Tuesday 27 April 2010

Book Reviews

Star Wars - Fate of the Jedi: Outcast
Aaron Alston
Arrow Books
Available now (Hardback), from 29th April(Paperback) - £18.99 (Hardback), £7.99 (Paperback)
Review by Rob Wade

The Galactic Alliance is in crisis. Worse still, the very survival of the Jedi Order is under threat. In a shocking move, Chief of State, Natasi Daala, orders the arrest of Luke Skywalker for failing to prevent Jacen Solo's turn to the dark side. But it's only the first blow in an anti-Jedi backlash fueled by a hostile government and a media-driven witch hunt. Facing conviction, Luke must strike a bargain with the calculating Daala - his freedom in exchange for his exile from Coruscant and from the Jedi Order. Though forbidden to intervene in Jedi affairs, Luke is determined to keep history from being repeated. With his son, Ben, at his side, Luke sets out to unravel the shocking truth behind Jacen Solo's corruption and downfall. But the secrets he uncovers among the enigmatic Force mystics of the distant world Dorin may bring his quest - and life as he knows it - to a sudden end. And all the while, another Jedi Knight, consumed by a mysterious madness, is headed for Coruscant on a fearsome mission that could doom the Jedi Order ...and devastate the entire galaxy.

The Star Wars Expanded Universe has been mainly responsible for two things; division of fan support, with some finding the EU difficult to swallow as far as developing characters go, and secondly some fine examples of writers taking the characters and running with them to develop them fully. Such characters as Grand Admiral Thrawn, Mara Jade, Kyp Durron and the Solo children are characters that were creations of the Expanded Universe writers. Indeed, this novel revisits some familiar planets and characters in the same way as previous EU novels.

All the great trademarks of the Star Wars franchise are here: the sharp dialogue between characters, the little fan service in-jokes, the exciting chases and set-pieces, lightsabers and...a thermal detonator! Ok, so there's more than one thermal detonator, but you get the drift. What's nice is that in these novels, the main characters (Luke, Leia, Han, Lando etc.) have learned, made mistakes and developed as characters over the course of the stories.

The story in this novel is typical of a first instalment of a new series, rushing between characters and locales frequently in order to set up the main characters' roles throughout the series. Luke is chasing after the answers as to what turned Darth Caedus to the dark side of the Force, while Han and Leia travel to a planet that holds disturbing memories for Han in order to do a favour for everyone's favourite secondary character, Lando! Everyone loves Lando!

This rushing between characters and locales can make the story a little hard to follow at times, but only comparatively as a Star Wars book, which are usually an incredibly quick read. I did manage to get through this one in less than 12 hours (Not reading time, real time) so it's definitely a book that held my attention all the time I was reading, and I always found myself wanting to read on.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence: Some gunfights, chase scenes and sparring.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: None.
Summary: A strong entry in what promises to be an exciting new story arc in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Interesting developments in the characters, and it'll be intriguing to see where it goes! 8/10

Star Wars - Fate of the Jedi: Backlash
Aaron Allston
Arrow Books
Available Now - £18.99 (Hardback)
Review by Rob Wade

Three major storylines run through the "Fate of the Jedi" series. One is the odyssey of Jedi Grand-Master-in-Exile Luke Skywalker and his son Ben, as they travel from one world of non-Jedi Force-users to the next in search of clues as to what might have turned Jacen Solo to embrace the evil ways of the Sith Lords. The second is the attempts of Galactic Alliance Chief of State Natasi Daala to break the power of the Jedi Order, while young Jedi Knights on a variety of worlds are inexplicably going insane. And the third is the tale of a previously unknown lost tribe of Sith as they rejoin the known galaxy determined to kill Luke Skywalker, destroy all the Jedi, and reinstate the Sith as supreme rulers. In "Backlash", Luke and Ben will visit the deadly world of Dathomir, home to the Night Sisters, otherwise known as the Dathomiri Witches, as an ancient evil, released from its prison, stretches its hungry tendrils ever farther through the galaxy.

Backlash marks the fourth novel in the 'Fate of the Jedi' storyline, and sees the developing results of both Luke Skywalker's trip around the galaxy searching for the source of Darth Caedus' transformation, as well as efforts made by Chief of State Daala to curb the Jedi's support and influence on the galaxy. In this novel, Luke and Ben are in pursuit of a Sith apprentice, whose master Luke killed in the previous volume. This chase leads them to Dathomir, which EU enthusiasts might recognise as the planet of the Nightsisters, a group of dark-side using witches, from way back before Han and Leia were married.

This novel is another strong result for Allston, with the characters developing nicely. The battle scenes are really well done, with the volume's main battle playing out over many days, and reminding me a lot of Legend, the David Gemmell classic, replacing the Drenai with the Dathomiri and the Nadir with the Nightsisters and their Rancor friends. That's right: Rancors. Awesome.

The main focus of the Dathomir elements of the story involves Luke and Ben trying to figure out how the Sith apprentice plans to get off-planet, and who (if anyone) is allied with her on the planet itself. This element of the story is done very well, if a little predictably at times. The main focus of the Daala/government storyline combines a behind-the-scenes assassination attempt in order to discredit the Chief of State, and at the same time Daala's increasing pressures from all over to outlaw the Jedi and make certain Jedi pay for their crimes in the past. It's a well-developed element of Daala's character (who, if the back of the book is anything to go by, is looking hot in a Tori Amos kind of way).

