Wednesday, May 22, 2013
3/5 Rancors - With Scourge Jeff Grubb delivers a briskly-paced look into some aspects of the Star Wars Expanded Universe that have not been overly delineated in prior works. The story is set in the days of Luke Skywalker's efforts to rebuild the Jedi Order and right after the peace treaty between the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant. The intriguing part of using this setting is that Mr. Grubb does not spend time with the familiar main characters of the films and most other books: instead we meet a brand-new and rather atypical Jedi, Mander Zuma, who is happier delving for secrets in musty archives than he is wielding a lightsaber. Mander's apprentice has died in mysterious circumstances and Mander is reluctantly thrown into the investigation. The track leads into the shadowy Hutt underworld to an extent not previously seen in Star Wars books. There are more Hutt lead characters in Scourge than there are humans.
It's also welcome to explore the Hutt underworld further. Scourge introduces us to the Anjiliac clan, a relatively "clean" group of gangsters compared to their brethren (i.e. they don't sell the "hard stuff" when it comes to spice). The Hutts are each rendered with a distinctive personality, especially the pint-sized Mika, and their plotting throughout the story is appropriately murky. I've wanted to see more of these types of Hutt dynamics since the Clone Wars TV show featured a Hutt council on Nal Hutta, and their mixture of personas maps well with the varied group the cartoon introduced.
With Scourge, Mr. Grubb gives us a truly standalone story set in a time of giant series (this is just prior to the New Jedi Order) and highlights brand-new characters in a side story that has a true Star Wars vibe about it. I found his writing very straightforward, down to the extremely literal chapter titles, but certainly solid enough. Beyond Mika and Mander, I don't think these characters will stick with me for very long, but they are easy to differentiate and follow while reading the book (unlike a few Star Wars books where the garbled consonant-filled names for minor characters tend to blur together). I enjoyed reading an independently-minded book set in this part of the time line and hope for more one-offs like it in the future.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
4/5 Rancors - I was pleasantly surprised when The Last Jedi was announced. Michael Reaves had penned the Coruscant Nights series a couple of years earlier and like many sci-fi/fantasy projects, it appeared to be a trilogy. Jax Pavan survived the pivotal encounter with Darth Vader at the end of Patterns of Force, so a sequel was certainly possible, but I didn’t expect it to actually materialize. Here Mr. Reaves works with Maya Kaathryn Bohnoff to offer what is essentially Coruscant Nights IV, even though it is not titled as such. Kudos to Del Rey for allowing this story to continue.
The Last Jedi finally reveals the secrets from the Sith holocron which debuted in the Maul novel. I always get uncomfortable when the concept of non-linear time is introduced in a Star Wars novel, as kicking open the door to time travel will invalidate all existing stories, including the films themselves. Flow-walking in Legacy of the Force and the Dark Nest trilogy trod dangerously close to stepping over that line. In The Last Jedi, the authors write in brief encounters with a Cephalon who can perceive time in a non-linear, broadly encompassing fashion, but the Cephalon’s statements are so cryptic that characters are generally unable to use the information effectively. More intriguingly, the holocron contains a secret to bending time within it. Again, I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to see introduced in a Star Wars story, but it is rendered in a clever way and also made irrelevant by the end of the story. The interesting impact the time-bending had on the climactic battle justified the authors playing around with this concept: no harm done to the universe storyline as a whole.
The book hops around the galaxy in true Star Wars fashion, including stops at familiar worlds Mandalore and Dathomir (Dathomir seems to be undergoing quite the EU resurgence since playing a prominent role in the Clone Wars TV show). A Whiplash plot to remove Emperor Palpatine from power also brings Coruscant back into the picture. The early days of the Empire are a fascinating period, one still rife with storytelling opportunity, and so it’s enjoyable when The Last Jedi follows the efforts of Whiplash to take out the Empire’s head even when Pavan and his friends are not in the scenes. The tension between the Whiplash leaders, in particular Tuden Sal and police prefect Pol Haus, is well-illustrated and makes them much more interesting than they would be if they were all in perfect alignment on their goals. The period where the Emperor is consolidating power, Vader is brand-new on the job, and the galaxy is stabilizing after the Clone Wars is one in which I imagine people would be very confused about their future direction and choices, and the authors portray this well with the splintered leadership of Whiplash.
