Monday, November 14, 2016

Star Wars Book Club: Ashoka by E. K. Johnston Review

Recently I took advantage of my new additional income and spoiled myself with the Barnes and Noble Criterion sale. Usually I avoid that release line like the plague as I find the majority of their film picks to be pompous, overrated, art house nonsense. Once in a great while however they bring out something amazing. Case in point are the various Samurai/Chanbara box sets like Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub of which I am now a proud owner. I still went a little artsy and picked up Dekalog as well but that's a matter for another time. The reason I bring this up is that the aforementioned Samurai flicks have a sort of narrative structure that lends itself nicely to these cool November nights. Small tales of lone warriors caught up in conflicts by the thin connections they make with other people. It's a storytelling style that's on full display in the recent Star Wars novel, Ashoka by E. K. Johnston.

For those unaware of who Ashoka Tano is, I won't hold it against you. She's got an odd placement within the Star Wars universe as until now she's only existed in the animated sections that more casual viewers may have ignored. The short and skinny version is that she was Anikin Skywalker's apprentice during the Clone Wars before a series of events drove her out of the Jedi order. In truth I haven't seen everything with her just yet but I had a fairly solid concept of where she left off in The Clone Wars series and how she returned during Rebels. This novel is based on her experiences between the two shows which change her from a lone survivalist to a rebel organizer.

A key strength to this installment is how much more focused it is on the main character and getting to the story quickly. It's very welcome to break from the new cannon's obsession with pointless side quests and baggage that hold back proper pacing. In fact it doesn't take long at all to catch up with Ashoka as she flees one planet in favor of a small moon based farming community which soon comes under threat. From that point on it's primarily about her efforts to help the locals wage gorilla warfare against their oppressors. As stated in my intro it feels a lot like a Zatoichi flick with the hidden warrior aiding a town under siege all while debating their choices and place in the world.
However, the novel hits a little snag When our heroine leaves that conflict in the hope of saving her own skin and possibly making things easier for her new friends. This leads to an oddly paced third act where she reunites with former allies, does a few good deeds, and attempts to build new lightsabers. It's not a total mood killer, but since this one was doing such a fine job of staying on task up to this point, it's worth noting as a problem.

When the novel keeps on point though it works very well. The supporting cast is well written and the connections to the rest of the franchise are nicely done, mainly focusing on Bail Organa's attempts to recruit this surviving padewan into his growing rebellion. I can't stress the value of seeing one of these books actually contribute to the greater whole of the franchise rather than simply filling in space on the time line.

Still there a few issues to deal with. I already mentioned the pacing dip in the third act. Action scenes aren't exactly up to par, and a few of those side supporting characters sort of fade out near the end. There's also the usual problems of grammar and typos. There's apparently a moment when some someone calls Ashoka by her real name when he's never known her as anything other than Ashla. I didn't notice it myself but someone pointed in out online. Likewise I believe I saw the narration refer to Ashoka as “he” at one point.
A small issue I had was Johnston's halfhearted attempt at inserting diversity into this tale. Very late in the book we learn that one of the female characters is homosexual, no problem there. However, it's introduced within like the last twentysome pages, and adds up to nothing. I'm all for being more inclusive in such a wide narrative universe but you've gotta aim higher than busting out jazz hands and yelling “diversity.” Aftermath did a much better job in this regard by not only introducing a gay character but having it influence his interactions with others and having the option of expanding on that characteristic during that trilogy.

The biggest weakness here are the villains. The first one we're introduced too is so inconsequential, I've already forgotten his name. The guy was merely some heartless Imperial number cruncher with little to contribute to the tale. Later on we're given a more threatening force with The Sixth Brother. A member of the Imperial Inquisition, a group of vicious force users tasked with hunting down serving Jedi and gifted children, Sixth Brother serves the purpose of escalation yet largely fails to provide additional depth to the story, and is easily struck down during the final battle.

I'm noticing this review is sounding more negative than I'd intended. Perhaps it's because this is the best Star Wars novel I've read in months which make any problems seem all the more damning. It's an entertaining yarn and I'm sure fans of the character will be delighted to learn about her activities between TV series. Even so, it lacks the grand drama to dethrone Lost Stars and doesn't have the urgency or fun of New Dawn. That being said it's still worthy of bumping into the top three on the ranking. Let's place it there now, shall we?

1. Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
  1. New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
  2. Ashoka by E. K. Johnston
  3. Tarkin by James Luceno
  4. Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
  5. Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
  6. The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry

Man it feels good to put something in the upper tier after months of lackluster adventures. There may yet be hope for the new expanded universe. Where do we wantr to go from here folks? There's a brand new novel this week called Catalyst which leads into Rogue One, or should we step back and check out other titles like Twilight Company? Lemme know which titles you want me to check out. I've gotta go enjoy myself now that I've made the foolish choice of picking up an extra shift this week. Be back soon.

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