It’s been a while since I’ve read, let alone listened, to a Star Wars novel. I think I stopped somewhere back around Vector Prime when I was generally frustrated with the direction of the current story. Turns out I’ve missed quite a bit. Most importantly is the recently finished Legacy of the Force series that deal primarily Jacen Solo’s reign as Darth Caedus and the war to unseat him from power. As such Outcast might have been easily called Aftermath (both titles are, in my opinion, equally applicable). All the events here deal with the repruscussion of Jacen’s actions as Darth Caedus and Luke Skywalker’s actions in defeating him (namely his decision to break the Jedi Order away from the Gallactic Alliance midwar and turn them into a more independent and neutral force). Confused yet? It isn’t too hard to follow and I found it fairly easy to slip into the post-war almost Nuremberg like atmosphere of the novel. So easy in fact that I almost didn’t want to stop listening.
The story opens with a Jedi named Valin Horn and his sudden break with reality and the his destructive rampage. Meanwhile a Galactic summit is being held to bring the disaparate parties of the recent war to some sort of mutual agreement and, hopefully back into the Gallactic Alliance. It isn’t too long before Luke Skywlaker is arrested becuase of his failure to detect Jacen’s dark side leanings. Later, after Valin Horn escapes Jedi custoday a huge chase scene only fuels the increasing fear and paranoia about the Jedi. It is only after Luke, during a candid conversation with the Imperial Head of State, realizes the dangerous position that Jedi are in and sees the potential for a dangerous slide into violence the he negotiates a plea bargain: exile.
From there the plot splits following Jaina Solo on Coruscant, Han and Leia on Kessel, and Luke and Ben Skywalker on the trail of Jacen’s pre-Dark Side wanderings. Jaina, as the character I am least familiar with, was the plot area I found the most boring though I admit that her area had some of highlights in the dialouge area (I’ll paraphrase here, Master Hamnar to Jaina “You have your mother’s mouth by which I do not mean the shape of your lips resemble your mother’s, though they do, but that the utterances that issue forth have the distinct flavor of the Organa family.” which, when combined with Mr. Thompson’s performance got a good chuckle from myself) but had some seriously boneheaded plot decisions by characters. The plan to capture rogue Jedi Seph amount to something similar to Ray’s plan to capture the ghostly librarian in the original Ghostbusters film. A fact that would have been funny if it hadn’t been hatched by a verteran jedi, a veteran bounty hunter, a veteran intellegence agent, and a veteren military commander. It leant the whole scene a very unintended Benny Hill like tone.
On the other hand the things happening on Coruscant are fairly important as the Jedi are forced to deal with increased pressure from the government and the public to act in accordance with the law and to essentially “fall in line” with the rest of the governmental branches. The dynamic evidenced here, as well as in Luke’s aforementioned revelation, is an interesting one. Jedi subverting the law presents a fascinating discussion on how the Jedi interact with authority. The dichotomy between force users/non-force users is a great topic that bears further exploration (how does one explain their use of violence as a reaction to the force when the force cannot actually be proved as a viable excuse in a court of law). Interesting stuff and, to my eyes, at the forefront of the tension between the Jedi and the rest of the universe.
Our other two plot threads are more up my alley. While Outcast lacks the broad action and crazy space battles of the previous series both the Han/Leia and Luke/Ben stories play to one of my favorite aspects of science fiction and fantasy: exploration. Both these plot threads deal with mysteries of the past and hints for the future. The Han/Leia plot reveals some startling discoveries in the spice mines of Kessel that would have made an excellent stand alone story. While less revelatory the Luke/Ben story is equally self-contained and contained enough action, excitement and mystery that it too would have worked well on its own. Neither plot has the gravitas or resounding influence as previous Star Wars novel but the intimacy of each story when combined with the air of discovery and mystery created an extraordinarily compelling combination.
Aaron Allston gets the characters right and, save for a few instances of jokes falling flat, manages to balance both the serious nature and the lighthearded tendancies that the Star Wars universe gravitates towards. The real star of the audio production is Marc Thompson. This is my first Star Wars audiobook since I, Jedi but Thompson absolutely sold me on acquiring future titles in this series. From Han’s laconic drawl, Lando’s smooth basso, and the subtelties of a Mon Cal’s accent Thomspson nails them all with a near pitch perfect voice. In absence of a full-cast production (with original cast members) I could think few ways to better handle the familiar voices of others. Having grown so used to the Kate Reading/Michael Kramer female/male split on the Wheel of Time audiobooks I still find it hard to listen to single-voiced audio productions where a male reader has to perform female lines. Thompson does a passable job but occaisonally grates, mostly when he is reading dialogue for the 6-year old Amelia. The vocal production is backed by official Star Wars sound effects from background hums, to activated hyperdrives, to opening doors the sound effects which at first jarring became an integral immersive aide over the course of the audiobook. In particular dramatic moments familiar music themes are used to accentuate the tone of particular moments. All in all a stunning production that I hope to see continued in future volumes.
For those Star Wars fans with a long commute, and perhpas those who have fallen of the Expanded Universe bandwagon, I heartily recommend the audio version of Outcast. It lays some great groundwork for future stories and while it is a far more grounded story than the epic confrontation of the previous series hints at some big events to come. While I doubt the story will blow you away the near pitch-perfect characterizations and frequently clever dialogue are sure to bring a smile to any fan’s face. If you don’t want to blow your hard earned cash on the expensive audio version remember to get in touch with your local library since the series is looking like it will included in Books on Tape’s (Random Houses audiobook division) standing order plans.