Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
Now that I’m done discussing the comics and the books between the episodes, it’s time to conclude my examination of the new expanded universe by joining the journey to The Force Awakens. September saw the release of several titles that tie into the movie in various ways and while none of them give up anything about its plot, each one does provide curious clues as to the characters and occurrences that might have had an impact on its events.
It’s a little harder to analyse each offering in chronological order this time due to the fact that all bar one of them unfold across multiple eras of the Star Wars saga, so I’ve decided to begin with the only book that takes place in a specific period. Once again, there is a mild spoiler warning in effect for some of the stories.
Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath is the new novel for which a lot of people were probably the most excited, with its promise of exploring events immediately after Endor. While it’s been met with a mixed reception, I actually found it to be a fairly fascinating look into life following the Emperor’s defeat, despite its somewhat shaky start.
With the exception of a couple of key cameos and some supporting stints by a few fringe players from the films, the story is centred on an entirely new cast of characters. Each of them have ties to the Rebellion and the Empire – most notably Norra Wexley, whose Y-Wing flanked the Falcon during the assault on the second Death Star – but none of the protagonists have ever appeared onscreen.
This was disappointing at first, especially after reading Marvel’s Shattered Empire series, which also picks up soon after Episode VI and includes prominent parts for Luke, Han and Leia. The introduction of so many unfamiliar faces was initially jarring, but things became easier to digest once their stories started to intersect.
The decision to confine the main narrative to one world seemed odd at the start, but it became increasingly clear that it was a suitable strategy for exploring the state of the Empire after Endor. A conference called by what’s left of the Imperial leadership gives key insights into how Palpatine’s regime is holding up in his absence. It also allows for the return of Rae Sloane after her debut in A New Dawn, which is a nice example of the careful continuity across this new expanded universe.
One of the most interesting revelations is that the Rebel Alliance did indeed transition into a New Republic, complete with its own senate and chancellor. This was good to see and I appreciated that its structure was inspired by the system of government seen in the prequels.
The choice to tell the whole thing in the present tense not only made it stand apart from other EU entries, it also allowed it to appear as if events were unfolding as you read about them. This kept the plot flowing forward at a decent speed and helped to add a sense of urgency and suspense to the story.
Perhaps the book’s most intriguing aspects though are its occasional interludes, which encompass almost every world we’ve seen in the movies and offer insight into the wider fallout from Palpatine’s death. Some even provide possible hints at what’s to come. It’s simply speculation at the moment, but a segment on Jakku made me wonder if I’d just been introduced to Max Van Sydow’s upcoming character, while another incident showed a possible precursor to the mysterious Knights of Ren.
There certainly seemed to be potential roots planted for what will appear in The Force Awakens. Yet at the same time, this is a fairly optimistic tale about the New Republic quickly conquering the Imperial remnant, meaning there’s a sense that the Resistance and the First Order are still a long way off. What we see in Aftermath is probably a reasonable representation of what would have happened in the wake of Return of the Jedi, especially given what we now know of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. It may take a few chapters to win you over, but if you read it all the way through, you won’t regret it. I’ll certainly be investigating its sequel in the summer anyway.
Now I’m going to go back in time to the beginning of Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars. It seems strange that this is labelled as a young adult novel, because it most definitely does not read that way. Picking up eight years after Revenge of the Sith, it follows star-crossed companions Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree through time and space to forge what is arguably the most engrossing entry in the new EU to date.
It’s fascinating to follow the two protagonists from infancy to adolescence as they ready themselves to enrol at the Imperial Academy. It demonstrates that not every officer of the Empire is villainous or without virtue. These are just two nice, normal people who dream of sailing on ships among the stars.
The story sticks with Thane and Ciena across their sometimes troubled but not altogether uncomfortable time at the Imperial Academy, all the way through the height of the war and beyond the Battle of Endor. This gives readers a chance to experience key occurrences in the original trilogy from a non-malevolent Imperial perspective.
