Han Solo: Rebel Dawn

October 20, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

rebelHan Solo: Rebel Dawn by A.C. Crispin

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With Rebel Dawn, Crispin gives us a Han Solo with which we’re familiar. It makes sense (this is the closest we get to the events in Star Wars, so he ought to be by now), but in the previous books, we only see hints of him. Still, Crispin is showing us Han’s development, so seeing hints in the previous books is to be expected.

Rebel Dawn also takes us back to the plot that started this trilogy: Bria; and the drug trade on Ylesia. More to the point, we finally get closure on the relationship between Han and Bria that began in The Paradise Snare, while we see what becomes of that drug trade some ten years later. We get to see characters who have featured in the other two books, and we also get to connect this story with some of the events that are mentioned in Star Wars. Specifically, we see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, and we see the events that led to Han dumping the spice that put him on Jabba’s bad side.

The thing is, Crispin moves so quickly through those events that if you blink, you might miss them. These are seminal moments in the world of Star Wars, and I would have liked to have seen more time devoted to them. Instead, we get a lot of backstory for other characters, enough so that Han doesn’t feature for a good third of the story, save for a few interludes to keep us posted on what’s going on with him. Near the end of the book, we do get a definitive answer about the apparent misuse of the word “parsec” regarding the Kessel Run, which is nice. If anyone tries to raise that argument with you again, just point them to this book for clarification.

I noticed in this book that Crispin tells a lot, which hurts her characterization. The characters were still drawn well, but some scenes felt emotionless, when they should have been key moments where the reader should have felt something for the characters. Instead, we get a sense of their feelings, even when we should be feeling grief or anger over what’s happening.

The trilogy is strong, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been so much more. Crispin spins a good tale, and I powered through the last half of this book in one day, but it lacked the OOMPH that would have made this a great series. Still, it ranks among the better books in the Expanded Universe, and I’d recommend it for folks wanting to delve outside the movies to see what else the EU has to offer.

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Forever Peace

October 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

peaceForever Peace by Joe Haldeman

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Much has been made of this book not being a sequel to The Forever War. Despite its similar title, and despite it appearing in omnibus editions with that book and Forever Free, it exists in its own universe, and covers themes not touched on in The Forever War. The only connection I could find was a town called Mandellaville, but that’s more an Easter egg than an actual connection.

The story is about Julian Class, a soldier in the US army fighting a war in South America. This is a future war, where the soldiers are locked in to battle suits, which in turn control battle suits out on the field. The good news for such a setup is that when a suit in battle is damaged or destroyed, its pilot survives (usually); the bad news is that it creates dependencies and other psychological effects on the soldiers.

The first half of the book is largely a rehash of the themes and details from The Forever War, showing life as a soldier in a future army. With the second half, the true story begins, forcing me to readjust what I was getting from the story. What precedes this shift is necessary, but it makes the novel feel like two stories: a war story; and a futuristic thriller.

Haldeman shifts between first and third person sections in this book (there are no chapters, only section breaks), which struck me as off. Some of those sections allow for a viewpoint other than Julian’s, but most of them could be told from his point of view without much change, and I wonder why the author chose to write the story this way. Even for the sections written outside of his viewpoint could have been included in the first person, since the story references the future in vague ways, suggesting the story is written as a reminiscence of Julian’s. It makes the story feel like Haldeman sat down with an idea and started writing just to see where it would go.

The story is thoughtful, and the second half shows that the author can write plot-centric stories as well as military stories, but it feels schizophrenic. I enjoyed it enough to give it three stars, and I would recommend it, but with some hesitation. It’s good, but not OHMYGOSH good.

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Death Star

October 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Death Star by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

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starI’ll give you two guesses at this book’s subject, and that’s only if you even need the second one. On the one hand, the book has a dull title that evokes nothing other than its subject; on the other hand, at least it’s not as ridiculous as The Starcave of ThonBoka. Even the one-word titles — Kenobi, Tarkin, and Thrawn — suggest more than this book’s title does.

The book is better than its title suggests. Reaves and Perry create a wide, diverse cast of characters, all of whom are involved with the construction of the Death Star. We begin a good way into its construction, and since the book was written after the end of Revenge of the Sith, the story follows from what was established in the prequels, while also tapping into the events from Star Wars. The authors do a good job of placing the story firmly in between, bridging the gap between the two stories.

