Tuesday, September 20, 2011

David: Rancor Spotting #23

Star Wars: Complete Locations illustrated by Hans Jensen and Richard Chasemore
Pages 160-161

Complete Locations is an excellent coffee-table size book that gives you detailed information and drawings about many of the locations in the Star Wars saga. So, of course it would include the Rancor pit below Jabba's throne room. The pit is rumored to have been hollowed from a sacred B'omarr grotto and is now littered with the regurgitated bones of the Rancor's meals. Try to remember the first time you saw Luke fight the beast and the disconsolate reaction of Malakili, the beast wrangler. This is an excellent book to peruse at length.



Friday, September 16, 2011

David's Review of Choices of One


5/5 Rancors - Mr. Zahn is best known for his eight previous Star Wars books, and I have always found his work to be extremely good, especially the novels with the Imperial officer Thrawn. Choices of One is another excellent effort and is great fun to read. It takes place in the period after A New Hope but before The Empire Strikes Back. We have Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and Mara Jade in lead roles. What could be better?

The plot revolves around Rebel efforts to find a new base eight months after the battle of Yavin. Governor Ferrouz of Candoras Sector offers an alliance that would provide the Rebels with sanctuary. In return, the Rebels would offer protection against the alien warlord Nusso Esva. New characters in the Star Wars world. That's a good thing. Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie are given the mission of evaluating the deal. This requires a trip to Candoras to see if the alliance is indeed possible.

Of course, very little is simple in Mr. Zahn's books. It turns out that our heroes are not the only ones headed in that direction. Mara Jade, known as the Emperor's Hand, and the five renegade stormtroopers known as the Hand of Judgment are headed in the same direction to stop Ferrouz and ambush the Rebels. From there, one betrayal leads to another, and things are not always what they seem to be. Mr. Zahn excels in character development and in descriptions of action scenes. His portrayal of Han Solo back in those days is just classic. Sarcastic, questioning, cocky - but at the same time, extremely capable. The byplay between Han and Leia is great fun as the two strong-willed characters deal with each other.

Timothy Zahn's classic book Heir to the Empire from twenty years ago is given credit for reigniting the world of Star Wars publishing. It is a wonderful book. LucasBooks has now released a 20th Anniversary Edition of Heir to the Empire, complete with annotations by the author, exclusive commentary from Lucasfilm and Del Ray, and a brand-new novella starring Grand Admiral Thrawn. The hardcover edition looks great, and I cannot wait to read it.

Mr. Zahn's books are always worth reading, and Choices of One is no exception.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Andrew's Review of Edge of Victory II: Rebirth



4/5 Rancors - In Rebirth, the concluding volume of the Edge of Victory duology, Greg Keyes widens the scope considerably from the first book Conquest. This time around there is a familiar Star Wars-style juggling of several important plotlines and more time is devoted to action rather than discussion/exploration. Still, the pace rarely flags, interest is maintained throughout, and it is a worthy successor to the superb first book. Also, even though both books in the duology are on the short side, Rebirth is distinct enough from Conquest that I accept the decision to split the story in half with no qualms. Conquest was an internal character study at heart, while Rebirth steps in to propel the story forward and set the stage for Troy Denning's massive Star by Star.

The title plays into several elements of Rebirth, but at its core appears to represent the rebirth of hope, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Mara Jade's pregnancy has progressed to a critical point and the sudden resurgence of her illness throws her health, along with the future of the Skywalker line, into doubt. The Yuuzhan Vong restart their invasion as they move on the Givin planet Yag'Dhul, a memorable locale where the natives are periodically exposed to the vacuum of space and have evolved accordingly. Shaper Nen Yim returns, demoted from the events of Conquest but developing an alarming desire to exact horrible vengeance on the New Republic and all inhabitants of the galaxy.

Tahiri and Anakin travel together as she rehabilitates from her torture at the hands of the Yuuzhan Vong. She now has a second personality implanted in her, a Vong that surfaces periodically, much to Anakin's alarm. This split makes her an interesting character, as does Anakin's vision of what she might become. Her rebirth from the depths also shines a light on new ways to bridge the gap between the galaxy's inhabitants and the Yuuzhan Vong, as she understands them in a way no other outsider can.

Political events take an intriguing turn in Rebirth as the government issues an order for the arrest of Luke Skywalker. The concept of this uber-powerful sect of Force-wielding individuals and their uneasy balance with the official government has always been fertile ground but not always fully utilized. Chief of State Borsk Fey'lya is not a one-sided character at this point: sure, he's a career politician, but we see between the lines that he may be a bit more sympethetic a character than he has often been portrayed. Luke's reaction to learning of his pending arrest is completely in character and provocative as a discussion point, depending on how each individual reader views the ideal role of the Jedi.

