Review by C.J. Bunce
Fifteen years after the last time we saw the crew of the Serenity, the next novel of Joss Whedon’s space Western universe is here to quench your thirst for more Firefly. James Lovegrove’s third Firefly novel, The Ghost Machine, again takes place between the events of season one of the TV series and the Serenity film, but unlike his first two novels (Big Damn Hero, reviewed here, and The Magnificent Nine, reviewed here), which felt like movie prequels to the 2005 film, this new story feels like the next episode of the TV series. It borrows a lot from the series, which will make Browncoats feel like they’re nestling back into familiar territory, while also tapping into tropes fans of science fiction will be familiar with.
The first act finds the crew on one of its trademark jobs to pick up for none other than Badger, the man in the bowler hat, certain strange cargo, that unknown quantity sealed in a can that we’ve seen the series pursue in episodes like The Train Job and The Message, and outside the stories of the ‘Verse in films like The Transporter (it’s not a person this time). The second act reveals what is inside the crate with the Blue Sun label, which Captain Mal Reynolds ultimately decides is too risky to even take aboard his ship, and then wraps readers in a whirlwind of activity as the ramifications of the cargo are played out–sort of. Recall that niggling feeling of the crew–and the viewers–from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect,” and the trapped in a parallel world vibe of the Voyager two-parter “The Killing Game” and dreamscape of “Bliss”? But The Ghost Machine really kicks in with the third act, as everything you’ve read is taken to a different extreme, and a ticking clock propels the reader headlong into a gripping climax. What will it take, and who is the right choice from the crew, to break the spell and reveal the truth behind this unusual Pandora’s jar?
Lovegrove, whose novels we’re reviewed previously here at borg–both from the world of Firefly and his Sherlock Holmes mysteries–is really good at endings, and that’s what makes this story a winner. Along the way the author investigates each crew member’s ideal worlds–and their worst nightmares. This is one of the darker tales from the Firefly ‘verse, on par with the episode “Objects in Space.” Peppered throughout the novel, as you’d expect from anything sourced from the mind of Joss Whedon, who serves as consulting editor on these books, are the Easter eggs, particularly from the Western genre.
River Tam continues to be the best reason to dive into the novels. Lovegrove has made the character more interesting than she was allowed to be in the short-lived season of the show, and she gets to take center stage in this story.
Readers will find some good sci-fi/fantasy beats here, a little The Mandalorian, a little Gremlins, maybe even a little The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, along with every series that has ever addressed the “no peeking” trope.
Now available for the first time, from Titan Books in a deluxe hardcover edition with a shiny ribbon bookmark, Firefly: The Ghost Machine is the next must-read for Browncoats everywhere. Order it here from Amazon.
Next up in the Firefly ‘verse will be the fourth novel in the Titan Books series, with one of our other favorite authors, Tim Lebbon, at the helm. Firefly: Generations is available for pre-order here.