Ultimately, the novel Backlash is another strong link in the story, developing the key characters in a believable and logical fashion. The set-pieces are carried off well, and the ending sets up a continuation that beggars belief. Heartily recommended if you're a fan of the EU, particularly if you're up to speed on the timeline.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Violence: The standard Star Wars battle scenes, including an epic Gemmell-style battle scene. Rancors!
Swearing: None.
Summary: Another strong entry from Aaron Allston, continuing what has proven to be an excellent storyline in the epic Star Wars Expanded Universe. Obviously previous storyline experience is recommended, if for no other reason than the books are mostly awesome. Definitely worth picking up if you're a fan of the EU. 8/10

The Orphaned Worlds
Michael Cobley
Orbit Books
Available from 29th April - £10.00 (Trade Paperback)
Review by Rob Wade

Darien is no longer a lost outpost of humanity, but the prize in an intergalactic power struggle. Hegemony forces have a stranglehold over the planet and crack troops patrol its hotspots while Earth watches, passive, rendered impotent by galactic politics. But its Darien ambassador will soon become a player in a greater conflict. There is more at stake than a turf war on a newly discovered world...

Loyal readers may recall that I reviewed the first instalment of this trilogy Here and concluded that it was one of the finest novels I've ever had the pleasure to read. A rich, engaging story with well-developed characters, Seeds of Earth was a great read. Here, Cobley continues the trilogy with The Orphaned Worlds, the development of the 'Humanity's Fire' story.

Sequels are always difficult, particularly when it's part of a pre-planned trilogy. Often, the second novel has to develop a significant amount of storyline, resolve some of the major points from the first volume, and set up the plot for an epic finale. Some good examples of this are The Empire Strikes Back and Mass Effect 2. I'm pleased to report that after reading The Orphaned Worlds that this novel certainly belongs in the higher echelon of sequels.

Following the same cast of characters as the first volume, with a few new perspectives thrown in, Cobley develops the same quality science-fiction story seen in the first volume, employing the same method as before focusing each chapter from a particular character's perspective. It's a nice easy system to follow, and it definitely makes the plot a lot easier to digest.

This second volume isn't as action-heavy in parts as one might expect from the middle part of this trilogy, but when everything kicks off it's just as easy to follow and yet frantic at the same time. I didn't believe reading this that it could deliver on as many levels as the first volume, but I was wrong in many ways. The ending in particular, though a lengthy prologue, sets up plenty of interesting story arcs for the final volume.

As always, that's not to say that this is not without its flaws. As with the first volume, there is quite a lot of information to take in as you go along. Admittedly, obviously if you've read the first volume you're invested in the second and third thus it makes sense to work on the theory that people will read it regardless, but a little more breaking up of the longer sequences of character development and plot advancement wouldn't have gone amiss.

That's not to take away from what is another cracking book from a clearly very creative and gifted author.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating
Violence: A few gunfights and some battle sequences.
Sex/Nudity: None.
Swearing: A few more uses of the canonical swears, but other than that nothing really.
Summary: Another quality entry in the series, well-developed characters and a final third that will leave you speechless! High hopes for the final instalment! 9/10

FVZA: Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency
David Hine and Roy Allan Martinez
Radical Publishing

Issues 1-3 Available Now - $4.99 each (£3.25)
Trade Paperback Release In July

Review by Brad Harmer

In a world where a deadly disease transforms innocent victims into Zombies, a long dormant government task force is called to action: The Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency.

Throughout history, from the Civil War to World War II, the FVZA protected humanity from the blood-sucking, flesh-eating hordes -- until a cure was discovered that sent the undead to their graves. When a new incurable strain of the virus ravages a small town in America, Agent Landra Pecos must call upon her lethal skills to eradicate the threat. But as Landra delves deeper into her investigation of the undead menace, she uncovers shocking secrets that will change her life forever.

From the front cover onwards, I was struck by the artwork in this title. Grim, detailed, and able to convey motion easily, it was perfect for a title of this type. What’s more the very premise was an interesting take on the genre, presenting vampirism and zombism as a plague.

However, Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency, whilst very pretty to look at, is far from without its flaws. The dialogue is very heavy handed, reading like something from a daytime soap opera. In the words of Futurama: “You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!”*.

An alternate universe this unique requires some exposition, but the bulk of the first issue is given over to a newsblast time-line. I appreciate that they only had three issues to do this series in, but surely there must have been a better way of handling it?

Ultimately, Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency is a quick blast of Underworld and Blade style action, with globs of viscera thrown around left right and centre. It may be a ride you’ve been on many times before, but that doesn’t stop it from being a fun ride.

The Emotionally Fourteen Rating:
Several scenes of evisceration, stabbing, slicing, shooting, blood and gore.
Sex/Nudity: One mild sex-scene.
Swearing: Typical for the genre.
Summary: Worth checking out if vampires are your thing, and the artwork is good, to boot. Just don’t expect any surprises. 6/10

* Are you listening, Meyer? ARE YOU?!?!

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