Darth Vader: Vader

June 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

vaderDarth Vader: Vader by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot of good things about this title, enough so that I bought the first two volumes when I found them on sale for Kindle. I wasn’t expecting them to be Watchmen-level good, but I figured they might be entertaining. What I didn’t take into account is the main character being Darth Vader, stone-cold killer and all-around totally unlikable dude. Considering this arc takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, I should have realized there wasn’t going to be much sympathy for the character here.

The first volume follows Vader shortly after the destruction of the Death Star, when he has to face Sidious and own up to his failings. He’s sent on a task to meet with Jabba the Hutt, and while there, he arranges for two bounty hunters to do some work for him: one to find out who it was who destroyed the Death Star; and the other to find the identity of the person who may serve as Vader’s replacement (and since the Star Wars universe is lousy with recurring characters, of course one of the bounty hunters is Boba Fett).

There’s not a lot of tension to the story, since it’s hard for us to care about either Vader or Sidious. We see the beginnings of Vader’s feelings toward Sidious, as he feels betrayed when a potential replacement comes into the picture, but even that isn’t enough to make us sympathetic to him. Gillen brings in a secondary character through a chatty archaeologist who pilots Vader around the galaxy, and I couldn’t understand why she hooked up with him. Vader has no love for history as it happened, so why would an archaeologist choose to help him? It might have been different if she had been forced, but she seems cool with helping him, just because he’s on the winning side. Plus, when she’s introduced, she appears to be a carbon copy of Indiana Jones, right down to her dialogue.

It might have been a better read if the artwork had supported the story, but for all the action the story has, the artwork feels static. It’s clear, and shows what happens, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any motion from panel to panel. Instead, it feels like we’re reading dialogue over snapshots of action. I’m not sure what it is about the art that makes it feel this way, but it’s the first comic I’ve read that does.

I’ll go ahead and finish volume two of the series (I already bought it, and it only took an hour to read this one), but I don’t expect much from it, and I don’t expect it will inspire me to read the other two volumes. I’m not sure what it is I’m missing, but it’s far from the story the reviews led me to believe it would be.

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Aftermath: Empire’s End

June 15, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

endAftermath: Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

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Before starting this book, I intended to refresh myself on what came before by reading the plot summaries on the Wookieepedia. This was a mistake. I barely had the patience to get through the summary of Part One of Aftermath, because the entire summary is 4,819 words. Take that and add it to the length of the summary for Life Debt (3,954 words), and you have enough words for a novelette. It’s pretty clear: lots of stuff happens in this series.

For all that happens, though, reading the series is a tremendous chore. There’s so much happening, and there are so many characters, it’s hard to keep up with the plot. The interludes don’t help, since Wendig feels the need to cram as many characters into this story as he can. He even brings Jar Jar back into the story, and I hear that the new canon is trying to distance itself as much as possible from the prequel trilogies.

The book ends the trilogy that’s intended to bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, but it only takes us a little of the way toward the latter story. It sets things in motion, but the real focus of the trilogy is to show how the Empire doesn’t just fade away when the credits roll at the end of Jedi, and how much it takes to actually eliminate the threat. Along the way, Wendig introduces us to new characters with their own trials, and those trials come to a close in the book.

The biggest event of the book is that we finally get to Jakku to see the battle between the Empire and the New Republic. We get to see why there is so much debris on the planet, and what made it important to the Empire overall. I have to give credit to Wendig for writing some engaging action scenes involving this battle. I went into this book expecting to be disappointed, and I think it helped me appreciate the story a bit more. I’m not going to seek out Wendig’s other books, mind you, but I at least was able to recognize that he could get a few things right.

Character names, however, are not one of those things. I’m used to character names in the Expanded Universe sounding like they were made by shaking a box of Alpha-Bits, but Tolwar Wartol? Come on. This smacks of just giving up on creating a new name. Near the end of the story, Wendig tries to make a joke out of it, but it’s a little too late, and if he’s trying to be sly, instead it comes across as being obnoxious.

Wendig doesn’t give us the whole picture of his story, even when it doesn’t affect the narrative for him to do so. There’s an important scene near the middle of the book where it feels like the entire plot has fallen apart, but then fifty pages later, it’s revealed that it wasn’t the end of that particular point, and it’s told to us in an “Oh, didn’t you already know that?” sort of tone. It’s like we’re learning to play a game from Wendig, but he only tells us the rules we’re supposed to know when we come across a situation where they benefit him the most.

