Star Wars Legends: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords

Overview

Knights of the Old Republic was made by Bioware, but KotOR 2 was made by Obsidian. I have enjoyed games by both companies. I was a bit nervous about KotOR 2, however, because I wasn’t impressed with KotOR 1 and I had read that KotOR 2 has many bugs due to a less than ideal release schedule. I picked the game up during a Steam sale and used the Sith Lords Restored Content Mod, which purports to restore much of the content cut from the game and to fix most of the game-breaking bugs.

kotor2loadscreen

Characters:  9

As with its predecessor, KotOR 2 has very good characters. You play as the Exile (named Meetra Surik in later Star Wars Legends novels. I will refer to the character as Meetra). The Exile has been traveling the Outer Rim since she was removed from the Jedi Order, her punishment for following Revan against the Mandalorians. The Exile was the only Jedi to return to the Council for judgment. As the game progresses, you pick up a number of companions, each is memorable, and a couple even start as adversaries. The characters have distinct motivations, and your interactions in relation to their motivations increases or decreases your influence, which dictates how much about themselves they reveal. The NPCs are also interesting. When you find the Jedi Masters that exiled you, each has a distinct personality that makes them memorable. The NPCs help make the game-world feel fleshed out.

Story:  8

The story of KotOR 2 is much more complex than KotOR 1. Where the first game was a straight-forward Star Wars story of good versus evil with a very good twist, KotOR 2 is a meditation on war, consequences, autonomy, power, meaning and hope. It is a far darker game, and this darkness comes from the ideas it explores. The titular Sith Lords also represent ideas, from Sion who is the Lord of Pain to Nihilus, the Lord of Hunger. KotOR 2 lives in the grey areas of the Star Wars mythos. It outright rejects the idea that the Sith are evil and the Jedi are good. Instead, the Jedi are flawed humans with immense powers whose philosophy didn’t help them when they faced near annihilation. The Sith are also humans, but they are ruled by desires that have taken over all other impulses. Much like C.S. Lewis’s description of damnation, the Sith Lords are humans who have given themselves over to an idea to such a degree that they have ceased being human and are now a living expression of that idea.

As part of this exploration of the grey, the Exile awakens on Peragus Station, an Outer Rim mining station. She doesn’t remember how she got there, but after exploration she finds only two living beings on the station: Atton, a rogue, and Kreia, a Force user. Hostile droids roam the station, and dead bodies of station workers fill the halls. As you investigate the station and try to find a way off, a Republic cruiser arrives at the station, and Kreia warns of the Sith Lord on the ship. This opening is extremely creepy and unnerving, and it strongly sets the tone of the game through the music and visuals.

Eventually you learn that the Jedi have vanished. Many people think you are the last Jedi. With the Jedi gone, the Republic is on the verge of collapse due to the cost of the Jedi Civil War. The Republic has also committed to restoring the planet Telos, one of the first planets to be devastated by Revan. Telos has become a symbol of the Republic’s ability to restore peace and heal the galaxy from the war. Unknown interests have placed a large bounty for any Jedi, so you have bounty hunters hounding you. Also on the hunt are HK-50 droids that are being produced from an unknown location. Their mission is to kill you. And through all this, Revan, once Sith Lord now hero of the Republic has vanished. With a new Sith menace striking quietly from the shadows, the Exile and her team are the only ones who can stand against the new threat, and your decisions in the game determine if the Jedi Order will be restored or if it will die out, and the Republic along with it.

Vision: 8

What was it trying to do?

I think it was trying to continue the story of KotOR while adding new depth and philosophical analysis to the Star Wars mythos.

Was it successful in doing it?

Yes . . . though with caveats. The game was full of bugs, and while the mod fixes many game-breaking bugs, there are still quite a few issues with pathfinding, team warping/response, and random background changes during dialog scenes. These bugs are distracting and take away from the story. Additionally, sometimes the plot and motivation are not clear unless you take certain dialog options. While I don’t think there is anything drastic here, these small issues add up over the course of the game.

Would I like to see elements of this added to the New Canon?

This is a great story with a lot of critique of the dualism present in some Star Wars stories. So, yes, I would love to see this story adapted into the New Canon in some way.

Gameplay: 8

As mentioned above, there are a lot of bugs. While nothing broke the game, there was one bug that I feared would. While dealing with the Red Eclipse assault on the Ebon Hawk, when the mission ended, the game would load the next map, and my character would die. On the third attempt, I made sure I had maximum health before initiating the final dialogue for the mission, and this fixed the problem.

There isn’t much change in basic gameplay from KotOR 1. There are a few new Force powers, new Feats, and new Influence mechanics. I also liked that my ratings on different skills sometimes offered different dialogue options . . . and these weren’t always better choices. Sometimes they might annoy the other character. But while the gameplay hadn’t changed much, there was something about the game that was more fun than KotOR 1. Maybe I understood the combat better; maybe Obsidian tweaked it a bit. Either way, I enjoyed it more.

The level design was much improved in this game. I think the only places that I didn’t enjoy the level design were revisiting levels from the first game, and that was only Dantooine and Korriban. All other planets in KotOR 2 were new, which I appreciated. They felt like real spaces, and I could often get a feel for where things were without constantly referring to the map.

Also, there are a few places where you get to play as NPCs or as one of your companions. One mission had you play a re-programmed protocol droid, one was a solo mission for HK-47, there were frequent instances of playing solo as Mira, and in one section you get to choose a team to rescue the Exile. These missions broke kept me on my toes and forced me to use characters that I hadn’t specifically used. They forced me to branch out a bit, and I appreciated this.

And the music definitely fit the game. While Jeremy Soule’s music in KotOR 1 was good, Mark Griskey’s score for this game was atmospheric, dark, brooding, and always seemed to fit the situation.

Personal Enjoyment: 8

I struggled to quantify this category. Up until the end of the game, KotOR 2 was a solid 9. The ending, however, is sudden and lackluster. A third game was definitely being set up, but that has, sadly, never come to fruition. (Although, the Revan novel builds off some of the ideas that were setting up the sequel, though doesn’t go in the direction that Obsidian was initially planning.) When I finished the game, I didn’t have that feeling of satisfaction that comes from finishing a great game. While I enjoyed most of my time playing the game, the ending definitely doesn’t feel worth it. I was very glad that I was reading Revan alongside KotOR. It provides a type of epilogue. But more on that later.

In general, I think KotOR 2 is a conceptually stronger game than KotOR 1. The improvements made to level design and the new Feats and Force Powers are great, and I love the philosophical questions and the story in this game. There are a few places where KotOR 2 could have improved on gameplay over the first game, and the bugs that are still present even with the mod are highly distracting. And again, that ending is just not satisfying. Overall, even with these flaws, I still prefer Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords over its predecessor. If you liked the gameplay of the first game and want to wrestle with some deeper questions about the Force, the Jedi, war and mass destruction, hope, and redemption, I recommend checking out this game . . . with the Content Restoration Mod, of course.

