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Book Review: “Thrawn: Treason” (by Timothy Zahn)

So far, I’ve enjoyed each installment of Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy, and the conclusion is no exception. In this novel, Zahn manages to tie together the various strands that he’s woven so far. Having established himself as one of the foremost warriors in the Empire and one of Palpatine’s most reliable lieutenants, Thrawn might seem to be at the height of his powers. Unfortunately, other powers are gathering that want to take him down, and the Empire is being threatened by an outside force. Thrawn must ultimately decide whether his true loyalties lay with the Empire or with his native Chiss Ascendancy.

This novel includes fewer passages from Thrawn’s point of view than previous installments. Instead, we get a variety of others, including Commodore Faro (Thrawn’s chief subordinate), as well as Ronan, one of the chief people involved with the development of the Death Star. It also sees the return of Eli Vanto, who has been spending the past several years serving in the military of the Chiss Ascendancy. As a result of these several points of view, we get to see the various threads of power that stretch throughout the Empire and beyond.

Likewise, the novel nicely ties together the various threads that have been in play since the series began. It’s been unclear from the beginning of this series whether Thrawn has truly thrown in his lot with the Empire or whether he still serves the Chiss Ascendancy, and by the end of the novel it’s fairly clear that he still strives to strike a balance between these two parts of his identity. For him, serving the Empire is not incompatible with his loyalty to the Empire (and to the Emperor in particular), and in fact it may be that a threat to one is a threat to the other.

I actually missed seeing Eli Vanto in the second book of this series, and it was rather nice to see him back again. Like Thrawn, he finds himself at something of a crossroads, not quite part of the Chiss and yet also cast out of the safe haven of the Empire. I also enjoyed the introduction of two new characters, Commodore Faro and Ronan. The former is a very compelling character, in part because it’s always nice to see a strong woman in a Star Wars novel. Ronan, on the other side, is one of those foolish types who seems determined to let his own arrogance get in the way of doing what is right. Fortunately, he ends up getting what he deserves in the end, which is definitely one of the more satisfying parts of the novel.

Those who like their Star Wars novels to have a lot of action and fighting will appreciate Thrawn: Treason, and there are several well-written battles that occur throughout. There are fewer discussions of politics–which was a little disappointing–but the novel does continue to show us Thrawn’s tactical brilliance, including his ability to understand an enemy through their art.

Despite the fact that the also leaving enough ambiguity to suggest directions in which the series might go in future installments. Thrawn’s final conversation with the Emperor, in which Palpatine reminds him of the dangers of divided loyalties, is one of the highlights of the book. It reminds us of the fact that there are always more currents running beneath the surface than we are aware of. We, like Thrawn, are not always able to see the many ways in which the politics of the Empire are taking shape.

I very much enjoyed this book and the trilogy of which it is a part. Zahn has an eye for how to put a narrative together, how to keep us riveted to a story from beginning to end. Though I’m not sure that I understand Thrawn any more than I did when I began this series, it is precisely the sense of him as an enigma that keeps us coming back for more. A follow-up series to this one has already been announced, and while this one will, apparently, flesh out Thrawn’s back story among the Chiss, I for one am looking forward to learning more about this absolutely compelling character.

Book Review: "A Darker Shade of Magic" (by V.E. Schwab)

Every so often you read a fantasy books that just sort of sweeps you up in its fictional universe, a book that’s told in such a compelling way that you feel like you literally can’t put the book down.

Such is the case with A Darker Shade of Magic.

This novel, the first of a series by V.E. Scwhab, follows two characters, Kell and Lila, as they attempt to stave off the consequences of a dreadful new type of magic that threatens to upend the fragile balance of power that exists in their interconnected worlds. In the process, they discover much about themselves and, by the end of the novel, the stage is set for further adventures with the two of them.

