All 2020 reviews - Shastrix Books

2020

All reviews

The Last Day

The Last Day

Andrew Hunter Murray

22nd March 2020

I’ve been listening to Andrew Hunter Murray on the No Such Thing As A Fish podcast for many years, and so when I heard that he’d published a novel I bought it immediately without pause for thought. It’s probably not what I’d usually buy, but I’m totally happy with my decision in this case.

It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future Britain following an entirely fictional massive environmental disaster, which unlike our own isn’t caused by ourselves. The world is dystopian, and we’re slowly introduced to the horrors by our main character - a scientist who’s been away from Britain studying the seas for a few years.

The story is good, the narrative is good (better than some extremely high profile thrillers I’ve read, and in this case a first-time novelist), and the world building is incredible. I mean it paints a picture of a terrifyingly believable future world - one that I can easily see ours descending into following some sort of natural disaster… which when I read it felt like we were heading towards (although as I write this we’ve been surprised by a totally different one!).

I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with the resolution - it felt a bit like there was more conclusion that I wanted, but it is reminiscent of other classic dystopian tales. There might be room for a sequel, but I don’t think one is necessary - the story that I think the book wants to tell isn’t the plot, but is in the allegory for real life.

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False Value

False Value

Ben Aaronovitch

22nd March 2020

The eight full-length novel in the Peter Grant / Rivers of London series is happily back in the territory of the stand-alone adventure, after the previous novel’s slightly confusing attempt to wrap up some ongoing plot threads. We meet Peter, recently having left the police, as he begins a new job as a security guard for a high tech business in London.

I mean, it’s great. The plot takes some real world elements and adds some magical twists, the character’s lives keep moving along outside this at a realistic pace. The cast of characters is as rich, detailed, and amusing as always, and the interactions between the characters are great fun.

This novel contains a great collection of references and jokes - particularly to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series - as well as some humour at its own expense, particularly around how the character has come to speak in policese. I’m not sure how well this would work for readers who aren’t familiar with the source material of these references - but then I don’t know whether the Venn diagram of readers will have a large segment of Aaronovitch but not Adams readers.

The one thing that always throws me about this series though continues - a feeling that I’ve missed something. Between each novel it seems that things have been happening to the characters - almost like they have real lives and we are only seeing brief windows in the novels. But this always leaves me feeling slightly confused about some elements and unsure whether they are things I’ve forgotten, or things I’m just meant to infer from the text.

Overall though, another really fantastic novel.

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The Last Best Hope

The Last Best Hope

Una McCormack

20th March 2020

The Last Best Hope is the first tie-in novel for the new Star Trek: Picard TV series, in which we return to the era of the Next Generation to find out what’s been happening some 25 years later. The novel serves as a prequel to the series, and fills in the detail of some of the events 14 years earlier, charting how the effects of events depicted in the 2009 movie affected this, the prime timeline, and led directly to where me meet Picard now.

Although the novel was published after episode 3, I think it’s best read after episode 4 - as it covers a lot of the detail of things that are alluded to in the first four episodes, and could be considered a spoiler if you’ve not seen these already. Arguably, you might want to watch episode 5 first too, but I think it works well after episode 4.

I maintain that Una McCormack is one of the best Star Trek authors out there, and I was incredibly pleased to hear she was writing this. It’s an amazingly well told tale of incredibly difficult times, and she successfully weaves in Star Trek’s classic parallels to today without it seeming in any way forced. The characters leap out of the page in a way that’s almost greater than they do on TV - the background really helps in engaging and empathising with them in the TV series too.

I have to be a little disappointed that the new TV series effectively erases a good chunk of the storyline that I’ve enjoyed reading in the novels over the past decades, and this book sits solidly in the new canon, though there are a few small nods where possible. I’m glad however that the reason the novel continuity has ended is positive - that we have a new TV series which is quite possibly the best written Trek yet.

