ancestral home. But the nearby planet of Ozalor also contests Braco as their own, and generations of animosity has now built up between the worlds. Adding to the eggshells that the crew of the Enterprise must step among, Ozalor maintains a fiercely isolationist policy, maintaining no diplomatic ties to the Federation, and keeping memory of last encounters turned hostile and deadly.

While Kirk visits Vok with Federation representatives to oversee the election, news of contagious disease outbreak on Braco draws Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel and a security guard to that nearby world via shuttle. It’s a trap! (Oh, sorry, that’s Star Wars) Ambushed upon arrival, Dr. McCoy is secreted off Braco by a majordomo to the royal family of Ozalor. The Princess of that planet is afflicted by a mysterious disease and McCoy has been kidnapped to help treat her. Spock meets up with Nurse Chapel and the security officer on Braco to investigate the doctor’s disappearance, but faces resistance from the controlling government there, who is eager to blame a political dissident group on their planet for the kidnapping. On Ozalor, McCoy tries to help his VIP patient,, despite the circumstances of his enlistment, but discovers himself then plunged into the machinations of the royal court.

The older mass-market paperback Star Trek novels stuck to the episodic format of the television series, with one major plot line and setting, plus a lighter, B side-plot somehow worked in. The newer novels have felt more expansive in scope, and A Contest of Principles continues that trend, with Enterprise crew members dealing with situations on not just one alien world, or two, but three. Each setting with its own cast of supporting characters and cultures.

Vok feels akin to present-day Earth, the US more specifically given our own recent election turmoils and polarizing partisanship. Braco bears resemblance to many other alien worlds of Star Trek where political differences have created a break-off group labelled terrorist, and the ruling factions thus increased the militarism of their police and security in response. Braco seems headed down that path of authoritarianism from which Vok is just now trying to move on from. However, whereas Vok directed the militarism externally to their enemies on Ozalor, Braco is now directing its militarism internally upon a population caught in the middle of the Vok-Ozalor feud, and thereby divided. With politics of a feudal monarchy, Ozalor feels the most different, almost like a culture from a fantasy novel. The healer/advisor to the court who is able to treat the Princess’ agony through seeming magic augments this fantasy vibe.

These three settings and the interconnected plot threads of each do work perfectly when writing Star Trek: The Original Series, because of the trio of characters that lead it: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. This has become the standard to the detriment of what stories could be done with a larger batch of the crew, or a different subset other than that expected trio. For the TV show, the actors playing those characters were the top-billed, indeed the only ones mentioned in the opening credits. But too often the media-tie in creations of Star Trek have then chosen to also just focus on those three.

I do get it, the charisma between the three are a large part of what made The Original Series work, made it beloved. They make a perfect trio, balanced and complimentary to buffer against the harshness or weakness that any of those individuals have on their own. Writers keep returning to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, because it’s a classic team and it works. But for these newer Star Trek books, I still hope for broadening beyond that easy, familiar setup of the primary three.

A Contest of Principles does put a bit of a spin on the trio in the sense that it is not putting them together to work off one another, but rather separating them and forcing them to manage as their pure, unadulterated selves, each unguided and untempered by their two friends. So while I may wish to see one of the secondary characters featured more than those three, again, at least we can see them manage on their own. On the other hand, Cox did the same recently with The Antares Maelstrom, and it could get old fast.

Cox does a great job writing each of the three leads, effectively capturing their voice and mannerisms. They act exactly as one would expect them to during the period in which the novel is set, the final year of the Enterprise’s original five-year mission under Kirk. They each are given a challenge and setting that most ideally plays off in opposition to their character traits as well. Kirk is a man of action, but is now placed in a role where he is to observe, severely limited in how much action he can take. Spock, of course a Vulcan of logic, is left to deal with a corrupt and illogical security force, and forced to turn to the arts of diplomacy that (at this point in his life at least) lie with his father Sarek, not he the scientist. McCoy is put up against a magician whose powers he can’t quite explain, to cure a disease that is not responding as his medical knowledge suggests it should.

Though this all may not then be particularly original, Cox writes it engagingly well. McCoy and Spock’s chapters I particularly found entertaining. Spock makes acquaintance with an animal/pet that is humorous and endearing. And, who doesn’t enjoy curmudgeon, but gold-hearted, McCoy chew some scenery? I’m less of a Kirk fan, but those who are will surely find familiar joy with his third of the story.

