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Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances”

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Readers of this blog will remember that I absolutely loved the first installment of author Timothy Zahn’s new trilogy about Thrawn, the Chiss general who rises through the ranks of the Imperial military to become a Grand Admiral. As soon as I finished that volume, I went ahead and started reading the second one, and I was not disappointed. It takes the character in some new and interesting directions, while remaining true to the developments that happened in the first novel.

This novel follows two different timelines. One, set in the diegetic present, follows Thrawn and his reluctant ally Darth Vader as they pursue an unknown disturbance in the outer reaches of the Galaxy. The other follows a younger Thrawn as he engages with Anakin and Padmé as they investigate a mining operation that could seriously reshape the war between the Republic and the Separatists.

What interests me so much about this iteration of Thrawn is the fact that he doesn’t fit easily into the categories of good and evil. I’ve always thought that Star Wars is at its best when it probes what we normally assume to be the hard and fast distinctions between heroism and villainy. While Thrawn has sworn his service to the Emperor–who we are always supposed to think is the embodiment of evil–this novel shows that his motivations are complex. While he is as loyal to the Empire as he ever was, we are led to believe that his true loyalties will always lie with his fellow Chiss.

I particularly enjoy the way that Zahn manages to take us us into the intimate spaces of Thrawn’s complex mind. From the beginning of this new series, we’ve seen that Thrawn doesn’t operate according to same rules as everyone else. Among other things, he seems to have an almost supernatural ability to observe the behavior of others and to determine their actions based on what he sees. This makes him a formidable enemy, and it makes us as readers aware of just how inhuman he is, for all that he has managed to rise so high in the estimation of the Emperor.

Despite the fact that Thrawn is, of course, the focal point of the book, I constantly found myself reminded of just how tragic Anakin’s storyline is. The moments when Darth Vader ruthlessly quells his memories from that time–and the fact that he has separated his current identity from “the Jedi”–are a stark reminder of how much Anakin gives up as he plunges to his fate in the Dark Side. By the time of the present, of course, he’s given himself over completely to his service of the Emperor, so much so that even Thrawn, who knew him at both times, is for a while in some doubt as to whether Vader is in fact the young Jedi that he knew so many years ago. As I was reading the parts of the book that were set during the Clone Wars, I continued to feel saddened by what I knew was Anakin’s inevitable fall, aware all the time that his romance with Padmé was doomed to end in tragedy, that he would ultimately be responsible for her death.

I also appreciated that this book took a few risks, such as revealing that the Chiss do have Force-sensitive individuals in their number, though it manifests differently among them than it does to any of the other races that we’ve encountered.

Overall, I found Thrawn: Alliances to be a well-plotted and exciting entry in the Star Wars universe. There’s a reason, it seems to me, that authors like Zahn have managed to solidify their standing in the community. This book doesn’t necessarily break any boundaries, but it doesn’t really have to. Zahn has a strong writer’s finely-tuned instincts, and he knows what his audience is looking for and is able to provide it.

I’m very much looking forward to the third book in the series, and I have a feeling that Thrawn is going to continue finding his loyalty to the Emperor tested by his continued adherence to his own code of honor and to his people.

Book Review: “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” (by Tomi Adeyemi)

When I first read Children of Blood and Bone, I was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t just that I was excited to finally see a young woman of color writing what was, by all accounts, a stunning fiction debut. It was that this extraordinary talent had managed to create a compelling world based on Africa mythology, one that lived and breathed and drew you in from first page to last. Thus, when Children of Virtue and Vengeance came out, I rushed to the store.

I’m glad I did.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance picks up shortly after the previous novel ending, with Zélie mourning the death of her father, while royal siblings Inan and Amari each struggle for the throne in order to bring an end to the war that has already cost so many lives. The novel follows each side as they each go to ever-greater depths of darkness and violence, each side convinced that right is on their side.

