Friday, March 25, 2011
4/5 Rancors - Michael Stackpole’s Dark Tide I: Onslaught picks up the New Jedi Order baton from R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime and is the first in a duology. Mr. Stackpole is a veteran of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, loved for his superb series of adventures featuring Rogue and Wraith Squadrons. The Yuuzhan Vong invasion storyline takes a darker turn than those earlier stories but Mr. Stackpole still manage to insert his trademark humor along with the dynamic starfighter battles.
Many of the ongoing Star Wars authors have a favorite self-created character and Mr. Stackpole’s is Corran Horn, Corellian investigator-turned Rogue Squadron pilot-turned Jedi. In some stories Corran’s presence has been a bit overbearing but here it is well-balanced with other plot lines, particularly one following Anakin Solo and Mara Jade to Dantooine. Corran has grown into a mature Jedi leader and a strong supporter of Luke’s in his efforts to rebuild the Jedi. A newer crop of younger Jedi is emerging, headed by Kyp Durron, and in Onslaught Corran is paired with the arrogant but generally good-intentioned Knight Ganner Rhysode. The two have a highly memorable assault on a Vong outpost that requires Ganner to inflict direct pain on Corran to free him from a Vong torture device. They make a good pair to read about and also to provide more viewpoints on the Jedi evolution, going along with the many musings of Luke’s we’ve read about over the various novels.
One technique that Mr. Stackpole chose for Onslaught which was highly effective is keeping the reader in the protagonists’ viewpoints for the entire book, minus the ending scene. With so many books to go in the New Jedi Order, a sense of mystery was needed to keep readers engaged, and while we had many scenes from the Vong POV in Vector Prime, I found it more effective to lose that and keep them an outside force. It allows us as readers to take the journey with the heroes, rather than granting us an omniscient third POV from outside the action.
Anakin Solo and Mara Jade are also well-handled and key parts of this story, as Mara battles a Vong-spawned disease and Anakin struggles with his guilt from the last book while striving to mature into a full-blown Jedi. Rogue Squadron makes always-welcome appearances throughout, giving a nice sense of continuity to Mr. Stackpole’s earlier adventures. They also help balance the serious considerations of the various Jedi characters and the grimness of the war and the refugees fleeing from it.
Onslaught is an exciting kick-off to the Dark Tide duology and solidly carries forward the New Jedi Order, while especially shining in its focus on the heroes while leaving the antagonists mysterious.
4/5 Rancors - If you hear a sort of mechanical grinding sound as you delve into Vector Prime, it may be the sound of the Star Wars Expanded Universe shifting gear to its new, “darker” direction. To give a bit of context to this change, at the end of the 1990s the Star Wars adult fiction publishing license changed hands from Bantam Spectra to Del Rey. Apparently Del Rey wanted to make a big first impression, and so their starting project out of the gate was the sprawling and so far unsurpassed in length nineteen book New Jedi Order. While the main film characters continued to be the dominant focus of the story, along with a few EU creations from the Bantam era, the primary villains of the New Jedi Order were the extra-galactic invaders named the Yuuzhan Vong. As the series evolved, the galaxy’s efforts to repel the invasion were coupled with Luke Skywalker’s attempts to define direction for the future of the Jedi.
One interesting challenge posed to the creators of the New Jedi Order is that the nineteen books were to feature a large roster of different authors. As I review the individual books, I’ll speak to how consistently the story and tonal transitions were handled. For the first book, Del Rey selected R.A. Salvatore, an author famed for his fantasy character Drizzt Do’Urden and for his extremely dynamic action sequences. Mr. Salvatore faced a steep challenge, with the typically heavy expectations of fans being further increased by the buzz that a major character would be killed off in the story.
The rumors about the major character were true, but even though the details are fairly common knowledge, I won’t spoil them here. While I was sad to read the scene, I felt Mr. Salvatore handled it gracefully and that it was a reasonable choice in the larger storyline of the galaxy far, far away. The core question of this death (and the ones to follow in later books) is whether readers wanted to go in this new direction with their beloved characters. Part of me is pleased imagining a largely worry-free destiny for Luke and friends post-Return of the Jedi, and another part would be content with reading the following novels but stopping at Timothy Zahn’s superb Vision of the Future. However, I enjoy reading the books too much to stop, and so while the darker tones and character deaths don’t thrill me, I do find them well-done enough to continue following the various series Del Rey has tackled.
Back to focusing on Vector Prime: Mr. Salvatore does an excellent job of propelling the story along and setting the stage for the massive conflict to come. His early scenes with the Vong are full of mystery and he effectively renders them as villains quite different from any we’ve seen before by spending time on their cultural developments and belief systems as well as their organic technology. The cryptic scenes out at the edge of the galaxy where the Vong front-line emerges are balanced with getting Han, Luke, Leia, and all their usual compatriots into the conflict. Luke continues to struggle with the future of the Jedi and questions whether a new formal order is the best path forward. The action sequences are as exciting as expected, with a particularly vivid sequence featuring the Solo children running asteroids paying off later in the climactic battle sequence as they gamble their lives to repel the Vong assault on Dubrillion.
The political changes to the New Republic are both logical and intriguing. Power-hungry Bothan Borsk Fey’lya has finally ascended to the top of the heap and is the President of the New Republic. His council is a realistic mixture of bickering individuals, each with their own agenda. Leia is not held in high regard by some of the newer politicians, who see her role as a hero of the Rebellion as something to be relegated to the history books and museums. She herself struggles with her evolving identity, no longer Chief of State but still influential, and also a potential Jedi-to-be. Her life journey compared to Luke’s continues to make for compelling subject matter, along with her ongoing work to balance saving the galaxy with caring for her family.
The Solo children become fully functional members of the ongoing cast of the adult novels in Vector Prime. Each has their own identity and their scenes aren’t nearly as painful to read as were some of the earlier books they were in (i.e. The Crystal Star). Jacen’s questioning of the role and future of the Jedi provides a nice counterpoint to Luke’s musings, while Jaina is much like her father and Anakin is on the path to being a straight-up Jedi hero. They all want to do the right thing but approach it in different ways. Mr. Salvatore does a very good job of integrating them with the film characters and making them integral to the ongoing story.
Vector Prime is a solid kick-off to the eighteen books to follow and an engaging story on its own terms. The Yuuzhan Vong are interesting villains, although for me they simply aren’t as fun to read about as the Imperials and Sith littering other EU works (too overtly “dark”, perhaps). I wouldn’t recommend Vector Prime to someone new to Star Wars novels, but if you’ve followed the story to this point, jump right in!