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Maul: Lockdown Review: Not For The Faint Of Heart

—–WARNING, SPOILERS AHEAD—–

maul-lockdownDespite the considerable number of appearances his conspicuously-tattooed visage has made in the Expanded Universe in addition to his role in The Phantom Menace, it is not often that one thinks of Darth Maul in terms of his character. His existence is primarily that of an instrument that provides conflict and advances the plot as the author required, a pure and driven killing machine rendered virtually invulnerable by his predetermined parting of ways with his lower half in a certain plasma refinery complex on Naboo. Though his limited time on-screen has not exactly provided prospective authors with a wealth of characterization to draw from, there still remain a few interesting elements of his personality that could be explored.

Raised from childhood to be the perfect weapon of a secret order dating back thousands of years, how did he perceive the rest of the universe? In the course of his training and missions, did he often encounter behavior that appeared bizarre or foreign to him, having been brought up in isolation? In his eagerness to face the Jedi, did he study those he hoped one day to face afar? His obedience to his master was undoubtedly absolute, but was it entirely unquestioning? Did he perhaps harbor his own opinions about his master’s mysterious plans, and how the Sith should go about carrying out their return to power?

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Razor’s Edge Review: A New Author Delivers

—–Warning Spoilers—–

315px-Razors_Edge

Razor’s Edge takes place between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. The book was advertised as Leia’s book and Martha Wells delivers that and more for Star Wars fans. The premise of the book is that Leia is going to meet with someone Han knows in order to get supplies for Echo base. The two are traveling on a ship with General Willard which is a great use of one of the lesser known Generals from the movies. Their ship gets attacked and as they are limping in to Arnot Station Leia discovers a long lost Alderaanian gunship marauding as a pirate. This bothers Leia who decides to interfere and ends up taking a small crew (including Han) over to the ship in the hopes of convincing them to join the Rebel Alliance.

Of course nothing goes as planned and the pirates end up sort of kidnapping Leia and Han by having to return to the pirate base in order to fulfill an obligation. Leia is now on a crusade to save the prisoners turned slaves from the ship the pirates took and ends up doing pretty cool action scenes in order to prove her worth to the Alderaanians. Both crews are betrayed by the traitor from Leia’s rebel crew but the heroes manage to survive and save the prisoners with the help of Chewbacca and Luke who were sent by General Madine to help protect the Gamble on its way back from the meeting which never takes place.

The story is pretty classically Star Wars EU and this story really shine from the minor details Wells includes. She definitely did her homework before writing this novel. Wells, while using a heavily female cast (yay!), also uses a variety of species and even invents a few of her own. She makes sure to include different races of humans as well, something the EU fans have been complaining about for awhile now. The three main females Leia, Captain Metara and Captain Aral tukor Viest are well written with detailed descriptions of their looks. The interactions between the characters are clever and the use of a Lorrdian is a nice nod to the EU and does a good job of explaining how a female pirate could have taken over the massive operation in a male dominated time during the Empire’s reign.

Some of the new or little used species include an Andulian (“grey skin, long white hair, furry brows, and atrophied gills in their cheeks”), Ishori an amphibious species, and a Videllan (“gold-brown skin of a leathery texture, a high forehead curving back to a fringe of fluffy golden hair, a beard, and large, expressive eyes with high, tufted brows”). I’ve often thought that during this timeframe the EU authors fall back on the classic movie species so it was very refreshing to read about new species.

“When it comes to trying to stop a crew of innocent bystanders from being sold into slavery, yes, I’m happy to lie with the best of them.”

Leia’s characterization was perhaps one of her best. We even got an introspection from Leia concerning her being seen as a figurehead or symbol for the Alliance. Leia shows some insecurity for being seen as this perfect symbol and wonders how long she can go before she makes a big mistake. This introspection actually strengthens Leia’s character and her grit and determination really shine through in this novel.

The use of Luke Skywalker in this book was also well done because it wasn’t overdone. It seems difficult for authors to use Skywalker without having him become the focus of the story but Wells was able to do so. A pre-Jedi Luke falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book showing the naive farmboy he was during that time but it was nice to see that she didn’t undervalue Luke’s ability since he basically had himself freed but Wells still allowed Leia to ride to the rescue and save Skywalker from being handed over to the Empire.

I really only have one complaint and this complaint probably was my own doing. So I was under the impression that this book was going to give me strong female characters and focus on Leia. Ok the book delivered, except for one part and it was a pretty big turning point in the story. Perhaps if I hadn’t had some expectations going into this book I wouldn’t have been so bothered by it and it might have been unfair of me to put my expectations and hopes for the heroine on Razor’s Edge. Leia is competing in a death match meets the Star Wars version of Quidditch for the sake of the pirates’ entertainment and she thinks if she wins she’ll get what she came for. That’s the ‘deal’ at least. So Leia is on the verge of winning even against the cheating pirates’ droid. Somehow they magically fall through the net and as they’re falling Han Solo who has also somehow fallen through several tunnels comes from the opposite side of the station and bizarrely finds himself in a position to save Leia by ramming a flatbed repulsor into the droid. There was no reason for Han to have done this. This was a perfect place to have Leia be the winner all on her own and it really made me angry to see this in the book that was supposed to showcase Leia. This scene was set up to deliver what I’ve been looking for in a female character’s part of the story and Wells fumbles the ball by having Han end up stumbling through a convoluted way and ending up saving Leia.

The only other minor complaints I have is that Wells turns Han into a horny teenager at one point. I understand what she was getting at with the scene and she was trying to recreate some of that sexual tension we see between the two but the writing was off here and it became kind of creepy and awkward instead of Ford’s suave devil-may-care portrayal of Solo.

