To set the stage properly for this review, let it be understood up front that I am not one of those who despises the new canon. Quite the reverse. It breaks my heart to write a review like this because it grieves me to say anything negative about Star Wars.
There are a great many books on the roster right now involving the road to The Force Awakens. Most of them seem to be filler, to be honest. This one is beyond argument the most important one in this new “everything is canon” era. A lot is riding on it. There are a great many expectations for it. There are a few minor spoilers in regards to world building, but I’ll try to be vague otherwise in consideration of those who’ve not read it and still want to.
I still have trouble accepting the “everything is canon” idea. I get it, but seeing as how there are already plenty of contradictions in how this galaxy is put together, I feel like that can’t last. With that in mind, this is just another one in the line of books for me. At the same time, though… planning has gone into it to make it more than that, and the weight of what this story offers feels legitimate in the grand sweeps. Effort has been made here to show the progression of a single conflict from decades before the Clone Wars began, through the Imperial era, and up to this point in the saga. Names change, and things are broken up for convenience. But it’s all one big push. This is one of the two major takeaways from this book for me. It’s not a new concept, but I like that it’s acknowledged.
The other big takeaway is the big political picture, which has been a part of Star Wars from the beginning. For a student of history like myself, it’s interesting to see the parallels.
These are, for me, the good parts. And that would have been enough to garner 3 or more stars had anything else made any sense whatsoever.
This is my first encounter with Chuck Wendig as a writer. As a long time Star Wars fan (like many who will read this book, and probably much like Wendig himself must claim), my judgment of his abilities hinges a great deal on this one book. And, unfortunately, this one’s not a winner for me. It’s not even a contender.
The first problem is the choice of writing style. Writing in the present tense feels awkward and is inconsistent with the concept of myth-building a long-established story like this. This story still takes place “a long time ago.” It’s not happening now. You can get used to it, but it’s just weird and inappropriate. The worse offender is that his writing style is choppy so as to intensify the action. It feels like the verbal equivalent of shaky “documentary style” handheld camera work to me. It may work for some, but it’s an immediate put-off. It’s reads like riding in a landspeeder, *ahem* car with someone driving who’s never operated a manual transmission. I got mental whiplash from the experience.
The second problem is world building. It’s just easier if I offer some examples, but the overarching theme at every turn is that the world building is abysmal.
This story would have us believe that the average street urchin is familiar with the Jedi and phrases like “May the Force be with you.” Even at their height, the Jedi weren’t numerous enough to be more than urban legend for most people. There were, what, 10,000 of them compared to trillions upon trillions of beings across an entire galaxy? That’s a drop in the bucket compared to most cities, to say nothing of a galaxy with that many overpopulated worlds. Several of those worlds have many different concepts of religion and household gods, which the author actually references. Many wouldn’t have known what the Force is, let alone be familiar with that catch phrase. The Rebellion leaders use it because the founders of that group actually knew the Jedi and understood what their ideals were on some level. That’s a very small, rare subset of people. If Luke had to have Obi-Wan explain what the Force was, even knowing his father was a Jedi knight, then there’s no reason for the average person on the street to know either. That’s just common sense.
A more grievous misunderstanding is that somewhere along the lines, the Sith apparently put out an advertising campaign as every Imperial officer seems to know what they were and how they operated. Even a random bounty hunter knows what a Sith is according to this book. That’s nonsense. I would counter by pointing out there were only two, nobody advertised it, and the entire reason they were successful is precisely because nobody knew who they were. This would certainly have extended well through to Return of the Jedi. There was precisely one Imperial officer that we know of who would have known anything about the Sith, and that’s Tarkin, due to his close association with Vader and Palpatine. Who are these people that know so much about the nature of the Dark Side? At least we got an explanation about one character in this book where it’s plausible, but the rest of them… c’mon. The most secret and exclusive club in the history of the galaxy, and everyone’s in on it? Please.
Related to that, this is the second novel in the new canon that has tossed in the idea that it’s well-known that Vader was a cyborg. I would argue that Vader was the boogeyman. Nobody knew who he was until he showed up, which is part of what made him so effective and terrifying. Think about when Vader showed up in ’77. Our perception was that we had no clue what he was. Was he a man? A droid? A cyborg? Something else entirely? We didn’t know. We didn’t even get a glimpse under the mask until The Empire Strikes Back. At that point, we knew far more than the vast majority of the Star Wars galaxy. Or is it known because there was a pop song about him, per Kevin Hearne? I refuse to accept that as a viable explanation. That’s bad writing, compounded by more bad writing.