One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the books in this series is the way in which they manage to combine all of the elements of fantasy in ways that feel fresh and exciting. I particularly love that the series is drawn from west African mythology and that it pays so much attention to the fact that these characters are definitely not white. Fantasy as a genre has been dominated for so long by whiteness that I’m always looking for a series that breaks out of that mold. It’s clear from the first page to the last that Adeyemi has given a great deal of thought to how to build this world from the ground up, and it’s impossible not to find yourself utterly swept up into it.

The novel keeps moving along at a breathtaking pace, and you’re left never entirely sure when the next twist will happen. There are many twists and turns in this novel, which is appropriate, given that it is in many ways about the destructive power of war and the corrosive impacts it has on even those who begin with the noblest of intentions. None of the three primary characters are angels, and there are moments when it’s possible to dislike any of them. However, Adeyemi does an excellent job of making us appreciate and love each of these characters, even as we also recognize their flaws. All of them, each in their own way, is trying to do what they think is best, and while they don’t always succeed, we’re led to at least appreciate their efforts.

Each of the three main characters finds themselves tested in ways that they never before imagined. Zélie must slowly come to terms with the fact that, whether she likes it or not, she is now a leader of the people who now wield magic. Amari must recognize that, in many ways, she has become far too much like the father that she spent so much of the previous novel loathing and trying to escape. Inan, the boy who has been thrust into a kingship that he never really wanted and is not really prepared for, must contend with the competing forces around him, from his mother’s relentless desire to eradicate magic to his own love for Zélie and desire to bring about peace.

And it’s important to remember just how young these characters are. These young people have been thrown into the midst of a war that none of them asked for, each of them caught up in the web of deceit and death and destruction that was precipitated by their parents and those who don’t have their own interests at heart. You can hardly blame them if, at times, they aren’t able to exactly meet the challenges that they face and if they make choices that are foolish and sometimes dangerous.

The novel ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and at the moment it’s unclear what, exactly has happened and what will happen to these characters that we’ve already come to love and care about. The worst part about finishing a book like Children of Virtue and Vengeance is that we now have to wait for an even longer period of time before the third volume is out! And, given how many twists and turns the first two volumes in this series have taken, I think it’s safe to say that we are about to see these beloved characters go through quite a lot before this whole thing is over. Heartache is no doubt on the horizon, but hopefully so is salvation.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn” (by Timothy Zahn)

In the annals of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, perhaps no figure looms larger than Thrawn. Originally introduced in Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” series, he subsequently became something of a fan favourite. Though only a neophyte when it comes to the Expanded Universe, I can well imagine the howl of outrage that erupted when Disney announced that all of the works that had already been published in that universe would be rendered noncanon, including Thrawn.

Fortunately, Zahn has successfully wound his beloved Chiss character back into the canon by focusing on his early years and his incorporation into the machinery of the empire. The novel is split among three different perspectives. There is, of course, Thrawn, whose tactical genius allows him to ascend quickly through the ranks. Other chapters are told from the point of view of his assistant Eli Vanto, who finds himself caught up in Thrawn’s wake as he makes his precipitous ascent into the highest ranks of the Imperial Navy. Lastly there is Arihnda Pryce, who begins the novel on the mining world of Loval but gradually manipulates her way into becoming a powerful administrator.

From the opening pages, I found myself irresistibly drawn into this narrative. Certainly, a great deal of this is due to the fact that Thrawn is just such a compelling character, capable of acts of great ruthlessness, his tactical brilliance acknowledged even by his most devout enemies. Zahn has the uncanny ability to give us just enough detail about Thrawn’s back story to keep us engaged, while also keeping enough back to make Thrawn and enigma that we want to solve.

What struck me the most as I read the book, however, was how Thrawn never truly appears evil. True, he is ruthless, and he is definitely cunning, with one of the best military minds of arguably anyone in the entire Star Wars universe. His brain just doesn’t seem to work quite like any other character that we’ve ever et, and this is no doubt due to the fact that he is also the furthest from human. This allows his mind to see the patterns–both in individuals and in collectives–that prove invaluable in his service to the Empire and the imposition of its will.

