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Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” by Alan Dean Foster

Title: The Force Awakens
Author: Alan Dean Foster
Series: Star Wars: Episode VII
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2016

Okay, let me be incredibly clear about this: the rating above applies to this novelization only! I loved the movie, with just a couple minor quibbles to complain about. It was incredible. This book? Sadly mediocre.

Hey, look at that! I managed to make this review almost spoiler-free even without trying to!

Thirty years after the events of The Return Of The Jedi, it seems that the more things change the more they stay the same. The Rebellion has become the New Republic, now the dominant power in the galaxy…at least for the moment. After the death of the Emperor, the Empire fell prey to numerous revolutions and uprisings, signing a peace treaty with the New Republic before melting away and reforming in the Unknown Regions as the First Order. Now, faced with a Senate that is unwilling to risk war and mounting evidence of First Order skulduggery, Leia Organa has formed the Resistance in the image of the Rebellion of old, a private military force to keep an eye on their old enemies. This would be so much easier if Luke was anywhere to be found, but in the wake of a particularly heart-wrenching family tragedy both he and her husband Han have disappeared….

I’m not sure what happened here. Alan Dean Foster is an accomplished author, both of original works and novelizations of films. As I noted above, I absolutely loved the movie. So what went wrong with the book? Let me put it this way: if I hadn’t seen the movie already, this would prove far from satisfactory. While I projected the amazing performances from the film onto the characters as presented in the novel, even managing to carry that through the “deleted scenes” as it were, they would have been fairly uninteresting if I were experiencing them here for the first time. The writing was fairly (though not completely) emotionless when it came to exploring the characters, or perhaps it just pales in comparison with the onscreen performance backed by John Williams’ score. (EDIT: I think this was a huge part of my issue. A number of my favorite moments in the film weren’t captured in full effect here, possibly because Foster was working from a screenplay and not the finished film, which would of course not reflect any added nuance of character injected by the actor. Other scenes are more fully rendered.) Part of the problem is that we almost never get into their heads. That’s why I was so excited to get my hands on this–there are a number of places in the movie where I really wanted to know what a given character was thinking. Normally, this would be the province of the novelization. Not this time. We get a couple snippets of thought, but mostly obvious stuff. Was this a forced tactic by those in charge of maintaining the secrets yet to be revealed? Maybe. I’ll admit that I was hoping for more clues on certain theories, especially Rey’s backstory.

Of course, there are good things to find here too. Numerous sequences that were cut from the film, such as more with Leia, Rey’s first encounter with snow, or a scene where Unkar Plutt tracks down Rey and the Falcon on Takodana. Usually these scenes offer illumination to other moments in the film, such as Rey reminding herself to flip the safety off on her blaster before firing. Too, Foster puts in a valiant effort when it comes to making other elements feasible. Starkiller Base gets a pseudo-scientific explanation for its power and firing mechanism, and Finn has trouble figuring out which tools Rey needs because of their disorganization, not because he’s unfamiliar with mechanics. Then too there are a few more hints regarding the resolution of certain mysteries. Kylo Ren finally realizes Rey’s true identity just before they commence their battle (meaning he’s still one up on us), and Snoke drops several more hints regarding his origins that still fall far short of revelation.

Bottom line: I’m not telling you to give this one a miss, but I am telling you to see the movie first. That experience will add some much-needed flavor to this one.

CONTENT: Mild to no profanity. Mild violence, occasionally heart-wrenching. You know the part I mean. Little to no sexual content.

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Review: “Star Wars: Showdown On The Smuggler’s Moon” by Jason Aaron & Stuart Immonen

Title: Showdown On The Smuggler’s Moon
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Series: Star Wars #8-12 (Official Canon)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2015

I very much enjoyed the first volume of Marvel’s ongoing Star Wars series, but many other reviewers took issue with it for playing things safe and giving us a story like many we’d seen before. These criticisms are not completely unfounded, I’ll admit, but neither are they completely fair. Either way, this is not a problem the series has going forward…. This second volume also includes the one-off flashback story The Last Of His Breed, featuring Obi-Wan Kenobi adjusting to his exile on Tatooine.