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was that I loved this book so much. Part of it, a significant part, is the setting. In the world that Schwab has created there are four connected worlds. Each of those worlds has a city named London, and each of those is named after a particular color (Red, Grey, Black, and White), and each of which has a different relationship with magic. Though it turns out that this is largely a conceit of Kell’s and not codified in any official way, it remains a useful way to refer to each of the individual locations. Red London is probably the most balanced, with magic present but not destructive. White London has a deeply pathological relationship with magic, and it is ruled over by the sadistic and monstrous twins Astrid and Athos. Grey London, the one that is our world, has almost entirely forgotten what magic is. And Black London has, in the distant past, been so overwhelmed by magic that the other Londons have resorted to walling themselves off from it.

Schwab has the stunning ability to create a richly imagined world without smothering us in detail. Much of the action of the book takes place in both Grey London and Red London, with only occasional forays into the horrifying and dangerous White London. However, the mystery of Black London hangs over the entire book, and while Kell ultimately manages to avoid having to journey there in person, there is a sense at the end of the novel that there is much that we haven’t yet seen from that place where magic has gained such power that it has burned through its hosts.

For that is one of the most interesting things about this book. Magic is not just an inactive force that some can draw upon. It is, instead, a powerful force with its own agency, and one of the gravest threats posed to this world comes when magic gains a power and a will of its own. It’s quite disturbing, really, to think of magic as something that has agency, and Schwab perfectly captures that sense of menace, as this powerful force begins to inhabit the bodies of those that it encounters, using them as its host before ultimately burning through and discarding them (given that I am writing this review in the midst of a pandemic, that particular storyline feels even more chilling than ever).

Next, the characters. Both Kell and Lila are both sympathetic and, at times, frustrating. Kell is in many ways impossibly noble, always willing to do whatever he can to protect those that he loves, including and especially his brother Rhy. Noble as he is, however, he is also rather prideful, and he takes unnecessary risks that put not only his own life in danger, but also those that he claims to care about the most.

Lila, on the other hand, is almost irritatingly unwilling to commit to anything except her own survival. By the end of the novel, of course, she has recognized that there is something more than just her own benefit. What I especially appreciated about A Darker Shade of Magic was that it didn’t go the easy route and force Kell and Lila into a romantic relationship. Though there is clearly a strong connection between them, it was refreshing to see them go their separate ways rather than committing to one another (though, since there are two more books in the series, it’s entirely possible that they might end up together by the end).

Narratively, the story is tightly-woven. Though most of the book is told from the perspectives of Kell and Lila, we do occasionally get glimpses into other side characters, particularly those who are being possessed by the darker magic of the stone. Despite those brief interludes, the novel moves along at a brisk pace, keeping us caught up in its propulsive momentum from the first page to the last. By the time I reached the end, I was almost breathless, and I was a little sad to find that I had to stop. There was so much more that I wanted to know about this world and about these characters, so much that continued to hover just out of view. But, of course, that’s precisely what makes a book like A Darker Shade of Magic such a pleasure to read. The fact that you are left wanting more is a definitive sign that the writer has done something right, that they’ve found the proper balance in their fiction.

What I really appreciated about this novel was the fact that it wrapped up all of the storylines so neatly. Though it is the first book of a trilogy–with the same characters–it still manages to be self-contained, leaving us satisfied with how things have worked out for these characters. At the same time, there are just enough hints scattered throughout the book to suggest that there is a great deal of chaos just waiting to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting residents of the various Londons.

Given how much I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, I’ve already started reading A Gathering of Shadows. I have to say, I’m enjoying it already. I can’t wait to review it!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances”

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Readers of this blog will remember that I absolutely loved the first installment of author Timothy Zahn’s new trilogy about Thrawn, the Chiss general who rises through the ranks of the Imperial military to become a Grand Admiral. As soon as I finished that volume, I went ahead and started reading the second one, and I was not disappointed. It takes the character in some new and interesting directions, while remaining true to the developments that happened in the first novel.

