Battlefront II’s Tiny Story Time

[Note: heavy out-of-context spoilers for a game released almost three years ago.]

The strongest thing I could say about the campaign(s) in EA’s Battlefront II is that the acting and visuals are excellent. Janina Gavankar fully embodies protagonist Iden Versio. The mocap animation is excellent, and the combination of voice acting and body language is incredibly moving. Gavankar brings a lot to what she is given. Her best scenes play off her stern but proud father, Admiral Garrick Versio (Anthony Skordi); her overly loyal squad mate and eventual lover Del Meeko (TJ Ramini); and the at first just intense but eventually scene-chewingly over-dramatic Gideon Hask (Paul Blackthorne). Late addition Shriv Suurgav (Dan Donohue), a bitter and sardonic Duros commando who helps round out the Rebel version of Inferno Squadron once Iden and Del defect, adds a little bit of oddball charm and comedy. As with the best of Star Wars, the emotional core of this narrative is a family drama / soap opera framed in the context of a war among the stars, packed with romance, betrayal, and a complicated parent-child relationship.

I also have to say that when it comes to level design, the developers clearly tried to experiment, to make every level feel fresh. Some moments require stealth, and some are guns-blazing action. You fight on the ground and in space, on foot and in vehicles. Some missions let you live out big, beautiful (and bizarrely slowed-down) starfighter dog fights. Some levels have you leave Iden behind to take control of one of the classic Star Wars heroes in a team-up mission with a supporting member of Inferno Squad. There’s even a mission in which you step into the shoes of Han Solo, eavesdropping on conversations and attempting to locate a potential intelligence contact in Maz Kanata’s cantina (though the level quickly pops up HUD indicators pointing out who you need to talk to, and most of the rest of the level is the usual pew-pew).

With that out of the way, the story moves too darn fast. Fair enough: this is an action/shooter game, so there are very few slow, quiet moments. But that means that we don’t have the time or room to explore the emotional depths of a scene, or to clearly track a character’s arc, or even to get more than bare-bones exposition dumps over holograms and comms channels as you advance across winding maps. Many key plot shifts–like Iden and Del’s decision to defect, and their eventual romance, or Iden’s complicated relationship with her father–just aren’t given adequate time to fully convey the emotional logic of characters’ actions. I was willing to go along with most of it, but that was purely based on the skillful acting, where for instance an expression and changed tone in the elder Versio’s reunion interaction with his daughter conveys a lot more than the actual words in the exchange.

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There were certain story beats that had to be met in a very short campaign, and the developers were clearly relying on the audience to follow along by connecting events on screen with expected tropes of Star Wars and cinema. Writers Walt Williams and Mitch Dyer use quite a bit of the script to load in a lot of references to the new Star Wars continuity. The story is clearly for die-hard Star Wars fans, and it’s clear that the writers expect players to recognize at least most of these references just as they expect them to recognize the allusions to tropes that were better developed in other stories. Huge portions of the game revolve around Operation Cinder and the Battle of Jakku, and so allusions are made to the events of the Aftermath trilogy and the Shattered Empire comic miniseries. They’re more than just allusions, though; without the context of these other stories, I would imagine that a player would struggle to have much understanding for what was happening in the overarching background plot and why, as the game seldom takes the time to explain or provide much connective tissue between events. Then again, in a game about shooting people, it is enough to feel that the Empire is evil and thus would do evil things, and the Rebellion is good so will try to stop the evil things.

There are technically two campaigns in Battlefront II, but the second is just an epilogue to the first and a continuation of its predecessor’s time-jumping, cliff-hanging ending. We’re rushed through some heroic last stands and a handing-off of the torch to the next generation, but it feels like it’s just echoing what the sequel trilogy spent three movies attempting to do, truncating that down to a couple hours dominated by blaster-fire-filled gameplay. Once more, the game leans on reference, as a full appreciation of the significance of Inferno Squad’s sacrifice is dependent upon a familiarity with The Last Jedi. It’s all well and good for Star Wars continuity to be shared between projects, and one of the benefits of a shared continuity is that later stories can grow out from older ones, or even recast those older tales in a new light. But I don’t particularly care for the Marvel-esque impulse to graft inter-connective tissue between every new release, such that a new title can’t be fully appreciated on its own. I believe a story should be able to stand on its own two feet. Design the story to function on its own, and then decide how you want to tie it to the larger narrative galaxy.

The whole game feels like a ghost of a larger story. It’s disappointing that we don’t get to see that story. I liked the characters introduced in Battlefront II, and I wish their arcs hadn’t been so truncated and by-the-numbers. Still, while playing, I was never bored or snorting with derision. It wasn’t a “bad” story; it was just reduced.

Maybe the multiplayer will keep me around a while, though I doubt it will hold me like the original Battlefront II did (just a feature of encountering that game at the right age). If playing make-believe with Star Wars figures in big battle mashups is something you’d like at all, I can see how you’d love the game. But I’ve long enjoyed games most of all for their ability to put me in a story, whether scripted or dynamic, and to make me feel something unique by making me inhabit another identity and assume agency for difficult choices; this game, in contrast, just wasn’t all that committed to story–and what story it had relied on, and was presented as, a traditional cinematic narrative, designed for passive interaction with its characters and plot twists. EA knew where the money is, and that’s in long-term players buying new features for multiplayer matches.

All that said, the campaign was far more cinematic and emotionally evocative than the tale of good clones willingly going bad that was the core of the original Battlefront II. It’s good to keep that in mind, at least. The newer release’s story might have been condensed, but it was told with plenty of spectacle.

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TROS and the questions that were answered

I finally saw The Rise of Skywalker for the second, and presumably last, time in theaters with my wife. It was her first time. She wasn’t a big fan of it (for the record, her favorite of the sequel trilogy was The Last Jedi). I found that I still rather enjoyed it. I’d started to dread watching it again because I recognized so many weaknesses in the story, and I had read so many critical reactions that I found I agreed with. I felt there was no way that I’d be able to enjoy it as much as the first time, if at all. Thankfully, I was wrong on this count.