Thankfully this does work for the novel, as other parts of it succeed less well. The new characters are as one-dimensional as primary characters are able to be in media-tie in novels. The stakes can’t really be high for a crew we all know are going to be fine. But, those created just for this could contain greater depth. There isn’t much nuance to those on Braco or Ozalor, and they behave rather stereotypically. The characters on Vok do have far more nuance, to create intrigues of scandal and conspiracies, and something beyond clear-cut heroes/villains in the election. However, that gain becomes hampered by dialogue that can come across as corny. That issue of dialogue also represents the one negative that crept into the otherwise well-written Enterprise characters, with Kirk. I know Kirk has used the term ‘mister’ in his lines on the show (e.g. “you better think twice about that, mister!”) but when written it looks extra silly; Cox employs it often. The start of the novel went slower for me due to the dialogue writing of those secondary characters, but once more of the action started up I was able to get into the story and enjoy this as a decent Trek novel after all.

Recent Star Trek novels have also upped, or expanded, things in the theme department. A Contest of Principles, which takes its title from a quote regarding politics, of course is all about the themes of politics, comparing them across three unique situations/worlds. When I first read the summary of this regarding the elections and a pandemic disease outbreak I wondered how Cox managed to get things so right! The pandemic outbreak angle of course ends up being a lure for McCoy only, but the similarities between the recent US elections that were going on as this book was published in November are likely not coincidence. Many of course saw the capital riots coming – given they were announced and long-stirred-up, of course. I feel as though the situation on Vok wrapped up a bit too easily and neatly for realism, but nonetheless the look into politics there vis-a-vis our reality is a useful endeavor, as are those ‘contests of principles’ explored on the other two planets.

A Contest of Principles is going to work well for any fans of Star Trek, but it’s probably not one I’d strongly recommend for general readers who don’t care about the series. But for the fans of these stories and this crew, let’s just get some more of the other characters, please?


LIGHT OF THE JEDI (Star Wars — The High Republic) by Charles Soule

Light of the Jedi
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Charles Soule
Del Rey Books — January 2021
ISBN: 9780593157718
— Hardcover — 380 pp.


Today is John Williams’ birthday, so it seems fitting to review a Star Wars book on it while listening to the soundtrack of The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve managed to keep up with reading almost every canon Star Wars novel released to-date. I just have Zahn’s latest “Thrawn” novel not yet gotten to. So I know that, as the novels of old were, the new canon novels are a mixed bag. Some have been amazing, many have been good to okay, and a few have been disappointments. But as Star Wars, I’ve enjoyed them all.

The Light of the Jedi, first in the new “High Republic” series set generations before events in the Prequel movies, stands among the the best and most satisfying of the canon novels to-date. It features decent characterization, mysteries, and plenty of action. The novel reads like Soule had a blast writing it, and its pacing ranks as some of the most steady that Star Wars fiction has offered.

For any who haven’t already heard about this, or looked into the plot, it takes place at a time of galactic peace and prosperity for the Republic and strong numbers among the Jedi. The pride and ambition of the Republic to improve the lives of planets beyond the galactic core and mid-rim leads to a project to build an outer-rim station staffed by Republic and Jedi representatives that can then be close on-hand to help with strengthening distant ties to the Coruscant capital.

Amid this hopeful time where all confidently assert “We are all the Republic” in patriotic solidarity, a disaster suddenly emerges from Hyperspace. Fragments of a ship destroyed in hyperspace exit out into real space in seemingly random spaces and times, heading uncontrollably, at phenomenal speed, towards populated systems. One fragment crashing into the right planet or moon, could cause the loss of billions of sentient lives.

A concept and technology understood by relatively few, but the utter foundation for the galactic republic to actually be in contact, Hyperspace, is something that everyone relies upon and trusts. Most don’t understand the math or theory, but those who do claim that this kind of accident should not be possible. Yet, the disaster the Republic suddenly faces demonstrates otherwise.

Jedi and Republic forces posted in the outer rim respond to the first ’emergence’ of these fragments, trying to save as many as they can. In the aftermath, all groups begin to try to investigate the nature of the disaster – an accident, or something planned?

In the meantime, a group of outer-rim pirates with a reputation for almost supernatural terror continue their criminal activities while also trying to capitalize on the chaos and uncertainty surrounding these emergences. The group calls themselves the Nihil, and they stand for an almost anarchic freedom from the brand of freedom that the Republic gospel spreads. Though relatively small-time, with activities limited to the outer-rim, they have an edge on their prey, knowledge of transport paths between space that the Republic, and the hyperdrive system, is ignorant.

