Erika Johansen’s debut novel, Queen of the Tearling, is a sure-handed and accomplished start to a new series. The novel opens as a cadre of Queen’s GuErika Johansen’s debut novel, Queen of the Tearling, is a sure-handed and accomplished start to a new series. The novel opens as a cadre of Queen’s Guards arrive at a humble little cabin in the woods to retrieve Kelsea Raleigh. The young heir to Tearling throne was smuggled away as a baby and raised in secret. With the Regent’s (her uncle) assassins closing Kelsea must face what may be the shortest reign any monarch has seen. On her journey to New London she meets an enigmatic bandit known only as the Fetch and begins her true education in regards to the devil’s bargain her mother made after the invasion from Mort burned its way to the walls of the palace. Once in New London Kelsea moves to right the wrongs of her mother’s reign while doing her best to stay alive long enough to usher in true change.
Queen of the Tearling features a young, teenaged protagonist yet manages to walk a fine line between marketing towards adults and teens. Equally, appealing to either demographic some of the more mature content and adult themes might not appeal to younger teens. With a novel like this it is often the main protagonist that makes or breaks things. I am happy to report that Kelsea is a joy of a protagonist. Johansen has crafted a delightfully complicated young woman whose insecurities are rounded out by her grit and determination. Kelsea isn’t defined by her fears and despite the fantastical settings her insecurities, particularly her body image issues, are normal. Johansen takes things a step further by surrounding Kelsea with a cast of characters who accentuate her qualities and whose own personalities, while not always as well rounded as Kelsea’s, make for an interesting shift in perspective. The best-rounded secondary character is Sir Lazarus of the Mace, a Queen Guard whose steady presence and no-nonsense attitude provides a firm grounding for Kelsea as she wades into dangerous waters. Lazarus, is a bit of a mysterious character in the beginning of the novel. While his past remains in the dark his actions serve to define a man of utmost loyalty and honor with a willingness to employ scrupulous violence in service to his Queen; even when she might not necessarily want him to. I doubt that Queen of the Tearling would work nearly without the dynamic between Kelsea and Lazarus.
My biggest problem with Queen of the Tearling are the villains of the story. While Johansen manages to show, to some extent, that the Regent is a product of his upbringing less is done to flesh out the country of Mort and particularly its Queen; as the nominal “big bad” Johansen does very little to illustrate their motives. We know that Mort is more advanced when it comes to medicine and technology and that they have a great need for manpower. It’s the “why” of that manpower that is the true mystery and while the question of Mort’s need for manpower is mentioned there are very few hints as to the answer. Even the nobility of Tear are shown to be greedy, venal, and self-interested with only slight variations in how much they exhibit those traits. Arlen Thorne, master of the census, is perhaps the most fascinating villain in the novel, if only due to his cunning, but again outside of greed readers are left with very little information regarding his ultimate goal. Johansen does perhaps too good of a job in illustrating how “evil” the villains are but their lack of definition beyond their horribleness leaves them feeling a bit bland and boring.
The setting of Queen of the Tearling is also rather fascinating. The novel takes place sometime in humanity’s future where a group of humanity (perhaps all of humanity) has left what I presume to be Earth to found a new society. The rigors of the Crossing, as it is referred to in the novel, left these new settlers with some major issues not the least of which was the loss of most of the scientists who made the journey. The world takes many of its cues from pre-industrial history but knowledge regarding the technology of old still exists even if the keys to its manufacture are lost. As a result the “magic” of the novel is likely something else entirely, though a scene towards the end of the novel, makes me question even that. It’s an interesting aspect of the novel and gives readers some familiar footing as Kelsea begins to make changes to her kingdom based on our shared past.
Queen of the Tearling is a novel carried by the strength of its protagonist. Kelsea is an interesting character whose growth over the novel from the scared girl hiding in the trees on page one to the woman standing on the balcony before the adoring masses is a joy to read. While the villains often simple feel evil for evil’s sake I remain hopeful that there will be more nuance explored in further novels. The world of Queen of the Tearling is also fascinating and the mystery behind why these people came to be where they are is one I look forward to reading about. Thankfully, Invasion of the Tearling is out now so I won’t have to wait long to find out what happens next....more
Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Blue Blazes are excellent novels with vibrant worlds and complicated heroes. Needless to say that I was pretty excited tChuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Blue Blazes are excellent novels with vibrant worlds and complicated heroes. Needless to say that I was pretty excited to hear that Chuck Wendig was scheduled to be the man in the pilot’s seat for the first post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars novel in the new canon. When early samples of Aftermath were released ahead of the novel’s publication my excitement was somewhat dampened by Wendig’s chosen style. The present tense narration, coupled with the short quick sentence structure was completely off putting for me and I was immediately nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get past the narrative style. Thankfully, while Disney and Lucasfilm, have in a sense “abandoned” previous canon they have not abandoned Star Wars audiobook narrator Marc Thompson. Thompson’s skill as a narrator combined with some rather insane production quality (official sound effects and music) meant that, like with the previous Fate of the Jedi novels, I was definitely going for the Aftermath audiobook experience.
