This is the final book in this tumultuous and action-filled military space opera adventure – and I’m so very glad that I took the time to read the first two books before embarking on this one. Indeed, I listened to the first book on audio, which is very well done and I’m hoping the publishers will produce the next two books in this entertaining trilogy. I’ll definitely be keeping a lookout for Johnston’s next offering.
BLURB: As the Zhen Empire descends into civil war, Tajen, Liam, and Katherine each have their own part to play in the final conflict between the human race and the Zhen Empire. As Tajen searches the outer regions in an attempt to find and recruit Zhen deserters to his side, Katherine heads for Marauder space to seek out technology their Tabran allies need.
Liam, believing his two best friends dead, must keep the human fleet alive as it is pursued across the Empire by Zhen forces. As the final battle approaches, each of them will be tested to their limits.
REVIEW: First things first – if you have picked up this one without reading the previous two books in this trilogy, instead seek out The Widening Gyre, which is the first book. While Johnston provides an excellent ‘Story So Far’ roundup at the beginning, you necessarily won’t get anything other than the bare bones of the story. And one of the main strengths of the narrative is how the main characters grow and change in the face of the challenges confronting them.
Secondly, for those of you who, like me, are interested in such things, I was intrigued by the titles – not least because they rang annoying bells that I know I’d have recalled before being smitten with Long Covid. And sure enough, Johnston helpfully provides a copy of the poem ‘The Second Coming’ by W.B. Yeats from where all his titles originate. It’s a fabulous piece of writing and nicely chimes with the overarching menace facing humanity in this adventure.
I’m not going to claim that this adventure is anything particularly original – the scenario of nasty aliens threatening to expunge humanity from the universe is as cosily familiar as a late-night cup of cocoa. However, the manner in which our hapless species has been done over by the Zhen Empire is particularly nasty. And yet makes absolute sense in a way that the reasoning behind alien hostility all too often doesn’t. I also appreciated the way that Johnston doesn’t simply lump all the nasty aliens together as ‘the baddies’, while put-upon humans are elevated to a minor sainthood. Nope – in his world there are human agents who believe the species can only ultimately survive by being in thrall to the Zhen and work against the fight to free humanity every bit as passionately as the most committed Zhen supremacist. Meanwhile, one of Tajen’s most loyal supporters is one of his former Zhen comrades. It’s enjoyable to see such nuances in play, as it keeps the reader wondering who is truly trustworthy, as well as feeling more believable.
Tajen is the main protagonist and his storyline is the overarching narrative arc. While he is the classic adrenaline-junkie hero who flings himself into risky scenarios, I was interested to note that he is also gay. His relationship with his husband is written with tenderness and conviction, giving it importance in the story, yet without any graphic sex scenes or a sense that Johnston is trying to make a point. So it works really well. Though in this book, Tajen doesn’t get much opportunity to spend time with his friends and family, as our plucky band are scattered throughout the galaxy as they desperately try to prevail against overwhelming odds. Indeed, it’s foot-to-the-floor action throughout and the pages turned themselves as I wanted to discover who was doing what to whom – and whether they would all survive. Space opera is difficult to write well and I enjoy it when I can simply relax and let the author do his thing, because he’s nailed the conventions and knows how to transfer from one scene to another without jarring or annoying the reader – which is a skill far too many don’t manage effectively.
All in all, this book was a thoroughly enjoyable conclusion to an entertaining, well-written space opera trilogy, and comes recommended to fans of the genre. I’m hoping Johnston is going to revisit this world in due course, as there is lots of scope for more adventures with some of the other characters we encountered. While I obtained an arc of The Veiled Masters from the publishers via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.