Sunday, March 29, 2009

“Millennium Falcon”, by James Luceno (Century)


A novel based around the history of the most famous (and fastest) ship in the galaxy…

Ever since we first saw the Millennium Falcon in the Mos Eisley scenes of A New Hope, the ship has been a favourite of Star Wars fans the world over. In this novel, James Luceno takes on the task of giving us a look at the ship’s history, while also setting scene for the next round of Star Wars novels.

Starting with the ship’s creation (when it wrecked a portion of the assembly plant it was created in) to some notable owners along the way (including a circus, travelling doctor, a crime lord, and two professional gamblers, to name but a handful), the novel takes two paths. The main one follows Han, Leia and Allana Solo as they trace the Falcon’s history backwards, starting their search with Lando Calrissian. The second thread follows Jadak, one of its first owners, tracing its lineage forwards. The two storylines eventually join, of course, as a hitherto forgotten mystery resurfaces. When Allana discovers an antique transponder hidden among the bulkheads of the Falcon, the family are hooked on discovering its purpose (partly as an excuse to keep themselves occupied, trying to come to terms with the events of Invincible).

With backstage elements pulling certain strings in the hope of finding this mysterious, historical “treasure”, and the Falcon reputed to be the key to its location, Han and his family unwittingly are drawn into the ruthless, lethal treasure hunt. Chief among their rivals is a powerful lawyer, Oxic, an avid, ruthless collector of Republicana who believes the treasure is a piece of unique value (though, of course, specifics aren’t revealed to the reader).

Millennium Falcon is a unique novel in the Star Wars canon. Considering the one constant throughout the various threads running through it is a ship, it’s incredibly engaging. The short scenes and chapters that focus on a specific, important event or turning point in its 100-year history add more detail and another layer to the already vast Star Wars universe. New characters, such as Jadak and Poste, let us find out more about life in this universe and also allow for some more action and diversions to keep us guessing.

This is the second novel by James Luceno that I’ve read (following Star Wars: The Unifying Force), and I must say he’s an excellent author. His prose are well-crafted and fluid, and his plotting gives you just enough in each chapter to force you on to the next, and then the next. He also allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, rather than laboriously laying everything out in great detail, making for a sparse, enjoyable and entertaining read.

The book bridges the gap between the Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi series. While it does feel a little like filler, it properly sets down some seeds for the upcoming series. Luke Skywalker crops up only a couple of times, and never in person, explaining some of the situation and political environment on Coruscant at the time (things aren’t looking good for the Jedi). But, on the whole, it works well as a novel in itself, and is an enjoyable read. For those who haven’t read the past few books, that’s ok, as there’s a brief run-down of events that have led up to this volume (p.71) to catch you up.

Certainly one of the better Star Wars novels released in the past couple of years, Millennium Falcon is a great introduction to the larger story of the Fate of the Jedi series.

Action-packed, a treasure hunt with ruthless rivals, and just a touch of political intrigue. A perfect mix, and very enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Proceeded by: “Invincible”, by Troy Denning, & “Blood Oath”, by Elaine Cunningham (released later this year)

Followed by: “Outcast”, by Aaron Allston

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

“Invincible”, by Troy Denning (Arrow)


And so we come to the explosive end...

The final installment in any long series always runs the risk of being a disappointment. Thankfully, though, with Invincible we have anything but a disappointment. Far from it.

(This will be a short review through necessity, as any great description of the plot will ruin it for everyone not yet caught up.)

Troy Denning has really rolled up his sleeves and got stuck into the gritty nature of civil war (expanded to galactic scope, here) and the tragedies and atrocities that war can compel people to commit. Moral dilemmas and personal anguish beset almost every character, and we are left wondering at the end about a number of them, their fates left open and in flux.

Invincible is more brutal than pretty much any previous Star Wars novel or movie. The battles between Jaina and Jacen/Caedus, infused with anger and grief, are described in amazing, gruesome detail - so much so that you feel like you're actually there as the lightsabers and blood (and a couple of body parts) fly all over the place.

