Easter 2016! part two

Hey everybody!
It’s part two of my Star Wars Easter! Always an exciting time, as I feel more of a connection to the original trilogy and stuff. Indeed, watching them again this year, more than any other time in recent memory, has almost felt like re-setting myself as regards Star Wars. Let me ramble for a bit…

I’ve made a few posts on this blog that have had some inchoate rambling about the state of Star Wars today, and the loss of the wonderfulness that is the expanded universe. I’ve been reflecting on this again recently, largely following my reading of A New Dawn I suppose, which is a tremendous book, and I think if I’d read it two years ago when it was first published, I would likely have had an entirely different feeling towards this. See, that book is a fantastic way to set up this new publishing era, and really lives up to its meta-intent of providing us book fans with a new dawn of Star Wars storytelling. I think I’m going to read Tarkin next, though have already read Heir to the Jedi of course, so at least two of the first three novels to come from the new story group have been absolute triumphs.

It’s not really tempting to think of myself as some kind of dispossessed fan, though I know I have bemoaned the loss of things like the Thrawn trilogy. I’ve always tried to be open-minded about these changes, though having grown up with so many of these books, I always found it a bit difficult to let it go, I suppose.

This Easter weekend, I read a couple of stories from the now-Legends continuity, and my quandary has begun to lessen as a result. I’ve already talked about The Force Unleashed, of course; well I followed those two up with the Agent of the Empire series from comics great John Ostrander!

Star Wars Agent of the Empire

The first book began in December 2011, the sequel following in October 2012. At five issues each, they tell the adventures of Jahan Cross, the Agent of the Empire, as he works in the shadows for Imperial Intelligence. The series was sold as the Star Wars version of James Bond, and the first book in particular really shows us this, as we see Cross meet with Armand Isard (M, in this instance) and Alessi Quon (Q, if you will). I’m something of a James Bond fan, so thought these aspects were pretty hilarious, but I can see that some folks might not appreciate them.

Iron Eclipse follows Cross to the Corporate Sector, where he foils an attempt by Iaco Stark to take over the galaxy’s droids and ultimately topple the Emperor. The story is actually hilarious, though I for one appreciated the throwback to the Republic comics series, most notably the Stark Hyperspace War series. Ostrander was a long-time writer for that series of course, and it was good to see the links made that show the universe to be more cohesive. The series also features Han and Chewie in what might look like a gratuitous cameo, though it ties in nicely with Brian Daley’s novels, and ultimately I can’t really fault their presence.

The second book, Hard Targets, is another interesting one, as we see Cross working almost in a diplomatic capacity when the current Count Dooku (not Christopher Lee’s character, his nephew) is assassinated and Serenno is trying to elect a regent. There are some truly awesome parts to this story, not least looking at the inner-workings of Serenno (Count Dooku is one of my favourite Star Wars characters ever), but also the beginning of the story, on Alderaan. These comics are set before the films, so Bail Organa is alive and well. It’s always been a huge bugbear for me, but there are barely any stories that take place on Alderaan, which I have always found so frustrating as a Star Wars fan!

Jahan Cross is “the Empire’s scalpel”, and while there are plenty of stories that involve agents of the Empire – heck, Mara Jade can be seen almost as the same character – there’s something really interesting about this series that made me really eager for more. There’s a tantalizing cameo from Ysanne Isard in the second book that got me thinking about the possibility of seeing the two paired up for a mission, for instance. There is so much you could do with a character like this, it’s a shame that we’re unlikely to see anything more from him. But I guess anything’s possible.

Bounty Hunters

In addition to these, I also read Dengar’s story from Tales of the Bounty Hunters. It’s an anthology I’ve mentioned before, of course, but while I consider the Zuckuss story pretty decent, and IG-88’s just hilarious, I don’t really remember that of Dengar. Well, what a surprise that was!

Dengar is the bandage-wrapped chap immediately to the right of Vader in the above picture, but because of the editing, you don’t really get to see all that much of him in the film. His backstory is that he’s a Corellian swoop bike rider who suffered a disfiguring accident during a race with Han Solo, and was “rescued” by the Empire, who turned him into an assassin without a conscience. It sounds pretty badass, and should be cool, but his story in the anthology turns into a love story as he rescues a dancing girl who turns out to be a techempath, who feels a connection with him and basically turns him human again. They wind up getting married – and Boba Fett is the best man. Seriously, I’m not making this up.

