Sunday, March 20, 2016

Many Bothans died to bring you this blog...

Here's a question that troubles in the STAR WARS Expanded Universe that may or may not be an issue in the core canon: What makes the Bothans such great spies?

This is not stated in EPISODE VI, which is the only mention of Bothans in core canon, but the Expanded Universe used to repeatedly insist that the Bothans were sort of renowned for being spies. Leaving out the obvious observation that it’s a little sketchy to describe an entire race as all being anything, what in particular makes all Bothans automatically suited to be master spies?

"I'm not gonna be PC here, so I'm sure some folks will be offended by this, but all Bothans are spies, am I right?"

In the core story the only thing we know is that Bothan spies managed to retrieve the crucial intel that the new Death Star was not yet operational and the Emperor would be visiting it soon. But here are the three things we know about that:

A) The Death Star was FULLY operational, so that was bad intel.

B) The Emperor wanted the Rebel Alliance to know he would be on the Death Star because the whole thing was a trap, so the Bothan “spies” only managed to get hold of information the Emperor wanted them to have.

C) Many Bothans died to obtain this information, which means they must have gone out of their way to get themselves killed because the Emperor would have needed them alive to deliver the false intel he'd allowed them to obtain.

All in all, the Bothans sound like terrible spies.

But the Expanded Universe gives us some insight into why this might be the case. It could be that they look like this:

"Yeah, a lot of folks think they recognize me. Guess I just got one o' them faces."

The “Legends” (non-canonical) description of Bothans provided in the Wookieepedia is that they are “furry mammalian anthropoids… with canine, feline, and equine features”.

In Heir to the Empire, Zahn described Borsk Fey’lya, the Bothans’ political representative in the New Republic, as having fine cream-colored fur covering his body. This wouldn’t matter much to the STAR WARS universe at large, which is pretty inclusive, but the Empire is repeatedly characterized as being almost exclusively human and highly prejudiced against non-human species. How could a group of  cream-fur-covered, horse-faced spies get anywhere near highly sensitive military information unless the Empire wanted them to? And how can the Bothans be great spies if they’re distinctly recognizable as Bothans and have a universal reputation for being spies?

"I'm crushing this spy gig. Nobody suspects a thing..."

The short and simple answer is: They were not good spies. They famously performed the absolute worst act of military espionage in the history of the galaxy, very nearly resulting in the total annihilation of the Rebel Alliance. Which was, I should point out, the exact opposite of their goal.

Nice job, Bothans.

Friday, March 18, 2016

STAR WARS 1999: Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore

STAR WARS reached an interesting stage in its history by the end of the nineties. The saga had been supported almost exclusively by the stories of the Expanded Universe for most of that decade, but by 1999 George Lucas was prepared to continue the story in the prequel films. The creative teams still tasked with following the adventures of the Star Warriors in the years after EPISODE VI were left with an interesting dilemma: On the one hand they had to find a way to maintain audience interest outside the movies now that there were new movies to contend with, but on the other they had to come up with a fresh story that didn't simply repeat those already explored in the pages of the Expanded Universe.

The New Republic's never-ending struggles with the remnants of the Empire were too derivative of the original trilogy. It seemed as though the books had nothing new to say. Timothy Zahn wrapped up the war with the Empire in 1998 with the conclusion of his Hand of Thrawn duology, so if the stories were going to continue beyond that point, they would need a new villain. The books and comics also struggled with remaining relevant, since there were no significant advances they could make with the characters and storylines. So the creative forces behind the Expanded Universe did what anyone does when they are striving to remain relevant: They did something shocking in a desperate effort to get attention.

In 1999, between the theatrical release of EPISODE I and its home video release on VHS (it would not be released on DVD until 2001), the books launched a new epoch for the Expanded Universe, the New Jedi Order, with the publication of Vector Prime.

Vector Prime was intended to be the start of a new era in the STAR WARS Expanded Universe, but it unfortunately inherited a lot of story weaknesses from its predecessors. Even though the new story was meant to pit the heroes against an all-new threat to the galaxy, we still have to sit through a lot of political intrigues surrounding the diplomatic responsibilities of the New Republic. Del Rey had re-obtained the publishing rights, which meant a new stable of authors would be creatively involved in developing the ongoing storylines. Despite this the architecture of the stories was still being mapped out by people who had creatively lost their way when it came to planning the future of the STAR WARS universe.

RA Salvatore was commissioned to pen the inaugural chapter of the New Jedi Order cycle, which would be a milestone in the expanded canon for a number of reasons. The first was that it was written in conjunction with EPISODE I, so some basic information about the prequel era was available to the writers and could influence their work. The second distinction, which was an extension of the first, was that this epoch followed Luke’s efforts to establish a new Jedi Council. Now that the writers had learned there used to be a Jedi Council, suddenly the characters knew it too. Third, this storyline introduced a new villain, the Yuuzhan Vong, meaning that our heroes were no longer mopping up after the movies by continuously fighting increasingly less interesting remnants of the Galactic Empire. It also gave us a new generation of heroes. Now that the Solo children were too old to be getting kidnapped all the damn time, they were old enough to study the Force and take their place in the saga as the next generation of Jedi Knights.

And more importantly, they were apparently old enough to take their rightful place as sex objects for nerd fantasies.

The final major story point introduced by Vector Prime was the one that secured it eternal infamy and enmity in the annals of expanded history: It was in this book that we witnessed for the first time the death of a core character in the Expanded Universe.

The New Jedi Order was the brain child of editors from Del Rey and Dark Horse Comics, one of whom was Dark Horse's Randy Stradley. Stradley got his start in comics writing a forgettable story called "The Alderaan Factor" for the original Marvel STAR WARS comic. He commemorated this event by writing a fairly unenthusiastic introduction to Dark Horse's 6th trade paperback collection reprinting the original Marvel STAR WARS comics. I have no idea what his intentions were or what his actual affection for the STAR WARS saga was, but Stradley just didn't seem very respectful of the saga or previous entries that had been created to expand upon it. His contribution to the New Jedi Order echoed this sentiment. The architects of that storyline decided that the best way to get attention and to foster a sense of dramatic tension was to destroy one of the core characters from the film. George Lucas vetoed the death of Luke Skywalker, but no longer forbid them from killing any major characters. Of those they were allowed to eliminate, Stradley suggested the most emotionally significant action they could take would be to "kill the family dog".

Because who doesn't love to see that in a story?

See Stradley's interview with for more details. Ultimately the decision was made that Chewbacca would have to go and that Vector Prime showed us the (supposedly) final fate of everyone's favorite Wookiee.

Unless this is the sort of thing you're into, you sick freak.

For years RA Salvatore had a bad rap with fans for this, but he wrote what he was told to write. Chewie's death was documented by him in the novel, but it was in no way his doing. He wasn't involved in that decision at all.

Vector Prime was a big deal from a marketing perspective. Like Heir to the Empire in 1991, it even had its own TV commercial.  The commercial featured a teaser VO by Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker...

