Leia: Princess of Alderaan

Leia: Princess of Alderaan (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, #3)Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I continue to greatly enjoy Claudia Gray’s contributions to the new Star Wars continuity. Leia: Princess of Alderaan is no exception. L:POA is a YA novel like Lost Stars, and there are certainly similarities between the two, including a story about young love set against an intergalactice stage and starring characters (in this case, Leia and her first crush Kier) who understand each other so well yet ultimately find themselves divided by opposing viewpoints. There are even parallel events between the novels; the Imperial ball Leia attends toward the end of L:POA is likely a predecessor of the ball depicted in LS, suggesting an annually recurring event (the timeline of the novels and her rank of apprentice legislator in L:POA versus junior senator in LS are sufficient for me to treat them as separate events), and I’ll never forget the Moa or its crew so was pleased to see a brief cameo in L:POA as well.

Gray’s novels have some appropriately Star Wars-ian big action sequences, but the best moments are quieter scenes spent in characters’ heads, or in high society setpieces with plenty of melodrama, like a dinner party or ball. There’s plenty of all the above in L:POA. As usual, Gray seems to perfectly convey the voices of established characters like Leia, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa–all the more impressive here since Leia is not nearly so tough or jaded at this point in her life, and Bail is unusually anxious and emotionally overwhelmed as he deals with the reality that he can’t keep Leia safe or separate from his growing rebellion, such that we see the characters dealing with things differently than they would in the films, and know that they are at different points in their lives, but we still see elements of their personalities that we know well. It doesn’t feel out of character; the differences reflect living personalities that can and will change over time. Gray seems to have a lot of fun with Tarkin in particular, and his cold, calculating evil is a heavy influence in L:POA just as it was in the first part of LS. I also liked the many new characters that are introduced, including all the members of Leia’s pathfinding group. Though not a truly new character, Queen Breha Organa is given a wholly developed, distinctive personality, and we finally see how much Leia inherited not just from her adoptive father but her adoptive mother as well.

Much was made out of Leia’s one-off use of the line, “Strength through joy,” preserved in my first edition copy of the book though apparently changed in later editions. I’ll confess that I would have remained ignorant of the Nazi association if not for the resultant backlash within fandom. Gray was right to apologize for the oversight, I understand why people were upset, and it’s good that this was updated later. But I firmly believe that this was just a simple oversight, because Gray’s books, including L:POA, are full of sympathetic, engaging, and diverse characters, and the fascist rule of the Galactic Empire is clearly portrayed as evil in and of itself, even without the cackling villainy of Palpatine and his immediate underlings. L:POA is a novel about resisting fascism, tyranny, and oppression, about finding ways to combat a bad system from the inside, and about learning when it becomes necessary to force change from the outside, even if the mechanism of that force is violent. It was also clear exactly what the Organas and the other Rebels are fighting for in this book: freedom, equality, planetary sovereignty, and an end to cronyism and blatant governmental corruption. Leia goes on mercy missions, delivering food and medicine to worlds impacted by the actions of the Empire. And the Empire’s actions aren’t just planet-destroying or abstract; we see actual examples of unjust policies, and how those policies could be supported by those who benefit from the Empire. Leia at one point observes slavers and, though heartbroken, insists on bearing witness and doing what she can on Alderaan to ensure that any slaves passed through that system will be freed. Where a lot of Star Wars, especially in the movies, does a poor job of presenting just what was good about the Old or New Republic and just what the Rebels were fighting for, Claudia Gray makes the portrayal of that purpose and positivity a primary goal, especially in contrast to the banal evil of the Imperial bureaucracy. (As an aside, I think that Gray sees the Rebellion as cohering not necessarily over an agreement about what an Imperial replacement should be or even over basic moral principles, so much as a desire to return sovereignty to individual planetary governments. I think that’s an interesting and complicated perspective, one that seems rather real and plausible, and it also does a good job of explaining why the eventually unified Rebel Alliance of the films doesn’t have much of a clearly conveyed vision other than resistance to the Empire and, presumably, restoration of the Republic.)

If you’d asked me five years ago where to get into Star Wars books, my safe answer would have been Zahn’s EU Thrawn trilogy. Now, my enthusiastic answer is anything by Claudia Gray, and Leia: Princess of Alderaan only reinforces that opinion.

View all my reviews

Review: Ahsoka

Ahsoka (Star Wars)Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ahsoka is a satisfying bridge tale that connects the dots in Ahsoka’s life between where we left her at the end of the Clone Wars and where we found her in Rebels. It’s also a pretty decent character study of Ahsoka, and I felt like the spirit of the character was really captured. For that matter, what time we have with Bail Organa is a real treat, as Johnston has portrayed him as charming, calculating, maybe a little exhausted, and compassionate yet wary. He felt pitch-perfect to me.

