Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Blue Blazes are excellent novels with vibrant worlds and complicated heroes. Needless to say that I was pretty excited to hear that Chuck Wendig was scheduled to be the man in the pilot’s seat for the first post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars novel in the new canon. When early samples of Aftermath were released ahead of the novel’s publication my excitement was somewhat dampened by Wendig’s chosen style. The present tense narration, coupled with the short quick sentence structure was completely off putting for me and I was immediately nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get past the narrative style. Thankfully, while Disney and Lucasfilm, have in a sense “abandoned” previous canon they have not abandoned Star Wars audiobook narrator Marc Thompson. Thompson’s skill as a narrator combined with some rather insane production quality (official sound effects and music) meant that, like with the previous Fate of the Jedi novels, I was definitely going for the Aftermath audiobook experience.
The Fate of the Jedi series has ostensibly been a trilogy drawn out over nine books. Lacking forward momentum, and somewhat unfocused it never managed to unite all of its cohesive parts into a unified whole. At least not until the final volume Apocalypse. This isn’t quite enough to save this series and doesn’t make up for the haphazard mess the series was but at least makes for an exciting tale in its own right.
I finally finished listening to the penultimate volume in the Fate of the Jedi series, Ascension by Christie Golden. On the whole the story and pacing feels about even with the rest of the series. How you taken that statement is entirely dependent on how you’ve felt about the series to date. Ascension isn’t going to win people already against the series over and, in many aspect, it might drive some who were on the fence away. I think the larger problems with Ascension, and with the entire Fate of the Jedi series, rests squarely on the shoulders of the editorial team. From the start I have been baffled by the release schedule and the seeming lack of progress volume to volume on many of the plot points. There are moments over the series, and particularly in Ascension, where the whole narrative threatens to come apart at the seams.
Be warned, BIG spoilers abound!
So I, like a many a geek, have my shiny new blu-rays of Star Wars. Last night I finally had a chance to sit down and watch the first of the prequels (in Pink Floyd’s words: “If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat yer meat?”, though I hesitate to call these films meat). This isn’t a full review, just a collection of thoughts as I was watching the film.
I really like the opening 20 minutes or so. In fact despite the Trade Federation’s silly accents the opening, while a slow burn compared to A New Hope, it is fairly solid. Things are all well and good right up until we meat Jar Jar Binks. I’m willing to support decisions that make the prequel films more accessible to younger audiences. However, I’m not willing to admit that Jar Jar is actually a step in that direction. He is neither cure nor funny and his constant muttering of “How rude!” is ripped straight out of Full House.
As the film opens the Trade Federation have set up a blockade on Naboo. We never really know why. At some point I think something is mentioned about trade route taxes. Or does Naboo have some kind of export that is worthwhile? Some have complained about the style of Naboo’s starships and weapons. I rather like it. It has a sleek retro-futuristic design that idealizes aesthetics over function. I think its neat.
Jake Lloyd is about as solid an actor as Hayden Christianson. Kudos for consistancy. Between Lloyd and Portman age differences and Christianson’s non-existing acting skill I figure that casting department aught to have been fired. I am, and always will be, a fan of age appropriate casting. As things stand now it feels sort of like Anakin ends up banging his babysitter.
The Jedi are inconsistent and baffling. First off, Padawan haircuts look like something you might see at a Lynard Skynard concert. Qui-gon’s rebellious nature is mentioned more than once over the course of the film. This isn’t a problem in and of itself but since this is the first time viewers are seeing organized Jedi there is little impact and no real way to differentiate Qui-gon’s methods with the rest of the Jedi. There could have been some interesting sub-text here and I thought I got a hint that Qui-gon is sort of like the council’s bullyboy, otherwise the use of a fractious, rebellious Jedi in an obviously delicate situation makes no sense. The Council’s decision to ignore Anakin on the basis of his fear is as noteworthy as it is baffling. I get that they don’t want to risk his falling to the Dark Side but as the presence of the Sith is revealed it seems to me that leaving a potentially powerful force user running around untrained would be a seriously bad idea.
There is a lot made about Anakin’s potential to “bring balance to the force” but no one ever openly questions what that might mean. The Expanded Universe does a better job about exploring that but in the films Lucas barely touches on the dangers of the Jedi’s hard-lined decision between good and bad sides of the force. There is a sort of laconic arrogance to the Jedi Council, particularly in Sam Jackson’s performance, that felt extraordinarily galling. Having read enough EU books before seeing this movie the revelation of midichlorians didn’t bother me.