Final Rating: 8.2/10

Star Wars Legends: Knights of the Old Republic

Overview

Knights of the Old Republic was the first Star Wars CRPG. (Or should it be XBRPG since it was first released on the Xbox?) Released in 2003, the game has become very highly regarded among fans. I recently played through the game for the first time, although I was already familiar with parts of the story, so the big twist wasn’t a surprise. There will be spoilers in this review since the game is over a decade old and no longer (at the moment) in official Star Wars canon.

Knights of the Old Republic box art

Characters:  9

In general, Bioware tends to create good characters. And while I didn’t spend a lot of time pursuing character quests, I did take time to talk to the characters between missions. Each has an interesting back story and each has a distinct personality. I kept getting into arguments with Carth, but over time it was apparent that Carth’s outlook came from a place of personal betrayal. I enjoyed helping Carth reunite with his son, even though it was a bittersweet reunion. I applaud Bioware for putting this much detail into character interactions. I think the only issue I have with characterization is Bastilla. I don’t feel like we got enough to make her sudden turn to the Dark Side believable. The turn seemed more plot-driven than character driven. On some level, we needed her to be a Revan counterpart in the present, for her to personally experience the path Revan walked. She needed to see how evil can come from good depending on the choices made. Maybe different dialogue would have made her turn more believable, but I just didn’t see enough darkness in her.

And of course, HK-47 as a bloodthirsty but well-spoken droid is a ton of fun.

But I can’t discuss character without addressing Revan. Bioware pulled this off quite well. Since the major reveal is that you play as Darth Revan post-mind-wipe, much of Revan’s backstory has to be vague. We need just enough details to see who he was before, but not so much that the backstory alters the player experience. The game takes you through locations in Revan’s past and gives ideas about some of his past actions, but leaves you to fill in the motivations. Revan can truly be whoever you want him or her to be, and the story still works. Creating a story that is so dependent on a character that has this much flexibility (or lack of characterization) is an interesting challenge and achievement.

Story:  9

Possibly more so than with characters, KotOR really shines when it comes to the story. This should be no surprise as it is a Bioware game. On the one hand, you play a new Jedi searching for pieces of a star map to lead you to the Star Forge, a mysterious object that Revan and Malak used to lead the Sith Empire to war with the Jedi. But in addition to this McGuffin quest, you are on a journey of self-discovery. You are putting together pieces of your character’s past. You just don’t realize that at the time.

This story also greatly expands the lore of Star Wars by showing what happened after Exar Kun and Ulic qel Droma’s defeat in The Sith War comics. In those comics, Ulic became the leader of the Mandalorian army. Without his leadership, and with the subsequent defeat of Mandalore, a new Mandalore rose and led his army against the Republic. This new leader had great success where Ulic and the previous Mandalore failed. The Jedi tried to stay out of the war, but the Republic was suffering defeat after defeat. Eventually, a group of Jedi led by Revan and Malak violated the Jedi Council’s wishes, and went to war alongside the Republic. They defeated the Mandalorians, but Revan and Malak vanished into the Outer Rim. They returned later as Lords of the Sith and went to war against the Jedi. The game opens shortly after a major Republic victory in which Revan was defeated. Yes, all that was just the backstory. In addition to the immediate history, we learn more ancient history of the galaxy: ancient Tatooine from Tusken mythology and the rise and downfall of the Eternal Empire of the Rakatan, both of which were later expanded on in the Dawn of the Jedi comics.

In the end, KotOR is a story about identity and redemption that takes place on an epic, galactic scale. It expands the Star Wars lore into some compelling new areas that later writers were able to explore.

Vision: 8

What was it trying to do?

KotOR was an attempt to create in game form a Star Wars experience with all the epic conflict and twists of the movies.

Was it successful in doing it?

For the most part, yes. As far as story and characters are concerned, I would say yes.

Would I like to see elements of this added to the New Canon?

Absolutely. I would like to see anything from the Old Republic era make its way to the new canon. The ancient conflict between the Jedi and Sith are more fully explored in this era, and there really isn’t anything here that would conflict with the current movies and novels. That may change in time, but for now it can stay firmly in head-canon. In fact, Revan came very close to being canon via The Clone Wars. He was cut at the last minute, but character designs had been made. I guess there’s always hope for him to be reference in Rebels.

Gameplay: 6

Okay, here’s where things get a bit more critical. I’m somewhere between a casual and serious gamer. I’m not going to dock this game for graphics just because I don’t think graphics are necessarily a huge thing when it comes to story and gameplay. They can enhance, but it is how you use what you have. If they get in the way, then it is an issue, but I don’t really think they graphics affected the game one way or another. However, KotOR was initially an Xbox release. I know graphics at the time were capable of better. That was the era of Final Fantasy X and XII (I was more of a Playstation 2 guy at the time). The graphics of those games hold up better; KotOR does not. It looks old, which is why some fans are recreating the game with the Unreal 4 engine.

But again, I’m leaving graphics out of the gameplay rating. For me KotOR suffers on two fronts: level design and combat. The level design is incredibly dull. Taris was probably the worst, and I constantly had to look at the map because everything looked the same. Kashyyk and Manan were better, but the uninteresting design actually made me not want to do side quests because I just wanted to get on to the next planet or next area. When things didn’t improve for me after Dantooine, I just decided to do a story run, not a completion run. When the level design breaks immersion or makes you want to skip things, there is a problem.

The second issue I had with the game was combat. I don’t mind turn-based menus. I grew up with Final Fantasy, after all, but the combat in this game just didn’t interest me. It got better after I got a lightsaber and figured out where to spend my attribute points. But there isn’t really much variety here. Part of the problem is I started playing The Old Republic first, which has a bit of variety with special moves. Even though there isn’t much to that system, the animations are interesting. And the later Bioware title Dragon Age: Origin was complex enough for me to have to monitor all my teammates even though they had tactical conditions set up. I guess I can say those later Bioware games improved on what was started in KotOR (or the earlier Forgotten Realms games), but an elegant battle system hadn’t emerged here yet.

Also, different character builds just didn’t seem effective. Most of the team characters can do stealth, tank, science, etc. better. As a result, making your character anything other than a fighter seemed pointless. Unfortunately, I figured this out late in the game and didn’t want to start with a new character build. So, I started allocating points differently. Then I discovered the level cap! So while the game story allows you freedom to create a character background in your head, the game mechanics are a bit more restrictive.

Oh, and one final thing. The menus are not very elegant. I think I stopped reading data pads early in the game because the text window for the contents was too small.

Personal Enjoyment: 6

Yeah, this was going to be low after the previous category.

It is hard to experience something out of its time. Take classic Doctor Who, for example. Anyone coming to the show having watched new Who can’t experience the show the same way original viewers did. They can’t experience the surprise of Steven and Vicki stumbling into another Time Lord’s TARDIS for the first time in The Time Meddler. We can’t know what it was like to see the Time Lords show up in all their mystical power in The War Games. New Doctor Who has firmly placed a lens of interpretation that changes how fans experience that old show.

