The Hand of Thrawn

Hey everybody!
I’ve been rambling a lot in my recent blogs about Warhammer stuff, but it’s time for a change of scenery today as I switch over to my other obsession, Star Wars, and the Tim Zahn duology from 1997-8, The Hand of Thrawn!

The Hand of Thrawn

I first read these novels years ago now, completely out of sequence as I had just finished Zahn’s seminal trilogy, the Thrawn Trilogy, and was hungry for more! It was the summer after my GCSE exams had been finished, and I was free to read whatever I wanted, rather than trying to catch chapters of The Last Command in between revising physics, or whatever.

Specter of the Past begins with the discovery of a badly damaged copy of The Caamas Document – a datacard that details the Bothan saboteurs involved in the destruction of the planet Caamas long before the Clone Wars. The planet’s inhabitants, the Caamasi, were well-known peacekeepers and valued mediators, and the destruction of their world was cause for galactic outcry back in the day. The discovery that there were Bothans involved leads the New Republic almost to civil war, as several species come down either on the side of wanting to make the Bothans pay for their crime, or else on the side of those who believe a more peaceful solution is needed. Of course, plenty of folks are just using the discovery of the document to reignite old hatreds and resume petty conflicts that the Empire had pretty much put on hold.

While Leia attempts to keep the New Republic from fracturing too much, Luke is off trying to discover who is backing the Cavrilhu Pirates into attacking New Republic shipping, with what he believes to be clone pilots. His investigation almost leads to his death at their asteroid base, but Mara Jade manages to rescue him and, as they’re leaving the system, they notice an odd type of TIE-fighter lurking in the asteroid field.

Turns out, the renegade Imperial Moff Disra has been using the Pirates as part of his plan to restore the Empire to greatness, a plan that involves resurrecting Grand Admiral Thrawn through the use of the con artist known as Flim, and the tactical acumen of a Major Tierce, former Imperial Guardsman to the Emperor. He sets a plan in motion to cause said civil war above Bothawui, using elements from Imperial Intelligence to forment riots and general dissension over the Caamas issue, leading our heroes to try and find an intact copy of the Caamas Document, and name those Bothans responsible for destroying the shield generator, rather than holding the entire species accountable.

This is the background, and the duology takes us through the sort of galaxy-spanning epic that we expect from Zahn in his Bantam era. It really has that sort of feel that we know from the earlier trilogy – our heroes flying across the galaxy, visiting planets we have never heard of and encountering a whole load of weird aliens along the way. While Admiral Pellaeon is trying to sue for peace with the New Republic, Disra’s plans lead to a more subtle conflict with the Empire at first, which is a different change of pace for pretty much any Bantam novel. There is a lot of the shadow war with Imperial Intelligence, and while Flim’s Thrawn impersonation is seemingly flawless, he is nevertheless kept almost hidden from view, with merely the rumour of his return being cause enough to send the New Republic into a frenzy. The civil war is balanced along a knife edge that almost runs on too long, but is nevertheless built up really very well.

One of my earliest gripes with this novel was the fact that Zahn seemingly felt the need to bring Thrawn back from the dead. Of course, the book is pretty much from the off about a con game and we know it, but it did feel a bit like he couldn’t think up a more convincing villain for the heroes to go up against, so he just brought the earlier one back. Of course, when you get to the end of the book, and reflect on the story as a whole, it actually works really well.

We get to meet Thrawn’s people, the Chiss, and learn that Thrawn had in fact set up a clone of himself to return to known space ten years after his death, should that come to pass. Irony of ironies, it’s been ten years and now Disra puts his plan into action. The Chiss almost enter the war on the side of the Imperial Remnant, but by the end of Vision of the Future, it appears that they’re content instead to sit this one out, keeping their focus on the myriad threats of the Unknown Regions.

I find it interesting to go back and re-read these old novels, and compare them with what we have now from Disney. While I don’t feel that The Hand of Thrawn has held up as well as The Thrawn Trilogy, I still think there is a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s a shame to see so much of it just thrown out, really. The idea of the Unknown Regions holding some unimaginable threat was never really picked up on, of course, Vision of the Future was one of the last novels Bantam got to publish before Del Rey got the licence back and started the New Jedi Order off. However, the Aftermath trilogy does feel a bit like it’s picking up on this idea of the Unknown Regions and the threats there, having the Imperial Remnant following the Battle of Jakku head off there. What is going on, I wonder? Of course, Disney has managed to open up so much of the Star Wars galaxy once more, and really make it feel like a huge place, so we’re probably fine for now to leave the Unknown Regions as they are…

Naturally, given when this duology was published, Zahn has got a lot more Star Wars lore to pull from this time around, rather than having to make the whole lot up for himself, and there are a lot of references to Mike Stackpole’s work, particularly the Rogue Squadron comics. Baron Fel makes an appearance, and Corran Horn is something of a major second-tier character. Zahn and Stackpole are friends, of course, so that isn’t unexpected, but it does feel weird that we get that sort of detail this time around. There is also reference made to both the Black Fleet Crisis books and the Callista trilogy, though these do feel a little forced at times.

In the midst of all the chaos, we of course get to catch up with Talon Karrde and his organisation, and get to see a lot of the smuggler chief’s history. It was interesting to see this sort of thing expanded upon, and we get a lot of links back to The Thrawn Trilogy and some of the plot points that were left hanging from that series are wrapped up. Notably, Mara Jade leaves the Karrde organisation at the end of the duology, although Karrde has already had an almost-replacement for her in the form of Shada D’ukal, the Mistryl Shadow Warrior from The Last Command. There is a lot of weaving of threads from earlier Zahn stories throughout the pair of books here, but I suppose Shada shows how far this goes when we get an almost synopsis of the short story Hammertong that Zahn wrote for Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. I wouldn’t say the references are particularly necessary to enjoy the books – I certainly did enjoy them when I first read them back in the day, having only previously read Zahn’s trilogy and Crimson Empire up to that point. But there is another layer that can be enjoyed if you have indeed read through the myriad offerings of short stories in this way.

