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:

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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: 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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Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

I liked Solo. It was better than I expected, and even knowing about its troubled production history, I didn’t see anything about the movie that made it appear jagged or flawed or thematically inconsistent. Ron Howard’s mid-production step into the director’s seat appears to have been a good decision, and he delivered a slick space action flick.

At its core, Solo is a heist movie, and it’s a really fun one at that. We see young Han, played charmingly by Alden Ehrenreich, escape from an oppressed life on Corellia, join and then defect from the Empire, and meet his loyal friend Chewbacca (this time portrayed by Joonas Suotamo, who seems to have done a very good job of capturing Peter Mayhew’s physicality down to small gestures and cocks of the head) and his less-than-loyal frenemy Lando Calrissian (with Donald Glover absolutely nailing the role, even if a few moments leaned past Billy Dee Williams imitation to perhaps even parody) as he gets involved with an outlaw crew in a job that quickly goes south, putting them in the debt of terrifying crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany switches fluidly from charming to violent, his personality always domineering and seething with energy). To work off the debt, Han’s new crew attempt to steal Coaxium, an explosive hyperfuel McGuffin, from Kessel and deliver it to a refinery outside of the Empire before it goes boom.

The ensemble cast rounding out the crew Han associates with is great. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is folksy, rough-spun, and charming; someone who could be a mentor figure if it weren’t for his unreliability. Harrelson’s delivery suggests a worn and worldly character looking to survive, and the plot gives him the classic heist leader drive of wanting to do one more job to get out of the game. Thandie Newton’s Val presents a cold veneer and trusts no one, but in her softer moments she shows her love for Beckett. Rio, voiced by Jon Favreau, is a sort of weird uncle. Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is an eager dreamer when we first meet her, but when Han rediscovers her after escaping Corellia, she already hides a thousand sorrows and sins. Clarke does a good job of tinging Qi’ra’s manner with guilt and broken spirit, but Qi’ra is also a survivor and a pragmatist and a fierce fighter. We can tell that things will never work out between her and Han as soon as they are reunited–and it’s not just the fact that she’s not around by the classic trilogy. There’s a distance between them, a distance imposed by Qi’ra herself, something we see in her eyes and hear in her voice, even though she still obviously has love for him. It’s a complicated performance and in some ways seems like a dark mirror or inversion of Han’s relationship with Leia (who is an idealist and who refuses to outwardly portray her affection for Han).

Lastly, there’s Lando’s copilot, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a cranky droid revolutionary who secretly loves her captain. There is so much warmth and chemistry between the two. And L3 raises some genuine issues about the treatment of droids in the Star Wars galaxy. Her big moment midway through the film draws a clear connection between the restraining bolts and memory wipes used on droids and the chains and prods used on organic slaves. Disappointingly, most of her revolutionary attitudes are used for laughs, often seemingly at her expense. On one occasion, Lando asks her if she needs anything, and she quips, “Equal rights,” which makes it seem almost as though she’s in on the joke too. Even that big moment I mentioned is initiated by L3 through an incidental afterthought gesture; the fact that it spirals into something bigger is initially an obvious joke and only turns serious as it goes on. Of everything in the film, L3’s portrayal might have been the least tonally consistent. I loved L3, but I didn’t love how she was framed. The character concept was cool, and Waller-Bridge was great, but the droid was played for easy laughs for much of the film. At one point, Lando even jokes that he would wipe her memory if her navigational databanks weren’t so valuable, which seems an incredibly cruel thing to say to someone who is a friend and who is so personally outraged by the treatment of her kind. His joke really only works to the extent that we don’t take L3 seriously and view her ideals as absurd.

I want to circle back to Ehrenreich for a moment. He does a fantastic job of portraying a young, good-at-heart Solo who desperately wants to be a rogue outlaw (even if he’s always going to be a hero). He was funny, he was charming, he was clever, and he managed to convey Han’s often-backfiring efforts to quick-talk his way out of every situation. I liked him. I like that Star Wars was able to recast a major character and was able to find someone who had a loose physical resemblance to Harrison Ford but who, more importantly, could capture the speech and body language of the character. Even more so than Glover’s take on Lando, Ehrenreich’s reinterpretation of a classic character is less imitation and more adaptation; he brings something new to Han Solo, and I think Star Wars benefits from it. (But let me be clear: Glover is a tremendously joyous delight as Lando, and I love him more with everything new I see him in. I’d love to see a Lando film starring Glover getting up to wacky adventures.)