There is an annoying trend among the stories in the Tales of the Bounty Hunters to make too much of an effort to entangle Han Solo in each of the hunters’ pasts, and while Dengar is perhaps not the worst offender (Boba Fett has the most arduous story in here, and I’m not going to read it again in a hurry), it is so annoying how he’s portrayed to be out for revenge, and tries to imagine each target is Han whenever he kills them. Why can’t these bounty hunters be on the bridge with Vader because they want the money? I mean, that’s what I imagine most bounty hunters are in the profession to do, earn money. Surely the ruthless side of these hunters needs to be emphasized, and not trying to make it all tie into a neat little bow all the time?

For me, Dengar’s tale summarises a lot of how I feel about the wider expanded universe right now, I think. Sure, there are some truly stellar pieces of fiction in the Legends stable, but for the most part – particularly the Bantam era, actually – we see a lot of this sort of thing, where stories are a little weird (with the techempath stuff), have some awesome set-up (Dengar as a conscienceless assassin for the Empire) and take us to the epic locations of the original trilogy (Cloud City and Jabba’s Palace), but ultimately we get some weird little story that feels compelled to explain every nagging detail and make everything link up to everything else.

Which brings me back to what I was talking about at the beginning of this blog, really. When they’re good, the Star Wars stories I grew up with were really, really good. Increasingly, however, I find them for the most part to be fairly bland, a little too outlandish, or downright silly/annoying. Both the Jedi Academy trilogy and Darksaber spring to mind as being in this latter category, despite having been a big fan of them all those years ago. There are still a fair number of Prequel-era stories I’ve not talked about here, but love very dearly, but I think I’m getting to that point now where I can say, yeah, maybe it is time for a change. Maybe we should take what was good about the EU, remove the garbage, and make way for what could be a much more joined-up way of storytelling.

I’m definitely rambling now, so it’s probably time to finish up this blog. But suffice it to say, A New Dawn has really rocked my world, and made me think that perhaps, we could be in for an even more interesting Star Wars history than we’ve had throughout the 90s and 2000s…

Easter 2016! part one

Hey everybody!
I’ve mentioned it before, but Easter is my absolutely favourite time of year. It’s nothing religious, for I’m not a religious person – rather, it’s a combination of chocolate, time off work, and some very wonderful memories! See, Easter was the time of year when I first discovered the Star Wars expanded universe, when my mate Dave pointed me in the direction of Heir to the Empire and said, “go read that”. What an amazing time! Between that and Crimson Empire, I was totally sold on the EU, and have made it my mission to make every Easter as Star Wars-filled as I possibly can.

As well as re-watching the original trilogy every year, I usually find myself slipping back into some kind of reading program, which I mentioned in one of my very first blog entries here on spalanz.com! I’ve recently re-read a lot of those posts, which kinda sounds a bit vain now I mention it, but it got me back into the mood like nothing else. I’ve already started, anyway, by reading the awesome A New Dawn (well worth picking up!) and have continued this spirit with The Force Unleashed graphic novels!

The Force Unleashed

Back in the mid-2000s, a new video game was launched as the next chapter of the Star Wars saga. The game was released in 2008, and spawned a whole media crossover event much like Shadows of the Empire back in the 1990s – having never played the game (despite owning the DS version for a while), I’ve enjoyed both the novel and graphic novel versions, as well as the Miniatures line and RPG supplement. But today, I’m talking comics…

The story follows Starkiller, Vader’s secret apprentice, as he fulfils missions for his master, namely hunting down and destroying Jedi. His first target is General Rahm Kota, a Jedi Master who survived the Clone Wars due to his mistrust of clone troopers – being surrounded by his own militia, Order 66 kinda just passed the guy by. Starkiller catches up to him over Nar Shaddaa and, after a fairly huge duel, manages to defeat him – though not before Kota senses he will himself be a part of the apprentice’s future.

Starkiller has been trained by Vader with the intention of one day toppling the Emperor, so to prepare him further for this, he is sent after a member of the Jedi Council. Shaak Ti has been hiding on Felucia following the conclusion of the Clone Wars. The planet is so rich in the Force that she is effectively hidden from any prying eyes, but not from Starkiller. Shaak Ti sends her apprentice, Maris Brood, into the Felucian jungle while she confronts Starkiller alone at the aptly-named Abyss – the maw of a Sarlacc monster! Shaak Ti is clearly powerful in the Force, but Starkiller uses his instinctual rage and manages to push her into the pit.

Upon his return to Vader’s side, the Emperor has discovered Starkiller’s existence, and forces Vader to kill him. Vader, however, saves his body and manages to somehow bring him back to life, whereupon he gives him a new mission – round up the Emperor’s enemies into a cohesive rebellion that will distract the Emperor’s spies long enough for Vader to strike his master down, thus ruling the galaxy with Starkiller at his side. It’s a fairly crazy scheme, but Starkiller goes along with it, and determines to find out if General Kota indeed still lives, to find out what his parting words were.