The story opens with the same basic setup as many of the earliest expanded stories, which was curiously the same setup as the prequel films: With a diplomatic mission to sort out some kind of political struggle off on some nothing planet under the pretext that this conflict would in any way affect the New Republic or the saga in general. We’re barely a few pages in before we are steeped in loads of thick and tedious back story. It is 21 years after the Battle of Endor. Leia is traveling to meet with the Osarians to negotiate a ceasefire between them and their rebelling underclass, the Rhommamoolians. She is escorted by Luke Skywalker’s wife, Mara Jade, who is the Jedi mentor of Leia’s now 16 year old daughter, Jaina. Almost immediately we learn that Mara is suffering from a mysterious molecular disorder that is slowly killing her. Everyone else who has contracted the disorder has died, but Mara’s Jedi discipline has apparently given her greater strength to fight it. This is in no way connected to their current mission, but it’s something you need to know moving forward with the story.


Almost immediately their ship is attacked, but they are defended by one of the starfighters in their escort, which is piloted by a glory-seeking trigger-happy young Jedi. This establishes early on one of the underlying concerns of this story, which will be particularly critical to Luke’s arc: The general lack of order or supervision in terms of the new Jedi. Luke created an Academy to train new Force sensitive young people in the hopes that this would keep them from straying to the Dark Side, but without any formal oversight he’s basically just unleashed a crop of self-righteous supermen on the galaxy who have no formal set of rules to govern them and no central authority to which they are accountable.

This dilemma is one of the more interesting aspects of the book. Through the characters, Salvatore explores some of the principle concerns that will arise in the prequels and will later inform the third trilogy. Is the Jedi philosophy sufficient to temper one’s sensibilities in the way they use the Force? Should that be organized and regulated by a governmental authority? Can it be? And what is the ultimate goal of the Jedi? Is it external achievement or the search for inner peace? In this story we see the burden that Luke faces while representing the last vestige of the original Jedi philosophy. He has a responsibility to honor that legacy, but an even greater responsibility to not repeat the same mistakes that led to the downfall of the Jedi and the Old Republic. That dilemma is well expressed and well explored in this book, even though it doesn’t really speak to the rest of the story.

Leia’s efforts are about as fruitless to her mission as they is pointless to the story. As soon as her team arrives they meet with the rebel leader Nom Anor, who is actually a Yuuzhan Vong invader sowing discord in order to de-stabilize the New Republic. To this end he wears a black cape and helmet to look like Darth Vader and basically insults Leia until she leaves. I’m not sure how this furthers his mission, because appearing to be her ally would have been more to his advantage than antagonizing her. The Yuuzhan Vong seem to be primarily motivated by a basic sense of dickishness and outside of just wanting to conquer stuff, we really never get a sense of what they’re about or why they’re there.

On Coruscant, Luke takes Jacen Solo to address the Senate, now led by their power-hungry former rival, Borsk Fey'lya. Just as he did when petitioning to found a new Jedi Academy, Luke feels that it is important to seek the New Republic's blesing in re-founding the Jedi Council. We see why this is necessary both from observing the earlier expanded stories and the prequel films. Luke’s Jedi Academy helped create some pretty sinister supervillains and at this point in the story, hasn’t done the galaxy a whole lot of good. Even the Jedi who are motivated to police the galaxy do so at their own discretion and by their own rules, so nobody’s really sure if they’re good for the galaxy or not. 

From the prequels we get an even more ominous warning: The Jedi Council are accidentally instrumental in allowing a Sith Lord to take control of the government, they raise and train the worst monster in the history of the universe, and they build an army of soulless slaves to fight in a galactic war they started, declaring themselves generals of the government’s soldiers and unilaterally deciding the course of the war until finally they get themselves wiped out and leave the galaxy at the mercy of an evil empire they helped to create. 

"Handled that situation a little better, we could have."

All concerns about the role of the Jedi brought up in this book are vindicated in the prequels and the Clone Wars series. Though the New Jedi Order storyline is not part of the canon created to surround the third trilogy, it sets the tone for Luke’s dilemma in EPISODE VII as well. We can see in stories like this one just how easy it would have been for Luke to create a New Jedi Order and accidentally usher in a new age of darkness. That’s reason enough to go sulk on an island while trying to think of better ideas.

After re-grouping, the gang decides to head out to Lando Calrissian’s asteroid belt near the planet Dubrillion, where Lando has been experimenting with external shield generators so strong they can protect a fighter from collisions remotely. This development has led to a new gambling opportunity, as pilots test themselves to see how long they can ride the belt before having what would have been a fatal encounter with one of the asteroids. Everybody gets a turn until Han and Chewie try their hand at it. During their run the external shield generator fails and their harmless romp through the belt becomes a race against death itself.

You may be asking yourself at this point: What do any of these vignettes have to do with the overall story? Very little, to be honest. While the Star Warriors are vacationing in Lando’s hideaway and having hilarious near-death experiences in the asteroid belt, the real story is playing out in another part of the galaxy.

On the planet Belkadan, a small group of scientists on a remote outpost are monitoring the very edge of the galaxy. Little do they know that their group has been infiltrated by Yuuzhan Vong warrior Yomin Carr, whose mission is to poison the planet and prevent them from communicating with the New Republic so that no one will detect their worldship war cruiser breaching the barrier to allow the Yuuzhan Vong invasion fleet to cross over from their native galaxy to the next. 

A lot of questions arise from this plan right away: First, is there only one spot in the galaxy to do this? Could they not have just come through somewhere that wasn’t being scanned by scientists? And if they had never breached the barrier, how did they know the scientists were there? How did Yomin Carr get there? Nom Anor was also already positioned in our galaxy, so how did he get through? And if the Yuuzhan Vong are so skilled at taking over prominent positions in this galaxy, why do they need to sneak in an invasion fleet?

Despite the incomprehensible plot of the Yuuzhan Vong, this side story (that is really the main plot of the book) is the most exciting. The adventures of the scientists on the planet are a pretty solid story, and I think this book would have worked better if it had only focused on them instead of trying to be a STAR WARS story. This is more of a science fiction thriller than a space adventure, so we only know it is a STAR WARS story because they keep cutting away to show us the core characters doing STAR WARS stuff somewhere else. 

We learn that the Yuuzhan Vong are dedicated to destroying the Jedi to eliminate them as a threat, which is why they targeted Mara Jade with a molecular disorder in the first place. But then we see that they can contaminate an entire planet, which is what Yomin Car does on Belkadan, so why aren’t they just doing that wherever they go? Why target specific people when they could just plant a plague on every planet they find? Thus far they have infiltrated the new galaxy without being discovered, so breezing in with a fleet of warships seems like the only way to guarantee that their insidious plot will be discovered. It feels like several stories got written into the same book and Salvatore did his best to tie them all together even though they had nothing to do with each other.

This is the problem with a lot of the Expanded Universe stories at that time. They were written like science fiction instead of fantasy. The Yuuzhan Vong invasion is a dark story that has stronger roots in scifi horror than the swashbuckling sense of space fantasy STAR WARS stories are meant to evoke. Even the name Vector Prime sounds more like science fiction, but that's too granular a complaint to hold against it.

As the story progresses, Jedi Knight Kyp Durron leads his vigilante squadron - the Dozen and Two Avengers - across the galaxy looking for trouble to get into until they find more than they can handle. When the squadron investigates the escalating activities near Belkadan, they run into scores of Yuuzhan Vong coral skippers - living starfighters - and only Kyp escapes to return to the New Republic and warn them of the threat. Kyp’s Jedi student - Miko Reglia - survives, but is taken prisoner by the Yuuzhan Vong.

