Episode IV: A New Hope

January 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hopeEpisode IV: A New Hope by George Lucas

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I’ve watched Star Wars at least thirty times. I know the story backward and forward. I’ve even listened to the audio play produced for NPR, which uses some of the unused material from the script. That material is included in the novelization, which makes sense, given that the book was published a few months before the movie was released. The problem is that this novelization doesn’t bring anything new to the Star Wars experience for me.

The good news is that it has a lot to offer folks who are just getting into the expanded universe. That new material isn’t necessary, but it gives us more context into the character of Luke, the long reach of the Empire, and the importance of the Rebellion. What it doesn’t give us is insight into any of the characters. Lucas doesn’t give us much in the way of the characters, narratively; what we know about them is what we see in the movies, through their facial expressions and reactions, through their excitement and passion. Written out, a lot of that is missing.

This isn’t the first novelization I’ve read in the EU, so I know this isn’t the fault of Lucas, necessarily. Other writers were able to capture the characters and make them lively; here, they feel flat and listless. Even when Luke sees Obi-Wan cut down by Vader (uh, spoiler), he reacts in the way one would expect, but then he’s on to the next thing. Granted, this is how the movie approaches the scene, too, but here it feels even worse, since Foster doesn’t show us enough of his response to believe it.

(Oh, yeah, this book was actually written by Alan Dean Foster. This is about as much of a secret as Joe Hill being Stephen King’s son, but there it is, just to avoid confusion.)

It’s also interesting to see the differences between the story and the final cut of the movie. The dialogue is different enough that people who really know the movie are going to find some unexpected turns of phrase, but it’s also weird that in the novel, Luke is Blue Five instead of Red Five. It’s nothing that breaks the story, but “Red Five, standing by” is one of the most iconic lines from the movie, so it’s hard not to have a “Wha?” moment. What’s cool is the prologue, where Foster expands on the Empire, giving us a bit of history and context into the past. He names Palpatine and summarizes the fall of the Republic. According to legend, this was backstory written by Foster, since Lucas didn’t have a firm idea of what the history would be, but when it came time to write that history for the prequels, he used a bit of those ideas on which to hang his story.

So, the novelization isn’t bad, but it’s not great, either. Foster’s style is a bit too dry for me, but the story doesn’t feel like a seventies story, nor is it as listless as the Lando Calrissian novels by L. Neil Smith. It’s just not a novel that sings, and while I haven’t seen as many of those in the EU, I feel like the first book in the Star Wars universe would have a bit more meat to it than this one did.

Started: October 16, 2017
Finished: October 19, 2017

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Death Troopers

December 19, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

troopersDeath Troopers by Joe Schreiber

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I’ve given Schreiber a hard time in the past. It’s not that I don’t think he’s deserving of it (don’t forget that in Chasing the Dead, he had his protagonist attacked by giant lobsters in her car), but while reading Death Troopers I realized that he’s a pretty good writer. He doesn’t fall into the trap that some authors use, where they tell us what a character is feeling; instead he describes what they’re feeling, and pretty accurately. He’s a good storyteller, too, which is pretty necessary when you write a zombie novel set in the Star Wars universe. This was apparently a big issue for the hardcore Star Wars fans, but I thought it was a fun read.

Schreiber populates his novel with the right kinds of characters for a zombie story — those who doubt and those who accept, those who take advantage of the situation, and those who turn out to be heroes, and those who sacrifice themselves for the rest of the group — but the progression from doubting to accepting is pretty fast. Also, near the end of the novel, one of the antagonists has a change of heart, which was unexpected, which would have been fine, except it remains unexplained. Why have a character turn around and save characters he was forcing out of escape pods 150 pages earlier? I don’t mean that rhetorically, either: Why? That explanation was completely missing from the story.

Speaking of sections of the story that make you ask “Why?”, there’s the fact that Han Solo and Chewbacca show up halfway through the story. It feels too much like fan service over storytelling, especially when this is supposed to have happened close to the events that put the two characters on Tatooine in Star Wars. They don’t even have the Millennium Falcon with them at the time of the story, since the book takes place in a prison ship.

Still, I had a fun time reading the book, but I didn’t expect it to be a groundbreaking novel, either. Fans of horror should love it (two of the tertiary characters are named Phibes and Quatermass, so there’s a lot there for the fans to discover), though they may want to start with Red Harvest. That book follows Death Troopers in publication order, but it also lays the groundwork for what creates the zombies. They make a decent duology, but I can see why people looking for traditional Star Wars stories don’t like them.

