5/5 Rancors - There are few regular authors in the Star Wars Expanded Universe whose books I anticipate more eagerly than a new release penned by James Luceno. Mr. Luceno has an amazing grasp of the intricate details of the galaxy far, far away, and at his best is able to weave disparate elements from many sources into a cohesive and rich tapestry. I can't imagine a better choice for an author to pick up the many threads laid down in the eighteen prior New Jedi Order books and somehow make sense of them as a whole. In The Unifying Force, Mr. Luceno accomplishes not only this daunting task but adds numerous nods and updates to older material as well. To experience this book at its best, a reader would not only want to have read the New Jedi Order leading up to it but have as much exposure as possible to the Bantam Spectra novels set prior chronologically.
The Unifying Force brings the forces at work together in one final massive conflict. The storyline begun in Greg Keyes' Edge of Victory duology comes to a head as the Shamed Ones of Yuuzhan Vong society cast off their yoke of oppression and open new possibilities in the power dynamics of the culture. Zonama Sekot returns to the known galaxy in spectacular fashion but manages to remain enigmatic until the last few chapters. Various final solutions to the Vong invasion are put forward and addressed. Lastly, per the title, the disparate views of the Force posited throughout the New Jedi Order, in particular those put forward by Vergere and those surfaced by the absence of the Vong in the Force, are smashed together and forged to create a new vision of the future for the Jedi.
The opening of the book is surprising, as several chapters are set in a prison camp that reminded me strongly of scenes from The Bridge over the River Kwai and a few other war films. These serve to ease the reader into the larger story and set the stage for the Galactic Alliance's final push to retake Coruscant and stop the invasion. The prison chapters and the space conflict they eventually lead to are well-written and fundamental to the story, but I admit I was chafing to get back to two main plotlines: the return of Zonama Sekot to the galaxy and the churning evolution of Yuuzhan Vong society taking place on Coruscant.
Mr. Luceno deftly paints the crumbling foundations of Yuuzhan Vong culture and manages to spend significant time detailing Supreme Overlord Shimmra's actions and words without revealing too much of the underlying mystery of this character. Shimmra's desperation and confusion shines through clearly, as the Vong turn to more epic sacrifices and even to denying their gods in an effort to reconcile what went wrong with their invasion. Nom Anor provides a shadow storyline to that of Shimmra and to the end proves a wild-card character: the most memorable Vong of the entire series.
The final battle with Shimmra is quite satisfying and cinematic. Sprawling over many chapters as the Jedi and Galactic Alliance forces attempt to reach him, there's a desperate sense of urgency to the proceedings and some genuine fear for the fate of the heroes. A twist ending in this battle didn't come as a particular shock but it is an interesting new perspective on the true leadership of the Vong culture. There is a beautifully poignant moment for Jacen Solo, a character who has grown increasingly murky over the series, when he experiences something absolutely sublime and at the same moment knows he will spend the rest of his life attempting and failing to recapture it.
Looking over my reviews of the New Jedi Order, there are many individual books I gave high marks to. What intrigues me is my overall impression of the series is lower than the average of my ratings would suggest. There is no question that it overstays its welcome and that rotating so many authors through its doors did little good for the consistency of the story. That said, it's books like Matthew Stover's Traitor, Troy Denning's Star by Star, and The Unifying Force that save this series. They make it worthwhile reading for fans of the Star Wars Expanded Universe that have gotten to Timothy Zahn's Vision of the Future and wish there was more story to go. While I disagree with some of the foundational elements of the New Jedi Order, here Mr. Luceno deftly wraps up the whole thing in a beautiful shiny package: truly a job well done.