Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
Continuing on from my commentary on new canon comics, I’m going to delve deeper into the revised continuity of the Star Wars saga by discussing the novels that have been helping to reconstruct its expanded universe. Right now, they can be cast into two broad categories; those published under the “journey to The Force Awakens” banner and those that take place within the gaps between the first six episodes. This particular article will examine the works which make up the latter list and, as before, there may be mild spoilers for some of the stories.
The easiest way to do this is to follow the format of the previous piece and look at each endeavour chronologically again, which places Christie Golden’s Dark Disciple in pole position. It seems appropriate then that, like Darth Maul: Son of Dathomir, this is essentially another love letter to fans of The Clone Wars, albeit a somewhat more accessible one.
The premise is actually adapted from eight unproduced scripts for the show, which would have spanned an arc anchored around maverick Jedi Master Quinlan Vos and former Sith acolyte Asajj Ventress as they team up in an attempt to assassinate Count Dooku.
Both characters are well written and make for compelling protagonists. Their differing ideas concerning the Force allow for intriguing insights into the nature of the dark side and how it affects the minds of those that dabble in it. In many ways, it provides a much better explanation than the movies do of why one would lose oneself to its influence.
The nature of the narrative means that it’s able to explore other aspects of the pre-Imperial period as well. This is refreshing in relation to the other novels, which are all set in later eras. What we’re given is simultaneously a story about a Jedi on a mission, undercover espionage, war and the life of a bounty hunter. Each element works well and is equally engaging.
The setting also allows for appearances from characters who are inaccessible to the other books. This is fine when they come in to cameo, but it can counteract the flow of events when their roles are expanded. While it’s undeniably exciting to see Obi-Wan and Anakin play a pivotal part, their presence shifts the focus away from the relationship between Vos and Ventress, which is unfortunate.
The characterisation of some prequel players seems off at times too. It’s difficult to believe that the Jedi would abdicate assassination and Mace Windu comes across a lot more antagonistic than he does in the movies. A scene in which Padmé appears is also awkwardly inserted, but presumably it’s because this was originally supposed to be several episodes of the TV series.
In that regard, it can be obvious that this tale wasn’t originally conceived as a novel. There’s a compartmentalised characteristic to it that has its ups and downs. It functions fine when following Vos and Ventress through various escapades, but it’s disruptive when others move to forefront. Thankfully though, the spotlight shifts back to the two protagonists for a beautifully crafted and powerful conclusion.
For the most part, Dark Disciple does succeed as a standalone story. It’s packed full of action and emotion and keeps captivating throughout, even if its focus drifts at times. While knowledge of Ventress’s background would be beneficial before reading, it should be accessible enough for anyone who hasn’t seen The Clone Wars. That being said, its greatest triumph is that it provides a satisfactory resolution for a major arc that the show never had a chance to finish.
From here, we jump to a trilogy of novels that embark on a trek through the early days of the Empire. While they’re each unrelated and of varying quality, they do manage to complement one another by providing different perspectives on the rise of Palpatine’s regime. Unfortunately though, the first one to occur chronologically is also the weakest.
Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith takes place half a decade after Episode III and doesn’t feature Vader and Sidious anywhere near as prominently as one would expect based on the title and cover image. Rather, it revolves around an assassination attempt on the two by insurgents on the planet Ryloth. The main problem with that is the rebel characters aren’t especially endearing.
The primary points of view are those of Twi’lek freedom fighter Cham Syndulla, vengeful former slave Isval and corrupt Imperial colonel Belkor Dray. The only fascinating facet of the former is that he’s the father of Hera from Rebels, while the other two never reach a likable level. In fact, Isval is the facilitator of a disturbing digression into the sleazy underbelly of Ryloth that feels very out of place in a Star Wars story, especially one entitled Lords of the Sith.
When reading through the chapters with these characters, I was only anxious to arrive at the all too irregular appearances of the titular antagonists. And when they do show up, their characterisation is remarkably weak, especially in the case of Vader. There’s far too much emphasis on his being a hate filled fiend. It restates that he’s angry over and over to the point that it becomes numbing and does no justice to the depth that he’s given in his current comic series. There is an instant where people from his past such as Ahsoka, Obi-Wan and Padmé cross his mind, but it happens suddenly and offers no elaboration on how he really feels about them at this stage in his development.