This very well could be the dumbest main Star Wars film, but it’s full of emotion, a resounding score, and amazing visuals. I wish the trilogy had ended on a stronger note, but it is what it is, and while the story has many flaws, there are a lot of interesting plot threads that can be expanded in future stories. There is a lot condensed into this movie, even as relatively long as it is, and there are plenty of additions to the characters and larger mythology that can be mined for years to come. No Star Wars film is perfect, and the original final chapter in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi, sure had its share of problems. So yeah, TROS can be dumb, and I’ll still incorporate it into my larger appreciation for Star Wars over time (even as I simultaneously become more interested in considering Star Wars in three categories: George Lucas’s vision as told in the first six films and The Clone Wars; the parallel universe created through licensing under Lucas’s rule, which at times influenced his own design and story choices; and the new parallel universe that covers much of the same ground with new stories and claims to provide a “canon” continuation to the original saga under Disney).

I started a post that was attempting to address questions left from The Last Jedi that The Rise of Skywalker answered. Whether one likes the answers provided or not, TROS did at least feel like a response to its predecessor, even if it feels more connected to The Force Awakens. That attempted post was heavy with spoilers, though, and I felt like it would be good to have at least one more view before moving forward. After finally getting that second viewing, I feel ready to share this post, now that the movie’s been out for so long that anyone concerned with spoilers should have seen it already. If you haven’t seen the movie yet for some reason, please beware of the massive spoilers that will follow.

The questions I’m responding to are those I specifically discussed in a previous post before the release of Episode IX. Since I’d raised those questions in particular, it seemed worthwhile to see how TROS dealt with them.

1. What is the fate of Kylo Ren? Will he be redeemed? Killed? Imprisoned? Could you even safely imprison a powerful Force user? And what would redemption look like for such a monster if it doesn’t end in death?

Well, this is sort of the center of the plot of TROS. We learn that he is redeeemed and killed. I guess we don’t know what redemption without death could look like. Ben’s ending works well enough, and his final sacrifice to restore Rey to life is truly a selfless act that is at least on par with Anakin’s own final sacrifice for his son. I think it would have been more interesting to see a version of Ben who has to work to atone for his past actions in some way, but that’s a lot to ask for one already bloated last chapter.

I’ve resumed my rewatch of The Clone Wars with the approach of its new season, and I’ve realized my question about imprisoning a Force user has been answered quite thoroughly in the new canon. We had the Citadel specifically for imprisoning Jedi, and a battalion of clones successfully imprisoned Pong Krell. For that matter, Obi-Wan was successfully imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and it was only a screwy staged execution and subsequent rescue mission that spared him. Ben seems to be on a unique level of power, but it seems theoretically possible to imprison any Force user.
2. What will Rey do with the legacy of the Jedi? Will she establish a new Jedi Order or something else? Will any of her compatriots be revealed to have Force powers as well?

One of my favorite things about TROS was that Finn was revealed to be Force-sensitive. I guess not everyone registered that on viewing, but it seemed quite evident to me, and I remember reacting excitedly to moments demonstrating his Force sensitivity. His conversation with Jannah did everything but explicitly say, “I feel the Force.” I also read that conversation as indicating Force-sensitivity in Jannah and some or all of her comrades. And on second viewing, I felt the movie may have been hinting at Force potential in Poe (especially given his apparently impossible abilities with hyperspace-skipping). This suggests to me that the broad awakening of Force abilities and inspiration of a new generation of Force users thanks to the actions of Luke and Rey that was suggested in The Last Jedi has been preserved and expanded upon. I think much like the Jedi Exile in KOTOR II, Rey seems to draw unaware Force users to her, awakening their powers as their bonds with each other are strengthened.

Rey has become a Jedi and embraced the legacy of the Jedi. We don’t know, though, if she will actually train others. Her legacy is still up in the air, maybe to be explored further in canon another day.
3. How will this trilogy’s romantic entanglements be resolved? There are quite a few implicit and explicit love triangles. Will Rey end up with Finn, or Kylo, or no one at all? How will Finn navigate his relationship with Rey and with Rose? And does Poe finally come out as gay?

Rey ends up with no one at all, but she seems the closest to romance with Ben, unfortunately. I think the kiss is ambiguous, but it’s certainly there. Of course, they kiss and then he dies, so on the one hand that frees her up again, but on the other hand that could be deeply traumatizing for her. It’s crucial to me that the kiss is between Rey and Ben, not Rey and Kylo–he’s happy and light and good, having cast off his Kylo Ren persona entirely and sacrificed a lot to get there. Still, Ben and Kylo are the same person. Ben never really died, just like Anakin never really died when he became Vader. They have their excuses and dramatic metaphors, but at the end of the day, they chose to do evil. And they continued to do evil at every opportunity. Sure, they found redemption in a loved one at the end, but that doesn’t erase everything they’d done.

Finn doesn’t navigate his relationships at all. (How could he explore a relationship with Rose when J.J. and Terrio barely allow her onscreen?) He’s given a new female companion he spends his time with, who just so happens to be a female black former stormtrooper. That seems a bit too neat, and while they don’t become romantically involved, it feels a little convenient that Finn is paired off with another woman and Poe is as well, as if to suggest that they have heterosexual options and thus need not end up with each other, while also clearing the deck for an uncomplicated Reylo climax. I’m uncomfortable with the racial, sexual, and gender politics in this decision. Jannah is a cool character but underused, and she largely appears in support of and alongside Finn. I don’t think that’s a particularly well-thought-through decision.

More frustratingly, Poe is bonded to Zorii Bliss. Poe didn’t need a new romance story. Poe didn’t even need a new background, for that matter! His subplot and backstory feel incredibly arbitrary, like J.J. and Terrio decided to insert answers to questions that were never asked because they felt Poe wasn’t interesting enough. The inclusion of his history as a spice runner feels like a desperate bid to make him even more like Han Solo–and on this second viewing, I was all too aware of the reactions from fans who were troubled by giving one of the few Latino actors in Star Wars a character with a background as a drug smuggler. On top of this, Poe already had a backstory that was deeply associated with the Resistance and with the inter-generational legacy of the Rebel Alliance in non-film media, so this felt out of left field.

