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!

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!

New Star Wars Favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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Forces of Destiny, Round 4: Season 2

Forces of Destiny keeps growing on me, and I don’t know whether it’s simple exposure to the series or an actual improvement in overall quality. I liked most of the eight episodes that have comprised Season 2.

My favorites were “Unexpected Company,” “Bounty Hunted,” and “The Path Ahead.”

“Unexpected Company” has Ahsoka as a last-minute addition to Anakin’s escort assignment with Padme. Anakin’s initially frustrated that his alone-time with Padme was ruined, but Ahsoka helps them out in an unexpected starship battle, and she and Padme share a moment at the end of the episode. I think it’s implied that Ahsoka was able to deduce the relationship between Padme and Anakin because of the events of the episode, choosing to silently accept it with a knowing smile and some careful words.

“Bounty Hunted” provided the (potentially) canon explanation for how Leia got Boushh’s armor. The encounter with Boushh is a little silly and arbitrary, but I’m willing to accept coincidence when Maz seems to intuit this occurrence through the Force. Seeing Maz and Leia meet–and Maz and Chewie embrace!–definitely made the episode special, though. And I’ll take any explanation for how Leia got her armor over the EU account with rapey Prince Xizor.

Finally, “The Path Ahead” shows a moment in Yoda’s training of Luke. Yoda gives Luke some sage advice that sounds appropriately cryptic and mystical. At the conclusion of the lesson, Yoda remarks, “Trust what you see [through the Force], not what you think you see [through your senses].” When he says that there will be more training through tree-climbing pathways, Luke asks, “Are we trying to get somewhere?” And Yoda replies, “Always, yes, always.”

Most of the other episodes were fine–mildly adventurous, or humorous, or heart-warming, but not particularly remarkable vignettes.  The only episode I did not like was “Shuttle Shock,” starring Finn and Rose as they approach Canto Bight. It’s actually a fairly good character moment, but the bit of action squeezed into the segment feels like too much loaded into what was otherwise a relative moment of brief quiet in the film itself. I didn’t like the episode for the reason that I didn’t like many other Season 1 episodes–there’s the sense that everything is overstuffed with moments of action and suspense, as if the movies actually trimmed down on the heroes stumbling through one gun fight or narrow escape after another.

In the end, Forces of Destiny will probably never provide essential Star Wars moments, but it does seem that with each new batch of episodes, it gets closer to the promise of consistently joy-filled short stories.

Heir to the Jedi

Heir to the Jedi (Star Wars)Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heir to the Jedi is an entertaining, swashbuckling adventure romp narrated in first-person perspective by Luke Skywalker himself. The simplest plot summary would be that sometime after the Battle of Yavin, Luke is assigned an extraction mission to free a highly skilled slicer and mathematical genius from the hands of the Empire. The narrative is not exceptionally deep, but there are a lot of twists and turns appropriate for the sort of serial pop adventures this novel emulates, and so that plot synopsis is a gross understatement–and it skips the first quarter of the book! In fact, there are many missions and side adventures and battles, many interesting aliens and allies and starships, and the plot from start to finish is a lot more sinuous than I would have expected, especially given the simplistic earnestness of the narration.

I think the first-person narrative works great (it’s too bad it’s rare in Star Wars; I’m not sure there are any other examples besides I, Jedi, which I also mostly enjoyed). It feels like Luke’s voice–still young, still insecure and inexperienced, but having been shaped by his adventures, his successes, and his losses. I think, though I am not sure, that this is a novel aimed at adult readers, but its vocabulary feels a little middle-grade; I can’t complain, though, because it makes for a light, brisk, action-packed read, and it fits the aw-shucks farmboy sincerity of Luke during the early stages of his efforts against the Empire.

There’s actually a better way to frame the narrative of the book, keeping in mind the focus of the narrator: this is really Luke recounting his relationship with Nakari Kelen, the beautiful heir to a biotech entrepreneur, an expert sharpshooter, and a newly declared Rebel. Nakari is charming, and between her flirty banter with Luke and their effectiveness together in tough situations, it’s easy to see why they both quickly fall for each other over their adventures together. And it’s cool to see another woman of color added to the Star Wars galaxy, especially as such a clear hero and protagonist.

