19 March 2008

Book 8: Revelation: Parts better than the whole

Legacy of the Force: Revelation
Karen Traviss

26 February 2008

The penultimate installment of Legacy of the Force gets off to a slow start, has far too much material that doesn't drive the plot, but is nevertheless one of the more interesting chapters in the series.

While you might not notice it among the large number of pages devoted to the Mandalorians, a few things actually happen in Revelation. The Imperial Remnant and Joint Chief of State Niathal turn against Jacen, a lovable EU character bows out while another one shows up literally out of nowhere to save the day, the Skywalkers and Solos finally wise up to Jacen, plus there's one of Legacy's most suspenseful space battles. Amongst all the happening, you'll also find the most genuine writing of the series, including what has to be one of the most touching scenes in the Extended Universe.

The first half of the book is rather plodding. A large part is written as a police procedural, with Ben out to gather forensic evidence necessary to convince his family (and prove to himself) that Jacen killed his mother, Mara. While unnecessary for the reader - we knew Jacen was the killer before we even read the fifth chapter, Sacrifice - a solid presentation of the facts is required for the Skywalker and Solo families, who, as a Mandalorian healer remarks to Jaina, have "been hoping that [Jacen will] see the light and [won't] have to do the dirty work."

Unfortunately for the series as a whole, there's been far too much material on the Mandalorians, material largely irrelevant to the main plot, and that's especially so in this volume. The editors at Del Rey should have suggested a side-project for Traviss where she could have developed the material more fully and without having to try to find ways to justify its inclusion here. The ostensible purpose for the Mandos in this volume is Jaina's search for a method or means of capturing or killing her twin brother Jacen. She goes to one of the galaxy's most feared Jedi hunters, Boba Fett, who fits her in armor, shows her how to use a metal blade, but most importantly teaches her the need to be someone else: "A nasty Jaina. A crafty, cheating Jaina. A bounty-hunting Jaina." The training itself doesn't require that many pages. What does is concluding the drama of Boba Fett and tying up loose ends from Traviss' Republic Commando series, both of which happen to fit neatly into the thematic foundation of the book, if not necessarily the plot. The revelations include Boba's poignant sacrifice for his wife, a Jedi disclosing his true identity, Jaina's calling, Mara's murderer, and a Sith's coming out.

Once all the preliminaries are out of the way, the second act is a page-turner featuring one of the most unusual space battles of the series, in which not one but two new players and two new fleets join the fray. The Galactic Alliance is riven mid-battle by a defection, and the planet being targeted becomes the planet from which a new alliance forms up against Jacen, driving him home to Coruscant to make what will most likely be his last stand in the final volume, Invincible.

The extended epilogue tidies up the Mandalorian saga with the most sincere and genuine writing of the series. This is perhaps the only Star Wars novel that ever got me choked up. And not once, but twice within the last 20 pages. The hardened mercenary unburdens himself, opens his heart and finds himself accepted, taking the first step to winning back the love and the family he had quietly cherished for more than 50 years. The Jedi deserter Gotab has at last a chance to explain himself to a fellow Jedi, to stop hiding and at last be welcomed within his adopted community for what he is, and not what he has pretended to be. Jaina learns to look outside herself, finding a reason and a will to do what 's necessary to take care of her evil twin brother. And in the last two pages, Traviss delivers the most understated and touching scene from the Star Wars Extended Universe, a quiet ending with Ben and Luke in the still of the Endor night. Read it and weep.


Book 7: Fury: Signifying nothing

Legacy of the Force: Fury
Aaron Allston

27 November 2007

After two volumes filled with major events, The Legacy of the Force series returns to form in this seventh installment. For the most part, you could skip it and not miss much.

While author Aaron Allston delivers a well-plotted and fast-paced finale, the ending leaves the story right where it began, with Jacen politically and militarily isolated and seemingly finished. The promise of a helping hand from Korriban, hinted at the end of the previous volume, turns out to be a feint, and no one has yet figured out Jacen is a Sith or Mara's killer.

Neither have they figured out that he's lost all sense of proportion. In order to bring the Hapans back into the war for the Galactic Alliance, Jacen kidnaps his own daughter. The Hapans instead withdraw from any outside contact except for a secret mission to the Jedi, who devise a rather improbable mission to plant on Jacen's body a tracer housed in a tiny piece of cloth the same color and texture as his clothing. They can thereby track Jacen's whereabouts and eventually effect a rescue - but only so long as Jacen doesn't change his clothes.