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The Road to Mars

The Road to Mars

Eric Idle

19th March 2020

I picked this novel up in a charity shop based primarily on knowing who the author is, and was really pleased when I eventually got around to reading it. It’s the tale of two comedians, who having failed in auditioning for a job on a cruise ship, attempt to head to Mars seeking work, only for everything to go wrong.

It’s funny, but it’s also a good story, with real characters who have real lives, and an almost over complex number of layers of things going on at the same time (although not). There are many references back to comedians of the 20th Century - nods and winks as it were - including to the work of Douglas Adams, and indeed a particularly amusing few pages of fourth-wall breaking as one of the characters discusses the work and life of the novel’s actual author.

A good book that accompanied me on some unusual journeys - and more than I might have hoped for.

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Death is Forever

Death is Forever

John Gardner

19th March 2020

The twelfth James Bond novel published by long-standing continuation author John Gardner sees the British secret agent embracing the mores of the early 1990s as he investigates the disappearance of some former agents around Europe.

In some senses, it’s a classic Bond novel - exotic travel on the latest high class trains, female characters with absurdly suggestive names, and over-the-top villains. Yet it’s almost spoilt by Gardner’s attempts to make it work as a contemporary story - these things seem cheesy and forced into the novel, rather than the airy, natural feeling of being in place in the original Fleming stories (not that every line of Fleming’s has survived the test of time!).

I remember reading this novel as a teenager, yet only one line has stuck in my mind and the plot was totally alien. That the line in question was entirely inconsequential and entirely about trying to seem in place in the 1990s only emphasises the feeling I expressed above.

As a novel, it’s okay - but it’s not Gardner’s best entry in the series.

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The Phantom Freighter

The Phantom Freighter

Franklin W Dixon, Amy McFarlane & Priscilla Baker-Carr

16th March 2020

Another classic from the heyday of the original Hardy Boys (albeit the re-written version from the 60s in my case) sees the two detectives and their friends trying to help a random man they meet plan a holiday.

It’s an unusual setup, and there’s a surprising amount of different things going on - but it adds up into a good story that I enjoyed reading. I’m fairly confident this is one that I’ve not read before (although the line is starting to get blurry now as I fill in all the gaps in my collection).

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Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Ransom Riggs

9th February 2020

I picked up a really nice, surprisingly heavy, hardback edition of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from a charity shop, and was surprised to find I was reading a story with great similarity to the film based upon it.

It’s the story of a boy who doesn’t believe his grandfather’s stories of monsters and peculiar friends, but when he sees one, he sets of on an adventure to find out more about his ancestor’s youth.

It’s a good fun story, mysterious and fantastical, and punctuated by peculiar photographs (which the author reveals at the end are all authentic vintage pictures which inspired the story).

What I found most startling though was how closely the filmmakers followed the story. This was a bit distracting actually, as it meant the images in my head were of the actors. Until suddenly the stories divided, and the book went somewhere else entirely.

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The Captain's Honour

The Captain's Honour

David Dvorkin & Daniel Dvorkin

9th February 2020

This Next Generation original tie-in novel is set toward the end of season one, and published in the late 1980s. It’s fairly typical of the sort of planet-of-the-week adventures common in novels of the time, but the content feels dated.

The Enterprise is called to help another Starfleet vessel which is defending a new member planet from invasion by an aggressive neighbour, but it soon becomes clear that their colleagues have some differences from Captain Picard and his crew.

There’s a lot of focus on a never-before-seen member of the Enterprise crew, and the text has the feeling of having been written (in the first half) as if this role was intended to be filled by Tasha Yar (who the TV series had already killed off) and then rewritten to work by substituting a random.

There’s also a lot that doesn’t gel with a later understanding of the Star Trek universe. The way that Federation membership works, the way that Starfleet crews work, and the backstory of Captain Picard all feel quite off - in some cases they are more Original Series-esque, which I suppose makes sense given the lack of TNG materiel the authors would have had to work with.