The investigations of the Jedi and the Republic, while trying to avert further emergence disasters, brings them into direct contact with the activities of the Nihil, as this group of pirates also goes through a transition under its relatively new leadership.

I knew next to nothing of the plot of this book when going into it. I assume like everything Star Wars, this “High Republic” concept is being linked into multiple multimedia formats, but I only read the novels. I also haven’t read much of the older Star Wars “Legends” that were published before, so if this era was covered then, I have no idea if characters reappear now in canon. The only thing I knew about Light of the Jedi beyond its cover was when roughly it took place, and that the new ‘Big Bad’ for the series was apparently marauder pirates.

My first though was: “Pirates? Really? That’s the big threat?” Then: “Well, at least they aren’t doing the big Empire and Sith concept all over again.” When I saw the corny name of the nihilist group, I also thought: “Well, Star Wars was never really about subtlety in names.” I’d still rather them have a different name, but in this novel the Nihil become something far more than marauders, and their mysterious, sinister leader is definitely intriguing. By novel’s end we still have lots of questions as to his history and motivations, and I am definitely intrigued.

With short chapters, Light of the Jedi hops from scene to scene among protagonists and antagonists with seamless flow, revealing twists, turns, and discoveries to characters and readers alike all along the way. Soule makes the enemies interesting, and some of them even sympathetic or at least comprehensible despite the horrors they commit. Meanwhile, he rapidly draws readers into empathetic support of the Jedi and Republic individuals who are trying so hard to preserve life, to keep the light of Republic ideals shining amid threats. It becomes heart-wrenching as characters you like and would love to see develop, in an instant, die.

Soule’s characters all also have a sort of witty charm to them, a light sense of humor or laid-back manner. From the everyday Republic heroes who speak of “those space wizards” to the Jedi on the high council, they all are very human, even the alien species. That is typical Star Wars. What is more uniquely Soule, perhaps, is that even the most stoic and rigid Jedi still have little rebellious or wry streaks to them. Those Jedi who are most outside the mold he seems to have the most love for writing.

Star Wars books aren’t always really science fiction, either. Usually they are more fantasy. Space wizard is a joke, but also kind of serious. Light of the Jedi actually does qualify to me within the speculative science fiction realm, however. The entire plot revolving around the science of how Hyperdrive works – though not explained like an issue of Analog would – gives the novel a decidedly SF feel more than other Star Wars I’ve read. In one of the more interesting scenes, a young man builds a supercomputer by connecting thousands of droids together, for the purposes of trying to analyze the emergences and predict when/where others could occur. The realization of his plans, and what he does to solve problems that arise with it (with the help of those space wizards too) reads just like a little SF short story within this Star Wars whole.

I don’t think I could’ve reasonably asked or expected more from Light of the Jedi than it delivered. I really look forward to the next book that Soule writes. (Maybe) unfortunately, the next book in the “High Republic” series will be by a different author, and Soule seems to have mostly been on the comic book front. But we will hear more from him in novels. Regardless, I am still looking forward to the follow-up novel in this storyline, with another author then I’m unfamiliar with. Claudia Gray also has a “High Republic” YA novel, coming, and I can’t imagine anything but loving that, as all her other canon work has been phenomenal.

It’s nice having a Star Wars novel set so apart from the film main line. My biggest disappointment with the canon novels has been that while they tell stories from the larger universe, those still could’ve been better connected to the actual films taking place around the same times. Particularly this is true for any of the novels taking place around the sequel trilogy. They all faltered by not being able to connect in any substantive way. With “High Republic” the only connection I had was with the mentions of beloved Yoda. Otherwise, it was a lovely playing field to allow actual new and unique stories in the expanded Star Wars universe. I still wouldn’t mind some Yoda action in there 😀


THE DARK VEIL (STAR TREK — PICARD) by James Swallow

The Dark Veil
By James Swallow
Gallery Books — January 2021
ISBN: 9781982154066
— Hardcover — 336 pp.


Good, mediocre, or even bad, I always enjoy reading media tie-in novels for properties I love. They are comfort reads, familiar and undemanding even after a long stressful day. I’ve lately been both (re)/reading the older Star Trek novels while as keeping up with the new releases. The newer ones definitely are more consistently higher in quality, but even among them The Dark Veil stands out as stellar. Among the best Trek novels I’ve read, it also makes a highly satisfying science fiction story on its own.