Starkiller finds Kota as a blind, drunk derelict slumming in Cloud City. He convinces Kota to join his cause following his defeat of the Emperor’s Shadow Guard – huge, black-armoured Force-sensitive killers. Together, they travel to Kashyyyk in an attempt to find Bail Organa, who has also been attempting to create a rebellion – and had in fact been searching for Kota to help. They only find Organa’s daughter Leia there, and manage to evade the Imperial presence on the Wookiee home planet and get Leia to safety. Kota surmises that Bail, having failed to recruit him, will have gone after Shaak Ti instead, so Starkiller returns to Felucia where the planet has begun to slip into the Dark Side now that Shaak Ti has gone. Starkiller finds Bail Organa being held hostage by Shaak Ti’s almost-deranged apprentice Maris Brood, and the two fight – Maris bringing out a Felucian Rancor at one point! She is defeated, however, and while Starkiller may have dissuaded her from following her dark path, she nevertheless flees into the wilderness.

With Bail on board, Starkiller travels to Corellia to meet with other senators dissatisfied with the Emperor’s rule. Together with Garm bel Iblis and Mon Mothma, the Rebel Alliance is about to be formed when Vader arrives to capture them. Starkiller faces off against his erstwhile master, and is defeated. The senators and Kota are taken to the still under-construction Death Star at the Outer Rim, where they are to be tortured by the Emperor himself. Starkiller attempts to rescue them, and while he manages to distract the Emperor and Vader long enough to allow the senators to flee, ultimately the Emperor kills the secret apprentice, revealing that he knew about Vader’s training all along. However, the two Dark Lords now have a significant problem on their hands, as they have unwittingly allowed Starkiller to become the galvanising martyr to the rebellion’s cause.

I really like this story! While its episodic nature belies its origins as a video game, with each vignette clearly forming a level of the game, it’s nevertheless a beautifully wrought pastiche of the prequels and original-trilogy, through its use of classic locations such as Cloud City as well as fleshing out places such as Felucia and Raxus Prime. The premise for the story is that Vader has trained the apprentice through fear and brutality, and as a result Starkiller is basically out of control of his emotions, allowing him to do all kinds of over-the-top stuff like pull Star Destroyers out of the skies and the like. Taken in the spirit that it is meant, the story is a lot of fun – not unlike the IG-88 tale from Tales of the Bounty Hunters, actually.

I’m one of these people who grew up with the Zahn ideas of the Corellian Treaty forming the rebellion, and I’ve always been a bit put-out by the notion that they were manipulated into doing so by the Emperor – and I find the involvement of the secret apprentice to be a little too close to the worst kind of fan-fiction at times, the kind where hugely significant plot threads are re-written so as to include the author’s pet character. But as I said before, taken in the spirit of the thing, it’s easy to overlook that.

There’s also an entirely gratuitous love story almost grafted-on. Juno Eclipse serves as Starkiller’s pilot for his missions for Vader, something that always makes me curious – is piloting that difficult that it’s easier to get someone to do it for you? Anyway, throughout the comic she serves mostly to provide cleavage – at one point, entirely unnecessary butt-cleavage – that leaves me feeling a little bit dirty. I’m not a video gamer, of course, but I get the impression that she’s created to appeal to the overly-machismo crowd and has little further function than just set-dressing. Which is unfortunate, because Star Wars actually has some really kickass women in the mythos, so I feel this has been a really missed opportunity.

I love the way Cloud City and Felucia are woven into this story, and in actual fact, the Felucian episodes have inspired me with my own fan fiction when I wrote the short story Chasing Shadows a couple of years ago. Indeed, the end of that story was written to almost tie into The Force Unleashed, as Vader learns Shaak Ti yet lives, so then sends his apprentice after her. So it has certainly been influential for me!

The Force Unleashed II

This one is a bit of a let-down, for me. It’s essentially a Boba Fett story, and while there have been Boba Fett stories in the past that are fairly decent, Enemy of the Empire for instance, this story makes him almost too human to be the fearsome character the films intend him to be. The basic premise is that Vader has created clones of Starkiller, and due to an accelerated ageing process, they have been going insane. They’re also convinced they’re really Starkiller, and are obsessed with tracking down Juno Eclipse. Juno and Kota now appear to be fully-fledged rebels, in charge of some portion of the fleet, which was an interesting move, as I’d have expected to see more “movie rebels” involved at such a high level. Anyway.