Prior to reading the pair this time around, I re-read Jade Solitaire from Tales of the New Republic, which merely serves to show why Talon Karrde has a Togorian working on his crew now, as well as giving Mara Jade her ship, Jade’s Fire, which is featured in a somewhat significant plot point in Vision of the Future. It’s not necessary, for sure, but does add a layer or two that can be enjoyed. For me, I think it just helps to harken back to those days when the narrative was keen to explain away every single point in the movies and beyond, and brings back a lot of nostalgia for me. Talon Karrde’s journey into the Exocron system has even got me wanting to dig out my copy of The DarkStryder Campaign! Maybe that can be the subject of another blog here soon…

Don’t get me wrong, of course – it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Far from it, I was actually surprised to discover that I didn’t rate this duology nearly as highly as I remembered. I think a lot of that is down to the fact that I have such fond memories of reading these books as a sixteen year old, that now I’ve come to expect more from my literature in general, I found them to be a bit lacking. There is quite an effort made, I feel, to recapture the spirit of the Thrawn Trilogy, almost to the point where it becomes annoying, and I find myself wishing that Zahn had branched out into a completely new direction. Elements of the storyline such as Karrde’s plot were a lot more refreshing, because they had the hint of the earlier trilogy without rehashing it as much as, say, the Luke and Mara trek through the caverns of Nirauan – which Luke actually explicitly compares with their trek through the forest on Myrkr. There are also some vaguely silly scenes, particularly around the Caamas Incident politics. It’s nice that we get reference to the senate being rebuilt following the Almanian Uprising, that does help to make the universe feel really coherent, but the fact that the senate is populated by weird senators, one of whom is jabbering on about needing to sit on her eggs, just feels too out there. Weird.

There were also a lot of elements that felt a lot more like fan fiction than perhaps they should have been. I probably need to elaborate a lot more on this, so here goes. Any movie tie-in like this can of course fall under the heading of fan-fiction, as that’s basically what it is. However, for official licensed media by Lucasfilm, novels like these should feel more like a continuation of the storyline, and while new characters of course need to be introduced to keep the narrative fresh, the way that new characters interact with movie ones is usually where these things fall down. During the Thrawn Trilogy, the interaction was superb, and it felt like these people truly inhabited the same universe as the movies. But when you get a character (or characters) being made into something “better” than the movie heroes, the whole situation can quickly devolve, and it feels a lot like that happens in the scenes where Mara is berating Luke for his actions over the last few years. I know why it was included, of course, as the Bantam novels did have a tendency to make Luke into a kind of demigod at times, but it smacks of something I particularly dislike from Stackpole’s novel I, Jedi, where Corran tells Luke off in such a manner that makes Corran out to be a much better person – maybe even a better Jedi – than Luke is. It makes me cringe so much, and unfortunately that does happen a couple of times in the course of Vision of the Future. It feels very much like Zahn is trying to re-set the narrative by taking Luke away from the god-like portrayal of other novels, and instead set him up for the next stage (which may or may not have involved fighting the unnamed threats of the Unknown Regions), but has the end result of almost returning him to the sort of farmboy he was in A New Hope.

That was a bit rambly, but hopefully you can follow my point!

There is still a tremendous amount to enjoy from these books, and I can definitely recommend you getting a hold of them if you can and giving them a read. While they pretty much have no bearing on the Star Wars narrative post-Disney, of course, they’re nevertheless some of the better books to come out of the Legends canon, and are still some of my favourites!

Rogue One: Catalyst

Rogue One: Catalyst

Rogue One: Catalyst is, as the name might suggest, a tie-in novel to the standalone Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Written by James Luceno, I had high hopes for this novel, which were sadly not borne out by the end. Let me explain…

The story is basically that of Orson Krennic’s ambition to oversee the Death Star project, and details his machinations as he climbs the corporate ladder. Along the way, he makes use of a variety of people, notably Galen Erso, a former school friend (unlikely though that may seem), to advance his career. Galen is portrayed as that typical scientist-type who is so wrapped-up in his own work, he’s barely aware of his surroundings, including his own family. Which I thought was weird, based on his portrayal in the movie…

The novel begins while the Clone Wars are still in full-flow, though Galen is notably undertaking research far from the front line, attempting to synthesize kyber crystals to create a renewable energy source. He is soon wrapped up in the fight between the Republic and the Separatists, however, and it is Krennic who comes to his rescue. Over time, Krennic manages to seduce him into working indirectly on the Death Star project, as Galen researches the energy output of the crystals that is then weaponised by a separate team of scientists.

During this time, we do get to see the fascinating upheaval from Republic to Empire, which is something that I enjoyed. It’s interesting how quickly people seem to forget the Jedi – I’d always liked the alternative idea that is often hinted at within the Dark Times comics, that the idea of the Jedi carried with it such inherent danger that people chose not to involve themselves. Anyway!

Another strand to Krennic’s ambition is his use of the smuggler, Has Obit. Has is used to basically deposit weapons on the so-called Legacy Worlds – worlds that are the Star Wars equivalents of National Parks. With this, Krennic is able to claim the worlds were arming themselves against the Empire, and so their Legacy status is stripped from them – and the strip-mining of all natural resources can begin. Over time, Has sees what he is doing and, thanks to Galen’s wife Lyra, turns against Krennic and helps the Ersos escape Coruscant for good.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but the basic gist of the story is here. So what’s so bad about it? Well, first of all, Galen Erso has got to be one of the most infuriating characters ever to grace the pages of a Star Wars novel. He just annoyed me so much, I found myself wishing his bits were over so that we could get back to Krennic, who is actually quite interesting, for all his naked ambition.

