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Review: ‘Star Wars: Crucible’ by Troy Denning

Forgive the self-indulgent review.  I will give my honest opinion for this newest Star Wars book, but I also want to chime in my thoughts on the Expanded Universe in general.  Specifically, with the possibility of a reset coming after the Disney buyout what I hope to see in the next go around.

First for a review of the book at hand.  I will not even begin to bother with a recap at this point, there is no point.  This book would be completely impossible to read without knowing the full and total backstory of all the Star Wars books before it, and even managed to throw some curve balls at me, a man who has been reading these books for over fifteen years.

It was alright. ‘Meh’ may sum it up better.  Certainly an improvement over the horrible books I slogged through from Fate of the Jedi.  What I appreciated the most in this book was the smaller scale of the conflict.  While eventually it became apparent the fate of the galaxy could be at stake, most of the book dealt with a smaller conflict in an out of the way area of the galaxy.  This allowed the book to focus on a smaller cast, spend more time with the characters, and lent a bit of believability to the scale of the threat that has been lost in the Star Wars universe for a while.  So that was nice, and something I want to get into after the actual review.

What wasn’t so nice was the stupidity of some of the plot lines.
My biggest gripe is a common one.  If an author puts a genius/mastermind type character in the book they better be able to back it up.  I am not as a reader going to buy their skills if I don’t see it on page.  Thus the two main villains of the book lost all credibility for me.  Their amazing mental capacities were mundane; they were outsmarted at almost every turn despite us being told otherwise by the narration.  They were completely dependent on Vestra, the only compelling character from the Fate of the Jedi series.  Their insane method of interrogation involved a card game with a known expert on the game.  They backstab almost everyone they deal with yet still find people willing to deal.

Smaller gripes.  Han battling a force user and somehow getting a shot into his knee.  A space station that stretches time yet the author only using that detail when convenient, otherwise characters outside and in seem to be moving at the same pace.  The inconstancy with Mando’s strength here vs earlier books(specifically their lack of it).
The final nail for me was an incredibly dumb ending.  Some type of timeless alternate universe where death requires specific circumstances otherwise people come back to life.  Or something.  Then because it is a timeless area one person has to tell another their entire history together because of unexplained amnesia (but has time to do because time is timeless here).  They leave the area by wishing their way out, or clicking their shoes, or something equally outlandish, it didn’t make much sense.

3 Stars.  Doesn’t really deserve it, but it was better than the Fate of the Jedi series throughout, so that is something.

Copy for review received through Netgalley.

Now, as promised, a quick word on the state of the EU and what could be a complete reset.

My credentials?  Just a longtime fan who has been reading these books for over 15 years.  Truth be told I have not really enjoyed the new books since about half way through NJO, I just keep reading to keep up with the story.  Staring with Fate of the Jedi I have been more and more lost due to knowing nothing about the Clone Wars era EU.
What got me thinking about this was how hopeful I was for this new book.  I saw what I would like to see if a reset happens in the blurb.  Specifically smaller scale conflicts rather than the constant escalation that has taken the EU beyond the point of silly.  A larger universe where every major threat wasn’t dealt with by the same five people.  Of course I didn’t get this from the book, but damn I was hopeful.

So I will lay out what I hope for, and then leave it at that.  I want the SW EU to take the Warhammer approach.  It is time to leave behind the overreaching arcs, the characters we all know, and instead let every author do their own thing.

-Smaller conflicts/Bigger Universe- The stakes can be just as high, but the later books have tried to focus on everything at once and ending being highly shallow.  Let’s do more books like the X-wing series.  A small cast of unknowns doing to amazing things, but only within their own roles.   It doesn’t always have to be about the fate of the entire galaxy, I would be just as intrigued it was about the fate of one planet, or one unit, or one family (Yes it has been done in a couple books, but few and far between).  Larger conflicts have just lead to constant escalation to the point of pure silly.  Of course the worse example is the Sun Crusher as a one up to the Death Star.  But just as bad is the series of events leading to Abaloth, who is what exactly, pure dark side energy?

