Saturday, February 25, 2012

Andrew's Review of Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand



5/5 Rancors - Rebel Stand, the concluding volume of Aaron Allston's Enemy Lines duology, picks up immediately where its predecessor left off. In fact, except for possibly violating some publisher-established rule of how long a Star Wars novel is allowed to be, there's really no reason this needed to be two books. Be that as it may, Rebel Stand does launch right back into the defense of Borleias and the exploration of the secret force inserted onto Coruscant. The plot elements from Rebel Dream are all picked up and resolved satisfactorily.

The standout storyline from Rebel Stand is the journey of Luke and his team through terraformed Coruscant. The atmosphere is ominous as they pass through mile after mile of crumbling buildings covered in alien vegetation, accompanied by the sounds of scurrying survivors in the shadows and dodging Yuuzhan Vong patrols. There are some nice comic moments with the members of Wraith Squadron who accompany the team as they gather intelligence about the extra-galactic invading force.

All of this is fairly straightforward fare, but there is a massively odd twist to the plot. A twisted, evil power has risen on Coruscant and Luke's group must figure out how to deal with it. A survivor informs them it is Lord Nyax, a mythical killing creature of Corellian legend. The truth is actually far stranger, as a hanging plot thread from Barbara Hambly's Children of the Jedi is unexpectedly resumed and completed. I recalled the details after spinning back through that prior volume a bit, but Lord Nyax is truly an element out of left-field. And a welcome one at that, as the relentless focus on the Yuuzhan Vong is lightened a bit while we take this side journey (and at that, Mr. Allston does not lose sight of the Vong altogether, just backburners them a tad).

Is Lord Nyax a necessary plot line? Not to my mind. But it is certainly entertaining and memorable. We also get appearances from traitorous Viqi Shesh interwoven throughout, and an interesting climactic battle set next to a wellspring of Dark Side energy. The ending battle between Luke, Mara, Tahiri and Lord Nyax is suitably epic and cinematic.

While all this is going on, Wedge continues to lead the defense of Borleias. It's well-written and engaging, flowing so naturally from the prior volume that I don't have a whole lot to comment on. The use of the Super Star Destroyer Lusankya in the final battle was creative and it is delightful watching Wedge and Vong leader Czulkang Lah strive to best each other tactically. Very solidly written space warfare, once again echoing Mr. Allston's earlier X-wing novels.

All in all, the Enemy Lines duology is a fun ride in the dark New Jedi Order. We are given a break from our heroes being beaten down and see the groundwork laid for future victories. The Vong are given an appropriate amount of focus and Lord Nyax provides an unusually memorable and strange twist to the plot. This is one of the most consistent and strongest efforts in the New Jedi Order paperback releases (originally the "key" books were released in hardcover while the "filler" novels were paperback only).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Andrew's Review of Enemy Lines I: Rebel Dream



4/5 Rancors - Aaron Allston's Rebel Dream, which kicks off the Enemy Lines duology, is somewhat of a return to the Bantam Spectra era of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. On an obvious level, many characters from the Rogue and Wraith Squadron novels make a welcome appearance here. But more subtly, the focus on the heroism of the familiar cast from the original trilogy and the attempted resurrection of the Rebel Alliance give this story an enjoyable vibe of standing in-between the popcorn adventure of earlier stories and the darkness of the New Jedi Order.

Compared to how the tightly-focused storyline of Dark Journey explored Jaina Solo's reaction to events post the significant events of Star by Star, Rebel Dream feels more like a true sequel. The New Republic has been shattered by the fall of Coruscant and its government and military are scattered throughout the galaxy. Wedge Antilles leads a force against the Vong-occupied world of Borleias, a familiar locale from earlier X-wing novels. Once retaken, he collaborates with Luke Skywalker, Tycho Celchu, and other old friends to establish a foothold. An interesting early sequence features a visit from the presumptive New Republic Advisory Council. They stop by mid-flight from Coruscant and attempt to set Wedge up in a suicidal stand against the Vong to buy them time. Wedge's deft handling of their instructions clearly delineates him as the military hero opposing the corrupt politicians. It's an amusing sequence but it is also symbolic of the emergence of a new hope, where the morally-centered leaders of past victories will be in a position to take greater control of the war-torn galaxy's future.

Mr. Allston adds a couple of things of interest to the Yuuzhan Vong stew: first, we see a down-but-not-beaten ex-Senator Viqi Shesh attempt to hold onto her power as she is held by her Vong "allies." Her only weapon is her scheming mind, but as she manages to inadvertently latch onto an actual plot against Warmaster Tsavong Lah, she is able to manipulate the situation to her advantage. Viqi is truly a repugnant, self-centered character, in many ways less likable then the Vong themselves. She certainly feels like a realistic politician, and her actions and choices further delineate the difference in the government of the New Republic as compared to its military heroes. The other most notable Vong addition is Czulkang Lah, Warmaster Tsavong Lah's father and a warrior of legendary repute. In a culture steeped in brutality and violence, it is interesting to now have a three-generation-spanning family guiding events from the antagonist perspective (its partly remarkable simply having three generations alive in the Vong culture).

