Leia: Princess of Alderaan

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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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.

Lost in Continuity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LS, p. 156.

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

Ever-brilliant Jude remarks:

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

LS, p. 165.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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