Interestingly, the plot of the film leaves young Han revealed as a fundamentally good and heroic person who can’t just walk away from people in trouble. By the end of the film, he’s had to make some hard decisions and he’s seen a lot of people die, but he’s still largely done the right thing whenever he has enough information to know what the right thing is. Sure, he steps away from open rebellion against the Empire at the end, but it certainly feels like he’s deluding himself into thinking that he can stay away from an idealistic cause for long. Quite a lot more must have happened to Han to make him the cynical criminal of A New Hope, but he’s still got plenty of years and employment with a certain Hutt to go by the end of this film.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Solo is that it is a film that can be enjoyed basically on its own, with very little understanding of the larger franchise, yet it has so many clever allusions to Legends and the new canon and provides an interesting new way to view The Empire Strikes Back [minor spoilers to follow]. I might go so far as to say that Solo is to Empire what Rogue One is to A New Hope (makes sense, given that the elder Kasdan wrote the screenplay for Empire).  We even get a new way of conceiving of Han and Lando’s relationship with the Falcon! Han’s relationship to Lando, in particular, feels very fresh and explosive and dynamic. A lot of the little attempts to explain Han’s background felt cheesy at worst and unnecessary at best, but I thought that giving Billy Dee Williams’s consistent pronunciation of Han a layer of irony-laden meaning was quite clever! (For an example of one explanation I didn’t like: how Han got his name. He has no family, so the Imperial recruitment officer assigns it to him? That’s fine, but it seems contradicted by the fact that Han reminisces about his dad working in the shipyards before he was laid off. Even if Han was lying to the Imperial recruitment officer, why would he continue to use Solo after deserting? Sure, we can fill in some possible reasons–maybe he didn’t like his dad, for instance, though he seems to remember him fondly and with heartbreak). While I liked the charisma between Han and Lando, I would say that Jonathan Kasdan’s assertion that Lando is pansexual is pretty flimsy within the film itself (his played-up flirtiness with Han in the Falcon as seen in the trailers is largely in response to a sarcastic comment from his copilot L3-37, and outside of that moment his flirting is basically directed toward females, specifically attractive human females for the most part, even though Glover’s delivery does always project a simmering self-confident sexuality).

Oh, and as for references, there are so many that I’m sure I missed a lot. Some that I noticed include:

And before I get into larger spoilers, I’d like to point out that Solo feels rather like Rogue One in showing more of a gritty, boots-on-the-ground, everyman’s view of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. The hot rod enthusiast, street-racing young punk Solo, the grimy and broken-down environments, and the consistent action tinged with genuine emotion suggest to me that George Lucas himself might rather like this film. But it also has great attention to tone. We start off in a Dickensian sort of setting, and Corellia does have an industrial nineteenth-century vibe to it. When Han gets caught up in the Empire, he has to slug it out as an infantry grunt on Mimban, where the muddy trench warfare, senseless deaths, and even the uniform designs evoke World War I. And I know I’m not alone in noting that, as Solo becomes more heroic and his prospects for a more exciting future, free from servitude to a street boss or military officer, grow brighter, the film’s lighting in turn grows brighter, away from shady, dingy, mucky locales to environments that often pop with color. So at the least, I think director of photography Bradford Young and costume designers David Crossman and Glyn Dillon did some excellent work (not to mention the colossal art department–and it should be mentioned that the variety of aliens new and old was great, too!).

I had some issues with the film, but to discuss them involves bringing up BIG SPOILERS. So if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d suggest you stop reading now. Though I hope you’ll come back to finish after you’ve seen the film–I’d love to hear others’ thoughts!


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My biggest complaint with the film is more of a nagging sensation, really. I don’t love how the film treated women. But at the same time, they were equals in capability and importance to the plot. And while the background figures still had a male-dominated bent, the main cast was closer to balanced than most films in the franchise.