Because the story butts up against Star Wars, we have a few characters who are already familiar to us — Darth Vader and Wilhuff Tarkin being the biggest. It’s impossible to escape having them be a part of the story, and the authors do a good job of characterizing them appropriately (Tarkin comes across as even more ruthless), but there seemed to be a strong vein of fan service, too.

I was all set to give the book four stars, because the book succeeds in telling a decent story while giving us additional background into the Expanded Universe, but then the authors had to go and make the ending melodramatic and pat at the same time. There were also moments in the story where you could have put money on who wasn’t going to make it out alive. I’ve started to notice that when an author creates a character who has so much to lose, there’s a good chance they’re goners.

Death Star is a good read. If the authors had handled the ending differently, I would recommend it as one of the stronger EU novels, but as it is, it merely rises to the top of the mediocre books.

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The Forever War

October 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

foreverThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman

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This is my first time reading The Forever War, which surprises me. A few years back, I embarked on a classic science fiction reading project (Dune, Foundation, some Alfred Bester, etc.), and Haldeman didn’t come up at all, despite this being considered a classic of military science fiction. It wasn’t until I read John Scalzi’s Old Man War that I knew about Haldeman’s book.

Interestingly, Scalzi wrote the introduction to the edition I read and revealed that when he wrote Old Man’s War, he hadn’t read The Forever War, which surprises me. OMW feels so much like Scalzi’s take on the book that it seemed impossible that he wasn’t drawing inspiration from it. OMW hits some of the same beats and notes, sometimes at the same tempo, that without that introduction, I would never have believed it.

Much has been written about The Forever War, but it’s a science fiction novel about war in outer space against an unknown enemy. Haldeman writes about the effects time dilation at faster-than-light travel has on people, partly to illustrate how alien home life can be for real soldiers returning from their own tours. It’s no secret that The Forever War was Haldeman’s way of writing about his own experience in the Vietnam War, but even if much hadn’t been made of it already, readers would pick up on it easily.

The story is a little complicated, due to how it portrays some military habits, and how it portrays the main character, William Mandella. It was published in 1974, so it’s important to view some of the story as a product of its time, but it’s hard to tell if Haldeman is using satire to prove a point, or if he’s reflecting his own feelings on certain subjects. In one notable scene he casually mentions that the female soldiers in the war are required to be available for sex, and it’s hard to tell if it’s commentary or wish fulfillment. It comes across as sexist, but is it intended to? What’s the commentary, if there’s supposed to be any?

It’s also hard to tell what Haldeman is saying about homosexuality in the story. Mandella comes across as homophobic, though the story isn’t overtly so. It doesn’t speak out against it, but neither does it support it. The story presents it as a choice (in an overpopulated future, homosexuality is recommended as a form of birth control), and it also shows Mandella having a hard time accepting it of his own mother. Her story is also complicated, since at the time in the story when she takes a female companion, it’s not required to be homosexual. The government encourages it, but doesn’t offer any kind of incentive for choosing to be so. She’s presented as old enough not to worry about birth control, so why make that choice? It suggests that she was a closeted lesbian when Will was younger, and the changes in attitude allowed her to come out, but it’s not stated explicitly, when several other points Haldeman is making are clearer.

Mandella’s travel from one star system to another allows him to see these changes from day to day when in fact decades are passing outside of his time in battle. When Haldeman has him encounter gay troops for the first time, he presents them stereotypically effeminate, which is unfortunate. Later, the troops are presented without stereotypes, but his first thought when he takes command of his own all-gay platoon, his first thought is “They looked normal enough.” I think Haldeman is taking an inclusive approach to presenting homosexuality, but it feels more complicated because of how he portrays them through Mandella’s eyes.

Yes, a lot of the themes are satirical, and the views on sexuality should be viewed through that lens, as well as through that of the time they were written, but there’s a perspective of the author’s that bleeds through and feels wrong. It’s not just the symbolism of “the country changed so much while I was at war, and now I can’t cope”; it’s how Haldeman portrays it all that makes it feel like he doesn’t understand it at all.