The story itself is a fine adventure that introduces us to elements from Rebels like the Inquisitors and the nascent Rebel Alliance. We also get a fair amount of completely new characters, planets, and ideas that continue to make that galaxy far, far away feel like a very real and very big place. I rather liked most of the new characters as well, from the farmers of Raada to the Fardis smuggling family. By the novel’s conclusion, I shipped Ahsoka and her new farmer friend Kaeden, for what that’s worth.

By the way, on finishing, I did go back and re-read Johnston and Ashley Eckstein’s “By Whatever Sun” in From A Certain Point Of View, and I found that I enjoyed the story much more this time around. It’s a rather satisfying epilogue to the story of Kaeden and Miara.

I obviously didn’t race through this book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Ahsoka or the Filoni animated shows.

View all my reviews

Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

20190414160425_120190414160448_120190414160504_120190414160505_1

Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

Review: Dead Mountain

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dead Mountain recounts the disappearance of the Dyatlov hiking group in February 1959, the subsequent investigation, and the author’s own attempt to find the truth to this unsolved mystery. I feel like I say some variant of this a lot (maybe it reflects the subject matter of many of my reading choices), but a book like this could go two ways: grotesque sensationalism or careful contemplation of the relevant data. I was impressed to discover that Donnie Eichar goes hard down the latter path.

Eichar wisely sticks close to the facts. He casts the hikers and their families in a sympathetic light, avoiding speculative melodrama. He is attentive to detail and is careful in crafting a narrative out of the events. He goes through the available theories as to what happened and implodes them one by one. He admits to remaining ambiguity but ultimately settles on natural infrasound produced by a Karman vortex street; the final chapter of the book is his reimagining of the hikers’ final night, applying this theory to the available facts. I was especially worried about the tone of the chapter, but once more my concerns were quieted: Eichar does not present it as a definitive interpretation, but as a buest-guess reconstruction, and his depiction of the hikers’ actions is tragic and heroic while fitting the data rather well, interpreting odd details and filling gaps.

I don’t think the case can be considered solved; as one of Eichar’s experts puts it, “What you’re really trying to do is reverse-engineer a tragic event without any witnesses.” Eichar does the best with what’s available, offering an interpretation that seems more probable than the other available interpretations out there. His attention to the actual reported dates of “fire orbs” in the skies (and matching them to information about missile launches in the area), his consideration of the slope of the mountain and consultation with an avalanche expert, his ability to reintepret the radiation evidence by way of yet another expert, and his emphasis on the lack of supporting evidence for basically any other theory out there helps to make the natural infrasound theory seem more likely.

The Dyatlov Pass incident is a compelling mystery in and of itself, but the echo chamber of the Internet (and the language barrier present between English-speaking Internet sleuths and the Russian source material) has resulted in a distortion of key facts and an over-emphasis on certain details and phrases that create the impression of a potential larger mystery that could implicate UFOs, secret weapons, and a Russian government cover-up. Eichar tears right through the distortions. So many “facts” about the state of the bodies, about sightings in the skies, about things said and seen, are put in their right place here. Things that seem bizarre at first glance have simple explanations available. Dead Mountain reads like a clever deciphering of the truth.

I didn’t like everything about the book. The interweaving of the story of the hikers, the story of the investigation, and the story of Eichar’s own involvement leads to some confusion and false suspense, as we keep cutting back between different events. Obviously the goal is to create an ongoing sense of mystery, but I do think it buries important information Eichar had, only revealing it (or putting it in the right context) toward the end when he draws his conclusions. Also, I could have used less of Eichar himself. The sections recounting his own investigation were the least interesting. I appreciate the research he put into it, and the emphasis on how many times he was relying on very little or no translation clearly shows how difficult it can be to research a book that spans not only countries but languages, but so much feels like a travelogue or adventure journal, with random tidbits of information that he found interesting (whether about gulags, Gary Powers, or the administrative history of NOAA) tossed in throughout. He also spends a lot of time worrying about why he chose to right the story. The reasoning is shallow: he came across the story while researching something else, he spent time reading about it online, and he had the resources to take a couple trips to Russia to gain access to informants and documents (and to take a largely pointless trip to Dyatlov Pass so that he could feel like he was replicating the journey of the hikers). His discomfort with why he’s researching the story and his recognition that it’s a bit silly that he thought he could just waltz into a foreign country to solve their decades-old mystery for them ultimately take up too much of the story and feel self-absorbed. He could have cut the focus on his personal life and the navel-gazing about his role as author, left in his interviews with the informants and experts, saved himself the money for the hiking trip, and probably would have ended up with a better book. As for justification, the Dyatlov Pass story is interesting but not well-covered outside of Russia, and that’s reason enough for a writer to tackle it. I know that others may feel differently–where I read self-absorption, others might see the self-involvement and self-reflection as an active attempt to insert the author as an active participant into the story, as all authors are to some extent. Whether this attempt at “literary nonfiction” (to use the book jacket’s words) succeeds on that count or not is surely subjective.