Losing contact with Kyp’s squadron, Lando grows concerned so Luke and Mara head out to investigate. Lando also talks Han into taking a cargo shipment to the out of the way world of Sernpidal, where Han, Chewbacca, and Anakin discover a plot to destroy the planet by dragging its smaller moon out of orbit into a fatal collision with the planet’s populace.

The kind of plan you'd expect this guy to come up with.

Miko Reglia is imprisoned with Danni Quee, the sole survivor of the scientific team that originally discovered the Yuuzhan Vong. They attempt to escape but their captor, Prefect Da’Gara, is only toying with them. The Vong's goal is to wear Danni down into joining them while breaking Miko’s spirit so they can feed him to their war coordinator, a giant telepathic monster who apparently fattens up its prey by overwhelming them with fear and despair.

Luke and Mara have a run-in with Yomin Carr while investigating the research outpost on Belkadan. Mara kills him in a duel and from the outpost’s records they find that the team was tracking a strange object to the frozen fourth planet of the Hesla System. So they’re off to the frozen planet to dig deeper.

Mara Jade vs. Yomin Carr

Right about here’s where it all starts to get real.

On Sernpidal, Chewie and Anakin race to shut down the source of the gravity well before it can drag the moon to the planet’s surface. They’re too late, and atmospheric conditions become so volatile they can’t get back to the Millennium Falcon, which is now overloaded with refugees. Finally Chewie manages to lob Anakin onto the ramp, but he can’t get through the raging winds to make it aboard himself. Han has Anakin pilot the Falcon while he continues to try to help Chewie, but the building winds pull them even further apart. Han wants to move in closer, but the moon’s imminent collision with the planet forces Anakin to pull out before they’re all destroyed. Han watches helplessly as they leave Chewbacca behind on a dying planet.

"Thanks for nothin', Anakin."

This creates some conflict between Han and his youngest son. Not being able to reconcile his leave-no-man-behind mentality with the senseless death of this dearest friend, Han blames Anakin for leaving Chewbacca on Sernpidal when all indications were that Anakin made the right call.

Everyone returns to Lando’s base on Dubrillion in time to defend against an all-out assault by the Yuuzhan Vong. In keeping with their general policy of dickish behavior, Da’Gara’s Vong warriors mobilized in an assault force against the Sernpidal refugees. Following them to Dubrillion, the Vong give them very little time to prepare. Lando puts together a ragtag fleet of whatever ships are available and whoever will stick around to pilot them, with the Youngling Solos leading the charge.

During the battle, Luke and the young Solos get the sense that the Vong's coralskippers were way too coordinated in the their attacks, much like the Emperor and Joruus C’Baoth used to use the Force to keep the Imperial fleet fighting as a single well-oiled machine. Luke decides that whatever is coordinating the fighters is probably under the frozen surface of Hesla’s fourth planet. Lando, who has mined just about every type of topography imaginable, has a specialized icebreaker ship that can blast through the ice and allow its pilot to swim beneath and hopefully discover the location of the Vong base and whatever is keeping their attacks so coordinated. Having captured one of Yuuzhan Vong pilots, Luke and Lando have one of their organic enviro-suits and have figured out how to use it. 

Luke suggests that a fleet can attack the planet using the shield ships Lando used for his mining operation on Nklon, which was so close to its sun that giant umbrella ships with super shielding had to physically protect any incoming vessels from the sun. This shielding allowed the ships to not simply deflect that energy, but absorb and re-distribute it, so Luke’s plan is to weaponize that technology to draw energy from the Heslan sun and use it to superheat the frozen surface of the planet. Not only will this further break away the ice that gives the Vong their protective cover, but it will result in a fog cover that the Republic ships can use to camouflage their attack. A final - one would say singularly necessary - result of this would be that superheating the planet and suddenly allowing it to re-freeze could create such a distinct shift in pressure that it de-stabilizes the entire planet.

"That's just good science."

Jacen and Jaina hijack the icebreaker, deducing that Luke and Mara are not perfectly suited to the mission due to Mara’s condition. It’s a scouting expedition to discover the source of the Vong’s battle coordination, which Jacen decides he can do as easily as Luke while Jaina can pilot the carrier necessary to transport the drill-ship to the planet. Upon his descent, however, Jacen hears a calling in the Force, a cry for help, so he pilots to the source of the call and discovers where Danni Quee and Miko Reglia are being held prisoner. Jacen tries to save them, but they are overrun by Vong warriors and Miko sacrifices himself to allow Jacen and Danni to escape.

A New Republic Star Destroyer leads an assault on the planet and blows it up by using shield ship technology to heat and cool the planet until it explodes. In the battle, New Republic forces pay a terrible toll and the Star Destroyer is lost. Luke only narrowly escapes the blast when the others are forced to leave him behind. Having faced the same decision Anakin had to face on Sernpidal - leaving one behind to save many - illustrates for Han the impossible position his son was put in and he decides to go easy on him over the whole Chewbacca thing. At this point all the Solo younglings are flying around like full-fledged Jedi Knights fighting wars and stuff, so as a parent he’s got bigger fish to fry anyway. 

The whole book closes on this down note, with Han’s realization that the death of Chewbacca means that none of them are safe. This new threat is terribly real.

Vector Prime is kind of all over the place and, mostly due to the circumstances of its creation, it's a little too dark for a STAR WARS story, but it's an entertaining book. Salvatore is a capable writer and the concerns that face Luke regarding the Jedi continue to be valid in the STAR WARS saga today. 

The death of Chewbacca was meant to validate the Expanded Universe as being a valid contributor to canon, but it may have been the driving force behind the decision to dismiss this epoch from the new canon. Disney relies heavily on the source material they purchased when they bought the STAR WARS universe from George Lucas, but having no Chewbacca seems to have been a deal-breaker when developing their new trilogy of films. Most of the back story referenced in EPISODE VII does not contradict and is no contradicted by the Expanded Universe, with the conspicuous exception of Chewie's death, which has been decisively disregarded in the new continuity.

Vector Prime is the beginning of what will be its own little pocket continuity of STAR WARS, an alternate version of the saga and its future. Disney's choice to brand the early expanded works as "Legends" is apropos. Legends often have versions that contradict each other and cycles of the mythology that aren't exactly consistent when viewed as a whole. But those stories are all part of the mythology, and over time, these epochs can evolve into epics all their own.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

JOURNEY TO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – Smuggler’s Run: A Han Solo and Chewbacca Adventure by Greg Rucka

This book is in the same series as The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry and Before the Awakening, which was also written by Greg Rucka. Along with a similar adventure starring Princess Leia, these books were all produced as part of Disney’s JOURNEY TO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS marketing campaign. Several other books have been produced as part of that campaign, but unlike Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, Smuggler's Run and its companion works were all written specifically to target younger readers. That said, they don’t feel exclusive to that audience. The main difference between these and a book not written for young readers is length. They’re short, which gives you even less of an excuse not to check them out.

Smuggler’s Run runs mostly parallel to the timeline of The Weapon of a Jedi, following the adventures of Han Solo and Chewbacca immediately after the destruction of the first Death Star.

There a couple of bits I love about this book right from the start, beginning with the subtitle. It is credited both to Han Solo and Chewbacca. Previous Solo stories were not solo stories per se, but always exclusively billed Han. Brian Daley’s Han Solo trilogy, most notably, did not credit Chewbacca in the titles, even though the stories involve Chewie as much as Han. The second Han Solo trilogy of novels, written by A.C. Crispin, followed this same convention. Daley said in an interview that he preferred to think of his books as the Solo and Company series rather than the Han Solo series, but for marketing purposes, Han’s name just looks better on a book cover. Rucka’s book does not follow that convention, crediting both characters in the title and, more importantly, featuring both of them with equal prominence in the story.