Ian McDermind is awesome and that starts here. His bald manipulation of Queen Amidala is wondrous to behold and his smarmy smile oozes devious charm. Terrance Stamp is woefully underutilized. The same can be said of Ewan McGregor. I rather enjoy his performance in later films and his ability to mimic Alec Guinness is absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately all he does here is sit around a lot. The fight with Darth Maul is cool but I would have loved to have seen more use of force abilities. Ray Park really owns as Darth Maul and that character wouldn’t really work without him. As it is the lightsaber battles, starting here, in the prequels blue the staid, stiff combat of the original trilogy away.
The Droid Army is neat and the final battle with the Gungans is cool….up to a point. The final moments of the battle with the Droid Army and Anakin’s fumbling in the Starfighter are the start of Lucas’ bumbling Benny Hill/Three Stooges homages that mar this film and the next. Jar Jars bumbling attempt to escape and Anakin’s accidental success are precursor to the vaudevillian antics of C3PO and R2-D2 in the next film.
At its core The Phantom Menace is a solid film marred by poor and questionable decision making and unreachable levels of pre-release hype. There is the skeleton of a good space-adventure film buried beneath the dross. The blu-ray transfer of the film looks and sounds great. There are some spots where the special effects of 1999, especially some of the CGI that is a bit glaringly obvious. The new CGI Yoda actually looks really good and in truth better than some of the films original effects. Williams score is as top-notch as ever.
The 7th and latest volume of the Fate of the Jedi saga, Conviction, is here. This time it’s Aaron Allston at the helm and this time…it’s more of the same. First off let me start by saying that whoever wrote the back copy for this book should be summarily fired. I’ve never read a description that tries its hardest to spoil everything that happens in the novel and is, in many regards, patently misleading. Seriously, absolutely terrible job on that part. Furthermore, I’m sure I’ve said it before, that the publishing schedule is all sorts of bizarre for this series. When the final volume is published in April of 2012 this series will have been running for just under three years. For comparison sake Jim Butcher has been known to release a new book every 6 months, by himself. Apparently three authors writing a single series eight books long requires 3 years of writing. If I’m not mistaken I do believe that Allston has had some health issues over this time but I still found that the stop and start publishing schedule is a serious detriment to the series (books 1 to 3 were released every other month followed by a six-month break then two more books every other month then another 6 month break, from there things are a bit more irregular). While I’ve certainly enjoyed aspects of the series so far what is even more distressing is lack of much progress made in resolving any of these storylines. The broad focus on the different aspects of the series has stalled developments to a point where I suspect that this was initially multiple series that have been condensed into a single narrative. If you’ve read any of the other volumes in this series the structure and themes of this book might feel familiar.
Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Vortex
Troy Denning, read by Marc Thompson
Random House Audio (Lucasbooks/Del Rey), 2010
So whoever it is at Lucasbooks/Del Rey that decided it would be a great idea to mingle a little bit of cosmic and Lovecraftian horror into the Star Wars Universe (or horror in general given Death Troopers and the forthcoming Red Harvest) deserves some sort of award. I for one think it is a brilliant combination. That adherents to the Force pale in comparison to entities too horrible to fully comprehend adds a wonderful new flavor to the tried and true space adventure that defines Star Wars. While there is a real strong reaction amongst fans to this series (most reactions fall either towards love or hate with rarely anything in between) I will say that it decidedly different from previous arcs of the Star Wars Expanded Universe but that is most definitely a good thing. Talking about Vortex will necessitate some spoilers from previous volumes and at least one rather large twist from this volume. So, fair warning….
So the latest Star War series, Fate of the Jedi, features the following: explorations into the mysteries of the force, courtroom drama, political drama, romance, teenage infatuation, horrible abomination from beyond space and time, an indictment of slavery, family drama, and internal Jedi squabbles. The largest problem of this series has been rationalizing all of those disparate thematic elements into any kind of cohesive whole and it a problem that Vortex moves towards fixing; though it doesn’t quite get there. Of course as in past volumes, perhaps more so than before, each of these elements are fascinating in their own right.
Backlash (Aaron Allston) and Allies (Christie Golden)
March 2010 and May 2010 respectively
Read by Marc Thompson
The Fate of the Jedi arc rolls onward with Backlash as Luke and Ben are sidetracked from from their quest to follow Jacen’s footsteps after their encounter with Vistara Kai at Sinkhole Station in the Maw. Luke, using some force technique that involves tracking his own blood, follows Vistara to Dathomir. A brief interlude in which Leia and Han appear allows for some entertainment as the “Old Crew” (minus the droids) is back together again. The missing droids are left guarding Han and Leia’s granddaughter Alanna who has been left on her own while grandparents jaunt off into the jungle to help Luke. Awesome parenting there. Alanna and the droids, as is typical of recent Star Wars, serve as a diversion from the main plot of the story offering very little in service to Backlash’s plot or, in this instance, to overall story arc of the Fate of the Jedi.