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Agent Running in the Field

Agent Running in the Field

John le Carré

9th February 2020

John le Carré’s latest spy novel shows all the hallmarks of a man who, despite being 88 years old, still has an deep understanding of everything modern, and how the lives of his characters will be both different, and the same, as they were when he started writing.

The story is one of Nat, a spy approaching the end of his career, returning to the UK and finding himself in a surprisingly complex set of circumstances. There are strong hallmarks of themes that run throughout le Carré’s novels, but the book stands alone and has a number of amusing moments as well as feeling deadly serious.

The author does seem to be using the novel to also make some political points. At first I thought this was just good characterisation, and the timing of my reading the novel a coincidence, but it turns out the author was repeating the views of his characters in newspaper editorials. I’m not sure how this will go down with some of his readers.

I’ve very much got back into spy novels over the last few years, and am enjoying them much more than modern crime novels, which just seem to have become gorenographic. The ingenuity and tradecraft depicted is much more attractive to me than brutal thrillers, and le Carré easily remains the top of the game.

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Starsight

Starsight

Brandon Sanderson

9th February 2020

The second novel of Spensa, a woman who has grown up on humanity’s last refuge, and become a pilot to help defend her world. Starlight starts without an obvious direction to go in - the plot of the first novel, while leaving space for the sequel, didn’t make the onward path obvious.

So I was happy to find that Sanderson has found a way to advance the plot, and of course his all-important worldbuilding, without dramatically shifting the tone of the narrative. We’re still aligned with Spensa, exploring an unfamiliar environment, learning so much, and facing an even bigger threat than before.

I didn’t find the novel as captivating as I had expected though. It’s not non-captivating, just not to the level I have come to expect from Sanderson’s novels. There are evident similarities between the style of the narrative here with his previous young adult novels, but it’s clearly grown since Alcatraz into something I can at least engage with without being put off.

What I loved the most about this novel is the worldbuilding - that Sanderson is taking all the little seeds that he planted in the first book and growing them into surprising new directions, that either make you feel a bit dumb for not seeing where it was going, or make you rethink your understanding, or just make you go wow.

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Blue Moon

Blue Moon

Lee Child

9th February 2020

In what it turns out might be one of Lee Child’s last novels about his hero Jack Reacher (not a spoiler - he has announced he’s handing over authorial duties to his brother), we visit a small town run by two rival gangs, between whom a turf war is triggered based on something of a misunderstanding.

It’s a good story, with some interesting guest characters and a lot of action. It’s also something of a tragedy in places, and a comedy in many. However it’s come a long way I think from the early Reacher novels.

Back in the day, the writing style was distinctive in its use of short, punchy sentences. Now the narrative has more of a flow, more like other novels. The character of Reacher seems to have lost some of his old characteristics, or at least toned them down. He’s become friendlier, and he’s clearly becoming older. And yet maybe that feels right - maybe age and experience has changed the character, and the books have changed along to suit that.

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The Sand Men

The Sand Men

Christopher Fowler

9th February 2020

This is the first of Fowler’s books I’ve read outside the Bryant and May series, and I was slightly trepidatious. The cover reminded me of a book I recently read by another author, which was desert-based urban fantasy, and which I didn’t get on with. However I needn’t have worried.

It’s the story of a family - father, mother, and daughter - whose lives change when they move from London to Dubai, as the father obtains a job on a massive construction project. But of course this wouldn’t be a story if everything was as it seems.

There’s a familiar feel to the opening - a slight hint of dark fantasy that in the light of day becomes human agency. A mystery and paranoia, and a sense that you aren’t quite sure who to believe - particularly in this case as the narrative is very focussed on one viewpoint, with just hints that the other characters have quite interesting lives going on in parallel.

I felt the plot became more rushed as it went on, but that may be reflective of my variable reading pace. There was also a large chunk of narrative that confused me, and left me not knowing exactly what I was meant to believe was happening. As a result I’m not sure I felt the conclusion was satisfactory.

