BOOK REVIEW: To Lose the Earth, by Kirsten Beyer

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Era: Post-Voyager

Series: Voyager: Full Circle (#10)

Publisher: Gallery

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 352

Publication Date: 2020

Verdict: 5/5

Lieutenant Harry Kim is a man beset by problems. The love of his life is dying. His unborn daughter lives only thanks to a gestation tank. He’s been thrust into command of a ship that’s falling apart. Oh, and he’s also stuck at the outer edge of the Galaxy with no way home . . .

As The Next Generation finale reminds us, all good things must come to an end. Voyager‘s first finale brought a successful resolution to the crew’s trip through the Delta Quadrant, making it home after seven years of wandering. Now, with the literary universe superseded by the new canon of Picard and Discovery, it’s only natural that the voyages come to an end once again, and the relaunch novels come to a halt. With Beyer being heavily involved in the new television offerings, To Lose the Earth comes after a two year break, but it’s a sign of both Beyer’s dedication to the story and the franchise’s commitment to fans that we get this final offering. Yes, there might well be contractual obligations involved as well, but it’s nice to see a conclusion to the stories that kept Star Trek alive in the gap between Enterprise and Discovery.

Throughout this book we get appearances from the Department of Temporal Investigation, and see their interest in the Krenim Imperium. It’s all hints and rumours at the moment, but it seems clear that this ties into the recently announced Coda trilogy that will wrap up this canon of Star Trek novels for good. This is something I’m very excited to see, and thankfully Beyer’s laying of the groundwork in no way detracts from the main narrative of To Lose the Earth.

We pick up right where Architects of Infinity left off. The Galen is gone, and the rest of the Full Circle fleet are being menaced by an unstoppable alien armada. It’s no real surprise that Harry Kim survives the cliffhanger, but it is a surprise just how much the novel focuses on him. Kim was often underutilised on the show, at one point even dying and being replaced by a version from another timeline, but in the relaunch novels he has really come into his own. To Lose the Earth also continues the fine tradition of having Harry left in charge of a ship only for something terrible to happen to it. Beyer really puts him through the wringer here, both physically and emotionally. Kim and Conlon’s relationship has been bubbling away in the background for a few books now, and shining a focus on it here shows a romance that is a great deal messier than the TV show ever dived into, and all the more compelling for it.

To Lose the Earth is as fine a finale as Endgame before it. The bonds between Voyager‘s crew has never been more important, there is a real weight behind every choice, and it manages to strike a perfect balance between science fiction ideas and a perfectly executed and tightly-plotted narrative, all while giving characters room to breathe. The Voyager relaunch breathed new life into my favourite Star Trek series, and just as I was then, I’m sad to see that their journey is once more at an end.

BOOK REVIEW: The Battle of Corrin, by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

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Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Series: Legends of Dune (#3)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 580

Publication Date: 2004

Verdict: 3/5

 

The Butlerian Jihad is almost at an end. With thinking machines driven back to the stronghold of Corrin, the allied human forces find themselves divided over how to vanquish their foe. The sins of the past may yet determine the future . . .

Wrapping up any series is a difficult task. Wrapping up one with as many dangling threads as Legends of Dune borders on the impossible, and that is even without going into the weight of expectation that comes with such a famous name. With that in mind, perhaps its unsurprising that Herbert and Anderson don’t attempt to wrap up everything. The fledgling Empire we see born at the end of this book is only vaguely recognisable as the monolithic power of Shaddam Corrino from the original Dune. It makes sense, as there are still some ten thousand years of history to be covered, and a lot can change in such a long period of time.

That being said, this book (and indeed the trilogy as a whole) sets up the ideas and locations of Frank Herbert’s work wonderfully. One of the things that distinguishes Dune from so many of its contemporaries is the lack of robotics. Indeed, there is a great fear of thinking machines, with the immortal words ‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of a man.’ What Legends of Dune does is show us exactly why that fear of robots is so deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Now, a lot of the robots we see here are little more than mindless killing machines. Terrifying indeed, but hardly reason for the Jihad. Omnius, the evermind, is a classic villain. Utterly devoid of emotion, capable of controlling an entire empire, and rather difficult to kill. But to be honest, a lot of these are ideas we’ve seen before, time and time again. The Terminator franchise springs to mind as a similar example.

