I bought a new camera

Welcome to my latest blog, a little bit of odd jollity for a Saturday! You know you love it.

It’s been another exciting week, as you may have seen from my blogs posted over the past few days. Perhaps the most exciting event was finishing the Thrawn trilogy, which is always good. In case you hadn’t picked it up by now, I’m a really big fan of Tim Zahn’s work! This morning I finally got round to the short story Heist that was published in the Star Wars Insider magazine. A prequel of sorts to the novel Scoundrels, which I read just before Easter, it features the ghost thief Bink Kitik and her sister Tavia on a job. It’s all pretty standard stuff, nothing earth-shattering or anything, but it’s a good tale, and well worth it if you can still find it.

The most exciting thing to happen this morning, though, was the massive delivery of another of the huge ships for the X-Wing miniatures game: Tantive IV!

 

This ship really is huge! Remember the last one that arrived? Well this one is even bigger:

X-Wing Tantive IV
“Look at the size of that thing!”

Wedge may have been referring to the Death Star, but it still holds true here! It does look pretty spectacular, I have to say. Of course, as I mentioned last time, sadly I never get to play this game nowadays, so there’s no telling when I’ll ever get to actually give this a go, but hopefully soon…

I bought a new camera last week as well, it’s about time as I’ve had the last one for about six years now. I popped over to Anglesey, which is one of my absolute favourite places in the country, to give it a proper try and whatnot, but no sooner had I got there than it began to rain. Gah! But I did get some good shots at Red Wharf Bay:

Red Wharf Bay

Red Wharf Bay

Ah, marvellous!

Remember Yig, the new Ancient One in the expansion for Eldritch Horror that I received just over a week ago? Well in addition to reading the classic Lovecraft Call of Cthulhu the other day, I also read the Curse of Yig collaborative tale. It’s a pretty good story, actually – unlike quite a few of the Lovecraft tale I’ve read, this one feels very much like a modern horror story when we come to the end. The tale of a couple who move out west to start a new life, where they encounter the local stories of a snake-god who punishes anyone who kills the indigenous snakes, it very much reminded me of the sort of horror films that begin pregnant with expectation, and culminate in something truly horrible at the end. It’s available in The Horror in the Museum, a collection of other collaborative stories, definitely worth investigating! Especially for fans of the many Cthulhu-themed games.

 

 

 

Some cracking news this week, the Carcassonne android app has been updated, and finally we have some of the expansions! Not all of them, sadly, but hopefully this will be the start of seeing more available soon!

It’s a bank holiday weekend in the UK here, and as per tradition, it’s been pouring with rain all day. Also as per tradition, I’m having a bit of a boardgame weekend with that old favourite, Arkham Horror! Stay tuned for more on that soon!

The Last Command

The Last Command

Phew, it’s been a roller-coaster of a ride through the Thrawn trilogy! I’m quite surprised that I finished it so quickly, I normally like to savour these things… Well, anyway, I’ve now finished the final book in the trilogy, so will have a look back at how awesome it was!

As you may remember, we left out intrepid heroes having lost the Katana-fleet to Thrawn, who has been generating clone troopers to crew this new fleet with. In the month since that skirmish, the Grand Admiral hasn’t wasted any time in launching the next phase of his plan to take back the galaxy. Luke is busy trying to track down the source of the clones, though he doesn’t realise he’s following a carefully-laid trail designed to throw the New Republic off the real clone factory.

On Coruscant, Leia finally gives birth to her twins – Jaina and Jacen – but not long after the event there is a break-in by an Imperial Intelligence team determined to capture them for Joruus C’baoth. Mara Jade, who had been injured during the battle at the Katana-fleet, is recuperating on Coruscant and manages to help thwart the kidnap attempt – however, the lone survivor from the team implicates her as colluding with the Empire, and she is promptly placed under house arrest. Thrawn had been concerned that Mara might know the location of the cloning facility on Wayland, and intended to silence her just in case.

As it happens, she had been to Wayland only once, but when Leia reveals the news that Thrawn has been cloning troopers, she feels she must cast her lot in with the New Republic and put a stop to it, lest another round of Clone Wars is unleashed on the galaxy. Luke, Han, Lando, Chewie and Mara set off for Wayland, leaving Leia protected by a group of Noghri, determined to repay their debt to her.

Following a series of attacks against New Republic systems that sees tremendous gains in territory for the Empire, Thrawn launches a siege of Coruscant itself, with a cluster of cloaked asteroids released into orbit around the planet. The Grand Admiral manages to convince the Republic that they have launched a total of 287 of the asteroids, when in actual fact the number is much lower. However, fear of letting even one through the planetary shield puts the capitol world out of the war.

Talon Karrde, doing some snoop work of his own, attempts to form a coalition of smugglers to act as unofficial intelligence operatives for the New Republic, though unfortunately the ship thief Niles Ferrier is invited to the gathering and later reports back to Thrawn. Determined not to stir up the fringe against him at this time, Thrawn decides to leave the smugglers alone, even after one of them attacks the Imperial shipyards at Bilbringi. He does, however, manage to implicate Karrde as being responsible for a raid against the smugglers, one which Ferrier had actually organised – Karrde manages to expose Ferrier for the double-dealing thief that he is, and in the confusion, the ship thief is killed. When Karrde decides to return to Coruscant to collect Mara and Ghent, he brings the New Republic confirmation that the Empire had only cloaked 22 asteroids, which is the number that the government had actually found. However, Leia has had a Force-vision of Luke being attacked by C’baoth on Wayland and enlists his help in going to her brother and husband’s rescue.

The New Republic decides to obtain a crystal gravfield trap in order to confirm that the asteroids have indeed been cleared, but unfortunately the only known traps are held in Imperial space. Colonel Bren Derlin therefore begins preparations for a feint at Tangrene, while Admiral Ackbar organises the real assault for Bilbringi. The smugglers’ coalition decide to try to get their hands on a trap to sell to the New Republic, and with all the evidence pointing to an assault on Tangrene, begin their own preparations to infiltrate Bilbringi. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Thrawn determines that Bilbringi is the real target and prepares to trap the New Republic forces when they arrive at the shipyards.