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Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander

Suzanne Collins

2nd February 2020

I had no idea until recently that Suzanne Collins had written a series before The Hunger Games, but when I found out I decided to keep my eyes open, and it wasn’t long before I found a copy of this - the tale of Gregor, a down-on-his-luck teenager from New York who accidentally follows his younger sister into an unusual subterranean world.

It’s a fairly straightforward tale of rescue, with a classic set of main characters, plus a well considered amount of world-building. There’s a feeling that is reminiscent of Hunger Games somehow, but not in a way I can quite put my finger on.

The narrative is clearly written for a younger reader, though this doesn’t spoil the enjoyment for an older one, and it would likely serve as a good adventure for generations to read together. My only real criticism would be that I wasn’t quite able to picture some parts of the world - although to be fair that might be a deficiency of my imagination rather than the author’s descriptive skills.

While I’m not planning to dive into the sequels right away, if I see them around then I think I’d be tempted to pick them up.

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Stardust

Stardust

Neil Gaiman

2nd February 2020

I’ve read a couple of Neil Gaiman’s books before, and not found them easy to engage with, but this time I had seen the film (albeit some years ago) and enjoyed that, so thought that maybe this would be the Gaiman novel for me.

It’s the story of a young man who grows up on the edge of Fairie, and goes on a misguided adventure there as he reaches adulthood, encountering a number of strange things on his journeys.

Sadly, I found a similar problem to previous Gaiman novels - I struggle to get myself excited by the narrative - I’m not sure what it is exactly, perhaps that something in his choice of language means that I can’t absorb the story at the pace I want to, and this puts me off. As a story it seems solid, reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia in some respects, but I wasn’t able to get excited about it.

I think in future I will stick to consuming Gaiman’s television and film output, which I find entertaining and engaging - the film version of Stardust, his episode of Doctor Who, and the Good Omens series all being fantastic examples of this.

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The Stabbing in the Stables

The Stabbing in the Stables

Simon Brett

2nd February 2020

Slowly making my way through this series, I find myself at book 7, in which amateur sleuths Carole and Jude accidentally find themselves discovering the body of a stabbed stable owner, and becoming once again drawn into a murder investigation in the surprisingly deadly Sussex countryside.

As usual it’s the classic set-up - many suspects, all of whom seem to have something to hide, and problematic relationships with one another, and the detective work of the starring duo is top class.

The guest characters are richly painted - possibly the best set yet - and make the world of the novel more colourful and fun to read. The ongoing lives of the main characters are also slowly teased out a bit further, piquing the interest of the reader and tempting me to continue on to the next book.

A good, simple adventure that’s modern yet reminiscent of the mysteries of yesteryear - just the sort of crime novel I feel comfortable with.

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Dead Endless

Dead Endless

Dave Galanter

1st February 2020

The sixth novel based on Star Trek: Discovery takes us on an interesting journey following the relationship between Stamens and Culber, focussed on a period that lightly intersects with events depicted in the second season - it’s important I think to have watched season two (as well as season one) before reading.

As with other novels in the series, the author has worked to avoid doing too much that could later be contradicted by the canon, but Galanter has taken an interesting direction with this, which I won’t talk too much about. Suffice it to say that it’s genius.

It’s a clever plot, shows the characters emotional depth, builds up slowly, like a mystery peeling back layers on what’s going on at the perfect pace for the reader to keep just one step ahead, hinting slightly more before finally reaching somewhere unexpectedly delightful.

I’ve been really impressed with the Discovery novels so far, and this has to be one of the best. A great tale well told.

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Arcanum Unbounded

Arcanum Unbounded

Brandon Sanderson

2nd January 2020

This is the second time I’ve read the Emperor’s Soul - my memory of what happened was barely existent from when I first read it nearly six years ago. It’s a really strong opener to this volume, standing alone despite being set in the world of “Elantris” and requiring no prior knowledge of Sanderson’s works. It does the standard Brandon thing of introducing a world and a magic system through a compelling character in an unusual situation, and does it masterfully.