The robot that makes its kind so terrifying here, is Erasmus. Science fiction is full of robots who want to be more human. Data and the Doctor from Star Trek, Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, the Android from Dark Matter, and arguably Frankenstein’s Monster all fit into this archetype. Most of the time, humanity is the goal because it is perceived as better than being a robot, the idea being that to be a robot is somehow not enough. And Erasmus has this philosophy, but with a more sinister bent. Erasmus does not wish to become human, he merely seeks to understand them so that he may better exploit them. Along the way, however, he finds that perhaps humans and robots are not so different after all. This is what gives the Butlerian Jihad its righteous edge. The belief that robots seek to supplant humanity. Not only to take over the Galaxy, but to replace humanity at every level.

The Legends of Dune trilogy is undeniably flawed, but it is still an important part of the universe. It’s main problem is that its ambition exceeds the reality of its final form. There is simply too much going on here to squeeze into a single trilogy. As the foundation for a longer series, Legends of Dune does good work, but as an individual work its structure leaves a lot to be desired. In summary, this is one for the dedicated reader, rather than a good introduction to either Hebert & Anderson’s writing, or the Dune saga as a whole.

BOOK REVIEW: Architects of Infinity, by Kirsten Beyer

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Era: Post-Voyager

Series: Voyager: Full Circle (#9)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 384

Publication Date: 2018

Verdict: 4/5

Seeking to avoid further confrontation with the Krenim, Admiral Janeway leads the Full Circle Fleet in a scientific investigation of the sort Starfleet was founded to study. But what she and the crew see as an opportunity for relaxation could hide a deadlier threat than anyone realises . . .

Architects of Infinity isn’t remotely the book I expected it to be. Yes, the blurb tells of mysterious planets and scientific missions, but after all the build-up of the previous novel, I was expecting to see more of the Krenim and their time controlling weapons than a few references. The resolution of A Pocket Full of Lies is largely wrapped up in the prologue, with a cameo appearance from the Department of Temporal Investigation (and a character from Christopher L. Bennett’s series of the same name). After that, the larger playing field of the Delta Quadrant is essentially ignored in favour of a much more traditional Star Trek tale. In fact, this penultimate volume in Beyer’s relaunch may just be the most standalone of the lot, and it is an incredibly strong example of using Trek tropes to the fullest.

The most remarkable thing about Architects of Infinity isn’t the standalone nature, however, nor the excellence of the mystery at its core. What sets this book apart from others in the series is the focus on less familiar faces. of the original Voyager crew, the one with the most to do is Harry Kim. Beyer captures the same earnestness that Garrett Wang brought to the role, but with a new, more determined edge that ten years of service have brought about. Kim’s relationship with fellow officer Nancy Conlon is a key part of the book, having been developed over the course of the series. While Star Trek has a rocky record with romance, Conlon’s and Kim’s is one of the more believable, benefiting from a single writer and long gestation period.

It’s not just Conlon and Kim though. With most of the major players taking a well-earned break, Beyer shines a light on Voyager‘s new supporting cast. Scientist Devi Patel and Helmswoman Aytar Gwyn continue Voyager‘s fine tradition of great female characters, while showing a changing of the guard as the next generation (pun intended) of officers climb through the ranks. While the original crew retain their iconic status (in universe as well as out) it’s not only nice but also entirely logical to see new faces taking over familiar roles. We’ve seen it before with new doctor Sharak and counsellor Hugh Cambridge, but having new characters be the driving force of the narrative highlights the dawning of a new era.

Even without all this excellent character work, Architects of Infinity‘s premise would be enough to entertain any Star Trek fan. The unnamed planet Voyager investigates is perfectly enigmatic. Abandoned, but with signs of previous habitation by species that humans are seemingly unable to understand. It’s clear from the outset that something powerful is at work there, and Beyer pulls it off beautifully. Without going into too much detail, there is mega-engineering at work, and it’s possibly my favourite trope that Star Trek has rarely tackled so well as here.

Even though it seems like a diversion from important events, Architects of Infinity is a fine novel, and a finer example of what Star Trek can be when done right.

BOOK REVIEW: The Machine Crusade, by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

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Publisher: New English Library

Series: Legends of Dune (#2)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 660

Publication Date: 2003

Verdict: 3/5

The Butlerian Jihad has commenced. Humanity fights a desperate battle for survival as the machines, and the evermind Omnius press on. As the interstellar arms race brings new technology to the Galaxy, both sides will find that the greatest enemies may yet come from within . . .

