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Book Review: “Star Wars: Phasma” (Delilah S. Dawson)

In my opinion, one of the best things about the sequel Star Wars trilogy was the enigmatic villain known as Captain Phasma. Unlike all of the other villains of the story, we never really learn much about her and, unfortunately, she met a rather premature death in The Last Jedi. For those who were frustrated by the rather cursory way in which she was dispensed with, Delilah S. Dawson’s book, focused on her early life and related through those who knew her, is something of a corrective.

The novel is related primarily through three different characters. One is Vi, a woman who works for the Resistance (but is not part of it); Cardinal, the First Order captain who captures her and forces her to tell him what she knows about Phasma; and Siv, a young woman who was part of Phasma’s clan on the dying planet of Parnassos. Through these three characters, we get some measure of insight into the past events that have shaped Phasma and made her into the ultimate expression of the First Order’s philosophy.

Indeed, what I personally found so compelling about the novel was the insight it provides on the inner workings of the First Order. While the films allow us to imagine this organization as a sort of faceless, amorphous evil, the novels allow us to see it as comprised of a number of individuals–in this case Cardinal and the elder Hux–who do sincerely believe that the First Order is the only way of bringing some level of equality and justice to the Galaxy. They may be woefully and dangerously misguided in the methods that they seek to do this, but they are still human beings, with all of the flaws and foibles that they have.

Dawson has a keen gift of description, and through her words I gained a strong sense of what kind of Parnassos is. She ably captures the sort of life-and-death struggle that characterizes this planet. She leaves you in no doubt that Parnassos is exactly the type of crucible seemingly designed to produce a person like Phasma, committed to their own survival no matter what the cost, no matter how many other lives have to be taken in order for that to be a reality.

While Phasma is, ostensibly, the center of the narrative, both Cardinal and Siv dominate large parts of the story. Cardinal is a particularly interesting example, as he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and is shaken to his core by the mendacity of both Phasma and General Hux (the younger). You can’t help but sympathize with a man who has given his entire soul to an organization and its philosophy, only to discover that it’s rotting from the inside out. Siv is also a sympathetic character, precisely because she shows that it is possible for someone from Parnassos to hold true to their principles and not become a sociopathic monster.

There are a few complaints that I have about the novel, most of which have been noticed by others. Though I enjoyed Siv and Cardinal and Vi as viewpoint characters, I personally would have liked to have seen at least a little bit inside of Phasma’s head. As it is, we only get the briefest glimpse, and that doesn’t happen until the very end. What we do get is very compelling indeed, and it makes you wonder whether the novel might have been stronger with more of her in it.

And yet, I also have to wonder if that is part of the point that the novel is making. Phasma remains something of an enigma, a figure upon whom her enemies and her allies can project their own anxieties and desires. More than that, though, it may just be that Phasma doesn’t have interiority to speak of. To my mind, that makes her all the more terrifying as a villain, a potent reminder that, much as we might like it otherwise, there are some people who we simply cannot understand within our existing frameworks.

All in all, I quite liked Phasma. Though it might not to everyone’s taste, it is, nevertheless, a valuable addition to the new Star Wars canon.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Lords of the Sith (by Paul S. Kemp)

Let me state that outset that I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. Like many other reviewers, I feel that the title is incredibly deceptive, since it suggests that the book is going to primarily focus on the relationship between Darth Vader and Palpatine. While that is indeed a very prominent storyline, it’s only one of many, and it can sometimes be a bit bewildering trying to keep track of everything that’s happening (to say nothing of becoming actually involved with some of these characters).

The novel takes place some time before the events of A New Hope. Vader and Palpatine find themselves ensnared in the Ryloth resistance movement led by the Twi’lek Cham Syndulla. In the process, they find themselves stranded on the planet Ryloth and have to contend both the native wildlife and with the efforts of the Twi’leks, as well as a renegade Imperial, and their attempts to destroy them.