C’baoth, increasingly unstable, decides to return to Wayland, where he takes personal charge of the cloning facility. When Han and his group arrive, they trek through the forest and come across two groups of natives, who they manage to enlist the aid of in their assault on the facility. Infiltrating the Emperor’s storehouse, the group splits up, with Lando and Chewie trying to destroy the cloning facility with detonators while Luke and Mara try to find a self-destruct button in the Emperor’s royal apartments.

However, they find C’baoth waiting for them. He forces Luke to duel with a clone he has had produced from the hand Vader severed at Cloud City, in an attempt to turn him to the Dark Side. Leia and Karrde arrive on Wayland and, together with Han, attempt to rescue Luke, but the insane Jedi clone manages to fend them off with Force lightning. Mara eventually manages to take hold of Leia’s lightsaber and kills the clone of Luke, finally fulfilling the Emperor’s last command to her. C’baoth, enraged, nearly kills them all by bringing down the mountain, but is eventually killed by Mara. The heroes manage to escape just as Chewie and Lando have set the facility to blow.

At Bilbringi, the battle between the Empire and New Republic is going decidedly in the Empire’s favour when the smugglers start causing havoc within the shipyards themselves accompanied by Rogue Squadron. Forced to split their task forces to defend the shipyards as well, the Empire suffers a massive blow when Thrawn’s Noghri bodyguard Rukh fulfills his people’s desire for vengeance by killing the Grand Admiral. Captain Pellaeon orders the Imperial forces to retreat before they are annihilated.


As with my synopses of the previous two books, this really doesn’t do the story justice. I would go so far as to say that The Last Command is the most complex, and most richly rewarding of the trilogy. Seeing how the story works itself out is, itself, a work of art.

I do, however, have a fairly large criticism of this book – it’s just too much like Return of the Jedi. A strike team under Han’s leadership treks through a forest in order to sabotage an Imperial facility with the help of the primitive natives, to say nothing of Luke’s confrontation of C’baoth in what is pretty much an identical setting to the confrontation with the Emperor on the second Death Star. Part of me thinks it’s a bit lazy, and part of me thinks Return of the Jedi might have been so much better had Zahn written it. But anyway.

Something new about this book is the increased level of detail. I mean, the previous two books are detailed enough, but all of the characters introduced by Zahn are his own creations. Here, however, we see the benefit of the box of West End Games’ RPG materials Zahn was sent by Lucasfilm in order to further entrench the story into the overall saga. Pash Cracken, son of Alliance Intelligence chief Airen Cracken, gets some face time, and some of the planets created by WEG are mentioned.

Something that I love in any Star Wars story is the fringe element. Mos Eisley, Jabba’s Palace – all these wretched hives of scum and villainy hold an eternal appeal for me. Zahn seems to have a particular affinity for creating memorable fringe types. In the last book we were introduced to the ship thief Niles Ferrier, but in this book we get to meet a whole host of other smuggler chiefs and mercenaries, some of whom had been mentioned in passing earlier in the trilogy. What I like most about this is how Zahn shows us a room with about half a dozen smugglers in it, and with a few short paragraphs manages to make each one distinct and individual to the point where we feel like we know them as well as Han and Chewie – or even Karrde himself.

I’ve mentioned the clone thing in connection with the last thing, but it’s here that the issue becomes, well, an issue. Of course, given that this book was released in 1993, Zahn cannot possibly be faulted for the continuity errors that appeared in light of the prequel trilogy that began in 1999. However, as I said last time, I find it odd that Lucasfilm signed off on the trilogy if the plan for the prequels had been there all along. That aside, the prequels really mess with these books perhaps more than any other. Dark Force Rising dates the Clone Wars to 35BBY, and The Last Command has Mara specifically state that the clones were trying to take over the galaxy. We now know that the Clone Wars took place between 22-19BBY, and that the clones were actually the good guys (well, kinda). Furthermore, Zahn provides all sorts of details about maturation cycles, the fact that the Force has an impact on mass-produced people, and also details that clones were produced in something called Spaarti cylinders. No mention of Kamino whatsoever. All of this isn’t Zahn’s fault, he merely pitched a story that was subsequently approved by the people who alleged to have all of the details. We know, for example, that the original idea of an insane clone of Obi-Wan was rejected, and yet the folks in charge agreed that the clones were the bad guys? Hm. The whole point is moot now, of course, because technically speaking, none of the Thrawn trilogy actually ‘happened’. But I find it annoying, all the same.

As Zahn wrote history, the prequels sound a lot more interesting. Yeah, Palpatine was elected constitutionally, and the gradual reformation of the Republic into the Empire seemed to happen a lot earlier than Lucas later decided it did. The Clone Wars sound a lot more interesting in Zahn’s version, but this would have required the Republic to have had a standing army at the time, something Bail Organa later tells us they didn’t have before the clones were created. The idea of clonemasters as an antagonist force seems better than the separatists, though I suppose clonemasters would have been kinda like mad scientists? Perhaps not the most theatrical of villains.

This book, however, still has so much to commend it. I particularly liked the fact that Zahn leaves one fairly major plotline dangling at the end of the story, something that isn’t actually resolved until Specter of the Past – just why is Borsk Fey’lya so damn keen to see Mount Tantiss destroyed? Hmm!

I cannot recommend this trilogy enough! Go on, get yourself a copy and see what I mean!