So much of the mystery of the Dyatlov expedition, and so much of the focus of this book, is not in how the hikers died but in why they would so desperately evacuate their tent to freeze to death in the elements. I have a mystery of my own now: not in how Eichar was involved in the story, but in what level of involvement his coauthors had. Eichar alone appears on the cover, but the title page does say that the book was written “with JC Gabel and Nova Jacobs,” and they get smaller blurbs on the back flap of the book jacket. In his acknowledgements, buried toward the middle, Eichar writes that without the “tireless editing, writing and research contributions” of Gabel and Jacobs, “the book would not have been possible.” How much of the book did they write? How much of the research did they undertake? Especially when Eichar spends so much time on his own research and involvement in the story, his neglect of his writing partners in the narrative is especially conspicuous. I guess that’s a mystery for another time, though.

If you’ve ever found yourself intrigued by the story of the Dyatlov hiking group, I would certainly recommend Dead Mountain as a careful, sober account of the events, the investigation, and the available theories. Unsolved mysteries invite wild speculation and dazzlingly improbable interpretations, and it is always refreshing when such a mystery is treated with serious concern, and when the central figures of the mystery–the victims–are treated with such sympathy.

View all my reviews

Recommendation: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern PapersThe Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The more I am exposed to the writings of Henry James, the more he rises in my favor. I can strongly recommend both “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Aspern Papers”–and while I started this volume specifically for the former, it was the latter tale that proved to be my favorite.

“The Aspern Papers” reads sort of like a crime thriller focused not on a violation of law but rather of manners, complicated by an unreliable narrator and turned almost baroque by the leisurely summer setting in expat Venice and by the lovely, elaborate language. (The dense prose, the examination of the affairs of well-to-do socialites, and the dialogue that can be naturalistic or elaborate as the situation demands all hint at James’s status as part of a bridge between literary movements.) I was eager to see just how far the narrator would go in his pursuit of the titular papers of his literary idol, Jeffrey Aspern, a (fictitious) early American poet. The narrator is a critic and historian who has learned that Aspern’s lover still lives with her niece in Italy, in seclusion; she apparently has kept letters and the like from the late writer, and while she would never part with them in life, the narrator contrives to stay on as a boarder in the hopes that he might nonetheless find an opportunity to gain access to those documents. In his telling of events, the nameless narrator often seems to minimize his behavior or to emphasize his embarrassment at what he said and did, but his obsessive greed, regardless of the justification, is apparent. While the narrator seeks understanding for his actions and perhaps shared interest in his quest, it was the niece who most earned my affection. Middle-aged, lacking in many lived experiences or much education, stuck with her aunt in a too-big house in isolation, too meek to change things, Miss Tina is initially pathetic and lacking in agency. But by the end of the story, she finally gains some shred of confidence and independence, though it can be hard to see this through the smoke-screen of alternating pity and disgust that the narrator throws up around her (she can be plain or almost attractive, middle-aged or elderly, overly trusting or plain stupid, depending on his mood and the events surrounding the situation). She’s trapped on both sides by predators–by her dominating aunt, and by the manipulative new tenant with his secret quest for spoils. Only by the end is she given the opportunity to define herself. It’s interesting that the strongest character growth can be observed in a character obscured and misunderstood by the narrator, and I can’t help but imagine how fascinating it would be to see a version of the story that was centered on Miss Tina. (And the relationship between aunt and niece, fallen from a sort of nobility and living on in the corpse of a once-great dwelling, reminded me of the much-later documentary Grey Gardens.)

“The Turn of the Screw,” on the other hand, is an excellent ghost story. Set within a frame narrative of a holiday gathering in which this tale is allegedly being recited from a manuscript drafted by the haunted protagonist, a young governess finds herself in over her head on a new assignment in caring for two young children when she begins to see the glaring figures of a strange man and woman about the house and grounds. It is soon confirmed that the visages she sees match the descriptions of a deceased servant and the deceased former governess. The protagonist fears that the two have begun to corrupt the children and plan to take them away. While there is much debate among academics over whether the ghosts should be interpreted as literal or psychological, I found the story to be agnostic on the point, yet another disturbing mystery to ponder. There are many mysteries in the story, including just what exactly former tenants Quint and Jessel actually did. Certainly it is suggested that they had an affair, that Quint may have violated or abused or degraded many women, and while the sexual implications are only ever suggested, never stated outright, they certainly suggest a sadist of a man. How they implicated the children, and what they want with the children in death, is even more troubling. I have my own interpretation, and I’m sure there are many others. So much of the story is about ambiguous, disturbing events that invite multiple interpretations and explanations. And the end is far from happy.

