Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Star Wars: Dark Force Rising Review (Unread 031)

Cover art by Tom Jung.
It’s been a few months since I read Heir to the Empire the first volume of The Thrawn Trilogy. Not sure how I lost track of the series but the constant commentary on the upcoming seventh instalment of the Star Wars film saga has brought my attention back to one of my favourite franchises. It just made sense to finish reading this series before moving on to other novels in the Expanded Universe. This series is so important to the entire EU and introduces a lot of elements to the Bantam era Star Wars novels. Unlike the first book, I knew what to expect this time around and I think I enjoyed this volume more because of it. Once again written by Timohty Zahn, Dark Force Rising is a direct continuation of the events depicted in Heir to the Empire. As such, there are a lot of similarities between both books, but the second volume tops the first in execution, character development, and plot.

The plot might seem a little light at first glance, but a lot of what goes on is nicely matched up with character development so it’s a little deceptive. The political instability that plagued the New Republic regime in Heir to the Empire further develops. Bothan councillor Borsk Fey’lya continues to garner more support to his cause and it’s dividing the New Republic’s military strength. This is leaving them vulnerable to Grand Admiral Thrawn’s fleet. Han and Lando are sent on a mission to gain more supporters and in doing so they pick up the trail that might lead them to the secret location of the Katana Fleet, a large fleet of 200 Dreadnought-class vessels that date from the Clone Wars. Thrawn also picks up the trail and begins looking for the lost fleet as well. Meanwhile, Luke searches for Joruus C’baoth, an old Jedi Master, in the hopes of continuing his training in the Force. Leia travels to the Noghri homeworld to fulfill a promise she made in the previous book. Here she’ll continue her work to bring more support to the New Republic.

After giving the series a definitive post-Episode VI identity, Zahn wasted no time in developing the implications of what he introduced in the first volume. This was most evident in the characters and the actions they have in reaction to the discovery of there being a Grand Admiral working tirelessly to revive the Empire. That the New Republic is dealing with political infighting and a crisis of identity adds realistic details and depth to the Thrawn Trilogy. One of the things Zahn is quite good at is making Star Wars feel more like military science fiction than space opera. The subtle changes he makes to established elements from the movies make for a more consistent science fiction story. His Thrawn Trilogy clearly foretold the direction Star Wars would take post-Episode I. It’s less mythic and much more grounded in science fiction (heaving influence of the military on the story, clones, armament race, etc.). As such, military battles and political machinations abound. 

Art by Terry Dodson and Kevin Nowlan.

What makes this book work so well is the realism that Zahn infuses in the novel. His continuation of the story following the Emperor’s death and the creation of the New Republic feel genuine. It works well with what preceded and it works rather well in further developing the characters from the films. The political and military situation that Zahn creates gives well-loved and new characters plenty of breathing room to act and react in ways that feel true to their origins and personalities. Good character work and strong plotting mixed in with skilful execution make for a good read. Zahn proves to be quite skilled at making sure the movie characters sound like their on-screen versions and gives the EU elements a clear identity. Everything is tightly focused and the sense of unity between all the elements of the books is impressive.

Of the existing characters, Leia works the best in this book. She spends most of her time on Honoghr the Noghri homeworld. Her identity as the daughter of Darth Vader gives her a certain diplomatic traction with the Noghri and she tries her best to use this to her advantage and for the good of the Noghri. The Leia segments of the books were some of my favourite because Zahn crafted a believable situation with the perpetual reliance of the Noghri on the Empire in exchange for sending their young males to war. It’s a distinctly different look at the Empire that reinforces why they’re often considered the great evil in the galaxy. The story of how the Empire mistreated the Noghri is one of the most powerful and effective reveals in all the Star Wars books I’ve read so far. That Leia manages to figure out the Empire’s deception and solidify the Noghris’ support to the New Republic demonstrates just how important she is to her government and how skilled she is at her job. Leia can seemingly do anything but it never feels easy for her. She’s got to work in order to succeed at what she does yet she won’t hesitate to take on tough assignments. Compared to her, Han and Luke often look like uneducated brawlers out for a good time, whereas Leia is a strategist as well as a respectable fighter.

Cover art by Mathieu Lauffray.

