New Star Wars stuff!

Lots of chatter over the internets the past couple of days about new Star Wars literature coming in the run-up to December’s new movie, headed up from this article over on EW. Here are some of my thoughts, which I know you value highly!

A few titles we can confirm are Del Rey’s Star Wars: Aftermath, which sounds like it may serve as an epilogue to the original trilogy—and perhaps a prologue to the new one. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics will put out one prequel called Star Wars: Journey to the Force Awakens and another preview story told from C-3PO’s perspective.

One book to cover the 32-year in-universe gap between episodes 6 and 7? This is pretty awful, and hopefully wrong! There are so many awesome novels in this part of the history that I love so much, it’s going to be extremely difficult to remain objective when I get to read this Aftermath item. I’m hoping that it is merely just a sequel to episode six, and helps to explain why the events of the entire original trilogy are just pointless, as the Empire appears to have survived its apparent annihilation at the end of Jedi. (This is still a strong bone of contention for me).

A comics prequel to the film sounds like it could be good, especially if it’ll be as high-quality as the new ongoing series. I was initially sceptical about replacing the amazing Dark Horse run, of course, but I was really impressed with that first issue, and am looking forward to the Vader series when those issues make it into my hot little hands!

Also intriguing, although not strictly part of the “Journey To …” the next movie: Look for a series of novels retelling the events of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi from the perspective of various supporting characters. Which ones? The publishers aren’t saying just yet. (Fingers crossed for a Behind the Music-style look at what Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band thought was happening in Jabba’s throne room.)

Okay, so I’m not particularly excited by this, but I remain open to being surprised.

However, the worst is this:

Those hoping to find out what Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo have been up to for the past three decades will find it first on the page, with Disney Publishing Worldwide and Lucasfilm confirming that the titles will be filled with Easter eggs foreshadowing events in J.J. Abrams’ Dec. 18 movie.

What is it with Star Wars needing to foreshadow itself all the time? Whenever this has happened before, it’s always been just so bloody awful. Something that leaps to mind is the eternal angst from Anakin during the Clone Wars multimedia tie-ins, where authors took pains to show us how he would so obviously turn into Darth Vader, to the extent that it made the character ridiculous. I’m not really looking forward to seeing endless “event b was inevitable because of event a in story x…”

But anyway. Lots of Star Wars stories coming up, surely the law of averages will mean some of them will be great…

Dawn of the Jedi (0)

Hey folks!
Finally finished the novel Into the Void, a prequel of sorts to the Dawn of the Jedi series from Dark Horse, which I’ve recently written about here, here and here!

Dawn of the Jedi

Let’s get this out here now: the novel has almost exactly the same failings as the comic series, insofar as it categorically does not feel like a story from the ancient past of the Jedi. Rather, this book actually feels like it would be more at home in the Clone Wars era. Some of the scenes around the middle of the book, for instance, strongly recalled that specific conflict, for me. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, don’t get me wrong. The fact that it has the same failings as the comic lead me to believe this is a design failing of the era rather than a storytelling failing from the author. But anyway.

The book is chronologically the first to take place in the Star Wars (legends) universe, though was one of the last to be published before the story group decided it didn’t really happen. It follows the Je’daii Ranger Lanoree Brock on a mission to stop a madcap scheme that could spell doom for the entire Tython system. Adding to the pressure, the man at the head of said scheme is her brother Dalien, who has long been believed dead.

The story is actually really nicely told. It has a blend of past- and present-tense storytelling, with the odd setup of having the past tense for “now” and the present tense for Lanoree’s dreams and remembrances. A bit disorientating at first (as well as slightly annoying), it eventually settled into a really nice rhythm, and makes this one of the best pieces of writing to emerge from the universe.

There are some really nice sequences here, and we get to see a bit more of the system than we did in any of the comics. While it continually annoyed me to see how technological the galaxy was over 25000 years before the classic trilogy, if you concentrate on the story being told rather than the timeline conceit, you will no doubt enjoy it a lot more. As I said already, the sequence on Nox, where a manufacturing city sees an orbital bombardment, could have been lifted right out of the Clone Wars, with a Jedi attack on a Separatist factory world.

In fact, to my mind there are only two things that distinguish this era from others in the GFFA: Je’daii/Jedi use metal swords, and droids can’t speak (though some stutter, or something). But I’ve already whined about this in my first blog on the comics.

Towards the end of the novel, we begin to investigate the possibility of a Gree hypergate on Tython, and delve into the ruins of the Old City. The Gree are a species from the West End Games days of Star Wars, with some info on the Gree Enclave being published back in Adventure Journal #8 (from 1995). Subsequent sources have put the Gree prior to the Rakata in terms of galactic dominance, so it was nice to see some more of that joining-up. While we’re touring the ruins of the Old City, I had a really strong Lovecraftian vibe from the whole place, as Lebbon describes massive staircases much like we see in Call of Cthulhu, though the actual trek into the ruins was more reminiscent of the Yithian city from The Shadow Out of Time. This is something that I really enjoyed!