On the one hand, the second volume of the Legends of Dune trilogy offers more of the same. Larger-than-life characters both villainous and heroic, epic battle sequences, philosophical moments and shedloads of references to the original Dune Chronicles. If that is what you came for, then you’ll walk away from this book with a big smile on your face. But on the other hand, The Machine Crusade starts to establish Herbert & Anderson’s own approach to the saga they are expanding, treading new ground even as it fills in the gaps in Frank Herbert’s extensive legacy.

 The climax of The Butlerian Jihad saw humanity take the momentous step of using atomic weaponry to eradicate Earth in a first strike against the thinking machines. It’s a moment that shows their conviction, and breaks new ground. The Jihad that Paul Atreides will one day unleash against the Galaxy is far larger in scale, but the destruction of Earth is more significant, especially for those readers who happen to live there. There are any number of ways that Herbert and Anderson could have chosen to destroy the Earth, but in using atomics, they call back to the era in which Frank Herbert wrote the original Dune. Imagine a time when nuclear proliferation was rampant, and the threat of total annihilation loomed over every head. Granted, we’re sort of in that world right now, but the Golden Age of science fiction was forged in this period. How many times has Earth been reduced to an irradiated wasteland? Pebble in the Sky does it. Fury has humans living on Venus to escape the fallout. And those are just the tip of the glowing iceberg. With a single, shocking assault, Herbert and Anderson successfully wed themselves to the thread which has run through SF for more than half a century.

But while it reflects and respects the origins of the field, The Machine Crusade is a thoroughly modern novel. With crystal-clear and razor-sharp prose, Herbert and Anderson take us on a whirlwind tour of a Galaxy ravaged by war. With their reputations set out, characters have a chance to become fully human, allowing us to join them in their more intimate moments. The dynastic struggles of the Atreides and Harkonnen families are still a way off, but here we meet the progenitors of those lines, completely realised with flaws and merits. The supporting cast grows ever larger, and in this book that spans years of warfare, the Dune universe begins to spread out in earnest.

Still, however, this book is far from perfect. As with its predecessor, there’s just a bit too much going on. The prose is such that you’re never left confused by anything that happens, but an awful lot does happen, both on and off the page. This is a series that could easily have been twice the length. As with a lot of prequels, The Machine Crusade is often more concerned with setting up events that are still to come rather than telling its own story. This is a story with hardly any padding, but it still manages to feel bloated.

If you come at it with the right mindset, The Machine Crusade holds a lot of material that will enhance the Dune saga for you, but it’s in no way the best introduction to the series.

BOOK REVIEW: A Pocket Full of Lies, by Kirsten Beyer

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Era: Post-Voyager

Series: Voyager: Full Circle (#8)

Publisher: Pocket Books/Time Travel

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 381

Publication Date: 2016

Verdict: 3/5

 

Moving deeper into the unknown reaches of the Delta Quadrant, Voyager stumbles into a war between two species who claim the same planet as their homeworld. More disconcertingly, one of these armies is led by  a woman who appears to be none other than Kathryn Janeway . . .

Ever since Kirk flew back to the nineteen-sixties to study primitive humanity, time travel has been a staple of Star Trek‘s deep toolbox of narrative trickery. From Worf living through a time loop to the Temporal Cold War that Archer found himself embroiled in, there have been all manner of time travel shenanigans on both screen and page. Even the 2009 film reboot only occurs due to Romulans from the future. Time travel is a well that Voyager dived into multiple times during its run, including the first episode after the pilot, the hundredth episode ‘Timeless,’ and of course the two-part finale ‘Endgame.’ One of Voyager‘s most famous episodes, ‘Year of Hell’ (another two parter) takes place almost entirely in a timeline that does not exist by the end of the story. Having wrapped up the story of the Confederacy, it is to time travel that Beyer turns her pen with A Pocket Full of Lies.

Right off the bat, I will confess I couldn’t entirely follow the events of this book. Though it’s not quite as head-scratchingly convoluted as Christopher L. Bennett’s Watching the Clock, this book does run into a regular feature of time travel dramas. Put simply, there is too much going on. In the acknowledgements, Beyer expresses previously held doubts about being able to condense this story into one book, and personally I think this would have worked better as a longer or even two-part epic. Of course, there are undoubtedly smarter people than me out there who fully understood this book, and I suspect these people would get rather more out of it.