Branded as the second novel within the Star Trek: Picard series, The Dark Veil follows soon after the events in Una McCormack’s The Last Best Hope, and serves as a continued prequel to the CBS All-Access Picard series. Despite its appellation, The Dark Veil includes only two brief scenes with former Admiral Jean-Luc Picard. Instead, it focuses on Captain William Riker, counselor/diplomatic liaison Commander Deanna Troi, and their young son Thad, aboard the USS Titan. However, the novel chronicles an incident in their lives that impacts events seen in the television series, particularly the “Nepenthe” episode where Riker and Troi appear with daughter Kestra, still mourning the loss of their son Thad. Moreover, the plot and themes of The Dark Veil echo those brought to the fore of the Picard series: the Romulans and the eminent destruction of their homeworld star, the Zhat Vash, and the potential threat or fear of artificial life.

In its setting on the USS Titan and featuring that crew, The Dark Veil also represents a new novel in the Star Trek: Titan series, shifted now into the new ‘canon’. It remains to be seen how The Next Generation of series of novels could possibly be forced into the new canon timelines. I imagine that this now contains some retcons compared to what was in the original Titan series of books. Now, I haven’t yet read the Titan series, so I’m not sure how this compares or alters, but I believe The Dark Veil does use many of the characters first written from that series of novels.

Following the AI-led insurrection/destruction on Mars, the Federation has banned further research into, or development of, artificial sentient life. To the disappointment of hopeful idealists like Picard and Riker, they have withdrawn active support for the evacuation of Romulan citizens and turned insular. Among the instability and rising authoritarianism of multiple powers within the Alpha Quadrant, the unaligned and reclusively secret Jazari choose to convert their entire planet to a large vessel that will take them away from an area where they no longer feel safe or welcome. The handful of Jazari serving in Starfleet resign their commission and Starfleet (via the USS Titan) is chosen by the Jazari to transport the last remaining expats back to their now-converted home world to join the others for departure.

With the Jazari world near the Neutral Zone, the Titan notes a Romulan warbird maneuvering nearby, watching and making itself known. As the Jazari make their final preparations and the Titan is about to depart, a horrible accident occurs that threatens the Jazari and all of nearby space. While trying to save lives and avert disaster the USS Titan takes significant damage, and the Romulan ship arrives. To their surprise, the Romulan Commander offers assistance to the Titan and the Jazari.

Aboard the Romulan warbird, an agent of the Tal Shiar makes her displeasure for his act of altruism known to the Commander. Aboard the Jazari ship, the reptilian-appearing species debates what to do about the humans and Romulans who have now helped save them. Their Code demands offering support in return, but an important secret they hold also demands the continued limited contact of their reclusiveness from the humans and Romulans alike.

“Doing the right thing” exists as the central concept of the The Dark Veil. Characters from all sides repeatedly espouse this as a guiding principle. The Jazari take each step with the morally ‘right’ thing in mind for the safety of their species, but also taking into account the welfare of others. Similarly, the crew of the Titan – and the Federation as a whole, debate what the ‘right’ amount of engagement should be with a culture that asks to keep to itself and seems intent on abandoning their home, and another that is just as secretive, but also more of a threat, whose home is about to be taken from them. Now that the Federation has turned their back on the Romulans, what is the right thing for Riker and his crew to do? The Romulan Tal Shiar agent will do the right thing for what the spy organization envisions the Empire to require, but as a fanatical member of the Zhat Vash, that ‘right’ course of action for the Empire may, or may not, align with what she sees as best for all of organic life, faced a perceived AI-driven extinction. For the Romulan Commander, he will do his duty to what is right for Romulan Empire, but also sees a responsibility to help any and all life. For all the divisions between Romulans and the species of the Federation, he also sees commonality and like Riker, hope.

Amid all the action and intrigue born of these competing viewpoints and hidden secrets, brilliant and precocious young Thad becomes gravelly injured. His only hope of survival might come from the advanced technology of the Jazari, that they remain hesitant to share. Moreover, their treatment is not without risks, forcing the Jazari, Troi, and Riker to face difficult decisions of what is right for saving Thad. These scenes with Thad are bittersweet, knowing from the Picard TV series what ultimately happens to the boy, and the events here help explain some of what the show only vaguely mentioned.