Luke Skywalker has successfully escaped the clutches of the bounty hunter Boba Fett, but all he got for his troubles was the journal of Obi-Wan Kenobi–no small prize, but probably not all that helpful in furthering his Jedi training. So what’s the next logical step in learning about the Jedi? Try and sneak onto Coruscant to infiltrate the old Jedi Temple, of course! But when his attempt to find a discreet ship and pilot in a seedy bar on Nar Shaddaa goes horribly awry, Luke finds himself the prisoner of Grakkus the Hutt. In addition to the traditional crime and vice, Grakkus has made a name for himself as one of the foremost collectors of Jedi artifacts. Now Luke faces the battle of his life in Grakkus’ arena, billed as “the last Jedi” and pitted against a fearsome creature for the amusement of Grakkus’ fellow crime lords….Meanwhile, Han and Leia are out scouting potential locations for a new Rebel base when they run across a figure from Han’s past. Her name is Sana, and she claims to be his wife….

As with the previous volume, this was some stellar work. Jason Aaron nails the banter between Han & Leia, to the point where you can almost hear Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford delivering the lines, and Luke’s mix of cockiness and self-doubt is spot-on for his character and situation. Also of note is Stuart Immonen’s spectacular artwork. From the character closeups to the panoramic vistas, this was pure Star Wars. Also amusing was watching our entire cast wade into battle wielding lightsabers. Did Luke manage to salvage anything of value from Grakkus’ stash on his way out? I guess we’ll have to wait and see….

CONTENT: Moderate violence, not too gruesome most of the time. Mild profanity. Mild sexual innuendo and flirting.

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Review: “Star Wars: Shattered Empire” by Greg Rucka, Marco Checchetto, Emilio Laiso, & Angel Unzueta

Title: Shattered Empire
Writer: Greg Rucka
Artists: Marco Checchetto, Emilio Laiso (Issue #2), & Angel Unzueta (Issues #2-3)
Series: Star Wars (Official Canon)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2015

Did you ever wonder just what happened to our heroes after the credits rolled and The Return Of The Jedi was over? Yes, yes, I know, they foiled an invasion by the Ssi-Ruuk. But that was the alternate universe of the Legends canon. I’m talking the new, rebooted canon leading up to Disney’s triumphant (we hope) entrance into the franchise. Well, wonder no more! Marvel has brought us Shattered Empire to answer some of those questions and help set the board for Star Wars–Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Now, I know this is a four-issue miniseries, but I want you to try something. Instead of thinking of it as a unified story, think of it as a themed anthology, a collection of shorter tales all featuring the same main character with numerous side characters along for the ride and all loosely tied together by a common end goal. If you can do that, this earns the four stars I took the liberty of giving it–possibly even a fifth. If you can’t, if you go into this expecting a single unified story, that rating probably seems incredibly generous as the episodic plot rambles all over the place and sprawls out over a three-month period with sometimes little connective tissue between adventures. So please, go into this book with the proper expectations, because it really is worth the read.

Our story opens during the climactic moments of The Return Of The Jedi. While Luke engages his father in an epic lightsaber battle and Han’s commandos prepare to destroy the shield generator protecting the second Death Star, the Rebel fleet battles for survival between the Imperial Navy’s hammer and the Death Star’s anvil (or is that the other way around? Doesn’t matter, moving on.) Our protagonist, Shara Bey, is an A-Wing pilot caught in that battle, while her husband Kes Dameron is with Solo’s strike team on the surface. Following the battle, they get a brief respite during the victory celebration, but then it’s once more into the breach as comm traffic reveals a holdout Imperial base on the far side of the planet. Striking that base reveals a sobering fact: the war is far from over. The Emperor had a slew of contingency plans, and the Imperials control the airwaves. Palpatine may be dead, but most of the galaxy doesn’t know that. We then jump to several weeks later, as the Rebels work hard to liberate world after world. Off the front lines on light duty after her fighter is disabled, Shara accompanies Princess Leia to Naboo on a diplomatic mission to gain allies for the fledgling New Republic. Unfortunately, as the Emperor’s homeworld, Naboo is one of the prime targets of Operation Cinder, the Emperor’s program of vengeance from beyond the grave….Meanwhile, Solo’s strike team takes on an Imperial Security Bureau black site. Finally, we jump again to about three months post-Endor, as the grave reality is finally settling in for everyone involved–despite their recent victories, there is no end in sight for the ongoing war. Struggling with the question of whether or not to muster out and settle down with her husband and son, Shara joins Luke Skywalker on an undercover mission to recover an artifact of the old Jedi Order.