The film used several characters’ deaths to motivate our central protagonists. Val and Rio die early on. Val dies in a way that hardens Beckett, makes him even more self-interested, and prompts him to repeatedly caution Han not to trust anyone. Rio, dying, tells Han that you shouldn’t die alone. And L3 dies later in the film. I don’t think her death counts as fridging because she dies in a significant way, and she dies accomplishing her life’s mission–starting a revolution. Her death is still about her and not about furthering another character’s emotional journey (though it hits Lando really hard). It was also incredible to realize that her processing core becomes one with the Falcon’s computer–she is the ship in a very real way. It certainly puts a different spin on how Han and Lando talk about the Falcon, right? Suddenly the metaphoric seems more literal.

I say that I don’t think L3 is a fridged character. But I’m not sure if anyone is. While being stuffed into a fridge isn’t exclusively a trope about women, its sexist overtones certainly arise because of the tendency of female characters to be fridged for male protagonists’ emotional development. Characters become plot devices when they’re fridged. Are Rio and Val fridged just because they die early? I don’t know. The trope might apply here, but at the same time, it’s less odious when it’s not just women dying in that role and when there are enough women in the cast that losing one doesn’t substantially deplete the non-male presence. Women viewers might disagree with me, though! And I’d be inclined to listen to those women viewers who express dissenting voices. Maybe the fact that it was a little uncomfortable to me should be enough to tell me that representation of women in this film is still somewhat problematic. At the very least, it was weird to have Val and Rio portrayed fairly significantly in promotional materials when they would have so very little screen time.

On the other hand, there are some cool women characters here. The surprise reveal about Enfys Nest’s true identity and actual purpose is awesome, and Enfys becomes a really cool early rebel figure! Now I want to know more about her backstory–and more of what happened to her after Solo. (Probably nothing good–was that one of the Two-Tubes lurking around in her posse, or am I being a fantasy racist who thinks all Tognath look the same?) L3 brings droid rights to the center in a Star Wars film, and she’s got a sarcastic attitude that makes her a perfect counterpart to Lando. Val is cool, though we see very little of her (I can’t help but draw comparisons to Brand, though, and wonder why black women can’t have other roles than ice queen assassins in Star Wars; even Sana Starros fits that mold to some degree). And Qi’ra is a complicated character acting in her own best interests; she has her own narrative. As Beckett tells Han, “It was never about you.” I was so glad to see that the filmmakers found a way to sever Han and Qi’ra by the end of the film without needing to kill her off. Too bad she squarely falls into the outdated femme fatale trope.

I guess what I’m saying is, the film did some things right, but I’d echo the many women out there who say that Star Wars needs more women in creative positions to improve representation in the stories that appear. Men–here, Howard and the Kasdans–don’t typically set out to tell stories that are disrespectful to women. I think everyone here tried to tell a good story and wanted fully developed men and women. But women in the writing room, or a woman directing, might have led to some improved outcomes here.

I have two other complaints. Both are fairly small.

First, before this film, I could just assume that Han picked up Shyriiwook some time over his life as a smuggler and outlaw. It didn’t really matter how; it was just an interesting element to his character and reflected his bond with Chewbacca. This film, however, answers a lot of minor questions about Han but now makes this language question one of the central mysteries remaining. Han knew Shyriiwook before he met Chewbacca; he understood it pretty well and could even speak a little bit of it. He meets Chewie three years after he leaves Corellia, and that time in between was spent in the Imperial Academy and then in the infantry. So…when did he learn it? Probably not on Corellia. Corellia was locked down by the Empire, and Han was on the low end of society. He probably didn’t take Shyriiwook in school, for however long he even was in school. We don’t see any Wookiees hanging out on Corellia, and we know that the Empire basically enslaved all of Kashyyyk, so there shouldn’t be very many free-roaming Wookiees anyway. I don’t recall anything that suggested that Han’s close girlfriend from his youth knew Shyriiwook, either. If not Corellia, why would it have been the Empire? The Imperials on Mimban, even those guarding Chewbacca, don’t understand Shyriiwook (actually, why was Chewbacca in a mud pit on Mimban? He’d been enslaved for a while–did they bring him there specifically to torture him and feed him deserters and traitors?). We know from Aftermath that the Empire discouraged foreign language learning: “The Empire had little interest in learning the ways and tongues of other cultures. They didn’t even want their people to learn on their own time” (p. 33). Maybe this was yet another act of rebellion by Han. But why did he pick that language over any other? It’s a really small thing to be bothering me, but in answering so many questions, the film starts boxing in Han’s character and highlights the mystery even more. And by the way, Life Debt reintroduces the concept of Chewie’s life debt to canon–nothing in the new film directly contradicts Life Debt, but I am curious about when Chewbacca got around to swearing that oath.