The Last Jedi could be read as a standalone novel and the lack of linkage on the cover to the earlier series (beyond pictures of the three Coruscant Nights books) indicates that Del Rey is comfortable marketing it that way. However, I recommend starting with Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter, moving on to the Medstar duology, and then reading the Coruscant Nights trilogy before tackling The Last Jedi. The story connections and character development spanning these seven novels make for an entertaining micro-saga in the larger story of the galaxy far, far away.
Monday, May 20, 2013
3/5 Rancors - Karen Traviss burst onto the Star Wars Expanded Universe literature scene a few years ago with her superb exploration of Republic Commandos in the novel Hard Target. Showing a remarkable facility for characterization and an ability to take a story well beyond its source material (in this case a videogame), Ms. Traviss was quickly engaged to write quite a few more novels. Her stories have always shown an anti-Jedi, pro-Mandalorian bias, but for the most part they are all quite entertaining and set a high bar. I was particularly engaged by the four-book series Hard Target started, which ended up at the pivotal events of Order 66 with many carefully constructed plotlines in play. So it was with great excitement that I learned the story of these clones and their friends was slated to continue in an Imperial Commando series.
Omega Squad characters Darman and Fi remained on Coruscant during Order 66, missing the chance to depart with their clone friends and father figure Kal Skirata to the secret base on Mandalore. There's an interesting interplay between their participation in the dawn of Palpatine's new Empire and the freedoms their brothers have found with Kal. 501st introduces a new twist to the clones as rather than having their growth rate doubled, the new batches mature to adulthood in a year. Lingering questions as to the mental stability of a human with a childhood of a year remain after 501st concludes: the interactions Niner and Darman have with one of the new-batchers are intriguing but relatively uneventful for the span of this novel.
Another concept Ms. Traviss brings forward from prior novels is that of Master Djinn Altis and his Force-wielding followers who have chosen a path outside of the Jedi Order. His "radical" thinking was first touched upon by the introduction of Callista in the 1990s Bantam Spectra novels. Djinn's potential galactic influence has expanded considerably with the Order 66 Jedi bloodbath and his goals come into an uneasy alignment with Kal's. This is fertile ground for future stories, since again 501st mostly just lays groundwork for the new alliance of these Force-users and Kal's family of clones and Mandalorians.
501st is well-written and to my taste moved along briskly despite being quite heavy on dialogue and introspection. I don't agree with the anti-Jedi slant of these stories nor the lofting up to near-sainthood of the Mandalorians but it's refreshing to see some Star Wars stories take a different viewpoint from the films and most other novels. It's a shame that the ultimate fate of Darman and Niner in the 501st along with the outcome of Kal's attempts to shelter his people (we do know there is at least some success in that thanks to a few characters appearing later in Legacy of the Force) won't be written by Ms. Traviss in the planned next books. I'd be pleased to see someone tasked with finishing Imperial Commando but only if they were able to maintain the high level of quality and the general outlook the existing stories have offered.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
4/5 Rancors - Drew Karpyshyn returns to the Old Republic era with Annihilation, the fourth novel officially branded as part of that time period (the horror novel Red Harvest falls in this part of the timeline as well, making a total of five Old Republic-set books). Mr. Karpyshyn's first Old Republic story, Revan, was a real let-down for me: I had higher hopes based on my interest in the title character and the high level of quality of the Darth Bane trilogy. So I'm happy to note a return to form with Annihilation: freed of the weight of connecting the dots of disparate stories that Revan carried, this book crafts a smart and entertaining spy thriller with largely new characters.
Friday, April 19, 2013
2/5 Rancors - Sean Williams' The Force Unleashed II is based upon the videogame of the same title. The game and its predecessor are quite a bit of fun: wreaking over-the-top havoc with the Force, doing things such a bringing down a Star Destroyer from orbit, works great in a game format. With this novel, Mr. Williams devotes quite a bit of time to the thoughts of the characters and works to develop them as interesting individuals. In theory, this makes a nice complement to the action-focused game as we explore main character Starkiller's motivations and innermost workings.