-Drop the timeline/characters- The timeline was problematic early on as trilogies were squeezed between other books, and suddenly those later in the sequence had scenes that made no sense.  So drop it.  It isn’t important if you’re dealing with single systems or groups of people.  I have heard people say the best storyline in the EU is from the video game Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel, was it hurt by not being in a known timeline?  I think not.  And it certainly wasn’t hurt by not having a recognizable character.  The fact is focusing on Luke/Leah/Han has gone on for far too long.  They have their hands in everything and it is not believable.  It also makes the universe feel tiny, as no matter what happens you know the whole gang will soon be there.

  Worse, with every author dealing with the same characters and timelines the better authors are forced to live with stupid decisions from lesser ones (KJA turning Mara Jade into nothing more than a prize Lando is hoping to win, with Zahn basically retconing the story line by making it all an act later on).

Besides making more compelling stories I see to major advantages to my suggestions.  The first is a new reader can truly start anywhere.  When reading NJO I often had to look up backstories from the silly Jedi Academy books that it was assumed I knew.  In the last installment I had to look up the Mortis Monolith.  And of course Aboleth requires a bit of back story for FotJ to click right.  The second is I can skip books that get universally bad reviews.  Read Zahn and Stackpole, skip KJA and Hambaly, and not lose any of the stories by doing so.  Feels good!

Of course none of this will happen.  The EU made a lot of money doing it the way they did, and I fully expect that once the new movies come out we will see a new set of books following the continued adventures of about six people as they save everyone from everything.

The End.

Oh, and I have said it before and not stuck with it, but I am so done with these extended story arcs.  My Star Wars reading will be limited to X-Wing books and a few old favorites when I need a familiar face.

Fantasy Review: ‘Witches Abroad’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 12 of The Compete Discworld Reread

First things first, I must say my reading comprehension has gone up by quite a lot since I started reviewing all the books I read.  For instance I know I have read ‘Witches Abroad’ a half dozen times in my life and never once realized that the ‘Cinderella’ of the story (Emberella) was of mixed heritage.  In no way does this affect the story or the review, just jumped out at me for the first time.

Anyway….

Another book following Granny Weatherwax so you must know I am all in.  Continuing, and expanding on, the theme of stories gaining a life of their own, this time following fairy tales rather than Shakespeare.   Magrat inherits a magic wand and the duties of fairy godmother, as well as a long time battle with another fairy godmother.  She learns she needs to travel to Genua to stop the serving girl from marrying the prince.  The late godmother lets Magrat know she is not to bring Nanny and Granny along, so of course all three witches head to Genua.  Off to Genua!  And Magrat may have a chance to stop a story if she can get the wand set to something other than pumpkin.

A bit different from the last few Discworld books in that it doesn’t have competing stories fighting for space.  Instead it is firmly focused on the Witches journey and Emberella’s fate.  This should make it one of the more focused of the series, but I found it to be a bit uneven at first.  The traveling especially was hit and miss; providing some of the funniest portions of the story but dragging after a while.  Granny continues to be my hero when she takes on the card sharks in riverboat gambling (humming off tune and itching the inside of her ear the whole time).  Along the route they see the results of a godmother giving happy endings, with horrifying results (think Shrek 2). 

Once in Genua the story tightens up.  A perfect town is kept that way with an iron first (think Shrek 1. Wow, they had to have read Pratchett before writing those movies).  A practitioner of Voodoo has been holding the Fairy Godmother at bay but will need the Lancre witches to tip the balance.  Because if the resident fairy godmother has her way Emberella WILL marry the prince and there WILL be happily ever after, whether anyone wants it or not.  Both sides know they must now play within the story and each must figure out the best way to cheat within the framework.   Who is good and who is bad?  Is forced happiness real happiness?  Is Granny always the good one, and if so, does she really want to be?

Oh yes, some of my favorite parts for others to compare with their own: A small town deciding to stop the running of the bulls after the witches visit, Granny showing a voodoo doll can work both ways, and Magrat proving to be more mongoose than mouse.

