Reviews: Bloodline / Xenozoic

Bloodline (Star Wars)Bloodline by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like Claudia Gray’s Star Wars writing. I love Leia as a character. Gray’s Leia, Princess of Alderaan was a fantastic story about this beloved character by a writer I enjoy. Bloodline possesses these same traits, and yet I struggled with it. Partially, I’ve just found myself busier than usual for a while now. But I also found myself again and again making a choice to read other books or comics. It’s not that the writing’s worse here. And Gray did a fantastic job writing an older, wiser, wearier version of Leia (a version that was written and published before the Leia of Princess of Alderaan). That said, I guess I just found myself bored with it.

Bloodline follows Leia over two decades after the Battle of Endor. She’s a respected senior legislator, pragmatically trying to keep together the political faction of the Populists, who believe in decentralized government and who are in opposition to the Centrists, a party with a strong authoritarian streak. Government has ground to a standstill because the increasingly polarized parties refuse to cooperate, and there is no strong executive in government to create compromise or shepherd policy. The novel concerns itself with two major developments: the neutral planet of Ryloth, home to the Twi’leks, seeks aid from the Republic to uncover a rapidly growing and incredibly influential new criminal cartel while the Centrists advocate for the creation of a First Senator to bring order to the government and to force the legislature into actually producing results once more. Leia takes the initiative in investigating the crime cartel, even as she is nominated to be the Populist candidate for First Senator.

Over the course of the novel, Leia forms a bond with Ransolm Casterfo, a younger and more idealistic senator who initially comes off as villainous because of his love for collecting Imperial armor and his belief that Empire is the best form of government. We come to find that he is an honest, principled man who may believe in a strong central government but who still hated the abuse of authority as represented by figures like Darth Vader or the Emperor. And in the end, he finds himself in opposition to most of the other Centrists, some of whom are actually backing the crime cartel while others celebrate the Emperor and want a return to tyranny.

Leia also finds other allies among the younger generation, including a former racer turned senatorial aide and an overly eager starfighter jockey. They have their own subplots and interrelationships. (The racer has a particularly unexpected mystery that appears abruptly and quickly explains her career change late in the book.) These other characters are important because they represent the generation to follow Leia, but their importance is undercut by their lack of use in later stories. Meanwhile, Han only briefly appears, living his life as a manager of a racing team, and Luke and Ben are known to be off training but otherwise only appear in the story by reference.

This is Leia’s story. In some ways, it makes sense to table other key characters. It also allows for emotional vulnerability, as she is cut off from her traditional supports. However, the absence of Luke and Han feels big enough to be distracting at times. And while we see Leia forming the core of what will eventually become the Resistance, the new characters don’t ever really get wings to do their own thing; they’re caught in Leia’s gravity.

Ransolm Casterfo leaves the biggest impression, proving to be a strong foil and ally for Leia throughout the book. In Ransolm, Leia sees hope for restoring balance to the Republic. She sees the potential for compromise, for reaching across the aisle. Without getting into more specific spoilers, it is enough to say that that hope is crushed, leaving Leia with only the option of forming a covert Resistance in anticipation of the threat of imminent civil war to come. Ransolm is an interesting character, but his fascist cosplaying and admiration for an authoritarian government are never really adjusted or adequately challenged. Loving an empire so long as evil cultists don’t rule it doesn’t stop you from being a fascist. Yet after admonishing him repeatedly, largely from a place of pure emotion, Leia eventually just accepts that this is part of his identity. One could certainly chart real-world analogies in this book, and I’m not sure the implications of a character like Ransolm and Leia’s relationship to him are all that great.

Still, if I said that Ransolm was why I struggled with this book, I’d be lying. I was just not particularly engaged with the pace. It’s a lot more talking and reflecting than in a lot of Star Wars stories, but the ideas being discussed aren’t very deep. Star Wars always seems to struggle when it attempts to accurately portray politics, and I think that’s where the book falters a little bit as well. It’s trying to be too granular, lacking the usual bombast. Yes, there are big revelations. Yes, there’s a bombing, a duel, and at least two intense chase sequences. But that’s more par for the course for a contemporary political thriller, not the usual excess and swashbuckling adventure of a Star Wars story. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t as compelled by the story being told here. But there’s nothing really bad about the book, the ideas, or the depiction of the characters. I guess this one just wasn’t really for me!
XenozoicXenozoic by Mark Schultz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long loved just about anything with dinosaurs in it, but the pulp action, gorgeous art, environmental messages, and sense of history contained within Xenozoic makes it so much more than just a collection of fun stories about prehistoric beasts.