I tracked down a copy of “A Separate War”, a novella Haldeman wrote in the 1990s to tell the story of Marygay, William’s lover and fellow soldier, who is separated from him when they’re given command of their own platoons. I can see readers wanting to know what happened driving the demand for the story, but I didn’t see that the novella added anything to the story to be necessary. The first several pages recap a lot of what we knew from The Forever War, and the battle that Marygay sees isn’t much different from what William sees. The only difference is that when Marygay is presented with an all-gay platoon, she dives into it herself, where William adamantly resists it. Near the end of The Forever War, one of the gay men in Mandella’s platoon decides to “go hetero” in the far future, since it’s apparently something that can be turned on and off. Again, I’m not sure if Haldeman is attempting to make a statement about sexuality here, but it’s unclear, and the stereotypes he uses further muddle the point.

I like the story, and I like the characters, but how I feel about a lot of the points Haldeman makes is complicated. I’d still recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it (especially to anyone who enjoys Robert Heinlein), but I’d be sure to offer caveats that some parts of the story feel dated. At the very least, the story encourages discussion, but it’s also a story that presents the futility of war through believable, sympathetic characters. It has a deserved reputation as a classic.

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The Force Unleashed

September 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

forceThe Force Unleashed by Sean Williams

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I’ve only read one other novelization of a video game: The Dig by Alan Dean Foster. It made sense that it could be translated to a novel easily enough, since it was a graphic adventure game that had its own plot. The Force Unleashed is another novelization of a video game, and it’s less than impressive.

The story is about Starkiller, a powerful Force user trained by Darth Vader himself as an apprentice so the two of them can kill the Emperor and rule the galaxy together. Starkiller isn’t even his real name, either; oftentimes he’s just referred to as “the apprentice”, which was distracting and somewhat annoying. Amid missions, Starkiller is also searching for his identity, while he jets around the galaxy with his training droid and a pilot.

The main problem is that the game is a series of missions where the player has to achieve a particular goal in each one. Williams approaches the novel in the same way, giving us sections of missions, each part of a larger story, but the larger story seems inconsequential compared to the individual missions. The missions themselves are fine — they each have a distinct beginning and end — but the overall book feels lackluster because we shift focus so often.

In addition, the characters don’t make a lot of sense. Starkiller is a powerful Force user, clearly serving the dark side, but the story wants to show some redemption. I might be misremembering parts of the story, but it seems like his saving grace is that he hasn’t killed anyone yet, and it’s that act that will truly take him to the dark side. For him to have been trained by Vader, though (and for how long? In this point in the chronology, it seems like Vader has only been ruling for a few years, but this is our first time seeing Starkiller, who’s been apprenticed to him since he was an infant), it’s hard to believe that the opportunity hasn’t come up yet.

The ending of the story also contradicts the canon (even outside of Legends versus Canon), in that the entire story has been a plot for Starkiller to find and reveal the key players in the Rebellion, Bail Organa among them. By comparison, it seems odd that Vader plays a cat-and-mouse game with Leia in Star Wars when he already knows her role in the Rebellion, according to this book. I get that the movie came first, but I wonder why the story tried to shoehorn such a major character into the canon, especially when it didn’t jive with what already existed. None of this is Williams’ fault, either, since he was writing a novel using someone else’s story.

Maybe the game is interesting, but as a novel, The Force Unleashed is disappointing. There’s another book down the line, which is the novelization of the sequel to this game, and I’m hoping it will improve, but if the author is going to have to follow the game script, I imagine it will be more of the same. We’ll see.

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Darth Vader: End of Games

September 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

endDarth Vader: End of Games by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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End of Games brings the saga of Darth Vader between the events of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back to a close. Throughout the series, Vader has been pursuing his own agenda while following the Emperor’s orders, and in this final volume, it all comes together with his final showdown with Cylo, his rival against the Emperor. Everything — Vader’s apprenticeship to the Emperor, Doctor Aphra’s role in Vader’s plans, even the fate of the two murderous droids — comes to a conclusion here, so I’m sure anticipation is high.

The thing is, I could barely get interested in any of it. I’m in the minority in that I didn’t find this series to be interesting at all, but so much of what happens here is forgettable. What makes it even more regrettable is that there’s a decent attempt at bridging the gap between the first two movies in the saga, but the characters feel too wooden, too unrealized to draw the reader in. Plus, I feel like I’m the only one who finds Triple Zero and BeeTee to be more annoying than anything else, so that’s not helping, either.

I know a lot of people like the Darth Vader comic, but I’m not in that group. I haven’t given up on the new Marvel titles all together (for one, I bought a bunch of the ebooks when they were on sale; for another, one of the titles is written by Marjorie Liu, and Cullen Bunn helms another one), but as a starting point, Darth Vader isn’t recommended. Even when my expectations has been lowered, I was still disappointed in them.