While the book is a really nice marriage of the Prequel era and the Original Trilogy era, these ties are somehow relegated to the background in comparison with other Luceno novels. There was a nice sequence with Krennic and Poggle the Lesser, as he tries to get the Geonosians to construct the focusing dish for the battle station. Also, Krennic’s patron throughout the book is Mas Amedda, who comes across as slightly more competent in this book than, say, his Aftermath appearances. Tarkin also has a significant role, though he serves more as an obstacle to Krennic than anything – he doesn’t quite come across the same as he does in, say, Luceno’s Tarkin.

Which is a bit weird, as they’re by the same author, but I think herein lies the main gripe I have with the book: it feels a bit rushed. I can’t quite decide if I mean it feels like it was pushed out to meet a deadline, but the action sometimes feels entirely too glossed-over. True, a battle station the size of the Death Star is going to take years to build, which could be tedious if we had to have all of that detailed to us, but there were several instances where I felt we could have done with more detail. Whether all new canon novels need to conform to a certain page length, who knows, but I definitely felt like we could have benefited from a bit more.

So, while I did feel a bit let-down overall, there were still some good bits to be enjoyed. Mentions of the Corporate Sector and COMPNOR were particularly nice, as it’s always fun to see the old canon being referenced. And the way the novel straddles the Prequel and OT eras was nicely done, too. While the Jedi stuff could have done with more time spent on exploring how they just dropped out of the galactic consciousness, I guess this book isn’t trying to tell that particular tale.

I don’t think it really adds anything to Rogue One, save perhaps explaining Saw Gerrera’s relationship to the Ersos (which itself seemed a bit forced). Which brings me on to my final point – why can’t we have Star Wars novels for their own sake anymore? It feels like everything that has come out so far has been trying to tie into something, either a new movie or an appearance by a beloved character in a cartoon. Why can’t we just have a book for its own sake? Heir to the Jedi springs to mind as perhaps the only one, so far, and that was originally planned as the third in a loose trilogy prior to the abolition of the old EU. I’d love to have something that tells its own story, that can run to 500 pages or more, and just brings back some of the old Bantam magic. We still don’t really have that feel right now, I think, where the galaxy feels like a cohesive whole. Where’s the new canon’s Mara Jade, or Talon Karrde? The novels feel like they exist in some kind of weird vacuum, and I’m really not sure that I like it. Sure, plenty of them are good, but they’re good by themselves, with no real reference to the wider galaxy. The hipster in me is thinking, this is what happens when a franchise hits the big time, and everything has to have a mass-appeal. Whereas previously we could have novels that reference comic books, which reference other comic books, which reference other novels, which reference RPG material. There was an expectation that people reading these things would be immersed to the next level at least. Now everything seems to need only the films – the widest audience for this material – to rely upon. It’s just feeling kinda fractured, and I’m not sure how much longer I can keep myself interested in this way of doing Star Wars.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be quite so down on the book, or the franchise as a whole, but sometimes I do wonder what’s happening to the GFFA…

Star Wars: Phasma (a review)

Hey everybody,
Yesterday, I finished reading the latest new canon novel in the Star Wars universe, Phasma. One of the new “Journey to The Last Jedi” books, the novel is very much in line with previous books that we’ve had in the run-up to The Force Awakens back in 2015, providing no real meat for the rumour-hungry, but just teasing tidbits for the new film.

The book takes place somewhere around the same time period as last year’s Bloodline, with most of the book forming a frame story around Phasma’s past on the post-apocalyptic world of Parnassos. We meet Captain Cardinal, a stormtrooper tasked with training the children taken into the First Order’s ranks, as he interrogates the Resistance spy Vi Moradi. Moradi has been researching several high-ranking First Order personnel, which makes her the exact tool Cardinal needs to take down his hated rival, Captain Phasma.

Moradi’s tale is basically Phasma’s life, and is told through several extended sequences that are lightly dusted with a return to the interrogation. We see Phasma encounter General Brendol Hux after his ship crash-lands on Parnassos, and their trek across the desert to find it and thus salvation from the harsh world.

Once Cardinal thinks he has enough information that he can discredit Phasma as the poster-child for the First Order, he confronts first Armitage Hux, and then Phasma herself, with dire consequences.

I have to say, I was not really a fan of this book. For the most part, it felt like Mad Max, not Star Wars, and once I was done with it, having had some time to reflect, I really don’t think this is the sort of backstory that I wanted for Phasma. Sure, I’m not really sure what I did want, but I don’t think it would have been this.

This is really turning into a theme for me with these new canon novels of late. I think it boils down to the fact that we’ve had a number of years of new canon material now, and yet the universe still doesn’t exactly feel like a cohesive place, really. Part of this has to do with the fact that we’re still waiting for the new trilogy to resolve, of course, but I’ve read a good number of these things now, and I don’t feel at home within the universe as I used to. I don’t feel that I know anybody, or anywhere, or, really, anything.

I’m trying not to be negative about these novels, because I’m sure that a lot of work is going in, behind the scenes, to keep the narrative more focused than it ever was under Bantam, but at the same time, my expectations for new Star Wars novels have been reduced so much, I’m quite shocked that I’m even still buying them. (And don’t get me started on the comics!)

Now, don’t get me wrong, the story is a fine tale, and the concept of the framing device is quite interesting within Star Wars literature generally. My biggest gripe, I suppose, is that there’s still that air of expectation around the novel as there was with Aftermath; for sure, Phasma seems to be a major player in the next movie, so a book about her origins is bound to be a big-ticket item. There are some interesting slants on the First Order that we get later in the book, as well, but in the main this is the tale of how Phasma met Brendol Hux, and how she escaped her origins on a backwater world. Mad Max fans will possibly enjoy the feel, but even then, any story that involves a foot-slog across a desert is bound to get tedious after a while.

