[ Roost Report ] Star Wars: Thrawn turns 20

Heir to the Empire 20th Anniversary Edition by Timothy Zahn

Ask any Star Wars fan what their thoughts are about Lucas’s enhancements to the Star Wars Blu-Rays and you’ll get everything from “Who cares?” to “Darth George is destroying my childhood!”

At least there’s one reissued Star Wars classic coming out this month that no one has redone.

The 20th anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire, book one of the Thrawn Trilogy and #88 on NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books list, features no extra scenes, no digitally-enhanced text, and no additional adjectives. The only thing that’s changed is the cover… and maybe the font.

So, it’s been twenty years. Now it’s in hardback and includes a new short story; big deal. And I want this because…?

First off, what’s it about?

The war between Imperial Forces and the Rebel Alliance didn’t disappear overnight. Five years after the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader, Princess Leia and Han Solo (married and expecting twins) and Luke Skywalker (lone Jedi Knight) are still working hard to help reestablish the New Republic government and drive out any remaining Imperial Forces.

And they missed one. Lightyears away from the capital planet, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a brilliant military tactician, is piecing together the remains of the Imperial Navy in order to strike back at the New Republic. He’s got a couple aces up his sleeve that will make it nearly impossible (i.e. will take three books) for the New Republic to win.

There’s also a former employee of the Emperor out to kill Luke. That’s always fun.

Why is this book so awesome?

The Thrawn Trilogy is credited for establishing the Star Wars Expanded Universe, allowing other authors to pick up where the Hugo Award-winning author left off, as well as reinvigorating the space opera franchise. It’s not just the solid story, but the incredibly well-developed characters that make Heir to the Empire along with the other two of the trilogy (Dark Forces Rising and The Last Command) three of the best Star Wars novels ever published.

There are two characters in particular that make Heir to the Empire worth reading. The first is the trilogy’s namesake, Grand Admiral Thrawn. Considered to be the best villain in the Expanded Universe, the blue-skinned, red-eyed military leader was inspired by historical and literary figures such as Robert E. Lee, Alexander the Great, and Sherlock Holmes. He’s cold, calculating, intimidating, and a lover of art–all traits he uses against his enemies. (As Thrawn explains, “Learn about art, Captain. When you understand a species’ art, you understand that species.”) He was featured later in the Hand of Thrawn duology (Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, also by Zahn) as well as the recently-published Choices of One (another Zahn novel) and miscellaneous mentions here and there.

The second character is Mara Jade. A powerful Force-user, Mara was once an Emperor’s Hand–a dark side spy/assassin who could go places and do things the Emperor couldn’t. Despite the Emperor’s death, Mara’s days as a Hand aren’t exactly over. (Just mention “Luke Skywalker” and watch her reaction.) Mara also keeps in the spirit of strong female Star Wars heroines. She isn’t a damsel in distress; Mara’s intelligent, powerful, skilled and in every way Luke’s equal. Thanks to the Thrawn Trilogy, Mara went on to become not only one of the most central characters in the Expanded Universe but Mrs. Luke Skywalker.

What does this version have the other doesn’t?

Littered throughout the book are footnotes by Zahn, explaining his thinking process, why he made the choices he did, and what was carefully planned versus “That sounds good.” The annotations also cover how he approached specific scenes and characters, and how his choices have impacted the overall mythos of Star Wars.

Excerpt annotations hit the web earlier this year, and later a scanned page to show fans how the footnotes would be worked in. Here’s an example of one of the hundreds of excerpts, this one explaining the origin of Thrawn and his title:

“I wanted HEIR’s villain to be a military leader, as opposed to a governor, Moff, or Sith. But a normal admiral seemed too commonplace. Hence, the Grand Admirals. I first ran across the title, by the way, in connection with the German navy in William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” –TZ

Star Wars or not, having the opportunity to jump inside the author’s head is fantastic. As a writer, I love learning how authors approach their novels and characters. Knowing Zahn’s thinking process while reading along with Heir to the Empire instead of an interview at the end or a memoir-ish forward is worth repurchasing the novel.

So this is like repurchasing a movie on Blu-Ray you already own on DVD just because of the extra behind-the-scenes stuff?

Yeah, kinda.

