Saturday, February 20, 2016

Star Wars Book Club: The Rise of the Empire

I've not much of a Star Wars guy. Rather direct way of opening this article, I know but I've already rewritten this paragraph three times so let's go with the open and honest method. Now I'm not saying I dislike Star Wars, that's impossible for a properly bread nerd. Like so many, the Skywalker saga was part of my upbringing. I bought toys, played a few of the games, and yes even read three or four books, and I never lost interest in debating theories and ideas for the where the franchise could go. After the prequels though, the whole series became more of a passing interest sidelined by a greater dedication to the likes of Star Trek, Marvel comics, and horror movies. Recently that's started to change.

It's no news that Star Wars has returned in a big way. The Force Awakens is still raking in cash and I think most of us were satisfied with what it had to offer. I enjoyed the film enough that it actually rekindled the part of me that loves this universe. Since then I've started sorting through the newly streamlined continuity, first by watching The Clone Wars which has been better than I imagined it would be. Next on the agenda was getting around to the new novels. In the past, my experience with such books was pretty spotty. For as much as I enjoyed Shadows of the Empire, other titles failed to grab my attention. This was due in no small part to elements that simply didn't mesh with what I wanted from the series. I mean nothing's gonna convince me that the Solo twins weren't horribly lame. Since they aren't a problem anymore....hopefully, I'm free to dive into these new stories.

Truth be told, there was another factor contributing to my decision to begin a whole franchise worth of material. Seeing as I wanted to read them anyway, why not turn that interest into a recurring feature for the site? With that on mind, let's start with Rise of the Empire, a collection of the first two new cannon novels along with three short stories. So without further ado, let us commence the first meeting of the Star Wars Book Club.

Mercy Mission by Melissa Scott

Fair warning, this collection does not kick things off in the best fashion. “Mercy Mission” was such a lackluster opening that before writing this article, I struggled to even remember what it was about. The Plot concerns a young Hera (of the Rebels TV series) attempting to smuggle medicine to the populace of her home planet. That's it.
The writing was passable but utterly uninteresting. On multiple occasions I caught myself halfway through a page with no clue of what I'd read as my mind had drifted off to matters like what to make for dinner. Nothing of major importance occurs and the whole tale is so bland I actually couldn't tell you whether the mission was a success. Absolutely can't remember.
If you're a huge Hera fan looking for more details on her past, this may provide some entertainment, for the rest of us I'd say skip ahead.

Tarkin by James Luceno

Now's our chance to get into some meaty material. This was the second novel published within the new cannon but is presented first for the sake of time line. As the title implies it's all about Grand Moff Tarkin whom you should remember from A New Hope as played by the wonderful Peter Cushing. Something I never put together as a kid was how underdeveloped this character was in the original movie. It's obvious he's a high-ranking official but as you grew up it seems odd that he's about the only person in the galaxy with an almost casual relationship with Darth Vader. For anyone who loved the report between these two villains there's a good deal of entertainment to be fond in these pages.
The story itself is a little haphazard. It begins with the station overseeing construction of the Deathstar suffering an attack from insurgents utilizing faked holocommunications. This event makes The Emperor assign Tarkin and Vader to hunt down those responsible. The troublemakers true plan is to steal Tarkin's flagship and destroy key outposts throughout the galaxy. Interspersed with all of this are tales of the Grand Moff's upbringing on his home world. It's not a bad story, tghough it lacks a certain flow and urgency. Those issues are not helped by the chapters focusing on the rebel group all of whom are pretty bland.
The true strength of this book lies in the depiction of Tarkin himself and his relationship with both Vader and the Emperor. Every thought and word feels incredibly accurate to these characters to the extent that you can actually hear their actors deliver each line. Any scene between Tarkin and Vader is a delight as the two of them administer cruel treatments with a mutual respect. Likewise, it's very entertaining to read how the Emperor set both of these men up as his primary underlings, Tarkin as the military leader, and Vader as the junkyard dog.
As far as overall importance, this isn't a tale of shattering events so much as a window into details we've never seen. One element I'm interested to hear more about is that the Jedi Temple on Coruscant was built atop a Sith Shrine. This apparently contributed to the Jedi's weakened connection to the force during the clone wars. Hopefully this small thread will be expanded in a later story.
Even though it may not be incredibly important, or the most tightly paced, I'd say this is a worthwhile read for SW nuts with a fascination for the bad guys.
Bottleneck by John Jackson Miller

Taking a breather from the heavy stuff we turn to another short story. This one I'm glad to report is honestly fun reading. To top that off, it's placement within this collection actually makes sense as it introduces us to the villain of the next novel along with their Imperial lackey, Rae Sloane.
The plot concerns Tarkin being forced to work alongside the Empire's number one business efficiency guy, Count Vidian on a mission to investigate lagging troop armor production. Being a short, there's no deep mystery to be found but similar to Tarkin before it there's plenty of fun in reading about how these villains work together to solve a problem.
I can't help but rave about Count Vidian. He's an inspired creation. Imagine a mixture of General Grevious, Donald Trump, and Tony Robbins. The result is a crazed, robotic business executive who'll stoop to any low to achieve his goals. There's only a lite teasing of his antics within this short, just enough to get me primed for the next novel.

New Dawn by John Jackson Miller

At last we arrive at the very first book in this new continuity. Fans of the Rebels TV series should take note as this one's all about the events that brought Hera Syndulla and Kanan Jarrus together.
Plotwise this is classic Star Wars. We've got a group of odd strangers who are brought together to stop the evil cyborg, Count Vidian and his plans to destroy a heavenly body. What is it exactly with Imperials and blowing shit up anyway? Alright, there is a little more depth to it than that. I just don't want to spoil things for you fine folks. I will assure you that this tale is faster paced and feels more substantial than Tarkin's.
One issue I did have with this offering relates to characterization. Granted I've only seen a few episodes of Rebels but I can't help but feel that this rendition of Kanan is more wild & fun than his televised counterpart. Hera on the other hand comes across as somewhat dry and one-dimensional. She's just a skilled woman who likes to do the right thing. She doesn't have any odd behaviors or personal issues to set her apart within this story. Thankfully the supporting cast along with the diabolical Count Vidian make for plenty of additional entertainment.
Fans of Rebels should absolutely check this one out. Likewise, I think most Star Wars fans will find this to be a worthwhile addition to the franchise.

Levers of Power by Jason Fry

The final piece of this collection is a short tale focusing on Rae Slone's role during the end of Return of the Jedi. A rather simple affair that showcases the number of Imperial ships that fled from the battle of Endor in the hopes of fighting another day. As you can probably guess, this marks the beginnings of the First Order who will eventually spread their own brand of terror. It also serves as a segway into the first entry in the Aftermath trilogy, a snippet of which is included in this collection. Seeing as I'm planing on reading the book anyway that brief segment was skipped.

One issue I forgot to mention are the moments where authors rely too much on the readers presumed knowledge of this franchise. The most common example are moments where characters are described in relation to their species with little else to back it up. Whenever that species is a well known one it's not so bad. I can summon up a Wookie in my head mighty quick but there are other characters I had to turn to the internet to even get a clue of what they were supposed to look like. This same issue arises with vehicles and I'm a little surprised since this new continuity was supposed to increase the accessibility of this franchise.

All in all I'm pretty satisfied with my first trip this expanded lore. Nothing in this collection qualifies as great reading mind you. It's just fun entertainment with a few missteps. The kind of things that pairs well with a nice afternoon in the sun. Speaking of which, there's actual sunlight and decent temperatures for the first time this year. Talk about a good excuse to settle in with another book.

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