This novel follows two different timelines. One, set in the diegetic present, follows Thrawn and his reluctant ally Darth Vader as they pursue an unknown disturbance in the outer reaches of the Galaxy. The other follows a younger Thrawn as he engages with Anakin and Padmé as they investigate a mining operation that could seriously reshape the war between the Republic and the Separatists.

What interests me so much about this iteration of Thrawn is the fact that he doesn’t fit easily into the categories of good and evil. I’ve always thought that Star Wars is at its best when it probes what we normally assume to be the hard and fast distinctions between heroism and villainy. While Thrawn has sworn his service to the Emperor–who we are always supposed to think is the embodiment of evil–this novel shows that his motivations are complex. While he is as loyal to the Empire as he ever was, we are led to believe that his true loyalties will always lie with his fellow Chiss.

I particularly enjoy the way that Zahn manages to take us us into the intimate spaces of Thrawn’s complex mind. From the beginning of this new series, we’ve seen that Thrawn doesn’t operate according to same rules as everyone else. Among other things, he seems to have an almost supernatural ability to observe the behavior of others and to determine their actions based on what he sees. This makes him a formidable enemy, and it makes us as readers aware of just how inhuman he is, for all that he has managed to rise so high in the estimation of the Emperor.

Despite the fact that Thrawn is, of course, the focal point of the book, I constantly found myself reminded of just how tragic Anakin’s storyline is. The moments when Darth Vader ruthlessly quells his memories from that time–and the fact that he has separated his current identity from “the Jedi”–are a stark reminder of how much Anakin gives up as he plunges to his fate in the Dark Side. By the time of the present, of course, he’s given himself over completely to his service of the Emperor, so much so that even Thrawn, who knew him at both times, is for a while in some doubt as to whether Vader is in fact the young Jedi that he knew so many years ago. As I was reading the parts of the book that were set during the Clone Wars, I continued to feel saddened by what I knew was Anakin’s inevitable fall, aware all the time that his romance with Padmé was doomed to end in tragedy, that he would ultimately be responsible for her death.

I also appreciated that this book took a few risks, such as revealing that the Chiss do have Force-sensitive individuals in their number, though it manifests differently among them than it does to any of the other races that we’ve encountered.

Overall, I found Thrawn: Alliances to be a well-plotted and exciting entry in the Star Wars universe. There’s a reason, it seems to me, that authors like Zahn have managed to solidify their standing in the community. This book doesn’t necessarily break any boundaries, but it doesn’t really have to. Zahn has a strong writer’s finely-tuned instincts, and he knows what his audience is looking for and is able to provide it.

I’m very much looking forward to the third book in the series, and I have a feeling that Thrawn is going to continue finding his loyalty to the Emperor tested by his continued adherence to his own code of honor and to his people.

Book Review: “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” (by Tomi Adeyemi)

When I first read Children of Blood and Bone, I was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t just that I was excited to finally see a young woman of color writing what was, by all accounts, a stunning fiction debut. It was that this extraordinary talent had managed to create a compelling world based on Africa mythology, one that lived and breathed and drew you in from first page to last. Thus, when Children of Virtue and Vengeance came out, I rushed to the store.

I’m glad I did.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance picks up shortly after the previous novel ending, with Zélie mourning the death of her father, while royal siblings Inan and Amari each struggle for the throne in order to bring an end to the war that has already cost so many lives. The novel follows each side as they each go to ever-greater depths of darkness and violence, each side convinced that right is on their side.

One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the books in this series is the way in which they manage to combine all of the elements of fantasy in ways that feel fresh and exciting. I particularly love that the series is drawn from west African mythology and that it pays so much attention to the fact that these characters are definitely not white. Fantasy as a genre has been dominated for so long by whiteness that I’m always looking for a series that breaks out of that mold. It’s clear from the first page to the last that Adeyemi has given a great deal of thought to how to build this world from the ground up, and it’s impossible not to find yourself utterly swept up into it.