Of course, all of this allows the book to raise the deeper ethical question: at what point do we finally say enough is enough and work against the forces that we see as evil? For Thrawn, this point has clearly not come yet, for he sees the order and stability of the Empire as a necessary trade-off for the protection it provides against even greater forces of evil that lurk in the Unknown Regions. Though it’s had to imagine why anyone with a shred of integrity of morality would continue serving a creature like the Emperor, Zahn does a great job showing us what motivates Thrawn to do so.

Indeed, one of the things that I’ve really appreciated about so many of the new Star Wars novels is their ability to show us why it is that people would willingly serve an institution such as the Empire (and, later, the First Order). As it turns out, not everyone one who does so is an evil monster. Some do it because they see no alternative, others because they tire of finding their opportunities squashed at every turn. In this novel, Vanto is clearly not someone who is evil. He is merely doing what he can to survive. Pryce is a somewhat more ambiguous character who, while not entirely evil, is still ruthless and cunning and has little sense of personal loyalty. What’s more, she has no compunction about removing those who stand in her way, even if that means killing them.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Thrawn. I truly couldn’t put the book down from the moment I picked it up, and I’d probably go so far as to that it’s my favourite of the new series of books coming out from Disney.

Having finished Thrawn, I’m now diving headfirst into the sequel, Thrawn: Alliances, in which we will finally get to see the complicated relationship between Thrawn and Vader, two of the most valuable servants of the Emperor.

Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of this book that really work. The scenes that flesh out Tarkin’s past–in particular his brutal survivalist training–were compelling, if only because it’s rather difficult to imagine the buttoned-up Tarkin actually mucking about in the forest. This past allows us to understand why it is that a man like Tarkin would throw his lot in with the Empire and become infamous for his willingness to use the threat of power to intimidate everyone into bowing before Imperial might. In essence, Tarkin has internalized the law of the jungle. While this threatens to drain him of any sort of moral compass, it also allows him to rise high in the Imperial administration.

The portions of the book told from the point of view of Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine also draw you in. Anyone who knows me knows that I think that Sidious is one of the best things to ever happen to the Star Wars universe, and I’m glad that we get to see some of the inner workings of his complex mind here. Even though Luceno’s Darth Plagueis has been declared noncanon, it seems that some aspects of it–including the revelation that Darth Plagueis was Sidious’ master–are to remain canon. In this novel, we get a stronger idea of what makes this enigmatic villain tick, including his ultimate desire: to literally bend the fabric of reality to his will.

Other aspects of the novel, however, threaten to drag down the narrative. Luceno is clearly one of those authors who allows himself to get a bit enraptured by the technology of Star Wars. We are thus frequently treated to lengthy descriptions of the various types of ships, as well as catalogues of just what types have appeared at any particular moment. There are also clunky descriptions of ship mechanics and actions. While this might be pleasurable for some people to read, I have to admit that I found it rather a chore, and there were even times when I found myself skimming to get to the good bits (and I rarely do that). Some discussion of technology is fine, of course, but not at the expense of character and development.

Overall, I’d place Tarkin somewhere in the middle rank of the newly-established canon of Star Wars novels. It’s a bit too short to really give us an extensive dive into Tarkin’s psychology, and it too often gets side-tracked with the ostensible “good guys.” This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they were given the sort of development that would make them genuinely likable and understandable characters, but as it is they sort of feel like cardboard cut-outs. I continue to find it strange that books that are supposedly about villains spend just as much time in the heads of the heroes. Frankly, if I wanted to hear from the heroes, I’d read one of the dozens of other books set in the Star Wars Universe (or watch the movies, for that matter).

Still, I enjoyed Tarkin, and I’d recommend it to those die-hard fans who want to get a glimpse into an important period in Star Wars history. Other, more casual fans, might be advised to skip this one.

Now it’s on to Timothy Zahn’s new series focused on Thrawn, another of the most iconic villains in Star Wars. Stay tuned!

TV Review: “The Witcher” (Season 1)

Being the contrarian I am, I actually put off watching The Witcher longer than I normally would. Though I am, of course, a huge fan of fantasy series and was in need of something to fill the gap left by the conclusion of Game of Thrones (which was a huge disappointment) and the season finale of His Dark Materials, for some reason I just found all the hype around The Witcher off-putting. Eventually, however, I gave in to the pressure and watched it.