It’s a really good book, anyway, and one that I’m really glad that I’ve read. I’m just not too sure that I could call it an ancient tale of the Star Wars past…

Fantastic!

fantasy

Fantasy. How marvellous. I love a good fantasy story, which you may have picked up on if you’ve been reading this blog for any great length of time. It’s all about the escapism, the exercise of the imagination… with a good fantasy book, I can get lost for hours at a time.

I have vague memories of reading a book when I was still in school to do with a snow queen or a snow witch…something along those lines, anyway. Recently, though, it all started with Lord of the Rings of course. I’m not one of those people who grew up with Tolkien – I first came upon the book thanks to the hoopla of the Peter Jackson trilogy. A lot of people seem to disparage the movies – the purists, I suppose you could say – but I happen to think otherwise. I mean, they brought a whole new audience to the books, and seemed to really regenerate interest. Anyway.

Lord of the Rings is one of the archetypal fantasy epics, if not the archetype, with so much coming out nowadays almost entirely derivative of Tolkien’s work. However, I must admit to finding it a bit long-winded. Yes, it’s all about the journey, and yet it’s a fantastic storyline with compelling characters and epic situations, but the execution is a bit… periphrastic, if you will. The Hobbit, however, I did enjoy. Lots of fun, that one.

From Lord of the Rings, let’s take a look at another archetypal fantasy series: Dungeons and Dragons. First published in 1974 as the now-iconic role-playing game, a whole library of books have been published to support the line. One of those absolutely brilliant moments in publishing came in 1988, with the publication of The Crystal Shard, from the pen of RA Salvatore. A novel trilogy that was intended to showcase the barbarian hero Wulfgar, the result was unintended, but perhaps not unexpected – the meteoric rise of the drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden. A dark elf from the Underdark, Drizzt is unique among his kind for having a conscience. The Icewind Dale trilogy spawned a whole industry of Drizzt material in subsequent years. That first threesome has a lot in common with Tolkien’s world, but Salvatore absolutely nails it with his prequel, the Dark Elf trilogy. These books are absolutely incredible, and I can highly recommend them!

From D&D, we head over to Warhammer, my obsession du jour! Another game setting, this time from 1983, Warhammer Fantasy is a mix of the usual tropes with a historical perspective that seems to be based on 17th-century Germany. Again, a whole library has sprung up to support the setting. For a game whose only objective is to eliminate your opponents, the novels that I’ve read so far have been really quite excellent! I’m currently reading through the latest novel in the End Times ongoing saga, which is one of these books I mentioned as being the sort that I can just lose myself in. In terms of providing background to the game beyond the army books, Warhammer novels have proven to be surprisingly awesome!

The third of the game tie-ins comes in the shape of Pathfinder. Published from 2009 as the bastard offspring of D&D, the Pathfinder setting has also spawned a whole series of novels under the Pathfinder Tales heading. I’ve not managed to make it to any of these novels yet, but have three in the collection, and will be posting about them when I get there!

Finally, we have A Song of Ice and Fire. Back in 1996, George RR Martin brought out his massive tome of a book that is, admittedly, more akin to historical fiction for the most part. But then we get dragons, and all sorts of stuff kicks off. While I’d dispute calling it “high” fantasy, fantasy it remains, so thought I’d mention it here. I do enjoy A Game of Thrones, however I have some issues with it. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the “adult” nature of these books, but most of the time it is entirely gratuitous, and gives me the impression that such scenes are only there to “legitimize” the novels as being for adults – and to offset the dragons, perhaps.

It’s a good story, so far at least, with a lot of compelling characters and some excellent set pieces. It’s definitely worth looking into, and I feel it’s better than the TV show that’s still going on. But then, I suppose this is part of the reason why I like books so damn much, as they allow you to create the world in your head, rather than seeing just one person’s view of it.

At any rate, I’ll stop with my musings now. But get yourselves off to the bookstore, if you haven’t already, and check out some of these books today!

He’s back…

About two weeks ago, I was reading the Warhammer novel The Return of Nagash, by Josh Reynolds, as all the hoopla surrounding The End Times from Games Workshop was beginning to die down. I had been following said hoopla quite closely, as it all began to kick off about a week after I got heavily invested in the Old World – you can read my tumblr collections here and here, as well as checking out my attempts at painting one of the models from the release here. However, while I bought the Reynolds novel at this time, it took me almost a month to actually open the cover, I suppose due to being involved in other stuff at the time! Well, anyway.

Nagash

The novel came out in the first wave of stuff for the End Times, which included the Nagash model itself and the above massive hardback tomes, which give both the fluff and the crunch for Nagash as far as the tabletop game itself goes. While I did actually buy all of the models from wave one, I haven’t done anything with them yet (aside from the Spirits), and if I’m entirely honest, I don’t know if I will: Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings are both lovely-looking armies, but if I did play the game, it would be Lizardmen all the way!

But anyway, the novel.