The novel keeps moving along at a breathtaking pace, and you’re left never entirely sure when the next twist will happen. There are many twists and turns in this novel, which is appropriate, given that it is in many ways about the destructive power of war and the corrosive impacts it has on even those who begin with the noblest of intentions. None of the three primary characters are angels, and there are moments when it’s possible to dislike any of them. However, Adeyemi does an excellent job of making us appreciate and love each of these characters, even as we also recognize their flaws. All of them, each in their own way, is trying to do what they think is best, and while they don’t always succeed, we’re led to at least appreciate their efforts.

Each of the three main characters finds themselves tested in ways that they never before imagined. Zélie must slowly come to terms with the fact that, whether she likes it or not, she is now a leader of the people who now wield magic. Amari must recognize that, in many ways, she has become far too much like the father that she spent so much of the previous novel loathing and trying to escape. Inan, the boy who has been thrust into a kingship that he never really wanted and is not really prepared for, must contend with the competing forces around him, from his mother’s relentless desire to eradicate magic to his own love for Zélie and desire to bring about peace.

And it’s important to remember just how young these characters are. These young people have been thrown into the midst of a war that none of them asked for, each of them caught up in the web of deceit and death and destruction that was precipitated by their parents and those who don’t have their own interests at heart. You can hardly blame them if, at times, they aren’t able to exactly meet the challenges that they face and if they make choices that are foolish and sometimes dangerous.

The novel ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and at the moment it’s unclear what, exactly has happened and what will happen to these characters that we’ve already come to love and care about. The worst part about finishing a book like Children of Virtue and Vengeance is that we now have to wait for an even longer period of time before the third volume is out! And, given how many twists and turns the first two volumes in this series have taken, I think it’s safe to say that we are about to see these beloved characters go through quite a lot before this whole thing is over. Heartache is no doubt on the horizon, but hopefully so is salvation.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn” (by Timothy Zahn)

In the annals of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, perhaps no figure looms larger than Thrawn. Originally introduced in Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” series, he subsequently became something of a fan favourite. Though only a neophyte when it comes to the Expanded Universe, I can well imagine the howl of outrage that erupted when Disney announced that all of the works that had already been published in that universe would be rendered noncanon, including Thrawn.

Fortunately, Zahn has successfully wound his beloved Chiss character back into the canon by focusing on his early years and his incorporation into the machinery of the empire. The novel is split among three different perspectives. There is, of course, Thrawn, whose tactical genius allows him to ascend quickly through the ranks. Other chapters are told from the point of view of his assistant Eli Vanto, who finds himself caught up in Thrawn’s wake as he makes his precipitous ascent into the highest ranks of the Imperial Navy. Lastly there is Arihnda Pryce, who begins the novel on the mining world of Loval but gradually manipulates her way into becoming a powerful administrator.

From the opening pages, I found myself irresistibly drawn into this narrative. Certainly, a great deal of this is due to the fact that Thrawn is just such a compelling character, capable of acts of great ruthlessness, his tactical brilliance acknowledged even by his most devout enemies. Zahn has the uncanny ability to give us just enough detail about Thrawn’s back story to keep us engaged, while also keeping enough back to make Thrawn and enigma that we want to solve.

What struck me the most as I read the book, however, was how Thrawn never truly appears evil. True, he is ruthless, and he is definitely cunning, with one of the best military minds of arguably anyone in the entire Star Wars universe. His brain just doesn’t seem to work quite like any other character that we’ve ever et, and this is no doubt due to the fact that he is also the furthest from human. This allows his mind to see the patterns–both in individuals and in collectives–that prove invaluable in his service to the Empire and the imposition of its will.

Of course, all of this allows the book to raise the deeper ethical question: at what point do we finally say enough is enough and work against the forces that we see as evil? For Thrawn, this point has clearly not come yet, for he sees the order and stability of the Empire as a necessary trade-off for the protection it provides against even greater forces of evil that lurk in the Unknown Regions. Though it’s had to imagine why anyone with a shred of integrity of morality would continue serving a creature like the Emperor, Zahn does a great job showing us what motivates Thrawn to do so.