But back to Poe and Zorii. I was really bothered by Poe’s recurring attempts to get a kiss from Zorii. Even though they never do kiss, it felt like an unnecessarily defensive, hetero-normative reaction to FinnPoe. No, folks, not only is he not interested in Finn, he’s actually had an ex-girlfriend he wants to get back together with this whole time. Frankly, Oscar Isaac seems so half-hearted in his efforts that I’ve convinced myself that Poe and Zorii are in fact both gay, and that this is an inside joke between them. They’re just two old friends who know he’d never kiss her even if he could. While this works as a head canon, it’s incredibly disappointing that the filmmakers went in this hetero-romantic direction at all, especially when the only explicitly queer moment in this film (in any Star Wars film, for that matter) involves two background characters briefly kissing in the celebratory crowd at the end.

4. Now that the Supreme Leader has been replaced and Hux finds himself following a man he despises, does he stay loyal to Kylo? Does he lead a coup?

Hahaha! He does not stay loyal to Kylo. He also doesn’t lead a coup. He becomes a spy for the Resistance out of spite, and he gets shot dead like a dog.

5. Who was Snoke? Where did he come from? How did he influence Ben into becoming Kylo? And where did the First Order come from, for that matter?

Snoke is a clone, apparently. A clone of what/whom? I don’t know. Sounds like the comic series The Rise of Kylo Ren is addressing Snoke’s influence on Kylo, but I don’t know when or if we’ll learn more about what Palpatine was really doing with Snoke. And it seems that we still have an incomplete idea of what the First Order was or where it came from, let alone the newly revealed Final Order. Although Palpatine’s weird Sith cult activities and hidden Imperial military might fit in rather nicely with elements of the Aftermath trilogy, there are still a lot of questions.

6. Does Kylo really hear from Anakin Skywalker? Does he suffer from some form of psychosis? Has Anakin become corrupted in the afterlife even after his redemption? Is there someone else impersonating Anakin? Why didn’t any Force ghost appear to Kylo to intervene?

Turns out it was all Palpatine. Why did no Force ghost intervene, though? That’s unclear to me. In many ways, TROS didn’t give a fuck about the mythology of this universe.

Example 1: All the Jedi apparently live on in Rey. They speak to her and give her power in her final battle. But George Lucas had previously established over six films and The Clone Wars that most people, including Jedi, merely become one with the Force on death. Only those who lived selflessly could freely preserve their identities in death, not for personal benefit but so that they could instruct and guide others. Prior to the sequel trilogy, the only ones who preserved their identities after death were Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin, and while Anakin had a great sacrifice at the end, it’s always been something of a mystery as to how he achieved this feat. Qui-Gon didn’t even take his body into the Force. But now everyone’s back, for some reason.

Example 2: Before the sequel trilogy, Force ghosts seemed limited in their abilities. Obi-Wan could not help Luke in his fight against Vader, and he tells Luke as much. Obi-Wan often provides advice and information, but I don’t recall him actually acting on the physical world. The same with Yoda. The Clone Wars and Rebels provided interesting spirits and creatures that were specially in tune with the Force, but these were separate from the Force ghosts I’m talking about. The Last Jedi had Yoda striking the tree with lightning, but this was mystical and calling on a natural element; it’s not clear to me that that suggests he could have lifted an X-Wing or tossed a lightsaber. Luke has such a physical presence in TROS, and it becomes quite curious as to why Force ghosts wouldn’t more directly meddle in putting down evil.

Example 3: Anakin was supposed to restore balance to the Force, and while it was never certain what exactly that meant, it was generally agreed that he did do exactly that by the end of Return of the Jedi. And yet Palpatine wasn’t truly defeated, only deferred. I was more on board when we were dealing with a new awakening in the Force–Kylo rising in power within the Dark Side, and the Light answering with the rise of Rey. It feels like Anakin only inconvenienced the Dark Side for a few decades, in the end.

Example 4: The Sith had never before discovered the power to escape death. It was one of the ironies of Star Wars: if you’re selfish enough to do anything to survive death, you aren’t able to do so. We had Sith spirits in Legends, but even then they were typically bound to a particular physical element–perhaps a temple, a tomb, an amulet, or a weapon. They were not free. The Dark Side, at best, provided them an immortal prison. Now, it turns out that the Sith actually retain some form of immortality by inhabiting their successors. When a Sith disciple strikes down her master, she apparently inherits the spirits of all the previous Sith. This could be a cool thing–and it still bounds the Sith to one physical element–but it doesn’t sit easily with the existing mythology. Also, what is the trigger for this transfer? If Rey would be possessed whether she struck Palpatine down in a moment of anger or in ritual, why is there an exception if she gets Palpatine to destroy himself by deflecting his Force lightning back at him until he dies? How much was Palpatine lying about this? Perhaps he wanted her to kill him in the ritual tradition, and hate alone wouldn’t do it? But then again, wanting someone to strike him down in hate suggests that he would have actually been fine if Luke had killed him in Return of the Jedi, and that’s an interesting idea. Imagine that: Palpatine feels he’s in a win-win situation. No way the Rebellion can win, the Emperor thinks. That leaves three scenarios: (1) Luke is killed, and Vader has nothing left to cling to; (2) Luke kills Vader and turns to the Dark Side, thus becoming Palpatine’s student; or (3) Luke kills Palpatine and is possessed by all Sith, becoming a powerful, young new host body. Luke’s decision to stop fighting, and Vader’s decision to aid his son and defeat Palpatine, are unfathomably remote options for the Emperor. And it turns out he had contingency plans for if everything went wrong, anyway.

At the end of the day, while I find these new bits of lore difficult to reconcile, they are interesting. This is a movie that concludes a whole trilogy about legacy. Appropriately, some of the key new insights into the Force and Force practitioners relate to legacy. The Jedi are able to commune with those who precede them. The Sith literally embody previous Sith, spiritually consuming them. All Sith live within one body, the closest they can come to immortality, I guess. No wonder there can only be two Sith at any one time–and no wonder that the Sith are unique for Dark Siders.