Unless you really want to read Zahn’s thinking process or the exclusive short story, there’s no need to repurchase the hardcover. $30 can be a lot to ask for these days, so stick with your $7 paperback. Otherwise, the 20th anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire is a fun addition to a literary collection.

And if you’ve never read Heir to the Empire? Shame on you.

Is there more to come?

So far there’s been no official word whether Dark Forces Rising and Last Command will get the same 20th anniversary treatment (internet rumor is it depends on how well Heir to the Empire‘s sales go). I hope they do just so nerds like me can have a complete collection.

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[ Book Review ] Star Wars: Is it over yet?

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi – Ascension (Book Eight) by Christie Golden

Fate of the Jedi is a nine-book series written by three authors over the course of four years. It’s long, dragged out, and could have been condensed into a trilogy. But then I wouldn’t have nine pretty hardbacks on my bookshelf. (Yes. Nine freaking expensive hardbacks, three each year, during an economic downfall. Good job, Del Ray!)

I went into Fate of the Jedi very hopeful. Political intrigue, power-mongers, Luke no longer running the Jedi Order. But after seven books, each more meh than the previous, I went into Ascension feeling very apathetic.

I just.

Want.

This series.

To freaking.

End.

Blarg.

Here’s why:

It’s 43 years after the first Death Star went boom. Luke Skywalker was arrested by the Galactic Alliance and exiled from Alliance space for letting his nephew, Jacen Solo, fall to the dark side. Luke and his 17-year-old son Ben Skywalker are now on the strangest father/son bonding trip ever, assigned to figure out why Jacen fell. Along the way, Luke meets an old girlfriend. He still wuvs her, even though she’s possessed by a uber-powerful dark side creature named Abeloth. He also meets a group known as the Lost Tribe of the Sith. They thought they were the only ones in the galaxy. They want to kill Luke dead.

Then Ben gets the hots for a teenage Sith chick, Vestara, but she’s torn between her duty to the Sith and her crush on Ben.

Meanwhile, the Sith had a vision that a beautiful red-headed girl grows up to run the Jedi Order, so they want to find her and kill her. That beautiful red-head is Jacen Solo’s eight-year-old love child, Allana. Luke knows it. Ben knows it. The Sith don’t. Yet.

Oh, and the Jedi Order without Luke functions about as well as a demagnetized compass.

Did I mention the (former) Chief of Staff of the Galactic Alliance was an Imperial Admiral and has the compassion of a rabid Wookiee? Yeah. Because she laid siege to the Jedi Temple, the Jedi Masters de-throned her after they killed Luke’s replacement. (Dark Side points all around!) Now that she’s gone from power, Luke’s no longer exiled and can come back and calm everyone the eff down. But that’s going to be difficult because the Lost Tribe of the Sith want to team up with (i.e. enslave) Abeloth and conquer Coruscant.

And that’s what you missed on Glee.

(Keep in mind, I summarized the main plot. CanaryTheFirst didn’t allocate me enough space to recap the subplots, too.)

It took me several days to get through Ascension, and that’s after skipping the first six chapters devoted to the Lost Tribe. I felt bad because Golden (and the other authors, Aaron Allston and Troy Denning) clearly has spent a lot of time shaping and developing the Lost Tribe. But I don’t care about the antagonists anymore. I was never attached to them like I was with Darth Malgus in Deceived, so I’m not worried about their fates.

The Jedi Order, however, is the only plotline I was concerned about, and found myself skimming over anything that didn’t directly deal with them. (That’s bad.) Once the story focused on the Jedi, Ascension was great…the little bit there was.

The focus of Ascension seemed to be Ben Skywalker’s romance with Vestara, something that’s been growing since, oh, book three. I’ve never been a fan of Romeo and Juliet and skipped a lot of their cuddle/make-out sessions. They’re teens, they’re infatuated with each other, and Vestara decides (after her father tries to kill her) that she wants to be a Jedi now and wuv Ben for ever and ever. And my first thought was, “This isn’t gonna last ’til the next book.” (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.)

As for the stuff I missed? Recapped in the plot I care about. Win, win!

It also wouldn’t be Star Wars without a rogue group trying to take down the government and a cameo by Boba Fett. (Yawn.)

The biggest problem I have with the series as a whole is lack of suspense. That the one thing the previous nine-book series Legacy of the Force did right. The characters were constantly thrown into life-threatening situations, and not everyone made it out alive. Angry and upset with seeing my favorites killed off, I had kept reading. I had to know what happened next.