Perhaps one reason Invincible doesn't fall foul of last-installment pitfalls is because it's not, ultimately, a last installment. There will be more novels to come with the characters we all continue to love (next up, chronologically, is Millennium Falcon – there’s an appetite whetting sample chapter at the end of this paperback). Invincible ends on a pretty grim note, but also with a hint of hope for the future.

Excellent plotting, excellent humour (though not too much, otherwise the impact of the final battle would have been diminished), good pacing, and allegory done very well and deftly, Invincible is one of the best Star Wars novels to come out over the past few years, and Legacy of the Force certainly blows all of the previous long series out of the water, by keeping relatively short and not tying itself into knots.

If you haven't started the Legacy series yet, get started so you can get up to speed and enjoy this cracking, gripping final chapter!

Very highly recommended.

Series Chronology: Betrayal, Bloodlines, Tempest, Exile, Sacrifice, Inferno, Fury, Revelation, Invincible (April 2nd, 2009)

Followed by: Millennium Falcon, Fate of the Jedi (new series, starting April 2009 with Outcast by Aaron Allston)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

“The Deceived”, by Brett Battles (Preface)


The superb second Jonathan Quinn novel…

Quinn is a professional “cleaner”. The man you call when you have a body that needs disposing of without leaving a trace, and making sure there are no loose ends. Called out on a job by some unsavoury characters running some docks at a major port, he is confronted with the dead body of Steven Markoff. Markoff saved Quinn’s life many years ago, when he was just starting in the business, and to find his body in a shipping crate leaves Quinn with no choice but to find out who is responsible.

Aided by his apprentice Nate, and his beautiful ally Orlando, he traces Markoff’s girlfriend, Jenny, who has also mysteriously disappeared while working for a congressman with his eyes on the White House. As Quinn starts to unravel what is going on, it is clear that things are much more deadly than he could have ever imagined.

Brett Battles must be one of the best new thriller writers on the scene today. His prose are clean and fluid, drawing you along with the story as Quinn searches for Jenny, trying to get to the bottom of Congressman Guerrero’s possible involvement in Markoff’s murder.

It wouldn’t be a Battles story without some globetrotting, and in The Deceived we have the usual state-hopping in the US, followed by Singapore, where the Congressman is travelling and where Orlando’s computer wizardry tells Quinn to go. As someone who has lived in Singapore, I can tell you that Battles really brings the island nation to life in his descriptions, perfectly evoking the atmosphere and uniqueness of a number of famous locations (e.g. Clarke Quay, Orchard Road).

Another thing that makes this novel stand apart is that the story is not particularly action-oriented. Sure, there are a few explosions and gun fights, but this is more of a slow-burning, character-driven thriller. We learn more about Quinn’s past, more about his training and so forth. His relationship with his protégé Nate develops, as he starts to surprise and anticipate Quinn. The difficult relationship with Orlando is revisited also.

Battles’ writing is amazing, pretty much flawless. You will be pulled along by his prose, and find yourself completely immersed in the story. He is a truly exceptional writing talent.

Series Chronology: The Cleaner, The Deceived, The Unwanted (UK)/Shadow of Betrayal (US)

For Fans Of: Charles Cumming, Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills, Tom Clancy, Sam Bourne

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

“Darkness Falls”, by Kyle Mills (Vanguard Press)


The latest Mark Beamon thriller from one of America’s best authors

Kyle Mills is easily one of America’s most intelligent authors writing today. His novels often focus on one of the major political issues in America; whether it is the War on Drugs (Rising Phoenix), the Middle East situation (The Second Horseman), or the place of religion in American life and politics (Storming Heaven). In Darkness Falls, Mills tackles the issues of oil and the environment.

Erin Neal is the world’s leading specialist on oil and the environment. In Darkness Falls, he is brought out of his self-imposed exile and retirement in the Arizona desert to help solve an issue that is plaguing a number of global oil fields. Something is eating the oil and screwing up the extraction equipment. Mark Beamon (who is easily Mills’s best character, and certainly one of the best protagonists in thriller fiction), formerly of the FBI but now head of Homeland Security’s energy department, has to convince Neal to get back in the game and help prevent an economic disaster that could beset the world if what amounts to 1/3 of global oil is closed off (or eaten).

