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.

 

Dark Siders

I’m reading Lords of the Sith now, and I’m not a huge fan of it so far. It’s a pulpy action-adventure novel, but that shouldn’t necessarily dissuade me; I rather enjoyed the one-off adventures of Heir to the Jedi. I’ve still got a ways to go, so it’s probably unfair of me to form so harsh an impression so early, but this might be my least favorite book of the new canon that I’ve read so far (that tier would go From a Certain Point of View, then A New Dawn, then Heir to the Jedi, then Tarkin, and finally Lords of the Sith at the bottom). I think it’s the subject matter, and I think subject matter might explain why I was not especially fond of Tarkin as well (in part).

You see, while I like to see Star Wars stories that explore the Dark Side, and while I like powerful villains and complicated antiheroes, I still ultimately like to read stories about fundamentally good people. Sure, all people are flawed in some way. No one is perfect. But good people generally want to do the right thing, and generally try to make decisions that they believe are justified, and generally want to improve. I like to be able to cheer for the characters of a sci-fi adventure story especially; optimistic and escapist action is part of the draw for me. But Tarkin and Lords of the Sith focus on very bad people, and their opponents are morally compromised rebels. No one is any good. And you know that the bad people will win, and that even if their opponents could seize the day (they can’t, you know, because canon dictates otherwise), they still aren’t all that much better at the end of the day. In attempting to give a reason to root for the bad guys, the authors have let their opponents seem just as awful in many ways.

My favorite stories of bad guys in Star Wars typically at least have a strong heroic foil (e.g., the Thrawn books with Luke and company, Revenge of the Sith with Obi-Wan and Yoda, or Fatal Alliance with its eccentric band of heroes working against and at times with the Sith). So maybe I’d otherwise enjoy a one-off pulp adventure, but not when the “heroes” are evil Sith Lords bent on oppression and death; maybe I’d enjoy a lengthy pseudo-biography of a character if not a fascist thug like Tarkin.

Okay, so all that said, how do I explain my admiration for James Luceno’s Darth Plageuis? My suspicion is that Plageuis offered such a fascinating glimpse into the lives of otherwise mysterious characters, and the story was so well-told. It’s reasonable to assume that even my biases can be overcome with good enough storytelling. If nothing else, it had something interesting to say, and it offered a new and darkly disturbing perspective on familiar events. Tarkin, even though also by Luceno, just didn’t tell a significant story. Its scattering of backstory amid the pursuit of pirates did not particularly provide depth to Tarkin’s character so much as it did breadth. The Grand Moff seems just as much a fascist and just as much a psychopath to me as he did before I read the novel.

I don’t read just for escapism, but I admit that it is a primary motivator behind Star Wars reading. That said, I think I can accept a dark and challenging story even in that galaxy far, far away…so long as the story justifies the tone with something special.

Review: Tarkin

Tarkin (Star Wars)Tarkin by James Luceno

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tarkin fills in a lot of details about the life of Grand Moff Tarkin, while telling a fairly simple story set five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith: Tarkin’s personal starship is captured, and he must find and subdue the insurgent shipjackers responsible for the theft.

I’ve liked the Luceno Star Wars books I’ve read. I especially liked Darth Plagueis, which attempts a similar biographical overview of a major villain. Tarkin is, in many ways, a follow-up to that other book. But I did not love it.

Most principally, I believe that there are simply too many side stories, and many of those side stories, if developed more fully, would have been more interesting. A central mystery of the book is what Tarkin’s defining trial was as a young man, surviving on the wild Carrion Plateau of Eriadu. The reveal of Tarkin’s big shaping moment is saved for one of the final chapters of the book, and it’s underwhelming and fairly predictable. Not to mention that it is tied in a little too neatly with the resolution of the “present day” plot involving the shipjackers. If the whole story had just been about young Tarkin’s training, this could have been a very interesting book, perhaps something a little bit genre-defying. But there are still other interesting side stories that are not developed enough. Tarkin’s time during the Clone Wars, including his apparently merciless shutdown of the Confederacy’s Shadowfeed propaganda operation, or his pacification missions following the end of the wars seemed very intriguing, action-packed, and brutal. They would have made for great content. Tarkin’s years hunting pirates could have been cool, too, and rather swashbuckling. The few scenes set on Coruscant, with the bickering between the Joint Chiefs, were thrilling, and I would love to see more Imperial courtly intrigue. And maybe most of all, Palpatine, whom Luceno already developed so well in Darth Plagueis, continues to be doing fascinating things mostly off-screen. How much does Palpatine know of what’s going on? The few sections from his viewpoint suggest that he is more vulnerable than he lets on. We also get a tiny glimpse of what his larger plan for the galaxy is, but I would think it very interesting to know in what ways he intends to shape the galaxy.

In short, this book did not have enough focus, and what it did choose to focus on felt like the wrong moments.

