Tales of the Bounty Hunters, by Kevin J. Anderson (ed.)

June 9, 2012 at 21:49 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , )

8/10

It is to be expected when reading anthologies that there will be worthless dross amongst the entries. This expectation is almost shattered in Tales of the Bounty Hunters, which marks a surprising halfway point in the Star Wars universe. Earlier authors had more freedom in what they wrote, which led to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy and Stackpole’s X-Wing series, but also to bizarre sidetracks like The Crystal Star and the Corellian trilogy. Later authors were kept on a tighter leash by Lucasfilm, and it shows.

“Her head was shaven completely bald and glistened with perspiration under harsh white recording lights that gave her lantern-jawed face a cadaverous look. Her teeth were spaced with broad gaps, and she spoke by opening her mouth wide and clicking down on the words, gnashing her teeth on every consonant.”

-Tales of the Bounty Hunters

In Tales of the Bounty Hunters, there is clear evidence that the authors had a larger storyline in mind, and were not just writing for the sake of good stories.  This is not necessarily a bad thing: Dengar’s story, for instance, held the germ of the occasionally exciting Bounty Hunters trilogy. As standalone stories, none of these are especially poor. Dave Wolverton’s entry with Dengar suffers from clunky and ugly writing. Anderson’s own story about IG-88 is well told and exhibits some of his best writing, but is unoriginal and shallow. Daniel Keys Moran submits one of the most mature and thoughtful Star Wars stories in the franchise, daring to question the credentials of Han Solo as a hero, exploring varying and conflicting motivations in his story’s heroes and villains alike, and bringing up issues including war crimes, trafficking and the death penalty, of all things.

This anthology is a relic, and fits rather badly with the books it fits between. It contains some bland and some poor writing, but also some of the most speculative Star Wars literature in the franchise. If any book in the Star Wars series is worth reading, this one is.

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Jedi Search, by Kevin J. Anderson

April 21, 2012 at 18:16 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , )

4/10

The one constant about Kevin J. Anderson’s writing is that he is an imaginative and creative fellow. He has given the Star Wars universe some of its most interesting characters–Daala, Bevel Lemelisk, IG-88, Exar Kun–as well as providing the universe for the first time with a sense of legend and myth. It is very difficult to love the Star Wars extended universe without at least liking Kevin J. Anderson.

“Kyp wore an embarrassed expression for a moment; then he spoke quickly. ‘This is going to sound like a hokey old religion–but it works. An old woman who spent part of her sentence in the spice tunnels told me I had some sort of tremendous potential. She showed me how to use something called ‘the power’ or ‘the strength’ or something.'”

-Jedi Search

Now, it ought to be well recognised that an imaginitive man is no more a good writer than a man who can dream up fascinating storylines, or a descriptive poet. Anderson’s greatest problems do not lie with his storylines, although they tend to be broadly predictable and more than a little derivative. His problems are partly due to the fact that he has already pictured and pieced together an entire world inside his head. His imagination might well be his biggest downside. He has pictured Han Solo, for instance, not only as an exciting character, but as a complete man. When most people think of Solo, they think of his greatest and most exciting moments: shooting Greedo under the table; throwing Leia’s impassioned admission of love back at her while facing imminent execution; charging headfirst towards a Star Destroyer. It seems fairly plain that when Kevin J. Anderson thinks about Han Solo, he also thinks of the fellow having to brush his teeth, or worrying about his retirement, or refuelling the Millennium Falcon and then realising he left his credit card in another pair of trousers.

Anderson crams his book with page upon page of description and exposition. He tells readers what his characters are thinking, rather than show them. There are plenty of opportunities for this sort of thing here, with extended training scenes in which Luke and Leia think furiously about everything they’re doing; Han Solo spends a lot of time in a prison cell, thinking about things, and remembering other things; even C-3PO does his share of wordless pondering. In many ways, this book was a badly-needed recentering of the Star Wars world. A summary of what had been and what would be, and Anderson had the vision to pull it off. But this book is terminally weakened by his distraction, and his apparently earnest desire to set the History of Star Wars in stone.