The annihilation of Alderaan is relived as a powerful moment when witnessed in the presence of an officer native to the planet. The destruction of the Death Star is just as hard-hitting when faced with the realisation that a lot of innocent individuals died on board just doing their jobs. It’s incredibly clever how the author intertwines the destinies of the protagonists not only with each other, but also with those of the original trilogy characters without necessarily needing them to interact in any significant way.
The relationship between Thane and Ciena definitely transcends the importance of the war going on around them though. First and foremost, this is an extremely engaging story about two individuals separated by circumstance, but linked by fate. Readers are made to really care about these characters, both of whom are likable and relatable throughout.
It’s obvious from early on that they’ll end up on separate sides, but the set-up is perfectly played out. Not once is the impression given that one is right and the other is wrong. They each share the same views and values, it’s only their situations that pull them in different directions. This results in plenty of emotional moments. The love that binds Thane and Ciena, even when worlds apart, is truly touching – inspiring, even.
Romance aside, Lost Stars obviously also helps pave the way to The Force Awakens. It gives glimpses of the Battle of Jakku, although the specifics of the conflict are left unclear. What is revealed is how a Star Destroyer ended up embedded in the sands of the planet and the events leading up to its crash-landing are a lot more dramatic than you might have imagined.
There’s certainly still a lot to be told about what went on at Jakku, because the focus here is not on its wider repercussions. Rather, it’s on Thane and Ciena’s personal plight, but that doesn’t mean what we’re presented with isn’t exciting. A nail-biting climax in which each protagonist struggles to save the life of the other is easily as tense and thrilling as any big battle, which is actually true throughout this tale.
Whenever there’s action, its effectiveness is increased by focusing on what it means for Thane and Ciena instead of the galaxy at large. While Lost Stars ties into the saga in inventive ways, above all else, it’s an incredibly compelling character drama that’s not simply a superb Star Wars story, it’s a top-notch novel in general.
From here, we move onto a trilogy of tales that focus on the “big three” of Episodes IV – VI. What’s especially notable about each of these is that their bookends are implied to directly precede the events of The Force Awakens. Greg Rucka’s Smuggler’s Run takes places first and is by far the best of the three. It begins in a bar with a character referred to as “the old man”, who is very obviously Han Solo. After he starts to tell a story about the Millennium Falcon, it flashes back to just after the end of A New Hope.
The first chapter is from Chewie’s perspective, providing hints of what happened to him after Revenge of the Sith and how he encountered Han. It does a fantastic job of humanising someone who doesn’t speak “Basic”. He comes across as wise and insightful, which fleshes him out in ways that his comic series doesn’t.
Han is shown to still be very much in mercenary mode, expressing no desire to remain with the Rebellion. This makes sense, considering he’s only known Leia and Luke for a few days. The story does a good job of transitioning him towards the heroic leader we know he will become. This is evident in instances when he’s shown to be taken aback by certain people’s lack of trust in him, hinting at the virtuousness buried beneath his apathy.
Most importantly though, this feels like Han. The author succeeds in capturing the essence of the stubborn and argumentative attitude he exhibits in A New Hope. Likewise, he and Chewie feel like close friends. Even if I’d never seen them onscreen together, this novel would make me believe that there is a strong familial bond between the two.
While this is labelled as a young adult novel again, it definitely doesn’t read that way either. It presents some fairly unsettling examples of the extreme measures to which the rebels will go to preserve their cause. An instance of one soldier killing her colleagues and then herself to avoid being captured is certainly not sugar-coated.
It also conveys the ruthlessness of the Imperial Security Bureau very well. The organisation has been a recurring element throughout the new EU, however, the antagonist of this tale, Commander Alecia Beck, is the most effective member to appear thus far. She’s suitably intense, carrying out executions without hesitation whenever she deems them necessary.
The flow of events is fast-paced without feeling rushed. It’s extremely action-packed and relentlessly exciting all the way through. As the above examples illustrate, the story can even be quite dark and disturbing at times too. It all culminates in a pulse-pounding climax that perfectly captures the spirit of Star Wars. The epilogue left me smiling and even more excited for The Force Awakens, without even offering so much as the slightest hint as to its plot.
I really can’t recommend Smuggler’s Run enough. If Lost Stars is the most accomplished work in the new EU, then this is undoubtedly the most fun. Its only drawback is that it wasn’t longer, because author Greg Rucka clearly understands both the key characters and Star Wars in general.