I actually liked most of the new characters introduced by this book–especially Nakari and her father Fayet, the Givin slicer Drusil Bephorin, the Rodian weapons dealer and Jedi fan Taneetch Soonta, and the Kupohan spies Sakhet and Azzur Nessin. Even minor Empire Strikes Back character Bren Derlin gets some extra characterization. I also feel like Kevin Hearne has a brilliance for describing aliens and making them feel alien; they had particular behaviors, personality quirks, and cultural oddities that made them act as believably strange as they apparently looked. This was as true for the more well-known aliens like Rodians as it was for newcomers like the Kupohans.

I don’t have a lot more to say, and the few criticisms I have contain spoilers. The only “criticism” I can offer that doesn’t spoil anything is that this story is very much so a one-off, with fairly low stakes. With post-Yavin Luke as the protagonist, there’s very little of event that could happen. We know that Luke cannot learn much more about being a Jedi and cannot learn anything more about his family history. We know that Luke cannot die or sustain any particularly serious injuries (the hand in Episode V must surely be Luke’s first prosthetic). And we know that the Alliance and Empire will not have any major changes in status as a result of this novel. Luke has some adventures and completes his mission. The end. Unlike many of the other new canon novels, it does not really explore anything of significance that adds to the film saga (other than seeing how Luke develops his Force powers a little further). Frankly, it feels like a story that would work better in the ongoing Marvel comics and maybe steps on the toes of that space given the overlapping timelines being covered. Given that this was apparently a third book in a trio of novels meant to highlight the heroes of the original films, which was later separated and released as a stand-alone in the new canon, this oddity of tone and setting really is not that surprising. It’s not even really a bad thing; it didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the book at all. But it’s something to be noted.

Okay, so spoilers follow. Stop now if you’d like to read this book without any spoilers.

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My biggest complaint with the book is that Nakari is killed in the last pages. We don’t even directly witness her death, though Luke senses it. And afterward, Luke is given time to mourn, which is an interesting moment that we don’t get to see very often, but that same moment also gets used as a sort of plot device, to give Luke the opportunity to feel and resist the Dark Side (thus already making different choices than his father would make) and to allow Luke to mourn the others he’s lost. It’s true that he hasn’t had a real moment to grieve over Owen and Beru, Ben, or Biggs, but it lessens the significance of Nakari’s own death–even though she seems to be Luke’s first real love, even if he never got the chance to tell her exactly that–and feels a little weird that this woman’s death ultimately becomes about other people. Nakari was such a great character, and especially as one of the few women of color, it was uncomfortable and disappointing to have her killed off. I get that Luke seems to be single by Episode V, but we could still have Luke have a relationship, lose some of his retroactively creepy fascination with Leia, and be alone again by that film even without actually killing his love interest. Relationships end all the time, and many of them amicably. It might have been more interesting to see Luke have even more time to pursue a relationship with Nakari, only for them both to realize that they weren’t right for each other or had conflicting objectives or couldn’t pursue their feelings in a time of war. Maybe that’s too much for one book. But Nakari could’ve been floating around at the end of this book, to have that relationship developed further in other stories.

And while this book was originally going to be part of the old EU, I guess, it’s still more than a little frustrating to see that Luke’s luck with ladies appears to be returning with the new canon. A lot of women Luke loved had tragic ends in the old canon. It’s a little ridiculous, and I hope we don’t see that repeated. I don’t see exactly why writers love to write Luke into romantic relationships that usually go no further than earnest confessions and chaste kissing before writing out the love interest; if he is to be monastic and more or less virginal, why not let that be Luke’s choice? After all, in The Force Awakens, Luke made the choice to go into isolation. Maybe he’s always felt the need to create distance from other people?

Really, besides that, I don’t have any particular complaints. Well, okay, I have one last, tiny complaint, which may be a misunderstanding on my part. In the final battle against half a dozen bounty hunters, one bounty hunter rides a swoop book. He is described as “a human with goggles strapped to his head, a dark cloak streaming behind him” (247). He is the only one on a swoop bike and is shot off by Nakari. Several pages on, he’s become “the Dressellian whom Nakari had shot off the swoop bike” (261). Super-minor apparent continuity error, but a jarring one–Dressellians are humanoid, I suppose, but definitely not so near-human as to be easily confused.

This is a fun, but not vitally important, Star Wars story. Its quick pacing, great characters, and genuine voice all make a compelling argument for reading, even if it’s not the sort of story that sends ripples out into the broader galaxy.

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