Similarly, I can’t experience Knights of the Old Republic as it was at the time. I can’t remove conceptions of gameplay, level design, and mechanics from my experience of the game. I can try to give the game as fair a trial as possible, emphasizing character, story, and vision, but personal experience is still part of the review process, and this game was disappointing to me. Maybe the mystique created by the passion of the fans made my expectations too high. Sometimes art resonates with us better at some points of our lives than others, and maybe I played the game at the wrong time. I wanted to like the game, and I may well play it again one day, but for now, I come away disappointed.

But my experience is not everyone’s experience. And I really like my current rating system because I try to give more weight to artistic craft than personal enjoyment. Knights of the Old Republic takes a hit on enjoyment and gameplay, but the achievements with story and character make up for negatives.

Final Rating: 7.6/10

Star Wars Legends: Into the Void (Dawn of the Jedi)

Overview

Into the Void by Tim Lebbon is the first and only novel in the Dawn of the Jedi series. This series explored the ancient, pre-Republic history of the Jedi—or, as they were known 25,000 years before A New Hope, the Je’daii. This novel was tied to a comic series of the same name.

There are a lot of really great ideas in this series, but it looks like a full exploration of this era ended prematurely since this was added to the Extended Universe very late and became a casualty of the Disney cannon wipe. I’m not sure how much of this era was planned at the time, but Into the Void and the Dawn of the Jedi comics were a promising start.

Dawn Of The Jedi Into The Void Cover

Characters:  8

Into the Void primarily follows Lanoree Brock, a Je’daii Ranger who has been given the mission to track down her brother Dal before he activates a device that might destroy the Tython system. Dal was believed to be dead, killed during the Great Journey that all Force-sensitives on Tython must take before becoming Je’daii. Dal had rejected the Je’daii teaching and wanted to rely on his own abilities. He wanted to seek knowledge in the stars, not in the Force. Lanoree’s mission, then, is not just to stop a possible madman from initiating destruction; it is a mission to come to terms with her own feelings of failure. She blamed herself in part for Dal’s rejection of Je’daii teachings and for his supposed death.

Joining her on this mission is Tre Sana, a shady Twi’lek that had been genetically modified by Lanoree’s master Dam-Powl. This modification was accomplished through the Force. The two make a good team, with Lanoree’s deadly stoicism being a good foil to Tre’s Star-Wars-roguish attitude. However, both characters are dealing with great pain. Lanoree keeps her pain inside; Tre hides his pain through jokes and charm.

Since much of the novel is from Lanoree’s perspective (though not a first-person perspective), we mainly get her impressions of Dal. On the surface, he appears to be yet another sci-fi madman, but when you dig deeper into the lore of Dawn of the Jedi, there is actually a plausible motive behind his actions. Because of this, I would actually recommend reading the Dawn of the Jedi: Force Storm comic by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema before reading Into the Void. It provides some important backstory to the origin of the Je’daii and the settlers on the planet Tython. Chronologically, this novel takes place just before (and concurrent) with Force Storm, but the exposition from issue #1 is essential. It makes Dal’s motives a bit more clear, though his actions are still irresponsible and malicious.

Story:  8

If you are looking for a fast-paced, action/adventure, Into the Void is going to disappoint. While there are action scenes, the main focus of this story (to me) is to flesh out the Je’daii culture and explore this small pocket of the Star Wars galaxy. The novel moves back and forth between Lanoree’s search for Dal and her memories of the Great Journey that she and Dal took together. Along with this are insights into ancient Je’daii teachings and philosophies—ones that are both familiar but distinctly different. More on this later.

The story takes its time, and much of that time is spent in exploration. I appreciated this, and it made the book easy to pick up right where I left off after putting it down for a month. It wasn’t gripping, but it wasn’t off-putting. I enjoyed working through this novel leisurely, almost like I was on a journey with the characters.

Vision: 9

What was it trying to do?

Into the Void attempted to expand on the already vast Star Wars lore by looking at the ancient Je’daii. It attempted to create something new, yet familiar; fresh, yet plausibly ancient.

Was it successful in doing it?

For me, it succeeded.

Would I like to see elements of this added to the New Canon?

Absolutely.

Personal Enjoyment: 8

This novel surprised me because I put it down for a month, and I thought I wouldn’t come back to it. But after time passed, I missed it and wanted to return to Lanoree, Tre, and the ancient Je’daii. So, while there was no sense of urgency, the book was a journey for me. Sometimes one has to pause in a journey to let things settle, but the journey must always continue. Seeing this book as a journey was fitting as it was largely about Lanoree’s journey, both as a Padawan and as a Je’daii overcoming the guilt of her past.

But I also enjoyed the exploration of the ancient Je’daii. I mentioned earlier that the teachings and philosophies were both familiar but different. This is pre-Jedi and pre-Sith philosophy. The light and the dark are held at balance in the individual. Sometimes a Je’daii must call on the dark, and sometimes the light. The struggle is to maintain one’s balance in this use of the Force. The light and the dark are visibly represented in the moons of Tython: Ashla and Bogan. Ashla is a light moon, Bogan a dark one. When the orbits are balanced, the Tython climate is peaceful and pleasant, but when the moons are unbalanced, terrible storms and earthquakes rage. This environmental and astronomical reality informs the Je’daii understanding of the Force that exists within the individual. I think this rhetro-evolution of the ideas of the Force, Light, and Dark are a fascinating exploration of the evolution of ideas over time. These ideas passed through centuries in the Star Wars galaxy, eventually becoming the ideas of Light Side, Dark Side, balance, peace, and passion that we are familiar with in the Imperial/Rebellion era. These ideas are what kept me thinking about this novel and what kept me coming back.

This series is, I think, one of the unfortunate casualties of the cannon-purge. I would love to see more of Lanoree and the ancient Je’daii.

Style/Craft: 9

Lebbon did a good job of finding the characters in the massive amount of world-building this novel required. The characters felt consistent, and the novel was easy to follow. The pace was slow, but I think it was necessary to what he was trying to do. Even though I haven’t read anything else by Lebbon, it looks like he writes a lot of horror, and a command of pace is essential for that genre. I wouldn’t mind seeing Lebbon return to the Star Wars fold.

Final Rating: 8.4/10

Star Wars: Lords of the Sith

Overview

Lords of the Sith is by Paul S. Kemp, and based on its strength, I am looking forward to reading his other Star Wars novels.

While Darth Vader and The Emperor are used to sell this novel, and they are indeed major characters, the novel spends just as much time on the leaders of the Free Ryloth movement. Ryloth is the home planet of the Twi’leks, and it has known enslavement and oppression for a great deal of its history. Republic or Empire, the regimes change, but the approach doesn’t. However, the movement has a great opportunity as The Emperor and Darth Vader have scheduled a visit to Ryloth. This is the perfect opportunity for an assassination.