Rebirth was a bit more of a standard Star Wars Expanded Universe entry than Conquest before it, but it held up fine to the high standard set by its predecessor. The pace continued to be brisk, the dialogue well-writen, and the characters pushed forward in satisfying ways. To this point in the New Jedi Order, the Edge of Victory duology offers the most bang for your buck.

Andrew's Review of Edge of Victory I: Conquest



5/5 Rancors - Greg Keyes' Conquest, the first part of the Edge of Victory duology, breaks new ground in the continuing New Jedi Order and represents a blast of fresh air in its approach. The six books prior to this one all followed the standard Star Wars methodology of interweaving several plotlines of varying levels of intensity. Mr. Keyes throws that out the window and locks down an almost singular focus on Anakin Solo. He does present some chapters from a Yuuzhan Vong's point of view, and a few bits involving Talon Karrde, miscellaneous Jedi in the prologue, and others, but this is definitively Anakin's tale. This razor focus pays off in spades: the book moves quickly and for the first time in a while I found myself thinking "just one more chapter..." when I was trying to put it down and go to bed.

So, kudos for a different approach are in order. The story itself is first-rate as well. The Vong have temporarily halted their assault on the galaxy and claim a true peace is possible, as long as the New Republic hands over the Jedi. This edict puts all Jedi at risk, especially ones in isolated regions of the galaxy far from the head Jedi on Coruscant. It also, to Anakin's sudden realization and alarm, puts at risk the younglings in the training school on Yavin IV. Defying orders, Anakin tears out to the Yavin system and ends up entangled in a conflict with both Peace Brigaders and the Vong themselves as he attempts to rescue his closest friend Tahiri and a few other academy members.

Anakin Solo comes into his own in Conquest. At the start of the book, he was just one of the three Solo kids and not any more or less interesting than his older twin siblings, at least to me. By the end of Conquest, you can't help but be fully rooting for him. He comes to terms with his Jedi heritage; he divines new insights into the Yuuzhan Vong; he chooses a course of action many readers have likely been aching to see a Jedi take over the first six books, one centered in good and humbleness, unlike the at-times murky motivations of fellow Jedi Kyp Durron and his followers. Anakin Solo shows every sign of becoming a great Jedi and a great leader.

He is also given two solid foils in the book: the first is his best friend Tahiri, a young woman who he realizes he is starting to have more complex emotions about. A tragic event that befalls Tahiri is central to propelling Anakin's character arc forward and does so perfectly. During her absence from Anakin's side, he meets the outcast Yuuzhan Vong warrior Vua Rapuung. Their dialogue is tightly delivered, as each attempts to reach a sort of uneasy alliance to further his own goals. Rapuung's philosophies are unveiled by Anakin's probing questions, and as a reflection of that Anakin better understands himself and his own beliefs. The action-packed climax driven by Rapuung is also excellent, cinematic in its tenseness and pacing.

The other triumph of Conquest is its exploration of the Yuuzhan Vong shaper culture. We are given many scenes from the point of view of Nen Yim, a Vong apprentice shaper. Through her we learn about aspects of the Vong culture outside of the warriors the prior books depicted. We glean more of the reasoning behind their assault on the New Republic and also possible points of commonality as Nen Yim dares to apply a modern scientific approach to her research. Conquest also introduces the Shamed Ones, a downtrodden lower caste who don't necessarily share or support the views of their leaders. All great material set up to be used in future books.

For all these reasons, Conquest is the best book in the New Jedi Order to this point. Anakin Solo becomes a fully-fledged hero in these pages and the Yuuzhan Vong invasion is given some sorely-needed subtleties and inflections it was lacking beforehand. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Andrew's Review of Balance Point



3/5 Rancors - Kathy Tyers returns to the Star Wars Expanded Universe with Balance Point, the second hardcover and sixth novel overall in the New Jedi Order. I call out that it was published as a hardcover first for this reason: Del Rey indicated at the time that the key events of the New Jedi Order would take place in the hardcovers, and that if one only wanted to read them, they would be sufficiently knowledgeable to enjoy the overall story. On one level, I agree with that: I see no major issues in picking this up after reading Vector Prime. Of course, much of the color and detail would be lost, but the core of the story would be intact. On another level, I find it interesting, because Balance Point doesn't stand out to me as any more meaningful than the four paperbacks before it. The war grinds on. We learn a little more about the Vong. Jacen debates. There is one major development for Luke and Mara but that alone doesn't seem to warrant a hardcover.