Of all of the complicated relationships of the Star Wars universe, that between Vader and Palpatine is one that has always hovered at the edge of full comprehensibility. Sure, we get some clues to its nature in the prequel trilogy, but we only occasionally see how they feel about one another. Throughout this book, we get the distinct sense that Vader doesn’t have a great deal of love for his master, and in fact may just be biding his time until he can bring about his destruction. It’s really fascinating to see this little spark of rebellion in this iconic villain, a reminder of how perpetually unstable the relationship between the Sith was and remains.

This novel makes it clear that Vader still struggles to put the darkest parts of his past behind him, that the ghosts of his horrible actions still haunt his waking hours. He thinks back to incidents that fans will recognize from the prequels, such as his notorious slaughtering of the younglings in the Jedi Temple, as well as his murderous rampage after he discovered his mother’s tortured body. The sequences from Vader’s perspective were some of the most compelling parts of the novel, and they really do shed light on his inner psychology. However, each time I read a Vader chapter I’d be left wanting more.

The novel moves along at a brisk pace, but despite that it can sometimes get a bit boring. There were a few times when I found myself getting genuinely invested in the rebelling Ryloth characters, but the novel’s main antagonist, a rebelling Imperial, was both ineffective and frustrating to inhabit as a character. The novel would have been better served, I think, by focusing its attention on the two Sith rather than secondary Imperial characters.

There are some parts of Lords of the Sith that threaten to veer into the ridiculous, most notably the far too extensive battle between Palpatine, Vader, and a nest of creatures known as lyleks. It just felt so strange and out-of-character to see these two giants of the Empire doing battle with strange creatures on an alien planet. I’m also not entirely sure what Kemp was trying to accomplish with this scene, other than to show that both Vader and Palpatine still wield enormous power as users of the Force (as if we didn’t know that anyway).

On the other hand, there are some notable action sequences that are worthy of praise, particularly those in which Vader gets to once again put his superior flying skills to use. The battle sequences were depicted very well, and they were some of the rare instances where I actually felt myself engaging with what was going on.

All in all, Lords of the Sith is entertaining enough, but I did emerge feeling somewhat dissatisfied. The many pieces just didn’t seem to fit together very well, and I really do think that if the novel had either been strictly about the two Sith or about the rebels of Ryloth that it would have made a stronger novel. As it is, it’s hard to find a sense of narrative urgency. We know that the efforts to assassinate the two of them are doomed to fail and, since the events precede those of the original films. The novel is an unfortunate reminder of what might have been.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Resistance Reborn” (by Rebecca Roanhorse)

As I’ve said before, I’ve recently become a little bit obsessed with Star Wars. Given that, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I’ve thrown myself into the universe with all of the enthusiasm of a recent convert. To that end, I recently checked out Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, and I’m very glad that I did.

The novel moves us along at a brisk pace, showing us the events that transpired between the events of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. The Resistance, still reeling from its near-obliteration at the hands of the First Order, struggles to find a place where they can begin to regroup. They eventually end up on Ryloth, and while Leia stays there, she dispatches Poe and a number of others to start drawing far-flung allies to the new Resistance.

One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about this new spate of Star Wars novels is the fact that they give us so much of Leia’s perspective. The loss of Carrie Fisher in 2016 was truly a tragedy, a loss from which the Star Wars universe will never fully recover. Fortunately, novels like Resistance Reborn allow us glimpses into her psychology and her motivations, allowing us to appreciate just how much of a hero she’s been for the Galaxy, and how much she has sacrificed for the betterment of the downtrodden. If anything, I would have liked to see more of her perspective in the novel.

Of course, one of the other enjoyable parts of the novel was the character of Poe. He is, for me, one of the best things about the new films, and no small part of this has to do with Oscar Isaac’s characterization. Here, we get more insight into his guilt over his actions in The Last Jedi, as well as his determination to make good and redeem himself. This he does to good effect, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the rapport between him and Princess/General Leia. It’s clear, both in the novels and the films, that this was intended to be one of the primary relationships in the films.