Besides that, Anderson’s writing is fluent but not pretty. He uses the word “hodgepodge” seriously; there is a chapter in which one of the most frequently-used words is “blob”; he tries his level best to write meaningful dialogue between two-year-olds; he has a limited selection of verbs, all of which find their way into each and every fighting sequence. This is a case of an excellent editor and a peerless visionary writing a book that could have been successful either as a short story, or as an encyclopaedia, but not as a novel.

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Slave Ship, by K. W. Jeter

March 11, 2012 at 00:09 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , )

6/10

This book can best be described as more so than its predacessor. The rambling and incoherant monologues are lengthier and more abstruse; the economically- and politically-driven plot is twistier and even more needlessly complex; the flashbacks are infinitely longer; the action sequences are more elaborate; the aliens more original; the characters, set-pieces and adventures faster-paced; Dengar and Manaroo are considerably more annoying.

He’s dead, thought Bossk with immense satisfaction. At last. Whatever atoms had constituted the late Boba Fett, they were also drifting disconnected and harmless in space.”

-Slave Ship

If The Mandalorian Armor (sic) was a flawed work, then in this sequel the flaws are certainly deeper. But the redeeming points are also more noticeable, and it seems that Jeter has finally found a unique story that he wants to tell. The fracture of the Guild and the Voss’on’t hunt would make a couple of smashing short stories, and they provide a welcome reprieve from the politicking and monologuing which unfortunately return in spades for this installment.

Is it worth reading? For those who struggle through the first in the series, then yes. It will be neither quick nor easy, nor (ultimately) a good experience. But there is some good storytelling in here, a few ounces of diamonds in the piles of shale. Unfortunately the chief weaknesses are some of the key characters: Dengar, Xixor, Kuat – all are desperately boring and frustratingly two-dimensional. When an entire chapter is spent in a single character’s mind, this is a rather damning verdict. But despite his abject failure with so many of the characters Jeter chose to centre his book around, he does succeed in one thing: providing a dynamic and exciting picture of Boba Fett in his glory days. Perhaps that makes everything okay.

Related review:
The Mandalorian Armor (sic)

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Millennium Falcon, by James Luceno

January 28, 2012 at 15:51 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , )

8/10

James Luceno provides a very unexpected surprise in this recent addition to the Star Wars library. Star Wars books tend to be erratically hit-and-miss at the best of times, and even sticking to tried and tested authors is no guarantee of finding a good book. A general rule is to avoid books based solely around a background figure or an inanimate object, and it is difficult to pick up Millennium Falcon with anything but a sense of foreboding.

Even more ominously, this book does not begin well. It commits the cardinal sin of switching narrative perspective no less than three times in the first eight pages, and then killing off most of the main characters that have been introduced by the end of the second chapter. Luceno’s method in tracing the history of the titular ship is to weave together a selection of short stories told by the various ne’er-do-wells who have had it slip through their greasy fingers over the years, and the weakness of the start makes this prospect look shaky at best.

“Like a school of fish discombobulated by the sudden appearance of a predator, ships were suddenly diverting from their courses, doing what they could to avoid accidents but in many cases slamming against nearby vessels and initiating chain reactions of collisions.”

-Millennium Falcon

That Luceno succeeds is exciting, and bodes well for the franchise in general. That he manages to tell a story with some real complexity and some intriguing symmetry is impressive, and that he manages to avoid the constantly looming pitfall of a palid story wrapped around a lonesome single idea is nothing short of astounding. With real skill he makes the story his own, and while the Falcon definitely figures heavily in the book, it is a book about interesting and full characters, not a book about milking the last few coins out of an increasingly irrelevant franchise.

Part of the success of this book is the air of mystery that Luceno maintains ably throughout: never giving too much away, but never dropping the ball. He is also aware of the need for subtlety, and never belabours his reader with his clues or his hints. He provides a charming and beautiful sketch of Han and Leia’s young granddaughter, proving maybe for the first time that it is not impossible for Star Wars authors to convincingly write about children. His largest technical problem seems to be his similes (several of which are hilariously stilted and awkward), but these cannot possibly detract from the relief and excitement in finding one of the best written Star Wars novels in years.