A particularly fun storyline follows the creation of the Inner Circle and a concurrent Resistance. Akin to the Rebel Alliance, its spiritual predecessor, the Inner Circle is an array of many familiar old faces led by the Skywalkers, Solos, and a few others. Its purpose is to mount an effective grassroots defense against the Vong, one that can bypass the paralyzing bureaucracy and make tangible headway. It's hard not to cheer a bit while reading these sections: they present a stark contrast to the massive amount of pages devoted to the New Republic bickering and disintegrating presented in the novels before.

Rebel Dream deftly depicts Wedge Antilles as a cunning and tactically advanced leader making the best of a desperate situation. The return of Wraith Squadron brings some much need humor to the New Jedi Order. The end point beautifully sets up book two of Enemy Lines, as Wedge has bought his forces a bit of breathing room while Luke has led a strike force back to the terraformed, conquered Coruscant. Rebel Dream is a fun and fast read that leaves one ready to plunge straight into the concluding volume.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Andrew's Review of Dark Journey



3/5 Rancors - Elaine Cunningham's Dark Journey came as a bit of a surprise as I continue my chronological journey through the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I read this book when it was published and recalled feeling sharp disappointment. After the momentous, galaxy-shaking events of Star by Star, Dark Journey seemed a complete sidebar to the more important happenings at hand. It's a logical enough topic to explore Jaina Solo's emotional state after losing Anakin in the prior story. However, her travels around the Hapan system and her opposition to newly-introduced Yuuzhan Vong Khalee Lah didn't carry the interest that the destruction of the Jedi-killing voxyn, the deaths of many young Jedi and the fall of Coruscant set up in Star by Star.

Perhaps my expectations from reading Dark Journey in the past were tempered enough so I could regard the book in a new light: a narrowly-focused, fast-paced introduction to the new Jaina Solo. Anakin's departure from the story left a gaping hole in the New Jedi Order, one which I don't think was a well-thought-out plot element, but nonetheless Star by Star made it important to establish more complex personalities for the remaining Solo children, Jacen and Jaina (Jacen gets his own fantastically engaging exploration in Matthew Stover's Traitor). This book doesn't add a whole lot to the overall storyline, but it does introduce Jaina as a rogue element, one prepared to take on a new identity as the Yuuzhan Vong trickster goddess in an effort to rattle their faith and give the Jedi an edge.

Much of the book focuses on Jaina struggling through her feelings after the traumatic mission to Myrkr. An assortment of her allies travels with her to the Hapes system and in their various ways attempts to break through the emotional walls Jaina has raised around herself. However, the core focus is on three potential "suitors" of a sort: young Jedi Zekk, rogue Master Kyp Durron, and newly-arrived from the Chiss territories Jagged Fel. Jag has the most interesting role of the three, providing a needed break from Force users in the story and a point-of-view of a more ordinary person. There is some meat to the mistrustful relationship between Kyp and Jaina but Kyp himself has become a bit of a one-trick pony in these stories by this point: while it's believable that the events of the Sun Crusher and Carida (depicted in the Jedi Academy Trilogy) would certainly shadow and haunt him for the rest of his days, they do get trotted out quite a bit to propel his characterization. This works alright when he's on the sidelines but perhaps not as much when he takes the spotlight.

The matriarchal conspiracy-driven politics of Hapes are also pivotal, as the Queen is weakened by recent events and momentum grows behind pairing Prince Isolder with a stronger spouse. This all builds upon elements introduced long ago in The Courtship of Princess Leia, a book I found engaging more for its rancors and Force-wielding witches than for its wacky Han-Leia-Isolder love triangle. So here the time spent with Hapan maneuverings is suitably well-written but I didn't find it terribly engaging. Mostly it serves to set the stage for the somewhat-unexpected ascension that happens at the end.

Jaina embraces her new trickster identity by conjuring new surprises for the Yuuzhan Vong, including some rather clever work with their transponders to blur the identity of New Republic ships. This coupled with the evolving fighter-pilot tactics of Kyp, Jagged, and Jaina was the most engaging part of this story and presented the most relevance to the larger war at hand.

Anakin Solo's absence is a gaping hole in the New Jedi Order that Dark Journey does not fill. It is necessary to substantiate Jacen and Jaina with Anakin's departure but I can't help but find the need for this book a bit unfortunate, the result of an arguable plot miscalculation in Star by Star. That stated, Dark Journey still surprised me with its brisk pace and some enjoyable character interactions. It is very much a side story to the larger plot but worth a look nonetheless if the New Jedi Order era is of interest to you.