Indeed, one of the things that I’ve really appreciated about so many of the new Star Wars novels is their ability to show us why it is that people would willingly serve an institution such as the Empire (and, later, the First Order). As it turns out, not everyone one who does so is an evil monster. Some do it because they see no alternative, others because they tire of finding their opportunities squashed at every turn. In this novel, Vanto is clearly not someone who is evil. He is merely doing what he can to survive. Pryce is a somewhat more ambiguous character who, while not entirely evil, is still ruthless and cunning and has little sense of personal loyalty. What’s more, she has no compunction about removing those who stand in her way, even if that means killing them.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Thrawn. I truly couldn’t put the book down from the moment I picked it up, and I’d probably go so far as to that it’s my favourite of the new series of books coming out from Disney.

Having finished Thrawn, I’m now diving headfirst into the sequel, Thrawn: Alliances, in which we will finally get to see the complicated relationship between Thrawn and Vader, two of the most valuable servants of the Emperor.

Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of this book that really work. The scenes that flesh out Tarkin’s past–in particular his brutal survivalist training–were compelling, if only because it’s rather difficult to imagine the buttoned-up Tarkin actually mucking about in the forest. This past allows us to understand why it is that a man like Tarkin would throw his lot in with the Empire and become infamous for his willingness to use the threat of power to intimidate everyone into bowing before Imperial might. In essence, Tarkin has internalized the law of the jungle. While this threatens to drain him of any sort of moral compass, it also allows him to rise high in the Imperial administration.

The portions of the book told from the point of view of Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine also draw you in. Anyone who knows me knows that I think that Sidious is one of the best things to ever happen to the Star Wars universe, and I’m glad that we get to see some of the inner workings of his complex mind here. Even though Luceno’s Darth Plagueis has been declared noncanon, it seems that some aspects of it–including the revelation that Darth Plagueis was Sidious’ master–are to remain canon. In this novel, we get a stronger idea of what makes this enigmatic villain tick, including his ultimate desire: to literally bend the fabric of reality to his will.

Other aspects of the novel, however, threaten to drag down the narrative. Luceno is clearly one of those authors who allows himself to get a bit enraptured by the technology of Star Wars. We are thus frequently treated to lengthy descriptions of the various types of ships, as well as catalogues of just what types have appeared at any particular moment. There are also clunky descriptions of ship mechanics and actions. While this might be pleasurable for some people to read, I have to admit that I found it rather a chore, and there were even times when I found myself skimming to get to the good bits (and I rarely do that). Some discussion of technology is fine, of course, but not at the expense of character and development.

Overall, I’d place Tarkin somewhere in the middle rank of the newly-established canon of Star Wars novels. It’s a bit too short to really give us an extensive dive into Tarkin’s psychology, and it too often gets side-tracked with the ostensible “good guys.” This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they were given the sort of development that would make them genuinely likable and understandable characters, but as it is they sort of feel like cardboard cut-outs. I continue to find it strange that books that are supposedly about villains spend just as much time in the heads of the heroes. Frankly, if I wanted to hear from the heroes, I’d read one of the dozens of other books set in the Star Wars Universe (or watch the movies, for that matter).

Still, I enjoyed Tarkin, and I’d recommend it to those die-hard fans who want to get a glimpse into an important period in Star Wars history. Other, more casual fans, might be advised to skip this one.

Now it’s on to Timothy Zahn’s new series focused on Thrawn, another of the most iconic villains in Star Wars. Stay tuned!

TV Review: “The Witcher” (Season 1)

Being the contrarian I am, I actually put off watching The Witcher longer than I normally would. Though I am, of course, a huge fan of fantasy series and was in need of something to fill the gap left by the conclusion of Game of Thrones (which was a huge disappointment) and the season finale of His Dark Materials, for some reason I just found all the hype around The Witcher off-putting. Eventually, however, I gave in to the pressure and watched it.