Fett tracks the Starkiller-clone to Cato Neimoidia, another nice throwback to the prequels, where his trail of destruction knows no bounds. He somehow finds a mechanic who has refitted vessels with new transponder codes for the Alliance, which allows him to find Juno and he takes her captive. Fett delivers Juno to Vader on Kamino, where somehow Starkiller (the real one? A clone?) and Kota turn up and, following a confusing fight, Juno manages to defeat Vader and she and Starkiller are reunited. Fett feels like he can’t kill Starkiller, and thus deliver on his contract, because the former secret apprentice is making out with Juno. And thus the story ends, with Vader a hostage of the rebels on Dantooine.

After the first story, this one really falls flat to me. I just, I don’t know what the point of it was. The first one has a nicely driven narrative to it, the second one feels just all over the place and a little bit too much like it’s just cashing in. It’s unfortunate, because even though the clone thing had kinda been overdone in the Star Wars expanded universe, there was some potential here for another story that serves to further tie the prequels and original trilogy together, as we see the showdown on Kamino and whatnot. Ultimately, however, this story becomes the sort of thing that Disney has essentially saved us Star Wars fans from.

Unlike the first one, however, I haven’t yet read the novel for TFU2, and I do know that the comic takes a very prescribed look at the events rather than presenting the whole story. So that may be worth looking into at a later date, whereupon I’ll doubtless come here and compare!

I recently read this interview with the game developer, and comic author Haden Blackman, about what a third installment would have looked like. The idea of Vader and Starkiller teaming up to go against the Emperor sounds like it walks that fine line of could-be-amazing, could-be-awful. I think I would like it if Vader ultimately killed Starkiller at the end, once and for all, as otherwise it just gets too messy with continuity and stuff. Though obviously, I’m talking about a pre-Disney continuity here! Suffice it to say, though, the idea sounds interesting…

In addition to watching A New Hope on Friday, I also cracked out this bad boy once again!

Escape from the Death Star

Escape from the Death Star wowed me last year as being a truly amazing gaming experience, especially if you watch the movie first! It’s definitely not easy, in fact the reliance on luck can sometimes make it soul-crushing, but I was particularly pleased this time when I managed to escape from the battle station and win! Was not expecting that, as Luke kept making ham-fisted rolls that got him trapped by stormtroopers for most of the game – as it turned out, Leia both disabled the tractor beam and was first onto the Falcon, and the game ended with Han leaping clear of his 8 pursuing troopers! What a finish!

I’m not sure if I’d put this game in my top ten, but for nostalgia purposes (I have such strong memories of trying to figure out how to play this with my brother) it’s a winner, every time!

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My world-famous pasta al tonno! #GoodFriday

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My Friday ended with my world-famous pasta al tonno, and some painting. More on the latter in tomorrow’s update blog, of course!! Though, if you follow me on instagram, you’ll know that I’ve returned to some old favourites this week, in an attempt to get them finished…

Whatever you’re up to over the weekend, I hope you’re having an awesome time of it! Stay tuned for more exciting Star Wars updates here, anyway!

Happy Easter!

Hey everybody!
It’s a four-day weekend, which is always more than welcome in my book, and whether you’re celebrating Easter or just relaxing with as much chocolate as you can bodily cope with, I hope you’re having a great time so far! As for me, well, this has been happening…

Easter has long had strong ties to the Star Wars franchise for me, and every year I re-watch the original trilogy, usually accompanied by a re-read of a lot of the fiction from that point in the timeline. I am, of course, a massive Star Wars fan, and it was many Easters ago that I discovered the expanded universe of novels and comics. So my big plans will be, as per, a re-watch of the trilogy, interspersed with a lot of comics. Aw, yeah!

I’ve mentioned it before, but A New Hope is my favourite of all the movies. For a long time it was Return of the Jedi, but the original movie supplanted that a few years back now, mainly because it’s such a truly wonderful story.

Continue reading “Happy Easter!”

Easter!

First of all, Happy Easter everyone! Whether religious or not, I hope we can all at least appreciate the chocolate festivities of this time of year. Though, sadly, I have been chocolate-less for some time now – it’s a trauma I’ll just have to live with. Anyway! For me, Easter is always synonymous with my discovery of the Star Wars expanded universe – many many years ago, a schoolfriend pointed me in the direction of Heir to the Empire, and I have not looked back since. It’s hard to believe now, but for a long time my love of Star Wars was confined to just the three movies, and I had no idea of this whole load of accompanying literature! But twas over the Easter break that I first read Mr Zahn’s absolutely amazing work, followed swiftly by the graphic novel Crimson Empire, which was the sum of our school library’s Star Wars collection, but these two books launched me on a career from which I have not had a moment’s regret!