If they stay true to form, we’ll get a novel next spring/summer like Bloodline, which will vindicate the publishing programme and fill us in on several of the details that couldn’t be discussed before the new movie hits.

Which leaves me thinking – why not just publish different stories in the run-up to the new movies, if they’re not going to give us anything really meaningful?

Star Wars: Thrawn (a review)

View this post on Instagram

Finished the new #Thrawn today! #StarWars

A post shared by Mark (@marrrkusss) on

At the weekend, I finished reading the latest new canon Star Wars novel, Thrawn. I know that this is becoming a theme for me with new canon novels lately, but if I’m being completely honest, I was not a fan.

The storyline follows Thrawn’s climb through the ranks of the Imperial Navy, starting with him attending the academy. Thrawn in school? Urgh. True, it isn’t quite the true Hogwarts experience, but… I mean, seriously?

Okay, so the story immediately starts with a basic retelling of the Mist Encounter short story written for the Adventure Journal, which details how Thrawn was discovered on an abandoned planet close to the border with the Unknown Regions by Voss Parck. Captain Parck returns here very briefly, as he discovers Thrawn and brings him to the Emperor as “a gift”. Turns out, Thrawn met Anakin Skywalker on some nebulous adventure during the Clone Wars, and the Emperor, believing his power to originate somewhere outside the known galaxy, wants to keep Thrawn close.

Thrawn is given the cadet Eli Vanto as a sort of translator/aide as the two go through the naval academy, graduate, and begin their career. We follow the two as they pursue smugglers and pirates, and tangle with the High Command as Thrawn inevitably shows up his superiors. In the middle of all of this, we also follow the career of Arihnda Pryce, who hails from the Outer Rim world of Lothal but travels through the Coruscant elite until she has enough dirt on high-ranking Imperials that she basically forces Tarkin to give her the governorship of Lothal. The character is one I’m not familiar with, though was convinced I’d heard the name somewhere – turns out she’s from Rebels, where I believe she’s kind of a badass. I still haven’t started watching that show yet, though. Her character development is a little jumpy as a result of trying to get her from A to B, though that is still symptomatic of Thrawn also, who sometimes feels like he went through years of growth in the space of a chapter.

Thrawn

Thrawn has been brought out of Legends and into the Star Wars canon proper thanks to his use in the Rebels cartoon. While I’m not against this fundamentally, as I’m all for keeping the classics alive, I’m a little dismayed that he doesn’t seem to be the same guy that I came to know and love from Heir to the Empire all those years ago. True, we have the art thing going on, and he’s still in command of the Chimaera (a point at which I actually cheered), but he doesn’t feel like the same guy who is in control of everything. Of course, this book tells his origin, but this brings me to the point I was getting at in the video above – did we need this story? His inclusion in Rebels seems to indicate that yes, we do, but for years we’ve pretty much made do with the couple of short stories by Zahn that show specific points in Thrawn’s life, and that’s been fine. Do we need to see Thrawn at school? Do we need to see him as Lieutenant, Commodore, Captain, and the like? I don’t think we do.

Something that I always appreciated about Thrawn as a character was the element of mystery that was involved there, how an alien had risen so high in the ranks of the largely xenophobic Empire. I mean, sure, we had a lot of snippets of info dropped throughout the years, but those snippets felt like they were a part of his legend, and that was enough. I also really enjoyed the fact that we never had a point-of-view scene from him – everything was always told through the filter of, primarily, Captain Pellaeon. Now, we’ve seen behind the curtain to some extent, and I’m not sure I want that.

Speaking of Pellaeon, his replacement appears to be Eli Vanto, who probably has the most character development of any of the characters. Vanto goes from a supply cadet to being on the frontline, and moves from being resentful and almost jealous of Thrawn’s career advancement, to content at being where he is, and improving in tactical nous and leadership. The novel ends with an epilogue that kinda confused the hell out of me, though, where Vanto suddenly appears in the Unknown Regions making contact with the Chiss Ascendancy on the recommendation(?) of Thrawn, who is now Grand Admiral. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and I have the strong feeling that there is going to be a sequel of some sort that will follow up on this. The sad thing for me, then, is that I don’t know if I’d actually want this…

This is really the biggest issue for me with this novel. As a book, it was fine, I think it was a fine story that is actually pretty enjoyable. The biggest problem for me is the fact that it’s about Thrawn. If it was any other character, I think I would have been really interested all the way through. But the baggage that I have from Heir to the Empire fandom really gets in the way, and I find that I really can’t get past that. Heir to the Empire will forever be among my top three (if not the top) Star Wars novels ever written, and this unfortunately just doesn’t really come close.

Aftermath: Empire’s End

Hey everybody,
Well, it’s been a slog, but I’ve finally made it through the third book in the Aftermath trilogy, Empire’s End. It’s been a slog for many reasons, not all of which are to do with the book itself, weirdly. But I have to say this now: this book just feels too weird to me, and I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to review it. Prepare for lots of spoilers, and also lots of rambling!

The book continues the story of Norra, Sinjir, Jas and Temmin, alongside the daemonic Mister Bones, as they continue to pursue high-ranking Imperials for trial. Discovering the Imperial fleet has assembled around the dirtball planet of Jakku, they head into the Western Reaches and almost get shot down – Norra and Jas make it to the surface in an escape pod, though Mister Bones is also ejected to look after them. Point number one on the weirdness chart: Norra abandons her son in the middle of a warzone in order to pursue her vengeance against Grand Admiral Sloane. Having previously abandoned him to go fight with the Rebellion, I find this woman to be utterly reprehensible, and literally went from having any interest in the character to absolutely zero sympathy in the space of a couple of sentences. At pretty much all of her subsequent appearances in the book, she just irritated the hell out of me, and I just can’t explain how awful this woman is.