As in Allston's previous volume, Exile, Jacen walks into an obvious trap, this time set up by the Corellians to fry his fleet using Centerpoint Station, implausibly revived after being scrapped by Ben and Jacen in Betrayal (also by Allston). While the as yet unannounced Sith Lord loiters in space waiting for Centerpoint to complete its firing sequence, he allows his mother to come aboard "to talk." Instead of throwing her in the brig, the pair chat away the minutes while the Corellians take aim and the stowaways on Leia's craft pilfer data from Jacen's computers. The entire sequence comprises a long list of contrivances that make you want to give up on the book altogether.

Meantime, in an asteroid field far away, Jaina, Jag and Zekk prepare for a final showdown with Alema Rar, who is also being hunted by a Sith from Korriban eager to retrieve purloined Sith artifacts. Among them is Ship, which in the ensuing chaos flees to the Sith homeworld of Ziost, the Korriban agent in pursuit.

Along the way two major Jedi sustain life-threatening injury, but miraculously live to fight another day. A last-minute method for destroying Centerpoint Station is discovered, and Jacen can manage to kill only a Jedi-newbie and one of his subordinates, proving that he's not such a bad-ass after all and continuing the devolution of his character from a villain who reluctantly took up the dark arts in an effort to save and protect society, to a blinkered madman divorced from any rational view of the universe.

My best guess is that the next volume won't advance the series much further, though we're likely to get some interesting material on Boba Fett.


Book 6: Inferno: The best so far

Legacy of the Force: Inferno
Troy Denning

28 August 2007

Fast paced and on plot, Inferno is the tightest and most engaging novel in the LotF series. Were it not for the lobotomized villain and the contrived ending, it might have been near perfect.

As this sixth volume opens, Jacen prepares to launch a decisive strike against the Confederation fleet. To do this, he must rely on the Jedi, and to rely on them he needs leverage to insure their cooperation. And so under the guise of protecting children, he sends a Galactic Alliance Guard squadron to hold the Jedi Academy hostage, after which things begin to spin out of control, including author Troy Denning's depiction of Jacen. Once a thinking man's villain, he has been transformed into a megalomaniacal, hostage-taking, child-killing, planet-destroying madman. At some point in the story you wonder what happened - who's this Darth Caedus guy and where did _he_ come from?

Where Caedus is laughable, Luke is again human, rescued from the sidelines where he spent the previous five volumes as an inefficient and ineffective politician and parent. Now center stage, he leads the Jedi out from under Jacen's nominal control, helps forge a new political alliance to try and contain his increasingly bizarre nephew, and personally takes the fight directly to Caedus. Sadly, this knock-down, drag-out concludes in a contrivance that can only have been intended to string out the series. Battered, bruised, and with a knife stuck between his shoulder blades, Jacen lays waiting for a death blow, one Ben is ready to deliver. Luke stops him, though, and the two walk away to wait for a moment when "the time is right." Thousands or millions more will die because Luke didn't act when he had the chance, a decision that will no doubt be the source of great lament and self-recrimination in forthcoming volumes.

While it may seem that there is no plot left to develop - Jacen having been abandoned by the Jedi, his political allies, and even his wife - a preview of the seventh installment finds Caedus scheming to bring the Hapan fleet back into the fight against the Confederation. While it is unlikely this plan will be any more successful than his others, it is the arrival of Alema Rar at the end of Inferno bearing a message from the ancient Sith home world of Korriban that portends a more dramatic show down between the forces of light and dark.


Book 5: Sacrifice: The series begins rocking

Legacy of the Force: Sacrifice
Karen Traviss

29 May 2007

Two major characters die in battle, a minor character is assassinated by one of the principles, a government is overthrown, a leader imprisoned, and the antagonist crosses into territory so villainous he can never hope to return.

Oh, and Boba Fett makes a major discovery about a long-lost family member.

At last, something is happening in the Legacy of the Force series, which until now has been a political drama without politics, punctuated by outbreaks of violence that do nothing to move the story along. The beginning of each book seemed exactly like the one before.

All that's changed now in this 5th of nine volumes. If for no other reason than something actually happens, Sacrifice is by far the best book in the series thus far. It also happens to be mostly well written and suspenseful, at least in the latter half. The beginning plods along like much of the rest of the previous volumes, but as soon as Jacen sends Ben off an a mission of assassination, the story suddenly loses all slack, a taut tale that keeps you turning the pages.

It's fairly hard to summarize the plot without giving away all the details. Anyone who has been following the series and reads the first paragraph above can probably guess who is doing what, though I for one didn't anticipate the identity of the titular sacrifice. I'm not unhappy with the choice, though it does seem a bit out of place given the prophecy that sets it up, that Jacen will kill the thing he loves. Obviously, the real sacrifice will be Jacen's family, which is sure to disown him once they learn who he's dispatched. (Interestingly, all of the Jedi deaths in the series so far have been female characters, including Tresina Lobi and Nelani, plus a non-Jedi Force user in Sacrifice).

