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WARNING: The following review contains several spoilers for the novel in question.

Synopsis

Much like volume 1, volume 2 begins with Kevin Bick, director of the program, being interviewed on UNN live, only this time he is accosted before the whole sector. The expulsion of Aal Cistler in Ghost Academy: Volume 1 proved dangerous for the Academy. Son of the finance minister of the Terran Dominion, Aal's immature rage is magnified by his father's influential position and friendship with the Emperor, creating a real threat to Director Bick. Though expelled for providing a fellow trainee, Lio Travski, with the illegal drug Hab, Aal's lies and the media's spin transforms the situation into an attack on Bick's leadership. The instigators accused the academy’s preceptors of abusing their power and called into question the program's ability to protect its students.

The opening passages of Volume 2 establish the tense atmosphere within the academy. The trainees are no longer the only ones being tested and graded - the academy itself must prove itself in the eyes of the Dominion. First and foremost, this necessitates damage control - and promises plenty of action.

This volume of Ghost Academy expands on Volume 1’s foray into parallel story telling. A side story is presented, which will ultimately provide a segue into Volume 3. The fall of Tarsonis, set one year before the main story line of Ghost Academy, is presented from the perspective of a collection of teens. One and all, they are the sons and daughters of the powerful Old Families. The teens were initially spirited off to Tyrador IX in the face of encroaching alien and terrorist threats to the Confederacy, and were the same group of Old Family scions that Nova left behind in the beginning of StarCraft Ghost: Nova.

Their partying and relaxation is cut short as broadcasts sweep the sector: Tarsonis has fallen to Zerg invasion. The teens' caretakers quickly receive an encoded transmission from Arturro Calabas to initiate Plan Razor, which sees to it that they are evacuated to another site, safely isolated from the war. As the teens quickly ready themselves for departure, Arturro's son, Morgan Calabas, retrieves a mysterious case inscribed with the words "Nova Terra", the luggage that Nova presumably left behind. The planet-jumper departs, its crew of heirs in tow, to Shi, a fourth planet of a collection of mining planets referred to as the Baker’s Dozen. However, the safety they were meant to find was nowhere to be found. An unmarked Terran spacecraft seeded the world with Zerg shortly after the teens' arrival, spreading an infestation that would slowly tear them apart one by one. This parallel story is told as a sort of prologue to each chapter of Ghost Academy Volume 2.

At the Ghost Academy, the members of Blue Team - Gabriel Tosh, Nova Terra, Lio Travski, Kath Toom and novice Delta Emblock - were subjected to even more strenuous tests. Superintendent Sarco Angelini subjected the students to an ever more realistic battlefield simulation comprised of robotic duplicates of Zerg. The team's poor history of communication and coordination, in addition to Lio's flagging performance, left the team in pessimistic disarray. It wasn't until the simulation began that each member was able to prove their ability: untested member Delta Emblock countered an initial Defiler attack; Lio cast a shield to deflect Hydralisk needles; and Nova not only flattened a horde of Zerglings with a psychic wave, but also knocked out the robotic Zerg's "controlling consciousness" - Sarco Angelini himself. In only a few minutes the combat simulation was complete.

Despite his stronger than usual performance, Lio Travski's worsening drug addiction prompted Director Bick to order Lio’s forceful abduction for emergency detoxification and resocialization. The intrusive procedure was nothing less than horrific, characterized and illustrated by phantasmagoric hallucinations. It was revealed that Lio's caretakers may have habituated him to the use of Hab to dampen or outright eliminate his psychic abilities. Led to a reclusive and insecure childhood, he surrounded himself by technology and robots in lieu of proper social interactions. Lio’s limitations led to a hatred of the flesh, seeing it as weak and pitiful when compared to the strength and detachment of the machine.