I’d just like to get this out there from the off: I really liked this book. It deals with the efforts of the Vampire, Mannfred von Carstein, and the Liche, Arkhan the Black, to restore the first Necromancer, Nagash, to the world. I don’t really consider it a spoiler to say that they succeed, given the fact that the game has seen the release of the model and this book is essentially justification in prose, but it is a really excellent read to see how he is brought back.

I’d also like to get this out there from the off: I’ve only ever read Sigvald previously, and am barely acquainted with the Old World setting. A map of the world included in the centre pages is really useful, but I started reading this book with some trepidation, believing that I wouldn’t fully grasp the story because of my unfamiliarity with the setting. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Reynolds introduces new characters and tells the story through their eyes – Erikan Crowfiend has a rich backstory as a vampire who turned his back on his kin, and has now begun his return to Sylvania, so we’re introduced to the major players as Erikan is re-introduced to them, which is a very powerful way of writing, to my mind. As such, this book is an excellent introduction to the world of Warhammer, and at £20, is probably the cheapest you’ll ever find!

As someone who has previously had exposure to the world through the mechanics of painting miniatures rather than the game itself and all its fluff, I found myself enraptured every time something like Castle Drakenhof was mentioned (it’s the name of their blue shade paint! Eeeeeeeee!) It’s a small point, but having been acquainted with the Citadel paint range, it was really nice to see where these names come from. Whether by accident or design, Reynolds uses these a lot, which I would imagine would allow the folks who have only previously painted miniatures without a thought for the game mechanics to feel a little less lost in this book.

I can’t speak for diehard fans of the game, for I am not among their ranks, but there is an excellent review here that you might want to check out for that!

Like I said, then, I have a very disjointed knowledge of the Old World, but that was not an issue for my enjoyment of this novel.

The actual story is also really good in and of itself. For an absolute newcomer, you have a really good tale of two people (though, can a vampire and a liche really be called ‘people’?) who obviously have a history of bad blood between them, coming together in an uneasy alliance with a common goal, though their motivations are definitely not shared. The characterisations of each are such that, by halfway through the novel or less, you feel like you know who these guys are. The story is steeped in a rich history, but that history is explained anyway, so you don’t need prior knowledge of who Arkhan, Krell, Vlad or even Nagash is to enjoy this.

I always think it’s a sign of excellent storytelling, where an author provides a rich background like this and yet having no knowledge of that world doesn’t detract. It’s a very similar experience with Star Wars – the first movie is steeped in history and lore that we obviously don’t know anything about, because this is the very first story in that universe, and yet we aren’t lost for a second. I’m sure long-time Warhammer fans will appreciate what could well be countless nods to past works, but you don’t need to get any of them to appreciate this book for what it is – a great piece of storytelling.

Given that we’re still apparently in the midst of this vampire renaissance, it’s refreshing to read this book without the sort of baggage that vampires have acquired lately. For those of you who don’t know, Warhammer Fantasy Battles was developed in the early 1980s with the express purpose of putting a number of armies in direct conflict with one another – to some extent, everyone is an enemy. Despite the fact that vampires have their own connotations for humanity outside of the game, Reynolds does a really good job of writing these chaps with some level of sympathy, without losing sight of the fact that, to a lot of people who may encounter this book because of their love of the game, the Vampire Count faction is possibly a mortal enemy of the tabletop. Little bits like this really help to make the book a rounded experience.

All of this is not to say that I had some sort of transcendental experience with this book, however. While it is a very good story, the middle does suffer slightly, as Arkhan and Mannfred go their separate ways to recover some relics of Nagash to help in the ritual to restore him to life. The locations of these relics are a long way from both each other and from Sylvania, the home of the vampires, so some level of time-lapse needs to be conveyed. However, we get quite a plodding middle section, as the narrative swings between the two protagonists through each of their journeys, and it sometimes feels like we’re having events relayed to us just for the sake of padding out the journey. I think I would have preferred to have seen each split off, a la Lord of the Rings I suppose, with non-stop Mannfred, then non-stop Arkhan. But that’s really a minor point that needs mentioning.

Overall, it’s an excellent book. Ending with the return of Nagash (again – I don’t consider this a spoiler because, well, the book is called that, after all…), and a couple of other surprises, the stage is now set for book 2 in The End Times. Rumours of a Chaos-heavy book appear to be borne out by the recent announcement from Games Workshop of the next round of End Times miniatures, though as yet we don’t have a novel to accompany them. Nor do we have a massive tome for the crunch, which is apparently coming in an upcoming White Dwarf. I’m hoping there will in fact be a second novel, which is purported to deal with Archaon the Everchosen, who has already had a novel fairly recently of course. The latest rumour I’ve encountered around the Chaos End Times releases puts the ‘book’ release in the third week, so perhaps by the end of the month…

Anyhow, all of my rambling – and efforts to decipher what’s happening in the meta of the tabletop game – aside, this is a really good book, and definitely worth picking up. Unfortunately, it seems the hardback book is now out of stock (unless you can get a copy at your local GW store), but it is still available for download, and will be out in paperback in January. Highly recommended, anyway!

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!