Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Star Wars Book Club: Battlefront: Twilight Company

Many of life's finer details are discovered slowly but surely by pattern recognition. For instance if you find yourself stricken with diarrhea every time you eat pecans, then it's probably a good idea to stop eating pecans. Once in a while though it leads to downright foolish ideas, like that lucky wallet that protects from bear attacks. In my case it's the apparent discovery that I'm allergic to dentists. Two separate weeks this year I've visited the dentist, twice I've gotten sick right after. Specious reasoning? Probably. Horribly annoying? You bet. The reason I'm telling you this is that since I'm writing this book review under the influence of a low-grade fever, don't be surprised to find a paragraph detailing the exploits of grumpy green goblins.

Ever since the launch of the new Star Wars continuity there's been something of less mystical, more militaristic approach to the universe with a little less space wizardry and more gorilla warfare. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Alexander Freed's debut novel Battlefront: Twilight Company. Within these pages are the missions of the 501st infantry, a band of low-ranking grunts who take on the crappiest assignments from rebel command. There's no force worship to be found here, just basic soldiers doing their best to survive and make a difference.
I'd heard a lot of good things about this one with different reviews both professional and amateur declaring it possibly the best new EU novel thus far. Normally I'm not one to believe the hype but by this point I've got a strange fascination with finding the book that will finally dethrone Lost Stars. Quick spoiler; it hasn't happened yet.

Our main character for this installment is a man named Namir. He was raised on a particularly brutal world where clans constantly fought each other for control which means he's been a soldier since childhood. We're treated to bits and piece of his past throughout the book which helps support the narrative that he's not really in the rebellion because he believes in the cause so much as fighting is all he knows and he's not the biggest fan of the empire. Honestly, he's a bit of a pill though by the end of the novel he has a more stable outlook on life. Supporting him are a number of odd characters within twilight company, but we'll talk about them a little further on.

During the opening chapters, the company captures an Imperial governor who soon defects to their side. This is Evori Chalis, a former underling of Count Vidian (god, I miss that cartoonish wacko) who understands the Empire's logistics like no one else, enabling her to pinpoint weak spots for the rebellion to strike at. Evori serves as the second primary character though we rarely get insights into her thought process. I assume that's because she's supposed to be unpredictable and potentially traitorous though it's odd to read so much about a subject without knowing their intent.

Loaded with information from the dear governor, the troops travel around, destroying various points of interests and on occasion tying in with film events. The biggest tie into the larger SW universe comes when Namir helps to escort Evori to Hoth to meet with rebel high command, which of course lands them in the opening battle from Empire Strikes Back. From that point on, the team has to regroup and make due without guidance from their scattered leadership. That's when the narrative buckles down and focuses on a mad campaign into the heart of Imperial space.

As for the actual writing, it's decent, if unremarkable. I must say it occasionally veers off into being unnecessarily wordy. I won't lie to you in that I'd catch myself reading along only to realize I'd zoned out and scanned the previous two or three paragraphs. I don't really blame the writing style so much as the mysterious nature of some characters and their actions which can make the whole affair seem a bit detached. That's hardly a deal breaker though as most of the novel is very engage with a slightly better pace than most of it's brethren.
Now for the problems, most of which lie with the supporting cast. There's simply too many of them running around without enough room to properly develop them. Consider this spoiler territory, but on multiple occasions, a fairly procurement character receives development off page which makes for odd shifts in personalities. Worse than that is when they die off page as well. Sure not everybody needs the slow-motion hero death but it feels cheap when the story casually tosses out that somebody you've read about since chapter two died when nobody was looking. Accurate to warfare, sure, just not compelling storytelling.
Perhaps those characters would have been given more justice if not for additional plot threads that go nowhere. There are multiple chapters told from the perspective of a female Stormtrooper. Admittedly it's a good idea to illustrate the other side of the war, but her prescience breaks up the flow as she's far away from the core group for the majority of the novel. When her plot thread finally overlaps with the rest it's neither surprising nor satisfactory. Likewise her conclusion isn't even comfortably predictable, it simply peters out with no real resolution.
And then there's the villain, Prelate Verge is basically still a kid, albeit one who was raised as the exemplification of the Imperial ideal. Once again there's a chance for a truly unique outlook on these events coming from someone who's been drinking Imperial Kool-aid since birth. In practice however he's mostly a pompous blowhard who fails to inspire much in the way of fear. There's just nothing all that interesting about the kid. He's not a brilliant tactician, comically overconfident, or even a bloodthirsty maniac, he's nothing. This is a case where a horde of faceless enemies may have been the better choice.

If anything these flaws are what separates Twilight Company from the rest of the pack. Many of the books we've covered suffer from having far too little initial content and stretching it beyond reason. Here the opposite is true. There were enough characters and perspectives available to take the narrative in surprising directions, or even turn this into a sub series. Instead it acts like that kid who doesn't realize it's better to play with one toy for five minutes than five toys for once minute each.

I don't want it to seem like I hate this book. In actuality it is a better than average entry in the franchise so far. More than anything it's like being disappointed in someone for not reaching their potential. Here was a big, mature war tale, with the advantage of staring original creations who can largely do whatever they want, but nothing much comes from it. I'm honestly having a tough time placing it in the leaderboards. It's pretty good, but there's just enough flaws to hold it back from true glory. I guess it can just slid into the top five though given the quality of the book I'm currently reading, it wont hold that position for long.

1. Lost Stars by Claudia Gray
2. New Dawn by John Jackson Miller
3. Ashoka by E. K. Johnston
4. Tarkin by James Luceno
5. Battlefont Twilight Company by Alexander Freed
6. Moving Target by Cecil Castelluci and Jason Fry
7. Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka
8. Smuggler's Run by Greg Rucka
9. Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne
10. Aftermath by Chuck Wendig
11. The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry

Boy did this article ever take a while. Seriously, there was something like nine hours of sleep, 4 large cups of tea, and possibly an aerobics video all during the course of writing this review. I must get back to recuperating. Plans are to bring you all another post before the week is out. I mean I should be healthy by then so long as I can avoid dentists.

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