Right away, Smuggler’s Run answers questions in the new canon that were never satisfactorily addressed before. Chewie has a medal, so apparently the rebels only had time to make two medals before the ceremony at the end of EPISODE IV and shipped Chewbacca’s medal to him sometime later. Which makes sense when you think about it. What the hell were they doing forging gold medals and having a massive formal ceremony in the secret rebel base that had just been exposed to the Empire? Did they think the Death Star was the only weapon the Empire had? If the Imperial fleet (which should have been in communication with Darth Vader) had attacked the Massasi temple while they were all patting themselves on the back for blowing up the Death Star, the entire Rebel Alliance would have been destroyed. And you can’t argue that they just put the ceremony together really quick before hastily packing up and getting out of there, because someone had time to design and create Olympic gold medals to give the honorees (two of them, at least). Bad priorities, Rebellion.

I feel the urge to make a joke about the Oscars just now.

But Chewie gets a medal, and we will learn in the Chewbacca comic that he gives it away to a young girl after having his own solo adventure shortly following this one. This answers the question once and for all, validating earlier sources like Alan Dean Foster’s novelization and the associated comics adaptation while dispelling the retcon offered up by the Bantha Tracks newsletter, which explained that Chewbacca declined to receive a medal because Wookiees find such things distasteful.

You see, it's not that Wookiees find medals ethically distasteful.
They just don't consider them to be fashionable.

The original Marvel Comics were torn on the issue of Chewie's medal. Roy Thomas' adaptation of the film is visually consistent with the movie, showing Chewie looking annoyed while Han and Luke are honored with medals, but the text explains that Chewie will also get a medal that he will have to put on himself. Later in "The Day After the Death Star", a story Archie Goodwin wrote for Marvel's STAR WARS WEEKLY comic, Goodwin stated that Leia did put a medal on Chewie, but had to stand on a table to put in on him.

Above shown are Marvel's answers to the medal controversy: In the background the adaptation
shows Chewie without a medal and inset is an image from a color reprint of the STAR WARS
WEEKLY story in which Leia stands on a table to put the medal around his neck.

Chewbacca isn't too concerned with getting a medal in Smuggler’s Run. He regards it as little more than an oddity. But at least in this version of events, he was duly recognized for his contribution to the rebel victory. Chewbacca is also regarded by the other characters as the more trustworty of the two, with Han being thought of as much less reliable. He is clearly Han’s moral compass, but he’s not just shown as an accessory; he is treated as his own self-sustaining character.

Another question that was never consistently answered was whether or not Han and Chewie were ever actually paid what they were promised for their efforts in EPISODE IV. The radio drama suggested they were paid in valued goods, but I don't think they ever got to sell them because they ended up throwing in with the Rebellion. The original Marvel comic said they were paid, but the money was immediately stolen by space pirates. Smuggler’s Run specifically states that they were indeed paid the reward they were promised for rescuing Princess Leia, even though that promise was made by Luke Skywalker, who did not represent the Rebel Alliance. It goes on to say that they were also paid the additional 15,000 they were promised by Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Mos Eisley cantina, even though Kenobi also did not represent the Rebel Alliance.

Smuggler's Run does not explain how Han and Chewie still manage not to pay back Jabba the Hutt, but it does point out that Jabba has already sent bounty hunters on their trail (one of the underlying threats in the story), and if Han is captured before he can pay Jabba, the fact that he has the money to repay him will be rendered moot.

Before Han and Chewie have a chance to push on after the Battle of Yavin (a process Han seems to be dragging out more than is necessary), the smuggling duo gets an appeal from Princess Leia to rescue a wayward rebel who is in possession of information too sensitive for the Empire to acquire.

The rebel is Caluan Ematt, leader of a rebel unit called the Shrikes. He’s also one of the old guys you see standing around in the Resistance base in EPISODE VII and makes an appearance in Moving Target, the JOURNEY TO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS adventure which stars Princess Leia.

Han and Chewie travel to the planet Cyrkon to fetch Ematt, but run into an Imperial Star Destroyer as soon as they come out of hyperspace. They talk their way out of trouble with a fake ID and get down to the planet, where they run across a trio of bounty hunters intent on capturing them before Boba Fett gets sent out on the job. This is supporting the apocryphal fiction that Boba Fett is the most revered bounty hunter in the galaxy and not a trash-talking Hutt-henchman who doesn’t even know how to work his own rocket pack.

Ematt is being hunted by Alecia Beck, an elite Imperial officer with a robot eye who is intent on following Palpatine’s post-Yavin mandate to root out and route any and all rebel forces she can find. When her stormtroopers interrupt a confrontation between Han, Chewie, and the bounty hunters, Han takes advantage of the tension by telling the stormtroopers the bounty hunters are rebel agents. The hunters, not being particularly bright, shoot it out with the stormtroopers rather than explaining themselves. Han and Chewie use the firefight to cover their escape from everybody.

Sorting the mess out, Beck lets the bounty hunters go so long as they agree to hunt down the rebels and hand them over to the Empire. She sends one of her stormtroopers - who is actually a clone trooper still serving the Empire - to follow them and lead her to the rebels.

Han and Chewbacca locate Ematt and attempt to extract him, but are cornered once again by the bounty hunters. This leads Beck to them and she captures them all, but with a little help from their fellow starhopper Delia Leighton, Han and Chewie manage a blundering two-fisted escape. They usher Ematt to the Millennium Falcon and whisk him away to safety, with Leighton providing cover against Beck’s TIE fighter pilots.

This is a good character piece for Han, who is faced with the uncomfortable knowledge that people are starting to believe his gruff persona is his true self. While he wants to come off as indifferent, he can’t stand to be thought of as untrustworthy. Meeting Ematt, a true believer in both the cause and in his fellow man, forces Han to confront his outwardly stated world view.

During the final space battle with the TIE fighters, Han reveals his true nature when Delia’s ship is damaged and she is delayed in making the jump to light speed. Rather than leaving her, Han stays behind to cover her until she can complete the calculations and jump to safety. This is a good way of illustrating the change that Han is going through on his road to becoming a hero of the Rebellion.

Like most of the young adult books produced for the JOURNEY TO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS campaign (with the exception of Lost Stars), this is a really fun story that honors the spirit of STAR WARS and its characters. It reminds me of the Brian Daley novels and the early Marvel comics, when the emphasis was on lighthearted adventure.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

STAR WARS: The Franchise Awakens - Sun's Out, Guns Out

Han has a perfectly Solo solution to breaching Starkiller Base’s planetary defense shield. The shield is only capable of keeping out objects traveling at less than light speed, so the answer is obvious: Hit the atmosphere at light speed. Makes perfect sense.

"Sure, okay... Why not?"

There’s no science to STAR WARS, so I’m not going to worry about what would happen to an object hitting a planetary atmosphere at light speed. This is a whole other planet in a whole other galaxy anyway. In fact, I kinda like Han’s casual moments of impossible badass. He blasted out of his own freighter at light speed with a rathtar stuck to the windshield, and if anyone is capable of pulling off the exact calculations and precision timing required to do this, it would be Han Solo and Chewbacca. It’s also such a crazy one-in-a-million thing to do that it perfectly explains why they don’t just have all the Resistance fighters do it too.

