Friday, September 24, 2010

Andrew's Review of Survivor's Quest (Legends)

4/5 Rancors - Survivor's Quest occupies an interesting place in the Expanded Universe, set between the brilliant Hand of Thrawn duology which wraps up many loose ends from the prior novels and the start of the dark and sprawling New Jedi Order series. It is a lighter tale than the adjoining novels in the timeline and for the most part tightly focuses on Luke Skywalker and his wife Mara Jade Skywalker. The book ties heavily to Zahn's Outbound Flight, which he wrote later but which is set decades earlier. Reading Outbound Flight first is not required (I didn't myself the first time around) but it certainly helps flesh out this story.

The strongest aspects of Survivor's Quest are Zahn's exploration of Luke and Mara's new marriage and the mysterious plot he weaves around the semi-legendary Outbound Flight project. Luke has had numerous ups and downs throughout the various Star Wars novels but he ended Vision of the Future on a high: ready to push forward with the continued rebirth of the Jedi and also madly in love with Mara. Mara also came out of that story in a good place, finally putting many of her demons from her youth as an assassin for the Empire to rest and moving on to a brighter future. Zahn picks up where he left off and portrays a balanced, happy couple. Realistically for a newly married couple, they are still finding their roles and adjusting to life together, but it is nice to have a book that goes light on the Skywalker angst and lets the characters breathe and even relax a bit.

The other high point of this book is the carefully constructed plot centering on the disappearance of the Outbound Flight project and the thousands of people onboard decades earlier. Zahn excels at parcelling out enough information to keep the book moving briskly along. A mysterious message leads Luke and Mara to the Chiss, Grand Admiral Thrawn's people. They link up with a mix of Chiss diplomatic and military leaders, a group of Imperials (including the stormtrooper squad featured in Zahn's Fool's Bargain), a puzzling alien race apparently wronged by Thrawn decades earlier, and Dean Jinzler, brother to Jedi Lorana Jinzler featured in the Outbound Flight novel. Zahn deftly juggles his large cast while keeping the limelight squarely on Luke and Mara.

One particular action scene I thoroughly enjoyed came near the end and featured a destroyer droid (or "droideka") from the prequel films squaring off against Luke and Mara. These droids are quite a threat in the prequels and this combat does not disappoint. Luke and Mara are forced to carefully strategize to deal with the droid and even with a solid plan, the risk factor is high. It's a tense sequence and also a nifty echo of Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon fighting the droids above Naboo on the Trade Federation ship in The Phantom Menace.

Zahn picks up a few other threads from his Hand of Thrawn duology, such as the Empire of the Hand, and weaves them with the elements detailed above into a quite entertaining little tale. Survivor's Quest stands well on its own, but also serves as a nice lighter break between the larger stories that bookend it in the Star Wars chronology.

Andrew's Review of Fool's Bargain (Legends)

3/5 Rancors - Timothy Zahn's Fool's Bargain is a short story originally published in e-book form and set before the events of his novel Survivor's Quest. This tale covers an assignment Aurek Company of the Imperial 501st receives on the embattled planet Kariek. The focus is on the four troopers who comprise Aurek-Seven and in particular their leader Twister. This is the same squad that plays a part in Survivor's Quest, minus one personnel change which is detailed in this story. There aren't many Expanded Universe stories that take the Imperial point of view, so this is a welcome perspective here. By this stage in the galaxy's history, years after the Battle of Endor, certain elements of the Empire have developed a more enlightened perspective of the universe around them. These troopers are honorable soldiers fighting for a government they believe in, one that no longer ruthlessly oppresses subject populations but rather plays more of a protector role.

The Empire of the films is notably a human-centric organization. Zahn opens the door to alien Imperials in this story with the introduction of Su-mil, an Eickarie and a Kariek native swept up in a civil war. There is a clever bit of deception on Su-mils part involving the Eickarie concept of a lie (they term a lie "left-handed," vs. a truth which is "right-handed" - this must be awkward for the native left-handed Eickaries!). By fighting together, Twister sees a potentially valuable ally in Su-mil and we get a perspective of how a stormtrooper unit might be something a soldier would actually aspire to join, rather than simply being cannon fodder for Rebel heroes.