Moving along, though!

Temmin and Sinjir return to Chandrila to warn the New Republic of the Imperials above Jakku, but they’re in the middle of electing a new Chancellor, as well as relocating to a new planet, so there’s a lot of politicking going on. A massive chunk of the book is then taken up with the manoeuverings of Mon Mothma, Leia, Han and Temmin and Sinjir (along with Sinjir’s former boyfriend, Conder), which seems to rob any sense of urgency that Jas and Norra being abandoned in the middle of the Empire ever had. Point the second on the weirdness scale.

Mon Mothma (who has always been referred to by her full name until this book, where people casually call her “Mon”, again a weird thing to me) is opposed by Tolwar Wartol, an alien whose world was subjugated by the Empire, the natives only managing to throw off that yoke by destroying their world to make it useless. Tolwar actually makes an assassination attempt on Mon Mothma’s life, but is thwarted in this. Sinjir takes up a job as Mon Mothma’s aide, along with Sondiv Sella (whose daughter Korr would later become Leia’s aide in Bloodline).

Anyway.

The Empire has been brought to Jakku by Gallius Rax as a failsafe planned by the Emperor back in the day. We slowly learn that Palpatine, thinking if the Empire fell, planned to relocate outside of the galaxy and create a new Empire there. Comparisons are made with chess, and it’s all very, very weird. Rax comes across as slightly mad (though not as bad as Yupe Tashu, who is definitely insane), and plans to destroy the failed Imperial Remnant as well as the New Republic fleet over Jakku, but cracking the world in twain. Lots of things break and snap and crack in twain throughout the book, and it’s all very archaic. But anyway.

Sloane and Brentin attempt to break through Rax’s defenses with the help of the thin Hutt, Niima, but the Imperials get the better of them and both are captured, though not held prisoner – Rax wishes Sloane to see the death of the Empire and the Republic. Things don’t go entirely as planned, however, when the New Republic eventually shows up and, after an uninteresting space battle, manage to tractor-beam-pull a Super Star Destroyer down onto the surface of the planet. Yeah, that happens.

So Rax sets the world to blow up, but is followed into his lair by Sloane and Brentin, and ultimately Norra too, and there’s another confusing fight between first Rax and Sloane, then Norra and Rax, then Brentin is shot, and finally Sloane and Rax again. Sloane kills Rax, who tells her with his dying breath of the Imperialis yacht that is waiting to take off into the uncharted realms with the future of the Empire on board – Brentol Hux, Armitage Hux, and a group of feral child-warriors. The yacht is a replica of the ship stolen by Lando and co in his comic book, by the way…

Sloane shuts off Rax’s doomsday device, and leaves in the Imperialis, while Norra is rescued by Jas and they manage to take Brentin’s body back to Akiva for burial. Niima begins to claim the enormous amounts of salvage that have resulted from so many spaceships crashing into the planet – you may recognise her name as being shared by the Outpost where Rey sells her tech in The Force Awakens?

Throughout all of the book, Leia has been pregnant, and Han hasn’t known what to do with himself, what with Chewie on Kashyyyk with his family. Leia finally has her baby boy when the formal peace accord is signed between the New Republic and the Empire, Mas Amedda finally having escaped Coruscant with the help of some children. Norra heads off to Corellia to teach piloting with Wedge, Temmin being among the first intake of students, and it all ends a bit sugary, somehow…


Throughout the novel, we also get Interludes that tell tales of what is going on across the galaxy, and they have to be some of the best parts of the book. We see Lando reclaiming Cloud City with the help of Lobot and some New Republic soldiers; we see Mas Amedda’s escape from Coruscant; we even catch up with the weird asexual pirate from the previous book. Notably, we also catch up with Jar Jar on Naboo, and learn that he’s now entertaining people as a street clown. That interlude is actually really quite emotional, and I wonder if anyone will re-evaluate how they feel about the Gungan in light of this. I really liked these things, but having now seen the structure of them across all three books of the trilogy, I’ve been wondering if it wouldn’t have been more interesting to have made the three books feature these stories more prominently…

See, these interludes predominantly have one common theme: the galaxy is a changing place. I sometimes wonder if this book isn’t a little too self-aware, and the interludes are casually showing us that the universe is no longer the swashbuckling adventure-ride of the Bantam era, and everything we thought we knew is wrong. Conspiracy theories aside, the interludes have a tremendous sense of “anything can happen now the Empire has fallen”, and I absolutely loved this freshness from them!

Aftermath trilogy

Overall, I think the Aftermath trilogy has got to be among the weirdest, uneven fiction set in the Star Wars universe. It’s not Bounty Hunter Wars awful, don’t get me wrong, but I just don’t think it’s that great for it to hold up against the old canon stuff. I’m not about to lurch into a “back in my day” rant, but this stuff essentially replaces most of the X-Wing series of novels, and a good portion of the Thrawn trilogy, as well. I think the X-Wing series is probably a very close comparison here, actually, as those novels were also propelled by characters from outside of the movies, and we even get to see Wedge form a squadron of washouts (Phantom Squadron, rather than Wraith Squadron, but you get the idea). Now, I used to be a big fan of the X-Wing books, but went off them when I last re-read the series. Even so, the basic premise of those books is somehow a lot more interesting, and certainly a lot more tightly-wrought, than this trilogy. While Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston may have assembled a cast of tropes and grafted them onto the universe, the main characters from this trilogy just don’t honestly feel like they belong there. The most interesting character, to me, is Sinjir, and the way he is treated as a drunken smart-mouth is really quite the waste.