"The odds of successfully doing that are... well, it's pretty much incalculable. I mean, just
because I'm a robot doesn't mean I just magically know the probability of every crazy-ass
idea you come up with. I'm a linguist, not a mathematician, so what the hell do I know?"

Once in atmosphere, they stay low to the surface to avoid sensor detection, eventually landing in a hidden location and making their way to the shield generator on foot.

It is at this point that Finn reveals that, while he did work in this area of the base, his job was sanitation. This provides him no training or insight regarding the deactivation of the shields. He only led everyone to believe this was true so that he could get to the base and rescue Rey. This seems like a grievous deception, since they probably would have cooked up a quickie spot of pseudo-science to figure out how to deactivate the shields if they hadn’t just taken the word of a stranger that he would do it for them.

"It's pretty simple, guys. We just de-polarize the oscillation neutrinos
and take the whole thing down with a concentrated tachyon burst..."

In Finn’s defense on this one, though, while everyone assured him they would work out how to rescue Rey, they were all standing there planning the best way to blow her up with no talk of an extraction strategy of any kind. If Finn had not tricked them into turning his part of the mission into a rescue, there would have been no way the Resistance could have rescued Rey even if they had wanted to.

Finn’s confession is an interesting dilemma for Han. Up until the point he saw Leia, he was trying to pretend to have no interest in the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order. After the destruction of the New Republic’s headquarters and having to face Leia, Han instantly resumes the role of hero, volunteering for a suicide mission to save the galaxy. As if this were not pressure enough, Leia also tasks him with saving their son from the Dark Side of the Force if he gets the chance.

"If you're going to Starkiller Base anyway, would it kill you to go visit your son while you're there?"

But this admission from Finn jeopardizes all of that. Not only will their failure be disastrous for the Resistance pilots, but it will also mean that Han has failed Leia. The desperation in his voice when he says “the galaxy is counting on us” echoes this sentiment. If they can’t take the shields down, everything will be lost even if they do somehow manage to locate Rey. Finn’s disregard for the larger conflict – which mirrors Han’s own – now threatens Han’s renewed effort to become the man Leia wants him to be and, more importantly, the man he wants to be.

But in pure STAR WARS fashion, they don’t let this obstacle deter them from their goal. If Finn doesn’t know how to take the shield down, then they’ll just have to figure it out. This is the sort of unsinkable can-do attitude that makes it such a classic and accessible story.

"Look, Big Deal, I don't care what the movie was about
when it started. This is what it's about now."

Finn comes up with an acceptable alternative. Once inside the bunker, Chewie captures Captain Phasma and they force her to lower the shields. Phasma warns them that their plan is suicide and that her troopers will certainly kill them all. But she lowers the shields anyway, even though you’d think a true believer to the cause would rather die than help them. Maybe Phasma is not quite as loyal to the First Order as she appears, but it’s possible she has the same fatal arrogance that doomed the Empire: She might just believe that nothing they do will allow them to cause any harm to Starkiller Base. In her mind, this may be a temporary setback that can be easily corrected once her troopers dispatch them.

But we won’t know Phasma’s true intentions any time soon. Once she lowers the shields they unceremoniously dump her down a trash chute. Seeing as how trash compactors have a distinctly fatal component, as Han is well aware, this doesn’t seem like they honor their end of the agreement very well (which was at least implied that they would spare her if she helped them).

My favorite part of this sequence is just a little throwaway kind of moment. When they enter the bunker, Han immediately throws off his heavy coat in a burst of impractical bravado. On the way out, as Han rushes off to save the day, Chewbacca dutifully picks up the coat and hands it to him like a mother cautioning a child against the cold. This little moment exemplifies both the individual characters of Han and Chewie as well as the bond they share.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

JOURNEY TO STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS - The Perfect Weapon by Delilah S. Dawson

The virtues and themes that make STAR WARS work as a story aren't at all the same as the driving forces that make it work as a universe. In fact, what makes a good story and what makes a good setting for a story really have very little to do with each other.

Some stories are easily translated into classic movies, like the original Ghostbusters (not the actual original Ghostbusters, with the guy in the gorilla suit in it, though I'm sure no one ever made that mistake). The first Ghostbusters film was just a great idea for a movie and lightning in a bottle as far as the people involved in making it and the time in which it was released. But Ghostbusters, despite what Dan Aykroyd and executives as Sony would have you believe, is not a rich universe. It's one good idea propped up on some funny guys, just as the remake attempting to re-launch the story as a successful franchise is the same good idea propped up on a cast of really funny women. But the fact that they chose to reboot rather than have this follow-up stand as a descendant of its predecessor shows that there isn't a lot of room for new ideas in that world.  Because the world of Ghostbusters is not brimming with ideas. It's one idea that can only be re-captured through repetition. There just isn't anything new to say here.

And anyone who thinks otherwise is courting disaster and ruination.

So what has any of that got to do with the STAR WARS universe? Well, the original STAR WARS film was like Ghostbusters, with a lot of the same merits that contributed to making it a classic movie. It was fun, original, exciting, and new to the audience.

Unlike Ghostbusters (which I'm picking on way more than it deserves here for the purposes of making my point), STAR WARS was not just a single good story propped up on one good idea. Leaving aside the fact that it had more story threads to follow for future installments, STAR WARS also established a rich mythology full of characters and concepts that could be (and have been) endlessly mined for new ideas.

With mixed results.

Part of the fun of the STAR WARS universe is the impression it lends the audience of being lived in, of being a place where everyone you see, no matter how peripheral they may be to the story you're watching, probably has an exciting story of their own.

Which brings us to "The Perfect Weapon", the story of Bazine Netal.

You should remember Bazine from EPISODE VII as the agent in Maz Kanata's castle who rats BB-8 out to the First Order. Aside from the fact that she apparently has the First Order on speed dial, we really don't know anything about her. We assume she's some kind of bounty hunter or mercenary from the way she acts, but beyond that she's just another denizen of the seedy underworld that is mostly only glimpsed through the eyes of our protagonists.

Pictured here with a guy who looks like Bossk after a severe allergic reaction to a bee sting.

But who is Bazine Netal?

Right away, the story clues us in to the fact that she is, in fact, a woman for hire. She may spend her off hours breaking the bones of any guy who tries to talk to her, but when it comes to the job it's all business. And this job in particular will challenge her to ask herself why that is.

As the story begins, Bazine is confronted by a rusty robot who pressures her under threat of counting backwards to accept a job before she's been told what it involves. When she agrees, the one-armed protocol droid plays her a message from its unidentified master, who appears to her in the form of a hologram. He tells Bazine to track down a case that was last in the possession of a stormtrooper named Jor Tribulus. Once the message is over, the robot promptly explodes.

Bazine visits her old mentor, Delphi Kloda, who was once the right hand man of Tasu Leech in Kanjiklub. He took Bazine in as an orphaned child and raised her, training her to become the mercenary she is. He loans her his ship, the Sparrowhawk, on the condition that she agrees to take a young slicer (the STAR WARS version of a hacker) named Orri Tenro with her on the job and show him the ropes.

