by Chris Tobias
I recently flew out to Los Angeles and back on a bargain airline. I’m sure you know the type– the seats don’t recline, there is no such thing as free snacks on board, and the idea of “in-flight entertainment” is laughable. To make the flights of nearly five hours a little more bearable, I took the opportunity to read the second Firefly novel from Titan Books, Firefly: The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove (who is best known for The Age of Odin and several Sherlock Holmes novels).
If you read my review of Lovegrove’s first Firefly novel (Big Damn Hero, which he wrote based on an original concept by Nancy Holder), you may recall that I said it read like a lost episode of the series. Although the events of this book are supposed to take place between the end of the TV series and the movie Serenity, it still has that same overall feel.
The plot is a tried-and-true Western standard: an old flame of Jayne Cobb’s contacts him with a desperate plea for help because her town, a desert outpost on a planet called Thetis, is threatened with being overrun by a gang of savage outlaws. The crew of Serenity represents their only hope for salvation, and although Captain Malcolm Reynolds initially has no desire to get involved, his crew eventually convinces him that coming to the aid of the oppressed townsfolk would be the right thing to do. When they arrive, they soon find themselves standing alone against a trigger-happy army, their only assistance coming from Jayne’s ex-girlfriend, Temperance McCloud, and her daughter– a girl who was born less than a year after she and Jayne parted ways– a girl named Jane.
I’ll let you do the math…
To be honest, this book is full of tropes, and borrows very heavily from things we’ve already seen in Firefly and Serenity. Even its title is a direct rip-off of the classic Yul Brynner Western The Magnificent Seven. The book’s premise is kind of a rehash of the Firefly episode “Heart of Gold,” and Lovegrove admits as much by having the characters refer to that escapade in the story. Bar fights involving the crew are reminiscent of the episodes “The Train Job” and “Shindig” from the TV series. There is a 1v1 confrontation complete with references to the duel in “Shindig,” and a high-speed chase reminds the reader of the crew’s narrow escape from Reavers in early scenes from Serenity. One might think that this “been there, done that” aspect of the story might be a turn-off (I know it was one of the biggest issues I had with Star Wars: the Force Awakens), but here’s the thing– it works!
If you are a fan of the Firefly TV-series, then this book is a lot of fun. You can tell that Lovegrove is growing more comfortable with the characters, because their dialogue (including Chinese) and their interactions with one another seem even more comfortable and genuine in this book than in the first. There was hardly ever a moment that felt forced or an Easter egg that was so obviously planted that it pulled me out of the narrative. The pacing of the story is excellent, and unlike the first book, this novel gave every member of Serenity’s crew an equal opportunity to shine in a way that even Joss Whedon himself (who serves as a consulting editor for this book series) would be proud of.
Another thing that made this book so enjoyable is the cast of supporting characters that Lovegrove has imagined. The antagonist, Elias Vandal, is a very worthy Firefly villain, and his second in command, Shem, has more layers than your typical evil henchman. Temperance and Jane McCloud are a couple of feisty, strong-willed, tough fighters who fit right in with other female characters of the Whedonverse, and young Jane’s interaction with both River and Jayne is as endearing as it is entertaining. Throw in a bumbling mayor and a mysterious character from Inara’s past, and you have a very fine mix of characters that provides a certain freshness to the story despite any tropes that might otherwise have inspired a sense of déjà vu.
I read most of this book in one sitting, so for me it really did play out as if I were watching an episode of Firefly in my head. There were a couple of plot points that I found predictable, but that really didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story. James Lovegrove is proving to be a writer who is becoming increasingly adept at adapting the Firefly universe to prose, much like Nancy Holder and Christopher Golden were known for doing with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although he is not the author of the next installment in this series (Firefly: Generations, which is scheduled for release on October 15, is written by British horror and dark fantasy writer Tim Lebbon), I would definitely welcome the chance to read more tales from the ‘verse by Lovegrove. If I had to give a grade to his latest work, I’d say Firefly: The Magnificent Nine deserves a solid “A.”
Overall, these Titan novels are achieving a certain “Firefly feel” that takes me back to those days when the show and the movie were still relatively new experiences for me. They’re enabling me to “get lost in the ‘verse” again in a way that the new Boom! Studios comics haven’t quite managed. I look forward to reading the third book in the fall, and I sincerely hope that Titan considers more Firefly and Serenity novels in the future. If you consider yourself a Browncoat and have been starving for more adventures of Serenity and her crew, then I highly recommend you give these books a try. They are available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major booksellers.
Peace, love and rockets…
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