These are, to my mind, common misperceptions across casual fans, which would be understandable given where the films are focused. For an author writing in the Galaxy Far, Far Away, supposedly with input from the Lucasfilm Story Group – some of whom who have actually outlined the above ideas to the public – these are rookie mistakes to apply such perceptions to the galaxy as a whole. With so much riding on the perception of this novel going forward, it’s a bit offensive that I should have to lower my expectations to immerse myself in this universe. That’s bantha poodoo.
Admittedly this is nitpicking, but that’s what world building is all about: details. That’s why anyone’s reading this book. We want the details of what happened between the original trilogy and the next film.
But let’s compound it. There’s a random scene where there’s graffiti on the wall with Vader’s helmet reading “Vader Lives.” In front of that wall, a black market merchant sells a red lightsaber to a member of a Force death cult. Neither are certain this is Vader’s, but the idea is for the cult member to destroy it so that he can send it back to its master in the great beyond.
And that’s the thing. There is almost no cohesive story. There is the hint of one, and in between are these random sequences that are probably supposed to be easter eggs. Maybe they’re for the later novels in this trilogy, or maybe they’re for the movie. I don’t know. I really don’t care. It came across as sheer lunacy. Need a random fight sequence with Dengar and some new bounty hunter named Mercurial Swift? It’s in here. Need a random scene of Han and Chewie, just to say you saw them? Done. How about a few scenes where Grand Admiral Ackbar makes references to traps? You know, because everyone knows Star Wars exists solely on internet memes now instead of substance. For the love of the Force, he’s not the first one who ever said the line!
Not random enough? Let’s add in a one-armed Wookiee for this scene because one-armed Wookiees are cool! Did you know that Quarren have teeth? Neither did I, but apparently they have dentists, so it must be true. Is this really what passes for world building these days? It’s pure amateur hour fluff, not even worthy of ranking as pop culture drivel. Tell a story and quit winking at the fans, Skippy. Han said to “Fly casual” in ROTJ, and now this is something he always says, to the point where Wedge – a character who wasn’t there when Han said it – knows it well enough to reference it? Again, world building happens because of details, and this just falls apart all over the place here. I’m sure all of this was designed to add a level of familiarity to make it feel like Star Wars. It felt contrived. And overall, the presentation was just sloppy beyond words.
So let’s talk about the main characters of this story, because they aren’t the main characters of THE story. There aren’t any characters in this to latch onto. It’s more accurate for me to say that I couldn’t latch onto them. I like seeing the progression of Admiral Rae Sloane. But this illustrates my point. She’s a side character, not a front runner. So is pretty much everyone else in this story who steps into the spotlight, so far as I can tell. If any of these characters make it to the big screen story that takes place 30 years later, I’ll reassess their worth. For now, I’m not impressed enough to remember anyone else’s name. Their functions as two-dimensional placeholders within the scope of the story is far more important than who they are. Some of the primary characters in this tale finally started to get some development halfway through this book, but it wasn’t enough to make me care. It seemed more like too many ideas were being flung at the walls to see what stuck rather than trying to demonstrate the diversity of the galaxy. Perhaps there is something here the new canon will use better in other interpretations. Maybe we’ll see an animated series that utilizes these characters set at this time. I don’t have those answers. All I know is they didn’t make an immediate impact the way characters from any other era of Star Wars has, and while I didn’t hate any of them by the end of the book, I didn’t love any of them either.
To get you through this book, I propose a drinking game. Every time you hear a mention of some kind of insect or arachnoid, take a drink. Every time someone clucks their tongue, take two drinks. If you don’t pass out first, it might make this lamentable mess more palatable.
The production on this audio is as top shelf as ever. It’s always a pleasure to have Marc Thompson on board as narrator. Backed by the classic sound effects and John Williams music, this story gets elevated beyond what it probably would have been than by print alone. It’s a colossal waste and even an insult to the music of John Williams. I trust Marc Thompson got well paid for his outstanding performance.
As I say, this is my first experience with Chuck Wendig. It will be my last. I’m not inclined to explore more of his work, up to and including the other two parts of this trilogy. This book feels more like incredibly bad fan fiction cobbled together in the back of a sandcrawler from spare parts more than anything mythical, magical, or worthy of the Star Wars brand. But, thankfully, there are other writers and creative types involved that I trust, and this is a franchise that’s now far bigger than the sum of its parts, so I need not worry that the whole ship is doomed. We’ve had other contributions that work, and we will again. This one oscillated back and forth between almost competent and absurdly asinine so fast, I got nauseous. It’s unfortunate that I walk away from this one with a sour taste for the future because of such an important cog in the clockwork to come. I will also acknowledge that just because it didn’t work for me, that’s not to say it won’t work for other readers. Ultimately, it’ll come to down to the reader’s personal tastes more than anything else. For the curious, I’d still recommend it so they can judge for themselves.