I vividly remember two Xenozoic stories from my childhood, which I encountered in the colored re-releases under the Cadillacs and Dinosaurs brand. Those two stories are “The Opportunists,” in which one of the two protagonists, scientist-ambassador Hannah Dundee of the Wassoon tribe, manages to turn the annoying pterosaur scavengers around the City in the Sea into an early threat detection system for mosasaur attacks, and “Last Link in the Chain,” in which the other protagonist, eco-warrior mechanic Jack Tenrec, becomes stranded in the wilderness on a return from patrolling for poachers and finds himself hunted by a ferociously determined theropod. (There’s a lot of wild and expansive lore in this series, and I trust that concepts like Wassoon, the City in the Sea, or the spiritual order of Old Blood Mechanics will quickly make sense if you start reading this comic.)

I’ve been itching to read the full series for years and never got around to it. It didn’t seem to be widely available, but I think I also dreaded the potential that my nostalgic fondness would be shattered by reality. I finally broke down and bought a collection of the black-and-white original Xenozoic Tales, and I was happily surprised to realize that it’s still great. Those two stories were still full of spirit, dynamic art, and excitement, and they weren’t even the best stories in the series, I’ve found. With age, and the context of the whole series, I more strongly appreciate the environmental and political themes underlying the series. I also like the wild mad-science pseudo-explanations for the resurgence of a variety of prehistoric life from multiple eras of Earth’s history in the wake of man’s near-extinction. Interestingly, for a series spanning the late eighties through the mid nineties, Schultz quickly hints that the characters are living in a world following environmental collapse from climate change, with a history of atmospheric deterioration and rising sea levels. From the beginning, much of the story is set in a flooded New York City.

A cool thing about Schultz is that he’s clearly willing to improve his work over time, rather than sticking to an established and familiar appearance. His art style grows and evolves over the series. Characters change, become more distinctive. The prehistoric creatures, dinosaurs especially, get updated over time to make them more in line with evolving understandings of what they looked like. In comparison to Jurassic Park, which largely started off on the edge of scientific perceptions of what dinosaurs were like in the flesh but then allowed the images to stagnate as science moved on, the continued (though gradual) evolution of the depiction of dinosaurs is thrilling (and also serves as a fun glimpse into the evolution of pop culture paleoart).

The only disappointment about this collection is that it ends. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that I want more. It ends in the middle of a major plot arc! There’s a lot of story still to be told! I sincerely hope that Mark Schultz eventually returns to this project. If you like dinosaurs, classic cars, pulp adventures, or comics, you really should check this out!

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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!

Old Western Classic: The Mandalorian 1.5

In this episode, the Mandalorian finds his ship once more in disrepair after the opening scene, requiring a pit stop on one of the most familiar worlds of the Star Wars galaxy. He needs funds to cover the repairs, so he takes on a job acting as a mentor of sorts for a hotshot young guy eager to join the bounty hunters’ guild. This youngster (played by Toro Calican) is more hustler than professional, though, and their target is a hardened mercenary with a dreaded reputation (played by Ming-Na Wen). To round out the new characters, the backwater mechanic (played by Amy Sedaris) hired by the Mandalorian also picks up baby duty while he’s out trying to bring in the credits.

Much of the episode was a classic western bounty hunter story, culminating in a clash between young gun and old, and the setting of the episode encourages a Wild West vibe.

[Spoilers follow]

That said, not everything has to end up on Tatooine. I do get the impression that the Mandalorian has some background with the planet, between his familiarity with Jawas in an earlier episode and his easy ability to communicate and negotiate with the Tusken Raiders in this episode (nice to see the Tuskens treated as rational sentients instead of mindless, violent savages). It makes sense; a lot of seedy types with underworld connections would have had reason to spend time on the planet at some point. And I can hardly begrudge the use of the planet, and so many familiar vistas, when it really allows the episode to feel like a gritty episode of some forgotten Western.