One major strength of A Pocket Full of Lies is the reintroduction of Tuvok. Though other books have seen him assigned to the Titan under Captain William Riker, here he is brought back to investigate the mysterious second Janeway. Beyer captures Tim Russ’ excellent take on Vulcan behaviour with uncanny accuracy. In spite of all that has happened to him since the events of ‘Endgame,’ Tuvok remains the reliable foil to Janeway’s more impulsive nature. Not in a way that suggests a lack of character development, just a recognisable face shifting from screen to page. Though his return to Voyager is strictly a one-book events, it’s satisfying to see the team back together again. Now all we need is some meatier material for Neelix to be dealt, and I’ll be a happy man.

A Pocket Full of Lies, when all twists and turns are exposed, feels like the introduction to a larger story, and both the epilogue and blurb of the next volume suggest a second run-in with the Krenim is on the cards. If Beyer can deliver a repeat of the Year of Hell, then sitting through the often confusing and occasionally obtuse A Pocket Full of Lies will have been worthwhile.

Overall, I have to say this is a rare stumbling block in the Voyager relaunch. But the larger franchises has had its fair share of those, and has always risen again, so my hopes for the future remain high.

BOOK REVIEW: Atonement, by Kirsten Beyer

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atonement

Era: Post-Voyager

Series: Voyager: Full Circle (#7)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 386

Publication Date: 2015

Verdict: 4/5

Admiral Janeway must stand trial for her crimes in the Delta Quadrant, but the odds are rigged against her. Meanwhile in the Alpha Quadrant, Seven of Nine and Tom Paris fight to unravel the conspiracy behind the spread of a deadly disease . . .

Atonement is a book that’s all about consequences. I’ve written before about how Star Trek‘s episodic nature could be a weakness when it came to following up on the consequences of the main character’s actions. Picard had to wait twenty years before seeing them, and Sisko only faced problems because he lived in one place, where those he had wronged could find him. As I read through the Pocket Books post-Nemesis timeline, however, the more and more struck I am with how much they show consequences, both on a personal and an interplanetary level. Seeing the political fallout of Janeway’s journey (some would call it a rampage) through the Delta Quadrant is a treat, and a logical outcome of the Full Circle fleet’s return to former Borg space. It does, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, come with a drawback. More so than the rest of this series, Atonement relies heavily on prior Star Trek knowledge, not only familiarity with Beyer’s relaunch novels, but those of other authors. It would also really help to remember the episodes of Voyager in which Janeway first met the Vaudwaar, the Voth, and the other species who put her on trial. Though if you’re reading the relaunch novels, you probably recall those episodes better than most.

Truth be told, the ‘trial’ – such as it is – barely takes up any page time at all. It’s something of a shame, as I would have loved to see Janeway defending her actions during those original seven years. She had to make a lot of tough calls, with no one to hold her accountable at the time, and a real trial to determine the level of her guilt would have been great. Since we know going into Atonement that the trial is a sham, however, perhaps it’s for the best that the charade is cut short early on. Certainly it avoids repeating the legalese segments Paris faced in the previous book.

Surprisingly, I found that it was Paris’ section of the book I enjoyed the most. Having won his custody battle, he is free to be involved in the larger schemes faced by Seven, Sharak, and Wildman. That’s Wildman senior, though Naomi does make a welcome, albeit brief, appearance. Back in the Alpha Quadrant, we get to see a look at the ongoing fallout from the Borg Invasion, as well as glimpsing the rise of the Typhon Pact. I read the Typhon Pact books several years ago (and will likely reread in the near future) but had forgotten just how interconnected the storytelling of the Pocket Books could be. Even Voyager, which essentially goes its own way, ties back into the connected universe at crucial points. While I’m not a fan of sprawling universe (*cough* MARVEL *cough*) these glimpses at the wider world are just enough to anchor events in a larger continuity without drowning the main thrust of the story.

All told, Atonement is another strong entry in the series, and one that wraps up a lot of loose ends that have been left hanging along the way.

BOOK REVIEW: We, Robots, edited by Simon Ings

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Publisher: Head of Zeus

Genre: Various

Pages: 997

Publication Date: 10/12/2020

Verdict: 3/5

Robots. Androids. Machines. Mechanical men. Sometimes they come as conquerors, sometimes they are our slaves. Whether they are the ultimate other, or a reflection of our own desires, robots have a long history in science fiction. Here are one hundred stories from along that history . . .