The only character who was a bit of a let-down was the cruel bureaucrat Winshur Bratt. I wasn’t really sure what his point in the narrative was, unless it was to show in a more personal and intimate way the fact that the First Order manages to exert its influence by preying on the sort of petty people who are always seeking power at the expense of others. I can’t help thinking, though, that there might have been more effective ways of demonstrating this than with a relatively minor character.

The novel’s great strength, I think, is that it effectively bridges the events of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. One of many complaints that people had about the latter was that the arrival of a fleet of ships in response to the distress call from the Resistance seemed too abrupt. Resistance Reborn makes it clear that this is actually the end result of significant sacrifice and planning, both from Leia and from others. While it is, admittedly, a little frustrating to have to rely on extra-filmic material in order to have a film’s narrative make sense, that seems rather par for the course with Star Wars.

All in all, I really liked Star Wars: Resistance Reborn. I disagree with those who see the new canon novels as filler. In my opinion, there’s something to be said for these novels that help us to understand a bit more about the events that transpire between each of the films. Besides, these novels allow us to delve deeper into the psychology of some of our favorite characters in ways that simply isn’t possible on the screen (no matter how good the acting might be). If I have one complaint about this novel, it’s that it’s actually too short, and so we don’t get to see a lot of either Rey or Finn (a rather strange thing, given their centrality to the new films). Nevertheless, Resistance Reborn is a fine addition to the Star Wars universe.

Next up, I’ll be reviewing Lords of the Sith, an interesting novel that sheds light on the fraught relationship between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine.

Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (by Jason Fry)

I have to admit that I’ve had mixed feelings about Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, both at the time it came out and subsequently. While I respect some of the risks that the film took, I still feel frustrated by the way that it sidelined Poe in a way that felt untrue to the character, while also asking us to empathize with characters that came out of nowhere. My ambivalence about TLJ, along with my dissatisfaction with the novelization of The Force Awakens, led me to approach this new novel with no small amount of trepidation.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried so much. This novelization makes a number of improvements over the previous volume, and one gets the sense that Jason Fry had a lot more investment in actually translating the film into a book form that stands on its own and isn’t just a mere transcription. The novel is well-paced and engaging, and there wasn’t a single point where I felt myself getting bored.

There are some interesting choices in terms of who gets their own perspective in the novel. Somewhat surprisingly, the droid BB-8 gets several chapters dedicated to his POV (which was also true in The Force Awakens). Somehow, Fry manages to capture the sense of whimsy and irascibility that are the hallmarks of the character in the film version, and I found myself looking forward to getting inside of BB-8’s mind. In fact, I continue to find it fascinating the extent to which Star Wars as a franchise continues to lure us into feeling compassion and affection for things that aren’t even human (and arguably don’t have a soul).

Equally surprising as a major POV character is General Hux. In the films, he’s portrayed with almost hysterical intensity by Domhnall Gleeson, who delivers each line at top volume. Here, we get a bit more sense of what makes him tick, and in particular we learn about the ways in which his own subordinates look at him as something of a fool. Nevertheless, he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and the sense of righteousness that it seeks to bring to the Galaxy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we come to sympathize with him, but we definitely come to understand him in a way that we really don’t in the films.

One of the great strengths of the novel is its pacing. Somehow, it manages to be both fast-paced (it’s really quite a slender volume) and also gives us a strong sense of these characters as characters. One of my major complaints about the novel version of The Force Awakens was that it felt as if even Rey (arguably the central character) was just a cut-out figure going through the motions. Had Fry just phoned in his efforts, I don’t think that this novel would succeed as much as it does. Since he actually seems to have a firm grasp of what it was that Johnson was trying to accomplish, the novel keeps us engaged with these characters.