Finally, while not playing light with the mythology, I have way too many questions left about how Palpatine came back. I have only read the first arc of Dark Empire, and that Legends comic seems more relevant than ever now. Certainly, Aftermath also hints at some of the Dark Side occult elements involved in resurrecting the dead. It’s not at all clear to me if this is somehow a reconstructed original body of Palpatine (and this seems unlikely, given how he died) or if it’s a greatly corrupted clone body. How will destroying this Palpatine prevent him from coming back? Are we really sure all Sith cultists were killed in that end battle? What about the Snoke clones in the canisters that were missing by the time Rey arrived? What connection does Snoke have to Palpatine? A lot of questions to presumably be answered some other day.

7. Who are the Knights of Ren?

Kylo Ren’s boy band. “Ghouls.” That’s all. Disney wants us to make sure to read all the ancillary materials, I guess. Star Wars has always seemed larger and deeper because of the references to things that aren’t developed within the movies, but this seems a big thing to leave so blank, especially when they serve as (nameless, faceless) tertiary antagonists in the film.

8. Were there any other survivors of the destruction of Luke’s training temple?

I guess we still don’t know.

9. How is the Resistance rebuilt? What allies join the cause, and why didn’t they respond to Leia’s message?

Again: I guess we still don’t know. Lando assembles a People Power fleet. Maybe people were motivated by the story of Luke’s sacrifice and the survival of the Resistance. Maybe Leia’s message did get through but people couldn’t react in time. The film starts about a year after The Last Jedi, but the Resistance is still more or less in shambles until Lando brings in the cavalry.

10. What happens to Leia? How does she fit into the movie? It seems likely that she was intended to have a significant role, but how much can she really appear in the film with the untimely death of Carrie Fisher?

She appears almost enough for the plot that was ultimately provided for her character. She proves pivotal to the final reformation of Ben Solo. On second viewing, it’s more apparent how little she appears and how much the movie is molded around what available footage they had of Carrie Fisher. Harrison Ford comes back as a vivid hallucination/memory to provide the final push, and I wonder if they would have used Leia in that scene if Carrie had been available. Another bizarre mystery of the Force: why does her body remain until Ben also dies? For that matter, the Leia material offers another example of J.J.’s apparent disregard for the new unified canon: it’s hard for me to reconcile Leia’s training under Luke so soon after Return of the Jedi with her portrayal as someone who had never undergone Jedi training in Bloodline. For the record, I was fine with her display of Force abilities in The Last Jedi because training isn’t essential to use the Force. But having her training basically completed, and then giving up her saber and the Jedi path, doesn’t quite fit with what is suggested in Bloodline. (For that matter, how does she know Rey is a Palpatine? When does she learn this? When did Luke learn this? And if she knew some of Ben’s tragic fate, why did she make the choices she did in allowing him to train as a Jedi?) That said, it’s not explicitly contradictory, either…


As a bonus round, I’d just point out that Lando appeared as sort of a retired trader / elder statesman, but the subject of L3-37 and her final fate is left unresolved. Bummer.


So, those were the questions I had going into The Rise of Skywalker, and those were the answers I took away from it. They weren’t always the answers I wanted to see, some of the answers seemed like very poor options out of the many available choices, and sometimes there wasn’t an answer at all, but it’s still clear that TROS continues on from The Last Jedi, continuing to develop themes and character arcs from that film even while making some course corrections to apparently better align with J.J.’s original vision. It’s very Star Wars of the saga to end with answers that often prompted even more questions!

Review: Last Shot

Star Wars: Last Shot: A Han and Lando NovelStar Wars: Last Shot: A Han and Lando Novel by Daniel José Older

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last Shot is damn good, swashbuckling fun. Daniel Jose Older delivers all one could ask for in a Han and Lando novel. And, like many of the new canon Star Wars book authors, Older actually tries to tell a slightly more literary story than Star Wars is used to. Okay, okay, there’s plenty of pulpy space battles and laser blasts and fist fights and weird monsters and bloodless gore and crazy robots and spiritualism-lite goop. It’s Star Wars! And I won’t try to claim that introducing a character with a non-binary gender (whose role is not defined by that identity), or writing the book so that timelines are crossed between chapters to build toward certain themes (and reveals) consistently across the timelines, or somewhat seriously addressing droid identity and the threat of droid revolution are original. They’re not. They still feel fresh and different for this franchise, though! And the writing’s great, I promise!

It’s a whirlwind book, and I loved almost every moment of it. It’s also cool to see Han and Lando both facing new responsibilities that they aren’t prepared for–Han with wife and child, Lando with someone he actually loves and wants to stay with. They’re afraid of what these responsibilities mean, they’re afraid of screwing up, and they spend a lot of the novel running from them (though running with purpose, toward a threat). And we actually see these men grow as people, not just simple archetypes. (By the way, I read most of Han’s dialogue, past or present, as some version of Harrison Ford, while I read young Lando as Donald Glover and older Lando as Billy Dee Williams.)

One of my favorite recurring aspects of the book was how it tried to push back on the generalizations and stereotypes that Star Wars has always relied on. There’s a gruff hacker Ewok who’s a big Chewbacca fan and also totally tired of being talked down to. There’s a Gungan prison guard who is a nervous rambler–but articulate and competent, and completely over people’s stereotypes of meesa, meesa Gungans. There’s a Toydarian fortune teller who is wizened and mystic rather than a greedy troglodyte (though I admit that this characterization falls into other uncomfortable stereotypes about Middle Eastern and Jewish peoples, and the reliance on those stereotypes and accents is what made Watto such a problematic character in the first place). There are tiny little gangsters operating mech suits. A Droid Gotra is an organization that includes organics, suggesting more variety in alien organizations than the history of Hutts in the Hutt cartels, Pykes in the Pyke Syndicate, and Falleen in the Black Sun. Droids have their own motivations and no singular goal. One Rodian’s habit to refer to himself as the Rodian annoys other people, who are used to dealing with many of his species. Inter-species relationships are not a big deal, but there are certain cultural and biological differences that have to be addressed. And there’s the kickass pilot and crafty agent who helps out Han and Lando, is an Alderaanian survivor, and just so happens to be non-binary.