Aftermath opens in the time following the destruction of the second Death Star. While the decisive Rebel victory has prodded many systems to action, the former-Rebels now struggle to consolidate their power and transform a military-based rebellion into a full-fledged political body. Meanwhile the Empire, while grievously wounded, is still around lashing out against those who dare join the Rebels and trying to desperately to consolidate their forces in the face overwhelming support for change from much of the general public.
In the opening scenes of Aftermath readers a treated with a glimpse of some of the actions that resulted from the Rebel victory, as dissidents tear down a statue of the Emperor, as well as the Imperial reactions, as those dissidents are viciously attacked by Imperial Security. Aftermath paints a very chaotic situation for the Rebel Alliance. One of the actions of the Rebels after the victory near Endor was to send out scout units to various systems. One such scouts, fan favorite Wedge Antilles, enters the Akiva system only fall into the clutches of Imperial forces gathering there for some sort of meeting. Wedge manages to get out a distress call which catches the attention of Nora Wexley, another Rebel pilot who just happens to be on Akiva in order to reconnect with her son Temmin. Readers are also introduced to Sinjir a former Imperial Loyalty Office and perhaps my favorite new character. A dry-witted drunkard Sinjir is laying low on Akiva after having stolen the clothes off a dead Rebel’s back during the Battle of Endor. Our motely team of heroes is rounded out by Jas Emari, a lone-wolf Zabrak bounty hunter on Akiva to take out a high-level Imperial target. The tightening grip of the Empire on Akiva draws these four characters together over the course of the novel.
Aftermath has a huge job ahead of it. Not only does it have to tell an interesting and entertaining story but it also has to lay out the state of the Star Wars universe at large while simultaneously being attractive for new readers and the notoriously cantankerous entrenched fandom (who are already frustrated over the loss of their beloved canon). As such Aftermath definitely struggles a bit in trying to tell a tight, constrained story about a rag-tag group of heroes while bouncing around the universe to give readers glimpses of what is going on around the universe. The interludes which often feature familiar characters such as Han Solo, Mon Mothma, and Admiral Ackbar definitely provide fascinating insight in to the Star Wars landscape. However, as entertaining and enlightening as they are I found that they felt more like a barrier to telling the story of the events on Akiva than anything else. Aftermath desperately wants to be both epic in scope and an intimate look at the effect of the Empire on the Rebellion on individual lives and I often felt that those two goals were at cross-purposes.
While I found the novel’s narrative voice distracting in the beginning I adjusted as the novel progressed. Once the main plot of the novel kicks into high gear my problems with narrative voice faded into the background. Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph above I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Aftermath and I can’t say for sure how easily I’d be able to shake my feelings regarding the narrative without the aid of Marc Thompson and the production crew at Random House Audio. It is really just a top-notch production and I highly recommend that reluctant readers give the audiobook a shot. I will note that Thompson’s Wookie sounds were a bit off, but that’s my only complete regarding his performance.
I really wish the characters of Aftermath were given a little bit more breathing room. Of our four heroes Nora feels the least developed though Wendig’s description of her PTSD worked quite well. Similarly, her son Temmin could have used a little more work as both characters feel to explicitly defined by their relationship to one another with little room to explore who each is absent of that part of their identity. Sinjir was definitely my favorite and his rapport with Jas was entertaining in the highest; I’d love to see adventures with just these too characters. Sinjir and Jas certainly felt like the most developed characters and their growth over the course of Aftermath felt more natural than either Temmin or Nora. I should send a shout out to Mr. Bones. I never thought a battle droid could be terrifying. But this one is.
