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.

Heir to the Jedi

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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