In particular, the novel helps us understand some of the stranger events that were so upsetting about the film. In particular, we get more insight into Poe Dameron’s mindset. I personally thought one of the biggest missteps of the film, and while the novel doesn’t entirely undo this, but it does at least give us a sense of Poe’s motivations. Likewise, I was glad that Rose Tico also got some more interiority, which greatly helped me to understand her motivations as a character. In fact, some of the most moving parts of the novel were from her perspective, particularly as she struggles to come to terms with her sister’s death and her own obligations to the Resistance.

Lastly, the novelization of The Last Jedi does a better job than The Force Awakens at allowing us inside Rey’s head (as well as that of her reluctant mentor Luke). Of all of the characters of the new films, Rey remains perhaps the most enigmatic. In the novel, we do get a stronger sense of her interiority, about the struggles she faces as she comes to terms with the failings of the Jedi, and of Luke in particular. And, of course, there is also the fact that she has to contend with both her vexed relationship with Kylo Ren and her parentage. Fry does an admirable job bringing out these complexities while not getting bogged down in too much exposition.

All in all, I very much enjoyed the novelization of The Last Jedi. While I still have some very mixed feelings about the film and the directions that it took the franchise, I now feel that I have a better sense of what Jonson was attempting to accomplish.

Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (by Alan Dean Foster)

Having recently watched the final installment of the newly-named “Skywalker Saga,” I’ve become more than a little obsessed with everything connected to Star Wars. I decided that it was time that I dip my toes into the huge pool of books that have emerged

I went into this book with rather high hopes. I’ve always thought that the novelizations of the Star Wars films help to smooth away some of the glaring faults one finds in the film versions. Fantasy giants such as Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvtatore, for example, did a fine job of novelizing the prequel trilogy, and I’m sure that many enjoyed their novels more than the films. Though I quite enjoyed The Force Awakens, I was hoping to gain some new insight into the film, the characters, and the world.

While I enjoyed this novelization, I tend to agree with those critics who see it as a rather bare-bones approach to this process. We don’t get much more plot than what happened in the film, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem, it does raise the question of why one would write a novelization if one wasn’t going to at least try to flesh out the material a bit more.

Particularly frustrating in this regard are two of the film’s key players: Rey and Kylo Ren. Reading this novel, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were bit players at best, so thin is the characterization. Admittedly, it would be tremendously difficult to capture the rich layers of characterization that Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver brought to their screen performances, but one could hope that a novel would help us to understand their drives and motivations a bit more. Unfortunately, Foster doesn’t really dwell on their interiority too much. While this might be forgive in Kylo’s case (sometimes its more effective to leave the villain off the main stage as much as possible), it really does hamper the novel to not give us any more insight in Rey. As it is, she’s really just a stock character who goes through the motions without much interior motivation, which is really a missed opportunity.

There were a few standout scenes that I enjoyed and that I felt added a touch of depth to what the film provided. The novel really shines when it adopts Finn’s perspective, and it does give us some insight as to why it is that a man raised from childhood to be blindly obedient to the dictates of the First Order would turn aside from that training to take up with the uncertainties of the Resistance. We get some truly interesting introspection on Finn’s part as he comes to terms with what it means to be an individual, and one gets the feeling that if Foster had applied this same strategy to the other characters in the book, it would have made for a more compelling narrative. Unfortunately, the only other character who gets nearly as much development as Finn is Poe, and we at least get some behind-the-scenes explanations for how he survived that crash landing.

Overall, the novelization of The Force Awakens is fine enough for what it is. It’s workmanlike and gets the job done, but that’s about as much as can be said for it. Those looking for more depth to their love of The Force Awakens can skip it, while those who just want to enjoy all things Star Wars will find it at least somewhat rewarding.

I’m already almost halfway through the novelization of The Last Jedi, and I have to say that I already enjoy it considerably more. Stay tuned for my review!

Film Review: “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker”

Warning: spoilers for the film follow.