In time Bazine and Orri develop a mutual respect and something of an affection for each other. Bazine opens up to him so much, in fact, she decides to murder Orri after the job is finished. But first they pull off a hospital heist so that Orri can grab some information on where Jor Tribulus has been spending his post-retirement convalescence. All they learn is that Tribulus' records are still being held in a retirement facility that's been closed down.

Instead of killing Orri, Bazine leaves him behind to finish the job herself because now that she has the data from the hospital she's confident she won't need a slicer anymore. This doesn't make a huge amount of sense because she's going to the retirement facility specifically to dig up the records there, so you'd think you'd want to have a slicer on hand for that.

Her one-woman army approach to the job complicates matters much worse than computer problems, though. When she gets there Bazine discovers that the facility is indeed shut down, but it is not entirely abandoned: It’s overrun with Vashkan apidactyls, a fancy space term for giant yellow jackets.

Before we go any further, I want to stop and take another look at Bazine's companion from Maz's castle. He's actually from a race called the Dowutin, who were introduced in the STAR WARS: COMMANDER game, which may not know exactly how to market for a younger audience:

If this first picture doesn't make you uncomfortable, then the one under it definitely will.

Am I the only one seeing this?

But let's move on:

Bazine makes her way carefully into the facility, which has since become a gigantic hive for the apidactyls, only to run across a former resident, ex-stormtrooper Aric Nightdrifter. Though he’s obviously gone a little cuckoo spending his twilight years in a giant hornet’s nest, Nightdrifter agrees to  help Bazine. He claims to have served under Tribulus and offers to take her to him. He basically keeps this promise, leading Bazine to a wax encased tomb for the fallen stormtrooper, who has long since been killed by apidactyls and buried in the waxy interior of the hive.

Tribulus’ belongings are with his body, though, including the mysterious case she was sent to retrieve, so Bazine is just about to cash it in and call it day... when things take a sudden and not quite comprehensible turn.

Not like then end of The Village, where people who thought it was necessary to go off in the woods and pretend it was the 1800's also inexplicably thought it was equally necessary to have a master movie FX artist create full-body prosthetic suits that they could use to terrify their children into never leaving home. This is more like Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughey thought it was necessary to send his past self a message in binary code to prompt him into doing the very thing he was trying to stop himself from doing. Word to the wise, Matthew, if you're trying to avoid confusion don't send a message in binary. Why send the message in code at all? Why not just write exactly what you want to say?

That's the way the end of the story goes here, where it all depends on a self-defeating cycle of circular logic without which the story would never have happened in the first place.

Little do Bazine and Nightdrifter know that they're being stalked this entire time by someone far deadlier (I guess) than giant yellowjackets. Nightdrifter is ambushed and killed by an assailant who turns out to be Bazine's mentor Kloda. Bazine is justifiably confused as to Kloda's betrayal, so he explains it all to her in tremendous detail. Gloating, Kloda basically explains that raising her was all part of a master strategy to have a patsy to acquire the mysterious case, and now that she has, he plans to take it and leave her encased in the wax tomb to suffocate and die.

Predictably, this does not happen. Since Kloda trained her to be a master mercenary, Bazine frees herself from the hive before he can even get back to his ship. She catches up with Kloda and kills him, retrieving the case and returning to the Sparrowhawk, after which she and Orri fly off to have more ethically ambiguous adventures.

Bazine never opens the case, so we never learn what’s in it. I can only assume it's Marsellus Wallace's soul.

But why did Kloda’s plan require her to be a patsy at all? The data collection that leads her to the case is done by the slicer Kloda provided, so you might think that Kloda was using her to do the dangerous dirty work, like getting in and out of an apidactyl-infested nut house. But he clearly didn’t care about that, since he went in after her and got out just fine on his own.

Kloda apparently didn’t want Bazine to be the one to make contact with his mysterious client, since his plan was to kill her and make the drop himself, so how was she to be a patsy at all? The only thing that went any different than it would have if Kloda had simply hired Bazine to bring him the case was the minor detail of his not getting the case and instead getting killed. And if he had simply foregone the step of raising an orphan to adulthood and sending her on the job only to tell her that her entire life was a joke and then try to kill her, then he would have been able to successfully complete the job with no difficulty. He could have gotten the data from Orri just as Bazine had done and he clearly had no difficulty getting through the apidactyl hive, so his long game of creating a patsy only to never actually use her as one only served to insure his failure.

It’s possible Kloda wanted someone else to take the job so they could take the fall in case it went South, but that still doesn’t explain why he followed her so closely that he sacrificed his anonymity in order to step out of the shadows and reveal his entire plan. It also doesn’t explain how he could have orchestrated her being hired by the robot, unless he were the one who sent the robot to hire her. But if that were the case, then that would mean that Kloda originally took the job from the client himself, in which case he had no anonymity to begin with and the theater of bringing Bazine into it didn’t accomplish anything. It makes sense that there is no actual client and Kloda was trying to get his hands on the case for his own purposes, which would mean that protecting his identity from outside parties wasn’t as necessary, but it still doesn’t explain why he didn’t just get the case himself, since he did all the same work as Bazine did to locate it and only complicated matters by involving her.

Villainous masterminds almost never make any sense in stories. In Skyfall, Javier Bardem tricks MI6 into capturing him so that he can get to M, but then he escapes and uses secret tunnels under the city to go to a completely different location and attack M, who is nowhere near MI6 headquarters. So couldn't he have gotten to her without letting himself be captured? In Spectre, Blofeld's plan is even more complicated and moronic. He lures Bond to his secret desert hideout, which Bond immediately blows up, when the whole time he clearly had staged the old MI6 building to be the setting for a rather theatrical attempt at blowing Bond up. So why did he lure Bond to his secret base in the middle of nowhere when he had already set a trap for him just across town? Why did Bane spend years building an army in the sewers of Gotham so that he could take over the Stock Exchange? Why did Palpatine send Darth Maul to attack Qui-Gon Jinn on Tatooine when keeping the existence of the Sith a secret was the most crucial element of his plan? Just about the only villain whose master plan makes perfect sense for the story he's in is the Joker in the Dark Knight, and he's supposed to be a chaos-worshiping maniac.

Because saying the villain is "crazy" is no excuse for sloppy plot work.

Maybe more to the story will be revealed when the contents of the case are revealed (if they ever are), but it feels like this story went out of its way to have a plot twist it didn’t need, when the turnaround had no genuine shock value for the reader since we started out not knowing who any of these people were anyway.

Other than that it's a fun story and a nice exploration of the mythology expanded on in the new movie. I could see where continued adventures of Bazine Netal would be worth reading.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

STAR WARS: The Franchise Awakens - Back Into the Belly of the Beast

As I’ve said before, most of the third act of EPISODE VII doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the story we have been following up until this point in the movie.

In a Resistance briefing, Poe Dameron reports that recon patrols (performed by Snap Wexley) have allowed them to put together a ridiculously detailed 3-D schematic of Starkiller Base, inside and out. From this they have discovered that the First Order’s superweapon draws power from the sun and is capable of destroying planets.

I know we need the story move forward and I guess we need to give the Resistance something to do that pays homage to the final sequence in EPISODE IV, but the Starkiller plans are almost too easy to obtain. I’m glad obtaining them wasn’t the central plot of this movie because that would have been too similar to EPISODE IV, but they have a working technical schematic of the entire installation because Snap flew by it a few times. I can accept that sensor technology has advanced to the point where this could be possible, but the entire planet is protected by an energy shield. Shouldn’t it also be shielded against sensor sweeps?