Though I’m not much of an anthology fan, I am a massive robot nerd. The idea of artificial people walking around has hooked me ever since I first encountered Asimov, so how was I supposed to turn down a hundred stories about robots? As with all Head of Zeus publications, We, Robots is a joy to hold in your hands. A built-in bookmark is always a good idea, especially with a tome of this size. Clocking in at almost a thousand pages, and with a small font size to boot, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the paper wasn’t that wafer-thin sort you find in some longer books. Inside, the book is split into sections, each with a rough theme. This is the only order to the stories, as the chronology of them jumps around at a rapid rate, covering a hundred and fifty years or so. As you’d expect from this, there is a real medley of narrative and prose styles held within the pages. There’s a small selection of poetry, then one-page stories, all the way up to a handful of novelettes.

With most anthologies, there are a few big name authors to draw you in, but that’s not really the case here. As Ings notes in his introduction, there is no Asimov or Dick, because you’ll have read them already. There are some authors more famous than others, but none are given prominence. It’s a neatly egalitarian anthology. I recognised some of the names listed in the contents. A.E. van Vogt, Xia Jia, Lester del Rey, and others. The only story I had read beforehand was C.L. Moore‘s ‘No Woman Born,’ but I had heard a few others by name or reputation. Overall, there’s a good spread of classic authors and newcomers.

H.G. Wells’ ‘The Land Ironclads’ is a story I’ve been eager to read for years now. War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are two of my favourite classic SF stories, and while ‘The Land Ironclads’ is a much shorter work, it is equally strong. It does, however, show just how much Ings stretches the definition of ‘robot.’ For me, some degree of autonomy is suggested by the words, the idea that it does not require a human presence. The ironclads are really just vehicles. For any anthology, you can expect some variation of theme, but perhaps We, Machines might have been a better title.

Two big names that came as a surprise are Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. Like so many people, I only know these authors thanks to secondary school English lessons, and seeing them in an SF anthology was wholly unexpected. Less unexpected was the fact that i didn’t enjoy either of their offerings. A lot of classic works do run rather long-winded for my tastes. Even when the story only runs to a handful of pages, the language is dry. One of the older authors who did surprise me was Jack Williamson, whose ‘With Folded Hands’ is probably my favourite story in the collection, and he is an author I will definitely be looking into.

That’s the best thing about anthologies. The opportunity to sample authors before diving in blind to a full novel. Williamson aside, I can’t think of many authors selected here who I will be rushing out to buy more of. In fact, many of the authors seem to specialise in short fiction while I prefer full novels. But there are a few names I’ll be keeping an eye on in the future. Conversely, I know there are some names I’ll be avoiding. Cory Doctorow’s ‘I, Row-Boat’ is a decent story, but also enough to tell me I won’t enjoy longer works in his style. Similarly, I’ll be avoiding like the plague several authors whose contribution to this anthology came in the form of erotica. While I’m sure there are plenty of real people who intend to use robots as a replacement for relationships, it’s not something I’m terribly interested in reading about.

A special note must also be made of the story written by an AI. The shortest in the book, it’s the most interesting in a meta sense. Taking a line of Asimov text and auto-generating the rest, the technology is very impressive. However, if this is the cutting edge of robot prose, I don’t think flesh and blood authors need be worried about the competition just yet.

 

If you read this book in bits and pieces you’d likely find a few new names of your own to look into. But read in a single go, a thousand pages of short stories inevitably blended together, and the majority are sadly rather forgettable.

Never Gonna Give EU Up: 7 Of The Best Expanded Universe Star Wars Novels

From the moment Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy was published, the Star Wars universe was never the same again. The Expanded Universe that developed over the next two decades was an intricate place home to many of the stories that fostered my love of science fiction. But with over a hundred books to choose from, the timeline now branded as Legends could be an intimidating place, especially when so many of those books were part of longer series. But among all the epic tales were more than a few standalones. These individual stories may not be the best place to begin, but they will give you that Star Wars fix you crave without needing a series-long commitment. Watch out for spoilers below.