All in all, Fool's Bargain is an enjoyable vignette of Imperial life that expands a bit on characters from Survivor's Quest and also provides an interesting preview of the Imperial perspective Zahn went on to explore more thoroughly in his novel Allegiance. It can be purchased in electronic form and is also available in the paperback version of Survivor's Quest.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

David: Rancor Spotting #22 (Legends)

Sculpting a Galaxy: Inside the Star Wars Model Shop by Lorne Peterson
Pages 128-129

Sculpting a Galaxy is a beautiful book that gives you an excellent
idea of the work involved in creating characters, machines, and environments for the Star Wars films. The two pages for the rancor include a picture of a rancor puppet that takes up most of the two pages plus a column explaining how the puppet was made and how the film of the rancor sequences was shot. I might also add that this is a coffee table size book, so the picture is huge.

Designer Phil Tippett explains how their first efforts involving a human in a rancor suit did not work. They then developed an eighteen inch puppet to be shot in a miniature set. Three people were required to work the puppet. This approach seemed to work although a great deal of additional effort was required to make things look realistic. The result was a classic film sequence.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

David: Rancor Spotting #21 (Legends)

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance by Sean Williams

Page 70 - Shigar, now clad in the snarling visage of a rancor racer, blended in perfectly.(Shigar is a Jedi Padawan.)

Page 74 - They squeezed into a niche and Shigar gratefully rid himself of the mask and a large amount of his leather rancor-riding gear, leaving him wearing just pants, boots, and a tight black vest on his upper body.(Hard to imagine trying to travel incognito wearing rancor-riding gear. Actually, it is hard to imagine riding a rancor at all.)

Page 148 - She felt like a rancor had gripped her in its jaws and was shaking her back and forth.(That cannot have been a good feeling. Larin Moxla, a former Republic trooper, is under attack by the Mandalorian warrior Dao Stryver.)

Pages 164-165 - Ax skirted the edge of a deep rancor pit. The massive beasts snapped and roared at her, enraged by all the commotion. The handlers did their utmost to restrain them, using chains, hooks, and heavy weights, but the rancors' wild natures weren't so easily subdued. The truncated scream of one of the handlers followed Ax as she Force-leapt across the enclosure in pursuit of her quarry.(Ax is a Sith apprentice.)

Page 257 - If his deal with Tassaa Bareesh had gone awry, she would have ended up rancor food for certain.(Shigar, the Jedi Padawan, is worrying about his friend Larin Moxla, a former Republic trooper. Tassaa Bareesh is a notorious leader of the Hutt crime cartel.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

David's Review of The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance (Legends)

4/5 Rancors - Fatal Alliance is based on the hugely popular Knights of the Old Republic video game that takes place about 3,500 years before A New Hope. The key event in the tale is an auction put together by Tassaa Bareesh, a monarch in the Hutt crime cartel. The only items in the auction are from a mysterious ship that was destroyed by Jet Nebula, an extremely capable and wily smuggler existing through his own efforts and cleverness. Pieces of the cargo on the destroyed ship survive and are thought to be extremely valuable to certain groups even though their exact purpose remains a mystery. As a result, the auction draws a great deal of attention. Representatives come from both the Republic and the Sith Empire, along with a Jedi Padawan, a disgraced trooper from the Republic's elite Blackstar Squad, and a mysterious Mandalorian with a private agenda. This makes for a very interesting and combustible mix of characters.

Of course, some of the groups interested in the items have no intention of bidding in an auction. They simply mean to acquire the items by any means necessary. Mr. Williams develops the action nicely and the story builds consistently without even telling us what the valuable items are until well into the story. The different groups compete vigorously with each other until they reach a point where a significant co
mmon enemy appears. The relationships from that point on are extremely interesting.
I found many of the characters in Fatal Alliance to be unique, and their efforts to cooperate do not go well many times. The author also introduces us to a new type of droid that is almost impossible to destroy. The history of the development of the droids is a key part of the conclusion to the story, and the strength and intelligence of the droids are amazing. Even the Sith and the Jedi are in trouble.

Mr. Williams has told a wonderful story. My only reservations were that the ending seemed to be a little contrived and involves a little too much explanation. The tale moves along rapidly for most of the book, but then bogs down a little. Even so, I found Fatal Alliance to be great fun to read, and I recommend it highly to the Star Wars readers.