Once it gets going, Sacrfice flags only when Traviss diverts from the main plot to write about Fett and the Mandalorians. These chapters actually contain quite a lot of interesting material - Boba learns to accept his new role as leader of his people and their planet, a new industry is launched, the Mandalorians get back into the political game, and Boba makes a surprising discovery about his wife. But dropped in between the action, the Boba chapters interrupt the suspense like bad television commercials.

And after all the pages spent on Jacen's ruminations about what the prophecy means and who he would have to sacrifice, there is no explanation of his new Sith name, why he chose it, and what it means to him.

There are a couple of other nits worth picking, but most can't be discussed without giving away the plot. Suffice it to say that Sacrifice may be the place to start reading Legacy of The Force. Let's hope the writers and editors can maintain the momentum.


Book 4: Exile: Still nothing much happening

Legacy of the Force: Exile
Aaron Allston

27 February 2007

This fourth volume in the Legacy of the Force series brings us now to near mid-point in the planned nine-volume series and leaves us in much the same spot as we were at the end volume three, with all the major heroes and villains having had another go at one another without serious injury, death, or development of plot.

Now on the run from both The Galactic Alliance and Corellia, the exiled Han and Leia Solo seek the aid and assistance of Lando Calrissian, who joins his old friends in disguise as owners of a gambling and pleasure ship. Together they arrange GA license to operate in Corellian space, where they sit, watch, and wait for the disfigured and deranged Twilek, Alema Rar. Back from his own exile is Chis pilot Jagged Fel, whose personal mission dovetails nicely with Han and Leia's and who under Luke's orders is assigned to work with Jaina and Zekk to capture or destroy the former Dark Nester and agent of the series' arch villain, Lumiya.

Jacen, meanwhile, sends Ben on a mission to test his cousin's suitability as a Sith apprentice, a mission that ends with Ben stranded on the ancient Sith home world of Ziost fighting for physical survival. While Ben struggles to balance the imperative of his mission with the Jedi imperative to protect life, other worlds join Corellia in seceding from the GA, widening the potential conflict and setting up Exile's final scene, in which Jacen infiltrates a meeting to elect a military commander for the newly christened Corellian Confederation

That particular mission turns rather predictably to failure, an end clumsily telegraphed to any reader passingly familiar with action/adventure/fantasy fiction, in which the details of military plans are glossed to preserve suspense for the actual battle scenes. Here, though, author Aaron Allston lays out the entire scheme, a clear sign that the plan is not what it seems - or will very quickly be made moot once the action starts. Authorial ruse was evident as well in Jacen's insistence that he himself act as the spy at the election meeting when under circumstances not dictated by the need to maneuver the characters Jacen would have sent a less noticeable agent.

Allston also treats us to some spiffy new technology, including a device that delivers an electric shock to transfer short-term memories to long-term memory, effectively short-circuiting Alema Rar's ability to erase her presence from the minds of those who have seen her. As electric shock has in the real world been found to cause memory loss, we're left to wonder is this idea is based on anything but imagination.

Still now we don't know exactly what caused the rift between the GA and its member worlds, except for some vague pronouncements, provided in Exile from Leia, that the conflict between the GA and Corellia was the "inevitable conclusion of their respective political directions." Read into that whatever you will. The authors are not likely to provide anything more.

About the only things noteworthy in Exile, besides a few good one-liners, are Allston's revival of the "Sword of the Jedi" prophecy, foreshadowing Jaina's return to center stage (and her possible role as Jacen's foil), as well as his Solo-Skywalker thesis, that the universe has been kept whole only because these families have worked in concert. The corollary, of course, is that the universe is now going to pot because this alliance has been fractured and its members now set against each other. If the Legacy series continues as it has thus far developed, the Solo-Skywalker thesis will probably not be explored in future volumes, although the title for the upcoming fifth volume, Sacrifice, and the announcement of Jacen's Sith name, suggest author Karen Traviss may be giving us something more than another predictable battle-royale.


Book 3: Tempest: Check your credulity at the door

Legacy of the Force: Bloodlines
Troy Denning

28 November 2006

This third volume in the Legacy series is perhaps the easiest read thus far. Denning brings a light touch to composition, leading the reader from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, chapter to chapter. It's a wonderful experience to be carried along so effortlessly, caught up in a spell that for a short time obscures the world outside these pages.