I do believe that Luceno did a good job with tone, and much of the book feels clinically detached, a perfect representation of Tarkin’s frame of mind. But this is rather boring to read (and reminds me a bit of discussions as to whether Natalie Portman’s acting as Queen Amidala was wooden or if the character herself was supposed to be wooden). Similarly, the experience of reading the book is rather dour and dreary. Perfect for a novel following the technocratic villains of the galaxy. But I would have appreciated more heart. Rogue One demonstrated how we can see more of the Empire and even have a story where the Rebels lose while remaining focused on the good guys. To follow the band of shipjackers and more fully develop their passions, motivations, and personalities would have meant less Tarkin, but I think I would have been more emotionally invested (having someone to actually cheer on), and it would have been interesting to learn everything about Tarkin from the fear-struck perspective of the insurgents as they trade rumors and try to predict what he’ll do next.

There are a lot of fun references to the old EU (and especially Legends books by Luceno), and we do get some insight into what the inner workings of the Empire looked like. But Tarkin can be a bit of a slog, especially when compared to A New Dawn, which tackles similar themes and subject matter but does so much better.

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My new favorite television family: the Ghost crew

A New Dawn did, in fact, give me the final push needed to start watching Rebels. Last night, I intended to watch the first episode, but that transformed into watching the first four. And I watched just about as many today, too. The show’s wonderful! The visuals, sound effects, music, dialogue–it all feels so perfectly Star Wars. The Ralph McQuarrie-inspired character, vehicle, and setting designs are just lovely. And the backgrounds look sort of painted in, like the lush matte paintings in films that I’ve always had a soft spot for.

The subject matter is just fascinating, too. We get to see the early days of the Rebellion against the Empire, before it was even an organized effort. And with the focus on original characters, instead of the mostly known properties of The Clone Wars, the stakes are higher and there is a greater sense of risk and mystery. Anything could happen (within the scope of a show that is, after all, aimed at kids or families).

I liked a lot about The Clone Wars, but it didn’t click for me as quickly or as strongly as Rebels already has. In many ways, the earlier show feels like Dave Filoni’s warm-up for this later attempt. I admit that I might just have more nostalgia rooted in the sights and sounds of the era of the original films, and in the setting and tone of many of the spin-off stories and books from the ’90s. But if that’s a factor, that’s okay–it’s certainly not the only element at work.

Anyway, this post is here in part for me to specifically point out just how much I love the family dynamic of the show. I know I’m not the first to comment on it–that theme is pretty explicit within the text itself, after all. And I won’t be the last. But I need it to be known that I think it’s great! Orphan Ezra finds a family in the crew of the Ghost–Hera and Kanan are mom and dad, Zeb is a grumpy older brother, Chopper’s the family pet (Filoni famously remarked, “If Artoo is the family dog, Chopper is the cat“), and Sabine is…maybe a sister, but maybe a childhood crush?

Whole episodes are about exploring this developing family identity. But my favorite to deal directly with the subject so far, even if in a secondary plot line, is “Rise of the Old Masters” (if you haven’t seen it, there will be some spoilers in the discussion to follow, although this show’s on Season Four now, so at this point maybe some early-series spoilers just have to be accepted). In it, we see that Kanan has finally begun to devote efforts to training Ezra in the ways of the Jedi, although since Kanan never completed his own training and Ezra has his own hiccups, the training is off to a rough start. When the Ghost crew learn that Jedi Master Luminara Unduli appears to have survived the Clone Wars only to have since been held in Imperial captivity, they launch a mission to rescue her. Kanan hopes that Luminara will be able to properly train Ezra, while Ezra worries that Kanan wants to pass him off to someone else just as soon as he has started to feel a connection to the crew.

By the episode’s end, Kanan recognizes that he alone can train Ezra. He also gains a better understanding of an old Jedi proverb, coming away with the determination and confidence to train Ezra properly. Ezra, meanwhile, confesses that he really does want to train under Kanan, even if the older man can’t be the best teacher that Ezra might need, and he is placated when Kanan reaffirms his commitment. The episode ends mirroring its beginning: Kanan has Ezra practice swatting away thrown objects with his lightsaber. While it was high-stakes and dramatic in the beginning, and Ezra failed, the scene now is low-key, simple, and relaxed, and Ezra successfully hits target after target.

But what’s wonderful about this final scene is that we are watching it from a wide view, at a distance; the characters stand among waves of grain, outside their ship, for all the world looking like a father tossing balls to his son to practice at bat. It might be Jedi training, but it’s also a familial game of catch.

What needed to be said between them was said, but even more powerful to the audience, I think, is that closing image, which communicates still more about the sort of relationship held between Kanan and Ezra.