I do hope that we get some story momentum soon, though. At this point, nothing’s happening too quickly, even though each episode remains individually entertaining.

A final question about the ending: who do you think the figure is who comes across Fennec Shand’s body? The usual suspects seem convinced that this is a hint at a Boba Fett reveal. I’d rather Fett not show up; there are already enough real Mandalorians in the show, thank you very much. Plus, dropping him in would almost necessitate considerable explanation, re-focusing at least one episode around the figure previously presumed dead. And to have him suddenly reappear, years after the rescue of Han Solo and defeat of Jabba the Hutt, would feel bizarre if without some sort of explanation. Anyway, if it is an existing Star Wars character, and I suspect it’s not, I would hope that it’s Cad Bane. The jingle of the spurs fits in with his cowboy aesthetic. And while Bane may have been intended to be killed off in a canceled arc from The Clone Wars, for now I think his fate is ambiguous. Either way, it seems easier for a Duros to bounce back from a blaster wound than anyone recovering from being eaten.

Changing hunters

In my review of Tales of the Bounty Hunters, I started by saying that I wanted to some day talk a little more about how these bounty hunters have changed in their depictions between Legends and the Disney canon. That day has come. I’ll admit that the timing is awfully convenient, what with a show about bounty hunters in the new Star Wars canon premiering this Tuesday. It’s truly just a coincidence, though, or if it isn’t, my subconscious was primed for thinking about bounty hunters given the marketing for this show. Either way, it’s not exactly new ground for this blog (examples one, two, three, and four for consideration).

One thing this post is not meant to be is a biographical sketch of the characters from Tales of the Bounty Hunters, or a careful examination of the differing details of their interpretations across Legends and canon sources. You want that, go to Wookieepedia. What I want to do is talk about how I reacted to some of these changes, and how my opinion might have changed in revisiting a work that was so nostalgic for me.

To begin, I found Dengar’s transition from Legends to canon to be most welcome. In the new canon, he’s consistently been portrayed as a sarcastic, playful personality. He seems to enjoy being around people, even if he’s still a little bit of a sociopath. We are still missing a lot of details in his arc, but we see him go from a member of Boba Fett’s bounty hunting team in The Clone Wars to an aging, sardonic loner desperately yearning for a reconnection with others in the Aftermath books. It seems like his adventures during the reign of the Empire are still mostly untold. I haven’t kept up with the comics in a long while, but it seems like they’ve slowly included some Dengar appearances in which he seems to be much more grizzled. It’d be interesting to learn why exactly he became more hardened and violent and if those wrappings ever became actual bandages.

Regardless, Dengar’s fun now. He’s charismatic on-screen (and on the page), even if most of the other characters find him annoying. I’ll take this depiction over “Payback,” the dour ex-Imperial serial killer bent on revenge from Legends. Plus, the broader story of Dengar now appears to have all the elements of a story of loss, pain, and recovery that formed the core of the older version of Dengar. We’re still missing what caused that pain for him in the middle of this arc, as far as I’m aware, but maybe we’ll see it someday. I prefer Dengar finding salvation in found family over a romantic entanglement, anyway.

Bossk also seems a lot more “fun” in the new canon. He’s loyal to Boba Fett in The Clone Wars, at least. I’m fine with this version of the character; he’s not a mentor, exactly, to Boba, but maybe he’s a sort of weird uncle. That we don’t really have a clear picture of how Boba and Bossk fell out is an unfortunate gap. Bossk’s fate is equally unclear; by the peak of the Galactic Civil War, we only have a snapshot with his cameo on board the Executor. I don’t really know how to feel about this version of Bossk. The original incarnation of the character was so scary, vile, and outright evil. Then again, it’s interesting that Bossk’s character traits went on to largely define Trandoshans as a whole, then in the new canon, with greater individualization within species, Bossk is given a friendlier identity while a faction of Trandoshans is still characterized as Wookiee-hunting psychopaths within The Clone Wars.