This Easter, I read another Timothy Zahn novel, Scoundrels. Released last year, I’ve taken so long to read it for a variety of reasons, not least being that I dislike reading books in hardback, so always wait for the paperback release before sampling them (I did once request the local library order in Star by Star upon its release, because I just couldn’t wait for that to come out, but otherwise, yeah…) Scoundrels is set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, and is really a book that’s focused on Han Solo (as the cover might have led you to believe!) Han isn’t quite in with the Rebel Alliance yet, so is still off around the galaxy smuggling and getting up to all sorts of shenanigans on the fringe of galactic society, and he still hasn’t paid off Jabba the Hutt.

The book was publicised as “Oceans 11 meets Star Wars”, and that’s a pretty close description, really. Han is recruited to break into a vault for a guy who has had some money stolen, and recruits a team to help him do it. If you’re wondering how Zahn manages to spin this out to cover nearly 450 pages of story, then you’re obviously not familiar with the man’s work! A whole raft of colourful characters, some old favourites and some new blood, are assembled, and the criminal organisation Black Sun are thrown in along with Imperial Intelligence – if you haven’t read this novel yet, you’re in for a really fun experience!

I really liked seeing the nods to Zahn’s previous work, but the new characters he has come up with are so well-done that I was racking my brains for the first few chapters trying to think if they’ve come up before – they mesh that well with the whole. But this is the guy who gave us Thrawn, Mara Jade and Talon Karrde, so I’m not really surprised there. Of all the newbies, Bink Kitik and Rachele Ree were probably the two most interesting, and the two I’d most like to see more of. Fortunately for us, then, Zahn has written two other short stories that feature Bink, one of which is handily included in the back of the paperback release!

Something I was really concerned about with this book was Lando’s inclusion. In case you don’t remember, there is some bad blood between Han and Lando, as suggested in Empire Strikes Back (“You’ve got a lotta guts coming here, after what you pulled”, remember?), which is explained in the 1998 novel Rebel Dawn (part three of the excellent Han Solo trilogy, which I can recommend to anyone if you can pick it up!) by Han recruiting Lando, among some other smugglers, for a similar sort of heist-job that goes sour on all the scoundrels involved, Han included. Lando blamed him for it, and smacked him in the mouth, telling him he never wanted to see him again. This has, for years, been the accepted reason for Lando’s comment, but now we have a story with the two of them set between these events, and I was concerned that it wouldn’t pan out. Well, it does – kinda. Zahn really captures the changed dynamic in their friendship since the Han Solo Trilogy, but unfortunately I felt it seemed to resolve the tension too much for the events of Empire to feel right. Instead, I suppose I would have preferred it if Lando had been left out altogether, but then how would you have a book called Scoundrels without him? Hm. Zahn does a great job, but it does somehow feel unnecessary.

Something else that I was a bit baffled by was the very end, which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say there was a surprise twist, but I felt it was completely redundant, and done more for fan-appeasement than for the demands of the story. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to know what other people think of this!

In addition to Scoundrels, I’ve also read some shorter fiction by Zahn, including one of the aforementioned short stories – Winner Lose All. This is a great prequel to Scoundrels, featuring Lando in a high-stakes sabacc game, and serves as an introduction to three of the new characters, including Bink. I kinda like Lando a lot, and feel he’s been terribly underused by the expanded universe. The L Neil Smith trilogy is just apalling, but any other time I get to read about the dashing gambler is usually good. Having his own short story here is just great – there are no galaxy-spanning massive events taking place, it’s just a good piece of fun fiction that is written really well, with some really compelling characters. Hopefully we’ll see more of Bink and Tavia soon, anyway!

The other short story I read this Easter was Command Decision, which was originally published in the Star Wars Adventure Journal in 1994, a now-defunct publication for a now-defunct Role Playing Game line from a now-defunct publisher. Sigh. I’ll probably wax lyrical about the Role Playing Game in another blog, but for now, suffice it to say that it was awesome, and has some really awesome stuff in it. Including short fiction! Zahn wrote four stories for the Journal’s 15-issue run, if I remember correctly, and Command Decision appeared in #11. It’s basically a short piece featuring Grand Admiral Thrawn, but uses some characters that were taken up again in his later work – including a whole other species that wasn’t properly investigated until 2005! It’s a good bit of backstory to the blue-skinned, red-eyed Grand Admiral, and I enjoyed it very much!

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So I hope you’ve all had a tremendous Easter, whatever you’ve been up to, and I’ll be back again soon with more awesome stuff!