I can’t be objective because the Lancre witches continue to be my favorite, and have been for years.  I also am fond of this book because it had one of Pratchett’s strongest endings, especially withen the sometimes inconsistent early books.  The only downside I see at all is the travelling, while funny, dragged a bit too long for my taste.

One last interesting fact, pointed out to me before I started rereading this book by another fan; all five major characters in this book are women, and the only male who really matters to the story is actually a cat.  Who else but Pratchett could do this so subtle that most wouldn’t even notice?

4 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Reaper’s Challenge’ by T.J. Dipple

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed this book.  It had some flaws and was very simple, and the review I am about to write will discuss several of said flaws.  But I want it to be understood that I truly did like a lot of this book; it was quick paced, had some original ideas and a better ending than it appeared to be heading for.

This is a fantasy novel focused on the city guard of a city called Kavernhive.  Kavernhive is a city protected at night by the haze, a bunch of glowing orange balls that keep people from dying violent deaths.  Following an elite group of guards called the Blades, conflict comes to the city when a murderer has found a way around the haze and seems intent on bringing down the cities protection all together.  Rookie guard ‘Recruit’ joins the blades in their search for the killer.  A secondary plotline involves the Blades long running dispute with the cities assassin guild (now a requirement in every fantasy city).

Don’t look to close or the whole thing falls apart.  The haze is a very cool idea with some logical inconsistencies; the how and when it heals specifically lost me.  The need for such a substantial guard when there is a lack of violent crime also confused.  How a long running war is kept going when nights are off limits, well there are some leaps of faith needed to buy the idea of the haze.

It is also hard to buy into just how elite a guard unite the Blades are.  At one time it is mentioned by an enemy that it would take at least four men per Blade to fight them; indeed they consistently fought much greater numbers and won.  This isn’t a ‘Best of the Best’ unit that takes established guards that have proven themselves; they are just awesome by luck.  Recruit is brought in immediately after basic training.  Throw in the just as elite female Valkyrie unit (who are around just long enough to hook up with the Blades) and the entire city watch dynamic gets a little hazy (oh,  inadvertent pun!).

Toss in some unconvincing politics: A king says “I cannot order you to take down the guild.  Do you hear me? I can’t do it,” and his nobles don’t smell out the oh so subtle hidden meaning.  Add some language issues, including a whole lot of people saying “Reaper’s Balls!”  There are some definite negatives to the book that keep me from recommending it for everyone.  Yet I said I enjoyed it, and I did.  So here is why.

When not trying to pick apart what the haze is I can admit the author stays pretty consistent in its use, and it is an interesting dynamic.  The characters are pretty one dimensional, but have some pretty decent interactions with each other.  The book moves very quickly, and while easy to read may not be the best compliment sometimes it is a positive depending on mood.  And after what appeared to be an anticlimactic ending the story escalated fairly naturally into something with even greater stakes, and did so well.   So while I can’t recommend this book for everyone, neither will I tell people to stay away completely.  This book would probably be best for those looking for manly men doing manly things in a short number of pages; perhaps while waiting for the latest Warhammer book.

3 stars

Review: ‘Guardians of Evion: Destiny’ by Evelinn Enoksen

This is so weird.  ‘Guardians of Evion: Destiny’ is a book with a very heavy Pern influence.  Just from the book description that should be fairly obvious  and is not what I consider weird.  What is weird is that this short, 300 or so page book follows the same arc the Pern series did, both in content and quality.  Let me explain!  Oh, if you haven’t read the Pern series this entire review is worthless.

Act1

Pern:  Lessa is different because she talks to dragons.  But after a very crappy early life she gets to go with the dragon riders to live around dragons.  Even better it turns out she is special, and soon gets the most important dragon.

Themes: Differences between the dragon riders and others cause friction but dragons are going to be very important in upcoming times due to an unknown external danger.  A few visionaries must convince those in power to act.

