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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Tales from the New Republic, by Peter Schweighofer and Craig Carey (ed.)

April 2, 2011 at 15:24 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Mediocre Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , )

5/10

Once again, it is hardly surprising that this book is little more than a vehicle for another Zahn-Stackpole combination short story (which is rather good, but does not really showcase the best work of either author). The surprise is that most of the other stories included in this collection are by relatively unknown authors–even first-time authors–and that there are no throwaway entries among them. Equally peculiar is the choice to give a handful of these authors more than one entry.

The New Republic part of this compendium is, as always, a little misleading. While all stories are at least nominally set in or around the New Republic (unlike the Tales from the Empire collection), none of them give any particular background to that particular institution, and frankly most of these stories might have been set anywhere or anywhen. It feels churlish to rate this anthology so low; despite its lack of discernible high points it is mostly well-written, with coherant and interesting characters. Nevertheless, it is not immediately compelling, and really only to be enjoyed by the dedicated fan.

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Specter (sic) of the Past, by Timothy Zahn

January 22, 2011 at 11:28 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , )

10/10

The release of this book cannot have been anything but good news for the Star Wars library: the long-overdue return of one of the only genuinely great storytellers in the Lucas fold, and the coup de grace to a half-dozen scattered and timid storylines that went nowhere, and expected to go nowhere. In his fêted duology, Zahn singlehandedly sideswipes the legs out from under the paltry teenage romances other writers had started with both Lando Calrissian and Luke Skywalker, firmly making up his own mind about them both. He dismisses almost everything written about a handful of petty villains (such as Isard and Daala) and gathers his readers expertly together: “Come,” you can hear him saying, “enough of this foolishness. Let me tell you what really happens in Star Wars.”

His choice to base the duology around his most successful villain was as ingenious only as his decision to leave Thrawn in the grave, and forego any resurrection attempts. Thankfully, Zahn is not so attached to his Spectre as all that, and instead of convoluted plot devices relying on unexplained and unnecessary “technology”, he comes up with a convincing and exciting plot, that spreads its focus pleasantly between his own excellent original characters, while still giving the celebrity favourites (the Skywalkers and Solos) something plausible with which to occupy themselves.

Pellaeon is the most mature character in this book, and in his musings and asides we catch a glimpse of Thrawn without the mystique and without the supercilious aloofness that limited the depth of that Admiral. It would have been so easy for Timothy Zahn to simply provide us with a facsimile of his successful creation; it would have been interesting for him to depart the formula entirely (and he does so ably, with Disra, Tierce, et al), but for him to take a detailed look at another, more human and believable version of Thrawn is a brave choice, and one that works brilliantly.

Zahn’s treatment of clones, as usual, verges on the brink of the same light horror that he explored in Dark Force Rising; sinister, but not outright evil. His throwaway quest for Luke, Lando and Karrde cannot distract from the most intelligent and realistic crisis that has ever surfaced in any Star Wars novel to date. Gone are the superweapons and the invasion fleets, the supernatural McGuffins and galaxy-threatening plagues. Instead, he offers a fresh plate of xenophobia, political unrest and agents provocateur. The fact that much of this book might easily be transposed by a Ludlum or a Le Carre and still make a great deal of sense speaks volumes for Zahn’s ability, but mostly for his integrity.

Related reviews:
Heir to the Empire

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Tales from the Empire, ed. Peter Schweighofer

November 27, 2010 at 17:58 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

9/10

This rather obscure book follows in the footsteps of the occasionally successful “Tales of…” series, exploring locales interesting enough to write about, but tepid enough that writing an entire novel might not be especially interesting – Mos Eisley Cantina, Jabba’s Palace, etc. As with all anthologies, it must have its hits and its misses, although surprisingly, Tales from the Empire scores considerably higher than might be expected of short stories trawled from the pages of dingy fan magazines.

To say the success of this book is due to the imagination and skill of Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole, and their longer-than-a-short-story about their own most-famous characters would be a safe suggestion to make, and there is little bad that could be said about either the centrepiece “Side Trip”, or indeed about the two writers’ individual offerings to the anthology. Their contributions are fast-paced excursions into the adventurous younger days of established, original and popular characters, getting into action-packed adventures and opening enough small windows on their heroes and anti-heroes to satisfy the appetites of any readers.

Truthfully, this book does contain the very worst of the genre, and the sort of self-indulgent fan-fiction that belongs on badly-spelled web pages, and never in print. Slaying Dragons, an immature effort depicting some sort of deranged fantasy intrusion, with willowy siblings thrusting lightsabres hither and yon, is one of the misplaced stories that has little or nothing to do with the Empire, and everything to do with cloying and cringeworthy adolescent writing. A Certain Point of View is the token philosophical tale of star-crossed lovers, cruelly separated by intransigence and – oh, the Empire, or something.

However, Tales from the Empire rises significantly above a cheap collection of poor stories, sold under the names of Zahn and Stackpole. Besides the best of the best and a handful of shockingly awful pieces, it includes several quite excellent short stories, most of which have in common some intriguing and satisfyingly complex original characters, stories that actually deliver on the book’s premise and lift the veil on the murky Empire, and some terrific storytelling. We have standard farm-boy-against-murderous-Empire scenarios; brave authors who venture entirely outside of the standard Empire-vs.-Rebellion galaxy, and explore the fringes of the Star Wars universe; even at least one story where the Imperial foes are humanised, and the very nature of the galactic conflict is brought into question. Almost without exception, these stories are constructive and compelling, and for the most part do not suffer from the usual self-importance and arrogant preaching found in much of the Star Wars literature today.

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Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn

October 30, 2010 at 13:47 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , , , )

10/10

It is unfortunate that the expanded Star Wars universe is so often passed off as a step above fanfiction, the result of cold pizza, mothers’ basements and too many video games. It is even more unfortunate that this depiction of the expanded universe is so often richly deserved. When Timothy Zahn launched the first Star Wars novel a few years after Return of the Jedi half-heartedly wrapped up the film franchise,  this was not the case. His books were forced to stand on their own, and the fact that they succeeded, and that his characters were more than a sugary shell in which to wrap the celebrity characters we knew from the movies, ultimately earned his trilogy the right to lift up its head, and proclaim itself something different. These aren’t “Star Wars books”. They are Star Wars literature.

Expertly told and actually containing booky things like “themes” and “characters” and “a plot”, Heir to the Empire set a high water mark that could have been surpassed, bettered and respected. It wasn’t. But that is not Timothy Zahn’s fault. It is perpetually amusing that he returned to the scene a decade later to bulldoze through a maze of unlikely villains, tepid heroes and milquetoast life-or-death-or-boredom struggles – and set the story straight, momentarily returning the Star Wars expanded universe to the straight and narrow.

Zahn does have his issues, as all science fiction writers do. The temptation to find hilariously futuristic words for everyday objects, and his not-so-subtle quotations of the Star Wars movies, or the love affair he has with his characters, each of whom is the paragon of whatever particular discipline Zahn has assigned to him (Thrawn, the infallible strategist; Karrde, the unerring gentleman pirate; Jade, the invincible sexy assassin; Drayson, second-to-none at being an inept commander). His failings, however, are few and far between, and pale before his ability to write reasonably well, his fertile imagination when it comes to creating characters and creatures, and his respect for his reader’s intelligence. This book is to be recommended even to those who aren’t diehard fans of the Star Wars saga, and to any affecionado of science fiction.

Related reviews:
Specter (sic) of the Past

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