Una McCormack brings a new voice to the Firefly series of novels. She seamlessly slips into the supplemental literature with Carnival just as effectively as those previously written by James Lovegrove and Tim Lebbon. McCormack’s foray into the Firefly universe introduces us to a future analog of Las Vegas in Neapolis, an oasis of luxury and fortune in the middle of the desolate, desert world of Bethel. Hired for a legitimate security job, Mal and the crew are expected to escort a shipment of valuable minerals to the dock where they’re to be loaded up and shipped off-world. As one should expect, things don’t go according to plan, and the shipment is hijacked. We’re treated to numerous, more intimate stories within the larger tale of Carnival, as small groups of Serenity’s crew experience adventures, both exciting and illuminating. Readers are likely thrilled to learn more about Simon’s life before he rescued River from The Alliance, exploring some of his time studying to be a surgeon. We also witness more of Shepherd Book’s secret talents from the past he prefers to keep shrouded in mystery. There’s high stakes gambling, human trafficking, political and social upheaval, and all the wit and charm you’d expect from the Firefly characters getting mixed up in these things. James Anderson Foster again brings the narrative to life with his excellent grasp of the nuance and cadence of the characters. I’d be hard-pressed to listen to a Firefly audiobook that wasn’t narrated by Foster unless it had the full-cast providing their character narrations, but he’s the next best thing.
With Life Signs, James Lovegrove addresses one of the well-known–though never overtly stated–elements of the Firefly narrative. Had the show been allowed to flourish–beyond the abbreviated single season–it would have become a plot point that Inara was dying before she’d ever joined the crew of Serenity. There were hints and allusions in the existing episodes, setting the stage for that revelation, but Firefly didn’t have sufficient time to delve into the assorted elements it was establishing. When it came time to create Serenity as a follow-up to the series, the fat had to be trimmed, to make a story that would appeal to both the disaffected fans of the original series as well as a new audience not already immersed in what had come before. There was no time to dig into the more obscure details that only the most die-hard fans were aching to see as the filmmakers’ focus. Thus, a whole narrative thread was snipped and allowed to drift away like a leaf on the wind. Thanks to a team of writers who never stopped fleshing out the world of The Verse, there have been graphic novels as well as these supplemental novels providing us with answers to questions we had as well as some we’d never thought to ask. This book, more than the other four, satisfies the Firefly fan by addressing Inara’s sickness. It also provides a much-desired glimpse into the story that was taking place between the conclusion of Firefly and the opening scenes of Serenity. Because this story relies on the reader having been previously introduced to characters who weren’t set up during the television series, it makes sense that Life Signs is the fifth of these releases. Learning of Inara’s terminal cancer, Mal is desperate to find some way to restore the woman he loves to good health. The knowledge that there is a scientist who might have developed a cure sends Mal and the crew of Serenity on a trajectory that leads to a distant, frozen prison planet where The Alliance deposits only those they most want out of sight and out of mind. In the frigid wastes of Atata, the crew faces impossible odds as Mal’s desperation to save Inara endangers everyone. Alliance forces, dangerous inmates, mutated predators brought about by failed terraforming, and an environment unsuitable for human life might be less hazardous than the quixotic pursuit Mal leads Zoe, Jane, and Simon on as he drives them toward unknown dangers. As with all of the previous installments in this series, James Anderson Foster does a superb job of bringing the characters to life with his expert narration.
When Jonathan Maberry assembles an anthology, a discerning reader should expect a certain degree of excellence from the final product; that is doubly so when that anthology includes material from authors like Christopher Golden, Weston Ochse, Brian Keene, Scott Sigler, and Maberry himself. Aliens: Bug Hunt is certainly no exception. Pitched by Maberry to the decision-makers handling the literary universe that’s evolved from Ridley Scott’s Alien universe as a series of vignettes, deep-diving into the lives and experiences of the men and women of the Colonial Marines, it’s a magnificent thing to behold. The collection is kicked off with Paul Kupperberg’s Chance Encounter. He takes us to a far-off planet where low gravity provides a lattice for massive trees to spear the sky and equally impressive jellyfish-like creatures to float amid the highest branches. Unfortunately, for the expedition on-site to collect samples, there’s another lifeform preying on those Floaters and happy to prey on any other lifeforms making themselves available. Like many of these stories, this one focuses on greed and selfishness, and the disastrous consequences when we allow those traits to guide our actions, much as James Cameron’s Aliens did. Reaper by Dan Abnett introduces us to a world where the corporation’s attempt to grow and harvest grain awakens a swarming colony of organisms with no objective but to consume all available organic material before returning to hibernation, awaiting new growth and new