Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review - Rogue Planet - Greg Bear

Review - Rogue Planet - Greg Bear - May 2, 2000

Setting: Between Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones

This is an interesting book for me - it is the forgotten book. Literally. I purchased just before I went to spend a summer living in Austin with my best friend from college - we were both in Grad School, and I figured hanging out in Austin with him would be sweet (and it was). This book came out just as that summer started -- and I left the book in Austin. I had loaned it to my bud for him to read... and then... summer happened. And whenever I'd swing by his place for the past decade, I'd see the book on his shelf (he had read some other Greg Bear stuff)... and it just sort of never ended up coming back home with me.

In fact - for this rereading - I picked it up on kindle. Ah, things we wouldn't have thought of a decade ago!

The EU - A Carefree Yet Growing Anakin and Obi-Wan - On of the things I found just totally refreshing in reading this book is how Anakin and Obi-wan were protrayed. Apparently they had spent three years on Coruscant training, but now, they have their first adventure. And it's clear that they both have grown some... but just some. They seem... young. Eager. Full of doubts. It was a very nice characterization - especially Anakin dealing with anger and loss... maybe one of the best internalized views of struggles with the darkside.

The Bad - Ah, Star Ship Design, the Greatest Adventure of them all! Okay, I understand that not every adventure that you have your characters go on needs to be some massive, huge, epic thing. But... well, Anakin and Obi-wan go to a planet and make a ship. And stuff happens around them - but they don't really do anything to change what happens... I mean, if Anakin and Obi-wan hadn't been there, would this book have turned out any different? Not really - they were incidental to the plot... and that's sort of... odd for your main characters. Especially when the ship you spend most of the book making... doesn't get to stick around.

The Ugly - Continuity botches and hits The main point of this book, really, was to flesh out the world of Zonoma Sekot. So much time is spent on examining this neat and awesome world. And why? Well, you've got to somehow tie up some loose ends in the New Jedi Order series and the big evil Yuuzhan Vong (the Far Outsiders). And while it makes for an interesting thing in the book itself... knowing how this fits into the rest of the later series seems sort of contrived -- neat, but contrived. Almost like you are retroconing yourself. And of course, it was sort of nice to see Tarkin -- but, yeah, I guess in Attack of the Clones we find out he didn't quite do some of the stuff here.

Now, is this really ugly? Eh - probably not. But as you introduce here the idea that Zonoma Sekot thinks of the force in a heretical way... not really a good idea to say, "hey, let's use that wandering heretic planet to redefine the Jedi." Given that ugliness, this gets swept up in that. Besides, especially reading it a few years after everything plays out... Zonoma Sekot got pushed way too much here.

The Grade - B- This book has quite a few redeeming qualities to it -- I enjoy the thoughts that you get to see in it. They are interesting and compelling. But interesting characterization is just one aspect of a good Star Wars book -- you need a fun adventure. This... not so heavy on the adventure.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Review - Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter

Review - Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter - by Michael Reaves - January 2001

The first Hardcover of the new Millenium, Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter was a book placed prior to the events of The Phantom Menace. It seemed there were a slew of them, as there was some confusion or secrecy over what would happen in Episode 2. As such, books that worked as lead into to what would become known as "Attack of the Clones" came slowly - and instead, we got books full of background. Let's consider this one.

The EU - Lots of Maul - While I am by no means a Darth Maul fanboy, I do recognize that one of the things that makes the Star Wars Universe great (or crappy when it is missing) is the presence of a strong villain. The first time you see Darth Vader is perhaps one of the greatest villain entrances in movie history.

With Darth Maul - well, he, too, was just bad and freaky and intimidating when you saw him. (Note: Lucasarts was Stupid with a capital S to put an image of the dual bladed lightsaber in the trailer... it was awesome in the trailer - but imagine if you had no clue about it when you first saw it pop out at the end... AWESOME!) But the thing is -- he lasts, what? Half a film? He was gone very quickly, cut from the universe as it were.

This book focuses on Maul, with probably 35-40% of the narrative being from his perspective - and it is interesting. Reaves does a great job with this established character. If you are a fan of Darth Maul, seriously, pick it up.

The Bad - Foolhardy Characters - I will be honest. I really, really dislike stupid characters. I don't mind characters with flaws that lead them to their destruction - but I don't like stupid characters. Nor do I like it when characters do something that is out of character for them that leads to their demise. They should die as they are - not because of... well, it would be neat if they died.