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Darth Vader: The Shu-Torun War

September 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

shuDarth Vader: The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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The Darth Vader comic series hasn’t impressed me much so far. The stories don’t feel memorable, the art feels too static, and the backstory it’s supposed to fill doesn’t feel significant. It’s supposed to bridge the time between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, showing us how Vader comes to find Luke is his son, but it focuses a lot on other things, including two murderous versions of C-3PO and R2-D2. People seem to love those two droids, but they get on my nerves. They’re trying too hard to be the complete opposite of those two characters, and still maintain that same sort of charm. It’s terrible.

The Shu-Torun War, though, is a different sort of story. It avoids the whole Luke subplot all together, instead telling us of a civil war on Shu-Torun, a mining planet that’s crucial for the Empire to control to build its ships and Death Stars. Vader steps in to control that civil war, only to find himself immersed in the culture and politics of the planet. Once he’s in control of the planet, he still has to control the situation, and that’s where the heart of the story lies.

Aside from the story showing how the civil war develops (and ends), this collection also shows how dangerous Vader is. Gillen captures the character well, showing him as ruthless, unsentimental, cool, and in control, without showing him as emotionless. The Shu-Torun War gives the character a focus outside of trying to find Luke or rule the galaxy; it’s a microcosmic story that has its own arc within the world of Star Wars without the baggage of being a part of the larger story.

I’m still not wild about the art in the series, though it’s detailed and fine. I just wish it managed to convey a sense of action better. There’s a scene near the start of the book where a shuttle crashes into a building, right above Vader’s head, and it looks like a movie still instead of showing any real sense of danger or action. It just is, and it’s disappointing. I don’t know enough about the art of writing comics to know how other writers and artists do it, but this series is the first time I’ve noticed it.

If I were to recommend any single story arc out of the Darth Vader series, this would be it. I think readers could get by with reading just this collection and not lose too much (Doctor Aphra goes missing during the events of Vader Down, so she doesn’t need to be explained, and the two murderous droids aren’t as present in the story), though they may be tempted to read the rest just to get the rest of the story. I don’t recommend it, but I can see readers wanting to do it.

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Vader Down

September 20, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

downVader Down by Jason Aaron, et al.

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Vader Down is one of those most dreaded comic book events: The Crossover. It’s a story that begins with a one-shot comic and then takes us over multiple titles (in this case the Star Wars and Darth Vader Marvel comics) to tell a complete story. Normally, these kinds of events drive me crazy, but Marvel at least had the sense to collect all the different parts together into a single graphic novel.

I hadn’t planned on reading any more of the Vader comics after reading the first two collections, but Amazon had a sale on a lot of Star Wars comic ebooks on May 4th, and my weakness got the better of me. Luckily, Vader Down takes place between the second and third volumes in that series, so I at least read it in the right place.

Vader Down is about Vader finally encountering Luke after the Battle at Yavin at the end of the first movie. They engage in battle over a planet, and then both crash-land onto said planet, though far enough away from each other that they don’t meet face-to-face. The story becomes about their rescue, Luke by Leia and Han, Vader by Doctor Aphra and the two killer droids. It’s not the greatest story, but it gives us more insight into their encounter in The Empire Strikes Back.

This collection is largely forgettable, but it’s intended for people who are current in both the Darth Vader and Star Wars titles. I wasn’t lost, as far as the plot was concerned, but I did feel like I was missing something in the sections of the story that featured in Star Wars. This is another reason I’m not wild about crossover events.

Like the first two Darth Vader collections, the artwork in Vader Down struck me as static, especially in the action sequences. I didn’t get a sense of activity from one panel to the next; instead, it was like I was viewing stills from a movie than an actual movie, which isn’t something I usually get from graphic novels. The artwork is great, and detailed, but it didn’t suggest movement as much as I would have expected. In that sense, it didn’t help the story much at all.

So far, I’ve not been impressed with the new Star Wars comics, but I’ve only read one of them. I look forward to reading the Han Solo title by Marjorie Liu and the Darth Maul title by Cullen Bunn, namely because I like what the writers have done outside of Star Wars. I still have two more volumes to go with the Darth Vader series, but I’ll be reading them more out of obligation than I will anticipation.