Swallow does a fantastic job of balancing all of the elements of The Dark Veil together into an entertaining and even profound Star Trek adventure. I had high expectations for this novel based on how much I enjoyed the other Star Trek novel by Swallow that I’ve read: Day of the Vipers, the first in the Terok Nor trilogy. There too he writes excellent characterization combined with deeper themes and entertaining action. Even with those expectations, I remained impressed here. Swallow writes points of view from each of the three sides that seem realistic, that readers can empathize with. Even with the crazed fanaticism of the novel’s villain. Further, he nails the voices of Riker and Troi alike, using them both to the best they’ve ever been.

The novel is bookended with a Romulan tribunal questioning Riker, the Romulan Commander, and the Tal Shiar/Zhat Vash member. At first I wasn’t sure about this structure, but the end made it worthwhile, with a surprise guest appearance that worked very well tying in events of Star Trek movies with the TV series and novels.

And that reminds me of another aspect of this that I had wanted to bring up. I am in the camp that thinks that most of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies are pretty awful. Insurrection was largely forgettable, and I wish I could forget Nemesis. Likewise, the first season of Picard was disappointing overall. While it had some highlights, most of it went in directions I found both overused and too dystopia-ridden. The ending was awful and contrived. Somehow, Swallow took elements from, and references to, these things that I didn’t really like much, and did take them in interesting ways, rather than making them worse. He maintains a dark ‘edge’ here that the newer Trek has gone toward, but kept it more consistent with the optimism of the past.

The Dark Veil succeeds in all aspects more than The Last Best Hope, which was already a very good novel. If you are a fan of Picard already and read media tie-ins, I imagine this is already on your radar. But if you are not either of those things, but like Star Trek, I still recommend this. If by some miracle you are reading this, but are an utter stranger to Picard – or even Start Trek, I would still say this is worth reading for a SF fan. Familiarity with the universe and characters is certainly a bonus, but it wouldn’t be essential. It may even work as an entry.

I won’t be reviewing the older Trek I re/read, but look here for reviews of future new novels out from Gallery Books – all but Discovery for now, as I still haven’t watched that.


ARCHMAGE by R.A. Salvatore

23883752
Archmage (Forgotten Realms)
(Homecoming #1; The Legend of Drizzt #31)
By R.A. Salvatore
Wizards of the Coast – September 2015
ISBN 9780786965854 – 384 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


It astounds me that R.A. Salvatore is still writing Drizzt Do’Urden novels with a sense of freshness, telling stories that still captivate and entertain. Salvatore does this by sticking to the simple themes and core characters that have helped make him so successful, while adding a tinge of complexity through additional characters to focus on. Hardcore fans of his Forgotten Realms novels shouldn’t be disappointed with the start of this new sub-series.
I had read the first ten volumes within The Legend of Drizzt (comprised of three separate series) when I began to feel bored enough with the familiarity of the plots and its characters to consider just stop reading any more. Characters seem to die but come back, Drizzt seemed too perfect, and supporting heroes had become too predictable. I returned to Salvatore’s universe with the chance to read The Companions as part of the multi-author series The Sundering. This skipped me ahead in the saga to book 27, and I reviewed it here. That volume seemed to offer a reset button of sorts, but suffered in my view from existing as merely a set-up for the series to come, without lets of its own. I missed the trilogy that followed that reset and come to Archmage now behind on the overall Drizzt story arc from two fronts.
Archmage certainly references many events in the books I haven’t read yet, but I can’t say it significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the start to this sub-trilogy. Readers who have been away from Drizzt’s tales for awhile should be alright picking things back up again. (Though if you’ve never read any of them, I suggest you go back to the very start, publishing-wise, with The Crystal Shard.)
Salvatore creates compelling characters well, particularly outsiders or those with dark sides who still show signs of humanity. He wisely seems to have chosen not to completely abandon his bread-and-butter character of Drizzt, while also giving the novels room to explore other personalities. In Archmage that other personality that caught my attention is Gromph Baenre, the most powerful drow male of Menzoberranzan, the archmage of the novel’s title. His plot thread interwoven into a larger tapestry dealing with the role of males in drow society may also have been a larger part of previous entries I haven’t yet read. But for me Gromph and associated politics of the drow city became the most fascinating part of this novel, compelling because it shows there may be more possible for the drow than simple villainy against Drizzt and company.
Gromph’s brother Jarlaxle has appeared in previous novels (including ones I’ve read) as a more roguish figure who is neither good nor really an enemy. He continues that role here and I look forward to seeing how it mixes with Gromph’s plans that are set into motion (some accidentally) in Archmage. However, Jarlaxle also becomes somewhat problematic in serving as a quick fix in the plot to getting Drizzt out of dire situations.
In the end Archmage is a fairly typical Drizzt novel. Enjoyable, but not the best. At over thirty books just in this series, these novels are obviously pulp. Salvatore generally writes it really well though. Archmage suffers from problems that plague such a long-running series, particular with its familiar heroes. As the first in a trilogy its impact is also lessened in setting up promises for what is to come with Gromph, rather than achieving the development now. But for such a long running series, focusing now on new evolutions/directions for drow society and how that impacts their relationship with outcast Drizzt kept this fun, and leaves me willing to come back to for more reading candy.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