I powered through this book only because I committed to reading everything in the EU. After the painful experience of reading Aftermath, and then following it up with the even worse Life Debt, I would have passed on this book all together save for that commitment. I do think this is the best book in the trilogy, but this is sort of like saying The Phantom Menace is the best of the prequel trilogy movies; it may be true, but that’s not to say it’s going to win any major awards.

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HiLo: The Great Big Boom

June 8, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boomHiLo: The Great Big Boom by Judd Winick

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I’m a Judd Winick fanboy. I’ve been one since discovering Frumpy the Clown, which pointed me to Barry Ween and Pedro and Me, and then on to HiLo. It’s hard to be objective, though it doesn’t stop me from being critical when I feel it’s appropriate. The Great Big Boom is the continuation of the story of HiLo (and D.J. and Gina).

At the end of Saving the Whole Wide World, Gina got sucked into a portal, her destination unknown to either D.J. or HiLo. It was a tragic ending, and it reminded me a bit of Sara’s story in Barry Ween. I was hoping that Winick would take the story in a different direction, and while he does (I figure Sara’s end would be a bit too dark for the HiLo story), he still borrows from it. I guess I understand that — Barry Ween is an esoteric title, so few people reading the series would know it — but I wish he had gone with a new story. Saying that, though, I should point out that this isn’t just a re-tread of Barry Ween; it’s its own story, just with a few familiar details.

And what a story it is! HiLo learns more about his past here, and we get to see more of the playful banter between him, D.J., and Gina. We also meet a slew of new characters, since the portal they have to enter to save Gina takes them to a completely new world. I felt like the story strayed from its roots by going to the new world, but that’s not to say the story lacks its trademark charm. It’s impossible not to like the main characters, not just because of the way Winick writes them, but also in the way he draws them. He captures the comic and the serious with equal efficiency, and uses them to their strongest effect.

HiLo is an excellent series for kids, but I would recommend it for adults, too. If your tastes run like I do, where you can appreciate something as heavy as Geek Love and something as light as The Mud Flat Olympics, you’ll love the series. Plus, its main characters are people of color, which is still rare enough to treasure in this genre. Do yourself a favor and read these, if you haven’t already. Heck, if you have, go back and re-read them; they’re good enough to read multiple times!

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Boba Fett: Pursuit

May 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

pursuitBoba Fett: Pursuit by Elizabeth Hand

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Major spoilers ahead. Be forewarned.

What a wreck of a novel. It picks up from the events in A New Threat and keeps going, but there doesn’t seem to be any coherence as to where the story is going. We get a little bit of Boba, a bit of Anakin, a touch of Dooku and Palpatine, and some Coruscant, tied in with the two main threads that have been woven into the series — Boba’s vendetta against Mace Windu and his knowledge of Tyranus and Dooku being the same person — are just written off without complication. Plus, the main plot of the last two books, that of capturing Wat Tambor, is also dismissed. It’s anticlimactic, and problematic in other ways.

Boba talks to himself a lot, which seems like a horrible trait for a bounty hunter to have. I get why it’s there, narratively (so the reader can know what he’s thinking), but why not have him think those things instead of speaking them aloud? I mean, sure, I mutter to myself when I’m debugging my code, but to me there’s a huge difference between that and carrying on a monologue with oneself while, say, piloting a ship during a space battle.

I mentioned in the previous books how Boba making friends seemed at odds to his character, but if Hand brings them in, she should stick with it. Pursuit concludes the entire series, and we only get a mention of Gab’borah and Ygabba, with Boba riding off into deep space without a thought of returning to Jabba’s palace to speak to them. This was after the two of them repaired Jango’s body armor to give to Boba as a gift! I guess this makes him the selfish, calculating bounty hunter that he’s supposed to become later?

For five books, Boba has talked about killing Mace Windu, and the showdown finally happens here. Disregarding the fact that Boba couldn’t possibly, under any circumstances, take down Mace Windu, and that Mace wouldn’t tolerate some young upstart trying to kill him in Palpatine’s chambers, the whole thing comes to a close thanks to Palpatine’s intervention. Nobody dies (which we already know), but Boba leaves the chambers seemingly fine with not taking his revenge. So the one big motivating factor of the entire series is dismissed without thought.