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The Crystal Star, by Vonda N. McIntyre

December 31, 2011 at 13:54 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

2/10

Famous for holding the title of “Worst Star Wars book ever”, it is tempting to argue that The Crystal Star unjustly steals this dubious honour from other books: books that have worse plots, shabbier writing, stupider characters, or a more selfish disregard for the Star Wars universe. Some of these monstrosities even manage multiple mortal sins in a single book.

At the very least, Vonda McIntyre can be partially exonerated of bad and sloppy writing. Her story might be fundamentally flawed and vapidly two-dimensional, but at the very least readers should not need to stumble through clichéd  sentences and grammatical atrocities, or dreadful monologues that stare listlessly from the page begging for a mercy-killing. McIntyre might be a bad architect, but she can at least lay bricks, as it were.

Star Wars author Abel G. Peña suggests hesitantly that it might not be “‘Star Warsy’ enough…there are not enough fantasy elements in the novel.” An absence of fantasy is clearly not the problem here. McIntyre writes like the cringingly-awful Angela Philips in Tales From the Empire, churning out some sort of juvenile fantasy mash-up with golden transdimensional gods, villains steering planets through the galaxy, the anachronistic “wyrwulf” with its “great limpid liquid blue eyes.” We should be grateful McIntyre did not describe any “willowy, lissom-limbed” aliens (she does fixate on that one word, though, describing the ‘limpid flank’ of a spaceship and the ‘limpid gold scales’ of said transdimensional god), but her very tone and creative descriptions are simply wrong for science fiction, and wrong for Star Wars in general.

“The enormous first dome of Crseih Station spread out like a carnival around him. Bands and jugglers, acrobats and merchants demonstrated their abilities or displayed their wares.”

-The Crystal Star

And where else can this book go? It is badly hurt by McIntyre’s decision to revisit that quagmire of so many other Star Wars authors: children. Writing realistically and interestingly about children is a veritable minefield in any literary field, and it is an awkward and fumbling attempt here. Much of the book is taken up with a poor facsimile of Oliver Twist’s workhouse (Hethrir’s schoolyard prison where he keeps the children). McIntyre’s villains (not including the bizarre spectacle of Waru) are unimaginative and pedantic nonentities and her heroes are infuriating and irrational idiots. In spite of the dramatic promises of the book’s blurb, there is no sense of crisis or universal peril looming in the story; merely a steady plod towards inevitable showdown and anticlimax. If McIntyre succeeds in one thing, she succeeds in bringing fans close to actually disliking the star cast of Han, Luke and Leia, and growing tired enough of their bickering and petty squabbling, and their bald-faced idiocy, to actually secretly cheer for the cardboard villains and the androgynous and inadvertantly comedic Waru.

A bad book all around, and while it might not quite deserve its reputation, it doesn’t really deserve rehabilitation, either.

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Choices of One, by Timothy Zahn

November 26, 2011 at 13:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

6/10

The Star Wars franchise really is an interesting place. At its simplest, it is a good old-fashioned battle between good and evil. Occasionally, it is an interesting hypothetical look at human nature, the clash and compatibility of opposing philosophies and political theories, and an analogue of certain events in real-life history. It is not too much of a stretch, for instance, to compare the Roman Empire or the British Empire with the Galactic Empire: and then to take true problems and struggles of both of these historical entities, and apply them to this fictional creation. The Star Wars books that succeed above the rather muddled melee of third-rate science fiction and embarrassing fantasy are those that come up with heroes and villains with flaws and strengths, with complexities and conflicting beliefs. Timothy Zahn’s books typically top the list for the Star Wars extended universe, and it will become readily apparent to any reader that follows him that he is a man who can tell an interesting story.