Meanwhile, Aal Cistler accosted the Academy and demanded to be re-admitted. The Academy's drug case against Cistler was dropped on grounds of insubstantial evidence. Moreover, reinforced by his father, three senators and a UNN news crew, Kevin Bick had little choice other than to readmit Cistler. However, It quickly becomes clear that Aal Cistler has little desire to resume his studies. Shortly after his return, Cistler promptly begins plotting his revenge against his former teammates. In doing so, he forms a dangerous alliance with the Red Team captain, Dylanna, who also has a personal grudge against the Blue Team.

Despite the atmosphere of increased tension, adversity and uncertainty, the Tosh/Nova backstory is fleshed out a bit more. Though romantic entanglement is strongly prohibited, Nova’s skill, talent and independence caught the attention of her team leader, while Gabriel’s passion and dedication attracted Nova. Tosh and Nova finally express and briefly explore their mutual attraction. Gabriel’s caution, however, quickly quelled any possibility of a future relationship. Hurt, Nova explored the Academy, only to run into an astral projection of Colin Phash, the prodigious youth introduced in Volume 1 who is being experimented upon in an isolated lab. After losing sight of Colin’s apparition, Nova discovered the isolated area to be heavily monitored and protected by Academy security, where even Marines were armed with psi-screens. No one is allowed in - or out. Having been brought to the site of Colin’s incarceration, the only tactic left for Nova is to pursue active investigation, presumably later in the series.

Blue Team was shortly reinforced by a renewed Lio Travski, whose mental and emotional addictions had been been burned away, replaced by cool confidence and clarity. While warmly welcomed by his teammates, Nova was wary of Lio’s change. She sensed something about Lio wasn’t quite right, “It’s like he’s been boiled down to the core... and Lio isn’t there any more.” Lio's return heralded a final, no-holds-barred combat simulation against Red Team. During the battle, the Blue Team fell one by one, leaving Lio and Nova to face off against the entire Red Team. Lio, having regained clarity, communed with derelict SCVs strewn across the battlefield. With the robotic structures at his command, he single-handedly defeated the Red Team despite the overwhelming odds.

Their final test complete, teams Red and Blue are debriefed - where it is revealed that both teams are being dismantled in favor of a unified team. Their first field assignment will be to the Baker’s Dozen. Upon Shi, the scions of the Old Families are in constant danger. In the year since the fall of Tarsonis, Shi has been infested by Zerg, the guards have been killed, and only four heirs remain after a failed counter attack using commandeered mining equipment. The Zerg continue their siege of the mining base, their forces led by an infested guard named Jakk. With hope flagging for Morgan Calabas, Antonia Tygore, and Bess and Rakham Kusini, they may soon find that their desperate transmissions for help have not fallen on deaf ears...

Review

StarCraft Ghost Academy Volume 2 provides an interesting mix of action, romance, charm, horror and lore. The series is written by Hugo and Nebula award wining author David Gerrold, whose most notable - some may argue most infamous - contribution to science fiction is the original Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” However, he also contributed heavily to the bible behind Star Trek: The Next Generation, and helped shape that series in its premier season. His penchant for subtle humor, character development and interpersonal politics is evident in Volume 2 with the scandal surrounding Aal Cistler, and ensuing schisms between him and the main cast. Special attention was placed on the evolution of Lio Travski, whose frightening mental odyssey not only elucidated upon the process of neural resocialization, but also promises to reveal more about the nature of the Ghost program, and that character in particular, in future issues. Since it is hinted that the Ghosts will be sent to a mining world replete with automated technology, the transformed Lio is sure to play a pivotal role.

The hard edged artwork is just as bold, detailed and stark as before. Illustrator Fernando Heinz Furukawa uses his graphic, sometimes frenetic and cluttered style to great effect, emphasizing action with feverish motion and chaotic detail. Some character and background details pay homage to the work of others. For example, the obtuse puddle jumper that ferries the scions to safety bears a striking resemblance to the LAAT/i gunships from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Also, Zerg larvae most resemble the designs of famed StarCraft fan and recently hired Blizzard artist Mr. Jack.

