Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The Star Wars Expanded Universe is my security blanket.
Seventeen years ago, when Timothy Zahn released the first EU novel (or what we know as the EU), I was a poor reader at best, uninterested in anything but those old kid Indiana Jones books. My mom and dad got Heir to the Empire and blah blah blah great reader loves books English major.
It was the books and not the prequels that got me to keep returning to a galaxy far, far away. Through the long Bantam years to the turbulent Del Rey series, I've kept the faith with few doubts that at the end, the adventure of these immortalized characters will always keep me coming back.
I didn't lose faith after The Crystal Star, because the weirdness was bad, but not awful, and it stands as a poor SW novel, but not a poor novel. Likewise, the narrative standstill that was Dark Journey didn't stop me from finishing New Jedi Order; it was a bump in the road. Planet of Twilight was a bad novel and a bad SW novel, but just one story amid dozens more.
But Invincible, the final book of a nine-book series, might just be the killing doubt...at least for a while. Star Wars is an addiction, and one bad hit isn't going to keep me from picking it up again.
So to the review of this dreck.
For the overall ranking, I give it a 2.5/10. Factor that in as you will; I know it doesn't affect the overall that much.
The book was not well assembled. The main criticism - and it is a harsh one - is that Invincible was cobbled together as more of an outline than an actual book. Hastily written, rushed to press, editorially mandated - whatever the reason, the finished product is not good. The eight books that came before it are not ignored, but set aside, as are the numerous stories and characters mentioned. Denning did a bad job of wrapping up an eight-book series. He instead wrote a quick third of a book that sorely needed the meatier other part to succeed.
My first problem (and this starts a list) with his writing is the humor. Some have written it's great gallows humor, but it's not. It's regular humor written into tense spots to give the appearance of black humor, but not the context, the awareness. Much like how endless sight gags can ruin a good movie, these sort of jokes break you out of the "vivid and continuous dream" that is a work of fiction. But I have other issues, and this is just the first and least offensive.
As I mentioned before, this is the last of eight books. It is forced to carry the weight of eight books' worth of contained story, as well as a through-line that ties it all together. In this case, we have Jacen Solo's decent to the dark side, overthrow from within of the Galactic Alliance to bring order through dominance, attempt to reestablish a Sith Rule-of-Two order, and the attempt to stand against this tide of evil that threatens once again to engulf the galaxy. That's all right. We know it's a retread of the Prequel Trilogy with a different ending (Kenobi killing Anakin, instead of just assuming he died), but that doesn't mean we have to rush to the finish line.
And in the rush, critical story and character beats are left hanging: what happens to Niathal, the Mandalorians, the citizens of any of the major worlds affected, Lando, the Korriban Sith, etc.? We touch on these briefly or not at all in the last book. Boba Fett and his people are used just because Denning was forced to, probably because Karen Traviss made them so prominent. But what about Niathal or the Michael Stackpole-helmed characters from the X-Wing books? What about Lando?!
I'm not saying we need a Lord of the Rings style hundred-page conclusion. It's not that sort of series. What we're left with, however, is unsatisfying and abrupt, like Denning got the barest pounded out before he absolutely had to send in the manuscript.
Talking about other characters for a minute, what happened to characterization? Maybe it was the poor attempt at gallows humor that made Han and Leia seem mis-written. I know it's his dislike or unfamiliarity with the Fett family of characters that made their scene unbearable. But Luke? Ben? Jacen and Jaina? None of them felt like the characters we had read before.
Ben was a cardboard cutout of his Revelation character, absent the new skills and understanding he was learning, missing anything but a need to be a plot device and an after school special.
Luke is a nebulous character, written differently in almost every book. Here, his utilitarian politicking separates all humanity from his actions, erases all trace of justice from the Jedi order.
Jaina I have not liked since the NJO started and made her a brash ace pilot Han rip-off. So it was with surprise that I found myself enjoying her scenes as written by Traviss and Aaron Allston; she was being allowed to grow. That was all ruined by a hamfisted attempt to mesh the set pieces she needed to participate in with her Denning characterization and her Traviss Mando-trained one. Gone are the lessons from the latter, though she mentions them enough in her head. Maybe it was the whole concept of the asteroid (and later Anakin Solo) insertion that rubbed me wrong, but I just couldn't imagine Fett-trained Jaina getting into those tactical messes. She fought well, in her brief, jumbled fight scenes with Jacen.
And Jacen! He lost focus as a character here, left to suffer an ignored Skywalker-trademark limb-lopping that resonated not at all, shackled with a poorly-chosen apprentice (wasn't her chocie foreshadowed in Inferno by Denning?) and a sudden lack of grand strategy. Where is Sith Battle Meditation? Speaking of powers, where the hell does the shatterpoint ability come from? It's a shameless attempt to insert Prequel Trilogy-EU into post-Return of the Jedi-EU and it fails. I hope no one mentions it again. The character of Jacen was a tragic one, but here, I'm not sure what I was reading, and I certainly didn't get a tragic read. The Shakespearean built-up was erased for a few Batman-like black-caped glimpses, some shoddy cut scenes and again, lackluster, jumbled fights.