Review: A New Dawn

A New Dawn (Star Wars)A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was nervous going into this book. It was the first novel published in the new unified Star Wars canon established by Disney. And it seemed a weird property to start with, a novel aimed at adults about the backstories of two protagonists from a family-friendly cartoon series.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I never really should have doubted; John Jackson Miller has always delivered consistently entertaining comics and books about this galaxy far, far away. But this is probably my favorite Star Wars story by Miller yet (I never read Kenobi, though, and that got a lot of hype). Even without Miller at the helm, I should have realized that a book about kids’ show heroes could still be interesting, and I should have learned by now that Dave Filoni’s productions are emotionally involved affairs with complex characters and often surprisingly mature and sobering themes, regardless of the target demographic or medium used.

I was late to The Clone Wars, and I’m late to Rebels, but I think A New Dawn finally gave me the push I needed. Kanan and Hera were truly interesting in their own right, and their archetypal cynic/idealist contrast very quickly gives way to something far more complicated in their personalities and their relationship. And they are just obviously Good People without being obnoxiously straightforward white knights, so it’s easy to root for them and care about them. There are so many characters I came to like that I knew would not reappear in other media. The stakes were raised because of this, since there was no guarantee that supporting characters would make it out alive, and Miller was certainly not afraid to insert tragic death into the story. Some of that death was quite horrific and really drove home the villainy of efficiency expert and industrial titan Count Vidian, who propels the central conflict in the plot when he arrives on mining world Gorse to improve output of a molecule valuable to the imperial war machine.

While Vidian was sneeringly sinister, there is actually a great deal of moral nuance here, especially for a Star Wars book. Skelly is a Clone Wars veteran clearly suffering from PTSD who misguidedly believes that the Empire actually cares about safety, whose crazy theories about the potential destruction of the crystal-filled moon of Cynda aren’t as far-fetched as they seem, and who becomes a terrorist once he becomes truly disillusioned with the Empire, though still roped into Hera’s cause to serve his own role; he’s also a sweet guy who’s loyal to those he perceives as friends. Zaluna is a middle-aged Sullustan spymaster who works for a data-collection firm that once sold data to advertisers and now sells out potential dissidents to the Empire; she has a fascinating change of heart over the novel, triggered by her attempt to fulfill the last wish of a good friend. And substitute Star Destroyer Captain Rae Sloane is my new favorite Imperial, someone who is clear-eyed in her loyalty to the Empire, someone who can be viewed sympathetically and maybe even as a hero even while she is quite willing to do bad things for the Empire. Sloane is so fascinating because she clearly sees the Empire as a net positive, she’s ambitious, and she’s loyal to the Emperor and what he represents; she is also able to do what it takes to protect that empire and to obey her superiors even when those actions are potentially atrocious. She is neither cruel nor softhearted. She does not seem like someone who might secretly flip sides to be a “good guy” down the line. She is a villain you can kind of secretly root for, especially when she is contrasted against Vidian.

I was also kind of surprised to see a Star Wars book that was so thematically rich and so willing to deal with the real-world realities of the Empire. The world was plausible, and we get to see the tools of Imperial authority from the highest levels of the fleet authority to the lowest levels of shantytown surveillance. Since Vidian is an efficiency expert, we get a lot of intriguing details about the logistics and infrastructure of the Empire. And the role of surveillance and of blind obedience to order and authority within the book provides for easy engagement of very contemporary issues, relevant to today’s society, about security versus civil liberties and the slippery slope to authoritarianism.

A New Dawn is a good standalone Star Wars novel, but it also brings about the rise of the new dawn of Star Wars continuity in a very reassuring manner. Whether read as a one-off, or to launch into Rebels, or to learn more about the characters of the show after viewing, I think this book is a rewarding experience for any Star Wars fan.

Also, on a personal note and independent of the quality of the book itself, it’s really cool to see this novel clearly represent the more diverse Star Wars galaxy cultivated by Disney and Kathleen Kennedy. Yes, there are cool aliens and droids, but there’s also a wide range (and combination) of human races and genders.

I only observed two prominent weaknesses in the book, and I imagine opinions will vary as to how much these elements are actually flaws. First, while Mr. Miller is excellent with characters, action, and ideas, the writing itself can at times be a bit bland or generic, which sometimes made it difficult to create an adequate mental image during scenes with a lot of action or movement. I suppose that is to say that setting could at times have been improved. Second, A New Dawn repeats the ugly Star Wars trope of using deformity and disability as a sign of moral flaws. Count Vidian is a shell of a man, both literally and physically, and while his grotesqueries appear to be quite deliberate on his part, they still reinforce the old trope. Also, good-guy Skelly is not enough of a counterbalance given that he is a bomb-crazy terrorist and probably not the most palatable image of mental illness. I could see counterpoints to my criticisms, and I’m not sure everyone would read the elements I see as problematic in the same light, but I do want to explain where I saw room for potential improvement. But really, the book as a whole is great fun, and I would not encourage anyone to pass it by just for the problems I mention here.

It took me a while to start reading the books of the new canon, but I’m glad that I now have.

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