I think a lot of my negativity on this score has to do with the distinct lack of movie characters involved in such a big story, though. There’s literally no Luke; Leia spends pretty much the whole book being pregnant, and Han does have some moments, but he’s once again the cocky smuggler, though feeling out of his depth with fatherhood pressing down upon him, and his interactions with baby Ben near the end once more seem to fly in the face of any personal growth he may have made over the course of the original trilogy. When I think of how present the big three movie characters were in stuff like the Thrawn trilogy, and compare that to this, it is just a crushing disappointment. There is still an important story being told somewhere in these pages, for sure, but it’s told through a focus being on entirely the wrong people, in my opinion.

The trilogy certainly had a tall order when it began: connect Return of the Jedi to the as-yet unreleased The Force Awakens. The hype for the novel was insane, and I’ve talked already about how much of a let-down I felt it was. Life Debt, without having quite so much weight on it, wasn’t exactly a great book, but I did find a lot to enjoy there. The conclusion to the trilogy, however, seemed to set itself up to fail almost immediately, having a massive story to resolve, yet following only a part of that.

There are still a number of questions left, for me, which also makes it feel like something of a let-down. I mean, we only learn a modicrum of what exactly the Emperor was planning out there beyond the galactic rim, with Thrawn’s name thrown into the mix in a manner that is clearly intended to anticipate Tim Zahn’s new book that is set to release in April. The whole plot with the Imperial Remnant was by turns confusing and weird and bad, and I feel like a trick really was missed here. Indeed, I feel that the entire point of this element of the book was just there to explain why there are so many wrecks on Jakku in Episode VII. There are so many things that I wish had been focused on in this novel, but instead we got to meet the withered Hutt of Jakku and her weird slaves…

All through writing this blog, I’ve been trying to think of something good I can say about the book. True, I did like a lot of the interludes, and wish we’d had more of those, or that they had been expanded upon. We also get some throwaway bits sprinkled into the mix, such as the canon confirmation of Durga the Hutt being a character in the lore, here said to be based on Ulmatra. Things like this made me feel annoyed, because there is a story between the lines that I want to be reading instead. The main thrust of the story just felt like such a lacklustre way to end this.

To sum up: this book (and really, this trilogy) just didn’t do it for me.

While this entire blog has pretty much felt like an attack on the whole trilogy, I think it’s important to say that you should still read the book for yourself, or get it on audio or whatever. I am a huge believer in forming your own opinions on stuff anyway, but in particular I think it’s important that any Star Wars fan picks up these novels to take a look, as I feel the story will be crucial background in the years to come. While it’s true that this message is perhaps a bit disingenuous to come at the end of a long ramble about what I disliked about it, I would still say read it for yourself first – and then by all means come back here and we can talk about it!

Aftermath: Life Debt

Hey everybody,
I’ve made good use of my time off work by reading the second novel in the Aftermath trilogy, Life Debt, and I have to put this out there now: this novel is weird to me. I alternately really, really like it, and find it so annoying that I wonder why I was even spending the time reading it.

First, let me tell you what happens – spoilers will be all over this blog, so you have been warned!

Picking up where the first novel ended, we see Norra, Sinjir, Jas and Temmin as a group of Imperial-catchers, travelling the galaxy picking up rogue Imperial officers and bringing them to account for their actions during the years the Empire was in control. The opening sequence also introduces Jom Barell to the team, a New Republic commando from the first book who I’d actually forgotten about. Anyway, the Imperial they catch ends up dead, but as soon as they return to Chandrila, they’re given a new mission: Han Solo has gone missing, and Leia wants him back. We learn that Leia is pregnant, too, providing even more motivation. So Norra and the team split up to find some clues as to where he could be, and find themselves on the trail of an Imperial prison-designer, Golas Aram. During an attempt to break into his compound, Han shows up and tells them Chewie has been taken prisoner by the Empire, and he was after Golas to attempt to find out where. Sinjir manages to get the details on the prison, which happens to be on Kashyyyk, and so they all head off to the Wookiee homeworld, just about managing to evade the Imperial blockade of the world, though their passage does attract the attention of Admiral Rae Sloane.

That should actually be Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, who is being used as a figurehead for the new Empire by the mysterious chap from the end of the first Aftermath book: mysterious, no longer! Gallius Rax was an orphan from Jakku who managed to stow away aboard the ship of Imperial Advisor Yupe Tashu, who we met in the clandestine meeting on Akiva in the first novel. Sloane is determined to find some kind of history on this guy, as she doesn’t trust him despite all that he has done for her career. There is a lot of intrigue around the new Empire in this book, as we see Sloane head to Coruscant which is still under ISB control and the like. It’s a really interesting look at the galaxy post-Endor, I must say!

Things come to a head when Sloane contacts the New Republic to offer to begin peace talks, coinciding with the return of the prisoners from the Kashyyyk prison, several of whom are high-ranking Rebels, Norra’s husband Brentin among them. While the prisoners return, Han doesn’t, however, having stayed behind with Sinjir, Jom and Jas to help liberate Kashyyyk. A month passes, and the celebrations for the return of the prisoners take a horrific turn when they are revealed to have been sleeper agents for the Empire, and they all try to assassinate Mon Mothma. In the confusion, Sloane escapes Chandrila having been shot, but steals a shuttle that Brentin has also stowed-away on.

Meanwhile on Kashyyyk, Jom is captured by the Imperial governor of the planet, who has not so much gone native as gone feral, and pulls out Jom’s eye for the hell of it. Thankfully, we don’t actually see that. Turns out the Wookiees are being controlled by a chip in their brains, so Sinjir masquerades as one of Sloane’s men to attempt to disrupt the signal to these chips. He gets soundly beaten-up in the process, but it works, and the Wookiees rise up against the Imperials and, with the timely intervention of Leia, Ackbar and Wedge, the blockade is broken.