The main character, Lorn Pavan, is presented as a hardscrabble, tough as nails character. He's gritty, fun -- and then has a complete change of face/character -- which leads to his demise. He has won, but a sudden change of heart leads to bad things. And we get to listen in on his thought processes, and even he knows that it is dumb - and yet does stuff anyways. This is not character development - this is character suicide done via artificially rapid character change.

The same thing happens, to a certain extent, with the young Jedi character early in the book - there's too much hearing in the thoughts, "I know I shouldn't, but I'm going to anyway." This doesn't make the character passionate, or reactive, or engaging, or decisive, or any other positive characteristic that can lead to trouble - no, if you know you shouldn't and it goes against your better judgment and how you've survived all your life, and you do it anyway - you are just being a fool.

The Ugly - Thesaurus Boy Strikes - I am good with words. I got a 790 on my SAT verbal, and after hitting college I studied Greek, Japanese, Hebrew, and Latin, with a cursory glance at Arabic and Italian (and the Spanish I had taken in High School). I know English vocab better than most.

Reaves gets fixated on obscure words. I don't know why - maybe he's an avid scrabble player and these are words he won a game with. Maybe he was doing some drafting while the national spelling bee was on in the background. Either way, some words just stick out like sore thumbs, for his use of vocabulary isn't "advanced" - but just peculiar. For example, he uses the word "Monad" at least three times in the first half of the book. Really? That's the word you want to use to describe a vastly tall building that stands by itself (he explains it the third time he uses it). Again, I know what a monad is -- but how many people just picking up the book do? There were 5 or 6 other words (obstreperous, some others that I can't find at the moment) that just seemed totally out of place.

And I'm not against having advance vocabulary in a book - but the whole book needs to be written at a high level, not just random 10 cent words that pop up now and then. If you want to write at a high level - write at a 10th grade reading level -- don't write at a 5th and then throw a random 14th grade word it -- they stick out like sore thumbs, and all it's going to do is confuse some poor kid who is reading the thing.

And I bring this up because it really is one of the main disappointments I have with this book (and his others in the Star Wars universe) - they distract and jolt the reader out of the flow of the book and story - making you more focused on the writing rather than the story. Like a giant piece of road kill, you have to swerve around it -- and then you are no longer focused on your nice, scenic drive.

The Grade - B+/C+ A split grade here - if you are a Darth Maul fan, B+. You will highly, highly enjoy this book. If you aren't -- well, it wasn't by any means bad, but there are some flaws, some things that made me highly annoyed with the characters and the writing. It's not a bad story - but if I pull it out and read it again, it will be because I'm in the mood for some Maul, not because I'm in the mood for this book.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why Does Everyone Hate the Jedi?

In the newer Star Wars books, some fans are left to wonder, "Why does everyone hate the Jedi?"

The answer? Given how things have gone since the New Jedi Order books came out, they deserve it.

This has been the great weakness of the past decade or so of Star Wars fiction. We have had too many authors who have written Jedi that are cruel, caustic, and just jerks. Now, this isn't to say that I don't think you should write flawless Jedi, but let's consider a few things.

1. Jedi are supposed to be guardians of peace and justice. They should be good and selfless. Their flaws should flow out of this - where they do too much, or things like that. Not petulance.

2. Flaws should fit what a group is. The Jedi of the Prequel Trilogy had fossilized. They had developed sort of a white-tower approach that detached them from others. This is a believable flaw. The Jedi had fostered too much of an "otherness" -- and this makes sense because they had discipline that was no common. Likewise, their flaws shouldn't be the same flaws we'd expect in a den of scum and villainy. If they are, then they are rightly to be despised.

3. The main characterist of a Jedi is not power or skills, but philosophy. When you undercut all philosophy, you just get bullies.

I hope they work on this, I hope they try to fix this. The Jedi are supposed to be more than just Bullies that we put up with because they protect us from other, big bad bullies.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review - Cloak of Deception

Review - Cloak of Deception - by James Luceno

Cloak of Deception was one of the long line of Star Wars books that I purchased, enjoyed, but don't often think of. Basically, there are two types of Star Wars novels - there are the novels that are the further adventures of our heroes in the Star Wars Universe, full of tension and new ideas... and then there are books like this. There were a lot of novels that were published to be tie-ins to the Prequel trilogy.