Second, I’m really conflicted by the reveal that Darth Maul was the true leader of Crimson Dawn. Maul makes sense here in the timeline. There’s a gap between The Clone Wars Son of Dathomir and Rebels. Maul had criminal connections, and it would make sense that he would try to quietly rebuild a criminal empire but would be more inclined to rule from the shadows after his defeat in Son of Dathomir. It’s a cute nod for fans of the animated series. And it’s a ridiculous thing to spring on the general movie-going public. It’s a really bullshit thing that I would previously have associated with Marvel, a need for hyper-connectivity for uber-fans that I had hoped wouldn’t spread to my favored franchise. And yet, here we are. Why is this so awful to me? Because for most people, those who are casual viewers or who are fans of the movies or who just never bothered to watch the animated series, Darth Maul died in The Phantom Menace. And not just of a simple stab or fall. Dude got cut in half and fell down a seemingly bottomless shaft. It was absurd that he survived, and The Clone Wars took time to build him back up into a threat and to make this seem credible. New audiences don’t have that. Their reaction probably wouldn’t be, “Oh, cool reference,” or, “Holy shit! Maul’s back!” I’d guess it would be a more resounding, “HUH?!” Maybe I’m wrong (though I will say that while there was some scattered applause and laughter throughout the film during the screening that I attended, the room was silent throughout Maul’s reveal). As someone who understood why Maul would be here, it wasn’t shocking to me–I didn’t anticipate it, but I’d heard there was a major character from one of the older trilogies, and Maul made sense. There’s the other thing: Maul’s presence wasn’t radically shocking. And it didn’t really add anything to the story. It was the equivalent of a Marvel end-credits sequence (although it was, at least, in the film itself). Qi’ra could have reported to any higher-up crime boss. Bringing Maul into the film itself was weird, but I’ll admit that it was cool that they used Ray Park, the original physical actor, and Sam Witwer, the voice actor from the animated series, to fill the role.

All in all, I had a lot of fun, and I felt that the flaws were overshadowed by the film’s strengths. I could easily watch this movie again and again. It’s not one of my top three Star Wars films, but I think it’ll join those flawed-but-fun films like The Force Awakens and Rogue One, entering regular rotation along those two as a frequently viewed title in this franchise that I continue to love.

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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Lost Stars

Lost StarsLost Stars by Claudia Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lost Stars is a lovely Star Wars novel. It’s obviously marketed as a young adult novel, with its flashy hardback cover design, stout layout, and large-font print, and that makes sense: it’s focused on the relationship between a young man and a young woman, starting when they are children. I admittedly have a bias against YA literature. But I enjoyed the book all the same; it was a good Star Wars novel not in spite of its centralized romantic focus, but because of it.

Over the course of the novel, we see Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree bond over a love of flight, attend the Royal Academy for Imperial officer training on Coruscant, and eventually split apart as a result of the Galactic Civil War. Thane, disillusioned and cynical and anti-authoritarian, refuses to serve the Empire after seeing more and more of its atrocities; he eventually finds purpose by joining the Rebel Alliance, at first fighting against the Empire but later fighting for the values of the movement to restore the Republic. Ciena’s deep-seated loyalty and near-sacred emphasis on honor (traits carefully developed early on as distinctly part of her valley kindred culture) mean that she is unwilling to betray the Empire by leaving it even as she becomes increasingly disenchanted with it. But while they find themselves on opposing sides, and sometimes quite out of touch with what each other actually thinks, they still remain in love despite themselves.