Genre: Fantasy

Quality: Very Good

Evion: Numak is a young boy with a sense of wonder, he has always been ostracized by his town due to his ability but that is ok, he gets to go with the dragon riders now.  And once there he learns he is pretty special, maybe the most powerful telepath around.  Oh, and he eventually gets the biggest most powerful dragon.

Themes: Differences between the dragon riders and others cause friction but dragons are going to be very important in upcoming times due to an unknown external danger.  A few visionaries must convince those in power to act. 

Genre: Fantasy

Quality: Very Good

I found the first portions of the book to be a real page turner.  Numak’s story was pretty intriguing, and despite the Pern similarities there was a unique feel to Evion.  Perhaps the best praise I could give to this book was the author’s ability to throw so much at the reader without losing track of all the details.  Though it followed only a couple of characters it was easy to learn the lay of the land in Evion, including major powers and hierarchies.

Act 2

Pern:  Eventually it is time to take care of the external threat.  It is learned that people were from Earth originally, and there is a lot of old Earth technology around that can help them defeat the external threat.  Focus turns from dragon riders to said technology, series does a complete 180.

Genre
: Science Fiction

Quality
:  Sporadic as hell

Evion:  Eventually it is time to take care of the external threat.  It is learned that people were from Earth originally, and there is a lot of old Earth technology around that can help them defeat the external threat.  Focus turns from dragon riders to said technology, series does a complete 180.

Genre
: Science Fiction

Quality:
Sporadic and rushed.  Too much going on when it appears only one story line is really going to affect the outcome.

The second act was a completely different book with only the characters in common (though they all went through so many revelations of who they really are that even that is tenuous).  The fantasy feel is dropped completely in exchange for a sci-fi story based on alien ant farms and human telepathy.  Obviously your mileage may vary on how enjoyable this is.  I cannot fault the book for the shift and much of it was a smooth transition, but it personally wasn’t where I was hoping to see the book go.

What did cause some problems for me in the later portions of the book was how little anything but Numak’s storyline mattered.  Because ultimately he was central to the planned threat to the world, everything else was window dressing.  In particular there was a lot of set up for a very anti-climactic final battle.  For a book that started fairly strong when it came to weaving story lines it was disappointing to see so few of them end up being important.

3 stars.  I don’t see myself continuing the series, but I am very interested in the authors planned comedic fantasy.

Oh, want one last Pern similarity?  Just like in McCaffrey’s books a rape isn’t a rape if it is fueled by dragon’s emotions, it is the start of true love! 

Copy for review was provided by the publisher.

Mini Fantasy Review: ‘The Mister Trophy’ by Frank Tuttle

“The spirits tell me all will be well,” replied Mister Smith.  “They say our goals will all be met.”
“Spirits ever wrong?” I asked.

Mister Smith chuckled.  “All the time,” he said.  “But they mean well.”

Fairly entertaining, humorous at times, and entirely too short; ‘The Mister Trophy’ was a nice little find, a good start to what appears to be a nine part series of novellas.  Hey Mr. Tuttle, can we get some omnibuses set up here?  The only one I see has books 1, 2, and 4 in it.  Let’s get five tied together and go with this.

Anyway.  A finder named Markhat is tracked down by three trolls to find something that means a lot to them.  How a finder finds things isn’t really explained.  Why he was needed when the trolls basically knew where the item in question was, also never explained.  The more I think about it, the less the setup of this book makes sense.  Hmm.  Does it count if you don’t notice it until writing a review?

What the book does well is set up an interesting little world that has left me wanting to know a little more.  A truce between the humans and trolls was only made possible because the vampires sided with the humans, bringing magic the trolls refused to use with them.  The Misters (all three trolls go by a Mister moniker) still scare the humans of the town, but seem to be respecting the truce.  Now that the war is over they are also willing to use magic, but claim to have no desire to restart the war.  Why?  Don’t know, it’s the kind of thing that makes me want to read more.

Not much in the way of character development, Markhat is a glib smart ass who seems to have a talent of staying alive and holds just a touch of honor.  Mama Hog gives prophesy and provides helpful stuff.  The trolls are distinguished only by name.  The villain is insane, but isn’t visible for long enough to have more personality than that.