Meanwhile, IG-88 doesn’t really seem to have been changed at all. There are a lot of other IG-model droids, from the Clone Wars onward, and these other versions often get used instead of IG-88 himself. That’s been a deliberate choice; in an interview with IGN, Dave Filoni explained:

So a droid like IG-88, if you know the Expanded Universe and the Star Wars history, there are a lot of stories around him or what might’ve happened to that particular droid. So out of respect for people that have been with this franchise a long time, it’s like, “well if we do something with this space, would that be contradicting those stories?” So it’s better just to say, “Well, there’s other droids,” it’s not like it was a unique assassin droid.

I appreciate Filoni’s tendency to bring in things from Legends as reasonable and to leave Legends elements ambiguously canon where possible instead of always explicitly contradicting them with new material, but I also find it ironic that he says that it wasn’t a unique assassin droid, when “Therefore I Am” is very much so about how IG-88 was a unique prototype (something already undermined in Legends with ideas like the IG lancer droids). That all said, I wouldn’t mind a revamped version of IG-88 that more fully explores the contradiction between his lofty ideals for a droid revolution and his practices of overwriting programming and operating through brutal violence. Why does he want the droid revolution? What are his end goals? Something more than simply being disgusted with organics could be really interesting, especially in the wake of L3-37’s debut (and IG-88’s plan to become the Death Star II could provide an interesting mirror to L3’s becoming part of the Millennium Falcon).

Zuckuss and 4-LOM became such weird, splintered characters in Legends. Zuckuss had multiple personalities; 4-LOM had a memory (and personality) reset. These elements appear to have been attempts to explain too many stories about these characters from different writers with different visions who didn’t bother to make for a consistent presentation. That said, I like the earlier versions of these characters. Zuckuss is a thoughtful, meditative, tradition-bound member of a mystic hunting tradition. 4-LOM is a constantly adapting droid who believes that he can program himself to allow for intuition and to maybe even access the Force. It doesn’t seem like the duo have appeared much in the new canon yet, so it’s hard to say how their personalities will cement.

Boba Fett has had the biggest transformation, from weird zealot-murderer to vengeance-obsessed clone; in some ways, he’s become more like the old Dengar. I like the newer version of Boba Fett better. The biggest mark against Boba Fett is that he has an unsatisfying ending. His death was treated as a sort of joke in Return of the Jedi. In a way, Attack of the Clones makes his death more of an inescapable tragedy; his “father” tried to raise a better version of himself, and Jango’s untimely death set Boba down a path that would see him die in a similarly unceremonious way at yet another elaborate execution gone wrong. Legends tried to make Fett virtually indestructible, overcoming the Sarlacc so that he could go on to be a continuing threat to Han and his family. But I think Fett’s life from Kamino to Tatooine has a better, self-contained arc, even if his on-screen death will always be a silly footnote.

As a special addition, I have to mention Greedo. Greedo’s formative Legends tale was in “A Hunter’s Fate,” collected within Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. There, he’s a young hotshot who’s basically goaded, unprepared, into a fight with Han so that his bounty hunter “friends” can in turn collect a bounty on the inept Rodian. Whatever happened in that cantina–Han shooting first, second, or simultaneously–fits comfortably with this narrative. Greedo was unprepared and couldn’t outgun Han. Greedo’s new canon version is actually frustrating to me; he’s been in operation for at least a couple decades, with an active involvement in the underworld of the Clone Wars era, and yet he still bumbles a point-blank shot at Han. It’s a wonder that such an incompetent gunman could have survived in his line of work for as long as he did. If Lucas had simply left Han to shoot first, this wouldn’t bother me as much–Han would have been taking out a threat proactively, before the dangerous hunter could get a shot off. But if Han fires second, or even simultaneously, it becomes difficult to understand how Greedo, with weapon rested on the table before him the whole time, could have screwed up so badly.

