Thursday, 14 March 2013

Star Wars: Choices of One review

The cover to the paperback without titles.
I’ve written about my desire to familiarize myself with the Star Wars Expanded Universe on the blog before. I’ve done so by selecting and reading some Star Wars novels. I started with the original trilogy novelizations. After the original trilogy, I chose this particular book to read. (Note: even though I reviewed Death Troopers a while back, I read Choices of One before it.) I picked up Choices of One because I had read good things about Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels, mostly the Thrawn trilogy. I was in a book store (no, they did not have the Thrawn trilogy) and I saw his name on one of the novels. I read the back of the book and it takes place during the rebellion era but the person on the cover is a woman I don’t recognize and she’s holding a light saber. “Who the hell is this?” I thought to myself. I was curious and so I picked up the book. So, Choices of One, a Star Wars novel by one of the more celebrated Star Wars novelist writing a story that takes place in between two of the original Star Wars movies. This should be good right?

It was good but not much more than that. You would have to be a big Star Wars fan to enjoy this and a big Timothy Zahn fan to really, really enjoy this. The biggest problem I had with the book was Timothy Zahn. I have nothing against Zahn as a writer. In fact, this is the first book of his that I have read.

Choices of One is a follow up or sorts to Zahn’s Allegiance in which he introduces the Hand of Judgement, a group of former storm troopers who travel the galaxies helping those in need. There are several plot elements that run throughout the course of the novel and they all converge at the end of the book. By writing it this way, Zahn writes a book with a slow moving plot. The real downfall to this approach though, is that some of the plot elements need to be set up early but we don’t have much to set up, that same story elements waits for the others to catch up in order to progress with the climactic encounter at the end of the book. Another upsetting element is that some of the plotlines are simply uninteresting or involve characters that are uninteresting.

Mara Jade and the Hand of Judgement are some of the least interesting characters of the book but they’re the most involved in the plot. I’m sure that fans of Zahn’s Star Wars novels had no problem with this; in fact, they probably really like the parts with Mara Jade. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for me. Mara is so bland and boring and because she’s written as being such a powerful Jedi, I found that there was never a sense of her even having to try to successfully complete her mission. She’s just going through the motions. Not only that, but if she’s such an accomplished student of the Force, why doesn’t she set off on her own? Why does she so passively do as the Emperor commands?

Rough drafts for the cover. Mara Jade is so uninteresting that the cover artist almost used the dreaded "backbreaker"
pose for Mara for the two covers on the right. "Only sex appeal can make Mara interesting to Star Wars fans!"
Apparently Zahn created the character of Mara Jade because he found there weren't enough female characters in Star Wars. I can agree with that but Mara Jade is such an uninteresting character. It was difficult for me to read some of her chapters because she bores me. I find Leia to but much more interesting. I also find that Zahn writes her better. If you’re going to take the time to address the lack of female characters in Star Wars, at least take the time to create an interesting new character.

The best parts of the book are the ones that focus on characters from the trilogy. Han and Leia are especially interesting as written by Zahn. He has a very good grasp on the characters and uses it to his advantage. Their chapters are the best but not because they’re doing things that are more interesting than the other characters in the book; it’s interesting simply because the characters are so well defined. I’m sure it was a challenge for Zahn to write the characters from the movies and keep them true to themselves but also true to when he writes them. The novel takes place between Episode IV and V, just a few months before the events on Hoth.

At that point in time, Han is trying to figure out if he and Chewie will continue to fight alongside their new friends in the Rebellion or will they go off on their own and resume their work as smugglers. It’s difficult for him because he genuinely cares for Leia and Luke. The decision is made more difficult by the fact that he’s also a good leader, even if he’s reluctant to admit it. He struggles with this throughout Choices of One and it’s something he continues to deal with in The Empire Strikes Back.

Leia also has something she’s struggling with. He ties to the Alliance are quite clear. It’s been a part of her character since her very first appearance. In Choices of One, she’s dealing with her confusing feelings for Han. Like in the movies, Leia continues to have to prove herself in extraordinary situations. It’s almost as if she has to work twice as hard to gain people’s respect. This is especially the case with Han and Luke who, much newer to the Alliance than Leia, don’t seem to take her seriously and sometimes even refuse to acknowledge how strong and independent she is. Even in the Expanded Universe there is an anti-feminist subtext. This is a boy’s galaxy and if you can’t wield a light saber or a blaster or if you won’t wear golden bikinis, you’re not wanted. Well, at least Leia gets the satisfaction of problem them both wrong in the future.

Luke is going through a phase of maturity and growth, both as a person and as a Jedi. Zahn does a good job writing Luke. He's barely had any Jedi training at this point and his inner thoughts reflect this. He tries to focus his thoughts with the Force but he attempts to do this without guidance. Luke is also learning that being a rebel means you sometimes have to do violent things to other people. He's killed before during the rescue on the Death Star and fighting in the Battle of Yavin. He hasn't really killed using his light saber before. I see it as something more difficult to do. Killing using a blaster or while sitting in the cockpit of an x-wing fighter puts distance between you and the target. That's not the case while using a light saber. He's still emotionally vulnerable during close combat because of his lack of training and his lack of experience. It's a nice way to demonstrate what kind of life Luke left Tatooine while at the same time showing the reader just how much more growth he has left to do. Zahn's got a good handle on the movie characters.

It seems that Zahn wanted the novel to focus of Mara Jade and Luke, to a certain point. The title of the book refers to a Jedi proverb “The choices of one shape the futures of all”. Who is the one? Well, it could be nearly anybody. If we consider when this story takes place, Luke is clearly the one. However, it seems clear to me that Zahn envisions Mara Jade as the one who affects the futures of all the other characters. She’s not only at the driving force of the story she’s also on the cover. That’s the fault of the book. It shouldn’t be about Mara Jade because she shouldn’t matter to the story of this “interquel”, she shouldn’t matter to the character development of Luke to such an extent. I think that in this particular case, it would have been much more interesting if Zahn had created a new villain to use just for this book. As such, Choices of One serves better as a prequel novel for Mara Jade, a character that first appeared in Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, than it does as a novel set between two episodes of the original movie trilogy. 

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