Lords of the Sith cover art

 

Character: 10

All of the characters worked for me in this novel. In fact, the relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor was fascinating. This story takes place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, though it is closer to Sith than Hope. Kemp’s portrayal of the Sith lords works toward bridging the gap between where we last saw Anakin Skywalker and where we first (in real-world chronology) saw Darth Vader. In many ways, this is a psychologically abusive relationship where the Force is just one more tool used to oppress a person’s autonomy. The Emperor constantly goads Vader into remembering the most painful moments of his past, keeping him emotionally enslaved to his darkest fears and anger, and repeatedly emphasizing that he, the Emperor, knows more and is in control. He allows Vader moments to consider asserting himself, but always reiterates that he knows everything Vader thinks and feels. In the end, Vader doesn’t hate or fear the Emperor; he submits because it is the only option he has. It is the only option the Emperor leaves open to him.

Another double act in this novel is that of Cham Syndula and Isval. Cham is the leader of the Free Ryloth movement, and Isval is one of his most-trusted (I guess an organization such as this doesn’t have military rank) co-leaders? A little less leader? She’s interesting, regardless. Cham and Isval are a type of counter-point to The Emperor and Vader. They are leader and subordinate; they are the calm and controlled planner and the angry enforcer. They are different from the Sith, however, because their relationship is built on respect, not control. Cham and Isval are still at odds, though, because of their unspoken love for one another. The two characters are interesting in their own right, and their relationship (or fear of one) elevates them to a level of sympathy that I rarely feel toward characters in books.

The final double act is Moff Mors and Belkor Dray. This is the most chaotic of the leader/subordinate relationships in the novel. Mors is hedonistic and incompetent. Belkor is calculating and calm. But this relationship is upended when the assassination attempt occurs. Belkor thought he was using Cham’s group to subvert Mors. Instead, Cham used and manipulated Belkor. When the targets were not quickly eliminated, Belkor’s carefully constructed plan fell apart, and his cool demeanor broke. Mors, on the other hand, gets a surprising amount of great characterization as Kemp explores why she became a bad leader. Someone in Palpatine’s Empire doesn’t rise through the ranks if he or she is incompetent, and Mors is no different. She was quite good early in her career, but tragedy broke her, and her slide into seeming incompetence was actually a slide into despair. Kemp surprised me by bringing depth to this villain. He made her sympathetic, which was unexpected and gains major points from me.

Story:  8

Of all the novels I’ve read in the new canon, Lords of the Sith is the most cinematic, the most suited for adaptation into a film. It has three major acts, one that introduces the characters and their motivations while setting up the Imperial visit to Ryloth, which leads to act two, the assassination attempt. The third act is the hunt for Vader and Palpatine. Despite knowing that the two Sith would survive, there was still surprise as I wasn’t sure which of the new characters would live or die. Particularly chilling, however, was Palpatine’s lack of concern over the events that transpired. He was always calm, always in control. I never thought the assassination would succeed, but the question of how bad it would be for the heroes was ever-present. Overall, I think the story was strong, with only a few places where my attention wavered. As the new canon goes, that’s pretty good.

Vision: 10

What was it trying to do?

This novel attempted to bridge the characterizations of Darth Vader and Palpatine between the prequels and the original trilogy. It attempted to bring more depth to Anakin and his journey to the Dark Side by showing how he viewed his former self. It also provided a fascinating look into the Vader/Palpatine relationship, which is portrayed as somewhat psychologically abusive. Additionally, the novel continued to set up the idea that disparate rebel groups would one day need to unify into a larger movement. The Empire is large and organized. Disparate cells could not hope to take down something this big.

Was it successful in doing it?

Yes

Relevance to New Canon?

There is plenty here that applies to the new canon. We meet Hera Syndula’s father, thus tying the novel to Rebels. Again, the novel bridges the years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. It also showed that while knowledge of Vader’s mystique and prowess were spreading (and sometimes dismissed as rumors—to the horror of those who found out otherwise), the Emperor worked hard to make sure his status as a Sith was known only to Vader and his personal guard. Anyone who saw him use his powers would die.

There is plenty in this novel to enhance the new Star Wars lore.

Personal Enjoyment: 8

I truly enjoyed this one. While my attention waned a bit in the last third, Kemp kept me engaged through the majority of the novel, and I always looked forward to reading it. The strength of the new characters really worked for me. My only real issue was with the fight against the predators (Lyleks) in the forest. I don’t think I would say that it was unnecessary; I just didn’t care for it.

Style/Craft: 9

Kemp is a good writer, and as I said earlier, I look forward to reading his other Star Wars novels, especially those set in the Old Republic era as I’m on a bit of an Old Republic kick right now.

Final Rating: 9/10

Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi

Overview

Heir to the Jedi is a canon Star Wars novel by Kevin Hearne. It takes place after Star Wars: A New Hope and follows Luke Skywalker as he goes on two missions: meeting with Rodian arms dealers and smuggling an Imperial code-breaker out of Imperial employ. Joining him on this mission is Nakari Kelen, a pilot who is the daughter of the founder of Kelen Biolab and a liaison between her father and the Rebel Alliance. She is also Luke’s love interest in this book.

From what I read in my extremely brief research on this novel, it was originally part of the Empire & Rebellion series of novels that is now part of the Legends line. I guess Hearne lucked out.

Also, the novel is in first person, told from Luke’s point of view.

Heir to the Jedi cover

Character: 5

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I think the first-person perspective hurts the book a bit because I never quite felt Hearne captured Luke’s voice. This is the risk an author takes when using an established and popular character from a franchise and writing from his or her perspective. Maybe if the narrative was third person, Luke would have come across as plausible, but since we spend the entire novel in his head, it never quite worked for me. I realize that the Luke of this novel is the wide-eyed idealist of A New Hope, but the characterization just felt off for most of the novel.

The new characters of Nakari Kelen and Drusil were interesting and distinct. Nakari, however, had a major flaw in that she had never appeared in another Star Wars story, yet it was clear that she was influential to Luke’s journey. Teachers in Star Wars don’t fare well. From the moment she became important (well, from the moment she was introduced) I figured she would either die or be outed as a traitor, thus leaving Luke with the baggage of betrayal. The latter option would have been the more interesting one, and could have been explored in more stories set between Hope and Empire. Unfortunately, this was not the option the story took.

Story: 6

Similar to Tarkin, the story is a bit light. There are two distinct parts to the novel: the arms deal and the smuggling. I thought the arms deal was interesting in that is showed an aspect of the Rebellion that would have been a real need: supplies. It’s a strange Star Wars novel where the administration and organization of the Rebel Alliance is the more ground-breaking material. But along with that, the arms deal led Luke to investigate a shrine to a long-dead Jedi master on Rodia. I guess I’m just a sucker for pilgrimage in any form because I enjoyed Luke’s brief interlude to the gravesite and his internal uncertainty of what it means to be a Jedi and use the Force, questions for which he has precious few answers with Obi-Wan’s too-short tutelage. While these ideas recurred throughout the novel, most of the time they were addressed with Nakari being generally encouraging. While this wasn’t particularly satisfying to me, I guess it emphasizes the degree to which the Empire had purged access to information on the Jedi.