Not a book that will leave you in stitches, but it had me chuckling a bit.  Minor logic problems aside the plot was simple and held few twists but did catch me by surprise once or twice.  And obviously if you enjoy smart ass protagonists it will be right up your alley.

3 stars, but with the understanding that as part of a larger story this could be much more.  If the author ever gets some omnibuses going I am all in.

Sci-fi Review: ‘Shards of Honour’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

Warning:  The following review contains spoilers.  Not really for the book, but for everything else you may be interested in.
 

I will keep this short, because I honestly don’t think there are many people left that need to be told to read Bujold.  If any of you are in fact one of those people, there here it is.  Go read Bujold.  Like, right now.  Because if you don’t I will start spoiling everything else your reading and/or watching.  Because Bujold is bloody amazing, and even in ‘Shards of Honor,’ her first book, that talent was showing itself strong.
Damn it I said go read Bujold!  Snape killed Dumbledore, don’t say you were not warned.

I like my Martini’s light on vermouth, and I like my Science fiction light on science.  I made a perfect gin martini last night, and over twenty years ago Bujold wrote a book that was so light on science it could have been a fantasy book.  I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed both of them.  Like many a good fantasy novel the readers are dropped into the middle of the story with no background.  It says something about the craftsmanship of the author whether drops like this confuse a reader or excite them; in ‘Shards of Honor’ I was turning pages at a record pace.  I am counting this as a win.

Why are you still not reading Bujold?  Ok, you asked for it; the fight club is all in his head.  Ya, all of it, you don’t talk about it because it doesn’t exist. 

Everyone says that Bujold is one of the best at creating deep, realistic characters and also excels at having them interact.  In this case everyone seems to be right.  Loved Captain Cordelia Naismith, a rare middle aged woman in speculative fiction.  She is in no way defined by her age, still a well-respected and capable leader who is beloved by her crew.  With a strong sense of honor and the ability to think quickly I was always happy to see her decisions and how they played out.  I enjoyed Aral Vorkosigan a bit less, he was a bit too perfect.  But I will admit that while he may play the strait arrow a bit too much he was no Gary Stu; he makes very real mistakes and it costs both him as his men.

Sigh.  Really, you don’t think I see the magazine sticking out under the book?  Leah is his sister.  Ya, rethink that kiss now.  And read Bujold.

I was also impressed by the tension built in the book, both from danger and the romance.  The romance had a feel of being inevitable, but was still entertaining.  The dangers the characters go through on the other hand felt very real.  Naismith’s run in with a truly evil admiral would have been flat out bad in the hands of a less capable author, but her show of outward cool contrasted with her inner fears was well done.  A minor character with some major mental health issues was also intriguing.  There can be no doubt he did some horrible things, yet how much of it was as the result of others using his illness?  For the most part he acted within his own set of honor, and was genuine when guided by the right hands.

Oh for god’s sake.  You just don’t learn do you?  Old Yeller, the dog in Stone Fox, both dogs in Where the Red Fern Grows… all of them died. 

The best part of the book to me was when Naismith is assumed to be under some kind of reconditioning.  Part of me wishes Bujold would have made a whole book of this; Naismith not really knowing which of her memories were real, what to believe, unsure of her love.  But I suppose others have already done this, so I will be happy with the book I got instead.

Kint is Kayser Söze .  Don’t pretend you don’t know why I told you, I think by now you got the pattern.

As a first book this was impressive.  A bit rough compared to the fantasy I have read by the author, there were some rough timeline jumps.  They didn’t affect the story, and a case could be made that they helped avoid a lot of extra bloat, but they were abrupt and were the only time I had to reset my brain in the book.  Having started on Bujold’s fantasy I was very happy that this wasn’t a complete change of style; it was still a fast moving, smart plot based around a small cast of interesting and capable characters.  What more can I want?

Did I mention that everyone who considers themselves to be a fan of the genre should read Bujold?

4 stars