Onto a tale about another hero of the Alliance next, as we arrive at Jason Fry’s The Weapon of a Jedi. The framing device for this features Threepio – complete with red arm and apparently having added an extra million languages to his vocabulary since Return of the Jedi – reciting a story about Luke to a young X-Wing pilot who definitely does not consider the events of the original trilogy to be myths or legends.
Unfortunately the main narrative rehashes a lot of the thoughts expressed by Luke in Heir to the Jedi in a way that’s a lot less effective. His reveries often read like a summary of what he went through in A New Hope, which is both unnecessary and uninformative. Its execution is less mature, which can’t really be offered as a criticism considering it is supposed to be aimed at a younger audience. It’s just disappointing after the spectacular treatment that Han and Chewie were afforded.
The narrative doesn’t do much to build upon Luke’s development in Heir to the Jedi or the comics. Its most interesting aspects are only inconsequential curiosities, such as Artoo making a reference to Threepio switching heads in Attack of the Clones, which the prissy protocol droid dismisses as nonsense.
Too much time is spent dwelling on Luke’s training with remotes while detailing events we know well from A New Hope and don’t need described to us. The premise is remarkably similar to Heir to the Jedi, dealing with Luke looking for Jedi knowledge while on a mission for the Alliance. It’s just not done nearly as well.
It did leave me wondering if the temple that Luke discovers and vows to return to on Devaron will link to his location in The Force Awakens. Other than that though, there’s not really much to be gained from The Weapon of a Jedi. I’d recommend reading Heir to the Jedi instead and only investigating this if you’re determined to explore absolutely everything in the new EU.
Thankfully, Moving Target meets with much more success. Throwing Leia into the spotlight, it opens with the former Alderaanian princess reciting her memoirs to an insistent droid soon before The Force Awakens. What’s especially intriguing about that is it states outright what will presumably be her position in the film and name drops the Resistance and the First Order for the first time in official canon.
The primary plot takes place after The Empire Strikes Back and starts by offering some insights into Leia’s life on Alderaan, including the fact that Bail Organa had been grooming her to fight the Empire from early on. This is a curious contrast to Luke’s sheltered upbringing and Obi-Wan’s decision to watch over him from a distance.
It does occasionally fall into the trap of rehashing what happened in Episodes IV and V when outlining Leia’s thoughts, but it’s nowhere near as detrimental as in The Weapon of a Jedi. As with Han in Smuggler’s Run, Leia’s portrayal feels consistent with how she comes across in the movies; strong-willed and determined, yet compassionate and caring.
The development of her relationship with Luke feels like an extension of the latter’s thoughts on the matter in Heir to the Jedi. It alludes to a powerful connection between the two that neither one comprehends, but that both now know is not romantic. This is a subtle but smart way to address retroactively uncomfortable moments in the first two movies and, to some extent, make them seem more natural.
The tone isn’t always as mature as Smuggler’s Run, but is less obviously young adult than The Weapon of a Jedi. A sequence in which the characters are attacked by a swarm of unknown creatures in a confined space actually bears some undertones of horror.
Following Leia as she leaves a decoy trail for the Imperials to follow while the Alliance fleet regroups ahead of the Battle of Endor keeps things moving along nicely, even if it isn’t always exciting. The epilogue afterwards actually seems to lead directly into The Force Awakens in a much more obvious manner than I’d expected. However, it’s the spot-on characterisation of Leia that is the true triumph here. This alone makes it worth reading.
With that, my examination of the new expanded universe is at an end. These last three articles have covered all of the comic series and novels that take place in the current canon at the moment. As I’ve outlined, some are exceptional, others are average yet enjoyable and a couple don’t really work well at all.
However, what I will say about these works as a whole is that they do respect and occasionally acknowledge each other’s events, which allows them to feel like they exist within a very cohesive continuity. That in and of itself is enough to brand the new EU a success thus far. Next up, I’ll finally be reviewing The Force Awakens, so check back here on December 18th for that and may the Force be with you all until then.
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