Started: September 15, 2017
Finished: September 16, 2017

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Dark Forces: Jedi Knight

November 20, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

knightDark Forces: Jedi Knight by William C. Dietz

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As the title suggests, Jedi Knight is a retelling of the events from the LucasArts video game Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. This isn’t bad, necessarily (the story was praised during its release), but for anyone who already knows the story, it’s a bit redundant. I’m a mix of both audiences, really; it’s been so long since I’ve played the game, I don’t recall many of the details.

The thing is, after listening to the audio presentation, I still don’t recall many of the details. I think this is because the stories in most first-person shooters are just a means to give the player purpose, with the central focus of the story being on the player guiding the game. Jedi Knight may have been somewhat ground-breaking for its story, but that’s not to say it can stand on its own.

Kyle Katarn is now a Jedi, still on the tail of Jerec, the dark Jedi who murdered his father. His pursuit takes him to the Valley of the Jedi, where a great battle took place over a thousand years ago and trapped the souls of over one-hundred Jedi and Sith. What’s cool about the reference is that, having read the books in chronological order, I already know about that battle. It featured in the Darth Bane trilogy, even though the story of Jedi Knight came out almost ten years before.

One of the key elements of the game was the ability to develop Force powers, either light or dark, which played into how the game progressed. The ending of the game split between the two, so playing the light side would grant one ending, while the dark side revealed another. Here, the writer(s?) decide to go with the light side ending. I’m fine with that choice (I imagine that’s how the game designers wanted to steer the players), but having this story told with that choice in place limits the potential of the story from the game. I don’t see a way out of it, unless the writers went with a Choose Your Own Adventure or Clue style to the story.

Like the previous audio dramatizations, the voice acting is sub-par, the dialogue is cheesy, and the events move too quickly. It gets worse when the Bouncers hit the stage, sounding like Pee Wee Herman on helium. Again, part of me wishes I had read the graphic novels instead of listening to these productions.

The story here isn’t terrible, but neither is it memorable. I get that Dietz wanted to delve more deeply into the story of Kyle Katarn, but the whole arc, from his days with the Empire to his confrontation with Jerec, don’t resonate with the same kind of importance as that of any of the other central characters from the Expanded Universe. In the end, it’s that resonance that has made the other stories so timeless, and that characteristic is missing here.

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Dark Forces: Rebel Agent

November 14, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

agentDark Forces: Rebel Agent by William C. Dietz

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I got confused at the start of this presentation, since it began with Morgan Katarn’s story, told from his perspective. At first, I thought I had confused the father and the son, but no, I remembered Kyle Katarn is the character from the Dark Forces series. Then I thought I had mixed up the order of the audio dramatizations, but after checking, I saw I was going in the right direction. By that time, a good chunk of the first part of the story was done, and I had to go back and start over because I was too distracted to get anything out of it.

In actuality, this story takes place five years after the end of Return of the Jedi, though it starts in flashback before Soldier for the Empire. Katarn is still a not-100%-trustworthy member of the Rebel Alliance, which is unusual, since by now the Empire is on the decline. I mean, five years on, and Mon Mothma still doesn’t trust the guy completely? OK.

Speaking of Mon Mothma, this series is lousy with fan service, since all the well-known characters from the movies show up. Yoda appeared in Soldier for the Empire, and now Luke, Leia, and Mon Mothma all show up, too. (If I’m remembering correctly, R2-D2 has a cameo, too, by way of Leia. It’s been a few days since I listened to it, and I might be mixing it up with one of the other books in the series.) On the one hand, the Force can bring all these folks together; on the other hand, it makes the Expanded Universe that much smaller, since everything seems to revolve around these five-to-ten characters.

Since this is an audio presentation, it suffers from the same problems as other dramatizations: things being spoken aloud that people wouldn’t normally say; things happening too quickly to stay under a certain time limit; dialogue that works well on paper, but sounds cheesy and insincere when spoken aloud. Dietz’s original story might not have these issues, but the audio drama had me rolling my eyes at parts of it.

I’d like to say this chapter fills in more of Katarn’s backstory, but nothing much happens. We hear again (and again) about his father being killed by the Empire, so narratively there’s little progression. The showdown between Katarn and Jerec comes closer, but nothing much is resolved. It’s a buildup to the third chapter, and winds up being so insubstantial that it tries to float away. The audiobooks are two hours each, so I’m tearing through them on my drive to work, but I’m not sure I would recommend these stories, even to fans of the franchise and the video game.