I’m going to offer a somewhat controversial opinion: I actually really, really liked Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. I thought that the visuals were spectacular, the performances were compelling, and the philosophical themes thought-provoking and timely.

Now, it has to be said that there were some issues with the film. Obviously, the writing in this installment leaves something to be desired. For example, much as I have yearned for and was excited by Palpatine’s return, it did feel like it came out of nowhere. Part of this no doubt stems from Rian Johnson’s decision to have Snoke thrust out of the frame rather abruptly in The Last Jedi (a decision this film mirrors with its cursory elimination of General Hux, a waste of a perfectly fine villain, IMHO). Casting about for a new big bad, and unwilling to let Kylo occupy that position, Abrams did the logical thing and brought back the best villain that Star Wars has ever seen. Personally, I think that a bit more exposition would have helped clarify his survival but alas, that doesn’t seem to be something that Abrams nor his fellow creators deemed essential.

And, of course, there’s the fact that the film rather brutally sidelines Rose Tico. I personally find the explanations offered so far–including that it was necessary in order to give more time to Princess Leia–infuriating and disingenuous, and the decision to exclude her from the adventure seems hamhanded and wrong-headed. Indeed, I see no reason why they couldn’t simply have had her go along with the other heroes on their various missions, other than that the writers decided that they had to cave into the gross, racist demands of the fan base (who were notoriously toxic toward the actress and forced her off of social media).

All that being said, I do think that Palpatine’s return signifies something important about the way that the Star Wars saga has always envisioned history: as a sort of eternal return that can be neither resisted nor fully redeemed. Palpatine is, quite literally, the ghost of the past come back to haunt the future, a reminder that no act of heroism, no matter how selfless and powerful, has the ability to keep such evil from returning.

Furthermore, I somewhat disagree with those others who see the revelation of Rey’s parentage to be a grievous betrayal of what Johnson proposed in The Last Jedi, namely that anyone, no matter their heritage or pedigree, can wield the Force. While there’s some truth to this claim, I think it’s important to recognize three things. First, that this heritage is far more of a burden than it is a blessing. In this instance, Rey’s choice is between accepting the burden of becoming the vessel for Palpatine’s spirit (and through him the rest of the Sith) or the Jedi. Second, Rey makes the specific choice to disavow that heritage in favour of the one that means the most to her; she chooses to become a Skywalker, rather than accepting the mantle of Palpatine. Third, the writers have made clear that Finn is himself Force-sensitive, so clearly there is still the possibility that someone not named Skywalker or Palpatine can wield it.

Writing problems aside, there’s no question in my mind that what has helped these films succeed are the performances. Each of the primary actors brings their A-game to this installment. As always, my heart did a little jump every time that Finn and Poe got into one of their little tiffs (further evidence, if any were needed, that there really is a romance going on between them), and I insist that there are some key editing moments that really encourage us to see the real romance between them. And of course Daisy Ridley continues to showcase her tremendous talent, and Adam Driver continues to make me swoon (I know, I know, but I can’t help it).

And, even given my own predilection for Palpatine, I think we can all agree that Ian McDiarmid continues to steal the show. You can certainly tell that he’s a Shakespearean actor, for he manages to convey all the rich complexity and utterly compelling evil of a stage villain. Though of course you know he’s going to be defeated, some small part of you can’t help but hope that he might succeed against all the odds.

Visually, The Rise of Skywalker is suitably stunning, and one scene in particular stands out to me: the haunting, powerful scene in which Palpatine, fully restored, thrusts his hands upward, creating a Force Lightning storm that threatens to destroy all that Rey holds dear. It’s a moment that’s exquisitely crafted, from the way that McDiarmid delivers his lines, to the crackle of the Force Lightning, to the exquisite mosaic of the Resistance fleet crumbling before such unimaginable might. It’s one of those truly epic moments that Star Wars does so well, and a convincing argument for seeing films like these on the big screen.