I have to say, I’m not disappointed. In fact, I found myself more drawn into the show than I thought I would be, which was a pleasant surprise. The action is propulsive, the characters are strangely likable (for the most part), and there are glimpses of a vibrant world with cultures and conflicts that are as compelling and bloody as anything in Game of Thrones. Somehow, The Witcher manages to grab hold of you from the first episode and doesn’t let you go until the very end, when it leaves you dangling on a cliff-hanger.

It’s rather hard to summarize this show without giving away important plot points, but I’ll give it a try. It focuses on three characters. The first is the Witcher Geralt (Henry Cavill), a mutant warrior who goes about fighting monsters and demons for payment. His fate is bound up with Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan), who is forced to flee into exile when her kingdom is invaded by Nilfgaard. The third is the Yennefer of Vengeberg (Anya Chalotra), a powerful mage who has her own series of journeys to undertake as she becomes ever more entwined with the fates of nations.

Narratively, the series is rather a mess, to be quite honest, but the genius of The Witcher is that it somehow just rolls with its own absurdities and encourages us to do the same. It doesn’t get hung up on the mechanics of its magic system (which seems pretty much to be whatever the plot demands), nor do the pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle ever entirely coalesce into some sort of coherent whole. In fact, the show seems to go out of its way to keep us guessing as to why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Part of this has to do with the fact that it’s told out of order, and it actually takes quite a while to figure that out, and even when you do it can take some time to orient yourself within a given episode.

At times, I found myself getting a little frustrated at how underdeveloped both the magic and the politics were. I’m not one of those people who demands that their fantasy series explain everything to them, but it is hard to get a sense of the stakes of The Witcher when it’s so resistant to providing a birds-eye view of the world and its conflicts. I’m hoping that now that the various storylines have come together at the end of the first season that this means that the second one will be a bit more straightforward.

One of the reasons I think the series succeeds despite these flaws is because the performances are so absolutely compelling. Cavill is one of those actors who is both beautiful and strangely flexible in terms of the kinds of characters he can play. He manages to imbue Geralt with both taciturnity and vulnerability, and while the former definitely dominates through much of the show, the moments when the latter appears are some of the best in the series. His feelings for both Yennefer and his lost mother. You get the sense that he’s been through a lot, and that these experiences have shaped him in some unexpected ways. Tough-as-nails he may be, but he also has a powerful sense of right and wrong.

Likewise, I found myself increasingly drawn to Yennefer. Again, performance has a lot to do with this, as Chalotra does so much with what she’s given. We get to see Yennefer grow from a twisted girl to a powerful sorceress, and if I have a complaint about her role it’s that we don’t get more of it. Narratively, her arc doesn’t quite gel until we get to the very end, but her character is arguably as important as Geralt’s, if only because it’s refreshing to see such a powerful woman take center stage in a fantasy series.

Unfortunately, at this point in the series Cirilla is still something of a blank slate. She spends most of the season running from conflict to conflict, and I’m afraid that I just wasn’t drawn to her in the way that I was Yennefer. A number of other secondary characters, however, more than make up for this, and once again the women get the lion’s share. I absolutely loved MyAnna Buring as Tissaia, the Rectoress of Aretuza (the academy for mages). She managed to own every scene that she appeared in, and I sincerely hope that we get to see more of her in the second season. The same goes for Jodhi May as Queen Calanthe, who is about as badass as they come (even if she is rather shortsighted on some key issues). And, of course, there’s Joey Batey as Jaskier, the rascally bard who appears periodically to make Geralt’s life miserable. There’s undeniable chemistry between Batey and Cavill, and I hope that he returns for the second season.

Overall, The Witcher is tremendously entertaining. If you can look past the flaws in its storytelling, and if you can be patient enough with it to see it through the first several episodes, I think you’ll find it to be a rewarding series to watch. There’s still a long way to go before we get the second season, but I hope that the writers take the chance to iron out a few of the kinks. If they do that, they might just have a truly great show on their hands.

I know that I, for one, will be watching!

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!