Additionally, given the story’s latest point in time that serves as the anchor narrative, there are plenty of references to the events and characters of the Aftermath series, and all of those were quite fitting. Last Shot felt like an extension of the galaxy that was developed by the Aftermath trilogy.

Unfortunately, the use of weaving timelines makes the central mystery of the droid-controlling mad scientist’s plot more confusing than genuinely mysterious. There are some apparent contradictions in what that plan might actually have been and why it was delayed. A second reading, particularly one that focused on reading chronologically, might actually resolve my lingering confusion. As much as droid identity and the oppression of droids is central to the book’s narrative, this theme is not fully developed. In fact, much like in Solo, the theme is often played down by the events and non-droid characters. L3-37 has some interesting ideas that don’t get much space. The main villain is a mad man who believes that droids are better than people, so to liberate them he will send out a virus that will force them all to kill people (our heroes point out how ironic this plan is). The book has a lot of heart, but imperfections like these remain.

Here’s the thing. I love Lando. I like Han. This book made me love them both. It also incorporated characters from the films (including Solo) and the comics. Reading it after the release of Solo felt like a special treat because the events of the film provided deeper significance to certain moments. A lot of allusions become crystal-clear with the context of the film, and I suspect that Older had access to a script and perhaps early footage from the film, using its events to help develop his characters (and in turn using his novel to improve upon the characters in the film) without leaking out certain spoilers from Solo.

If you love either Han or Lando, you should check this book out. It’s a fun adventure that deepens the characters. I don’t think I’d pick this specific book as my top recommendation for an entry into the new canon, but I think anyone who reads it is bound to have a good time.

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Review: Empire’s End

Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath, #3)Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Empire’s End offers an exciting and eventful conclusion to the Aftermath trilogy. Like with Life Debt before it, this finale offers a mix of original and film legacy characters. There’s plenty of action and suspense. The book can largely be broken into two halves: the first half involves the amassing of the Imperial fleet over Jakku and Leia’s efforts to get the New Republic to engage that fleet in a final battle; the second half is the battle itself and the fallout.

We don’t see too much of the battle at Jakku because Wendig keeps the focus on Leia, Han, and the Imperial-hunting team of bounty hunter Jas Emari, mother-son pilot team Norra and Temmin Wexley along with Temmin’s bodyguard droid Mister Bones, ex-Imperial Sinjir Rath Velus, and Republic commando Jom Barell. Leia’s politicking and Han’s playing the scoundrel, doing the dirty work to fix some political problems. Jas, Norra, and Bones spend most of the book stranded on Jakku after they left their ship to bypass the Imperial blockade in an attempt to locate Sloane. Temmin has the biggest role in the battle, while Sinjir sits it out, having most of his involvement limited to helping first Han and then Mon Mothma, all while wrestling with his romantic life. And Jom barely appears at all; for a character who became a lot more significant in the second book, he’s basically written out, mostly appearing in the context of a complication for Jas (an interesting subversion of the sexist trope of minimizing a female character to romantic plot device for the male lead, but still a disappointing wrap to the character).

During all the above, Sloane, now an outcast, is trying to sneak through Imperial-occupied Jakku to track down and kill her former mentor, Rax, who has usurped Imperial rule, making the remaining Imperial forces something harsher, more vicious, more primitive. Rax’s big plan, it turns out, is to destroy both Republic and Empire, then rebuild a new Empire in unknown space, carrying out Palpatine’s Contingency plan in the event of the Emperor’s death. Frankly, I was a little disappointed by the simplicity of the Contingency. After all the eliminations of rivals and careful plots, it all comes down to trying to get both militaries on a planet that can be blown up. Most of the really juicy hints of some Dark Side presence or greater threat in the Unknown Regions on the edge of the galaxy remain window dressing for now. I hope that a later story picks up those threads.

Perhaps I just wanted more. Empire’s End was a wild ride, loaded with a lot of momentous events and shifting viewpoints, and the pace became blistering fast in the latter half. I can’t say it ended abruptly, but maybe some threads were rushed to get to a conclusion. Wendig’s usual strengths are on display, including tight pacing, interesting interlude chapters (which have at this point built up to some truly fascinating background narrative arcs worthy of further exploration), uniquely identifiable characters, and a whole lot of nods to Legends and the new canon. (In example of that last point, bringing in Embo and Dengar from Sugi’s old bounty hunting team in The Clone Wars to challenge Jas, Sugi’s niece, was not just a nice nod but an effective use and development of the characters.) If you’ve at least read Life Debt, it’s worth reading Empire’s End to complete the narrative.

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Review: Life Debt

Life Debt: Aftermath (Star Wars)Life Debt: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Life Debt is a considerable improvement over the first book in the Aftermath trilogy. Wendig’s sharp wit, (mostly) vivid descriptions, colorful language, and diverting “Interlude” vignettes return. And now we also have pacing turned up to eleven, a more clearly defined plot with greater forward momentum, a sharper focus on the main characters, and much better characterization of those characters. Dialogue really sparkles here, and each character had a distinctive voice and attitude. Reading Life Debt felt a little bit like meeting up with old friends–remarkable given that I had just finished the first book a short while ago, I barely knew these characters, and I felt that they all blended together, at least in voice, in the first book.

For fans hoping to see more of the original film trilogy’s stars post-Endor, you’re in luck. Life Debt largely follows the Imperial-hunting crew from the first novel as they attempt to track down Han Solo at the direction of Leia. The book ultimately builds to Han’s attempt to liberate Kashyyyk from the brutal yoke of the Empire, while Leia attempts to motivate the New Republic senate to send aid to help out. While we still get the most time with the new crew of characters (and that’s a good thing–they’re fun!), we also get considerable swashbuckling action with Han and impassioned politicking with Leia. I’ve mentioned before that Wendig does a great job with Han, and that’s definitely the case here; Han’s a standout character. Supporting characters from the films, especially Wedge Antilles, Mon Mothma, and Admiral Ackbar, have plenty to do. And there’s a tense spy games thriller as a running subplot, with Grand Admiral Sloane becoming increasingly suspicious of her mysterious mentor Rax and attempting to uncover more about him.