Backlash is a case where all the things I’ve liked about this series so far work against the novel. It isn’t a bad book by any means and it does keep up the pace and tone of the political tension between the Jedi and Galactic Alliance on par with the rest of the series but the diversionary feel of the novel is hard to ignore. While characterization and tone are as top notch as usual the fact that this feels more like a side-trek then a natural evolution the various plotlines examined so far makes this, for me at least, the weakest novel so far in the series.
I still enjoyed the hell out of it though. There are some neat character moments and some gripping set pieces and Allston is extraordinarily adept at making Vistara into a charismatic and likeable figure managing to sow doubts about her feelings and motives despite her adept use of the Dark Side. Allston introduces Dyon Stadd a failed Jedi who has parlayed his abilities with the Force into a career as a negotiator between Dathomiri Tribes and merchant traders. I’m always a fan of alternative Force users and Dyon’s inclusion is nice touch given the novel’s lack of an in depth examination of non-Jedi Force Techniques.
Star Wars (FotJ): Abyss
Troy Denning, read by Marc Thompson
Random House Audio, 2009
I’m am really enjoying the entire Fate of the Jedi series perhaps even more then I enjoyed those first Star Wars I read way back in the 8th grade. I don’t know if 8th grade me would agree. He would likely balk at the idea of 70 year-old Han Solo raising his grand-daughter or a slightly younger Luke Skywalker on a state-enforced (i.e. exile) father/son road trip through the galaxy; I mean what kid wants to read about old people? Well, 26 year-old me is finding the more tangible weight of the Skywalker and Solo clans’ personal and political histories/legacies to provide a surprisingly enjoyable aspect of Star Wars fiction that I’m not certain was always present in the past.
Further more Fate of Jedi seems more willing to discuss the dichotomy and relationship between force sensitive individuals and the force blind; especially with how the latter perceive the former. The best part is that both sides manage to have valid points: the Jedi’s (especially the Solos/Skywalkers) constant and blatant subversion of law for their own needs is not necessarily congruent with the ideals they espouse while, at the same time, Daala’s opinions of the Sith-are-just-evil-Jedi-and-we-need-to-control-the-Jedi mentality is obviously wrong. Both sides are obstinate and seem unwilling to communicate in a meaningful way, a fact compounded by the Force-based psychosis that is plaguing the Jedi order and lending credence to Daala’s claims of the “Jedi Menace.” For the reader actions from both sides, with the growing threat slowly being uncovered by Luke and Ben Skywalker, casting the whole situation as an giant train wreck occurring in slow motion.
Of course Abyss expounds on that threat in two ways that further sold me on this series:
1.) It has tentacles.
2.) It is referred to as an Old One.
Lovecraft, welcome to a galaxy far far away….
Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Omen
by Christie Goldman
Read by Marc Thompson
2009, Random House Audio
The first volume in the Fate of the Jedi series, Outcast, marked my first foray to the Star Wars Expanded Universe since the death of Chewbacca in R. A. Salvatores’ Vector Prime. Outcast, and now Omen, are taking a slower more subtle approach to storytelling that one would expect from a Star Wars novel. Like Outcast before it, Omen has no large scale space battles, no real swashbuckling adventures but focuses instead on creating an air of tension, mystery, and suspense. Though perhaps one might say that the real focus of this story, and perhaps the entire Fate of the Jedi series is that of the Solo and Skywalker families.
Looking back at the games I’ve completed (or even played) over the last two months and I come up with a list that I can count on one hand. Maybe it’s me. I don’t know. I’ve certainly had fun playing games but it has been some time since I’ve truly played something that has really gripped me. The number of A-list games that have crossed my path and left me wanting is rather impressive. I can’t help but feel it isn’t just me though. Looking at lists of upcoming titles there seems to be a growing identity crisis in the video game industry and perhaps among the community as well. I’m not talking about the whole bullshit casual versus hardcore discussion. It seems to me that both the industry and the gaming public are torn over how they view the definition of what a game should be.
I recently finished playing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and I think that game is the perfect example of that confusion. If you’ve played a Star Wars game I’m guessing the reason you picked it up was because it presented an opportunity to immerse yourself in a world that you were familiar with, and on some level, a world you cared about. The draw of a Star Wars game (or any licensed game) wasn’t so much the draw of a discrete experience but the idea that you would be contributing something bigger that single disc you slipped into your platform of choice. The best games in the Star Wars universe managed to provide both an exciting and entertaining discrete experience that managed to engender a sense of contribution and discovery in an imaginary world.