 

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Dark Forces: Soldier for the Empire

November 9, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

empireDark Forces: Soldier for the Empire by William C. Deitz

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It’s hard to give proper credit for this title, since the original book was a graphic novel that should probably credit the artist, and the edition I “read” was the audio adaptation of the story, with a full cast and sound effects, which should probably credit the actors and adapters. The simple solution is to find the common element — the writer — and just stick with him. Just keep in mind that it’s hard to identify who to credit when it comes to my thoughts.

The story is the first of three parts, intended to tell us more about Kyle Katarn, the Rebel agent who becomes a Jedi Knight over the course of the video games Dark Forces and Jedi Knight. This volume reveals Kyle’s time spent in the Imperial Academy, training to be an officer against the Rebellion. We see why he joins, how he commands, and why he ultimately rejects the Empire for the Rebellion, as well as meeting other characters who will feature in the games.. Overall, it’s an interesting arc, but it moves so quickly we don’t get a real sense of emotion out of it all. Instead, it feels like we’re being told how things happen instead of being shown.

Part of it, I think, is the limitation of the audio format. Since we can’t see what’s happening, we have to hear about things through dialogue, and a lot of it doesn’t sound natural. Why, in the middle of a gunfight, would a character talk about what he sees if he’s not relaying that information to somewhere else? Why would they mutter to themselves about what they’re thinking when they’re walking through a crowd of people who aren’t sympathetic to him? It doesn’t make much sense, but I’m not sure how else they could have done it without having a third-person narrator talk over the action.

Also, I had a realization during this drama, and that’s the fact that writers should avoid using the phrase “As you know” in dialogue. It always follows a question (“Hey, you’ve read Moby Dick?”), followed by an affirmative response (“Oh, sure.”), followed by “As you know” to fill in the point the author wants to make to the reader. When I see them, they’re usually about something the writer wants to say to make his characters sound smart. Instead, they come across as condescending and less sympathetic. One of these moments appeared in the presentation.

Kyle is an interesting character, and this presentation is a good introduction to him, but I feel like I should have just read the book instead. I went with the audio because the books are out of print and expensive, but for other interested readers, I’d point you to your local library. I’m not sure that the graphic novel would present the story better, but it certainly can’t be as clunky as this drama.

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The Force Unleashed II

November 8, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

unleashedThe Force Unleashed II by Sean Williams

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The first Force Unleashed book was disappointing and, frankly, a bit boring. Its main fault was that it was an adaptation of a video game that, while still story-based, was written as a series of missions, so there was a strange stuttering pace to the novel I couldn’t adjust to. The sequel (?) is better, partly because I couldn’t detect the missions of the story, and partly because the story was divided between its two main characters for the first half of the book.

The Force Unleashed was about Juno and Starkiller, the two star-crossed lovers who couldn’t quite figure each other out until the end of the book. It was a bit too much Twilight and not enough Star Wars for me, and Williams (or the original writers for the game; it’s hard to tell who to credit/blame) kept them separate, with Starkiller doing his thing as Vader’s servant in one chapter, and Juno being a part of the Rebellion in the next. It’s more interesting (well, Juno’s story is, at least), and less of a soap opera. Of course, the soap opera element returns in the second half, but it’s not quite as Twilight-y as it was in the first book.

My biggest complaint about the story is the use of clones. I’m starting to feel like Indiana Jones here — “Clones! Why’d it have to be clones?” — because this device is so overused in the Expanded Universe. I haven’t read the books where it happens, but I understand that Luke and the Emperor appear as clones later in the chronology. It’s a too-easy solution to write about a character you like without having to struggle with how to insert it into the existing canon.

I enjoyed this book better than The Force Unleashed, but it’s not without its own issues. I expect fans of the game would get the most out of it, but for folks interested in stories outside of the movies, I recommend skipping over this series. Aside from them not being that interesting, they also present issues with continuity between the movies and the EU.

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The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo and the Lost Legacy

October 31, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

legacyThe Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo and the Lost Legacy by Brian Daley

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If John Jackson Miller can write a Wild West story set in the Star Wars universe (Kenobi), then I suppose I should give Brian Daley some slack for writing a treasure hunt story set in the same. It seems like an odd choice, though, especially considering this was only the fourth book that expanded on the movies. I get the feeling Miller was looking to do something that hadn’t been done in the Expanded Universe, but at the time Daley wrote this book, he could have done anything. Why this?