The book ends in an intense Manchurian Candidate-style climax, mirroring that familiar Star Wars trope of a dark middle chapter in a trilogy. In the wake of the disaster, which is only slightly lessened by the quick actions of our heroes, the team is assigned to capture or kill Grand Admiral Sloane, allowing the book to end in a way that feels complete and yet provides a clear hook for the next installment.

I would strongly recommend this book. I would in fact recommend reading Life Debt even without reading Aftermath; the first book can be enjoyed as a prequel after the fact, if you’re so inclined, but it’s not vital to understanding the characters or events of this installment. Life Debt is a fun time and a cool development of the setting.

That said, I do have one strong reservation regarding my endorsement. One of the characters, Sinjir, is an ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer who used a variety of interrogation techniques to extract information, including torture. Over the course of the book, Sinjir is troubled because he still uses torture techniques to help out the New Republic. He’s worried he might even enjoy it. It could be an interesting insertion of moral nuance in the Star Wars setting; can doing the wrong things for the right reason ever be justified? Historically, that answer has been no, but Wendig seems to say, maybe? However, torture is not effective in extracting information. It’s cruel, and it will break people into saying whatever they think their torturers want to hear, but there’s no convincing evidence that torture actually works (debate on that subject can be found at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/tor… while a more direct rebuttal of the use of torture is at https://www.scientificamerican.com/ar…). And torture, physically and mentally tormenting someone, ranks up there as one of the most heinous acts that humans can commit! Star Wars films have actually consistently supported this view: the torture of Leia yields no information and the threat of destruction of her home planet results in her giving out a name of a target, though it’s not a useful name; the Cloud City torture of Han, Leia, and Chewbacca is merely meant to elicit a disturbance in the Force to prompt Luke to show up, even though no questions are asked and no information is gained; the torture room in Jabba’s palace is portrayed as a demented place of sadistic torment and severe punishment, not a place for actual information-gathering; and Poe resists traditional torture, only divulging information under Kylo Ren’s Force-backed techniques, while Rey doesn’t break at all. To the best of my recollection, heroes never torture while villains frequently do in the Star Wars films. Yet in Life Debt, the question is only whether torture can be used in a way that supports a greater moral good; torture, or the threat of torture, is something Sinjir jumps to quickly, and we are to believe that he has an exceptional ability to read people to determine if the information provided is useful. This is propaganda in support of tactics that are immoral, inhumane, and ineffective. It fits into a long line of action movie and TV propaganda in support of torture. The book has many strengths, but this element demands objection.

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Lost in Continuity

There is a fairly well-known contradiction between Rogue One and Lost Stars, resulting from a time gap in events in the earlier-published novel that are not easily reconciled with the A New Hope prequel film.

Ciena is on the Devastator for three weeks before they capture the Tantive IV over Tatooine. Lost Stars, p. 149. This action was on “the first day she was finally thrown into action against the rebels,” and from the description, it certainly sounds like participating in the seizure of the Tantive IV was her first combat duty. Id. This would contrast with the Devastator‘s presence over Scarif and its involvement in the final moments of the fight there. And that battle seems to take place hours or (at most) days before the opening of A New Hope, not weeks. So either Ciena was aboard the ship but completely unaware of the Scarif engagement, or there was a longer gap between films than implied.

There’s also some confusion about characters involved in the Tantive IV operation. From Lost Stars:

The captain seemed bored. “Hold your fire. There’s no life-forms. They must’ve short-circuited.

This is apparently taking place on the auxiliary bridge. Id. at 151. In From a Certain Point of View, however, we have a whole story involving that specific officer–“The Sith of Datawork,” by Ken Liu. Here he is identified as Gunnery Captain Bolvan. FACPOV, p. 27. And his reasoning seems anything but bored–instead, he’s caught up in bureaucratic decision-making. This isn’t a direct contradiction, and FACPOV is more loosely canon than other sources, but it doesn’t quite jive with me. I think it’s just the imprecision of language, the use of only “captain” in the Lost Stars description, the apparent contrast in the officer’s motivations, and even the suggestion of where Bolvan would have been stationed (would a gunnery captain be controlling the entirety of an auxiliary bridge?).

In contrast, the anonymity on the Death Star and Thane’s lack of awareness about events on Jedha or Scarif make sense together. Again from Lost Stars:

The Death Star was meant to function as a world of its own, which meant it had creature comforts most other military postings didn’t: decent food, rec areas, cantinas with latest-model bartender droids, commissaries with selections of treats and luxuries, albeit at a stiff price.

LS, p. 156.

Furthermore, Thane is not of a rank to be kept apprised of even the heading of the Death Star. When they arrive at Alderaan, Thane does not immediately know. In fact, “He’d felt the main engines at work, so obviously the station had traveled somewhere important,” but Thane guessed Coruscant. Id. at 159-160. We know from Rogue One that the Jedha bombardment was a single-reactor test; it makes sense that now that the Imperial leadership knows that the technology works, and it won’t be an embarrassing dud, they want the common soldier to observe this sign of Imperial dominance with the destruction of Alderaan.

Ever-brilliant Jude remarks:

Naturally, I understood the cannon’s full potential . . . . The superlaser is fueled by an array of giant kyber crystals, which gives it nearly unlimited power. But I had thought it would be used to break up asteroids for mining purposes. Or uninhabited worlds. Not this.

LS, p. 165.

This is fitting. Even the destruction of Jedha is supposed to be reported as a “mining disaster” in Rogue One. And the secrecy surrounding the events, even among station personnel, makes sense. Darth Vader bluntly declares to Krennic in Rogue One, “There is no Death Star.”

There are some other, extremely minor, apparent canon contradictions. Much later in time, in preparation for the battle of Jakku, Thane remarks:

Sir, with all due respect, nobody has ever captured a Star Destroyer. And don’t tell me it’s because no one has ever tried. Yeah, way back in the day, we managed to take out a governor’s destroyer over Mustafar, but since then, the Imperials have shored up their defenses against infiltrators. These days Star Destroyers are nearly invulnerable.

