Cover Image: What Rough Beast

What Rough Beast

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I was 10 years old when Star Wars exploded onto movie screens. It was a very different entertainment world than today. The movie was showing in one theater in Denver. One. After pleading with my father, he finally relented and took me to see it (my first PG movie!). The line wrapped around the building, allowing enough in to fill the single auditorium of the classic movie house and requiring the rest of the queue to stand for another couple of hours until the next showing.


It’s a very different story using a very different medium and released into a very different time, but What Rough Beast brought many of those memories back to me. Michael Johnston tells the story of a gathering alliance of humans and aliens who are unused to trusting other races, much more experienced at war than at cooperation, uncertain whether their goals truly align. The perspective is through the eyes of three characters we got to know in the previous books of the series: Tajen Hunt, once a pilot and fighter for the Zhen Empire and now defender of the newly rediscovered Earth; his husband Liam, an experienced soldier and engineer; and their friend Katherine, a pilot and ship’s captain. In the last book, Katherine was believed to have been killed and Tajen disappeared. Here we find that Katherine was rescued by an alien race long thought to be ruthless and brutal killers, willing to depopulate a planet rather than surrender it to an enemy. These same aliens also rescue Tajen and bring him to meet with Katherine aboard one of their ships. On board that ship, a desperate plan begins to emerge.


Liam, believing his husband and his best friend have both been killed, reluctantly assumes leadership of the ragtag group of ships carrying fighters and refugees from Earth. Although they are using coded transmissions and secret destinations, Zhen spacecraft are seemingly a step ahead of them at every jump, waiting to pick the ships off one by one until they are all gone.


As the protagonists pursue their individual missions, Johnston effectively weaves the stories together and brings them to a thrilling conclusion. Space battles and hand-to-hand combat, unexpected allies and devastating betrayals, converging interests and diverging goals. Hang onto your hats, folks. It gets wild.


Johnston is very effective at balancing the political with the action. Forgiveness and redemption factor in. So does intractability and an insatiable thirst for revenge. Sentient AI fight for all sides, Zhen fight against Zhen, humans against humans. Neither side is entirely right or entirely wrong, and sometimes the most dangerous battles are the ones you choose not to fight. The old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” gets stretched to its limits, and everyone must learn that there is more to being friends and allies than a common opponent.
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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.
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There is a major war in the galaxy.  Three different factions are fighting and three humans all play a role in the conflict.
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A very good book with a really nice ending , I really liked the representation the author did with the characters


overall a solid 4 stars
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