The Hope of Elantris is like a deleted scene from the original novel, and fairly near the end I think, so contains a number of spoilers. It’s been six years since I read the novel, so took me a few pages to get my bearings again and remember the key aspects of the plot. But that done, it’s a great little short story about one character’s moments in this world.

The Eleventh Metal is a little bit of Mistborn backstory. It’s a nice little introduction to the Mistborn world, but didn’t feel like it added a lot to the overall mythos or character. It’s been quite a while since I read the original Mistborn trilogy though, so my memories of Kelsier’s story are patchy.

The third Mistborn short is a fiction within a fiction. It’s the sensational newspaper account of Allomancer Jak - and Indiana Jones style character. It’s very reminiscent of the author’s Alcatraz novels in tone, and feels a bit like it’s trying to be Pratchett-esque (Sanderson has stated that Terry Pratchett is his own favourite author) - but I’ve never quite got this form of Sanderson, feeling like it’s missing a layer of satire or sarcasm and being a bit too in-your-face with silliness.

Mistborn: Secret History - another story I’ve read before, but barely remember, tells a second story of things that were happening alongside the original trilogy. As such it’s massively spoilerific. It’s a long time since I’ve read the trilogy, so I read synopses if each novel from the internet before entering each part, and that felt like it stood me in good stead to understand. I kind of feel like someday I need to read the two intertwined though, to get a real understanding.

White Sand is presented interestingly as both the opening chapters of the graphic novel (which I have read about half of previously), and as the opening chapters of the unpublished prose version upon which it was based. As before, I found the graphic version hard to consume. I don’t think my brain works in the right way to read graphic novels - I just focus on the words, so miss the artwork and the visual elements of the storytelling. However I found the prose version of the story much more engaging and compelling, and found myself wishing this was the version I had available to read in full.

Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell is a shorter story I’ve read before in the Dangerous Women anthology, but which my memory of was patchy. It’s a dark short set in a world that Sanderson will hopefully return to one day, as there’s clearly a lot of potential. It’s a tad reminiscent of Peter V Brett’s Daemon Cycle in terms of the world building, and there’s a slight sense that Star Trek’s Borg might have been a part of the inspiration.

Sixth of the Dust is a new story to me. It’s another great new world to explore, with a fascinating idea for a magic system, and a nice few moral messages to go alongside. One I greatly enjoyed reading.

The final 40,000 words of this collection make up Edgdancer, a Stormlight Archive novella, which I really enjoyed. It’s written in the slightly more casual form reminiscent of Sanderson’s Alcatraz, which is a nice fit for the character of Lift, despite taking me a while to get used to. It almost feels like it’s tying to be Pratchett-esque, but without the satirical element I’m not sure this works. The plot here feels surprisingly important, and I’d be a little concerned that casual Stormlight readers would miss it and just read the main series - although having said that I’m not sure there is such as thing as a ‘casual’ reader of Brandon Sanderson’s works.

Overall, this is a great collection, and I’ve really enjoyed both revisiting the works I’ve read before, and taking in the new ones for the first time.

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The Book of the Year

The Book of the Year

James Harkin, Andrew Hunter Murray, Anna Ptaszynski & Dan Schreiber

2nd January 2020

So it’s taken me a surprisingly long time - two years - to get to the end of this review of 2017, wherein the stars of (possibly) the world’s biggest podcast, No Such Thing As a Fish, have collected all the unusual news stories of the year.

It’s a fun trip around the lighter side of the news, although something about the pages in combination with my bathroom lights seems to interfere with my eyes, making it slightly hard to read.

Good fun, and I might even look out for the 2018 edition now…

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The Norfolk Mystery

The Norfolk Mystery

Ian Sansom

2nd January 2020

This first mystery in the County Guides series spends a lot of time introducing us to the main characters before what is ostensibly the plot kicks off.