Previous:
1. Heir to the Empire
2. Dark Force Rising

Dark Force Rising

Dark Force Rising

Here we are, on part two of the fantastic Thrawn Trilogy, Timothy Zahn’s epic and trailblazing book series set following the events of Return of the Jedi. If you remember back to the first of the series, the Empire is pretty desperate for warships, but the New Republic had thwarted their attempt to raid the Sluis Van shipyards. However, the top military commander Admiral Ackbar had been placed under arrest for treason…

Dark Force Rising picks up the story immediately, as Grand Admiral Thrawn exacts retribution against the smuggler chief Talon Karrde for harbouring Luke Skywalker. Karrde has abandoned his base on Myrkr, and in a narrow escape relocates to a new base on Rishi. Meanwhile on Coruscant, the New Republic is in more turmoil with the reaction that a Grand Admiral is on the loose. The ambitious Borsk Fey’lya is determined to bring Admiral Ackbar down, prompting Luke, Han and Leia to try to salvage his reputation. Discovering that the only planet the Bothans aggressively defended during the Rebellion years was New Cov, Luke and Han check it out while Leia and Chewbacca leave to keep their rendezvous with the Noghri commando Khabarakh, where Leia hopes to end their continued kidnapping attempts against her.

On New Cov, Han discovers Fey’lya’s top aide in some kind of arrangement with a mysterious faction. The Empire suddenly begins a raid as a covert form of taxation of the planet, during which time Han and Lando, who has met up with them on the surface, leave with this new group for their base. Luke, with nothing else to contribute, decides to head off to Jomark and investigate the rumours of the reappearance of Joruus C’baoth.

Leia and Chewbacca eventually arrive on Honoghr, the Noghri homeworld, to discover an utterly devastated world. However, their appearance coincides with Grand Admiral Thrawn’s decision to personally inspire his commandos in their hunt for Leia. Khabarakh manages to hide Leia and Chewie just before Thrawn arrives at his village, and the assassin is questioned about his failure on Kashyyyk. The Empire arrives at a partial truth, that the Noghri was captured by the Wookiees and then freed, and Khabarakh is sentenced to a public shaming before formal Imperial interrogation begins.

Han and Lando are taken to the mysterious base Peregrine’s Nest, where they are introduced to a ghost from the past, Senator Garm bel Iblis. The Senator was believed to have been killed on Anchoron years past, but it emerges that he went into hiding and has since been waging a private war against the Empire. Wondering why he didn’t join the Rebellion before now, it eventually emerges that bel Iblis was one of the key architects of the original Rebel Alliance – the Senator for Corellia, it was he who had postulated the idea of an alliance to Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, and the subsequent treaty formalising the group was called the Corellian Trilogy. Following the death of Organa on Alderaan, Mon Mothma began to pull more power to herself, leading to bel Iblis leaving what he thought would be just another dictatorship in time. While nothing of that sort has happened, his pride has stopped him from joining the New Republic, and Han and Lando leave empty handed.

Garm bel Iblis

Although… bel Iblis’ fleet consists of three dreadnaught-class heavy cruisers, which Lando suddenly realises are part of the lost Katana-fleet. Pre-Clone Wars ships linked together with a full-rig slave circuit system, the crews had all been infected with a hive virus and, insane, jumped into hyperspace together, nobody knowing where. The fleet had been thought lost…

However, if there’s one person who knows more about the goings-on in the galaxy, it’s Talon Karrde. On a smuggling run years ago, the ship he was serving on had made an emergency jump to escape the authorities and landed right in the middle of the fleet. Thinking it a trap, they’d made another emergency jump, but later Karrde had realised what it was they’d run into. With Grand Admiral Thrawn’s bounty on him, Karrde is convinced that Thrawn wants the fleet.

On Jomark, Luke finally meets Master C’baoth and is startled at his manner, but is still eager to learn from him. However, C’baoth’s casual disregard for so-called “lesser beings” brings some doubts into Luke’s mind as to whether he’s doing the right thing.

Mara arrives at Abregado-rae to collect one of Karrde’s ships, but is unfortunately captured by the Imperials. Deciding to try to bluff her way out, she uses her former Emperor’s Hand code clearances to get access directly to Thrawn, where she bargains the Katana-fleet in exchange for a pardon for Karrde’s entire organisation. Thrawn agrees, and lets Mara leave to get the location. However, the Imperials track her to Karrde’s base, and kidnap him anyway. Mara feels betrayed by Thrawn, and comes to realise that this is not the Empire she once served. She determines to rescue Karrde, with the help of her nemesis, Luke Skywalker.

Noghri

On Honoghr, Leia feels helpless as the Noghri seem inflexible in their loyalty to the Empire. Years ago, a space battle devastated the planet, and it was Darth Vader who brought their salvation. However, when she realises just how long ago it was, Leia is furious – forty-four years of Imperial enslavement resolves her to liberate the species, and with Chewie’s help she manages to prove that the Imperial decontamination droids that have been supposedly helping to clean up the planet are in fact renewing the poison, keeping the Noghri people on the bare brink of survival while remaining firmly in their debt. The Noghri determine their debt has in fact been paid, and Leia leaves for Coruscant to get them some real aid.

Mara arrives on Jomark and manages to gain Luke’s support when she proves to him that C’baoth is working for the Empire. They head off to Thrawn’s flagship Chimaera to rescue Karrde, posing as a supply shuttle to gain entry on board. With Mara’s top-level access to the computer systems, they manage to spring Karrde from his cell, but when Thrawn realises they have intruders aboard, he orders the entire starship computer system shut down. The heroes manage to escape on the Millennium Falcon, which the Empire picked up from orbit around Endor where Leia left it, and head back to Coruscant.

Han and Lando receive a message “from Luke” to return to New Cov, where they find the starship thief Niles Ferrier waiting for them. He offers to team up to find the Katana-fleet, but Lando heartily mistrusts him based on past dealings. Ferrier’s real motive was to plant a homing beacon on their ship. Working for the Empire, Ferrier knows the name of the man who has been supplying bel Iblis’ ships, but not where to find him. Han and Lando, on the other hand, know where to find him but not the name. Ferrier tracks them to the Coral Vanda luxury submarine casino, where the Empire attacks. They successfully capture bel Iblis’ supplier, who turns out to have been Karrde’s former smuggling captain, and who likewise figured out what they had stumbled into on that botched smuggling run.