The series limps along without any additional information about what's causing this galaxy-wide conflict, so leave behind any such expectations, then get ready to swallow this: Han Solo, the newly minted Correllian nationalist, is sent along with Leia as emissary to convince the Hapes Consortium to remain neutral in Corellia's conflict with the Galactic Alliance. In reality, they've been sent as bait to lure Queen Tenel Ka into the open for an assassination attempt, part of a wider plot to install a pro-Corellian government on Hapes. Realizing they've been set-up, Han and Leia try to warn the Queen, only to be caught up in the shooting once the assassin strikes. Everyone thinks Han and Leia are part of the plan and so the two play along, teaming up with and helping the frustrated assassin escape so that they can uncover the plotters. From there it just gets sillier, as the Solos convince the assassin's handler that they are in fact part of a plot to kill the former Jedi and longtime friend of the family, and later when the shooting resumes to do nothing to save the Queen in order to protect their credentials as Corellian nationalists.

As if that weren't incredulous enough, there's the 80-year old assassin who gives Jacen a run for his money. The big, bad, dark-sider is saved from extinction by his 5-year old daughter (who tawks with an annoyingly steweotypical wisp). Luke and Mara's 13-year old son, Ben, who in the previous volume was for the very first time sensitively written, is reduced by Denning into a whiny, petulant teenager.

Then there's the problem of death, or more specifically how all the major and even minor characters avoid it. This book is packed with violent encounters of all kinds - Mara and Luke take on Lumiya; the assassin shoots it up with the Hapes Royal Guard before trading lightsaber blows with Jacen; Alema goes a round with Mara; Jaina and Zekk are pounded by two YVH battle droids and a dozen starfighters and later have to evacuate spacecraft twice; the Falcon, limping along without shields, is rocked by a massive turbolaser blast; and out of all this carnage, the only corpses in sight are a Jedi you likely won't remember from the Dark Nest trilogy and Leia's two Noghri bodyguards.

In the end, the pro-Corellian plot is put down, all the major and supporting characters have survived (a few with treatable wounds), Luke and Mara seem no wiser about Jacen's turn to the dark side (though they do finally assert their parental rights to take their son back to Coruscant), and about the only development of significance seems to be the beginning of a rivalry between Jacen and Lumiya. In other words, nothing much happens to advance the story.

Which is why Denning's writing saves this from being little more than an exercise in selling more product to Star Wars fans.


Book 2: Bloodlines: Better than the first, but...

Legacy of the Force: Bloodlines
Karen Traviss
29 August 2006

This second installment in the new 9-volume Legacy of the Force series proves one thing - even a good writer can't make up for a silly plot.

Legacy started poorly in the first volume with a premise for which there is no evidence, namely that the Galactic Alliance (GA) is now more like the old Empire than the New Republic, running roughshod over member states, creating a general air of mistrust and indirectly fomenting ideas of rebellion and secession. When Corellia decides it's had enough, Luke Skywalker suddenly looses his good sense and sends a Jedi snatch-squad to kidnap Corellia's leaders so that they can then be bullied into not leaving the GA. How's that for implausible?

But it gets even worse in Bloodlines. Not only aren't we given any additional background information about why now everyone suddenly despises the GA, the characters start to act even more out of character, especially Luke and Mara, who despite the very obvious evidence that their nephew Jacen Solo is turning to the dark arts, do nothing to secure their son Ben Skywalker from training with the budding Sith Lord. They're also complicit in continuing to support the GA in bullying the Corellians. In the story's other major thread, Jacen is appointed colonel of an antiterrorist unit and spends his days rounding up and interrogating Corellians living on Coruscant. All the while he continues to explore his new powers, killing a "terrorist" while interrogating her and traveling through time to meet his grandfather, none other than Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader. Perhaps in the next volume he'll be able to visit Corellia by flying through space.

Fortunately, we've got Karen Traviss writing Boba Fett into the story and for a time at least diverting us from the improbable main plot.

Now 71-years old, the dying mercenary needs the help of the Kaminoan scientists to arrest a fatal condition. But the cloner who can help him has fled Kamino and if Boba is to ever to get help, he's going to have to first find him. Which is made all the more difficult when the new president of Corellia, Thrackan Sal-Solo, makes Boba an offer he can't refuse, a huge pile of cash to assassinate his cousin and chief political rival, Han Solo.

As regular readers of the Star Wars novels are aware, Traviss is the new authority on all things Mandalore, having written quite an extensive back history and even the rudiments of a language for her two Republic Commando novels and her Boba Fett novella. The former military journalist's command of detail in this world of clone warriors and mercenaries imparts a certain depth and confidence that makes these sections more compelling than the palsied main plot. They also have a sad charm about them, as Boba begins to reflect of his mortality and experience for the first time regret for having long ago abandoned his family.