Like I said, if you come into this with the proper expectations, it’s solid gold. The writing is top-notch, and the art is incredible. In the middle the series gains a couple backup artists, I assume to help with backgrounds and such given the compressed publication schedule (the whole thing was published over the course of a month and a half), but it was surprisingly not an issue. The whole book is full of delightful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gems, such as a sly, almost imperceptible reference to the fan theory that the Ewoks were serving roast Stormtrooper at their celebration party, a brief exhibition of Leia’s fledgling Force sensitivity as she feels “cold” when crossing paths with Maul’s imprint, and another semi-appearance of Commander Beck from Han Solo’s Smuggler’s Run (also by Greg Rucka, now that I think of it.) The ties to The Force Awakens range from the obvious (Poe Dameron is the son of Shara and Kes) to the more foundational, such as the war not ending where we all assumed it did. Bottom line: Find this, read it, and enjoy it. Just know what you’re in for.

CONTENT: Moderate violence. Minor to no profanity. Mild sexual content (Shara and Kes wake up together in one scene after one of their rare chances to be together.)

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Review: “Star Wars: Smuggler’s Run” by Greg Rucka

Title: Smuggler’s Run
Author: Greg Rucka
Series: Star Wars (Official Canon)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Disney Press, 2015

Amid the frenzied run-up to a new Star Wars film being released, fans who know what they’re doing will keep a careful eye on the various books being released for a glimpse at the fantastic world they’ll soon be inhabiting. Some are more relevant than others (Labyrinth Of Evil ended literally as the opening crawl for Revenge Of The Sith started rolling), but there’s usually a number of so-called Easter Eggs thrown in for sharp-eyed fans. The run-up to The Force Awakens is no different. While the body of the book is set immediately following A New Hope, the tale is bracketed by a prologue/epilogue set just before the new film. For that matter, it wouldn’t at all surprise me to have elements from the main tale become relevant later as well, thanks to the newly-inaugurated interconnectivity of the Star Wars canon.

The Death Star is destroyed! Against his better judgement, Han Solo pulled a last-minute about face and joined the battle, distracting Darth Vader long enough to allow Luke to make the fateful shot that saved the Rebellion from certain and immediate destruction. Now he just wants to get off-world and back to Tatooine and use his reward money to convince Jabba to cancel the bounty on his head. But when Leia comes to him with a desperate mission only the Millennium Falcon is fast enough to pull off, Han is surprised to find himself taking the job. In the wake of the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire is hitting every Rebel cell they can find. One such cell is run by Lieutenant Ematt, who also is the man in charge of exploring and setting up fallback points, rendezvous, and supply caches for the Rebellion. Though his team is dead, Ematt himself is still at large….for now. But the Imperial Security Bureau is hot on his trail, and the Falcon is the only ship that has any hope of reaching him in time….

On the one hand, this isn’t a very complicated tale. It’s Han being mercenary, trying desperately to avoid polishing the tarnish off his proverbial heart of gold. We’ve seen that before, quite a bit as it happens. We’ll probably see a lot more in the three years between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, as there’s now a brand new clean slate to draw on. On the other hand, Greg Rucka has an incredibly solid grasp of these characters and what makes them tick. You see the first twinges of conscience from Han as he realizes that every time the question of trust comes up, its not his integrity but Chewie’s that convinces even his oldest friends to trust him. You see Chewie’s willingness to throw in whole-heartedly with the Rebellion, restrained only by his friendship for Han. You see the bond between those two characters. Is the story anything incredible? No, but it’s well-executed and contains enough action and excitement to keep you turning pages long past when you’d planned to set it down. On the whole, I would recommend it.