FIRE IN THE BLOOD, by Erin M. Evans

19288530Fire in the Blood
(Book #4 of the Forgotten Realms Brimstone Angels Series)
By Erin M. Evans
Published by Wizards of the Coast – 14th October 2014
ISBN 0786965290 – 464 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


An immediate continuation to The Adversary (Evans’ contribution to The Sundering series of loosely-tied together stand-alone novels detailing world-shifting events to the Forgotten Realms shared universe), Fire in the Blood is also the fourth novel in her successful Brimstone Angels plot line. I entered into Evans’ series with The Adversary and reviewed it here, explaining that it worked remarkably well for a reader who was unfamiliar with the characters and storyline. Moreover I was staggered over how much I enjoyed her rich characterization and pacing, remarking that it was easy to forget this was a media tie-in, which while frequently fun aren’t noteworthy for originality or depth. Most all of my thoughts on The Adversary held equally true for Fire in Blood. In many aspects I think it is even improved.
The one caution I mention is that I’m not sure this would be an ideal entry point if you are unfamiliar with the story/characters. To Evans’ credit, she does a great job at summarizing what has previously passed without making it intrusive on the current story. So it is possible to start here, but not the most logical choice. Go back at least to The Adversary, or as I have just finally done, find a copy of the first Brimstone Angels novel and enjoy the catch up. This is a series for fantasy fans worth investing in even if you don’t read Forgotten Realms, as long as one likes classically styled epic fantasy with compelling characters male and female both. Evans is an asset to this shared universe, and judging by comments she made in an interview in Women Destroy Fantasy!, her style and concerns for diversity may hopefully become more familiar and present in the world of media tie-in novels.
But back to Fire in the Blood
To start with, Fire in the Blood already improves over its predecessor with a more compelling title, an evocative description of Evans’ characters, particularly the twin stars Farideh and Havilar. These women (tieflings) have had difficult lives with various forces mortal and immortal trying to influence and control them, to possess them. Yet despite these forces of the world seeking to define them, they remain strong-willed individuals with fire inside to keep struggling for independence and a bit of their own happiness. The theme of forces larger than an individual forcing people into difficult choices and compromised promises and principals is common to all of the characters in Fire in the Blood and The Adversary. It is the heart of what makes the books so interesting and characters so compelling.
The plot of Fire in the Blood adds complexities from previous events, twists and turns that are almost Whedon-esque. Sometimes enemies are not so clear, and assumed friends may not be able to really support someone because of complications in their own lives, plots. I won’t try to summarize all the different plot elements here in the story, the official blurb for the novel is somewhat vague presumably because so much is happening here, much dependent on what has gone before. The plots are a complex web, encompassing a large extended cast of characters that include even additional numbers from the previous installment. Erin Evans is a superb juggler. The pacing stays tight and the various balls of each plot element are kept in play, blending and separating with no breakdown in the trick. All of this while still recovering details of the past to make sure that readers don’t become lost. Impressive.
In The Adversary one of the things I didn’t enjoy much compared to the rest was her male characters. They seemed to be stronger ‘types’ than the females, not as rounded, and not nearly as interesting (except for Lorcan) compared to the others. In Fire in the Blood these male characters grew more on me, particularly due to escalating dilemmas for the character of Brin who is facing engagement to a royal, and his heart isn’t really in it. As I became invested in more and more of Evans’ characters the more the entirety of the plot and the world opened to me, like the best of epic fantasy reading experiences.
A healthy mixture of action, romance, and rich characterization in a nicely readable package makes this one that I’m looking forward to rereading within the order continuity as I go back to start at the beginning before the next volume comes out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Wizards of the Coast via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Herald, by Ed Greenwood

The Herald, by Ed Greenwood
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 6
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00H6J6KQQ
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published  3rd June 2014
Source: NetGalley

Rapper Ice-T recently made some amusing comments on a podcast about an unexpected D&D-related audio book recording he was set up to make. Reading his comments me original thoughts were that it was sad he was dumping on fantasy, role-playing-derived or otherwise based on what appeared to be stereotypes and the worst the genre has to offer. Now I see where he was coming from in his vulgarity-strewn phrases about “******* talking like Yoda” and “******* pegasi”.