In terms of lore, Volume 2 brings several interesting things to bear. A single Zerg Queen is presented during the infestation of Jakk. Though seven months after the fall of Tarsonis, it resembles the ground-bound breed developed by Kerrigan. Also, this volume prominently illustrates another instance of resocialization, this one definitely falling into the category of cruel and unusual. Lio Travski is restrained on a wall-mounted platform, which rotates so as to have him hanging upside down. It is implied that needles are forced into his eyes, throwing him into fits of pain and sparking off horrific, Geiger-esque hallucinations. Unfortunately, these very hallucinations mask the actual process itself, leaving it up to the imagination of the reader. However, it must be stressed that there is some ambiguity as to whether or not Lio remembers the ordeal afterwards. When confronted by his former drug dealer, Aal Cistler, he attacks him in a rage. Up to this point, resocialization has been presented as erasing - or at least masking - memories, past and identity. However, its evident from the various lore sources that are also many different forms and levels of resoc, that makes the classification of the one presented here difficult.

Though Red Team is once again relegated to the generic aggressors, some hints as to the personality of each member may be inferred from their reactions and facial features. Dylanna Okyl is firmly established as the secondary antagonist, after Aal Cistler, though her motivations are only slightly more complex than Aal’s. While he wants to ease his wounded pride by inflicting pain, Dylanna is driven by jealousy of Nova’s relationship with Tosh, hinting at a shared past with the leader of Blue Team. Dori Koogler may be the most liberal and least vindictive member of Red Team. While her teammates occasionally express joy at the Blue Team’s pain, Dori’s expressions hint at mild concern towards Blue Team, or at the worst indifferent. Obi Minaya and Winlaleah Martine whole-heartedly reflect their leader’s anger, with Winlaleah being the most vocal and ambitious in exacting violence and pain. Finally, Andie Dessai, the Ghost trainee distinguished by ocular implants, remains the most elusive; though he quietly acts on his leader’s every command, his face never betrays his emotions.

The Ghosts’ abilities and powers are expanded to new heights, easily rivaling and, in some circumstances, overshadowing those of the Protoss. Even when impaired by drug addiction, Lio Travski is capable of producing a psychic barrier to block incoming volleys of spines. Nova can now unleash her powers in an explosive manner, wiping out dozens of opponents with the wave of a hand. However, it is implied that there remains some danger in its use, as she refuses to unleash her full potential in fear of harming her friends. Many Ghosts still find it difficult to keep their minds shut off from the outside world. This is hinted at in their need for psi screens during sleep in the previous manga, and the difficulty of Ghosts to shield their own thoughts in Volume 2. Though it may tell as much about her character as it does about Ghosts in general, Dylanna’s thoughts are easily read by teammates and enemies alike.

The expanded StarCraft universe delves a lot deeper into slang and colloquialism than the core games, attempting to create a more immersive universe for its readers. Such terms as “teep” and “teek” - referring to telepaths and telekinetics - have been used for years, paying homage to Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, where such terms originated. While the use of slang can work to create a richer world, new words feel like childish gobbledygook more often than not. However, one term in Ghost Academy - “slike” - carries with it genuine profanity, only blunted somewhat by its overuse.

StarCraft: Ghost Academy Volume II touches upon many different themes, but the central dominating Terran theme remains: power. Power: the never-ending struggle to attain it, wield it, preserve it, manipulate it, and tear it away from others. Issues of self agency, independence and slavery are all explored, most thoroughly and aptly through the character of Lio Travski, whose multifarious weaknesses, strengths and interpersonal difficulties come together to arguably create the most dynamic character in the series. He is the focus of intrigue; the subject of tests and addiction; the victim of politics; and is stripped - and empowered - by forces greater than himself, against his will. While a great tumult revolves around Lio, everyone must deal with their own difficulties with power and powerlessness in their own ways. One and all, each character must learn the limits of their power, the responsibilities they entail, and each must learn to temper their passions and doubts to survive against the nightmarish Zerg, calculating Protoss... and each other.

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