Everybody meets back on Coruscant, where Fey’lya attempts to salvage something of his reputation by casting doubt on Karrde’s story. Deciding they’ll send a tech team to check out the location, the New Republic commits a fatal error. Karrde requests that Leia send a team that night to try to salvage the fleet, but Fey’lya is livid when he finds out and sets out to follow them. Since Ackbar was accused of treason, Fey’lya has been gaining the support of the military while making not overt move towards the admiral’s position, but at the Katana-fleet, he makes a critical mistake and loses that support and his power.

Borsk Fey'lya

At any rate, the New Republic arrived too late: of the original 200-strong fleet, only fifteen ships remained. After a short battle with the Empire, the New Republic forces return to Coruscant with the disturbing knowledge that the Imperial war machine now consists of armies of cloned stormtroopers.


As with Heir to the Empire, my synopsis here really doesn’t do the book justice. There is so much going on that it is really a feast for the senses! The subterfuge and political infighting is perhaps more pronounced in this one, as we learn more of what Borsk Fey’lya is up to, and we also learn a lot about the early years of the Rebellion. While the book is by no means light on action, it nevertheless is a classic middle-act, where we’ve seen most of the major players, and now we get the proper adventuring underway, as both sides move into position and get things ready for the final confrontation.

However, while we learn more about the characters introduced in the first book, we also get to meet a new one, Garm bel Iblis. By no means a bit-player, the senator is a really great addition to the lineup, not least because of the sense of history he brings to the series. One of the original leaders of the Alliance, we see a more nuanced history of the early years, adding increasing depth to an already well-filled-out story.

It all adds together to form a really believably story, where you get a real sense that these characters are alive in this universe. Whereas a lot of Star Wars books tend towards telling a grand story that is often really good, but ultimately not very far-reaching, Zahn’s work here has so much scope, it reaches back into the past, giving it a richness that has really been unrivaled since – even by my other favourite SW author, James Luceno.

Something that’s worth mentioning, though, is the whole Clone Wars business. I’ll most likely give this a full discussion when I get to The Last Command, but as it first raises the question here, let’s get it out in the open. Prior to Attack of the Clones being released in 2002, it seemed that nobody really knew what the Clone Wars were about, or when they really took place. Dark Force Rising puts the date roughly around 35 years before the Battle of Yavin, so before the events of The Phantom Menace, and while it is never overtly expressed, the general feel is that the war was about a group of clones that went bad and wreaked havoc in the galaxy. The fact that Lucasfilm signed off on this trilogy as being a legitimate sequel to the films suggests, to me, that Lucas didn’t really know what he wanted to do with the prequels back in 1991. But the whole point’s kinda moot now, I suppose. Anyway, a proper discussion of clones and stuff will be coming soon!

So, go get yourself a copy. And get lost in the galaxy far, far away…

Previous: Heir to the Empire
Next: The Last Command

Heir to the Empire

Heir to the Empire

So here we begin! This morning I finished reading Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn, arguably the best book ever written to carry the Star Wars logo, and certainly in my top five favourite books of all time. Without a trace of hyperbole, this book quite dramatically changed my life. I have already talked about how I discovered it in the school library all those years ago, of course, but having now re-read it again I feel that I need to devote one blog to each of the three installments. I realise these blogs might begin to sound a bit weird, but I don’t really care. This book is just awesome, I cannot emphasize that enough. But let me tell you why.

In the late 1980s, Star Wars was, to be blunt, pretty much dead. The film series had ended in 1983, and aside from West End Games publishing RPG material, there was precious little reason to think anything other than Star Wars was finished. I mean, role-playing games were confined to spotty kids playing in basements, if the stereotype is to be believed. But then, the unthinkable happened. A novel was published that continued the story of Han, Luke and Leia post-Return of the Jedi, and it went straight to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers. With a demonstrable desire for further stories set in the galaxy far, far away, the 90s were launched with a whole new purpose!

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, it pretty much happened like that, anyway.

Zahn wrote the trilogy at one of the lowest ebbs of the saga, when the small group of fans who had been subsisting on VHS copies of the films were desperate for more. So while you might be tempted to think the Thrawn trilogy was just a case of right place, right time, to do so would be a massive underestimation.

For me, the reason why the trilogy is so awesome is that is is just so believable. I mean, as much as sci-fi/fantasy ever is. The characters that we saw on the screen are so believably written, from the big three down to the bit players like Mon Mothma and Wedge Antilles, according to Zahn because he used to have audiotapes of the films on in the car when on long journeys to distract his son, which gave him an innate feel for the speech patterns of the characters. But where his skill lies most obviously, for me, is the effortless way he weaves his own characters into the mix, to make you feel like you know them as well as anyone who actually had screen time. Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, and Grand Admiral Thrawn are all written so absolutely convincingly that they are names that loom large in Star Wars mythology, no matter what Disney is going to try to convince us is the ‘official’ history.

Grand Admiral Thrawn

Heir to the Empire is set five years after the Battle of Endor, where the Empire’s territory has been shrinking in the face of the Rebel Alliance, now installed as the New Republic with Mon Mothma as the first chancellor. Leia and Han are married, and Leia is pregnant. Luke is still a bit uneasy with the idea of being the last of the Jedi, though as Ben’s ghost tells him as the book opens, he is the first of the new order of Jedi knights. The weight of having to train both his sister and eventually her children is heavy upon him as he worries about failing them as Ben admitted he had failed Anakin Skywalker. All of this leads to a Luke who is pretty depressed for most of the book, something that bugged me when I first read it. But then, on reflection, I feel now that it is perfectly reasonable. Luke is always somewhat a part of and apart from the ensemble cast in the films. At the end of RotJ, where did we all think the heroes were going next? Han and Leia were pretty obviously going to have a wonderful life together making babies, but Luke has done his job by redeeming Vader and bringing about the end of the Empire. Being such a massive part of galactic history is bound to weigh heavily on you, if all you’d been brought up to do was moisture farming.