However, there are some redeeming qualities. The outward interactions between Vader and his master emulate those of Return of the Jedi quite well and Palpatine’s portrayal is better than that of his apprentice, with his mannerisms reflecting what we’ve seen in the movies. The attack on the Star Destroyer Perilous is also exciting, even if it does feel somewhat shallow due to the depiction of those involved.
Ultimately though, it’s probably my least favourite addition to the new expanded universe. Of the three tales that are about the Empire tightening its grip on the galaxy, this is definitely the least effective. The lack of focus on the Sith is frustrating, the Ryloth social issues are uninteresting and the fact that it’s implied all of the events occurred to test Vader’s loyalty to Sidious is a waste given that very little of this takes place from Vader’s perspective.
James Luceno’s Tarkin occurs soon after the above and while it’s not exactly spellbinding either, it does offer a much better insight into Imperial infrastructure and the Sith themselves. The main character, of course, is the man responsible for annihilating Alderaan, Wilhuff Tarkin. As a protagonist, he’s a little dull. The same is true of his backstory, which is gradually revealed through mostly mundane flashbacks.
What is well done is how it builds a rapport between Tarkin and Vader, explaining their informality in A New Hope. It’s also interesting that this is told from the point of view of the villains, almost making you forget that the Empire are the bad guys since Tarkin certainly doesn’t see it that way.
The best parts are the ones that allude to some grand scheme being secretly orchestrated by the Sith that transcends the importance of the Empire itself. There’s not much on this, but it at least attempts to expand upon Palpatine’s plans in ways that Lords of the Sith doesn’t. And the suggestion that everything occurs according to Palpatine’s design once again emphasizes his status as the puppet master of the saga.
When all is said and done, Tarkin is a mixed bag. It’s fascinating to find out how the titular character became the Empire’s number three man after the Emperor and his infamous enforcer and the pace and plot improve as they progress. But, there’s just a few too many Imperial board meetings and coming of age interludes to classify it as riveting reading.
John Jackson Miller’s A New Dawn acts as the antithesis of Tarkin, showing how the rise of the Empire affects its citizens as opposed to its staff. It also serves as the perfect bookend to Marvel’s Kanan comics, chronicling how the character rediscovered his affinity with the Force in order to fight the good fight. And above all else, it manages to surpass every other novel in this article, excelling on several levels. For starters, it’s easily accessible to all readers. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Rebels, you can pick this book up and have no trouble getting to grips with what’s going on since it’s an origin story set years before the start of the show.
The characterisation of Kanan is superb. It really fleshes out his personality and makes him feel a lot more “real” than Rebels does. He comes across not unlike a Force sensitive Han Solo in both mood and mindset, which makes for some truly enthralling reading. Hera is also very well developed here. She’s overtly virtuous from the get-go, representing the evolving uprising. Through her, we experience some genuinely hard-hitting emotional moments. She’s the heart, Kanan’s the anti-hero and both complement each other perfectly as protagonists.
The antagonists are also amazingly effective. Captain Rae Sloane is intriguing in that she doesn’t come across as villainous so much as she does ambitious. She’s simply an officer attempting to carve out a career for herself. This highlights the fact that some members of the Imperial military believe that they’re just doing their civic duty.
The book’s “big bad” Count Vidian, on the other hand, is absolutely abhorrent. Whereas villains such as Vader and Sidious are calculating and cunning, Vidian is insane and sadistic in a much more manic manner. His undisciplined demeanour makes him seem like chaos in the face of Palpatine’s order. Which isn’t to say that the Sith are incapable of carrying out the actions that he does, just that he’s written in an incredibly unnerving way.
On top of all that, the pace is pulse-pounding and the action is exhilarating. It’s also quite graphic at times. Instances of individuals being melted alive with acid demonstrate that this is very far removed from the family friendly feel of the show in which the key characters feature. It really reaffirms the fact that A New Dawn is not specifically catered to watchers of Rebels. Rather, it’s a meticulously made and exciting standalone story for Star Wars enthusiasts of all kinds.
After this, we fly forward to the days just after the Death Star was destroyed for something a little different. Kevin Hearne’s Heir to the Jedi is notable for being told from a first person perspective, with the protagonist being none other than the legendary Luke Skywalker himself.
The approach it takes not only makes for an easy read, it also delves deep into Luke’s psyche in the wake of A New Hope. Feeling as if he has no one to talk to about the Force, it conveys a strong sense of isolation within the young rebel that’s consistent with his characterisation in the comics that take place soon after.