But whatever. They have a meeting with a map and a vague mandate to blow something up, so that’s all you need to know going into the third act. Just to throw back to EPISODE VI and give the established characters something to do, Han volunteers to penetrate the planetary shields and disable them from the inside so that Poe’s X-wing squadron can attack a critical weakness in the device that will hopefully disable the weapon or possibly de-stabilize the entire planet, because... science, I guess. Finn, whose sole interest is still to rescue Rey from Kylo Ren, tells them he knows how to disable the shields so that Han will get him there. And just like that, he’s back in the movie too.

This is actually analogous not only to the attempted rescue of Princess Leia in EPISODE IV, but also to earlier drafts of the first script that had Luke and Han traveling to the Imperial capital, the Cloud City of Alderaan, to rescue Deak Starkiller. In the earliest draft of the script, Annikin has to get aboard the Death Star during the finale to save Leia as Luke Skywalker leads a squadron of Wookiee pilots on a final assault of the space station. Structurally, the end of EPISODE VII matches that setup exactly. Except for allowing Wookiees, who in that draft of the script were as primitive as Ewoks, to fly spaceships. That was pretty irresponsible. 

That would be like sending a squadron of these guys to assault the Death Star.

Which would be ridiculous, because everyone knows space chimps are pacifists...

The Starkiller weapon is currently recharging, conveniently leaving them no time to come up with a better plan or even, it would seem, hash out the exact details of this one. Once they have agreed on the most basic principle of what they need to do, Poe slaps his hands together and says “let’s go!” and everyone just runs off to their spaceships without even looking to Leia to see if she, the ranking officer, might have anything to add.

This part of the movie is mired in clumsy setups and coincidences. While at the Resistance base, BB-8 discovers R2-D2 under a tarp. C-3PO tells him R2 has been in low power mode since Luke left. According to reference material, he is covered out of respect to keep him from gathering dust in a corner while he’s in some kind of robot coma, but it seems a little insensitive when you see it in the movie. They don’t have anything else to do with him but stick him in a closet and throw a sheet over him? 

BB-8 suggests that R2 may have the rest of the map to the first Jedi Temple, because – as we learn from the novelization – R2 catalogued a great deal of the Imperial archives on Coruscant before Luke left and he went into standby mode. Threepio says it’s unlikely that R2 has the rest of the map, and I suppose they can’t actually check because R2’s current state prevents it. C-3PO fears that R2 may never be his old self again.

While the audience fears that R2 has been relegated to the role of plot device.

Han and Leia have a rather profound character moment before he heads off to Starkiller Base. They discuss the fate of their son and, consequently, their marriage (if they ever actually were married in the new canon). Han laments that Kylo had too much Vader in him, giving us an idea that Han’s failure as a father may have been a lack of faith in his son when young Ben Solo had the occasional Dark Side moment. Leia reveals her own weakness as a parent, regretting that she sent their son away to be trained as a Jedi. It sounds like Han kind of disengaged because everything was all about Jedi stuff when it came to dealing with their kid’s problems and he was most likely shut out of those decisions on account of having a zero midichlorian count. At the same time it sounds like Leia put too much emphasis on implementing a Jedi solution instead of a parenting solution, so in their own way they both gave up on and abandoned their son. This, more than any other factor, seems to have led him to seek solace in the power he could gain from the Dark Side of the Force.

"Wanna hear some more of my poetry, Grandfather?"

In the novelization Leia also admits to Han that she knew Snoke had his eye on Ben from very early on, suggesting that they knew Snoke in some capacity. Whether they were aware of him as a villain or he started out as an ally, we don’t know, but it doesn’t sound like he’s some mysterious unidentified figure to Han and Leia.

Han’s final fate is sealed in this conversation. Leia tells Han that she still feels their son can be redeemed and urges him to bring Kylo home if he can. Han’s promise to fulfill his duty as a father will have disastrous consequences for him by the end of the film.

Thursday, March 3, 2016


Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath is the first of a trilogy of novels depicting the fallout that followed the destruction of the second Death Star and the consequent de-stabilization of the Empire. It’s a tough writing gig for a lot of reasons. First, this is the official rebooted canon that Disney is putting forwarded after retiring the old Expanded Universe. With Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy (which originally took on the task of continuing the Post-Jedi saga in the nineties) being labeled as “STAR WARS Legends” and relegated to the uncertain annals of non-canon, Aftermath is the book that would appear to be taking the place of Heir to the Empire. Not an enviable position for Wendig. Zahn’s original trilogy of novels is so beloved that it is almost as sacred to fans as the films (and in the case of the prequels, probably more so). Giving the impression that this book is intended to replace Heir to the Empire is not fair to the story or the author. While Aftermath is not Heir to the Empire, it has gotten a lot of unfair criticism from fans who would like it to be.

Some of the same fans who might have thought this would be a good idea.

The larger story revolves around Wedge Antilles, who stumbles onto an amassed fleet of Imperials, gathering under the leadership of Admiral Rae Sloane. Sloane has formed a new central seat of power called the Imperial Future Council (whose first act in the near future will hopefully be to form a subcommittee whose sole purpose is coming up with better names for things). This committee is composed of the Empire's remaining high-ranking officers and officials, one of Emperor Palpatine’s former Dark Side advisers, and a wealthy slaver named Arsin Crassus. Their goal is to establish a practical and stable framework of government, mindful not to repeat the fatal arrogance of the Emperor.

"Imperial Future Council? Are you, like, totally married to that name, or is there some give there?
This is just one ghost's opinion, but I'd workshop that around before getting the stationery printed."

Just in case you get the impression from the beginning of the story that Wedge may get to be the hero of this one, that would be a negative. Before Wedge can do anything to stop the Imperial Future Council, he is taken prisoner. He will remain a prisoner for the rest of the story and only have a minimal influence on its outcome.

"Thanks for nothin', Chuck."

Like Greg Rucka’s Shattered Empire comic series, Aftermath takes place shortly after the Battle of Endor. The story unfolds on Akiva, which you are in no way required to know is the home planet of Snap Wexley, the Resistance reconnaissance pilot responsible for acquiring schematics for Starkiller Base in EPISODE VII. Our hero (or one of them) is Norra Wexley, who is Snap’s mom. It’s appropriate that these early stories focus on the parentage of the EPISODE VII heroes. While Kylo Ren’s parents are the stars of the original trilogy and there is much speculation as to whether the same is true for Rey, it becomes equally important for us to understand that more peripheral characters like Snap Wexley and Poe Dameron are also the children of this war. Poe’s mother is the focus of the Shattered Empire comic in the same way that Snap’s mother is the central character of this story.

After the rebel victory at Endor, Norra is returning to Akiva to extract her son from the planet, which is still under Imperial control. Young Snap, known here as Temmin, is a 15 year old kid who was abandoned at the age of twelve when Norra ran off to join the rebels. His father was taken away by Imperials and presumably killed when he was even younger than that, so he’s just an angry little man throughout the course of the book.

Little Snap has run afoul of a Sullustan crime lord during his time as a trader/scavenger on Akiva, and when Norra finds him he’s well on his way to being murdered by a gang of toughs. Temmin’s only defender is possibly my favorite character in the book, an old battle droid who's been rebuilt and re-programmed to be a psychopathic killing machine named Mr. Bones. Norra shows up in time to whisk Snap away, but he’s made his life on his own and doesn’t want to be hauled off to some Alliance-approved world or to become part of his mother’s war. This disparity of objective eventually leads to Snap’s capture by the crime lord’s goons, allowing this story thread to become intertwined with another that’s been running parallel to it.