Red Harvest – Joe Schreiber

A prequel of sorts to Death Troopers, this is one of those rare books to stray into the realm of outright horror. Set in a Sith academy during the time of the Old republic, Red Harvest tracks the outbreak of a zombie plague among the force-sensitive students. If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is. Schreiber makes the combination work however, and the backstabbing, feuding Sith hopefuls make excellent fodder for flesh-eating monsters. If you’re not worried about Zabrak under the bed for a few nights, then you’re made of stern stuff indeed.

Fatal Alliance – Sean Williams

Another Old Republic tale, this one is a little more traditional. Take some evil Sith, bright-eyed heroes of the Republic, and a Mandalorian or two, and what do you get? You get a squabbling horde begging for an eventual team-up. Even if you’re not familiar with the Old Republic, this is a great adventure story, filled with twists, turns and great characters. It manages the difficult task of having no familiar characters, while being absolutely true to the spirit of Star Wars.

Outbound Flight – Timothy Zahn

Outbound Flight is probably the most famous book on this list, and deservedly so. I like to think of it as Star Wars’ take on Star Trek, as it features a great expedition into the unknown parts of the Galaxy. There are colonists, soldiers, scientists, and Jedi on board, but what makes this book so popular is appearance of a young Thrawn. You don’t need prior knowledge going into this one, as the story is gripping enough on its own, but the foreshadowing is masterful stuff indeed.

Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader – James Luceno

Set in the days immediately after Revenge of the Sith, this book shows us how the newly christened Darth Vader made his first appearances on the galactic stage. Like Episode III itself, this is a dark book, with not much hope to be found, but it does an excellent job of showing why Vader became so feared. As a study of how evil takes power, it’s hard to think of a Star Wars book that does it better than Dark Lord.

Death Star – Micheal Reaves & Steve Perry

Everyone knows how the Death Star ended, but what about how it began? Death Star is the story of the people who built and served aboard the battle station in the lead-up to A New Hope. Reaves and Perry do an excellent job of humanising the Empire, showing them to be more than just caricatures of evil. If you wanted to know where people on the Death Star go to drink, then this is the book for you. Slice-of-life books are rarely my favourite, but this one is is one of my favourites.

Allegiance – Timothy Zahn

Also focused on humanising the Empire, Zahn’s story sees a squad of stormtroopers take centre-stage when they decide to go rogue. Inevitably, they cross paths with familiar faces from the original trilogy, but the way this is done is anything but predictable. This is a book that shows the darkness within the Empire, while not shying away from the fact that stormtroopers are people too, not just lightsabre fodder. This is probably y favourite standalone Star Wars book, and while there was a sequel some time later, I still count it as a standalone for the completeness of the story it tells.

Millennium Falcon – James Luceno

Towards the end of its timeline, the Expanded Universe became increasingly obsessed with the Skywalker/Solo family and the nature of the Force. Millennium Falcon is a pleasant diversion between longer and thematically darker series. It starts with Han and Leia telling the story of their ship to their granddaughter, but soon expands to an active investigation of said history. Tracking the (in)famous vessel across several decades is some of the most interesting storytelling Star Wars ever did, and seeing its appearance at various key moments in time will warm the heart of any nostalgic fan.

So those are my favourite Star Wars standalones. I encourage you all to give them a look, and be sure to let me know about your experiences and your own favourites in the comments.

BOOK REVIEW: Acts of Contrition, by Kirsten Beyer

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Era: Post-Voyager

Series: Voyager: Full Circle (#6)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Space Opera/Social SF

Pages: 390

Publication Date: 2014

Verdict: 5/5

 

Voyager has made contact with the Confederacy of the First Quadrant, a growing power within the Delta Quadrant who could prove to be an invaluable ally. But the Confederacy has a dark past, and not everyone is willing to forgive . . .

Even in the grittier parts of Deep Space Nine and Picard, the United Federation of Planets is a pretty Utopian society. Essentially post-scarcity, it has near-total equality (unless you happen to be a synthetic lifeform), is largely at peace with its neighbours, and offers plenty of career opportunities regardless of skill level. Most of the planets Starfleet encounters are less developed, often one-issue societies, and exist mostly to examine moral quandaries. The more powerful foreign powers like the Klingons, Romulans, or Dominion tend to be openly antagonistic, and if they do have positive qualities, it’s rarely the focus of the story. Acts of Contrition goes against this trend to provide one of the most interesting alien cultures in Star Trek. A technologically and socially advanced society, but one with a lot of cultural baggage.