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The Madonna and the Starship

September 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

madonnaThe Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

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The Madonna and the Starship is about a group of actors, writers, and producers working together to try to fool a group of potential attacker from going to war. That’s a premise that sounds remarkably like the one in Shambling Towards Hiroshima, Morrow’s other novella that I read about a week before. I’ll admit I didn’t notice the similarity until I was more than halfway through, but when I did, I wondered if these were written this was intentionally, to serve as two sides of a coin. Knowing Morrow and how clever he is, I’m going to guess that’s the case.

Instead of satirizing and skewering monster movies and World War II, Morrow focuses on early television shows and religion. You know, to keep things light. What happens is a television writer and actor receives a message from extraterrestrials who want to give him an award on his science show, but once they land and prove themselves to be who they say they are, they reveal that they also want to exterminate anyone who watches another show about religion and faith. In their eyes, anyone who discards science for the supernatural are too stupid to live, so it’s up to this writer and his friends to come up with a scheme to prove that those viewers are worthy, too.

It’s a hefty premise, but one that should be familiar to Morrow’s readers. This is the man who wrote the Godhead trilogy, after all. What’s interesting about this tale is that he flips the story a bit, going after the die-hard scientists instead of the die-hard religious. The motivations of the main character isn’t to save religion, but to save the millions of people who would be killed over it, but the end result is the same: Leave the religious to do their thing, even while you believe something different.

I haven’t read the Godhead trilogy (yet), but they were the first books of his that drew my attention. At the time, any book that looked at religion from an outsider’s point of view piqued my interest, and I’m surprised I’ve had the books for so long and they’re still unread. These two novellas — smart, engaging, full of real characters, and plot-driven — remind me that I need to move them up the priority. I still have a soft spot for that kind of religious fiction, so I expect I would like them.

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Shambling Towards Hiroshima

September 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hiroshimaShambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow

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Reading a James Morrow story, I expect parts of it to go over my head. He marries a love of genre with a literary style, meshing satire with reality, theme with plot, and poignancy with characterization. That he manages to write at that depth and still tell a compelling story speaks to his skills as a storyteller, as well as a literary darling.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is part love letter to ’40s and ’50s monster movies, part apology to Japan for what our country did to them in World War II. The two themes come together well, and with no surprise. Scholars have written much about the Godzilla movies reflecting the concerns of Japan after surviving two atomic bombs, so there was already a wealth of information for Morrow to use for his story. He injects a wry sense of humor into his version, though, as the giant lizard creatures in his story are very real.

To wit, Morrow creates an alternate history where the Manhattan Project has stalled, but the generals are still looking for something sufficient to scare the Japanese into surrendering. Enter the Knickerbocker Project, where geneticists have engineered violent, giant iguanas to set loose on Japan to destroy its cities. The thing is, the generals don’t want to send the lizards to Japan without giving the ambassadors a chance to report back on what the US army can do and hopefully engender a surrender. After all, the US will lose troops, too if the war continues down its path.

The plan is to build a scale model of a Japanese city and let a baby giant lizard loose on the model to show the level of destruction they can bring to Japan. Unfortunately, the young lizards are docile and loving, and about as destructive as a flock of butterflies. Enter Syms Thorley, a B-movie actor who is well known for playing monsters, and an elaborately contructed giant lizard suit that can roar and breathe fire, among other things.

The story is told from Thorley’s perspective, as he’s writing a narrative of his time during the project, ostensibly as a suicide note. He jumps back and forth from reminiscing to telling us how his life is now. He’s writing from a hotel room, where he’s staying as a guest at a movie convention, having celebrated receiving a lifetime achievement award for his works. His writing is interrupted by different people — a staff member, a prostitute, and a convention attendee — that gives us a chance to see him reflect on his time involved with Project Knickerbocker. He’s by turns proud of the work he did and ashamed of his part in the war, which is the real thrust of the story. By the end, we get a full story of the project and its aftereffects, where the satire clears like a fog lifting and we learn the point of this novella.

Morrow is a fantastic writer, and Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a fantastic story. It’s not perfect (the ending feels rushed, and shifts in tone so suddenly that it’s jarring), but it tells an engaging story through a likable character and has a strong message. I haven’t read enough of Morrow’s work, but Shambling Towards Hiroshima encourages me to get to it. I’ve had his Biblical satires for years, and need to move them up my to-read list.

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