General Rieekan does not deny this; instead, he insists, “Those crews aren’t as die-hard as they used to be . . . . We’ve had ships as large as attack cruisers switch allegiance in other battles, haven’t we?” Thane retorts, “Those have thousands of crew members. Not tens of thousands.” LS, pp. 501-502. That reference to a destroyer over Mustafar is actually a neat reference to the destruction of Tarkin’s flagship Star Destroyer at the end of Rebels season one. But the implications of the dialogue are that infiltrators have only destroyed one Star Destroyer (Rogue One shows others destroyed, but not by infiltrators, so I don’t think it’s a contradiction), infiltrators have never captured a Star Destroyer, and a Star Destroyer has never surrendered or switched allegiance, in contrast to the smaller attack cruisers. This seems to be contradicted by yet another source–Aftermath.

In Aftermath, Leia has released a message following the destruction of the second Death Star, in which she says, “Already we’ve captured dozens of Imperial capital ships and Destroyers . . .” Aftermath, p. 34. While I haven’t read the full Aftermath trilogy, I know that it concludes with the battle of Jakku, and so this first book is definitely taking place before Thane’s conversation with his superior officer. This is a contradiction that can easily be resolved in a number of ways: the implication doesn’t equal the facts; Rieekan or Thane are misspeaking; Leia’s message is inaccurate or untruthful (which seems out of character for Leia, so this explanation is unlikely); or perhaps Rieekan and Thane simply don’t know about the captured Destroyers (given that Leia’s message is highly publicized propaganda, and General Rieekan is a high-ranking Alliance officer, this is also unlikely).

It’s funny; I know that I’ve called out obsessive attention to continuity before, and Lost Stars is not thematically or narratively flawed because of this, and there’s no reason to always take characters literally when in real life and other fiction characters lie or lack key facts or simply misspeak. But it’s still something that nags at me just a little bit, that draws me out even if for a moment.

Of course, to the extent that Lost Stars is contradicted by the continuity of events developed by Rogue One or any other later release, I don’t fault Claudia Gray or view this as a problem with the book’s narrative. It’s part of working in a shared universe (though I do wonder why no one could have hinted to Gray about the gap, given that they must have been at least working on ideas for Rogue One before the publication of Lost Stars–maybe there wasn’t as much of an overlap in the development cycles for these two titles as I am assuming). And it’s mostly explained by the enormity of the ships involved, the sheer thousands (and, in the case of the Death Star, millions) who served, and the likelihood that only on-duty officers would be engaged in or perhaps even aware of rather highly classified military maneuvers.

It’s just an interesting case study in how even the more carefully plotted new, unified canon already has some worn seams and need for a bit of hand-waving or retcon. It’s not a bad thing. But any organically developed, ever-expanding universe will eventually encounter this problem. And the other approach–relying on a preset road map for all events–would likely be stifling for creative personalities brought on and might even feel lifeless and stale to its intended audience.

 

New Star Wars Favorites

One of the best parts about reading the ever-expanding new-canon Star Wars literature is encountering so many cool new characters. And there are so many cool new characters!

Many of my new favorites are from Lost Stars. Thane and Ciena are such an interesting couple, so compatible and yet torn apart by fundamentally opposed worldviews. It’s not just that they happen to choose different loyalties. It’s that loyalty is a fundamental virtue in Ciena’s valley kindred culture, while Thane comes from a wealthy and abusive family, causing him to look skeptically on authority and leaving him without that same sacred devotion to loyalty. Their conflicting worldviews often result in misunderstanding each other’s intentions, not always because of a silly breakdown in communication but because they look at the same facts and can have the same attitudes but intuitively arrive at different reactions.

But both characters are cool on their own. Watching Ciena’s rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy, even as she grows increasingly disgusted with it, was intriguing. And Thane is a brash hotshot pilot, a redheaded former smuggler who joins the Rebel Alliance just before Hoth and helps take down an AT-AT in that battle. What I’m saying, in other words, is that he’s basically Dash Rendar, if he was better written, not video-game-overpowered, and without the ’90s comic book pad-and-strap fashion.

But I also loved the awkward, empathetic genius Jude Edivon (gone too soon!). And Alderaanian Nash Windrider’s descent into Imperial fanaticism to cope with the loss of his home planet was an interesting (and surprisingly believable) twist. And I love basically every Wookiee ever, so I have a definite fondness for Lohgarra, the maternal elderly Wookiee free-trader who hires Thane on after he defects from the Empire and who eventually joins him in the Rebellion.

But it’s not just Lost Stars. I didn’t particularly love Battlefront, but the distant, cold bounty hunter Brand was fascinating. Okay, yes, distant, cold bounty hunter is a cliche. So is ice-blood sniper. But Brand had this weird loyalty to Twilight Company. After years slowly becoming disillusioned with the bounty hunter trade under the solidifying Galactic Empire, she found something in Twilight and its leader, Captain Howl. While she seems remote and uncaring, seldom chiming in and often slipping off without a farewell, she looks out for the soldiers in her squad. She becomes something awfully close to the heart of Twilight Company as Namir tries to figure out what to do when thrust into the leadership role. She doesn’t really have an arc in Battlefront because we see she’s already completed her own journey to arrive at the point she’s in. I’d love to see more of Brand (and some of the other badass new-canon bounty hunters like Cad Bane, Sabine Wren, and Ketsu Onyo). Gadren the warrior-poet Besalisk was a fun Twilight Company character, too, if even more of an archetype (I mean, his easiest description is warrior-poet).

I even really liked the quirky Givin mathematician Drusil Bephorin from Heir to the Jedi. She had a weird sense of humor, she often seemed to have such a cold detachment because of her math-and-logic-focused perspective, and yet she was committed to her family above all else. I was also partial to the Kupohan noodle chef and spy Sakhet; the Rodian weapons seller and Jedi fan Taneetch Soonta; and the wealthy biotech heir, expert sharpshooter and scout, and Rebel sympathizer Nakari Kelen, who would become an ill-fated romantic interest of Luke Skywalker (unfortunately introducing Luke’s romantic curse into the new canon, it would seem).