While generally inoffensive (although some of the characters are painted in a dated light to reflect the time the story is set), there’s little to say for the story.

The characters aren’t particularly compelling, and the mystery doesn’t seem to follow the classic setup that allows the reader to follow along with the clues.

Ultimately, a bit boring - I’m not really sure what compelled me to pick this up, and I doubt I’ll put much effort into following the rest of the series.

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The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch

2nd January 2020

I don’t remember where I first heard about this book, but when I spotted it on the shelves of the book shop I scooped it up and have been waiting for read it for a few months. It opened with an introduction by Joe Abercrombie, who described this book as better than his. I did not get on with the Abercrombie novel I read a few years ago, so was immediately wary - but it turns out I didn’t need to worry.

The story dives into excellence, beginning as it means to go on. The opening chapters in particular are entertaining and do brilliantly to set up the characters and story. The world is left with broad brush strokes, as a lot isn’t immediately of relevance, and the story focusses on the characters and their activities.

Lynch has crafted a masterful tale with interwoven timelines that reveal just the right information to make the plot work and keep the reader entertained. The pace really picks up as the story unfolds as well, with events coming so rapidly that I was shocked and had to take a break from all the drama!

A really great opening novel in this series, and I can’t wait to pick up the sequels and continue reading.

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The Mystery of the Strange Messages

The Mystery of the Strange Messages

Enid Blyton

2nd January 2020

This is the absolute classic Five Find-Outers mystery. One of the best investigations that Fatty and his friends have had, and possibly one of the best that Enid Blyton ever wrote.

The clues stack up in turn like a grown-up detective story, and allow the reader to slowly piece things together at the same pace as the characters.

Erin’s guest appearance stands out as a returning legend of the series, and the focus on him and Fatty, and what feels like quite revealing points about their relative social status, and indeed a plot that in places seems to be part commentary on social issues, feels quite a diversion from the earlier books in the series which were very focussed on prim and proper behaviour.

Like I say, the best novel of Blyton’s I’ve read.

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The Guardians

The Guardians

John Grisham

2nd January 2020

I was worried when I started reading this Grisham novel that it was just going to be the same again - he’s written the story of a man on death row over and over again - but it managed to retain my interest and tell an interesting story from a slightly different angle.

It does feel though like this is a bit cookie cutter - Grisham can clearly output legal thrillers almost with his eyes shut now, and his other works seem to be the ones that have more interesting characters and plots, exploring other genres. The narrative here is perfunctory and dry - the classic Grisham move of sticking to fact fact fact, and not adding emotion or colour - it does read a bit like it’s being narrated by a neutral lawyer rather than someone passionate.

An enjoyable read, but not particularly anything special - and I am beginning to wonder whether I want to keep investing my time in reading Grisham’s output.

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Collateral Damage

Collateral Damage

David Mack

2nd January 2020

Billed as the final episode in a series of Star Trek follow-on novels that have been published over nearly 20 years, wrapping everything up before the new Star Trek: Picard TV series begins in early 2020 - however that’s not really what it is.

This story does feel like it’s wrapping up some of the threads that have been explored over a lot of books though, with Picard returning to Earth to defend his record, while Worf takes the Enterprise on a complicated mission, which also serves as something of a follow-up to some of the previous events, while doing the traditional Star Trek thing of providing a mirror to our world.

It’s a really good, solid Star Trek novel, that explores a lot of important themes in a way which treats the characters with respect. I did feel in places that it cut between scenes a bit more frequently than I felt necessary - feeling a bit like it was afraid one of the plot lines might be too boring if not mixed up constantly with the other, more action-packed plot.

A happy place if it is the final novel we see from this era of Star Trek - though I hope it’s not, as I’ve got a lot of pleasure over the years from reading these continued adventures - as excited as I am about the new TV series, I hope the novels are able to continue too.

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