However, the editors have already publicly stated that no main characters will die in Fate of the Jedi. With the final book titled Apocalypse and knowing Skywalker lives really adds to the Not Caring vibe. Would you have read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows if you knew before it was published that none of the good guys were going to perish?

I’m not suggesting that characters should be killed off, but the possibility certainly adds to the suspense and seriousness of the situation. The last OMG moment for me was in book five (Allies, also by Golden) when the government laid siege to the Jedi Temple and shot a 15-year-old Jedi Knight for attempting peace negotiations. Book six (Vortex by Denning) had an epic lightsaber battle where Luke had to push himself to his limits to win, and even then you weren’t quite sure how Skywalker was going to pull it off.

More dire situations that makes us wonder how in the ‘verse the characters are going to get out of them, please. Build up the antagonists so we fear them more.

The final book of this series doesn’t come out until April 2012. I had the opportunity to sit-in at the Fate of the Jedi author’s panel at Star Wars Celebration V, and it was promised this is the end (for now) of the epic, multi-book Star Wars series. They’ll be focusing on trilogies and stand-alone novels from now on.

Thank the Force.

[ Book Review ] Camelot, ‘Tis a Silly Place for Papers

The Camelot Papers by Peter David


Judging from the tabloid-looking cover, The Camelot Papers looks like a laugh-out-loud US Weekly meets Arthurian England farce. But that’s not it.

Not it at all.

The Camelot Papers by Peter David is a series of journal entries written by Viviana, a mid-to-late 20s woman sold into the service of Uther Pendragon and later his son Arthur. Despite her status, Viviana is more educated than the royals to whom she’s indentured, something both Arthur (who admits to her he’s illiterate) and “wizard” Merlin find most interesting.

The only trouble is, I’m not quite sure what the cover has to do with the story at all.

Yes, there’s humor, but The Camelot Papers also features a lot of serious moments laced with its trademark dark wryness. There are cute scenes and places where I’d smile at something witty Viviana said or something Arthur did that makes him look like an idiot. But not once did I laugh out loud and turn to my roommate and say, “Okay, okay, lemme read this to you…” It’s not that type of humor novel.

What kind of novel is it, then? It’s one with a strong narrative voice and intriguing characters. Viviana isn’t a wallflower; she has a voice and she uses it when she can, then braces herself for the consequences. She’s neither abrasive nor rude, but cautious–and insanely optimistic despite what life has dealt her.

When Merlin questions her perspective, Viviana explains, “It is not for me to judge the world, sir. It is for me to survive in it…that is my philosophy. I cling to it to survive. I find it more palatable than the thought that God permits my existence to be one long, unending misery because He has some higher purpose to which I am not privy.”

That outlook on life makes Viviana the perfect narrator. Throughout the novel she doesn’t judge nor wallow in anger at her situation–her own father sold her to settle debts. Instead, she ends up explaining to Arthur that despite her journal filling with entries, she prefers each chapter of her life to start at Day One. That said, she’s not a Royal Historian color-washing Camelot in rainbows and leprechauns. Neither is she a journalist writing a scandalous tell-all book. She’s a fly-on-the-wall, writing a daily journal about the people in her life.

And the results are one part dark-realism, one part black humor.

Let me give you some examples: The novel opens up with Viviana thrown face-first on a bed with King Uther about to have his way with her. The moment is thankfully interrupted when Arthur walks in and goes, “Is this a bad time?”

During the celebration of Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding, King Uther dies, presumably poisoned by his wine. A rival of Uther’s, Maleagant, challenges Arthur for the crown. A duel breaks out, and Arthur stabs his father’s murder. Maleagant grabs his bleeding chest and says with his dying breath: “This would probably be a bad time… to tell you… I am innocent…”

That’s what I’ve always loved about David’s writing. Even in the most serious of situations, one line is all it takes to break up the scene. He’s damn good at writing serious scenes and stories, but the humor-laced comments… It’s almost as if David can’t help himself. And really, we don’t want him to.