For that matter, when Boba finally tells Palpatine that Tyranus and Dooku are the same person, Palpatine just says “I know”, and then reveals that he’s working against the Republic. Boba’s cool with it, Palpatine’s cool with it (after saying “I trust you to keep this to yourself”), and the universe goes on. What the crap is that about? Why didn’t Palpatine straight up execute Boba once he knew he knew his secret? Did I miss something there?

Finally: Elan Sleazebaggano? For real?

The entire Boba Fett series was mediocre, at best, but Pursuit brings it to a terrible close. If you’ve come this far with the series, you may as well finish it out, but I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. I’m hoping some books in the adult Expanded Universe will do a better job of filling in Boba’s back story.

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Boba Fett: A New Threat

May 23, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

threatBoba Fett: A New Threat by Elizabeth Hand

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Well. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by Jude Watson’s take on the Expanded Universe, because the Boba Fett series has been pretty underwhelming. In A New Threat, she takes us to Xagobah (not her creation, but really?), where the native xamsters (again: Really?) are caught between a battle between the Republic and the Separatists. Boba is there to either capture or kill Angkor Wat Wat Tambor for Jabba, and Boba considers this his last apprenticeship assignment. Once this is complete, he’ll be a professional, so the stakes are high (for Boba, at least).

Boba continues to make friends, this time finding one through Xaran, a xamster (seriously, was Hand cringing as she wrote this stuff?). Before he leaves, we see his friends in Jabba’s palace, and the whole thing just seems sentimental and out of place, for Boba the Bounty Hunter. Even at his age (fourteen or so), he’s pushing hard to be considered cold and calculating, and the idea that he’s making friends all over the place seems at odds with that characterization.

Hand makes a big deal about how Boba knows that Darth Tyranus and Count Dooku are the same person, and he carries that knowledge around with him like it’s his trust fund. We’re reminded of this fact several times, but so far this is an unfired gun in the story, because as much as we see it, nothing is done with it. I get the feeling this is going to be relevant in the next book, but I’m not sure how much room there will be to cover it, since A New Threat is only half of the story of Xagobah and Wat Tambor. We finish this book with nothing resolved, with almost nothing having happened in the story anyway.

I may have been too excited about reading this series, but man, has it been disappointing. Luckily, there’s only one book left in the series, because if there were any more, I’d be dreading having to keep reading it. I’m in this for the long haul (170 books to go!), for better or worse, but I’m sure hoping for better than this book.

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Boba Fett: Maze of Deception

May 17, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mazeBoba Fett: Maze of Deception by Elizabeth Hand

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With the help of Aurra Sing, Boba is on the way to retrieve the money Jango left to him. He doesn’t know where he’s going, and he doesn’t trust Sing well enough to believe that she’ll treat him well once they arrive, but what choice does he have? He’s eleven years old, and well on his way to being the bounty hunter he’ll become, but he still doesn’t have the clout that an adult has, as he learns once they land.

I said at the end of my review of Crossfire that I was looking forward to reading something by Hand, but it turns out that I already have: The Frenchman. It was a tie-in to the Fox show Millennium (man, remember that? With Lance Henriksen?), and, true to form, I can’t remember a thing about it. I guess it’s a good thing I’m writing this blog, so twenty years from now I’ll be able to look back on these reviews and remember something about all these books.

Anyway, Hand seems to be more adept at writing for a younger crowd than Bisson is. Yes, the narrative is simplified, but it’s not simple. The story is compelling, as Boba goes from trial to trial in his search for his inheritance, and Hand creates an intriguing setting for this adventure. She also writes convincingly toward the lessons he learns from the book that Jango left him, in regards to whom to trust and how to act.

Bisson’s strength was in his characterization, and while I didn’t see the kinds of relationships he created in Hand’s take on the story, neither were there any relationships in this book like Bisson created in his. Hand still writes convincing characters, but there wasn’t room for her to show how Boba related to someone he could trust. This could be intentional, since Boba is learning that he can trust no one, but he’s still a child, and still naive enough to have to learn that lesson.

Where Bisson’s stories felt firmly written for a younger crowd, Maze of Deception feels better suited for adult readers as well as juvenile readers. They still don’t quite reach the level of what Jude Watson did with her books, but on the bright side, Hand’s book doesn’t follow the formula that Watson’s books started to take. It’s nice to see a new writer in the Expanded Universe, and I look forward to seeing how Hand continues the series.