Overall, I’ve been happy with the new trilogy. Yes, there were issues, but it seems to me that these stem more from the studio heads than from the writers/directors of the new films. Had Disney either a.) kept to its original plan of having each installment controlled by a distinct creator (though perhaps with some overall vision) or b.) put all of it in the hands of Abrams in the first place, I think that a lot of this might have been avoided. Given the strange production circumstances and the very different artistic visions of Johnson and Abrams, I’d say we were fairly lucky in the films that we got.

And so we say goodbye to one era of the Star Wars saga. I’m actually quite looking forward to future developments, ranging from The Mandalorian to a new trilogy being developed by Rian Johnson. There are also the many new novels that are now being written. For someone like me, who has now fallen completely in love with Star Wars, there will plenty more adventures in a galaxy far, far away.

And that, I think, is a very good thing, indeed.

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Betrayal” (S1, Ep. 8)

Warning: spoilers for the episode follow.

And so we come at last to the season finale of His Dark Materials. All I can say is: wow, what an episode!

Having finally located her father, Lyra realizes that he is not at all the man that she always assumed he was. In fact, he might be as much of a monster (in his own way) as her mother. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter finds that her own loyalties might be hopelessly divided, even as Lord Asriel commits a heinous act in his attempt to undo the centuries of repression by the Magisterium.

In many ways, this episode is a fitting climax to Lyra’s journey to maturity. For the first time since Asriel abandoned her in Oxford for his own journey north, she must confront the fact that he is, in his own way, as twisted in soul as is Mrs. Coulter. Just as importantly, however, the episode also makes it clear that, much as she might come to hate both of her parents, Lyra is in many ways the perfect mix of her two parents, for both good and ill.

Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this first season has been its ability to show Lyra’s growth as a character. By the end of this first season, we’ve seen Lyra truly mature from a headstrong girl to a headstrong and intelligent young woman, one who is fully conscious of the choices that she’s made and how that has affected the lives around her. When, at the end of the episode, she steps through that beam of light into an uncertain future, it marks the culmination of all of the choices that she’s made during the season.

Just as importantly, for the first time since the series began, we finally get to see Asriel and Mrs. Coulter in the same scene, and the chemistry is off the charts. Of course, it helps that the two of them are portrayed by actors at the top of their game, but it’s undeniable that the two actors have a similar sort of energy to their characters. I’m truly glad that they decided to include this scene, as it allows us to get a glimpse at the strange, unsettling energy that exists between these two characters, and it really sets up some of the conflicts that will arise between them in the future.

I was particularly impressed by the way that this scene shows us the change that has come over Mrs. Coulter through the course of this season. As much of a monster as she is, there can be no doubt by now that her feelings for Lyra are genuine. She truly loves her daughter, and it is that love that keeps her from going after Asriel and joining in his war against the Authority. And, of course, it goes without saying that Ruth Wilson absolutely shines in this scene, as she has throughout the course of the season.

Of course, this episode is truly heartbreaking, and I say that as someone who has read the book and thus knew about Asriel’s intentions for Roger. Still, to see that poor boy–captured so charmingly Lewin Lloyd–forcibly severed from his daemon is one of the most painful incidents to occur in the entire season, made all the more so by Lyra’s thwarted attempts to rescue him. This incident forces us to recognize the true darkness that lies at Asriel’s heart, a darkness that will have profound consequences not only for all of humanity, but in particular for his daughter.

All in all, I’ve really enjoyed this first season of the show. It’s done an excellent job of adapting Pullman’s work, and I think the decision to start introducing elements from the second book in the first season will work out to the benefit of the second one. I also think that the expansion of Boreal’s role is one of the better choices, though I’m sure that it will upset some fans of the book. However, he has to have something to do through these early episodes, so that his sporadic appearances in the second don’t feel so random. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what season two will bring, and I hope you’ll join me for my reviews when it finally arrives!