Balance Point is primarily set on the devastated factory world of Duros. There are multiple refugee camps on the surface in sheltered domes. The Duros themselves live in space facilities surrounding the planet. The setting is evocative enough but I was as happy as the characters were to put it behind me at the end of the book. Like various species before them, the Duros attempt to make a deal with the Vong, a deal we know the whole time will go horribly awry. The payoff at the end to this storyline is sufficient but unsurprising.

Spoiling one detail, Mara Jade is surprised to realize she is pregnant. Ms. Tyers nicely depicts Mara and Luke's feelings over this development: their joy at the prospect of a child but their fears of bringing a new life into such a troubled galaxy. Mara being who she is, her mother-to-be status does not stop her from actively continuing in her role as a Jedi and in fact deepens her commitment, as she has even more worth fighting for. I found Luke and Mara's story to be the most rewarding part of the book.

The Solo family has a needed reunion as all three children along with Han and Leia are placed together on Duros. Han and Leia finally reconcile after all the bitterness of the prior four novels and it is good to see. Anakin is growing rapidly into his persona and beliefs, while Jaina struggles to recover from an injury and a blow to her self-confidence. Jacen debates his relationship to the Force at length. His meditations are interesting yet wearisome all at once.

Balance Point is an adequate continuation of the New Jedi Order but at this point the storyline needs to advance in more unexpected ways. There's a feeling of dots being connected as the various authors offer their entries and then step aside.

Andrew's Review of Agents of Chaos II: Jedi Eclipse



4/5 Rancors - James Luceno's Jedi Eclipse, the conclusion to his Agents of Chaos duology, ratchets the pace up a notch and provides one of the more memorable events of the New Jedi Order in its climax. The invasion of the galaxy continues. As the story starts we find Princess Leia desperately attempting to aid New Republic citizens about to be overrun by the Yuuzhan Vong. The opening also features arrogant Jedi Wurth Skidder and sets his story on a very intriguing arc, as he permits himself to be captured by the Vong. Han is continuing to travel with Droma and needs to complete Droma's quest to find his missing Ryn relatives to help heal his own emotional turmoil. Jacen and Anakin Solo set off to the Corellian system as part of a plan to re-activate Centerpoint, the massively powerful space station featured in the earlier Correllian Trilogy.

Wurth's journey as a Vong captive provides new insights into the culture of the extra-galactic invaders. He is forced to serve a yammosk, the massive creatures which serve the Vong as war coordinators. The risk is high, as the yammosk is able to peer into sentients' minds. Wurth walks a fine line of attempting to maintain contact with the yammosk while keeping his identity as a Jedi unrevealed. Eventually things fall apart, and Wurth takes a character leap forward as he accepts his destiny. I liked what Mr. Luceno did with the character and his sacrifice sets up interesting themes to come in the New Jedi Order, especially as a young Hutt travelling aboard the Vong ship comes to idolize him. At a point in the series where Luke and many of his closest advisors are taking relatively little action, Wurth provides a needed Jedi alternative.

Han and Droma continue to journey through the galaxy, and we also spend time with the refugee Ryn they are tracking as the Ryn are shuffled through a depressing series of refugee ships and camps. Han's emotional state continues to stabilize as action helps him to put the events of Vector Prime behind him. I can't say I find this emotional arc to be a story I ever particularly wanted to read but Mr. Luceno handles these stages of Han's journey well. While Han moves around the galaxy, Leia ends up in the Hapan system with her old suitor Prince Isolder. Nice to see a tie to The Courtship of Princess Leia, and though I found the duel storyline a bit trite, the end result of the Hapan commitment to the war is staggering.

Which brings us to the most interesting aspect of the climax: the Solo boys arrive at Centerpoint station in the middle of conflicting internal and external pressures. Jacen is continuing to question his relationship to the Force. Anakin is dealing with guilt from Vector Prime. Thracken Sal-Solo reappears and unsurprisingly is not entirely benevolent in his intentions. The Corellian system itself feels ill-used by the New Republic, a theme which will be explored thoroughly in later series. In the midst of all this, there is a simple scene where Anakin must decide whether to fire the weapon or not. His decision and the following ramifications are excellently depicted and the debate over what the right course of action was is fascinating.

Mr. Luceno handles the end of his duology quite capably, and of course manages to work in numerous call-outs to other Expanded Universe material. In the grand scheme of things, these books are part of a larger issue I have with the New Jedi Order storyline, as book after book hit similar points and the invasion drags on, but this one is a standout within that framework.