Star Wars hinges on it's sense of the hero, the recognition of a true, driving force for goodness in the galaxy.
Where is it? Is Jacen's influence so all-pervasive that in less than a year's time he's able to spread an inky cloud of mistrust and anger through all living beings? Personally, I think it was stretched to the breaking how much evil he could inject into society. But since society as a whole was ignored in the closing chapter, I don't think it matters.
In a series reflection, I think the political and military origins of the second civil war were ok, but not too stellar. If the conflict were allowed a slower boil - a cold war with a few sparks here and there - spy missions, suicide runs, assassinations, the occasional capital ship skirmish - over the first three or four books, not really breaking out until Jacen also broke out into his role as (co-)head of the GA, there would've been a better parallel. Let the galaxy burn when he rises to the stage, but don't ignore it after he's come up. His ascension ended the tension, the strife, and made it a background affair.
By Invincible, there was no GA or Confederation except as words used to describe something not important to finishing this damn story.
Setting up Daala as the new Chief of State was a bold move, one not without its precedent, but she should've been introduced before Revelation. Placing Fel at the head of the Empire was just dumb. There is little diplomatic or military precedent for it, and certainly better ways to write in that his family name becomes associated with "emperor" a hundred years down the line. Maybe, Daala should've been placed as head of a new Empire, with Fel a co-Regent of some sort or a prime minister in place of the Moff council. New characters could be brought up to lead the GA, perhaps as a triumvirate, until special elections were held. REALISM. It all smacked of forced set-up.
The dialogue was tin-eared and the quality you'd expect from middling fanfic.
I also object to virtually all of the expletive-placeholders they had, including the Denning favorite "borked." It's a blatant political reference, furthering a smear campaign two decades old that is best left to the denigrating politics of yesteryear. It has no place in Star Wars and out of all the issues with this book most threw me out of the story by reminding me I was reading as story.
I think overall what misses the mark for me is just the overall lack: lack of page count for the narrative necessity, lack of a convincing plot, lack of narrative closure (though as we all know, you don't have to shut the door to or conclude a storyline to bring closure to its characters), lack of series-awareness, lack of editorial oversight that let something so obviously deficient see publication as a hardcover. I could go on.
This book ruined the series for me. I can look back at Allston's entries and, while not as good as past work, come away satisfied. Betrayal was a great, simmering start. In Karen Traviss I've found an author that brings a fresh, clear voice to Star Wars uncluttered with Original Trilogy romance but not forgetting the mythic qualities of it all. I'll get her books in the future.
I do not see myself getting Fate of the Jedi, unless the reviews of the new author's and Denning's contributions are bouncing-off-the-wall excellent. Denning best not be concluding the series, or it's a deal breaker. I won't buy any more of his solo works in hardcover or possibly new. Until this, I haven't considered getting SW books used, but he doesn't make me want to risk the few bucks on such a potential letdown.
This was that bad, people. Zekk and Isolder killed off because Denning couldn't figure out how to write them better, or further their stories; Fett punished so harshly despite the few glimmers of distant, deathbed hope offered in Revelation; the broader theatre of war ignored for a few hours' glimpse at action; total ignorance of the galaxy-wide civil war; bad dialogue, bad jokes, bad structure-
I must interrupt with another criticism. The structure, the plot itself, was faulty. If this was an outline fleshed into a thin novel, how did the outline get approved? Everything felt dropped in without connection, as thought we needed to get a limb cut off of Jacen and Ben captured and Jaina rattled and Luke more haggard and emotionally sterilized and Tenel Ka here and Moffs there and some shadowy Hapan nonsense wedged in because because because - it's too much. Too much reliance on plot devices, on characters essentially throwing their hands up and going "Whatever the hell I'm doing that doesn't make sense, I don't care. It must be part of a Plan."
Return of the Jedi has Luke deciding on a course of action once he realizes Vader is over Endor. He will get his people to safety, not tell them anything (except Leia), get captured and hope for his father's redemption. So Luke drives a chunk of characters around, perhaps subtly manipulating things in the Force - Han, Leia and the strike team; Vader, and by extension, the Emperor and his attention - all so he can get to the point of giving his father a choice to save the galaxy.
The same thing is attempted here. Luke is playing chess master again, wielding characters around, but imperfectly. It would've been enough for him to tell Jaina, "I've clouded Caedus' vision of the future. Go to Coruscant, or wherever the heck Jacen Solo is. Hunt him down like you've been trained. Bring the war to the end. We'll be praying for you." What does he do instead but fight Jacen using the bodies of friends, family and strangers as weapons and that feels wrong for him to do, and wrong in the context of the story that Revelation set up.
I won't go on more. The EU is still my security blanket, a welcome friend when all other fiction seems written by angsty English majors looking to tell me What Went Wrong, because in a tapestry so large, sewn by so many hands, one can ignore the brown muddling stitches on the side that form the words "Troy Denning Hates You."
Invincible: 2.5/10 - given that much because I found some good qualities amid the sludge.