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Boba Fett: Crossfire

May 16, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

crossfireBoba Fett: Crossfire by Terry Bisson

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Crossfire is a step up from The Fight to Survive, namely because it’s a (mostly) complete story in itself. I may have gotten too used to Jude Watson with the thirty books of hers I read in her two series, but I’ve come to expect the stories to be self-contained, even if they’re part of an overarching story. Crossfire likely won’t make a whole lot of sense without The Fight to Survive, and I expect that the next book will rely heavily on what happens in Crossfire. (Though, I suppose that could be true of the Jedi Apprentice series. By the time you get to book seventeen, Watson’s relying on characters and events from earlier in that series, too.)

In Crossfire, Boba has made it to the toxic moon of Raxus Prime, where Dooku has his base of operations. There, the two of them try to make an uneasy agreement over Boba’s inheritance, but things go wrong quickly when the clone troops invade. From there, Boba is “rescued”, and he continues to learn how to become self-sufficient through the events in the book.

Bisson’s characterization is still the strong point of this novel, as it was in the previous one. Boba is considered an orphan by his rescuers, and he makes a friend while in transport. The thing is, Jango told Boba several times that bounty hunters don’t make friends, so Boba’s new friend is at odds with the training he receives from the book Jango left him. Ultimately, Boba has to make a choice, and while it wasn’t as emotional as I would have expected it to be, it does find the tricky balance between making Boba a sympathetic character and making him compatible with the character he will become.

Like the previous book, Bisson simplifies things a bit more than I would have liked. The emotions in the story are written with broad strokes, and he overuses exclamation marks to indicate other emotions. I forgot to mention that he uses interrobangs in the first book, but at least I didn’t see any of those in this book. Either way, the books are a good example of an author writing specifically for a younger audience, instead of writing normally and adjusting the content for younger readers.

Interestingly, Bisson touches on the issue of sex and gender, though it’s only in passing. One of the characters in the story is neither a boy nor a girl, since in their race, their bodies don’t define themselves until puberty. The character makes a remark about how gender is more than just parts, and I was surprised to find that in the book. I like that it was there, and I agree with it, but I’ve not seen such a progressive thought in the Expanded Universe. Regardless, I was pleased to see that message in a story written for a younger audience, and not made to be a big deal. It just is, and I think it’s great.

While Crossfire improves on the first book in the series, this is the last book Bisson contributes to it. Elizabeth Hand takes over for the rest of the series, so it’s hard to anticipate what will come next with a new author. I’ll be reading it either way, which is good, since I’ve been wanting to read something by Hand for a long time.

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Home

April 26, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

homeHome by Nnedi Okorafor

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Binti was my favorite of the first Tor novellas I read a couple of years ago, so when I saw that Okorafor had written a sequel, I knew I was going to be first in line to read it. It took me a few days to get around to it, thanks to some other books I was trying to finish first (I’m one of those save-your-favorite-food-for-the-last-bite-of-dinner eaters), but I’m pleased to see that the author wrote a story as profound as Binti.

We return to the life of Binti, lone survivor of an attack in space that killed everyone else on the ship, and now friend to one of the race of aliens that killed the other travelers, named Okwu. After a year at Oomza University, she feels the need to return home to see her family, and takes Okwu with her. That one year has changed Binti in several ways, all of which become apparent once she faces her family.

Okorafor takes on some heady themes with this novella, all of them having to do with home. Binti returns to her home, but so much has changed that she’s uncertain where home really is. Is it her family? The University? With Okwu? Elsewhere? The story is imbued with uncertainty, as Binti is pulled apart by her conflicting desires and responsibilities.

The author continues to draw on African culture to tell her story, which is refreshing to see in science fiction. Okorafor’s world is engaging, full of new technology and ideas that belong in the future, but are also rooted in the past. Binti, aside from being a student, is also a master harmonizer, one who can establish peace between alien races, which is a tradition that goes back through generations in her culture. Her new technology, education, and transformation helps her in this role, even as her experiences make her prone to panic attacks and anger, causing her further conflict. It’s easy to get caught up in Okorafor’s world and character, even if the story ends rather suddenly.