food for the swarm. Rachel Caine’s Broken introduces us to Bishop, detailing his first minutes of awakened existence and the fateful mission that ultimately brings him into the company of Apone and crew. Reclamation introduces us to Hicks, long before the events of Aliens, as Yvonne Navarro shares the story of his marriage and his desperate struggle to understand what happened to his wife on a mission that stole her from him five years earlier. Christopher Golden’s Blowback takes us into the life of Dietrich, quite some time before her fateful mission to LV-426. We witness first-hand the turmoil of romance within the Colonial Marines as death can come from any direction, at any time. Numerous familiar faces populate this story, from Apone and Hicks to Hudson and Vasquez. Exterminators by Matt Forbeck provides us with another glimpse into Dietrich’s life as she and Frost make their way to a bar on an out-of-the-way colony, only to discover that R&R is not in the cards for them. Ray Garton’s No Good Deed takes us to LV-426 before the events of Aliens, as a bounty hunter and her sarcastic android chase two escaped prisoners to a colony under siege by xenomorphs. But it may turn out that the aliens aren’t necessarily the most dangerous creatures on the planet. A most peculiar and horrifying encounter with a different sort of alien sucks us into Zero To Hero by Weston Ochse. As a cowardly Colonial Marine discovers untapped reservoirs of heroism, he discovers that he might have been better off staying home and playing video games. David Farland’s Dark Mother shares the final hours of Burke’s life after he failed to get Ripley and Newt impregnated as hosts during the events of Aliens. Episode 22 by Larry Correia details the history of the M41A pulse rifle in a fictional documentary format that is strangely captivating. Keith R. A. DeCandido provides us with a glimpse into the hazardous life of an embedded journalist in Deep Background, as a group of Colonial Marines investigates a potential attempt by Weyland-Yutani to cultivate and study the xenomorphs on another planet, with another unsuspecting group of civilians. Brian Keene’s Empty Nest takes us to another xenomorph infestation and provides us with a glimpse of just how far a mother will go to be a mother. Darkness Falls introduces us to a retired Colonial Marine, desperate to find peace and security in a colony where she expected never to see xenomorphs again. Heather Graham’s is the only story where we get to witness the adaptations of the xenomorph depending on the organism they’re using for a host, and it’s a horrifying outcome. Hugs To Die For by Mike Resnick and Marina J. Lostetter showcases a fine example of corporate hubris, as a small group of Colonial Marines receives a tour of a facility where xenomorph blood is being harvested for industrial use. Maberry’s own Deep Black returns us to the prison colony from Alien 3, long after the events from the movie. A three-man team arrives on the planet, learning that all has not been as quiet as expected. Distressed by James A. Moore introduces us to what is the most horrifying and indescribable alien lifeform of this collection, dragging us along on a surreal, disorienting battle against something virtually impossible to fight. Scott Sigler’s Dangerous Prey takes us into the alien minds of xenomorphs themselves, and the experience is altogether more captivating than one might expect, becoming part of the hive. Spite by Tim Lebbon takes a squad of Colonial Marines into conflict with a species of alien with a scorched earth methodology. The narrators for these stories were superb in almost all respects, most notably James Anderson Foster, Priya Ayyar, Suzanne Elise, Michael David Axtell, and Grover Gardner. Those were just my personal favorites of the narrators involved, but there wasn’t a single one who didn’t thoroughly immerse the listener.
Firefly: Generations begins with the story of a map. This star map changes hands many times, through treachery or happenstance, but this is no mere map, and those who take it into their possession seem to somehow recognize that fact without being fully conscious of it. The truth of the map only reveals itself when it finds its way into the hands of River Tam, where hidden machinery embedded in the material activates. From there, we find ourselves following most of Serenity’s crew into the outer reaches of the verse, where deadly secrets await them amidst an awe-inspiring relic of the history before mankind reached their new homes on the planets and moons the Firefly crew is familiar with. This novel falls somewhere after the prematurely canceled television series, though before Inara and Book had permanently left the crew and retired to the locations where we meet them again in the movie Serenity. Tim Lebbon takes the helm in this fourth Firefly novel, telling us a story that fills in gaps in the mystery that is the life of River Tam, the secret experiments conducted by Alliance scientists, and the centuries-past journey from Earth that was. Generations is a far different tale than those contained in the three previous Firefly novels, focusing on the more science fiction elements of the property rather than on the land-based adventures of the crew. It’s a nice transition, receiving this glimpse into the less western-themed exploits of Serenity and the family that calls her home. Foster’s narration seems only to be improving with each subsequent audiobook release. As he more firmly captures the nuances and patterns of speech for the individual characters, one could almost close their eyes and envision the cast playing their parts.