Vision: 4/10

What was it trying to do?

Apart from showing how Luke started to develop his skills in the Force without a teacher, I’m not sure.

Was it successful in doing it?

If I’m not sure about what it was going for, then it didn’t succeed for me.

Relevance to New Canon?

This story is the most disposable story of the few I’ve read. If I’m correct in my assessment of the main point of the story, I don’t think it was needed. It doesn’t add to or take away from my experience of Star Wars. This is mildly annoying because when the word “canon” is invoked, an authenticity and importance is imparted on the work. Perhaps unfairly, “canon” causes my expectations to rise. Given how many amazing novels are in the Legends line, anything that isn’t significantly above average feels like a letdown. It’s unfair to Hearne that his novel could be held up to any of Timothy Zahn’s novels as an argument for the superiority of the Legends line. This is unfair because, first of all, Hearne isn’t Zahn and no one should expect him to be, and, second, there are some Legends novels that I think rank well below Heir to the Jedi. Unfortunately, Heir to the Jedi is placed early in the Canon line (from a publication standpoint) when many people are ravenous for Star Wars content in the lead-up to The Force Awakens. I read Heir to the Jedi after TFA, so I wasn’t particularly disappointed in my search for clues. But I also wonder what in this novel might have important in the new canon:

  • A New Dawn was obvious in is telling of the Kanan and Hera’s first adventure.
  • Tarkin told us how Vader and Tarkin first worked together and reintroduced Tarkin to set up for his appearance in Rebels. It also showed us that the Rebel Alliance was still a long way off.
  • Heir to the Jedi showed us that Luke could use the Force to move a noodle.

Personal Enjoyment: 6

Ok, even though I think I’ve been a bit hard on the novel, I never actually came around to disliking it. Much like Tarkin, I never got tired of reading it. Unlike Tarkin, however, I rarely had moments of, “That was good.”

Style/Craft: 7

Very easy to follow, but again, I never really felt like I was reading the words and thoughts of Luke Skywalker. I’m not sure the first person perspective worked for this story since the voice didn’t feel right to me.

Final Rating: 5.6/10

Star Wars: Tarkin

Overview

Tarkin is written by James Luceno, an author who has written quite a few Star Wars novels in the latter half of the Legends era. I’ve only read one other of his Star Wars novels: Cloak of Deception. I thought his portrayal of Palpatine’s political machinations was fascinating, but I didn’t engage much with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s mission to take out a pirate organization. I was eager to see how Luceno approached the new canon. I know his books are very popular among fans, and having a Legends author in the fold lends some strong credibility and acceptance to the new canon.

star-wars-tarkin-cover
The cover for Star Wars: Tarkin

Character:   8

The leads were excellent. First up is, obviously, Wilhuff Tarkin, the Moff who appeared in one Star Wars movie, yet had enough authority to give Vader commands. Luceno does a good job of exploring Tarkin’s past and how it shaped him, not just military events but family ideology. Tarkin is an unpleasant character in A New Hope. He is cold and unflappable. Luceno provides a background that makes that coldness believable. I completely buy that the man in this novel is the same as the man in A New Hope. Likewise, Darth Vader is an interesting character, though he seems to be in a type of transition. He is used to working alone to get things done, but that isn’t how an Empire works. From a certain point of view, this novel is also about providing Vader with an equal, not in the Force but in ruthless competency. This is a tall challenge, since the Force is undeniably powerful and can dominate just about anyone. For Tarkin, however, the Force is just a tool that some people have access to and others do not. He isn’t in awe of the Force. He has seen how the Force doesn’t automatically make Jedi better than others. He has personally proven that drive and determination more than make up for the Force in some circumstances.

The lead characters are rounded out by Emperor Palpatine, who is putting both Tarkin and Vader to the test to root out power-hungry Imperials who are overstepping their bounds, and Teller, leader of a band of resistance fighters. Teller and his crew were, to me, the weakest of the cast. I rarely remembered who was who and never much cared reading about them.

Story: 8

Tarkin begins with an attack on one of the outposts that Moff Tarkin oversees, and his success in repelling the attack leads him to consult on what might be the beginning of a resistance movement. Tarkin and Vader are sent by Palpatine to investigate intelligence to that effect. Vader initially resents having a partner, but the two grow to respect one another’s abilities. The situation is made worse, however, as Tarkin’s private ship, the Carrion Spike, is stolen by the resistance group. Being a top-of-the-line ship, the Spike is extremely valuable for guerilla attacks. Tarkin and Vader must get the ship back and cut the resistance movement off before it grows.

The “present day” narrative is intercut with scenes from Tarkin’s youth when he learned his family’s legacy, the path to gaining respect despite being from the Outer Rim, how to survive in the wild and to hunt dangerous predators. Luceno fleshes out Tarkin’s character so thoroughly that he is a completely believable villain shaped by the influences of his life. While it is occasionally nice to see villains with redeeming qualities, in the case of Tarkin, his life led him to be so single-minded that if you don’t share his ideology, you are insignificant and weak. Props to Luceno for making this work. My only real complaint about the story is the occasional dry bits with the resistance group. I also felt that at times the plot was not complex enough for the page count. If I had engaged more with all the characters, however, I doubt I would have felt this way.

Vision: 9

What was it trying to do?

Help us understand Tarkin and to show the working relationship of Tarkin and Vader, as well as why Tarkin was valuable to the Empire

Was it successful in doing it?

Without a doubt, it was successful.

Relevance to Canon?

This novel certainly adds depth to Tarkin’s character, and I think it even adds to A New Hope. And when Tarkin showed up on Rebels not long after this novel was published, there was added weight.

Personal Enjoyment: 7

I never got tired of reading it, but I didn’t often think “Oh, I should read Tarkin!” As mentioned earlier, the scenes with the resistance fighters didn’t do much for me. I enjoyed the conversations between Vader and Tarkin, I enjoyed young Tarkin’s trials on Belderone, and I enjoyed Palpatine’s attempts to root out deception among his inner circle. While this comprised the majority of the novel, the sections with the resistance and some of Tarkin’s early military victories weren’t to my tastes. And I’ll admit, I generally don’t care for space battles on the page. Only a handful of Star Wars authors have been able to keep me engaged during space battles (Zahn, Stackpole, Allston). Luceno is not currently on that list. That said, however, the lead character is where this book shines, and it is worth the read if you are interested in what made this particular man.