While it’s almost inevitable I’m not sure comparisons are entirely to Heir to the Empire are entirely fair. Star Wars fans were in a completely different emotional and mental state in 1991 as compared to now. With no new Star War sequels in sight it was easy for Zahn to focus on the main characters of the Original Trilogy and it’s difficult to say how much reader’s initial emotional investment in Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, and the rest of the gang influenced their response to Heir to the Empire. To place things in further perspective between 1977 and 2014 while only 6 “main” movies were filmed there were over 300 Star Wars books published (in 2007 alone Del Rey/LucasBooks printed 1.5 million copies of Star Wars books). With the vast majority of those novels no longer official canon it’s easy to see the mountain of material that Chuck Wendig and Aftermath is essentially competing with. I’m not even sure his work would have a chance when it comes to the reader who picked up Heir the Empire in 1991 and spent the better part of a quarter century following his or her favorite characters. How can you compete against that? The easy answer is: you don’t. Aftermath has the unenvious moving Star Wars forward into a new era underneath the shadow of a veritable mountain of printed work. With such an immense burden placed upon this book and it isn’t a surprise that bows under the pressure. Aftermath is an entertaining Star Wars novel that sets up a new era of adventure in a universe that while familiar may not be exactly same one that many fans remember. I for one look forward to seeing where things go next....more
End Time isn’t Keith Korman’s first novel but it appears to be his first solo novel written in quite some time. As a fan of the apocalyptic genre I waEnd Time isn’t Keith Korman’s first novel but it appears to be his first solo novel written in quite some time. As a fan of the apocalyptic genre I was definitely intrigued by the title alone. The publisher’s description of the novel reads like a fascinating mashup of science run amok and a rising tide of supernatural occurrences. I found this to be an interesting combination and one that we don’t see too often. Unfortunately I found End Time’s combination of supernatural horror and weird science a bit too hap hazard.
The street performer glimpsed as the novel opens is the reality-warping Pie Piper. Yes, that Pied Piper. With the ability to edit reality at will his influence begins to seep across the world as his voice and visage begins to pop up everywhere along with his calling card: the image of Felix the Cat. In Los Angeles, CHiPs officer Cheryl Gibson is involved in a shooting during a routine stop where she finds the detached arms of young woman on the steering wheel of car. Meanwhile, scientist Bhakti Singh struggles over the disappearance of his daughter and her friend and sets out on a quest to find them even as the town he abandons descends into madness. Billy Howakhan, a Lakota Sioux and retired Army officer turned Head of Security from a major think tank is dispatched to find out why a project in Texas has seemingly been abandoned; the same project the employed Bhakti Singh. These characters and more (including Bhakti’s wife and sister-in-law, as well as Billy’s boss) are all tied to together in tenuous ways. Their intertwined stories drive the plot of End Time forward.
Korman’s characters are most definitely the high point of End Time. Each character is well defined and unique in various ways but each share an undercurrent of determination that binds them together. For the novel’s three main protagonists that determination is born of tragedy and the weight of the past driving them forward. I was particularly impressed with the instant connection between Gibson and Singh. It felt to me that the two bonded that most clearly in the novel and, while they are later joined by Billy Howakhan, it is the initial bond between those two characters that formed the emotional locus of the novel’s main plot. While the novel has three “main” protagonists the cast of End Time is actually quite larger; it is littered with many other protagonist each involved with their own small thread of End Time’s confusing web of a plot. Guy Poole and his wife Lauren (Lauren is Bhakti Singh’s sister-in-law) are involved in a New England ghost story whose connections to the strange goings on in End Time is slow to be revealed and is hazy at best. “Cowboy Clem” Lattimore (the employer of both Bhakti and Billy), the owner of Lattimore Aerospace, focuses on finding out what happened to his missing scientific team and dispatches Billy to witness the retrieval of an experimental material returning from a field test in space. Lattimore further delves into his parent’s past history with the Nazi’s as well as conspiracies theories and weird science. Elsewhere in the novel the Pied Piper takes in a protégé known only as the Kid adding yet another character who takes up a significant amount of narrative page count and whose potential for redemption forms yet another important plot point.
All of these disparate threads would make interesting plots in their own right however they don’t do much but turn End Time into a cluttered mess. The initial emotional involvement, particularly with Bhakti and Cheryl, is squandered as the novel meanders across these disparate plot threads. With Guy and Lauren you have what could be an interesting haunted house story. With Billy, Bhakti, and Cheryl and the Pied Piper you have what could be an amazing story of supernatural body horror. With “Cowboy Clem” Lattimore you have what could be a great conspiracy story; add a dash of Eleanoar Singh’s narrative into the mix and you have a really great story of science run amok. Unfortunately, End Time only manages to remain interesting enough to keep one reading. There are glimpses of greatness but never anything more and novel’s conclusion remains completely unsatisfying. End Time was not the novel for me....more