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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Review: Aftermath

Aftermath (Star Wars: Aftermath #1)Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A post-Endor Star Wars book trilogy, marking a fairly early publication in the stream of new-canon releases, must surely have called to mind comparisons to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Thankfully, rather than retilling exhausted soil, Chuck Wendig has prepared something quite different.

Most interestingly, Wendig’s style diverges pretty hard from the traditional Star Wars standard. His narrative is a constant present-tense, and while the format could hardly be called experimental outside of this franchise, it’s probably not all-too-common in sci-fi as a whole and reads as a wonderfully fresh breath of air. Action, emotion, and thought all arrive with great immediacy, and there are efforts at something resembling stream-of-consciousness, especially in flashback sequences. Wendig is also quite skillful with metaphor and employs clever turns of phrase regularly and to great effect.

Unfortunately, I think that the dialogue suffers a little bit from that very same experimentation and florid verbiage. Characters sound all too clever for their own good. And when everyone (save one droid, whose staccato, all-caps style is emphasized at every chance) speaks in a similar cadence, they all blur together. Frankly, I think I’d be more forgiving had I first encountered a Chuck Wendig novel out of the Star Wars setting–he’s a great writer, and I’d like to see more, but the voice of the characters just doesn’t sound quite…Star Wars enough. There’s one exception: there is a brief interlude scene involving Han Solo, and I could practically hear Harrison Ford delivering the smuggler captain’s lines. The second novel appears to be positioned more around Han and Leia, and I look forward to seeing more of Wendig’s handling of the characters.

Speaking of the interlude scenes, I’m rather fond of these short chapters disrupting the action of the main narrative to share a vignette about events all throughout the galaxy. They often share thematic connections with the main narrative or imply a building toward a larger plot. And they let everything feel epic even while that main narrative is a rather tight story: a disparate group of rebels and outcasts bands together on the Outer Rim world of Akiva as a result of an Imperial blockade, and that blockade was in turn put in place to allow for a clandestine meeting of Imperial leaders attempting to decide how to lead the Empire following the death of the Emperor and the inspiration of open revolt throughout the galaxy. While it didn’t really dawn on me until the end, this novel was less about anything particularly momentous happening and more about assembling the team (and the primary antagonist) for future adventures. I liked getting to know the characters, and the story actually is self-contained, so I don’t have the usual “it’s just a prologue” gripe that I have about many first-in-a-series books.

The novel works on its own because it tells a simple story with a clear resolution. A bounty hunter is on Akiva to kill or capture several high-value targets on behalf of the New Republic. She needs a team to get them all. She assembles that team. Each of the characters has their own bit of growing to do, and the reunion of Rebel pilot mother and estranged tech-genius/scoundrel son forms a good bit of the emotional heart of the book, but everything makes a lot of sense when framed around that bounty hunter’s quest. In some ways, it’s Seven Samurai, but with a happier ending, in that we don’t see more than half the party wiped out in accomplishing their mission (given the connection, it’s sort of ironic that the bounty hunter is a niece of Sugi, who formed her own team to protect and train farmers in a Clone Wars retelling of the film’s plot).

That narrower focus is another way that this book is so different from the Thrawn trilogy. We aren’t following the Big Three heroes here. The characters of this book are accomplishing important objectives for the New Republic, but it’s the future of a planet and not the galaxy that’s on the line. Perhaps the biggest parallel to the old Thrawn books is the Imperial officer who has arranged the Akivan summit (Sloane), who in turn works for a mysterious strategist, which feels more like homage and is hardly a simple rehashing of the relationship between Thrawn and Pellaeon.

The galaxy is also a lot different in this post-Endor world. The destruction of the Empire’s leadership (at this point, twice over) has thinned the ranks, drained morale, depleted resources. More worlds are in open defiance. The Imperial fleet is stretched thin and being torn apart through defections and power grabs. The implosion of the Empire happens here so much quicker, within a year, than it did in the old canon. It’s a new interpretation of events, not necessarily better or worse; it offers different ideas about what the Empire was. I like that things are mixed up here.

Despite offering so much that is new and fresh, Aftermath is also laced with many clever Legends winks and nods (as well as plenty of connections to the burgeoning new canon). Wendig’s love for the Knights of the Old Republic games seems pretty obvious, with references to Czerka, Pazaak, a Dark Side Force- or life- draining power, echani martial arts, the history of Jabba sandcrawlers as stolen old mining vehicles, and of course a psychotic droid who speaks in a strange voice (while it’s supposed to be lilting and dissonant, the constant all-caps shout of Mister Bones reads like it could be the monotone of HK-47). The author must have a spot spot for roleplaying games in general; an ending interlude has a bartender rattling off a list of potential jobs that reads as a local-area map of quest markers and factions.

One of the few obvious flaws seems to be a persistent problem with these Star Wars publications: minor continuity issues. One minor character changes from an Abednedo to a Rodian between scenes. Another character who only appears in one scene has his name change from Cobb Vanth to Cobb Vance over the course of a page. Minor things like this. Things that might just have emerged in the process of printing; things that might have just been missed in editing; things that I can forgive but that are still jarring when I come across them. More generally, there is a tendency to always refer to “one” or the “other” person or side without specifying, which isn’t a flaw so much as a stylistic decision that I don’t like. Really, these are the merest quibbles.

This was a fun adventure and a good start to a trilogy. If the remainder in this arc are at least as good, I’ll be quite satisfied.

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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.