Style/Craft: 8

Luceno’s style is strong, but there are quite a few places where it is also dry. There are pages and pages of space battle tactics and espionage. Some writers make these elements work for me, and I’m sad to say Luceno isn’t one of them. However, this doesn’t mean he is a poor writer. Far from it. His prose is strong and effective. He has a distinct style, but based on the two novels I’ve read, that style doesn’t seem to have much room for humor. Granted, I wouldn’t expect much humor from Tarkin, so I don’t hold that against him here, but I’m curious to see how he handles characters who are more sarcastic or light, a Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, or how he handles C-3PO and R2-D2’s banter. Most of his novels, however, seem to deal with darker fare, so I’ll keep that in mind as I investigate him further. I admit that I am intrigued, and one day I hope to read more of his Legends work.

Final Rating: 8/10

Star Wars: A New Dawn

Overview

Star Wars: A New Dawn is the first novel released in the new Star Wars canon. When Disney acquired the Star Wars property, they decided to wipe the canon clean, leaving just the movies and the Clone Wars animated series. All the novels, comics, and video games were officially relegated to a “Legends” status. These were never officially a part of the Star Wars canon, but they existed in an “as good as” state. However, in an effort to streamline the continuity, Disney instituted the Star Wars Story Group, which now oversees all story content, from movies and television to novels and comics. Everything novel written since Star Wars: New Dawn is now canon

A New Dawn is written by John Jackson Miller, who wrote the Obi Wan novel and the Knights of the Old Republic comic, both of which are now part of the Legends continuity. A New Dawn tells the story of how Kenan and Hera, two characters from the Rebels animated series, first met. When I read the novel, I had not yet seen Rebels, so I went in to the story without any knowledge of who these two characters were.

star-wars-A-New-Dawn-cover
Star Wars: A New Dawn cover

Character: 7

This is a bit retrospect, but now that I’ve seen Rebels, I think Hera and Kenan were handled well. Since this takes place prior to that series, Kenan is a quite rough around the edges and trying to lay low since he was being trained as a Jedi before Order 66. He tries to avoid using the Force, but his Jedi training tugs at him. It is hard to lay low when your previous ideology (one that you have to hide out of necessity) compels you to fight injustice and help those in need. He is initially drawn to Hera because she is attractive. Hera eventually sees Kenan’s potential as a fighter, but she is resistant to his advances. She has a mission, and Hera is focused. Having seen the first season of Rebels, this fits quite well. These are the early days of the Rebel Alliance . . . so early that there really isn’t an alliance per se. There are disorganized resistance groups, one of which Hera is connected to, but we get few details beyond that.

There are two villains in the story: Captain Sloane, an Imperial captain who hopes to command her own Star Destroyer, and Count Vidian, an efficiency specialist who is ambitious and willing to do whatever it takes to make his rivals for the Emperor’s favor look bad—even if that means sacrificing human lives. Sloane is an interesting character. She gets her promotion after Vidian kills her commanding officer, but she then has to walk a dangerous path as Vidian is unpredictable and prone to outbursts. As for Vidian, I didn’t care for him as a villain. He seemed too stock for me, lacking nuance or any potentially redeeming characteristics. I suppose you could say, “Hey, this is Star Wars. It usually deals in black and white. It’s space opera, and you want nuance?” But this is also a novel, and it gives writers the opportunity to delve deeper into character and motivation. Vidian is just your typical evil character. He has no regard for human life, which in itself could be interesting if more was made of it and how he came to view life this way. He is part machine and he is prone to outbursts. Sounds familiar.

The cast is rounded out with Skelly, a miner turned terrorist, and Zaluna, an Imperial intelligence operative who monitors recordings and transmissions. They work well enough.

Story: 7

The story was a fairly typical Star Wars type story: rag-tag band of rebels, some less eager than others, who team up to take down the Empire. Though, in this case, it is just one Imperial operation run by a cybernetic madman. There are some stabs at social commentary, but the novel seems mainly focused on setting up Rebels (which had not debuted at publication), portraying the early days of the Empire when it is still consolidating and building power, and showing the infancy of the rebellion.

Vision: 8

What was it trying to do?

Again, set up Rebels, portray the rising power of the Empire and the early days of the rebellion. There’s not really much more than this.

Was it successful in doing it?

All-in-all, yes. We see the competition between power-players in the Empire. We see the desperation of ordinary people on the ground and the determination of people who would likely be instrumental in starting the Rebel Alliance.

Relevance to New Canon?

This novel fills in some of the time between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. You don’t need the story to enjoy the existing Star Wars movies, nor do you really need it to enjoy Rebels. I don’t think my understanding of any of the characters was affected by anything in this novel.

Personal Enjoyment: 6

My favorite part of the novel is after Kenan, Hera, Skelly, and Zaluna capture a transport bus. Zaluna realizes they need to deactivate the surveillance equipment in the bus. When questioned why a bus would have such equipment, Zaluna says that it wasn’t initially for spycraft. It was installed for advertising purposes, analyzing workers and what they liked to eat and drink, which would in turn be used to personalize advertising. When the business folded and the Empire rose, the equipment was put to different uses. I thought this was a clever bit of commentary given the constant monitoring that occurs online and the algorithms that track our online viewing and purchases to customize ads. The infrastructure is there.

Other than this section, however, I never really lost myself in the book. I was rarely engaged. I enjoyed Kenan but wasn’t very interested when he was not part of the narrative. I think I would have enjoyed this story as a comic book, but as a novel it was largely a miss for me. I don’t think it was a waste of time and money, but it isn’t one I will revisit unless I do a canon read-through, which I may well be nerdy enough to do one day.

Style/Craft: 8

As stated before, I think this would have been an excellent story for a comic book. I think some of the characterization would have worked better in comic form. (Not that comics need lack character depth; sometimes the art makes up for what the words don’t convey.) As a novel, it is fine. Jackson’s prose is good for the story he is telling, but I think I would have liked something a bit more gripping. Or a different medium entirely.

Final Rating: 7.2/10

Star Wars Canon Thoughts and Rambles

When Disney announced that the Star Wars Expanded Universe had been rebranded as the Legends line and that a new, official Star Wars canon would replace it, I was a bit sad but overall, I was excited. While the Expanded Universe held a lot of great memories for me, it was never officially canon, and I was excited to see what a streamlined, considered canon would look like. I remember the early days of the EU, when Timothy Zahn had completed his trilogy, Dark Horse comics had Dark Empire and Tales of the Jedi under their belt, and new novels were being announced (Truce at Bakura and The Courtship of Princess Leia). But the EU was being created one piece at a time. There were early continuity issues with Dark Empire and Heir to the Empire. Both were great stories, but Heir showed the New Republic established on Coruscant and Leia was pregnant with twins while Dark Empire showed the Battle of Coruscant and Leia pregnant with a third Solo child. The workaround was the DE took place after the Thrawn Trilogy, after the Empire attempted to retake Coruscant, but this never seemed that satisfying to me. It was obvious that DE was intended to be the continuation from Return of the Jedi, but Heir beat it to release, and both happened to be good enough that whoever decides things wanted both of them to be in continuity. And they deserved it, but there were definitely bumps to smooth out. And Kevin J. Anderson seemed very interested in attempting to do so, weaving as many continuity references into his work as he could.