The story isn’t bad, but it is slow and somewhat emotionless. It has its moments (Bollux and Blue Max are the most realized characters here), but the romantic sub-sub-subplot between Han and Hasti is about as convincing as the one between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. I had my concerns that the book would be a two-star affair, but I have to admit, the race for the treasure is engaging enough, and how Daley concludes the race is clever, and works surprisingly well.

What’s weird about the book is I kept thinking I was reading an Indiana Jones book, not a Star Wars book. The race for the treasure, the discovery of the truth of the legend, and solving the riddles of finding the treasure itself would work well for another Indiana Jones story. (At the very least, it would be much better than Crystal Skull.) It also didn’t hurt that I kept envisioning the same person as the lead character.

Daley gets Han Solo, even if the overall story doesn’t quite fit him. The story fits into the EU in the sense that it ends with a loose end that will tie it in with the first movie, but Daley doesn’t go into much detail over it. I like Crispin’s trilogy better, since she fills in that detail, but the two trilogies together make for an intriguing backstory to science fiction’s favorite scoundrel.

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The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo’s Revenge

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

revengeThe Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo’s Revenge by Brian Daley

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Han Solo at Stars’ End was an entertaining, if flawed, novel, though it was much better than L. Neil Smith’s Adventures of Lando Calrissian. For one, Daley has a better understanding of the characters he’s writing; for another, the story feels like it belongs in the Expanded Universe, while Smith’s novels felt like they had been retconned to fit in with Star Wars. One thing I have to credit both authors with is the lightheartedness of some of the scenes; so many of the EU novels take themselves so seriously it’s hard to imagine there being any “walking carpet” scenes in them, but Smith and Daley both made sure to include them.

Han Solo’s Revenge is a slightly better story than Stars’ End, thanks to Daley giving us more depth to Han Solo and Chewbacca. Han is most remembered as a rogue, a miscreant, a space cowboy, but his character arc in the movies makes him very much a hero. Daley chooses to examine Han’s penchant for lawlessness, making him much more a man who does work for payment instead of morality. This isn’t to say he’s remorseless or without a moral compass, but we see more of that side than we do in the movies. True to the movies, though, Chewbacca is the more moral of the two characters, driving Han to do the right thing even when he’s reluctant. It suggests that the longer the two hang around each other, the more heroic Han will become. It segues well into the stories of the movies.

One thing I like about Daley’s books is he pays attention to the kinds of details usually important to science fiction, but overlooked in the Star Wars universe, like planetary gravity and atmosphere. They change from one planet to another, and the characters note the need for breathing gear or lighter steps. This is a big plus for me. I’ve grown accustomed to Star Wars eschewing these necessities, but it’s nice when an author gives it its proper due.

While I wouldn’t put Daley’s books in a top ten list of EU novels, they’re still solid reads. I’d place them a little beneath A.C. Crispin’s take on Han’s earlier life, but they do give us additional insight into Han as a character. For that, I’d recommend them to readers looking to learn more about a character they already love.

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The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo at Stars’ End

October 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

endThe Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo at Stars’ End by Brian Daley

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When I started reading the Star Wars books (at least, once I committed to reading all of them), I decided to read them in chronological order. Past experience with other series suggested this wasn’t the best idea, but it seemed like a good way to introduce myself to the Expanded Universe. Now that I’m starting to get into some of the older books, though, I see that I’ve made a mistake.

In Han Solo at Stars’ End, one of the plot points revolve around Doc, a mechanic for criminals and other scoundrels, having gone missing. What’s cool is that A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy, which precedes this chronologically but succeeds it in publication order, ends with a reference to Doc, setting it up to flow directly into this series. In a way, it’s neat to see how a later author uses an earlier story to support their own, but in another, I feel like I’m missing a lot of other Easter eggs by reading these all out of order.

The book itself is okay. It’s written well, and has an engaging plot, but it doesn’t have much of an emotional connection. I found myself checking out a lot during some of the longer narrative bits, which is something I found happening a lot with The Adventures of Lando Calrissian, though I think Daley’s book is written better and feels more like Star Wars than Smith’s books did. I feel like I missed some portions of the story, but at the same time, I feel like I didn’t miss anything at all, since there weren’t any loose plot points that I could see. It just didn’t feel significant at all.

I get the feeling that had I read this when it was first published (1979; it was the second EU book, written even before The Empire Strikes Back), I would have enjoyed it a lot more. Now, though, that the Star Wars universe is so expansive and rich, it feels oddly constrained, given that it wasn’t as dependent on anything that came before it. It’s a quick read, by any means, and it’s a neat piece of history when it comes to Star Wars. I wouldn’t recommend it for casual readers, though.

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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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