If you enjoy Star Wars EU during this time period or you enjoy Leia Organa as a character I would highly recommend this book. Pay attention to the details and enjoy a well written Leia.

(Thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey for providing Eleven-ThirtyEight with advance digital copies of this book)

Kenobi Review: The Smaller The Pond, The Bigger The Ripples

—–WARNING, MILD SPOILERS AHEAD—–

“Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” – Luke Skywalker

Kenobi opens onto a galaxy that has been ravaged by three years of open civil war. Countless planets lie in ruin, and countless rim populations are warily, often forcefully, being brought back under the “protection” of the Old Republic, which is suddenly calling itself an Empire.

But as it happens, Kenobi opens on Tatooine. And Tatooine doesn’t give a shit.

Tatooine’s human population, the book is careful to point out, are settlers, nothing more—even those who’ve been there for generations. Kenobi‘s main human characters are Orrin Gault and Annileen Calwell (whose nickname, brilliantly, is “Annie”), two people who, while they’ve done pretty well considering the circumstances, would describe themselves as barely keeping their heads above water…so to speak. Life on Tatooine is a constant battle—against the elements, against destitution, and against the natives.

Which brings me to the third main character—the Tusken clan leader A’Yark. While Orrin and Annileen practically leap off the page from the get-go and easily overcome my reflexive aversion to excessive human characters, A’Yark is hands-down the most interesting thing about this novel, and every moment in the character’s head is a window to a new world. John Jackson Miller does a great job of incorporating all the existing bits of Tusken lore while creating a unique clan that’s not quite like any we’ve seen before—and in particular, one that’s unique to this point in time. Anakin’s slaughter of the Tusken camp in Attack of the Clones still weighs heavily on the Tuskens’ consciousness, but isn’t dwelled on excessively, or made into a giant plot point (nor, incidentally, are the Larses), because while A’Yark’s clan is shaped in a huge way by that event, this story isn’t about that.

This story also, by the way, isn’t about Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan is a giant stone thrown into the shallow pond that is the Pika Oasis, the community around which the book takes place, but Kenobi is very much the pond’s story. A rippling pond is still just a pond, however, and that brings me to the most important thing I have to say about Kenobi—this may be the smallest-scale Star Wars novel ever.

I knew right away that that would be the main point of this review, but in the month or so since I finished the book, what’s struck me is that it’s more true the more I think about it. There is no bad guy in Kenobi, no evil plot to foil. A’Yark is the most antagonistic, Annileen is the most sympathetic, and Orrin is, well, Orrin—but the story of Kenobi is the story of three people in a mess, and the stakes here are nonexistent beyond the lives of these three people and those they love.

What makes it work, simply, is that Miller creates excellent characters that you can identify with, and whose fates come to matter to you, despite the fact that a Star Destroyer could crash into the Pika Oasis and nothing in any other part of continuity would ever notice. Kenobi is the rare Star Wars novel that, in addition to telling its story, is about something—responsibility. Kenobi‘s three-people-in-a-mess, not coincidentally, are all parents, and when you dig down a little you realize that the book isn’t even about their needs and desires, it’s about how each of them chooses to handle that responsibility. Each has children with different needs and desires of their own, and each is a case study in a different style of parenting.

Which brings me to Obi-Wan. Like the others, he now finds himself responsible for a child who needs him, even if that child doesn’t, or can’t, realize it. The struggles of the other characters so perfectly reflect Obi’s internal struggle at this moment that the entire book stops just shy of being a great big shadow play inside his mind—do I take a heavy hand, or keep my distance? Would I be a good influence or a bad influence? And what about what I want? What about my own legacy? All this is no doubt playing below the surface of his mind at the same time that it’s happening in three dimensions all around him.

Meanwhile, back on the surface, all Obi-Wan really wants right now is to be alone—to work on communing with Qui-Gon Jinn, and to keep from attracting Owen Lars’ ire. But even this far away from the bright center of the universe (or, in fact, because he’s this far from it), everybody is connected to something. Miller has gone on record about Kenobi, like Knight Errant before it, being an outlet for his own ruminations on what it means to be a Jedi when one is alone, with no support structure, and only the scarcest of mandates. Here Obi-Wan is far more alone than Kerra Holt ever was, and Miller’s answer seems to be that no one is ever truly alone. Everybody makes ripples, even in the smallest pond.

*   *   *

I’m going to be talking more in the near future about how books like Kenobi could factor into the Disney-era Expanded Universe (and join me again this Friday for a Kenobi group discussion with Lisa Schap and Jay Shah), but for now, suffice it to say that more stories like this, told by authors of Miller’s skill, are a win-win situation. Kenobi comes out today with my highest possible recommendation.

One last thing I want to address—I haven’t spoiled much of the story here, not for philosophical reasons, but because the mechanics of the plot are beside the point. I have taken care to avoid one or two big surprises because they make the novel more fun and mean nothing out of context, but there is one thing I think it would be helpful to address. A’Sharad Hett, ex-Tusken Jedi Knight, does not appear in Kenobi. His story, however, is very important to the book; like with Anakin’s Tusken slaughter, Miller’s genius is to factor existing material into the story in a natural way, without making it feel like he’s checking a continuity box. And having said that, there’s another cameo that is both awesome for EU fans and makes complete sense in context—but I’m not gonna be the one to spoil it.

(Thanks to NetGalley and Del Rey for providing Eleven-ThirtyEight with advance digital copies of this book)