The novel ends with the fall-out from all of this, as Sloane and Brentin learn of Gallius Rax’s origin on Jakku, and decide to head there to find out what’s going on. Rax, for his part, has decided to make a final stand against the New Republic at the planet, and arrives there with the entire Imperial fleet…

Like its predecessor, there are a number of Interludes that continue to show the state of the galaxy post-Endor, and while some of them are a little bland, I do like they way the break up the main narrative, and allow for an even wider scope for the book. Not many of them stick in the mind, though there is one that is set in Maz Kanata’s Castle, and being a big fan of her from Episode VII, I did enjoy seeing that one. It didn’t really tell us anything new, but it was good to see her again!

So that’s the story, broadly speaking. Overall, I thought the storyline was pretty great, and I think it would have been more deserving of being the one to come out before Episode VII last autumn. The first novel had a massive hype, and really fell flat as we learnt next to nothing of any real use, in my opinion, as to how the galaxy had changed. This book, however, shows us a lot more of the galaxy, and its wider scope is certainly to be commended. I love galaxy-spanning epics, and this definitely delivered on that! There are also some really great action sequences, such as breaking into the prison on Kashyyyk, the assassination attempts and Sloane’s escape from Chandrila. Indeed, the overall plot is exactly what I want and love from Star Wars novels.

Of course, here comes the “but”…

The characters were just so off for me, I can’t quite express how distressing it was sometimes to read. Let’s start with the movie people. Han knows that Leia is pregnant, but follows up on a lead with Chewie that might be able to save the planet Kashyyyk (it’s the lead we see them discuss in the interlude from the first novel). So Han willingly leaves his pregnant wife (we learn they married on Endor) to travel across the galaxy and put himself in danger. He’s also more of the cocky smuggler from A New Hope, which pretty much negates his growth that we see across the original movies – the Han of the ending of Return of the Jedi just doesn’t seem like the kinda guy to just abandon his nascent family like that. And the excuse he keeps giving is “it’s a thing I have to do…” which is just so damn stupid.

Leia isn’t much better. A lot of writers have had trouble writing Leia, because they seem to confuse the take-charge princess for a bossy, overbearing woman. This was certainly the problem with a lot of the Bantam novels, and a lot of the earlier Del Rey stuff. Leia here comes across as fairly erratic, particularly with her dealings with Mon Mothma. Spoiled brat springs to mind, actually. I think what’s worse is that I get the impression we’re supposed to put it down to her being pregnant? Hmph. That said, there was a nice little spark of character for her when she heads off to go save her husband without NR approval, that sort of take-charge attitude is definitely in character for her.

I was really surprised to see Evaan show up from the Princess Leia comic, wasn’t really expecting to see that, so it was nice to know that these things don’t exist in a vacuum, and they are all bleeding into each other.

Chewie is Chewie, but I was a bit dismayed to see that he still has the life debt thing to Han. Reading Bloodline, it looked as if they’d decided to do away with that, as it was wholly an EU creation, and even given the title of this novel, I was hoping it would have some other connotation. But no. It does look, at least, like it won’t be quite the issue it was for the Bantam and Del Rey series’, as our two favourite smugglers look like they might actually be parting ways now, rather than Chewie continually following Han around because he has to, ad infinitum. So that will hopefully be a thing, anyway.

Norra actually interested me in this book. She is still mostly just a bit of a blank character, unfortunately, but there are moments where she comes across as genuinely interesting. Her burgeoning romance with Wedge was nice to see, and I’m left wondering once again how her story will progress in the third book in the series.

I think the biggest let-down of the book, and one that I kept wincing at whenever I came across a scene with him, was Sinjir. He’s one of the earliest gay characters in the Star Wars universe, but I felt this was really quite badly handled in the first book, insofar as it seemed to come out of nowhere. The idea of Sinjir’s character really interests me, an ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer whose job was to root out dissension within the ranks, finds he’s actually losing his own faith in the regime so deserts, and wallows in self-pity at the irony of the situation before stepping up to the challenge in the last book, and now finds himself in a position where his particular set of skills can be put to good use. That’s a character arc I can get behind. The fact that he’s gay is interesting insofar as we have seen just one other such character (I believe) up to this point, and I find it interesting to see if the Empire would have any kind of reaction to that in its heyday. However, so many of Sinjir’s scenes show him to merely be a caricature of the campest of gay men, it’s borderline offensive, but also has little to no impact on the storyline. I’m just bemused as to why it’s even in there, to be honest.

Sloane, and her stuff with the Empire, was definitely the highlight of the book, much as the scenes with the Imperial Future Council on Akiva were probably the most interesting from the first book. As said above, I really enjoyed seeing Coruscant, almost under martial law, and the addition of Mas Amedda as the Grand Vizier of the Empire was really nice. Of course, I am a bit sad that they seem to have done away with Sate Pestage in this regard, though he is still a name in Tarkin, so maybe we’ll see some more of him and what he’s up to. It’s stuff like this that I feel really ought to have been in the first book!

Gallius Rax was a bit of an annoyance, if I’m honest. I think his appearance at the very end of Aftermath was touted as being the new-canon version of Grand Admiral Thrawn, and so my expectations were high. However, he comes across more like he wants people to think he’s more of a big-player than he perhaps is. Whether this is actually the author’s fault or not, I don’t know, but he’s definitely no Thrawn. (Of course, while I was in the middle of reading this, the announcement came out of Celebration Europe that Zahn is writing a Thrawn novel for April 2017, so in that sense, Rax is kinda superfluous).