Mills writing is always a pleasure to read. His style is clear and fluid. His prose, plotting and dialogue perfectly constructed and well- (if not perfectly-) paced. The characters he creates – from our ‘heroes’ Neal and Beamon, to the villains of the piece led by enviro-terrorist Michael Teague – are believable and feel oh-so-real. Beamon remains irascible and anti-authoritarian, not to mention what sounds like the best stepfather ever (he is getting married to long-time love interest Carrie). Neal is a flawed genius: young, idealistic, afflicted with a ferocious drink-fueled anger, while also mourning the supposed death of his girlfriend, Jenna (who is somewhat responsible for the oil problems). The author’s take on the political side of things is, as always, perfectly on the button, making the scenarios within the novel feel oh-so plausible, almost as if they were taken from today’s (or tomorrow’s) headlines. Like fellow thriller authors David Baldacci, Vince Flynn and Charles Cumming, Mills writes lucidly, intelligently, and convincingly on the politics of the world.

It’s been a while coming, but Darkness Falls is the very welcome, superb return of Mark Beamon. Hopefully the next wait won’t be quite as long! A brilliant author, Mills has delivered again a brilliant, intelligent thriller that will keep you up way into the wee hours of the morning.

Series Chronology: Rising Phoenix, Storming Heaven, Free Fall, Sphere of Influence, Darkness Falls.

For Fans Of: Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, Brett Battles, Andrew Britton, Alex Berenson, Charles Cumming, David Baldacci

Thursday, March 05, 2009

“The Book of Lies”, by Brad Meltzer (Hodder)

Meltzer-BookOfLies A fast-paced thriller with a unique, intriguing premise; which sadly fails to excite…

The book kicks off by introducing us to the villain of the piece, Ellis, as he tries to extract the location of the Book of Lies from its one-time owner, using a fiendish method of torture. Meanwhile, homeless-shelter employee Calvin “Cal” Harper comes across his estranged father (Lloyd), bleeding from a gunshot wound in a Florida park. Cal, a former ICE (customs) agent, finds a bill of lading when he takes Lloyd to the hospital, which starts a series of events potentially lethal for Cal and Lloyd. Following the trail of clues, Cal and Lloyd are caught up in a treasure-hunt of sorts, searching for the weapon (or information on the weapon) that Cain used to kill Abel, and how this is somehow related to the death of (creator of Superman) Jerry Siegel’s father in 1932. If that description sounds unsure or confused, well… so’s the book.

While the pace of the story rattles along at a fair clip, Meltzer has mastered the drawn-out reveal. We are only slowly made aware of what the Book of Lies actually is, and what’s really going on. For this novel, Meltzer has drawn on his love for the comic world (a medium he has written extensively for himself), adding a sprinkle of biblical mystery (involving Cain’s murder of Abel) to form the basis of the plot.

The Book of Lies was an easy read, with an original premise, a quick writing style, and interesting characters. What more could you ask for? Well, perhaps a little more depth in the plot, and a little more attention to making things a little more realistic for starters. The dialogue is a bit forced, and often rather flat. While reading the novel, I felt like I was having a good time, but whenever I put it down, I found myself wondering what was going on – whether or not something had actually happened over the past few chapters (of which there are many brief ones – Meltzer’s going the way of James Patterson). It sounds harsher than I intend, but could this be the novel equivalent of bubblegum?

If you’ve enjoyed Meltzer’s previous work (or that of any of the other authors I mention above), then you’ll likely enjoy this book, only not as much as you perhaps could have, and you’ll likely find yourself wondering what on earth is going on. Previous novels by the author – specifically, The Tenth Justice, The Millionaires and The Zero Game – have been much better. I applaud the author for trying something new, but it’s a real pity that it rather missed the mark, resulting in a series of far-fetched events. I’d recommend his other novels in a heartbeat, but with this one I’d hesitate quite a bit.

Lazy comparisons with Dan Brown are inevitable, but I would say that Brad Meltzer’s work belongs more in the company of the likes of James Patterson, James Rollins, Douglas Preston, and Matthew Reilly.

An uncharacteristically unfulfilling novel.