If your only source of knowledge of King Arthur is Monty Python, you might not appreciate The Camelot Papers as much. Names and references will fly by, and nothing is really explained. Oh, sure, Viviana mentions that Arthur is Uther’s son and Merlin’s a crazy old man. But Viviana doesn’t explain in her journals who she is. In most Arthurian tales, Viviane is the name of the Lady of the Lake, the woman who gave Arthur his famous sword Excalibur. (Though the fake forward by fake professors giving the fake journals their fake stamp of authenticity does address this, indicating that the journals are proof the Lady of the Lake was real person.)

And then there’s Viviana’s imaginary boyfriend, a Knight named Galahad. He’s perfect, he’s awesome, he’s everything Twihards think Edward is… which is pretty close to how Galahad the Pure was in Le Morte d’Arthur.

Overall, The Camelot Papers is an engaging read–unexpectedly so. That  cover had me thinking it was going to be reading a parody, a la Monty Python. Instead, what I got was a solid, stand-alone story based loosely on the legends of Camelot. For lovers of King Arthur, definitely give The Camelot Papers a read. But don’t go looking for it in your local bookstore; it’s a Nook/Kindle exclusive… and available as a print-on-demand via Amazon.

And if this sounds like something for you, there’s more. While David is mostly known for comics and Star Trek novels, this isn’t his first venture into Arthurian mythology with a twist. I highly recommend the Knight Life trilogy (Knight Life, One Knight Only and Fall of Knight) which tells the story of King Arthur’s return to the modern world, and how he successfully ran for mayor of New York City.

[ Book Review ] This is how you write Star Wars

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Deceived by Paul S. Kemp

Audiobook read by Marc Thompson

I once read that the best villain is one you feel sympathetic for. I thought about that, then thought about all the villains I love. Javert from Les Miserables, Elphaba from Wicked, Khan from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan… All loveable characters, despite their evilness.

Darth Malgus from Star Wars: The Old Republic – Deceived is right up there.

In all the Star Wars novels I’ve read, this is the first Sith Lord I’ve seen depicted as a vulnerable human being–and that includes Vader. There’s more to this guy than his one-dimensional balls-of-hatred counterparts. Darth Malgus may have been born in the Empire, trained in the dark side his whole life, and views the Jedi as misguided idiots, but he has one weakness: his female servant Eleena. He loves her, and she him, and it’s that vulnerability–that love for not only a slave, but a non-human Twi’lek slave–that the other Sith take pleasure in exposing. 

But at the same time, Malgus isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. He leads an all-out attack against the Republic’s capitol planet, destroys the Jedi Temple and kills a powerful Jedi Master. He’s an evil, evil man… but still finds time to make out with his girlfriend before killing Jedi scum.

And that’s what gets him in trouble with his master: Lead a Sith Army against Republic forces, destroy the Jedi Temple, and then get sent to babysit the planetary blockade because you ordered the Imperial medics to treat your injured slave as they would an injured Sith Lord. Sucks to be you, Malgus. Continue reading

[ Book Review ] Luke, I am not in this book at all

Star Wars: The Old Republic – Fatal Alliance by Sean Williams

(Oh, 3.5 happy canaries! Happy, dammit, happy!)

Audiobook read by Marc Thompson

Star Wars Fan Intro: The Hutts have found a new civilization and are willing to sell the information to the highest bidder. Representatives of both the Republic and Sith Empire (and some uninvited guests) have traveled to Nal Hutta to attend the auction, including a Jedi Padawan, a former Republic trooper, a mysterious Mandalorian, an Imperial Spy, and a heartless Sith apprentice.

Non Star Wars Fan Intro: Giant slug-like creatures are holding an auction for information about a new planet they’ve found. They’ve invited good guys and bad guys to attend. May the man with the most money win.

JediCanary Time Out: One, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is my favorite video game ever of all time. Two, I’ve got the collector’s edition of SWTOR pre-ordered and have had a glimpse of the beta (and have joined a guild, and read everything about the game, and, and, and…) So trust me when I say that you don’t need to be familiar with either games to read and enjoy this book, but you’ll appreciate it more if you are.

JediCanary Time In.

Unlike the rest of the Star Wars EU (that’s “Expanded Universe” for you non-Jedi), Fatal Alliance is in a wholly new timeline; approximately 3,650 years before the farm kid from Tatooine blew up his first Death Star. It’s also the first novel in the Old Republic series, a media tie-in series for Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), a Massive Multiplayer Online video game that’s still in its beta-testing stages. Continue reading