Into this happy world, though, the Empire is once again making waves. There is a sense, right from the beginning, that Zahn is very conscious of the history of the universe he is writing in, and we get a real feeling that this is a real place, where the characters don’t exist in a vacuum but know about stuff that happened years ago. But while there is perhaps an over-reliance on characters remembering their movie lives only, there is nevertheless a scope here, a depth that the movies themselves had. That bounty hunter on Ord Mantell? That manoeuvre at the Battle of Taanab? There are similar references all over the place here, and it continues throughout the trilogy. I also really like the fact that the rebellion years are referred to as “the war” throughout the novel. It’s something that we would do in real life, after all. The best example, however, has got to be the Clone Wars. What was essentially a throwaway line by Luke in A New Hope that served little other than to fill in some expositional back story, the Clone Wars are obviously a very real galactic event, with their repercussions being felt still. Remember, though, that this was all written before the prequels, so Zahn’s interpretation is technically incorrect in light of subsequent media. As a Star Wars fan, though, I find myself increasingly wanting to separate the timeline in two, so that we have stuff like the Bantam era novels, all of which only have the original three films (and, as time goes on, each other) to rely on, and everything that has been released since 1999. At least this way I don’t need to worry about irregularities like this. I’ll probably talk more about this when I get to The Last Command, anyway. Suffice it to say, there is a real scope here that I like a lot.

Mara Jade

The new characters that Zahn created for the trilogy are the best points of the books for me, though. I’ll start with the trilogy’s eponymous villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, the mysterious alien commander of the Empire’s forces. West End Games are responsible for a lot of the ‘facts’ about Star Wars, some of them a bit bizarre, but nevertheless they worked hard to explain pretty much everything we see in the films. A case in point is the fact that all of the Imperials are exclusively human men – well, this is because the Emperor had a well-known anti-alien bias, naturally, giving him the dimensions of a Hitler. However, Thrawn, with his pale blue skin and his glowing red eyes, is a curious exception – that he achieved the rank of Grand Admiral is nothing short of amazing. What was it that prompted the Emperor to make such an exception? Well, throughout Zahn’s work in the Star Wars universe, we learn all sorts of things about Thrawn, culminating in his novel Vision of the Future, where we learn almost all of his backstory.

Zahn has got a way with portraying the criminal underworld of the Star Wars universe, as seen in his most recent novel for the saga, Scoundrels. Throughout the trilogy, we’re introduced to some really excellent, diverse smuggler groups, the most important of which is Talon Karrde’s organisation. Said to have taken over as the biggest group following Jabba the Hutt’s demise, Karrde’s smugglers are an eclectic bunch, most of whom are convincingly portrayed so as to be as believable as any of the main group.

Mara Jade & Talon Karrde

Karrde’s lieutenant is Mara Jade, who is quite literally the most important non-movie character in the entire Star Wars saga. From the off, she’s an interesting character, and throughout the book we get increasing hints as to her backstory, culminating in her explanation to Luke in the depths of the Myrkr forest. The Emperor’s private assassin is perhaps too good an opportunity to pass up on, and so she has been peppered into books throughout the 1990s, until eventually she and Luke get married in the pages of the comic Union. However, that’s all a long way in the future. For the bulk of the trilogy, Mara hates the big three for ruining her privileged position in the Imperial court, but she hates Luke most of all, as she believes he killed the Emperor. Her final command from her master was to kill Luke at Jabba’s palace, but she failed when Jabba sentenced Luke to die at the sarlacc pit. Having pieced her life together following the Emperor’s death at Endor, she has made it to Karrde’s right-hand-woman, when once again Luke Skywalker falls into her life and threatens to turn it upside-down.

The secondary characters he has added to the pantheon, such as Winter, Borsk Fey’lya, Joruus C’baoth and Captain Pellaeon, are all similarly handled excellently. Winter feels like she really is Leia’s childhood friend from Alderaan, and I was so convinced by Fey’lya that I had to rewatch the Alliance briefing scene in RotJ to see if the furry little Bothan was indeed there! It’s all just wonderful!


 

A synopsis can’t really do this awesome story justice, as the breadth of detail is just so rich, but I’ll give it a go. So, the Empire is making a renewed stab at the Rebellion under the leadership of Grand Admiral Thrawn. Part of his plan requires the use of some technology the Emperor squirreled away on a planet called Wayland, along with the services of the dark Jedi who has been guarding this storehouse. Thrawn recruits Joruus C’baoth, who we learn is the unstable clone of a long-dead Jedi Master, to co-ordinate his battles through the Force. In return, Thrawn promises C’baoth he will deliver Leia Organa Solo and her unborn Jedi twins. For this task, he recruits his Noghri assassins, an alien race personally loyal to the Grand Admiral. At a diplomatic meeting on the planet Bimmisaari, the Noghri make their first move but, due to quick thinking and luck, Luke, Han and Leia manage to escape. The next attempt, on the planet Bpfassh, nearly succeeds, but at the last minute the heroes manage to escape once more.

Luke, concerned with the responsibility of training the next generation of Jedi, heads back to Dagobah on a hunch, and while there has a haunting vision of failure at the Pit of Carkoon. He also discovers a battered piece of technology that Artoo allegedly saw Lando use on Cloud City, so determines to visit his old friend at Nkllon. Han, concerned about the commando attacks, decides to find somewhere to hole Leia up, but in order to keep in touch with galactic events they need a slicer to tap into the fledgling New Republic comm channels. He also heads to Nkllon and Lando, and in the brief reunion for the heroes, the Empire strikes, stealing fifty of Lando’s mole miners for purposes unknown. During the course of this incursion, Luke feels the presence of C’baoth, and the rumour that a Jedi has appeared on the backworld of Jomark prompts him to look into the matter.