Besides a well-drawn Fett, Traviss provides some clues as to what happened in the intervening years to some of the characters in her Republic Commando series, and she also gives us for the first time a partially developed Ben Skywalker. Until now he's been just a kid and mostly Luke Skywalker's kid. But Traviss here for the first time makes Ben into a young man with his own personality, who begins to come into his own as an apprentice in Jacen's antiterrorist unit, using his Force powers on raids to sniff out people and munitions. This is one character I'm now interested in seeing how Troy Denning will handle in the forthcoming volume, Tempest.

I don't expect, however, no matter how well he writes Ben, that Denning will be able to rescue us from a poorly developed premise. I think we're now too far in to see any hope of saving what has revealed itself as a thinly disguised and poorly conceived retelling of the film saga, a story about a boy of enormous talent, trained as a Jedi and lured to the dark side in the belief that only the power he can find there will prevent his loved ones from suffering.


Book 1: Betrayal: A weak beginning

Legacy of the Force: Betrayal
Aaron Allston
30 May 2006

Member worlds chafe under heavy taxation, bridle at providing materiel and conscripts, and make noise of open rebellion. The central government blusters, threatening isolation, economic stagnation and military retaliation, but secretly fears secession and the eventual withering away of its power and influence.

So opens Betrayal, the first in a planned nine-book series following the characters of the Star Wars universe 36 years after events in Revenge of the Jedi and 10 years after the events of the Yuzhong Vong invasion, chronicled in the last extended novel cycle, New Jedi Order (19 volumes published 1999-2003).

To prevent the dissolution of the Galactic Alliance, Chief of State Cal Omas and his government devise a plan in which the Jedi will abduct the leadership of the GA's most openly antagonistic member, Corellia, so that the GA might then brow beat Corellia's leaders into quietly paying their taxes and end all talk of independence. It's one of the most ridiculous plans you're likely to encounter in a Star Wars novel. At least the most ridiculous I've read to date. How much more belligerent - short of dropping bombs or shooting people - can you get than kidnapping a government's leaders? It's as if the Germans decided to kidnap the leaders of the French government for threatening to leave the EU. Even more ridiculous, this plan is approved by Luke Skywalker, a guy normally depicted as levelheaded, who prefers talking to fighting (and who later in the book turns down a second snatch plan on the grounds that the GA doesn't want to set a precedent of kidnapping leaders of hostile governments!).

Word of the plan leaks out and the Jedi come up empty handed in their kidnapping caper. To salvage what little he can from the operation, the GA's leading Admiral over Corellia seizes and occupies a small leisure planet within the Corellian system. Now the Corellians are spitting mad and things quickly move from bad to worse.

Along the way, the characters are put into situations where they must make difficult choices. While the story itself is often confusing when it isn't implausible, author Aaron Allston should be given some credit for trying to beef up this hodgepodge of a novel with some thematic muscle. Betrayal is a story about choice and conscience, about weighing consequences and realizing that sometimes the best action is also the most painful.

Han must choose where his allegiance lays, with the GA or his homeworld of Corellia, while Leia, a newly minted Jedi, must choose between her husband, the GA and the order. Ben must choose whether to terminate a computer simulation of his lost cousin Anakin Solo in order to shut down the Corellian's superweapon, Centerpoint Station. In Betrayal's other main plot, Han and Leia's son Jacen must choose to take a life in order to save the lives of many more, and further whether to extend his knowledge of the Force by studying the dark arts of the Sith.

Overall, there's far too much happening in Betrayal for it to be anything but rushed. The first third covers the initial attack on Corellia (including a laughable scene in which 13-year old Ben Skywalker sneaks into and eliminates the threat from Centerpoint Station by tricking the computer, a la James Kirk, into believing that it isn't a real person after all), the middle part the political maneuvering to get the combatants unstuck, including a subplot of political assassination leading into the last third of the book, Jacen's discovery of the Sith (this particular branch having descended from a sentient species of Mynok, a flying rodent and pest of pilots in the SW universe). Anyone of these parts could have been a novel itself, but mashed together here the stories suffer as a result of having to constantly advance the plot so that we can get to the end of the book - and start the next one.

And there's the rub. These extended series involve a number of editors and writers working together to make a coherent and consistent story. It also involves working on a tight deadline to make sure the books are delivered at regular intervals. With so many cooks stirring the pot, with the added pressure of having to write to deadline, its not surprising that we end up with half-baked books.

Still, I'm looking forward to the next one, especially as Karen Travis will be writing a 71 year old Boba Fett who has to work together with his old bounty, Han Solo. Stay tuned.