Obviously, the above only reflects my opinions and interpretations of these characters. Bounty hunters are on my brain. I’d love to hear which versions of the characters you prefer and why, or even which versions of the characters you’re more familiar with. And as a separate prompt, are there any other characters who have had particularly successful/unsuccessful transitions from Legends to the new canon? Do you see new characters, like IG-11, that are filling the role of a Legends character in new stories? I hope to see some interesting replies!

Revisiting the Tales of the Bounty Hunters

Well, I’m a day late, and it’s just a book review, but I think you have to agree that a Star Wars review is pretty standard for this blog! I think I want to talk a little more about the bounty hunters in another post, especially regarding how they’ve changed in their depictions between Legends and the Disney canon. But that can wait for another day. For now, my review of Tales of the Bounty Hunters, which I’d last read well over a decade ago, follows.

Tales of the Bounty Hunters (Star Wars)Tales of the Bounty Hunters by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I returned to Tales of the Bounty Hunters partly out of nostalgia, but partly because I’d rather enjoyed the other Tales that I’ve rediscovered in adulthood. On finishing, I was surprised to find that my original rating for this collection, based on childhood recollections, was pretty honest; I haven’t altered that rating. The stories are good, extrapolating from our brief glimpse of Empire‘s bounty hunters into full adventures that are generally interesting, though rarely emotionally investing.

The wildest part to me was realizing that “Therefore I Am: The Tale of IG-88,” by Kevin J. Anderson, was nowhere as good as I remembered it. There was no way that it could be; I remembered it as a high-concept piece about artificial intelligence, droid rights, relative morality, and a fight for liberty. It’s…not that. I can see how the basic story of IG-88’s silent droid revolution allowed me to imagine these larger, richer themes; it stoked the fires of my young imagination, even if it didn’t really execute such an epic story. IG-88 is an assassin droid; it thinks it’s better than organics, so it’s going to kill them all. It thinks droid independence is vital, but it’s quite happy to overwrite other assassin droids to transplant its personality, and it views an override code that will launch a galactic-wide droid revolution as an essential part of its plan. IG-88 never seems to even consider that its own quest for independence is really a blood-stained path to change one oppressor (organics in general) to another (IG-88 in particular). I think that IG-88’s vanity and arrogance are intended to be part of the story, but since we’re largely limited to its perspective and that of a generic Imperial bureaucrat villain, there’s not much effort to really emphasize the hypocrisy of the droid’s plans. And so much of the story is couched in Ultra-Cool 90s Grittiness, with hyper-violent deaths, a mechanized factory world, the aforementioned generic villain, and mostly shoot-’em-up exploits that all feel more like the plot to a video game or very of-its-era comic book than a Star Wars story. I’m still amused that IG-88 ultimately decides to become the Death Star II; like its other copies, its perceived strength is a false image of arrogance, and it fails in its moment of triumph, rather like a certain Emperor occupying the halls of its final battle station form.

There’s a story for each bounty hunter, though, and IG-88’s just the first. “Payback: The Tale of Dengar,” by Dave Wolverton, attempts to make Dengar cool. His central motivation is revenge: revenge against Han Solo, who inadvertently caused him to crash in a swoop bike race, and revenge against the Empire, which used his swoop accident as an excuse to perform super-soldier experiments on his maimed body, erasing most of his emotions and augmenting him considerably. The story was engaging for me, with a lot of 007-esque action, but the central conceit is basically that Dengar is able to find himself in the love of a woman, and that’s a tired trope. It’s sort of interesting that he’s able to find happiness when he essentially rejects a form of toxic masculinity that narrows the emotional spectrum to rage–here applied through the dual science-fiction elements of hyper-advanced surgeries that can precisely cut out specific emotions and of an advanced, pacifistic culture that has developed devices that allow shared emotional experiences. His dream girl can literally allow him to feel how she feels about him. It’s certainly not winning any awards for progressive narrative, but this plot element did provide for a clear arc for Dengar. And it ends with Dengar recovering Boba Fett from near the Sarlacc, rejecting revenge against the man who betrayed him twice, and asking the Mandalorian super-commando to be his best man at a wedding, so there’s that. (By the way, the more I think about it, the more that this story feels like the Star Wars version of Casino Royale, just with a happy ending).