That’s my main gripe with Home, that it’s clearly just the second act in a three-act story. It ends on a cliffhanger, with very little resolved, which I’m seeing more and more in multi-volume stories. I miss when series could be comprised of self-contained stories, instead of drawing out one story over multiple parts. I say, that, though, knowing full well that I loved every book of A Song of Ice and Fire, which last ended on a cliffhanger that still hasn’t been resolved.

Okorafor is a talented writer who brings a fresh perspective to science fiction. Home is as good as, if not better than, Binti, and even if I wasn’t wild with how it ended, I’m in for the rest of the story. Whenever Binti III is released, I’m sure I’ll once again be first in line to read it and see how Okorafor concludes this mini-saga.

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The God Engines

April 25, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

enginesThe God Engines by John Scalzi

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So, The God Engines is as far away from the humorous vignettes of Miniatures as you can get. “Well, duh” I hear some of you saying, but understand, I read this novella right after finishing Miniatures, and I was shocked at how different they are. I’m shocked at how different this is from pretty much anything Scalzi has written, which might be why I didn’t like it all that much.

In the distant future, spaceships are powered by gods, imprisoned in the bowels of the ships, chained and tortured to force them to do the bidding of the captains. The reason they’re forced to do this is because decades before, the gods battled, and the one who won imprisoned the rest. As a result, the captains and crew are people of faith, so when they’re confronted with a truth that goes counter to what they believe, that faith is shaken.

The premise is interesting enough, especially considering how Scalzi uses the story to talk about the power and limitations of faith, but it was so at odds with what I was expecting that I felt disappointed in it. I don’t see Scalzi’s fiction as light, but it’s never been as dark and nihilistic as this. It didn’t help that he created a class of women on the ship whose sole purpose was to pleasure the men, either. I know Scalzi is progressive, and he attempted to give the women more importance by making them revered among the crew and the faith, but it felt a little cliched and even derivative, especially Inara on Firefly.

The God Engines isn’t bad, but it’s not up to par with Scalzi’s other fiction. Folks familiar with Scalzi just through Old Man’s War might be surprised by it, but hardcore fans would likely get the most out of this story. I’d recommend it to fans of dark fiction in general, too, but the casual reader should probably skip it.

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Muse of Fire

April 17, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

museMuse of Fire by Dan Simmons

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I often don’t get Dan Simmons. He’s a smart guy, with varied interests, and while he writes stories that can affect me like few other stories can (Hyperion), he also writes stories that go so far over my head that not even radar can find them. Muse of Fire is one of those latter stories.

I didn’t get much out of this novella, but I don’t know much about Shakespeare, either, and the major theme of this story is Shakespeare. Simmons presents a far-flung future where humankind has been more or less annihilated by aliens, which are now considered to be their gods. In this future is a troupe of actors, going from backwater planet to backwater planet, preserving and presenting the plays of Shakespeare to the handfuls of humans, most of them indentured servants to the aliens, left in the galaxy. At one performance, some of the aliens come to watch the troupe perform, and afterward, they are asked to perform a play for the aliens themselves. That’s the point where the story truly begins.

This is ostensibly a science fiction story — there are spaceships and aliens and planets, though presented without the usual science fiction cliches — but it’s mostly a philosophical treatise and an examination of Shakespeare’s plays. Simmons has studied Shakespeare long and hard, and it shows in this novella. He goes beyond the surface of the plays, talking about their messages and their meanings, and how they still speak truth, even 400 years after being written. He gives the plays meaning above and beyond humanity, wrapping all of human existence into the stories and words and the performances of this single troupe that tours the universe strictly to spread the word of Shakespeare, as if they’re passing along a religion. It’s informative and impressive, and like most of Simmons’ works, it will stay with you long after finishing the book.

What this book isn’t, though, is a good story. It’s hard to engage in it, it’s difficult to understand, and if you don’t know enough about Shakespeare going in, you’re likely to be lost amid what Simmons has to say about the plays. It’s also populated with uninteresting characters, none of whom, save the narrator, are developed. The only other character that gets more than just a passing mention is the female love-interest, and even then, she’s not described beyond being attractive and a good actor.

Muse of Fire is full of interesting ideas, but the ideas don’t make for an interesting story. I’m perfectly willing to accept that I didn’t get much out of the story because I didn’t have the proper context to put into it, but regardless, it didn’t resonate with me like Hyperion or even Phases of Gravity. In some parts, it was just plain dull. It’s definitely original, and it definitely has something to say, but it just wasn’t something that had much to say to me.

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