Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: Star Wars: Crucible


“I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity. I want this adventure that is the context of my life to go on without end.”  ― Simone de Beauvoir, La Vieillesse

Everything ends. The modern Star Wars Expanded Universe's novel branch really took off in 1991 with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire.  That novel set at the in-universe date of 9 ABY provided a launching off point for the continued adventures of the heroes of the Star Wars original trilogy of films.  In the 22 years since we have seen novels jump around the in-universe timeline all over the place, yet a main line of novels continued driven by an irresistible moment moved forward on the timeline, with this movement forward in-universe we have rapidly approached a situation where the suspension of disbelief and internal logic of the Expanded Universe's storytelling threatens to collapse upon itself as fans, authors and editors cling to tightly to the continued adventures of the "Big Three" in their elderly years.  

We have seen any number of explanations to keep these aging heroes relevant as action heroes. For example, humans in the Star Wars universe live a lot longer than those in our real world, 70 is more like 50.  We have also heard that Force users remain more vigorous in their old age than mere mortals.

At the same time as we devote precious limited page time to an aging cast of characters we end up sidelining or underveloping younger characters, some of which are in their 30s or 40s now and have yet to really had their time in the spot light. 

In Troy Denning's Crucible, we have reached 45 ABY. In universe almost half century has passed since the destruction of the Death Star.  Luke, Han and Leia still star in the main line of Star Wars novels, passing the spotlight most reluctantly to Ben, Jaina and others.  

Crucible represents the end of a certain era of Star Wars storytelling, yet the looming and likely reboot of the Expanded Universe makes Crucible a bittersweet culmination.  How would the story of Star Wars continue on the page without the big three? What new and exciting characters would be created and fleshed out to carry on the story? 

We have yet to receive any official proclamations from Disney, Lucasfilm, and Del Rey regarding continuity and their intentions with the publishing line after the novels that have already been announced. But Crucible even though it is a stand-alone novel it certainly feels like the a series finale.  Whether this ultimately ends up being the end point of this incarnation of the Expanded Universe remains to be seen.

I hope that rather lengthy preamble puts Crucible in perspective. To me what Denning is tasked with doing in this novel, i.e. retiring Han, Luke and Leia sets a rather lofty bar of expectations.

Crucible Synopsis via Random House:
"Han Solo, Leia Organa Solo, and Luke Skywalker return in an all-new Star Wars adventure, which will challenge them in ways they never expected—and forever alter their understanding of life and the Force.

When Han and Leia Solo arrive at Lando Calrissian’s Outer Rim mining operation to help him thwart a hostile takeover, their aim is just to even up the odds and lay down the law. Then monstrous aliens arrive with a message, and mere threats escalate into violent sabotage with mass fatalities. When the dust settles, what began as corporate warfare becomes a battle with much higher stakes—and far deadlier consequences.

Now Han, Leia, and Luke team up once again in a quest to defeat a dangerous adversary bent on galaxy-wide domination. Only this time, the Empire is not the enemy. It is a  pair of ruthless geniuses with a lethal ally and a lifelong vendetta against Han Solo. And when the murderous duo gets the drop on Han, he finds himself outgunned in the fight of his life. To save him, and the galaxy, Luke and Leia must brave a gauntlet of treachery, terrorism, and the untold power of an enigmatic artifact capable of bending space, time, and even the Force itself into an apocalyptic nightmare."
The novel stars Han, Luke, Leia, and Lando as they attempt to deal with problems surrounding yet another one of Lando's commercial endevours.  

Set in the Chiloon Rift a difficult to navigate and communicate area of space that is rich in mineral resources, and featuring a novel pair of villians (the Columi Qreph brothers) with some interesting henchmen and Mandalorian mercenaries, the set up feels a bit more like the Bantam era than the galaxy in peril plot lines that have dominated the Del Rey era. 

As an Expanded Universe author Troy Denning is not the most prolific, but he has had key novels that have largely defined the the direction of many characters in the EU.  His novel Star by Star is one of the most important to the New Jedi Order series, revealing the fate of Anakin Solo and setting Jacen on his journey that would lead him to the Dark Side. The Dark Nest Trilogy all three books of which were written by Denning takes us six years in universe after the Vong are defeated and presents a Jacen Solo who steps into the spot light with advanced and unusual powers and a deep secret.  Denning next served as the third author in each of the next two nine-book series, Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi, meaning he wrote books 3, 6, and 9.  This means he wrote the concluding book in the last two mega-series.

