Back to Star Wars, Hard

The true Star Wars faithful gathered for Celebration in Chicago over this weekend. I was not one of them. Yet the trailer for The Rise of Skywalker was enough to light the fire in my heart once more. It never really goes it. Sometimes, it settles to embers, but there’s always been something to reignite it.

So while I was not in Chicago, I still had a weekend that was overly devoted to Star Wars. After seeing the trailer at work on Friday, I struggled to stay focused on anything other than Star Wars, and I watched Return of the Jedi when I got home (between the second Death Star and Palpatine, it was Episode VI that the new trailer most put into my mind). I’d already been reading the Ahsoka novel, so I read some more of that. I dived back into Battlefront II and Empire at War. And now I’m writing a post about Star Wars again.

That trailer looks so good to me! There are so many mysteries, and I’m eager to see it. Experience has shown that I’m more excited for new saga films over anything else in the franchise, and the trailers for these movies are always great. Each time, it takes at least the first teaser to get me to finally acknowledge how excited I am. I’d actually been saying last week or so that I felt like The Last Jedi felt like a fair conclusion to the sequel trilogy and would have been an acceptable place to end the saga, so while I was curious to see what they’d do, I didn’t feel like anything was missing or unjustifiably incomplete. Now, though, there are so many tantalizing details, and I’m really eager to see what kind of story is being told here!

The other Star Wars announcements mattered less to me, as usual. I’ll probably get to much, though not all, of the new stuff eventually. The Jedi: Fallen Order game looks disappointing to me. I think there are already enough stories about Jedi on the run during the Dark Times, and the trailer felt very much so like a Light Side version of The Force Unleashed, a game I didn’t really get into at the time. And the protagonist appears to be another bland white dude. That all said, I’m sort of starved for a narrative-focused Star Wars game, and while I’d prefer an RPG, I’ll take this! Which means…maybe I’ll be looking into another console sooner than I thought? I love the Switch and Switch games, but it’d be nice to play more of the Star Wars games coming out. If I do get another console, it’ll probably be a PS4. I’m more interested in the exclusive titles available there versus the Xbox One.

Oh, speaking of Star Wars RPGs, VG247 had an article about Obsidian Entertainment’s planned plot for Knights of the Old Republic III. I really wish that game had happened. The Old Republic was reasonably fun, but I’ve never cared for MMOs and have always preferred single-player experiences. A mark in Fallen Order‘s favor is that Chris Avellone, formerly Obsidian writer for games like KOTOR II, is one of the writers for this new game.

Last thing I want to get to: I played a shocking amount of Empire at War this weekend and finally beat the Rebellion campaign. Yes, it was on Easy, but now I can mark both of the main campaign modes on my list of completed adventures (it was years ago, but I’m pretty sure I won the Empire campaign on Easy too). I mostly had fun, and I just pushed through the point I normally get burnt out. The gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the Rebellion-on-the-run feel that the setting, and the game’s story, establishes. But I’ve complained about that before. (Although I could complain now about some story issues I had, mostly related to the larger continuity. Just for instance, this came out after Revenge of the Sith and benefited from the expanded lore and setting of that film, but it didn’t include Bail Organa in the formative rebellion in any substantial way, and it had Captain Antilles affiliated with Mon Mothma instead of Bail for some reason, switching over to the Tantive IV only towards the end of the game.)

There is, however, something very interesting thing that the game did: after Alderaan’s destruction, the Death Star immediately set course for Yavin IV. I barely got Mon Mothma out in time. I defeated the Death Star’s support fleet, but with no Red Squadron, I still lost the moon. The Death Star then destroyed Wayland (a planet I’d conquered after the early story mission, because why not, and which I successfully defended from a later invasion attempt). Finally, Han showed back up with Luke and the droids, and I could send a sizable fleet to win the battle and leave the Death Star’s destruction to Luke. That final fight played out in the stellar wreckage of Wayland. There are three reasons why I like those developments:

  1. Everything happening is so sudden, shocking, and unpredictable. It puts you in the mindset of the fledgling Rebel Alliance as it faces potential devastation, with no obvious way out. I expected Luke to show up, I expected a warning before the Alderaan destruction cinematic, I expected the game to be predictable and give me time like it had at every other stage. I couldn’t rely on convention or the film’s narrative. It made me feel a little anxious and desperate, then really relieved when Luke finally showed up.
  2. It clearly established this narrative as an Alternate Universe. Sure, this was before the canon reset, but the implication up until that point is that we might have been playing a game that was supposed to be telling a definitive story of the Rebellion. Even if we had to ignore the gameplay and the narrative-defying conquest of the galaxy in the name of the Rebels, the core story being told could be seen as “truth.” The ending relaxes those rules and says, no, this is just a fun story, hope you enjoyed playing with the toys. Any galactic conquest mode to follow is more playing in the sandbox, no more or less “true.”
  3. It actually disrupted the conquest-focused gameplay and returned the emphasis to Rebels barely staying a step ahead of an over-powerful Empire. Too bad the rest of the game isn’t like that…

That’s more than enough about that game, but before I drop the subject entirely, let me quickly show you a story in four images:

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Now, will I ever play the Forces of Corruption campaign? Maybe. More unlikely things have happened (like finishing the Rebellion campaign), and my Star Wars appetite is currently insatiable and probably will remain so through December!

Review: Empire’s End

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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Review: Life Debt

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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Lost 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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