As revealed at the end of Protectors, the Confederacy was founded by people who ferociously exploited planets for resources. In this book we find that they still have a few ongoing issues that prove to be a speed-bump for diplomacy. The treatment of other species, nature, and other sexes all play a role. Beyer doesn’t go too heavily into any one of these, but together they create an unsettling and sinister undertone to the Confederacy. Also worth mentioning in the fact that the Confederacy has a state religion, and the way this is treated in the book is incredibly interesting.

Back in the Alpha Quadrant, Seven of Nine and Doctor Sharak (a Tamarian of ‘Darmok’ fame) investigate a mysterious plague spreading through the Federation. Now, this book was written seven years ago, but it is incredibly relevant now that the real world faces a pandemic of its own. It’s not exactly the same, of course, but having Sharak read reports on the spread of the disease and the ongoing efforts to slow its rampage will be eerily familiar to anyone who has watched the news in the past year. Having this plague tie in to the events of the Destiny trilogy is also a nice way of binding the Star Trek universe together, but you really don’t need to have read David Mack’s books to understand what is going on here. Although, for the record, I would absolutely recommend giving them a look.

While previous books in this series have been largely standalone with a few elements carrying over from one to the next, Acts of Contrition is very much a middle-of-series book. There are various plot threads and character arcs at work, some getting more of a look-in than others, and only some are resolved by the novel’s end. The main Confederacy thread ends on a cliffhanger that I am desperate to see the resolution of, so roll on Atonement. Despite how much is going on though, there is again Beyer’s perfect balance between characters. Anyone who can give both Chakotay and Harry Kim a lot to do is a winner in my book.

Another strong entry in the series, Acts of Contrition has gone a long way to making the Voyager relaunch novels one of my favourite parts of Star Trek canon.

BOOK REVIEW: The Magos, by Dan Abnett

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magos.jpg

Publisher: Black Library

Series: Eisenhorn (#4)

Genre: Grimdark SF

Pages: 714

Publication Date: 2020

Verdict: 3/5

Gregor Eisenhorn. Inquisitor, loyalist, and pariah. For over two centuries Eisenhorn has fought against the enemies of humanity, but his methods are not always approved. Witness now his humble origins, and his ultimate fall from grace . . .

For a long time, Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn series was a trilogy, later followed by a sequel trilogy in the form of Ravenor. Abnett also wrote a near dozen short stories tied either directly or tangentially to the famed Inquisitor, found in various anthologies. But with the upcoming release (partially a re-release) of the Bequin trilogy, Black Library have put together all of those short stories. In addition, Abnett has written a new novel featuring Gregor Eisenhorn to provide a capstone for the volume.

Now, putting all the linked short stories together is a great idea. With a full chronology (covering all the shorts as well as the eight novels) included, it’s a nice opportunity to track the development of Abnett’s plots across two decades away from the page and five centuries in-universe. I don’t think there’s any real stand-outs in the bunch, but they are all strong stories, some more closely tied to the events of the novels than others. There is, however, a minor issue. Every one of these stories also appears in Lord of the Dark Millennium, in the same order as they do here. Having read that massive collection only a year ago, the stories were still pretty fresh in my mind. Add to that the fact that some of them even appear in the other novels in this series (at least in these editions) and the sense of deja vu does rob the stories of their impact.

Of course, the real reason to read The Magos is the titular novel. Though its a little shorter than the other books in the series, it still covers roughly half of the book and is indisputably a full novel rather than a novella. With the long gap between books three and four in the series being written, Abnett’s style has shifted considerably. Gone is the first person perspective and asides to the reader. To some extent, it reads more like a Ravenor novel, with multiple main characters and a more complex mystery than Eisenhorn’s first three cases. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is that Eisenhorn himself is not the central protagonist. This is a major shift from previous books, but with Eisenhorn drifting further into the clutches of Chaos, it’s a change that largely works.

Overall, however, The Magos is less than the sum of its parts. As a refresher for readers heading into Pariah, it serves its purpose perfectly well, featuring all the main players and a rough recap of where they are and what they are doing. As an individual story, however, there is little to distinguish it from any other Inquisition tale aside from the names. Pariah and Penitent both release at the February, and although I don’t rate Ravenor that highly, I’m keen to see where Abnett takes his story next.