Nevertheless, this is Star Wars, and Zahn is not writing his own ticket here. Star Wars means a battle between good and evil where good wins. It means a Rebel Alliance and it means Han and Chewie and Leia and Luke and the rest of the gang. It is disappointing, then, that Choices of One is a fairly decent and engaging story that has been mauled and twisted in order to fit in the “A-List” stars, but without any real need for them. This story is mostly about Mara Jade; a great deal of it is about LaRone and his friends; Thrawn and Esva are key (but underdeveloped) participants; and a totally unnecessary amount of space and effort is devoted to an entirely meaningless Rebel Alliance subplot.

“‘You, Captain Thrawn, will make that decision,’ Nuso Esva said quietly. ‘You will decide which of your Empire’s precious war machines you will order destroyed. You will decide which of your Emperor’s warriors will die.'”

-Choices of One

Now, this is not unusual. Many books in the Star Wars universe pack Lando off on some bizarre adventure, or have a baffling quest by a group of droids or children to distract from the main story. Honestly, the ensemble cast has grown so large that writers are forced to pack in a half dozen adventures and match up the most unlikely of characters, simply to shoehorn them all in there. But this might be one of the first stories in which the “Rebel Alliance” plot thread (including all of the above movie characters) might be easily removed from the book entirely without changing the story at all.

This plot difficulty (it might be ventured…laziness?) is a serious flaw. Thankfully, the rest of the book is interesting and engaging, though it falls massively short of the sort of thing we have grown to expect from Zahn. He is as melodramatic as usual, ending each chapter (occasionally it feels like each paragraph) with a starkly-worded cliffhanger implying certain death or destruction that never really happens. He devotes himself as always to quoting liberally from the Star Wars movies in his characters’ dialogues and interior monologues; perhaps because he feels his fans get excited over such references, or because he believes it ties his characterisation more closely to the movies themselves.

And that is it. A decent effort, though nothing at all special. Zahn works very hard to create dramatic tension, but the only drama in this book comes from wondering exactly how–not if–the heroes will succeed in their tribulations. It is good to see Timothy Zahn writing again, but he is resting on laurels of past successes.

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Heirs of the Force, by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

October 22, 2011 at 13:13 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Science Fiction, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , , )

1/10

It was a bad idea to spin off the Star Wars adventures onto the shoulders of Han and Leia’s offspring. It was also evidently a bad idea to give this task to Kevin J. Anderson and his wife: together they slavishly follow the formula of the original movies (a dynamic and witty brother and sister with a lumbering Wookie friend and a slightly shady and occasionally violent companion) without any of the charm or excitement that even the worst forays into the Star Wars universe have managed.

“Determind to start a real conversation with the new trainee, Jacen cast about in his mind for a good question. So, Lowie, how much stuff do you need to move in? Naw, that was a stupid question.”-Heirs of the Force

The plot of this book is pathetically weak, revolving around the discovery of an Imperial pilot castaway around the corner from the Jedi School (with suspicious similarities and outcomes to the children’s classic The Machine Gunners, by Robert Westall). But apart from this unlikely array of coincidences, Heirs of the Force devolves incredibly quickly into a snail-paced journal of how Jacen, Jaina, their pet Wookie and horrifyingly awful droid, manage their lives and friendships. It is no secret that the Young Jedi Knights series is a cheap and tawdry school story; and this goes no further than the first meeting in the dormitory, where friendships are made and we learn a little more about these characters.

This might be tedious but acceptable if there were actually anything to learn about the characters. Instead, on almost every one of those two hundred pages we are barraged with reminders that Jaina’s “thing” is her mechanical abilities, or that Tenal Ka’s “thing” is that she’s angry and sort-of gothy. Nobody progresses any further, although this book does handily incapsulate everything that is wrong with Star Wars books, besides helpfully warning any prospective readers well away from the equally appalling Young Jedi Knights series.

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The New Rebellion, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

May 28, 2011 at 16:56 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

5/10

Most of the authors in the Star Wars expanded universe tend to play by the rules. They have at least a rudimentary grounding in the sort of things (such as technologies), people (the various aliens) and myths (the Force and the universe’s basic philosophies) that ought to be included, and thankfully shy away from other science fiction and fantasy plots: such as magic, mad gods and dragons. On the one hand, this keeps the universe free from the sort of claptrap that invades so much modern science fiction–and also relatively clean, as well. It admittedly leads to a rather inbred and repetitive universe, and a predictable set of characters.