CONTENT: No profanity. Some violence, not too gruesome for the most part. Mild flirting.

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Review: “Star Wars–Empire And Rebellion: Razor’s Edge” by Martha Wells

Title: Razor’s Edge
Author: Martha Wells
Series: Star Wars: Empire & Rebellion (Legends Canon)
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2013

They keep referring to this Empire And Rebellion set of books as a series or a trilogy, but I don’t think that’s very accurate. From what I can see, these are three individual books not connected in any way aside from the fact that they are set around the same time (i.e. between Star Wars IV: A New Hope and Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back) and feature the “big three” characters from the films–Han, Luke and Leia–with one book primarily from each viewpoint. Razor’s Edge is primarily focused on Leia, with Han pulling a significant number of POV scenes as well.

Han and Leia are on yet another vital mission for the Rebellion, hoping to buy much-needed supplies for the construction of Echo Base on Hoth. Only when they come out of hyperspace to pick up the coordinates for their meeting, they’re met with an Imperial cruiser! Damaged and on the run, the Rebels barely escape to the rendezvous point only to find their troubles compounded–the smugglers they’re to meet have just fallen afoul of a local pirate band. Worse yet, the pirates are an orphaned Alderaanian defense crew forced into piracy to keep themselves afloat–and they’re deep in debt to a larger pirate armada who wouldn’t think twice before selling Leia to the Empire. Leia and Han are going to have to think fast and talk faster to maneuver their way out of this one….

This book was a lot of fun, and probably the best bridge between Episodes IV and V for adult readers–most of the other stuff in this period is either YA or side adventures. Getting insight into this stage of Han and Leia’s relationship was a great bonus, as well as seeing the evolution of the various interconnected friendships between the “big three” of the Star Wars films. I loved the biting humor of Han and Leia’s banter, it was great. The insight into Leia’s character was also excellent, and long overdue–Han and Luke both have a plethora of solo stories, but Leia-centric media is strangely lacking. The insight and exploration of her character worked incredibly well, with the band of Alderaanian pirates serving as a catalyst to allow the reader to explore her guilt and grief over the destruction of her home planet. All this emotional and relational drama doesn’t keep the story from being a thrill-ride full of death-defying stunts, however. You may have trouble finding time to breath between feats of daring-do.

There are always issues setting a story in such a heavily-documented part of the timeline, but on the whole the novel managed to either avoid them or handle them adroitly. Since the book wasn’t rooted in a throwaway line from the films, there was no need to explain away earlier stories based on that same line. Lando didn’t appear, so that convoluted relationship grew no more tangled. The only real issue it had to face was the one that’s unavoidable–how do you create drama when we know everyone (or at least everyone we knew going in) is going to survive intact for the film that happens right around the corner? Mostly the author handled this by creating emotional drama, forcing Leia to deal with these wayward members of her own people and the emotions that they call up. She also manages to make us care about most of the side characters she creates, so while we know Han and Leia will come out of all the death-defying exploits intact, you’re still riveted to the page to make sure your favorite side players are doing okay.

CONTENT: Mild language. Brief sexual innuendo and flirting from Han, but nothing too bad. A fair amount of violence, as would be expected from Star Wars.

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Review: “Star Wars: Scoundrels” by Timothy Zahn

Title: Scoundrels
Author: Timothy Zahn
Series: Star Wars (Legends Canon)
Rating: *****
Copyright: Del Rey, 2013

I’ll just get this out of the way right off: I am a huge Star Wars geek. As of about six months ago I had read every single Star Wars novel to be published and was working my way through the backlog of short stories and comics as I was able to get access to them. Unfortunately, I’ve been too broke to buy all the books to have come out since then and my library apparently finds Star Wars novels to be a low priority on their buy list. I know, #firstworldproblems, I’ll deal. Anyway, all that to establish my credentials as an amateur-expert on the Star Wars Expanded Universe and to explain why I’m only now posting this review when Scoundrels came out months ago.