While all this has been going on, bounty hunter Jas Emari has been hunting Crassus (the slaver working with the Imperials), but when she spies his meeting with the Imperial Future Council, she realizes that several of the members have sizable bounties and she will need extra firepower to get them all. This side effort puts her in the way of the crime lord as well, but a stranger from her past intercedes to help her out of that jam and they become the gangster’s prisoners too.

Jas is the niece of the Zabrak bounty hunter Sugi, who first appeared in
the "Bounty Hunters" episode of The Clone Wars TV series.

Jas’ would-be benefactor is yet another character who has been running along a parallel story thread until this circumstance serves to bring them all together. He is Sinjir Rath Velus, a former Imperial Loyalty Officer who had a change of heart during the Battle of Endor and, driven by occasional and uncontrollable bouts of conscience, deserted his post and has been living out his days as a drunk ever since. Unfortunately, he happens to be in the bar where Jas has been taken captive and recognizes her from a moment they shared back on Endor that isn’t fully explored or explained in the story.

Eventually they all escape and hook up, on the run from the crime lord and the Empire. During the course of their adventures they start an uprising on Akiva by distributing a propaganda video falsely depicting an Imperial Officer murdering an unarmed civilian. Eventually rebel commandos and a small fleet sent by Admiral Ackbar arrive and Akiva is saved.

There’s a lot I like about this book. I like that the Empire tried to control Akiva and other worlds by spreading propaganda to downplay the rebel victory at Endor, even going so far as to produce false reports that the Emperor was still alive. I like the new characters introduced in the book for the most part, particularly Sinjir. He’s the first genuine effort to introduce a prominent protagonist from the LGBT community in a STAR WARS story. Some fans criticize the book for the number of casual references it makes to LGBT characters, but I think the fact that it isn’t a big deal is what makes it work. Some fans were upset that the movie starred a female and a black character, so there’s no accounting for some of the reactions that come from fans.

Wait 'til they hear about Poe and Finn...

In any event, I thought that worked well and Sinjir’s the only real stand-out character. Norra and Snap are kind of generic archetypes. Norra is the troubled hero trying to weigh global troubles against her personal responsibilities. Snap is a rebellious angry young man who is so unlike the character we (admittedly only briefly) see in the movie that until I looked him up on Wookieepedia I thought he was Snap’s brother or something. He is exclusively called Temmin throughout the book, so there is nothing but behind the scenes reference material to indicate that this is the same person in both stories. Jas is the typical cool bounty hunter type that I have always hated, so she doesn’t really do anything for me. So Sinjir and Mr. Bones are the only characters that distinguish this from any other story.

I also like the pace of the action and all their adventures along the way. The tone is sometimes darker than I would like and Wendig, like many authors of STAR WARS novels, tends to use more modern vernacular than I would like in the dialogue. This is a difficult issue that no one agrees on and for which there are no defined rules, but some words and phrases don’t seem STAR WARSEY to me, especially if they’re rooted too deeply in modern American pop culture. But that’s not enough to take you out of the story.

Wendig also explores a lot of interesting ground in terms of spirituality’s role in this universe. Yupe Tashu, Palpatine’s former adviser, is very cool and scary because he’s a Dark Side zealot, a true believer in the absolute cruelty of the Sith, even though he himself has no control over the Force. This seems to me to be an echo of Snoke’s character in the film. He advises and controls Kylo Ren, but Han says that Snoke only wants Kylo for his power. That would make perfect sense if Snoke were like Tashu, and was a sadist who believed in the Dark Side without himself being a Sith.

You have to admit, Palpatine rolled with a pretty creepy posse.

Any one of these guys could be Snoke. Especially the dude on the right.

It also hints at a broader interpretation of what the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force are, because Tashu states that they are not representative of pure good or pure evil. He’s not a very credible source on the subject, since he is pure evil, but it hints at the idea of the gray, which Alan Dean Foster references in the novelization. That reference, quoted from the ancient Journal of the Whills, suggests that only by embracing both the darkness and the light can a Jedi find true enlightenment through the Force:

"First comes the day
Then comes the night.
After the darkness
Shines through the light.
The difference, they say, 
Is only made right
By the resolving of gray
Through refined Jedi sight.

Journal of the Whills, 7:477"

There are other representatives of this idea that the Force has supporters who are not practitioners of its power. In one aside from the story we see Dark Side acolytes purchase what they believe is Darth Vader’s lightsaber. Like Maz in EPISODE VII, they believe the object itself has spiritual significance because of the man who wielded it. Unlike Maz, who wanted to pass on Luke's lightsaber and the Skywalker legacy to a new generation, the Dark Side acolytes want to destroy Vader’s saber so it can be rejoined with him in the after life. Pretty wild stuff. This seems to echo statements in the Visual Dictionary that there is also a Church of the Force, which has followers that believe in serving the Light Side even though they are not Jedi. Lor San Tekka is supposedly one of these.

Some things I’m not so nuts about in this story: In order to establish scope, there are constant interludes giving us glimpses of other story threads that have nothing to do with this book. We see rebel orphans on Naboo, Dengar trying to start a bounty hunter union on Coruscant, a cameo from Han Solo and Chewbacca whose only purpose is to set up the story of the sequel (which sounds like it will be an awesome book but has nothing to do with this one), and even a mysterious stranger purchasing what seems to be Boba Fett’s salvaged armor from a Jawa sandcrawler on Tatooine. Not that these asides aren’t interesting, but this book is introducing us to too many new concepts and characters already, so it can’t afford to break away from the narrative to confuse us with information we don’t need. It takes us out of the flow of an already complex central story that has its fair share of new names for us to keep up with. I definitely would have dialed it back if I were trying to draw new readers into the new canon they’re developing here.

I can see the need to go wild with it. Now that Disney has wiped the slate clean, the STAR WARS universe is a little light on background story. Pumping out new material is the best way to remind us of the richness of the canon even in the absence of the old Expanded Universe. But slow down, guys. You don’t need to blow your wad all in one place. Neither the core nor the expanded canon were created overnight, and you can’t rush these things.

All in all, I really think that this is a fun book getting a bad rap from some folks. It’s not Zahn, it’s not Heir to the Empire, and it’s not going to be able to make everything right overnight for everyone who’s feeling the loss of those old characters and stories. But it’s not a slap in the face to the stories that came before it, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure Wending gives an actual nod to those books at the very end of this one. Admiral Sloane reports back to an unidentified Fleet Admiral who for all the world feels like he’s going to turn out to be Thrawn. Given that along with reports that Thrawn will return to menace the crew of the Ghost on STAR WARS REBELS next year, it sounds like Zahn’s contribution to the STAR WARS universe is neither forgotten nor unappreciated.

That means this is just the first chapter in an all-new expansion of the STAR WARS universe that will give us all the best parts of the old one and an all new direction moving forward. I’m hoping that somewhere along the way the events of the Thrawn trilogy can be reintroduced to canon (minus the small detail of Han and Leia having twins named Jacen and Jaina rather than a single son named Ben), but other than that I’m really excited to see where everything is headed.