“The Prize Pelt: The Tale of Bossk,” by Kathy Tyers, proved to be my favorite story, though I didn’t remember it that strongly. Partially I enjoyed it as a continuation of the story of armament-company-heiress-turned-bounty-hunter Tinian, who appeared first in another short story by Tyers that was collected in Tales from the Empire. Tyers clearly enjoyed writing Tinian and Chenlambec, providing this story with perhaps the most heart and soul of any in the anthology. But I also enjoyed it because it’s got convoluted plans, with crosses and double-crosses and backup options galore, and because Bossk isn’t provided some redeeming narrative like most of the other characters–nor is he made to be “cool.” Bossk is played up as an evil dude, a vile serial killer who hunts other sentients for fun. We want Bossk to be defeated in the end, and he’s dangerous enough that points in the story are truly scary and nerve-wracking.

“Of Possible Futures: The Tale of Zuckuss and 4-LOM,” by M. Shayne Bell, was another story I was fond of as a kid, but it held up better than I expected. Look, I’ll admit that part of what I loved about it was that two of the protagonists shared the surname Farr (hey, that’s my name!), and they were both intimately involved in the Battle of Hoth, which always fascinated me. Now, though, I can appreciate the story for its incredible weirdness. Zuckuss has his own elaborate alien culture, barely touched on, and a desperate motivation to earn enough credits to repair or replace his oxygen-damaged lungs. 4-LOM was a simple protocol droid who overrode his own programming over time through twisted logic to become first a master thief and then a bounty hunter; he continues to test the bounds of his programming, and he’s actually partnered with Zuckuss because he hopes to learn the art of intuition from his companion. His biggest ambition is to somehow learn to use the Force. Meanwhile, Toryn Farr (whom you may know as the background female officer who was one of the last to stay behind in the Echo Base control room) struggles with being thrust into a leadership situation in a crisis, balancing the needs of the crew with her protectiveness for her seriously wounded snowspeeder pilot sister, Samoc. While Legends wouldn’t let Zuckuss and 4-LOM have the fate suggested at the end of this story, “Of Possible Futures” ends with them joining up as legitimate members of the Rebellion. I love not just the expansion of so many background characters, but the sheer amount of wild and weird. It’s sad to me that we never got more of Toryn and Samoc.

Finally, the last story is “The Last One Standing: The Tale of Boba Fett,” by Daniel Keys Moran. This one still gets discussed in some fandom circles as one of the great Boba Fett stories. It’s fine. Fett is a dispassionate killer, and apparently an ugly man. He’s devoted to the concept of Justice, but he’s perfectly fine with extrajudicial murder, even for lesser offenses like smuggling. He views a good deal of sex as immoral. He’s a prude with a laser gun. There’s an especially awkward scene where Jabba sends Leia to his room, and he promises to leave her untouched, safe in his chambers, for the night; they have a brief moral discussion in which his incomprehensible values are stated as obvious truths. It reads as the ultimate fanboy stand-in: so close to the beautiful Leia Organa, possessing great power over her in a sexually compromising situation, and choosing to be the Noble Gentleman who promises not to lay a finger on her. Frankly, it’s a weird scene to me because I see no reason why, in the fiction of Star Wars, Leia ever had to be at any sort of risk of sexual assault, and I’d believe she could fight or talk her way out of any such situation anyway, so painting her as so vulnerable (and, in this scene, scared) is just downright uncomfortable. That all said, I did like the later sections of the story, as Fett deals with his traumas and wounds as he continues to hunt in old age, finding himself at the very end in a standoff with an equally exhausted Han Solo. The standoff cliffhanger ending, with its ambiguous outcome, is interesting, but I think we all know a character like Solo would never be killed off-screen, in or out of Legends. I think I can see how a story that attempted to provide a background and personality to Fett was so well-regarded at the time, but it hasn’t aged well.

In all, I think I mostly prefer the new canon versions of the characters. But the stories were still mostly enjoyable. Unless you are guided by nostalgia, like myself, I think you can pass over a purchase of the book, used or otherwise, and instead pick it up from the library to check out the tales of Bossk, Zuckuss, and 4-LOM.

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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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