In both Legacy of the Force: Invincible and Fate of the Jedi: Apocalypse, Denning wrote strong books and in doing so set the paths and fates for many characters that reverberated down the timeline.  Crucible picks up some of the plot threads that Denning laid down in Fate of the Jedi: Apocalypse. In doing so it feels like some of these plots didn't get the time to be explored or too grow that they deserved.  There is one rather odd plot thread that revolves around an injury of Luke's that I am glad didn't get further development. 

There is also a character reveal that could have been left as a mystery to more interesting dramatic effect, but was spoiled so early by the author himself by including to precise a physical description of the characters.  That being said I actually love the characterization for the character. I just believe it would have been more fun for the reader to slowly realize who this character actually as closer to the climax of the novel.

 Denning does some nice work in touching base with some of our recurring characters, Jaina and Jag, Mirta Gev and by reference Boba Fett, and continues the rehabilitation of Tahiri Veila.  

Reading through the New Jedi Order, Tahiri became one of my favorite characters in the Expanded Universe.  Her journey has been pretty crazy but in Crucible, Denning presents mature and for what seems to be the first time in forever a portrayal of Tahiri that isn't psychologically or emotionally damaged.  I also wonder what exactly Ben and Tahiri talk about when they are stuck on a small spacecraft together for a long period of time, I hope it is not that unfortunate interrogation session.

Ben Skywalker also has a relatively minor supporting role in the book but his scenes are very well done and the mixture of humor and intensity that this character possesses makes a character that I would love to read more stories focusing on his adventures. 

The book introduces another Han Solo-lite character in asteroid miner and starship captain Omad Kaeg.  I enjoyed the interactions between Kaeg, Han and Leia and I think that Omad works well because of the generational difference between himself and Han.

I really enjoyed a great deal of the dialogue of this novel, the exchanges between the big three felt pitch perfect and I think Denning really nailed the characterization of both Han and Luke. 

Critics of Denning should be happy, we don't get any Killiks or Barabels. Han Solo and I share a similar dislike of bugs and Insectoid aliens.  Barabels are interesting but extended Barabel dialogue can be grating.  Though it is interesting outside of the Nargons (none of which gets any individual characterization), a Jedi supporting character and the villains, this novel features an almost completely human cast.  

 The thing that struck me about the novel upon first reading was that it has what seems to be an unusual amount of brutality.  While as a reader I didn't think Denning was going to kill any of the big three in this novel, he writes their injuries in such a way that you can almost expect that the next page will have the character dying.  This can either serve to heighten the dramatic tension (if you buy into it) or take you out of the story. I was having Monty Python the Black Knight flashbacks for much of the novel. 



The novel also features cloning of a different variety than we have seen before.  I have to say, this isn't to single out Denning but it strikes me that cloning is becoming an overused plot device in Star Wars fiction.  Yes cloning exists in the universe but it seems like it is in every other book at this point. 

The novel's synopsis describes "an enigmatic artifact capable of bending space, time, and even the Force itself into an apocalyptic nightmare."  It is really at the point that we reach that enigmatic artifact that the novel really waivers for me.  While I enjoy some exploration of the Force and the more metaphysical nature of the Star Wars universe it feels like this novel and some others are going to far.  Just like the Fate of the Jedi series' journey beyond shadows and Pool of Knowledge, it takes Star Wars to a place that feels to be a step to far into the fantastic.

Ultimately the conclusion of Crucible is both satisfying and logical, it feels like it is how things should be resolved.  At the same time in getting there the novel took some detours that I didn't totally enjoy.  Crucible is a worthy and important addition to the Expanded Universe, but I can't help but think if it stayed a little more grounded that it would have delivered a more compelling and fun final (possibly) adventure for our heroes.

For more on Crucible and to read an excerpt visit RandomHouse.com.

Author's note:  A review copy of Crucible was provided by Del Rey/Random House for this review

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