The Force Unleashed II is a short book. Even with its brevity, it borrows heavily from its predecessor. A great many of the pages have quotes from the first book, to the point of distraction. There doesn't seem to be any faith that the readers will remember key points from The Force Unleashed and the need to restate everything that happened in it (such as Starkiller and Juno's first meeting, the Jedi he hunted down, the conversations he had with Kota, his apparent death at the hands of Vader mid-book, and so on) makes for wasted space in the Force Unleashed II.
Mr. Williams features many cameos from familiar film characters to spice up his tale. They're presented in a manner consistent with their onscreen appearances and are handled fine. Starkiller's meeting with Yoda is perfunctory and doesn't have any more impact than his meeting with a mechanic later in the story, except for any meaning the reader chooses to assign to the Dagobah-set scene.
I strongly recommend the reader experience the two Force Unleashed stories via the game rather than the books if that is an option. If not, there are some key plots in these tales that are worth understanding to anyone intending to read many of the Star Wars novels. However, the Clone Wars raises some fundamental questions about the ultimate canonicity of this depiction of the founding of the Rebel Alliance. For my part, I view these as an entertaining way to see what the Force looks like bent to an extreme but I have no interest in reconciling Darth Vader having this obscenely over-powered and over-important apprentice into the Dark Times era between Episodes III and IV.
1/5 Rancors - Joe Schreiber's Red Harvest mixes the ongoing zombie fad with Star Wars, the same as he did in his first Star Wars story, Deathtroopers. "Zombiefying" existing stories and universes has become quite the cultural trend in the last few years, even in genres where it makes little to no sense. It's something the Star Wars universe could have done without, both in Mr. Schreiber's two books and in the Clone Wars episodes featuring undead Geonosians and later on resurrected Nightsisters. In none of these places does the addition of zombies feel organic: it simply appears to be jumping on a bandwagon.
The flower leads us to Hestizo Trace, its Jedi caretaker. She and the flower have a telepathic relationship, another element not well-supported by any existing Star Wars sources I can think of. The flower frets as it is kidnapped and destroyed to make Scabrous into a zombie. Of course accidentally the students get the virus as well and chaos ensues. Trace is stuck on the ice world during the catastrophe and her brother comes after her to rescue her. Since we're given nothing to go on to root for Hestizo ("Zo") any more than we are with the Sith, it's hard to care what the outcome is. They're just pawns for placement in gory zombie sequences.
There's a Whiphid bounty hunter who shows the tiniest bit of promise for development but it doesn't go anywhere. He gets a heroic ending which strikes me as incongruous, since everything we know about him indicates he is a fully evil individual. I don't know if developing these various characters could have made me truly enjoy a zombie Star Wars novel but it certainly would have helped.
On principle, I have no objection to the Star Wars novels reaching for new directions. In fact it's a very good thing, as over one hundred book re-telling the stories set out in the films would be dreadfully dull. But stapling zombies into Star Wars does not a new thing create. Jumping onto a worn-out cultural bandwagon does not make Star Wars feel fresh: it has its own challenges with that already after so many stories being spun out over the decades. I can't recommend Red Harvest to Star Wars fans and I expect for zombie fans there are dozens of books more worth your time.
2/5 Rancors - Sean Williams' Fatal Alliance was the first novel published in support of the Old Republic videogame, although it comes after Paul S. Kemp's Deceived chronologically. Being first in the line-up, I was hoping it would have a grand scope and introduce this particular era for those of us not playing the game. Unfortunately, Fatal Alliance is a narrowly-focused story that just happens to be set in the Old Republic era. There is nothing concrete linking it with Deceived and the major hanging story element from there (Darth Malgus' revolution) is not addressed.
The remainder of the tale moves to Sebaddon, a planet precariously near to a black hole. Sebaddon is where the hexes originate from and the place that ties the overall plot into Eldon Ax's life story. There are action scenes fighting hexes, more scenes with hexes, and then more hexes show up. The stranger part of the climax delves into the fate of Eldon's mother and also her clone. Whatever state her mother is supposed to be in here was a stretch even for a Star Wars novel and I felt like I was reading some other sci-fi tale draped in Jedi and Sith fabrics.