In the lead up to the prequels, however, the quality of Star Wars stories varied greatly (for me), and there was quite a bit of uncertainty about how the prequels would affect the EU. George Lucas could do whatever he wanted with his creation, and if he wrote something that contradicted the EU, his vision stood (though how to reconcile his contradictions with himself is still a bit of an issue). A systematic categorization system was eventually developed by fans. This system involved multiple layers of canonicity, and it was quite complex and existed before the term “head canon” came into play. There were general attempts to create a comprehensive EU, but there wasn’t really an overriding vision until pretty late in the game, at which point we got the New Jedi Order, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi. Dark Horse Comics had their own successful run at the time with Knights of the Old Republic, Dark Times, and Legacy. In general, the novels and comics didn’t attempt to cross-pollinate creatively, and they usually focused on their own mini-eras. This could still lead to contradiction, but by focusing on specific time periods, they didn’t need to worry too much about stepping on each others’ toes in a continuity sense.

I had pretty much stopped following Star Wars at that point. The prequels devastated my already waning interest. I dipped back in on occasion and was generally satisfied with what I read, though there were as many misses as there were hits. And any time Timothy Zahn wrote something, I had to read it.

All this to say, I sympathize with and completely understand why Disney would wipe the slate clean. As much as I would like Zahn’s work to stay firmly in continuity, the EU audience is still technically niche. For the most part, we will follow Star Wars in whatever form we get it. And speaking personally, I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who, so continuity issues are irritating but they don’t break the experience for me. But the idea of having an official canon that weaves through movies, TV, comics, and books is kind of exciting. My only real concern is that this official status puts more weight on individual pieces. Before, a boring or disliked book could be ignored because it wasn’t technically official. Now, it is official, whether we like it or not. And every work feels, to me, like it needs to contribute something worthy to the canon. There is a feeling that each work now has to justify its own existence because of its elevated, canonical status.

That’s how it feels, at any rate. In reality, it doesn’t really matter that much. There are good stories and there are bad stories and there are stories that fall all over the spectrum inbetween. Despite official canon, we can still pick and choose our head canon (even across the official and Legends lines, though there will now definitely be contradictions). And despite an official canon, I’m still very interested in reading through the Legends line. In fact, knowing that the Legends line has a definitive ending is encouraging. It is like knowing you can get a complete run of a comic series.

I had been thinking about blogging through the Legends line. I’ve also thought about blogging through the new canon line. In reality, I may do both, but not with any regular pace. Life and work are extremely busy right now, and sometimes I can’t stand to be in front of a computer screen for reading/writing purposes when I get home. And with the way finances are at the moment (good, but recovering from my last couple of semesters of college), I won’t be keeping up with Star Wars canonical books and comics as they come out. I prefer Star Wars books in paperback for some reason, and comics are beyond my budget at the moment. But hopefully I’ll be able to catch up to the SW canon paperbacks soon. I’ve actually read New Dawn, Tarkin, and Heir to the Jedi. The urge to blog about them continues to nag at the fringes of my mind. Now that I’ve come up with a new review format, the chances of me taking the time to move forward on this project are more likely. I need this creative outlet. So if you are willing to read, I’ll work on finding the time and mental energy to write.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The overview is largely spoiler-free if you have been following the general media surrounding the movie, but the section where I start breaking down specific aspects of the film (character, story, vision, personal enjoyment, and style) I go into spoiler heavy territory.

swtfa poster

Overview

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh movie in the main Star Wars saga. It takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi and introduces us to new characters who become our entry point to reconnecting with the characters from the original Star Wars trilogy as well as giving us glimpses into what has happened since we last saw those characters.

Sadly, they did not live happily ever after. The Empire was not completely defeated at the Battle of Endor, and the Imperial remnant has come together as a unified group called The First Order. They are led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the latter is a dark figure who can use the Force and wields a lightsaber.

Our heroes are the newly introduced Rey, a young scavenger from the desert planet Jakku; Fin, an ex-First Order Stormtrooper; Poe, a cocky but gifted Resistance pilot; and many of the characters we know and love from the original trilogy.

The Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film released under Disney, who acquired the rights from George Lucas for a hefty $4 billion. And so far, this purchase is paying off quite well. As of this morning (Sunday), The Force Awakens is sitting at a weekend gross of over $230 million. It’s likely that it will remain in the number one slot at the box office through the next three weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hits six weeks. This film was highly anticipated, and it has already been received well by Star Wars fans and general audiences alike.

I would have loved to watch the movie a second time before this review. General impressions are usually not indicative of where I will eventually fall with regard to a movie. Some films I’ve loved on my first viewing but grew to dislike with each subsequent view. Others took years before I grew fond of them because something kept bringing me back, and I had to keep watching to figure out just what it was that caught me. The Force Awakens is somewhere in the middle for me. It was a great ride and a compelling watch, but I had an inkling of disappointment, and in the end, the movie left me slightly unsatisfied, though still excited to see the next chapter. With The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams has put all the pieces into play, setting up Rian Johnson to deliver what I hope will be a big, visionary, and original episode VIII.

Below is a new review system (for me) in which I break down various aspects of the movie. I hope to continue refining this system as I write more posts (if and when my work schedule allows it).

Rey-BB8

Character                10/10

This is where The Force Awakens really shines. At no point did I get bored with any of the new characters. This was even more their story than it was the story of the original trilogy characters. It is through Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren that we start to see the legacy the original trilogy characters left the galaxy with. And that legacy is still a very uncertain one. Each character is well-written and performed. In fact, I don’t know that Star Wars has ever been as consistently well-acted as it is in this movie. Everyone takes it seriously, and everyone delivers.

Story                         8/10

This is where The Force Awakens struggles. (though “struggles” is a misleading word. I’ll try to come up with a better one.) While the story is actually good, its problem is that we’ve seen large chunks of the story before. In many ways, TFA is a reboot/remix. This movie isn’t mere homage to A New Hope; it is full-on retelling. The visual style and pace are modern, but the overall story is the same. TFA actually reminded me a lot of NBC’s Hannibal, a strange comparison, I know, but bear with me. Hannibal took the already-adapted and familiar stories of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, and recast the story beats and events in very different contexts. So while the overall story was the same, you never quite knew how the pieces would be used or where they would appear. Hannibal played on your expectation of the familiar and gave you something new.

The Force Awakens doesn’t quite do this, except in small ways: going to Starkiller Base to shut down the shield generator (Return of the Jedi), Starkiller Base is an ice planet (The Empire Strikes Back). Those moments were somewhat clever and fun. But where The Force Awakens isn’t so original is its almost beat-for-beat recreation of A New Hope. The story starts on a desert planet, a crucial secret is hidden in a droid, a young hero/skilled pilot who longs for something more encounters a legendary hero from another era who helps her take steps into a larger world, the legendary hero confronts a haunting failure from his past—which ends in the legendary hero’s death, a planet-killing base has to be destroyed before it reaches the rebel base on the jungle planet. I don’t think this recreation would be so disappointing to me if it wasn’t for Return of the Jedi, which resorted the same Death Star threat. The specific details of Starkiller Base don’t really matter in this case. It is the same old threat, trotted out yet again.