As for Han, he also spends his time working for the good of the New Republic but he does so a little reluctantly. He’d rather spend some time with his wife and getting reading to welcome their soon-to-be-born children. Despite his reluctance, Han proves to be a competent diplomat. His dealing with the former Corellian Senator Garm Bel Iblis clearly demonstrates this. Lando doesn’t get to do much in this book. He mostly follows Han around and acts as a substitute right hand man while Chewbacca is away accompanying Leia on her mission.

Luke is the least interesting of the main characters because he doesn’t really do much until the end of the novel. Both he and C’baoth have a secondary plot that doesn’t add much to the book, neither in character development or plot. Luke makes a realization that the readers made while reading the last book (C’baoth is crazy and shouldn’t be trusted) and then both characters end up back in the same place they were at the end of the last book. This is easily the weakest part of the book. Practically no character development and a side plot that leads to nowhere.

Zahn also does a great deal with the new characters he created in Heir to the Empire. Here Thrawn is at his most effective and it’s actually surprising to see Leia, Han, and Luke narrowly win when confronting Thrawn and the Chimaera. Mara Jade, a character I haven’t really liked so far, is much more interesting in this book. I’m still not a big fan of her being a brainwashed time bomb (YOU WILL KILL LUKE SKYWALKER) but I really dig her as a Force sensitive character that is unsure about her allegiance. It’s nice to get a character that is lost and looking for a place where she belongs following the fall of the Empire. It’s kind of weird to read a book set in the Star Wars universe where the women (Leia and Mara Jade) are more interesting than the men. They also do more in terms of action and plot development as some of the male characters. Talon Kaarde is also a neat character. He’s essentially filling in the role that Han had in the original trilogy. He’s the guy that has a successful career in less-than-legal activities and through random chance was put in the middle of the conflict between the New Republic and the Empire. Like Mara, he’s not entirely decided where or even if he’ll side with either group.

Cover art by Mathieu Lauffray.

I was hoping that Zahn would increase the level of conflict in the second volume, which is exactly what he did. Better yet, he did so while making me care about the conflict because the characters involved in the story were written in a believable way. I might not love every single character, but at the very least I could understand their motivations and that added to the realism and enjoyment of this book. The Bothan politician is a very, very good example. That his behaviour and motivation are the products of his culture make him even more believable. It’s excellent writing on Zahn’s part. I don’t like the Bothan, but he’s well written and genuinely engaging.

Some of you might think that the Star Wars EU doesn’t matter anymore. It seems like a normal reaction to Disney’s decision to brush it all aside in favour of a clean slate, but I would disagree. Disney’s decision was a normal one and, honestly, it should have been expected to happen. The EU is a huge, messy thing that’s been growing increasingly out of control since its inception. It’s also happens to be a hugely entertaining mess of old characters and new, doing things that we’ll never get to see on the big screen. I wouldn’t want to be the one stuck juggling all of that continuity into a movie that wouldn’t stand a chance under the scrutiny of fans. For the Star Wars movies, a clean slate makes sense. For Star Wars fans, it’s a different thing entirely. I don’t understand the lamentation that the EU is no longer canon. Maybe that’s because I enjoy my Star Wars on the basis that if it’s not contradicted by the movies, it happened. Same can be said of the TV series which seem to be held in higher regard by many when compared to Star Wars in print. Then again, maybe my time as a regular comic book reader has prepared me for this kind of mess. I’m used to reading story and entire fictional universes being rebooted. If I can handle the Marvel Universe continuity from the Ultimate Marvel Universe, I don’t see why I can’t do the same with Star Wars. Besides, there were already plenty of contradictions in events and chronology in the EU, what’s a few more?

Art by Terry Dodson and Kevin Nowlan.

Whatever your stance may be, Dark Force Rising deserves a place in the hearts of fans if only because it’s well written and actually good. It’s not only good when compared to other Star Wars books. It’s a good science fiction novel, full stop. The characters created by Zahn are as interesting as the characters from the original trilogy. The plot is fast paced while also having a surprising amount of depth to it. I enjoyed the more political adventure of Leia as much as the treasure hunt for the Katana Fleet. The characters and their actions are true to each other and the way Zahn manages to tie everything together without making it feel forced or without resorting to narrative gymnastics is a joy to behold. I enjoyed this volume much more than the first, primarily because it was so assured in its execution. It’s a pity that we’ll never see this story on the big screen, but it’s also exciting to think of the possibility of the next Star Wars movie being something that has to top this in order to satisfy fans and introduce us to a new chapter in the saga of a galaxy far, far away.

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