I tend not to think of the tie-in novels that often... they are the novels of Dramatic Irony - they pull back the curtain of what we end up seeing in the films, or expand characters. While that's not what I generally want -- rereading this book reminded me that some of these actually can be really, really good books. So, let's review.

The EU - Qui Gon and the Masters I found that I really enjoyed getting to have Qui-Gon be the, if not main, one of the leading characters in the Novel. I especially enjoyed the interaction between Qui-Gon and the various Jedi Masters. Luceno did a very good job showing their respect for Qui-Gon, but their worry about his slightly rebellious, indifferent-to-the-future approach. Very well done.

The EU - Captain Cohl - Cohl was the... villain? At least the hard scrabble foil - and he was well written. You disagree with what he does - but you almost feel sympathetic for him. He was an interesting character - and one of the better 1 book characters that comes up in the Star Wars World.

The Bad - A Touch Plodding - There are times when the book comes across as a touch plodding, and this is in part because tries to build suspense when we already know what is going to happen. Is Valorum going to be killed? Well, as he shows up in the Phantom Menace -- well, no, he's not going to be killed. Because the audidience knows the Film that follows this, we are automatically in a position of dramatic irony. Luceno tries to build suspense and moves with a slightly slower pacing. If we were worried about the characters, this could be really good. As we know they live and do fine... it just plods. If I handed this to a person before they had seen the Phantom Menace, it might have played better -- or if it was released before hand. The problem -- it was released in 2001.

The Ugly - nothing really There wasn't anything really ugly with the book. That's nice.

The Grade - B I'm going to give this book a solid B. I like Luceno's writing style, and he would have built good suspense if we hadn't already known what was going to happen. It does give us an interesting view of characters, it's a solid story, some nice twists. A surprisingly solid book.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Review - The Swarm War - by Troy Denning

Review - The Swarm War - by Troy Denning - December 27th, 2005

I walked over 3.5 miles in Houston to a Barnes and Noble to buy this book. I had gone to visit some friends in Houston, but they weren't due home for another day (I arrived early) - and so, I walked and bought this book. It was a long, long walk - it was hot (especially after being north and used to temps around freezing) -- it was almost Sadistic....

Let's review.

The Good - Luke Finally Shows Mercy - One of the best things about this book is the fact that Luke shows mercy to Raynar. Instead of taking the easy, the quick way, there is compassion. Wonderful. There's only a problem...

The Bad - The Carnage Seriously - I think more people died in this book than died in Alderaan. And where else do we hear about bodies pilled up 10 deep? Really?

The Ugly - Sadism and Sadistic Jedi - While reading this book, I think I determined upon what it is that I tend to dislike the most about Denning's books. His Wookiepedia page notes that he has done a lot of Dungeons and Dragons.

D&D is a often a dark, brutal universe, akin to the bloody medieval tales - full of hacked limbs and gore. That's not Star Wars.

There is just too much sadistic death in this book. Even for humor. Take Wuluw - the communication Killik. It always dies... and the replacement always jokes about it with Jaina. It's like what Lucas did with the various R2 units getting shot off Padme's Nubian in Phantom Menace -- but with tons and tons of living beings.

And the Jedi become sadistic. Even Han and Leia. For example, on page 125, Han just sort of shrugs off the fact that he lied to a hitbug who then kills two squibs. No impact. Yeah, Han will shoot first, but still, that's just... too sadistic. Or the torture scene... really? A torture scene? You show the droid with a big, giant needle -- you don't describe a scene from Resovior Dogs.

And here is what is so sad about this -- Luke, by the end, shows mercy and compassion. Denning treats this as though it is totally exceptional. In fact, even the other masters have no clue about this.

Except - it's the very heart of what it IS to be a Jedi. Or it was.

And while Denning moves the Jedi back towards this idea, rather than the power hungry stuff -- well... its less than satisfying. And the Sadism remains... even in other books.

So, what does this mean? The Grade - C- Even as much as I'll complain, Denning does have a tight narrative -- he's probably one of the better technical authors in Star Wars... but I just don't like his world view, his approach. It seems off. The Jedi should be paragons of wisdom and compassion -- warrior monks, not just some type of D&D class with an awesome weapon and psychic powers. And I don't know if Denning really, really gets that.