And I can’t forget that A New Dawn made me really interested in Kanan and Hera (and a shipper of their relationship before I’d seen an episode of Rebels), plus introduced me to the coolest bad guy in the form of Rae Sloane (whose characterization is also excellent in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, which I recently finished reading).

Finally, while not new characters, technically, I couldn’t be happier with the lovable losers Kabe and Muftak as portrayed in “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” story in From a Certain Point of View.

That’s all to say that more than just having fun new adventures, the new books have given me a variety of new characters that I care about, and I hope that many of them will have more stories moving forward. Rather than just applying the same old Star Wars archetypes, or only following the heroes from the films, the new canon’s already done a lot of cool new things.

I’m several books behind at this point, but I’m not tired of them yet, and I continue to look forward to future installments.

 

Review: Aftermath

Aftermath (Star Wars: Aftermath #1)Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A post-Endor Star Wars book trilogy, marking a fairly early publication in the stream of new-canon releases, must surely have called to mind comparisons to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Thankfully, rather than retilling exhausted soil, Chuck Wendig has prepared something quite different.

Most interestingly, Wendig’s style diverges pretty hard from the traditional Star Wars standard. His narrative is a constant present-tense, and while the format could hardly be called experimental outside of this franchise, it’s probably not all-too-common in sci-fi as a whole and reads as a wonderfully fresh breath of air. Action, emotion, and thought all arrive with great immediacy, and there are efforts at something resembling stream-of-consciousness, especially in flashback sequences. Wendig is also quite skillful with metaphor and employs clever turns of phrase regularly and to great effect.

Unfortunately, I think that the dialogue suffers a little bit from that very same experimentation and florid verbiage. Characters sound all too clever for their own good. And when everyone (save one droid, whose staccato, all-caps style is emphasized at every chance) speaks in a similar cadence, they all blur together. Frankly, I think I’d be more forgiving had I first encountered a Chuck Wendig novel out of the Star Wars setting–he’s a great writer, and I’d like to see more, but the voice of the characters just doesn’t sound quite…Star Wars enough. There’s one exception: there is a brief interlude scene involving Han Solo, and I could practically hear Harrison Ford delivering the smuggler captain’s lines. The second novel appears to be positioned more around Han and Leia, and I look forward to seeing more of Wendig’s handling of the characters.

Speaking of the interlude scenes, I’m rather fond of these short chapters disrupting the action of the main narrative to share a vignette about events all throughout the galaxy. They often share thematic connections with the main narrative or imply a building toward a larger plot. And they let everything feel epic even while that main narrative is a rather tight story: a disparate group of rebels and outcasts bands together on the Outer Rim world of Akiva as a result of an Imperial blockade, and that blockade was in turn put in place to allow for a clandestine meeting of Imperial leaders attempting to decide how to lead the Empire following the death of the Emperor and the inspiration of open revolt throughout the galaxy. While it didn’t really dawn on me until the end, this novel was less about anything particularly momentous happening and more about assembling the team (and the primary antagonist) for future adventures. I liked getting to know the characters, and the story actually is self-contained, so I don’t have the usual “it’s just a prologue” gripe that I have about many first-in-a-series books.

The novel works on its own because it tells a simple story with a clear resolution. A bounty hunter is on Akiva to kill or capture several high-value targets on behalf of the New Republic. She needs a team to get them all. She assembles that team. Each of the characters has their own bit of growing to do, and the reunion of Rebel pilot mother and estranged tech-genius/scoundrel son forms a good bit of the emotional heart of the book, but everything makes a lot of sense when framed around that bounty hunter’s quest. In some ways, it’s Seven Samurai, but with a happier ending, in that we don’t see more than half the party wiped out in accomplishing their mission (given the connection, it’s sort of ironic that the bounty hunter is a niece of Sugi, who formed her own team to protect and train farmers in a Clone Wars retelling of the film’s plot).

That narrower focus is another way that this book is so different from the Thrawn trilogy. We aren’t following the Big Three heroes here. The characters of this book are accomplishing important objectives for the New Republic, but it’s the future of a planet and not the galaxy that’s on the line. Perhaps the biggest parallel to the old Thrawn books is the Imperial officer who has arranged the Akivan summit (Sloane), who in turn works for a mysterious strategist, which feels more like homage and is hardly a simple rehashing of the relationship between Thrawn and Pellaeon.

The galaxy is also a lot different in this post-Endor world. The destruction of the Empire’s leadership (at this point, twice over) has thinned the ranks, drained morale, depleted resources. More worlds are in open defiance. The Imperial fleet is stretched thin and being torn apart through defections and power grabs. The implosion of the Empire happens here so much quicker, within a year, than it did in the old canon. It’s a new interpretation of events, not necessarily better or worse; it offers different ideas about what the Empire was. I like that things are mixed up here.

Despite offering so much that is new and fresh, Aftermath is also laced with many clever Legends winks and nods (as well as plenty of connections to the burgeoning new canon). Wendig’s love for the Knights of the Old Republic games seems pretty obvious, with references to Czerka, Pazaak, a Dark Side Force- or life- draining power, echani martial arts, the history of Jabba sandcrawlers as stolen old mining vehicles, and of course a psychotic droid who speaks in a strange voice (while it’s supposed to be lilting and dissonant, the constant all-caps shout of Mister Bones reads like it could be the monotone of HK-47). The author must have a spot spot for roleplaying games in general; an ending interlude has a bartender rattling off a list of potential jobs that reads as a local-area map of quest markers and factions.

One of the few obvious flaws seems to be a persistent problem with these Star Wars publications: minor continuity issues. One minor character changes from an Abednedo to a Rodian between scenes. Another character who only appears in one scene has his name change from Cobb Vanth to Cobb Vance over the course of a page. Minor things like this. Things that might just have emerged in the process of printing; things that might have just been missed in editing; things that I can forgive but that are still jarring when I come across them. More generally, there is a tendency to always refer to “one” or the “other” person or side without specifying, which isn’t a flaw so much as a stylistic decision that I don’t like. Really, these are the merest quibbles.

This was a fun adventure and a good start to a trilogy. If the remainder in this arc are at least as good, I’ll be quite satisfied.

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