Leia and Chewbacca decide to head to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk while Han and Lando look into getting a slicer from Talon Karrde’s smuggling organisation. Luke, on his way to Jomark, is ambushed by the Imperials, as Thrawn wants to prevent him distracting C’baoth at this time. Luke manages to escape, but his X-Wing is crippled in the effort. He’s picked up by Karrde and taken as something of a prisoner to the planet Myrkr, where he is cut off from the Force due to the indigenous creatures, ysalmiri, who create bubbles in the Force as a natural camouflage. Karrde expressly doesn’t want to be involved in the Imperial-Republic conflict, but Luke’s presence is the stumbling block that draws him in.

On Kashyyyk, Leia is attacked again, however, one of the Noghri commandos recognises her as the daughter of Darth Vader and refuses to kidnap her. During questioning later, it transpires that, following a space battle above the Noghri homeworld, a chemical contamination killed the world and would have doomed the species, had not Vader arrived and helped them rebuild. In return, the Noghri have served the Empire ever since. Leia arranges to go to the world with the commando Khabarakh, in an attempt to bring the Noghri out of the Empire’s pall.

Han and Lando manage to meet with Karrde on Myrkr, shortly before the Imperials arrive to collect more ysalmiri. During the confusion Luke tries to escape, but is pursued by Karrde’s lieutenant Mara Jade, who is openly hostile to him. Both ships crash in the forest and the two have to work together to make it back to civilization, during which time Mara explains her Imperial past and her last command from the Emperor. However, despite multiple opportunities, she doesn’t follow through. Han and Lando, learning that Luke had been held as a prisoner by Karrde, head off to rescue him from the Imperials left as a rearguard. They succeed, but their actions don’t go unnoticed by Thrawn.

However, the Grand Admiral doesn’t have time to exact retribution straightaway, as the wheels are in motion for the battle of Sluis Van! Han and Luke arrive at the Sluis Van shipyards to get Luke’s X-Wing repaired, just as the Imperials launch their attack: using the captured mole miners, they intend to capture the New Republic’s warships that are currently docked there. Luckily, Lando is also on board, and uses his command codes to shut the mole miners down. The Empire withdraws, and in the middle of the mess Han receives an urgent call from Leia on Coruscant – the ambitious Bothan Borsk Fey’lya has accused Admiral Ackbar of treason…


 

The book – indeed, the entire trilogy – has so much to commend it, I can’t begin to tell you how much I love it! Though I’ve made something of an effort with this blog… Well, anyway, the only thing I can tell you is that it is awesome, and you should go ahead and buy it right now. Put all other commitments on hold, and read it. Once you’ve read it, read the second and third installments, and then sit back and bask in perhaps the most productive way you have ever spent your time!

This trilogy IS episodes VII, VIII and IX for me, and I’m sure it’s the same for many fans around the globe. I don’t mean to be down on Disney all the time, but faced with a novel trilogy of this magnitude, I would say they have no hope in producing anything that would be more compelling, more entertaining, and more fabulous than this.

So what are your thoughts? Do you also love Heir to the Empire, and all of Zahn’s greatness? Or do you prefer the Jedi Academy trilogy? Let me know in the comments!

Next:
1. Dark Force Rising
2. The Last Command

A blog for Tuesday!

The Out of Office is on, and I’m now off work for thirteen days! Yay for that! I hope you’re all braced for extra geekiness to come your way… I’m hoping the weather will hold, because I’ve got some exciting plans for these days!

I got home today to find this on my doorstep:

X-Wing Rebel Transport
(It was obviously not literally like this on my doorstep – there was packaging involved)

Kind of a nice segue from the last post really! For those of you who don’t know, Fantasy Flight Games has been churning out Star Wars games since the end of 2012, and along with the card game, there is a role-playing game, and this, the X-Wing miniatures game. And much like the card game, I haven’t got to play much of any of these others, either – much to my eternal upset! X-Wing is a tactical miniatures game that involves a LOT of scale models. I was going to do a bit of a display of them all for this shot, but frankly couldn’t face getting out my entire collection (for a game that I never play, I have got a TON of ships for it), so instead here’s a nice picture of the ships in this box, plus the Millennium Falcon:

X-Wing Rebel Transport

Nice, huh? In case you’re interested, Wil Wheaton did an episode of TableTop where they played X-Wing, it’s pretty fun and demonstrates most of the gameplay, and you can check it out here:

In other news, I finally had the correct issue of Star Wars Insider delivered today also, so I hope to get the Zahn short story read soon. However, I’m not sure when exactly I’ll get to it, as I started the massive event that is the Thrawn Trilogy this weekend! Have I mentioned this already? I can’t remember. Well, anyway, I’ve been reading Heir to the Empire again and it’s awesome, there will soon be a blog dedicated solely to this book – you just wait! I currently plan to do a write-up on each book, because they’re each one just super awesome, you don’t even know!

Aw, yeah!

So that’s it for now, anyway. I’m going to try and get some more interesting stuff written over the course of the next two weeks, so I hope you like it, and please leave comments, because I like them 🙂

My Festival of Zahn

Star Wars books

A very happy Saturday to you all!

You’ll remember, I’m sure, that I said I’ve been reading some Star Wars literature in chronological order? Well, I watched Return of the Jedi last weekend, which means I’m now firmly into EU-territory. Despite what Disney would have me believe, I’m unwilling to give up on a lot of this stuff, so have been enjoying more short stories set in the post-RotJ period, all five of them by my favourite Star Wars author, Timothy Zahn.

To begin, I read Sleight of Hand, which is published in Tales from Jabba’s Palace. For those of you who don’t know, Mara Jade was the Emperor’s Hand, which is basically a sort of Black Widow of the Star Wars universe, but with Force powers augmented by the Emperor’s will. When Palpatine got wind of Vader’s offer to Luke near the end of Empire, he dispatched Mara to Jabba’s Palace to assassinate Luke and end the whole sorry affair, but obviously she failed and Luke survived. Sleight of Hand is a tale detailing most of this, anyway. The whole anthology of short stories tells the tales of a lot of the background characters in the Jabba’s Palace scene of the film, which is a really great idea, but one of the biggest failings when you read the book from cover to cover is that you’re going to read descriptions of the same scenes over again, as the background characters stumble into all sorts of situations and so on. However, I still like it, and if you can grab yourself a copy, I highly recommend it! While Sleight of Hand is essentially redundant, because we know pretty much exactly what happened from Mara’s reminiscences in Heir to the Empire, it’s always good to see familiar characters and whatnot, so I can’t really hold that against it too much.