I have to say, I’m not disappointed. In fact, I found myself more drawn into the show than I thought I would be, which was a pleasant surprise. The action is propulsive, the characters are strangely likable (for the most part), and there are glimpses of a vibrant world with cultures and conflicts that are as compelling and bloody as anything in Game of Thrones. Somehow, The Witcher manages to grab hold of you from the first episode and doesn’t let you go until the very end, when it leaves you dangling on a cliff-hanger.

It’s rather hard to summarize this show without giving away important plot points, but I’ll give it a try. It focuses on three characters. The first is the Witcher Geralt (Henry Cavill), a mutant warrior who goes about fighting monsters and demons for payment. His fate is bound up with Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan), who is forced to flee into exile when her kingdom is invaded by Nilfgaard. The third is the Yennefer of Vengeberg (Anya Chalotra), a powerful mage who has her own series of journeys to undertake as she becomes ever more entwined with the fates of nations.

Narratively, the series is rather a mess, to be quite honest, but the genius of The Witcher is that it somehow just rolls with its own absurdities and encourages us to do the same. It doesn’t get hung up on the mechanics of its magic system (which seems pretty much to be whatever the plot demands), nor do the pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle ever entirely coalesce into some sort of coherent whole. In fact, the show seems to go out of its way to keep us guessing as to why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Part of this has to do with the fact that it’s told out of order, and it actually takes quite a while to figure that out, and even when you do it can take some time to orient yourself within a given episode.

At times, I found myself getting a little frustrated at how underdeveloped both the magic and the politics were. I’m not one of those people who demands that their fantasy series explain everything to them, but it is hard to get a sense of the stakes of The Witcher when it’s so resistant to providing a birds-eye view of the world and its conflicts. I’m hoping that now that the various storylines have come together at the end of the first season that this means that the second one will be a bit more straightforward.

One of the reasons I think the series succeeds despite these flaws is because the performances are so absolutely compelling. Cavill is one of those actors who is both beautiful and strangely flexible in terms of the kinds of characters he can play. He manages to imbue Geralt with both taciturnity and vulnerability, and while the former definitely dominates through much of the show, the moments when the latter appears are some of the best in the series. His feelings for both Yennefer and his lost mother. You get the sense that he’s been through a lot, and that these experiences have shaped him in some unexpected ways. Tough-as-nails he may be, but he also has a powerful sense of right and wrong.

Likewise, I found myself increasingly drawn to Yennefer. Again, performance has a lot to do with this, as Chalotra does so much with what she’s given. We get to see Yennefer grow from a twisted girl to a powerful sorceress, and if I have a complaint about her role it’s that we don’t get more of it. Narratively, her arc doesn’t quite gel until we get to the very end, but her character is arguably as important as Geralt’s, if only because it’s refreshing to see such a powerful woman take center stage in a fantasy series.

Unfortunately, at this point in the series Cirilla is still something of a blank slate. She spends most of the season running from conflict to conflict, and I’m afraid that I just wasn’t drawn to her in the way that I was Yennefer. A number of other secondary characters, however, more than make up for this, and once again the women get the lion’s share. I absolutely loved MyAnna Buring as Tissaia, the Rectoress of Aretuza (the academy for mages). She managed to own every scene that she appeared in, and I sincerely hope that we get to see more of her in the second season. The same goes for Jodhi May as Queen Calanthe, who is about as badass as they come (even if she is rather shortsighted on some key issues). And, of course, there’s Joey Batey as Jaskier, the rascally bard who appears periodically to make Geralt’s life miserable. There’s undeniable chemistry between Batey and Cavill, and I hope that he returns for the second season.

Overall, The Witcher is tremendously entertaining. If you can look past the flaws in its storytelling, and if you can be patient enough with it to see it through the first several episodes, I think you’ll find it to be a rewarding series to watch. There’s still a long way to go before we get the second season, but I hope that the writers take the chance to iron out a few of the kinks. If they do that, they might just have a truly great show on their hands.

I know that I, for one, will be watching!