Up until this volume I have really enjoyed “The Sundering” series of Forgotten Realms novels. The opening one had been the weakest I felt, but still enjoyable due to my familiarity with Salvatore’s characters. The novels that followed impressed me, and I’ve found a few new authors and series within this shared world to check out. Each book was unique, but provided a solid perspective on these events within the Forgotten Realms. But “The Herald”, well I struggle to find anything positive to say about it whatsoever.

Until this series I’ve only read Salvatore, and only his earlier novels. I’d heard of Greenwood’s character Elminster in name alone. While most of the other “Sundering” novels provided decent background to become familiar with their characters, “The Herald” provides almost none. And it is a huge, ever-shifting cast. The layout of the electronic copy probably didn’t help, where breaks between characters and points of view were not always obvious. This formatting issue of an advanced reading copy happened with earlier “Sundering” novels though and wasn’t nearly as problematic.

“The Herald” is just simply a mess. Having read it closely I still have little idea who the various characters are other than superficially. Some I could only figure out by using online resources. There is a good amount of action, but little time is spent getting to know any of the characters, you are just expected to know already I assume. Beyond the difficulties of trying to figure out who everyone is, there is also the matter of trying to figure out what is going on. I got bits and pieces, and a generic sense of good fighting evil, but other than that, nothing.

As Ice-T implied (even if he wasn’t talking about “The Herald”, his words certainly hold true), the writing is simply hard to slog through in many spots, filled with archaic style and grammar and an abundance of universe-specific vocabulary that unless you are a gamer or familiar with this, will go right over your head. Others effectively use context to help impart comprehension to the uninitiated. As the designer of Forgotten Realms, I guess Greenwood can’t bother with this. Elminster frequently switches back and forth from old English ‘thou’s to a modern ‘you’ with no apparent logic.

I assume that if you are a big fan of this universe and know all the Elminster novels you’ll read this no matter what. But for those like me who may read more casually, or how are looking to enter into this universe, go elsewhere, like some of the earlier “Sundering” novels. Although a series, thankfully these don’t all have to be read. Me, I’ll return to catching up with the adventures of Drizzt and discovering the other works by Dennings, Kemp, and particularly Evans.

One Star out of Five

The Sentinel, by Troy Denning

The Sentinel, by Troy Denning
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 5
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00FO5W6VW
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The Sundering” series of Forgotten Realms novels, small, personal stories detailing times of upheavals in the shared universe, continue to entertain me and surprise me with their successful range of style and subject matter. For a shared fantasy universe based on role-playing games. certainly ‘light fiction’ that not everyone would take seriously, these have each been impressive. I am again glad for this discovery of Forgotten Realms works beyond Salvatore’s.

LIke Salvatore, Denning is well-known for his Forgotten Realms novels, and certainly also for his Star Wars novels. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever read Denning prior to this. What struck me about his style in “The Sentinel” is how cinematic the writing feels. When adapting written word for screen, much needs to be cut to keep the action moving, the essential details still provided, but able to fit into a short period of time of a film or TV episode. Denning manages to convey this sense of urgent story telling here. The novel immediately breaks out in mid action, a fight and a chase that quickly turns into the mad race/quest that becomes the plot of the story. Denning writes the action very well, believably, providing detail while still maintaining that quick economic pace of words and sentence flow. Amid the continuous drive forward of the novel, Denning still manages to put in moments of character introspection and interaction focusing on the emotions behind their lives, their decisions, or what may be more apt to say, their destinies. While some of the characters aren’t developed beyond their immediate role, the key characters of Kleef and Lady Arietta are rendered suitably complex for the size, scope, and style of this novel.