Mara Jade in Jabba's Palace

For those of you interested, the story also features in comic-form, in Mara Jade: By the Emperor’s Hand. A pretty decent story, it takes up Mara’s story from her failure at Jabba’s Palace to her next mission, and sees her experience the Emperor’s death that is later described in Heir to the Empire. I didn’t read the comic this time around, but have in the past, and it’s a pretty decent read!

The next entry in the Zahn-fest is Handoff, a short story that was published in issue 10 of the Star Wars Gamer magazine. The magazine was published by Wizards of the Coast when they held the licence to produce Star Wars games, and was a tie-in to their RPG line. In many respects, it was analogous to West End Games’ Adventure Journal, featuring articles and RPG adventures as well as short fiction. Handoff sees Mara down-on-her-luck and a bit lost in the aftermath of the events that happened over Endor. As well as seeing Mara again, we get our “introduction” to another of Zahn’s creations, the computer slicer Ghent. Mara is a little confused over where her loyalties lie, as Ysanne Isard has made it clear in the comic that she no longer has her vaunted place in the Empire, but Mara is unwilling to abandon her training and purpose completely, bringing the Emperor’s Justice to a renegade Imperial official. Ghent is a fish out of water, and by the end of the story hooks up with Talon Karrde, in whose organisation we will see him again shortly. The ending is a bit too cheesy for my liking (yes, Karrde and Ghent, I’m very sure you will be seeing Mara again some day, stop trying to be clever and overshadow stuff!), but the story itself is enjoyable enough, so I can’t not recommend it. However, finding a copy might prove to be a bitch, as Gamer magazine is obviously now-defunct; the story was published on starwars.com’s Hyperspace premium site for a while, but now that has been abandoned it’s pretty much impossible to come across through, er, legitimate means…

Onwards, to Buyer’s Market, a short story printed in Star Wars Insider issue 126 (or 102 if, like me, you’re in the UK). While pretty much all of Zahn’s work feels like it forms a prequel or sequel to his Thrawn trilogy, Buyer’s Market is especially so. It sees Lando Calrissian on an adventure to buy an AT-AT walker. Yes, you read that right. In actual fact, he wants forty of them – and if you’ve read Heir to the Empire, you’ll know why. While it’s even more unnecessary than Sleight of Hand, I can’t help but like it simply because it’s Zahn and Lando!

First Contact is a short story first published in issue one of the aforementioned Adventure Journal, and reprinted in Tales from the Empire. The same anthology that features Side Trip, which I’ve already mentioned, First Contact is yet another prequel to Heir to the Empire that functions in much the same way as Handoff. However, rather than being Mara-centric, here Talon Karrde is the star. We see him on safari, where he is attempting to cut himself into the action, but things go horribly wrong and he’s forced to make a quick getaway, with the help of Mara, who has been eking out a living as a hyperdrive mechanic. The story ends with Karrde giving Mara a job in his smuggling/information-brokering operation, and thus the stage is set for Heir to the Empire.

Taken as something of a trilogy, Sleight of Hand, Handoff and First Contact form what I suppose could be called an essential bridge between Choices of One and Heir to the Empire, and without them we’re left to fill in a lot of the blanks between seeing Mara as an Imperial agent in one book, and a smuggling chief’s aide in the next. However, you’re not going to be missing anything if you don’t read them, as these blanks are pretty much explained in the (chronologically) later novel, but all the same, they’re pretty great, so I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from reading any if you get the chance!

Another tale that forms a bridge between Choices of One and Heir to the Empire is Crisis of Faith, a novella that was printed in the 20th anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire. Choices of One details a plot by the warlord Nuso Esva to expand his territory from the Unknown Regions into Imperial space, and we see Thrawn working behind the scenes to thwart this plot, which he does. However, the story is definitely unresolved in that book, and Crisis of Faith picks up the tale around seven years later. Thrawn has been promoted from Senior Captain to Grand Admiral, which I felt was a pretty important plot-point that was completely overlooked, but maybe one day Zahn will get to write that story (or then again, maybe not). We’re out in the Unknown Regions, on the Admonitor, and not only do we have Thrawn and Voss Parck, but we also have Baron Soontir Fel! The novella is a really nice addition to the canon, and resolves the Nuso Esva plot line as well as sets the wheels in motion to bring Thrawn back to the Empire and Pellaeon, where we’ll next see him in the opening chapter of Heir to the Empire.

So I’m right up to the point now where I’ll be opening Heir to the Empire. Prepare for the onslaught, because this book – indeed, this whole trilogy – is awesome!

Saturday

I started this morning with scrambled eggs, which is always a good way to start the weekend. And what a weekend it has been so far! My great procrastination continues – I’ve got to write an essay by the end of next week, and while I’ve been thinking about it (honest), I have yet to put fingers to keyboard. And yet here I am, blogging . Shocking!

In case you’re wondering, I’m doing a degree with the Open University in History with Classical Studies. Because I love history (it’s in my tagline, remember!) and I love the Classical World. I’m currently nearing the halfway point – with this essay, and an exam at the beginning of June, that’ll be me exactly halfway through. OU degrees, unlike ‘regular’ degrees, take six years to complete rather than three, and I’m on the cusp of the end of the first module of my ‘second’ year. If that confuses you, you’re not alone. Anyway, the current module I’m nearing the conclusion to is A200, Exploring History: Medieval to Modern. It’s been really really good, I have to say! A lot of people doing the current course with me seem to be really down on it, as it’s too much reading or whatever, but seriously, the study of history involves a whole ton of reading, so I’m not entirely sure what they were expecting. History is more than just interesting stories, people! And thus I dismount my soapbox. The essay I’ve not yet started on is about territorial expansion, with reference to colonialism in Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Awesome stuff!