Claudia Gray really sells the relationship. She obviously has a great ability to clearly convey how one feels. And this book revolves around emotions–not just love or loneliness, but anger and fear and passion and fanaticism, loss and sorrow, frustration, excitement, joy, and deep depression. All of the main cast of characters–largely consisting of people Ciena and Thane initially met in the Imperial Academy, but later bolstered by Thane’s friends from his free merchant days and his squad mates in the Rebellion–are portrayed as whole characters, and even though the plot remains narrowly focused on Ciena and Thane, we get glimpses of the others’ motivations and desires. (It’s pretty perfect that there’s a manga adaptation, given the relationship focus in a sci-fi setting in general and more specifically the military academy subplot for like a third of the book.)

Interestingly, we also get to hear a lot of rationalizations for why characters do what they do, why they make and break certain promises, why they believe in certain things. For Ciena and Thane, we see how their life experiences shape their thoughts and decisions. But for many other characters, there are intense political discussions to explain loyalty or disloyalty to the Empire. Ciena and her friends are able to accept the Death Star and its destruction of Alderaan using language reminiscent of those who defend the use of atomic bombs by the United States at the end of World War II. And even the second Death Star makes more sense here–while Ciena finally loses all faith in the Empire, her friends see it as necessary to finally break the fighting spirit of the Rebels. I think there’s an echo of the continued development and storage of ever-more-powerful nuclear weapons in the real world. There are even arguments about resisting the Empire versus attempting to change it from within, conversations that feel all-too-real. The Empire remains very evil, and those who stay with it are gradually corrupted by it, regardless of their intentions; what might that say about our nation’s own failures and about those who remain blindly patriotic to it?

In short, in addition to wonderfully developed relationships, this novel also delivers on some of the most explicitly political commentary in the new canon. While the Empire is evil and the Rebellion is good, there are a lot of gray area discussions and a lot of rationalizations for bad actions in good causes or good actions in bad causes. While the political commentary may be explicit, it’s explicitly about a fantasy universe, and the conventions of the Star Wars universe make it difficult to draw one-to-one comparisons to our sociopolitical reality. But it’s a book that rewards close attention, careful consideration, and interpretation.

It’s not just political commentary that rewards careful attention, though. Gray deploys foreshadowing in the early chapters that pays off rather well in the climactic conclusion. There are recurrent phrases or descriptions that reinforce theme. And there are many little nods to the larger Star Wars continuity.

Because of this, a minor flaw in the book bothered me just a little bit more. From time to time, small elements of continuity or terminology seemed to break down. (For one example, on page 334 we are told that Ciena remains aboard her Star Destroyer rather than going down to Cloud City, but on the following page, she’s suddenly moving through the city on a mission without any explanatory transition.) It’s possible that later printings or editions fix at least some of this, and it’s never a big deal, but it just distracts.

One other thing bothered me a little bit. Lost Stars reframes many events from the Original Trilogy and ties them into fallout from the Clone Wars as well as the events that would eventually lead to the Sequel Trilogy; this is often fun and rewarding. But it also gets a little too coincidental. There are just too many big moments from the films that these characters witness. They’re always on a particular deployment or taking part in the right service to be virtually everywhere: the destruction of Alderaan, the Dantooine base investigation and aftermath of the Death Star’s destruction, Hoth, Cloud City (where Ciena disables the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive), Palpatine’s arrival on the second Death Star, the battle of Endor, and so on, including tie-ins to the new trilogy by way of the battle of Jakku. (And Ciena is part of the ploy that reveals to the Rebels that Palpatine will be heading to the second Death Star, while Thane is a fighter pilot spy who uncovers that intel.) Then there are all the character cameos, including Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, Admiral Piett, Admiral Ozzel, Princess Leia, Dak Ralter, Wedge Antilles, General Rieekan, Admiral Ackbar, Mon Mothma, General Madine, and Lando (plus references to characters like Luke and Han). The sheer enormity of direct references to the films gets a little bit old–but ties into the coincidental intersections that Ciena believes are due to the Force’s influence (thankfully, no major character has Force powers). If you can swallow all the crossovers, then you’ll enjoy the book even more than I did.

I should emphasize that I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s not perfect, but it’s beautiful and artful. It’s a favorite–though I already have so many favorites in the new Star Wars canon. There is room for a sequel based on the ending, and I hope that that sequel manifests. I’d encourage you to give it a try; even if it doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, you might be surprised.

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