Both stories are excellent. I don’t particularly care if you read this volume (although I appreciated the introduction by Anthony Curtis), but I do strongly recommend that you read these stories in whatever format you can.

View all my reviews

DC Universe: Week One

My very DC weekend led me to trial the DC Universe app for some very DC week nights. Over the week, I’ve read some comics and watched plenty of Titans episodes. I’m just wrapping up Titans, and I’ve greatly enjoyed it. I’ll get to a full review of the season after I’ve, well, watched it in full. But with only an episode left, I can strongly recommend the show. And if you’re in the US, then I’d definitely recommend the one-week free trial of DC Universe to binge the eleven episodes of the first season.

But while I think I’ll continue with a paid subscription, at least for the first full month, I’m not sure that I can recommend the app–yet.

For starters, there are a lot of digitized comics available, but it doesn’t have nearly the back catalog of Marvel Unlimited, which obviously represents the preexisting competition from DC’s biggest comics rival. DC Universe is supposed to offer a “curated” selection, but it seems haphazard. Sure, it was “curated” in that the film and TV properties being marketed right now had plenty of associated comics to read through. But it still seems poorly thought out. Just in example, much, though not all, of the Rebirth arc is available through the app. The omissions are annoying when the digital comics even include a checklist of series in the arc (just a scan of the checklist, not something you can actually interact with in the app). Heck, the flagship DC Universe: Rebirth references comics issues from separate lines that you should read before starting it, but the app doesn’t have them. It begins to feel like DC is charging you a subscription to pay for the privilege of ads and teasers.

The app’s comics reader seems to ape what other digital comics readers do. You can read page to page or in a more dynamic panel-based mode. You can skip around in the comic via a page browser option. I haven’t played with the options very much. I found that reading issues would occasionally be interrupted by some sort of refresh that would kick me out of full-screen and panel-based modes and that would push me back a few panels or pages. It’s not an optimized tool yet, but it works.

The television shows and films are where I found the most appeal. There’s a rich collection of television shows, animated movies, and older live-action films. The original content already promises a lot of excitement, even if still small in scope: Titans is excellent, and I’m eager to resume Young Justice following its continuation exclusively on DC Universe. The app is especially inviting for any animation fans; old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, most of the DCAU series, the old Teen Titans cartoon, and even Super Friends mingle with other series.

Still, it seems a missed opportunity that most of the Arrowverse shows (except Constantine, if that counts) and none of the DCEU films are on the app. But there’s still enough, for now, to make a subscriber’s time worthwhile.

The app itself is not especially user-friendly. I can give content a thumbs-up, but not a thumbs-down. There doesn’t seem to be much built in to make recommendations based on what you’re reading. I can’t even tell if it’s tracking what I’m reading and watching–and if it is, it would seem to be exclusively to the benefit of DC and Warner Bros. You can create public or private lists of things to watch and read. To view your lists, you have to click first on your profile, then on “My DC,” and then choose the “Lists” tab–but that feels like what you should see on a home screen. There are also tabs for Videos and Comics, but it only seems to show me whatever I might currently be watching. Once I’ve completed a comic or show, it disappears into the ether. Curiously, that means that “my” videos and comics might only show things I abandoned for lack of interest; my Comics tab annoyingly announces, “You haven’t read any comics yet.” Search functionality could be improved–and it would be nice if it didn’t always dump me into the middle of the results (especially since they appear to be sorted by relevance). The app isn’t available for any consoles, which are what I’ve historically relied on for home entertainment.

There’s an online encyclopedia of characters, which seems cool, but not worth paying for, especially in the age of ever-more-granular wiki sites. (Actually, I think the encyclopedia might be a free feature.) And there’s a store with tchotchkes for discounted prices, or something–I don’t have much interest in collectible baubles, so that element has no appeal for me.

Most of these things are open to improvement. More comics, shows, and movies can be added–will be added. I’m sure we’ll continue to see more original content (like Titans season two and Doom Patrol). I read a support page that suggested that DC Universe might soon be made available on more devices. I imagine that there will be user interface improvements over time that should address my gripes. Still, for now, DC Universe feels incomplete, a work-in-progress. It’s as though continuing my subscription at the start of next week is really a way of paying to beta test a service. That’s disappointing for a service that launched in Q3 2018, but in the big scheme of things, that’s still very early going. For what I get in return, for now, I still think it’s worth it for me. But I don’t think I’d pitch it to anyone else. Not yet! But hopefully soon.