It was bound to happen, but I sort of hoped I would be wrong. Firefly: The Ghost Machine wasn’t the best of the tie-in novels following up the abruptly terminated Firefly series. I’m not suggesting it’s not a good story or that it’s something I’d recommend skipping over, but it wasn’t as good as the previous two books from James Lovegrove. This third installment of the series of books filling in the gap between the Firefly finale and the continuation provided by Serenity falls into the interval after both Inara and Shepherd Book have left Serenity. The loss, relatively recent, leaves a discernable and tender hole in the lives of the remaining crew. Lovegrove’s writing succeeds in capturing that despondency without being heavy-handed about it. At the request of Badger, the crew of Serenity heads to a distant location for recovery of a case containing an unknown device to deliver it to Badger for a client. Unhappy and unsettled by the lack of information provided–as well as Alliance patrols in that region of space–Mal determines he doesn’t like the deal and opts to pass on the money. The supplier doesn’t take kindly to Mal’s repudiation, and bullets fly. Unbeknownst to Mal and the rest of the crew, Jayne sneaks the parcel onto Serenity, and everything goes sideways. The device was designed as a form of mind control and crowd suppression, triggering those in proximity to lapse into hypnogogic states. As the crew of Serenity finds themselves trapped in dreams they can’t rouse themselves from, River is the only one aware of the problem and hopes she’s capable of breaking her family aboard the firefly from their respective trances before it all ends in tragedy. Naturally, we know they come through the other side since Serenity takes place…but we do catch glimpses into the dreams and nightmares of the remaining crew members along the way. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to the story than that. As with the previous books, the narration from James Anderson Foster is spot-on. Aside from a full cast reading of the scripts, I don’t think they could have found a better narrator for these books.
The Magnificent Nine confirms the placement of these Firefly novels–or at least this particular installment–as falling between Objects In Space and the Serenity motion picture. The previous book hadn’t made any specific mention of the events in that episode and thus could have fallen before or after that final episode of the tragically short-lived series. The crew of Serenity is floating adrift, between jobs and looking for work to keep themselves afloat when a message arrives from an old friend of Jayne’s. There’s trouble on the distant, dry–almost desert–world of Thetis. Jayne’s former lover, Temperance, is desperate to find help for her small village. A cruel, savage bandit going by the name of Elias Vandal threatens the survival of all residents of Thetis who won’t bow to his reign or join his cultish band of raiders and criminals. Though there’s no money in the job, it’s the right thing to do, and the crew of Serenity naturally makes their way to Thetis. This group of nine mismatched compatriots is hardly the collection of soldiers or heroes Temperance was expecting, but they might be precisely the heroes the planet needs. While the previous installment, Big Damn Heroes, provided us with a fair bit of additional backstory for Captain Malcolm Reynolds, this book supplements what we know of Jayne Cobb before his time with the crew of Serenity. It’s a satisfying story that could have made for a pretty fantastic episode or two of the series. The narration from James Anderson Foster is just as good as it was for the previous book–and hopefully will be for the remaining handful of Firefly supplemental novels.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I decided to pick up James Lovegrove’s Firefly: Big Damn Hero as an audiobook. That uncertainty and fear of disappointment directly led to the title sitting in my Audible library for an extended period before I chose to give it a listen. The graphic novel mini-series hadn’t been a disappointment, but Joss Whedon was credited with at least co-author status on those titles, with other writers from the television series being his compatriots. In the case of this novel, Lovegrove was not affiliated with the television series, nor was Nancy Holder, the individual who developed the concept behind Big Damn Hero…though Holder had written media tie-in novels associated with other Whedon properties such as Buffy and Angel. So, naturally, I was a little bit iffy about diving into this title…concerned that it might be a letdown. From the beginning of James Anderson Foster’s narration, I knew I’d made a mistake by letting the title sit for so long. This man thoroughly captures the tone and cadence of the characters in such a way that it’s obvious he’s watched Firefly and Serenity more than a time or two…or at least he comes across that way. Mal and Jayne are particularly well-narrated, with Badger, Wash, and Book coming in just a little bit behind those two. His narration of female characters leaves a bit to be desired, but that’s not at all uncommon, so I’m not going to worry altogether too much about it. The story of Big Damn Hero falls somewhere in the timeline after Episode 12 of the Firefly series, The Message, wherein Mal and Zoe put to rest a former comrade-in-arms from the war. There are references to the absurd knit hat Jayne received from his mother, the experience with Tracey (the comrade-in-arms I’d previously mentioned), as well as other threads of the story from earlier in the series. I suspect this story falls not long after The Message and a little while before Heart of Gold, the 13th episode of the show. It definitely takes place before Objects In Space, the final episode. Big Damn Hero centers around Mal and his life before and during the war. As such, it provides a good bit of backstory and character history we’d never encountered during the television show or subsequent movie. The crew arrives on Persephone to take on a hazardous job from Badger, while Mal has arranged a secondary job contact to supplement their cash flow. Pursuit of this second job leads Mal, Zoe, and Jayne to a bar on Alliance Day. If you’ve watched the show, you know what sort of things happen when Mal finds himself in an Alliance-friendly bar on that day of celebration…and that he somehow always seems to find himself in that situation. When Mal disappears, it initially looks like he’s been captured by Alliance loyalists seeking to root out any traitorous Browncoats foolish enough to be out and about on Alliance Day, but the truth is far more painful. As the rest of the crew attempts to solve the mystery and locate their Captain, Mal finds himself confronted by ghosts of his past and the memories, both good and bad, associated with those not-so-friendly faces. It could be that I’m biased by my love of all things Firefly, but this was an excellent way to spend close to ten hours. I recommend this for any fan of the show.