What I particularly liked about “The Sentinel” was how closely the style of its writing matched the overall theme in the story. Each novel of “The Sundering” series has dealt with ‘Chosens’ of various gods, serving almost as avatars of a divine battle in the material realm of Forgotten Realms. “The Sentinel”, however, is the first to fully dive into this concept of being a Chosen of a god, of having your life not necessarily be about your ‘choices’ as much as your ‘destiny’, what you need to do, what the gods are driving you toward. Denning’s novel thus becomes the closest to a Forgotten Realms version of mythology that I have yet seen, reading in parts not unlike the themes of Homer’s “Iliad”. The quick nature of the writing, and the constant propelling of action forward, starting characters mid-adventure and going head-forward towards the denouement parallel this theme of mythology so effectively. Characters have few moments to deeply consider or choose what they are going to do, they are being driven by an author, the particular god they worship and have committed to, imbued with the powers and responsibilities of being Chosen.

The plot of “The Sentinel” thus becomes rather simple, a straight-forward quest with few major complications, unlike some of the previous entries to the series. Yet, here that deficiency of a clichéd, simple plot doesn’t play as being all terrible because of this successful merging of style and theme by Denning, simply taking the focus of this story onto something more Classic, fantasy back to its roots of mythology with a modern twist.

Four Stars out of Five

Honor Among Thieves, by James S.A. Corey

Honor Among Thieves,
by James S.A. Corey
Star WarsEmpire and Rebellion Book 2
Publisher: LucasBooks
ASIN: B00F1W0DFE
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published March 2014
Source: NetGalley

Years upon years ago I read several of the early ‘expanded universe’ Star Wars novels, but haven’t picked up many since then. Partially this was from general disappointment and disinterest caused by the prequel films, but it also was a result of simply falling behind on the many publications that came out. For newer novels the characters now had significant history I was unfamiliar with. It just seems daunting to catch up, particularly knowing these shared universe, media-tie-in novels can be hit or miss.

What’s really nice then about this novel is that it is straight up Star Wars enjoyment that can be approached with knowing nothing more than the original movie. Additionally, although this is the second in a series, I haven’t read the first and the novel works perfectly fine as a stand-alone. The novel has few aspirations and the story has little frills. It is a simple action/spy story with a lovable feature character, Han Solo. Constrained by the existing films and novels the threats facing the characters will not appear realistic dangers at any point. Instead, the story here is about watching Han Solo thrive in those conditions that make us love him. The authors (writing under a pen name) put the most interesting touch on the novel in their writing of Solo’s thought processes, taking advantage of this point of time in the grand story as Solo begins to move from selfish, conservative scoundrel to someone who has begun to care about others and reconsider his social positions. Han rings conflicted, but true to our vision of Harrison Ford’s performance and the film directors/screen writers characterization. Finally, the novel also includes an interesting female foil for Han in the form of a character that shares a bit more personality with him than Leia, which works nicely and isn’t overworked. While this novel isn’t aiming to be a significant lot in terms of fiction or even Star Wars fiction, a ‘minor’ tale like this could easily be treated as a throwaway and go south rapidly, but instead this one is kept respectable and entertaining for an easy read for those that like Star Wars and those that particularly would look for a story set in the familiarity of this time period in the mythology.

Three Stars out of Five

The Reaver, by Richard Lee Byers

The Reaver, by Richard Lee Byers
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 4
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00EGMB6BU
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

I have happily been reading the novels in the Forgotten Realms campaign series “The Sundering”. The first, by Salvatore who is familiar to me was okay (still my least liked of the series, though adequate), but the books that followed captivated my attention more and more, culminating in the previous book “The Adversary” by Erin M Evans.

The fourth volume, “The Reaver” lies somewhere in between the others in terms of personal appreciation and enjoyment, but it does have notable strengths over the others for anyone new to the series or to Forgotten Realms. Firstly, “The Reaver” works best as a stand-alone story requiring little familiarity with the campaign setting; with no basis (that I know of) on existing characters or series by Byers there is also no period of adjustment to this novel, unlike the others which are each continuing adventures of existing casts. While further tales with these characters is of course possible, Byers does the best job so far of making this a story unto its own rather than a secondary side excursion to bridge one set of novels to another. Secondly, “The Reaver” is stylistically simple, an exciting fantasy adventure, no more no less.

Simple isn’t meant as disparaging (though I do prefer the style and complexity of a story like Evans’ novel). Some people want nothing more than a great adventure to read. And Byers delivers that. At first I thought this novel would be a bit too simple, and I wasn’t convinced at the start by Byers’ writing or plotting, which just seemed average to me. Happily though I found my appreciation for the story and for Byers’ style to grow as the novel continued. Sharing many of the strengths at writing these kinds of novels as Salvatore has, Byers work comes off as far less cartoonish despite featuring godlike characters.

Three Stars out of Five