Rusch departs quite radically from this formula; thankfully not in the direction taken by Roger Macbride Allen, who seems to be utterly unfamiliar not only with the Star Wars universe, but science fiction in general. Instead, she introduces some strikingly realistic themes that the naïf New Republic has not yet had to deal with: terrorism, separatism, genocide and political infighting. This leads to some dry patches, and her politics seem at several places that they have been sketched out for five-year-old readers, but she deserves some recognition for the attempt. She opens up some excellent rhetorical and ethical questions, and seems close at times to writing one of the most adult Star Wars novel yet seen.

“‘Did you know,’ he said to Eve in a husky, satisfied voice, ‘that you have your claws wrapped around my pleasure centers?'”-The New Rebellion

Unfortunately, her decision to narrate so much of the action through the hilarious antics of the droids (and a phenomenally unlikeable teenaged mechanic), not to mention a risible side plot where Luke Skywalker takes time off from his adventure to teach a furry dinosaur how to love, do a great deal of harm to the serious and insightful thematic elements of the book. Solo and Lando are thrown in for an utterly banal side plot that might have proved interesting had it not felt like a cynical attempt to shoehorn them into an adventure they had no place in; and while this book makes a brave attempt to fling its readers into a few dazzling space battles, it is clear that in these areas Rusch is out of her depth.

One of the more interesting Star Wars books as a risky experiment goes, and with some truly terrific moments; but unbalanced and schizophrenic in its wild veerings from political thriller to cartoon hour.

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Rogue Squadron, by Michael A. Stackpole

May 21, 2011 at 16:52 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , )

9/10

Almost certainly the strongest of the X-Wing series of books, and probably because as the introductory novel, it did not rely on either an implausibly complex quest (as the Wraith Squadron sequels typically did), nor did the author have time to grow tired and wrench his pilots from their cockpits to explore different and foreign landscapes. This latter option was successfully carried out with the Rogues’ journeys to Coruscant and Thyferra, and even to some degree in Isard’s Revenge and Starfighters of Adumar; but quite simply, this novel is a success because its formula has not yet had a chance to foment or grow stale.

Quite apart from pasting generic character templates over Wedge and a few extras from the films themselves, Stackpole comes up with an impressively large and detailed ensemble cast, creating for the roles some of the most enduring and deep characters the expanded universe has yet seen, as well as poaching delicately and deliberately from the creations of other authors. The story itself suffers a little from having only weak and cartoonish antagonists, but remains gripping throughout due to Stackpole’s development of some enduring themes and characters, some of which were later either rushed or prematurely ended in his (and other) later books. Nevertheless, this is certainly the best of the X-Wing series, and can hold its head up high as a contender for one of the best Star Wars books yet published.

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Jedi Knight, by William C. Dietz

May 14, 2011 at 20:06 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , , )

2/10

The last part of a series that was so rich in source material and so weak in its development and realisation, Jedi Knight is neither the least disappointing piece of the disaster, nor is it a significant departure from the generally turgid trilogy. In the final installment, Dietz appears to be somewhat overwhelmed by the enormous task of tracing Katarn’s confrontations with no fewer than seven antagonists, and tends to flit from one to the other with very little attempt to trace Katarn’s mission, or indeed any attempt to provide more than cursory glimpses at the motley collection of Sith.

Obviously, this provides plenty of problems for any serious reader–more depth might be expected trawling through a Wikipedia entry on these characters–and yet when Dietz attempts to sketch deeper portraits of his characters, the result in this book is perhaps even more disastrous than his earlier attempts: crude, childish caricatures painful to read, and best skipped entirely. Sadly, this installment is better than its predacessors not because of its contents, but because of its lack thereof.

Related reviews:
Soldier for the Empire
Rebel Agent

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