If you know anything about the Star Wars Expanded Universe, you know that it owes a lot to Timothy Zahn. Star Wars was a dead property until Heir To The Empire was released in the early 90s, but now it has become a multi-headed hydra that can be very difficult to keep track of. I personally very much dread the damage to the fabric of the Star Wars EU that will result from the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII: Whatever They Decide To Call It, but that’s a post for another day. Zahn is hands-down my absolute favorite Star Wars author, rivalled (but not surpassed) only by Karen Traviss while she was still writing for the property.* The characters Zahn created consistently lead the pack in terms of fan popularity, and Mara Jade is the only non-film character to break the top twenty.** Zahn brings to the table a genius for convoluted plots, fascinating characters, and the sense of fun that made Star Wars so appealing in the first place. For instance, the whole book is a tribute to the movie Ocean’s Eleven, and there is a sequence in this book that pays homage to the classic scene in Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark where Indy is running from the giant boulder rolling through the temple. You remember the scene? Keep that in mind as you near the climax of the story, and I dare you not to laugh out loud….

This story is set in the first couple of months after the destruction of the Death Star, while Han and Chewie are out trying to find the credits to pay off their debt to Jabba the Hutt. Given that fact, you don’t need to have read the whole field of Star Wars literature to quickly grasp the situation. Han is in debt to Jabba, which we know from the films. He got the money to pay him at the end of A New Hope, but lost it when he was taken by pirates.*** Han and Lando were friends for years, but about a year before the Death Star incident Han got Lando and a bunch of other smugglers involved in a job that went south. They were double crossed, left empty-handed, and Lando blamed Han.**** Now Han has a job that should get them all out of debt and set them up for life….if they can pull it off. The resulting tale is a brilliant display of interlocking characters and motivations as everything builds to its explosive climax. This is Star Wars the way it’s supposed to be, and you should definitely read this book regardless of your level of Star Wars geekdom. Newcomers can get right into the action, while veteran readers of the EU will recognize younger versions of a number of familiar characters–Winter, for one, and Kell Tainer from the X-Wing novels. While this is fun for us veterans, knowledge of their later exploits is far from essential to this story. If you enjoy this one, you should check out a prior adventure with Bink & Tavia, Zerba and Lando in Winner Lose All. Also, Bink & Tavia got a solo short story (Heist) that’s worth checking out if you enjoyed this one.

CONTENT: Mild language, mild violence, some flirting.

*In the interest of clarity, Karen Traviss is still an excellent writer and I continue to follow a lot of her work. Also, she was totally shafted in that whole fiasco. Again, that’s another post….
**Rumor has it that George Lucas resents this, but I have no idea whether that’s true.
***That reward the Rebellion scraped together at the end of A New Hope? It got stolen by pirates in the old Marvel Comics’ Star Wars series. And then he proceeded to gain and lose the credits again four or five times. The EU loves to play with throwaway lines from the films, and I’ll discuss that fact again later in the review.
****The problem with writing EU stories set in this crowded bit of the Star Wars timeline is that you bump into other explanations for throwaway lines in the films. Example: Lando is mad at Han for something that happened a long time ago when Han and the Falcon arrive on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. So, in the novel Rebel Dawn Han gets them all double-crossed and Lando says he never wants to see him again. But now Timothy Zahn wants to include Lando in his story, so they pull him in and explain it away. But you know that in the end Lando will be leaving once more angry with Han. You also know that there is no way Han gets the money to pay off Jabba, given the events of the later films. The book still manages to be suspensefull, and the last-paragraph twist/revelation is a superb touch, but some elements of the outcome are dictated by later events.

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