Speaking of comparisons with earlier novels, I thought the stuff with the sleeper-agent prisoners highly reminiscent of the Lusankya prisoners from Mike Stackpole’s Rogue Squadron series of novels. Very interesting to see how the old canon is informing the new canon, and while I do think that Stackpole implemented it better, he did essentially have three novels to build the storyline over, but still, it was a nice little throwback.

Finally, we have Yupe Tashu and the whole Jakku thing. I read somewhere in the run-up to this book’s release that Life Debt will demonstrate that Jakku is more important to galactic history than we were expecting (or something like that), and this book certainly delivers on that front. The book starts with a prologue set 30 years beforehand, and shows a young Rax stowing away aboard Tashu’s ship, after he had set some droids down in the middle of the desert. The book ends with a scene between Rax and Palpatine, who asks the boy to return to Jakku and guard whatever it is those droids are doing. It’s all very mysterious, but there’s clearly something going on down there, and while part of me is rolling my eyes at how Jakku is almost becoming the new Tatooine, I’m nevertheless really intrigued, and looking forward to the third novel in the trilogy to see how this all ends up. Looks like the bulk of the book will be the Battle of Jakku, which has already been dealt with in parts, but since when has Star Wars had a problem with re-telling a story multiple times? (Death Star plans, I’m thinking of you!)

Oh, and Luke’s absence from any and all new-canon stuff is now becoming really annoying. What’s worse is we probably won’t get anything until Episode VIII, either!

This blog has been a lot bigger than I actually thought it would be, and I think that shows the mark of a good book. I mean, as much as I could say I dislike the characterizations, I still have a lot to say about it! Like the first, it’s also told in the present tense, which really helps you to propel through the pages, and I do think that perhaps it would be worthwhile going back through and re-reading the two of them, though I might wait until the third book, Empire’s End, comes out in January.

So yeah, something of a love-hate thing with this book. It was a lot better than the last book simply because of the scope, and while I wasn’t entirely impressed with the characters, getting to see the wider picture of the Star Wars galaxy has made reading this book definitely worthwhile overall!

Star Wars: Tarkin

Continuing to make my merry way through the new Star Wars canon, I’m just done reading Tarkin by my old favourite, James Luceno. What a good book! It wasn’t what I was expecting, and it wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but my goodness, it was good all the same!

View this post on Instagram

70ish pages in, and I'm loving this book!! #StarWars

A post shared by Mark (@marrrkusss) on

First of all, this is essentially a biography of Grand Moff Tarkin, but principally told through flashbacks, as Tarkin remembers key moments from his upbringing that clearly inform his actions as an adult. I wasn’t really expecting or hoping for this, as I don’t honestly feel that we need to know that Tarkin’s childhood was a harsh one, with very primal lessons drilled into him as he was mentored by his great-uncle in the wilds of Eriadu. I know he’s the villain of A New Hope, and his ruthless, uncompromising nature led to such atrocities as the Death Star – and that’s fine, I don’t need to see why he is like this; it’s enough that he is. I think I was hoping for something that shows us the Grand Moff in his prime, not necessarily working on the Death Star project, though that is of course a big part of his story.

We do get some of this, as the main storyline involves Tarkin pursuing a group of dissidents who have stolen his ship. Vader is along for the ride, and there are some really great moments between the two that show why the Dark Lord was essentially willing to play lapdog to Tarkin during A New Hope. I actually found myself really liking the fact that Tarkin doesn’t truly know who Vader is, but has a strong suspicion that it is in fact Anakin Skywalker, with whom he worked briefly during the Clone Wars.

Vader is very much Vader, but we do get to see more of Emperor Palpatine, especially in Tarkin’s flashbacks as we see the Senator help him on his way. There were a couple of mentions of Palpatine’s master, and I feel like I would probably have gotten a lot more out of this book if I had also read Luceno’s Darth Plagueis. It’s still annoying to me that I haven’t gotten round to that one yet, but it’s increasingly in my sights, so expect a review once I’ve read it!

Perhaps most strongly tied to this book is Luceno’s earlier novel, Cloak of Deception. That book is one of my all-time favourites, and so I was really happy to see that they haven’t written it off entirely. While there are several bits and pieces scattered throughout this new continuity that make me feel like, “oh, that’ll mean x will be part of canon” or “y is out, then!”, there is much more than merely referencing the fact that Tarkin was a native of Eriadu and once held the post of Sector Governor; the majority of the book’s plot is discussed as historical fact within this novel, which makes me feel that Cloak of Deception can pretty much be the first old-canon novel that can be considered to be new canon, too. Of course, we may yet be proven wrong, but I hope not! On the subject of books that we can assume are definitely no longer canon, Admiral Daala is not mentioned at all in this book, so take from that what you will…

Luceno can be very verbose, and sometimes goes to great lengths to tie in bits of continuity that sometimes feel forced. This was particularly a problem for his first Star Wars novel, Hero’s Trial, but had been less and less of an issue, but it’s now back here, unfortunately. There was also a cute little meta-moment where Tarkin is being fitted for a uniform and remarks on the importance of boots that fit properly, recalling Peter Cushing’s experiences on the set of the film. That’s pretty much the only thing I can find to say that’s actually bad about it. Sure, I wish Tarkin had been treated much as Palpatine was in Cloak of Deception, and have him be the centre of attention without delving into his background like this, but aside from making Tarkin appear somewhat sentimental, it doesn’t really hamper the plot – indeed, it should probably be expected, with a title like Tarkin!

So overall, I liked it a lot!

This is also the 50th book I’ve read so far this year, counting all of the comics as well as the more traditional novels, so I thought that was impressive! I wonder if I’ll get another 50 read by the end of the year…