The story shines, however, when it recasts the context (such as the shield generator parallel above, or the stormtrooper going undercover as a Resistance fighter) or outright does new things: Finn’s crisis of conscience, Finn and Poe’s escape, Poe getting the star map, Han and Chewie’s latest smuggling scheme, Kylo Ren’s . . . everything. But even when the story was going places we had already seen, we were accompanied by characters who were a lot of fun, and I want to see them again.

star-wars-force-awakens-character-posters

Vision           9/10

What was it trying to do?

On some level, it was trying to relaunch the Star Wars franchise under the Disney brand, and to exhibit comfort that it was not the Star Wars prequels. But more than that, it was a movie that sought to continue the Star Wars story of galactic conflict, the quest for freedom against oppression, and the story of the Skywalker family.

Was it successful in doing it?

Absolutely.

Was it worth doing?

This is harder to quantify. Star Wars was not a dead franchise. However, the prequels were divisive, and they caused a major hit to the storytelling credibility of the franchise. While there are good things in the prequels and each of them gives us something new that expands the Star Wars universe, the movies are average at best. While The Force Awakens doesn’t expand the universe much, it is a much stronger movie than any of the prequels, and it accomplished exactly what Abrams and Disney set out to do: it revitalized an already strong franchise by forging a new direction and vision.

Personal Enjoyment       8/10

There were many parts of the movie that I enjoyed: from the opening sequence with Poe’s capture, to the escape from the Star Destroyer, to catching back up with Han and Chewie. I enjoyed all the new characters, thought Maz Canata is an interesting new character that I want to see more of, and want to know what happened with Luke, Kylo Ren, and Snoke. There are plenty of intriguing possibilities moving forward for this story, and I look forward to seeing them. The only detraction I have is the rehashes mentioned above. In many ways, TFA is a remake/remix of A New Hope, though with some new bits added on. But it is also a remake with style and enthusiasm. It works, but I would have liked to see something different.

And I admit that, in spite of it being the right storytelling choice, I am having trouble forgiving this movie for what it did to Han. But that may just be me and my own personal father issues. Apparently I connected with Han in this movie in the same way Rey did. Her pain was my pain, though I saw the death coming. I hoped it wouldn’t happen, but knew it would because it fit the story.

But that doesn’t mean I liked it.

Style/Craft              9/10

A friend described J. J. Abrams as a Xerox director: He can successfully emulate style. We’ve seen this in Super 8 and his two Star Trek movies. Thus, he was a good choice for replicating the style and feel of A New Hope for a new generation (and to reignite the imaginations of the old). In spite of this emulation, Abrams still added quite a few shots to the Star Wars bag of tricks, shots that were new and interesting. The tension as Poe’s blaster bolt hung in the air was extremely unnerving. The effect was perfect and the sound design with the hot crackle was masterful, and to end the scene with an overhead shot that resolved the blaster bolt was a great choice. This entire scene was like listening to a piece of music that swooped close to resolving, but always flowed back out to add more tension. Likewise, I loved seeing Kylo Ren pull the Imperial officer across the screen to lock his hand around his throat. It showed the visceral anger and petulance of Ren. He has great power and is prone to sudden outbursts. He is unpredictable. Vader was the picture of calm restraint next to Ren. But that also gives the impression that Ren is more conflicted, less resigned to his fate as he struggles to find his path, which at the moment is the Dark Side. I want this man’s story. I want to know what happened to bring him to this point.

The shot of Leia and Rey after the Starkiller Base battle, with the two women in grief on one side of the frame and the celebration on the other, is beautiful. In the midst of victory is great sorrow over those who were lost. It is one of the single most heart-wrenching shots in the saga.

And finally, the final shot of the film, the camera spinning around Rey and Luke from above as we move away from this story for a time . . . there is no shot quite like this in Star Wars. It is a new technique for the trilogy. And while so much of this film was a rehash, ending with this technique signals, to me, that we are now moving into something new. It’s like Abrams is saying “You haven’t seen a shot quite like this before. And as we move on to the next film, you are going to see new things.” I look forward to it.

Final Rating: 8.8/10

Book Review: Jhereg

Cover for the Book of Jhereg omnibus
Source: Goodreads.com

Written by Steven Brust

Published by Ace Books

Motivation

A friend has been raving about Brust. He decided to loan me the omnibus of the same name. While I will read all of three of the books in the collection, this review only pertains to the first book.

The Pitch

Vlad Taltos is an assassin who has a fairly well off organization. However, he finds his position at risk when a council member for the House of Jhereg makes off with 9 million money units (my term). The council needs the thief taken out quickly, before anyone outside the council discovers the theft, else the House will find itself vulnerable. Unfortunately, the fastest way to kill the thief could also cause an incident between two Houses that have a fragile peace.

The Good

Brust did something I did not expect: He crafted a good mystery. The background and motivation of the thief made sense once Brust had built his world. I could follow the clues, and it felt gratifying to figure things out along with (or a page or two before) the characters. I didn’t expect a well-plotted mystery in this book, so that was a pleasant surprise.

The Bad

First person narration can be hit or miss. If you like the character, it is fun. If you don’t like the character, however, it can be tedious. I didn’t like Vlad as a character or a narrator. He wasn’t an unpleasant or despicable character; I just didn’t like him. I never believed him. He felt like a player character from a game, which is not what I’m looking for in novels. On some level, he fits a type of iconic hero trope in that he doesn’t really develop as a character. He is the same in the end as he was in the beginning. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but I just wasn’t in the mood for it. As a result, spending 170+ pages in his head was not engaging. I was far more interested in other characters, such as Morrolan, The Demon, Aliera, and Sethra.

The Ugly

The idea of a wise-cracking, snarky assassin doesn’t sit well with me. Vlad comes across as someone for whom killing is a light thing. I am personally far more interested in the acknowledgement of how killing diminishes the individual or how it causes emotional pain. A character who comes across as carefree about killing as Vlad would not, I think, be as pleasant to be around. You could argue that with the reincarnation and revivification in this world, killing isn’t as traumatic, but I’m not entirely convinced. If it works for you, great, but it doesn’t for me.

Closing

I will continue on with the omnibus for two reasons: It was recommended by a friend and I want to see if Brust’s writing develops more. Although, it is sometimes hard to tell with first person narration if it is the author’s style or the character’s voice that is at play. Regardless, there is a good start with the main plot, but I would have preferred a third person narrative. The humor didn’t really work for me either. From a craft standpoint, I would give Jhereg a solid 3/5, but from a personal preference standpoint, I’d give it a 2.