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!

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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TPM on the 20th

Like many people, I celebrated The Phantom Menace‘s twentieth anniversary today by watching the film. I remain very much so someone on the outside looking in on fandom, but it has seemed to me that fans of the movie have become more vocal in celebrating it over the past five or ten years, and general opinion has mellowed.

I have a bad habit of providing opinions amplified by several layers of hyperbole in person, and so I know over the years that my expressed opinion on the films has changed rather a lot. I was ten years old when the movie came out, and still a fairly new Star Wars fan, and so I was the perfect viewer in that moment. I loved it. In my adolescence, as a result of the combination of vehement criticism from older fans and my natural teenage aversion to anything silly or earnest, I joined my friends in decrying the film–typically in the context of condemning the course of the prequel trilogy as a whole (Attack of the Clones has always been my least-favorite Star Wars movie, so at the time, it felt like the movies were getting progressively worse). It was in college that I started to come back around to the film, returning to it as to an old friend. My opinion today is tempered. I think it’s a fine but flawed film, and it typically lands in the middle of any personal ranking of the franchise installments.

My personal criticisms of the film, despite my broader changes in attitude toward it, have remained relatively consistent. The podrace scene is too long and bogs down the story. It’s unclear why Palpatine’s Sith identity is treated like a secret withheld from the audience, even while the camera lingers over him ominously in many key scenes and everyone who’s seen Return of the Jedi knows how this all turns out. The scatological humor, while not unique to this episode, isn’t funny. Anakin is too young, with too much of an age gap, to take his childhood crush on Padmé very seriously, and to the extent that she reciprocates it (“my caring for you will remain”), it’s just creepy. Despite the increased diversity of the human cast, many of the new aliens pick up uncomfortable racist tropes in their characterization. And while a common complaint is that the plot is boring in its focus on trade route taxation, I’d counter by saying that it’s actually a rather action-packed adventure that expects its viewers to jump right into the setting and come along for the ride, resulting in gaps in exposition that actually make that trade conflict, and the associated governmental and commercial bodies, rather muddled, simply dressing up a MacGuffin to get things going. (In general, one of my biggest complaints about the prequels as a whole is that they provide a lot more complicated galactic society but do a very poor job of properly framing how these complicated pieces actually function and fit together.)

Despite all that, it’s a really fun movie that takes risks both as a film and as an installment in the Star Wars saga, and it feels incredibly invested with the vision of George Lucas. It quickly introduces new characters that millions of people now relate to and admire deeply–including a character like Qui-Gon Jinn, who is given considerable humanity in this one-off appearance through the performance of Liam Neeson. More broadly, all of the performances are effective, and I would push back at those who claim that Ewan McGregor or Natalie Portman were stiff or wooden in their roles here. There’s a lot of affection and yet tension between McGregor’s Obi-Wan and his master. Portman is reserved and imposing as Queen Amidala, yet when she dons her handmaiden identity, she often allows herself to be frustrated, angry, affectionate, and engaged.  (Furthermore, the distant identity and elaborate clothing and makeup as Queen Amidala allow Padmé to use a handmaiden as her double–and it is impressively difficult to tell Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley apart when the makeup is on.) Ian McDiarmid is always incredible as Palpatine, and here we first got to see the mirage of a warm and endearing politician, even as McDiarmid portrays a depth of hidden meaning in his distant frowns and tiny smiles. If we look at Ahmed Best’s performance, and the special effects work that went into creating Jar Jar Binks, I think we could all agree that it’s impressive, even if you can’t get behind Jar Jar’s goofy slapstick or the uncomfortable echoes of minstrelsy. Ray Park is scary and compelling as Darth Maul, a character with an iconic visual design, and the fight scenes between Jedi and Sith are some of the best in the franchise–especially that final fight set to “Duel of the Fates,” which in turn has to be a franchise highlight for John Williams’s scores. Even Jake Lloyd does a good enough job as Anakin, despite having to deal with ridiculous lines like “Yipee!” His farewell with Pernilla August as his mother Shmi is a heartfelt, beautiful, earned moment that always touches me.

While I’m sure that some fans will look on The Phantom Menace with a special sort of purity, even as others continue to view it only with contempt, I’ll still enjoy it as an imperfect and unique episode in my favorite film franchise. I think, all in all, it’s stood up to the test of time better than many might have expected twenty years ago.

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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Sith Eyes

Guys, I promise, I’ll get over this wave of Star Wars posts eventually. It’s just on my mind a lot right now.

And something I’ve been thinking about is the physical manifestation of the Dark Side. In Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin turns to the Dark Side, his eyes go bloodshot and yellow. His eyes are still stained like this when we see him partially exposed during his fight with Ahsoka in Rebels. When Luke redeems him and removes his helmet, Anakin’s eyes are soft and friendly again.

 

 

Other Dark Siders may have yellow eyes. Darth Maul and Savage Opress both have those tainted yellow eyes. Pong Krell’s eyes are…yellow-ish. And Palpatine’s eyes are the bright yellow of a predatory animal, when he’s not wearing the kindly face of the Chancellor.

 

 

But I don’t think we ever see Count Dooku with anything but those dark eyes of his. Snoke’s eyes are not yellow. Asajj Ventress is known for her ice-blue eyes. And Kylo Ren’s eyes have so far remained a dark color.

 

 

We could say that perhaps the yellow-red eyes are just visual metaphor, signifying corruption, and not meant to be literally present. However, Dark Disciple confirms that the yellow eyes are visibly present, at least to some. When Ventress finds Vos after his corruption under Dooku, she sees that “Vos’s eyes were no longer a warm, rich brown. They were a blood-rimmed shade of yellow” (185). When Ventress briefly gets Vos to calm, the “yellow hue faded from his eyes,” but that “awful yellow hue returned to his eyes” when her entreaties fail and he returns to his impassioned attack (189).

Interestingly, Ventress later finds Vos without the yellowed eyes but knows he is still corrupted because she still feels “the fury inside him now” (209). Vos eventually admits that he had remained loyal to the Dark Side, that Ventress was correct.

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I don’t know if there’s a canon answer as to what causes a Dark Sider’s eyes to yellow. Speculation on Reddit suggests that it is an intense connection to the Dark Side. If so, how would Palpatine not always have those eyes, with his intense Dark Side presence and constant evil hatred and malevolence? I suppose he could mask his face the same way he masked his presence from the Jedi (and this certainly would not be the first time that someone has suggested that Palpatine only revealed his true face after his encounter with Mace Windu, that he was not actually “disfigured” at all then).

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My personal feeling is that the yellow eyes represent a loss of control. A Dark Sider strives to control the Force, but some let the Dark Side ultimately control them. For Palpatine, the Dark Side is a tool. For Anakin, the Dark Side is desperation and anger and confusion and fear all being unloaded at once.

What does that mean for Kylo Ren, though? I see Kylo as perhaps the most unstable Dark Sider yet, prone to violent rages and tantrums. But he has constant conflict in him; maybe he has never fully given himself to the Dark Side.

Or maybe this is just an inconsistent element that changes with the story being told and the creative team telling that story.

I bet that there’s at least a partial canon answer floating around in the minds (and files) of the Lucasfilm Story Group. But we don’t have a full answer yet.