I’ve technically had last week ‘off’, for Easter, so instead of working at the degree, I’ve been reading more Star Wars novels. Of course! Despite the recent announcement, I still have a huge love of the expanded Star Wars universe, not least because these are the stories that I grew up with – none of this Gungan flapping nonsense, but Hutts building Death Star-like superweapons, and blue-skinned alien Grand Admirals running rings around the fledgling New Republic! Oh yes! That’s the good stuff! And I doubt that anything Disney puts out from here on in will dissuade me from that.

This week’s book has been another Tim Zahn treat – Choices of One. Amazon tells me I’ve had this book getting on for two years now, and yet this is the first time I’ve actually bothered to pick it up. It’s a sequel to Zahn’s Allegiance, which is set during the three years between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, and follows a similar plot, featuring the renegade stormtroopers self-styled as the Hand of Judgment. All the favourite rebels are there, including General Riekkan and General Cracken (a real surprise treat, that one!). Luke is the noob who still doesn’t know how to be a proper Jedi; Han is still the rogue who is unwilling to commit himself to the Alliance, and Leia is very much the authority figure we see her on Echo Base. In addition, we have Mara Jade as the Emperor’s Hand, running around rooting out treachery in the Imperial ranks. We also have the star destroyer Chimaera, and while Pellaeon is here, he’s not yet the captain of the ship. A really nice inclusion, that. The plot is all centred on a far-flung star system, where the Imperial Governor is accused of treason (hence Mara’s involvement), and deals with a nebulous threat lurking from the Unknown Regions. Voss Parck and the Adjudicator are also involved, which is a nice nod to Zahn’s shorter fiction that deals with Thrawn’s adventures in the time of the original trilogy.

Basically, I really liked this novel a lot. Perhaps even more so than Allegiance. As usual for Zahn, you see plenty of the puzzle pieces, but they don’t begin to connect until later in the game, and I’m either lazy or I was kept guessing right up to the final pages. Something I really, really liked was the way he keeps us guessing as to the identity of Lord Odo. (SPOILER ALERT: I was fairly convinced it was going to turn out to be Thrawn, but no!) The warlord threatening the galaxy from the Unknown Regions, Nuso Esva, was a really intriguing threat – while we didn’t see much of him (SPOILER ALERT: or did we?!), he was clearly a compelling antagonist, with a very intricate plot set up. Nicely done, Mr Z! MORE SPOILERS: The Nuso Esva plotline isn’t actually resolved here, however – for that, you have to head over to the 20th Anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire, and the short story ‘Crisis of Faith’ that is included therein.

I’ve not yet read Crisis of Faith, but I’ll let you know what I think when I do. I’m currently trying to read the fiction in chronological order, so I’m still a few years off at the minute 🙂


This morning, I took delivery of the fifth adventure pack for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. At least, I think they’re called adventure packs. Well, whatever. I’ve been off-and-on playing this game since last September, when it first arrived in my hot little hands. I mean, more off than on – I’ve by no means been playing it constantly, or anything! In fact, my boardgamegeek stats tell me I’ve played it seven times since I had it. (I’m on boardgamegeek as ‘spalanzani’ – feel free to add me as a geek buddy!) The game was something of a sensation when it came out – the forums were absolutely crazy with new posts, to the extent that I had to unsubscribe pretty sharp-ish as my subscription feed was just spammed daily. The idea of a game that was “the perfect amalgam” of card game and RPG seemed to scratch a lot of itches across the ‘geek, and of course, the Pathfinder RPG was close to a lot of peoples’ hearts. The box follows the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, a linked series of six adventures in the Pathfinder universe. I’m saying all this like I know what I’m talking about, of course – while I do indeed have the Rise of the Runelords RPG book, I’ve never actually played the RPG, so have no idea what it’s like. The RPG engine is, I believed, licensed from Wizards of the Coast’s D&D 3rd edition system, which I have also not played, but I have played d20 Star Wars RPG (Saga Edition), which I believe to be a similar engine. But all of this is pretty tangential to the actual discussion.

In the card game, you pick a character and have a deck of cards, which represents your “life” in the game – if the deck runs out, you die. You have a series of locations, represented by cards and an associated deck, that you have to explore. Within each location’s deck can be anything, from items and spells you can try to acquire, to monsters and even the villain of the piece! You have to fight these monsters, which is a skill check based on your character’s stats and a die-roll (the RPG element). Once you explore the locations to meet the win conditions of the scenario you’re playing, usually beat a villain in combat, you have a reward, which so far for me has been drawing a card from those unused in the box, or adding bonuses to your skills that will help in subsequent adventures (again, the RPG element).

Ready to go with Ezren!
Ready to go with Ezren!

By rights, I should be obsessed with this game, and I should be far too over-excited each month as Paizo sends me the new adventure pack (I’m just calling them that, whether they are or not!). But I find the game oddly dissatisfying. Like I said before, I’ve been playing it intermittently since September, and have taken Ezren through all the scenarios up to the midway point of Burnt Offerings. However, there is something missing, for me. While I enjoy the levelling aspect, and the dice rolling and the fantasy locales, I find myself feeling like I’d much rather play a proper RPG. For me, RPG-ing is a terrific social opportunity for storytelling and having fun while exercising the imagination. I suppose the ‘anything can happen’ aspect of the RPG is lost when you’re straightjacketed into the same mechanic of exploring locations and fighting monsters. Yes, arguably that’s what most RPG-ing comes down to, but there can be so much more variety in games where you can concentrate on diplomacy or any other of a multitude of types of quest. Plus, crucially, the presence of a GM in a RPG leads to so much more interactivity than we have here. So what we’re left with is a bit of a hollow shell of a RPG. Harsh, I know. When approached as a card game, it is much more enjoyable to play, but I find this game wants to be a RPG too much. Which is probably why I only play it in short bursts.