By James Lovegrove



376pp/$24.95/March 2021

Firefly: Life Signs
Cover by Natasha MacKenzie

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

When Joss Whedon's series Firefly was cancelled, viewers were left with several questions about plot points that Whedon had set up during the show's short run. Some of those were addressed in the film Serenity and others were covered in the comic books that followed. However, Whedon wasn't done leaving teasers. During an appearance at DragonCon in 2008, Morena Baccarin, who portrayed Inara Serra, stated that her character was dying on a terminal illness that would have been featured in the second season. James Lovegrove has now explored the consequences of that terminal illness in Firefly: Life Signs, a novel set sometime before the film.

Life Signs opens with a short tie-in to the Firefly episode "Trash" and quickly pivots to Mal being contacted by Stanislaw L'Amour, who needs Reynolds' help. Inarra has left Serenity prior to the events of the novel and now L'Amour brings Mal to her so Inarra can confess to Mal Reynolds that she is dying of Kiehl's myeloma, an incurable cancer. The rest of the novel focuses on Mal's attempts to find a missing doctor, Esau Weng, who might have the secret to saving her.

Lovegrove has finally captured the right tone for the dialogue for most of the characters. They've all sounded different from each other in Lovegrove's previous novels, but until Life Signs the characters didn't quite capture the language and inflections that the actors brought to the roles. They do in this novel. As with the previous novels, Lovegrove has thinned out his cast of characters, sidelining some of them (Inarra and Book barely appear) and focusing on others (Jayne, Wash, and Kaylee are seen, but not focused on). Lovegrove is able to give his attention the Simon, Mal, Zoe, and River. The otherworldliness of River comes through particularly well in Life Signs and Lovegrove also sets her up for her future we've seen in Serenity.

The crew of Serenity are not the only characters and they find themselves interacting with others as well. L'Amour only appears briefly, but has an important role in the novel, essentially providing the crew with the mission they need to accomplish in the novel. Weng has a relatively small role, but his backstory is well-fleshed out and gives the crew a reason to land on the icy prison planet Atata, where they quickly find themselves in a unit run by the mysterious, but beloved, Mr. O'Bannon and his crew of Regulators and Meadowlark Deane, a woman sent to Atata for the crime of vandalism. Of these characters, Meadowlark is the most fleshed out, carrying a torch for Simon and producing a potential rival to Kaylee for his affections. Lovegrove does an excellent job of showing how oblivious Simon can be, even when he thinks he is being scheming.

The plot of Life Signs is apparently simple, but Lovegrove brings the same sensibility to it that Whedon's television show had. The enjoyment comes in seeing how many ways the crew's plans can get screwed up and what measures they'll take to come up work contingencies to makes sure that they are all where they need to be at the right time. At the same time, Lovegrove is cognizant that the crew of Serenity frequently suffered injuries even in the most successful of their plots. Even if the reader knows the crew must survive because they appear in the film, the way that they survive, and who gets injured how badly, is a key feature to the tension of Life Signs.

Lovegrove's earlier forays into the Firefly universe, Big Damn Hero, The Magnificent Nine, and The Ghost Machine, have been a little erratic, but with Life Signs, he appears to have his his stride. His characters ring true to their depiction in the series. His plot is well placed and offers the same beats that appeared in episodes of the show. The supporting characters offer threats and support for the crew with enough background and mystery to make them interesting.

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