His quest for further information about the Jedi makes for some great reading. It’s exciting every time he uncovers a new piece of the puzzle, such as references to order sixty six and hints at the kind of man his father was in the field. It’s like rediscovering parts of the prequels through Luke’s eyes, which makes it all the more compelling.
Some of the most gripping moments are when he’s contemplating the Force and trying to teach himself how to tap into it. His first failed attempt at telekinesis is actually quite amusing. There’s a good balance between humour and frustration as his emotions surrounding his lack of direction are explored.
The narrative as a whole is extremely engaging. In some ways, it’s constructed like a collection of mini-quests incorporated into an overarching assignment for the Alliance. But the plot remains focused and doesn’t lose the run of itself, as Dark Disciple had a tendency to do at times. There’s even a well written romance with a character called Nakari Kelen. Her interactions with Luke are charming and help to develop his maturity in the face of the fact that his status shifted from simple farm boy to hero of the Rebellion so fast that he feels overwhelmed.
Luke is essentially still an awkward adolescent here and the story does well in charting his transition towards adulthood through his relationship with Nakari. She’s shown to understand and encourage him, which succeeds in humanising him and making him relatable. There’s also a familiar feel to the Star Wars galaxy at large through instances including ordering take out and other every day tasks, which makes the narrative even more immersive.
The only minor issue I have is with the decision to dwell on Luke’s possible romantic feelings for Leia. In one respect, it is consistent with how he acts in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, but it feels awkward and uncomfortable given what we now know of their familial ties and adds nothing of real value.
All in all though, this is an engrossing galaxy trotting adventure that does well by Luke and surrounds him with likable supporting players. It provides some excellent insights into the Force, including the best description I’ve ever encountered of what it feels like to tap into it, as well as a romance in which it’s worth investing. If A New Dawn is the best of the books in this discussion, then Heir to the Jedi is definitely a close runner-up.
Now we arrive at last to Alexander Freed’s Battlefront: Twilight Company, which is an account of rebel soldiers “in the trenches”, so to speak. Showing that the Alliance’s operations are a lot more wide reaching than what we saw in the original trilogy, it presents a much grittier take on war, dealing with recruits who range from former bounty hunters to drug addicts to Imperial turncoats.
It illustrates that the Rebellion has been “taking” planets from the Empire in the Mid Rim, which is curious because I never imagined them conquering territories in such a manner. They always seemed to be on the run in the movies. Whether purposely or not, it also draws parallels to the Separatists during the Clone Wars. It’s interesting to see the scope of the Galactic Civil War, but the story suffers from characters with whom it is difficult to connect.
Sergeant Hazram Namir, the protagonist of the piece, isn’t the most charismatic character ever. I actually found the most intriguing individual to be Roach; a recovering spice addict introduced early on as a new recruit who may have lied about her age to sign up. There was something about her enigmatic depiction that I found to be far more compelling than the characterisation of Namir, but unfortunately she’s largely underutilised.
Namir’s portrayal does improve a bit after he arrives at Echo Base and we begin to get his true thoughts on the rebel cause, including some assertions that may or may not prove prophetic for what happened to the Alliance government between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. He also has an intriguing exchange with a cynical unnamed freighter captain, whose identity you can draw your own conclusions about.
The narrative gains more momentum when it dovetails into a very familiar battle. However, by far its most arresting aspect is an incredibly intense confrontation with a certain iconic antagonist. Its effectiveness is only enhanced by being seen from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the Force.
The second half of the story is stronger and more focused than the first, but still ends up being a bit hit and miss. The climax does turn out to be satisfying, but the wrap up afterwards is far too long and laborious. Overall, while I didn’t dislike Battlefront: Twilight Company, it’s definitely not one of the better books on this list and would have benefited by being substantially shorter.
That’s it for the “episodic interludes” at present. While they meet with varying degrees of success, when taken together they do provide a diverse look into the Star Wars universe when it comes to characters, philosophies, locations and time periods. With one being set in the last days of the Republic, three during the rise of the Empire and two at the peak of the Galactic Civil War, they manage to pad out and build upon the movies well enough as a whole. For those reasons, I wouldn’t recommend not reading any of the above. Just bear in mind that on an individual basis, some are undoubtedly a lot better than others. Next up, I’ll conclude my commentary on new canon literature by joining the journey to The Force Awakens…
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