Reflection: The Death of the Star Wars EU

Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)The EU is dead.  For those that didn’t know (or more likely, didn’t care) the EU was the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, which included anything published after the movies; games, sourcebooks, comics, and most importantly to me, books.  Lots of books.  In a move that everyone saw coming, Disney his killed it in favor of a blank slate to work with.

This is a big deal to some, but I am not one of them.  Though I have read as many Star Wars books as anyone I can’t get overly excited.  I enjoyed these books, reading them since Junior High.  I know more stupid Star Wars trivia than I care to admit.  Yet with the announcement of the death of this canon I find myself more excited than upset.  I have been a bit vocal about my hatred of the way the EU was being handled in recent years. The quality is down (and starting at tie-in quality this is not a good thing).  I have made the case that not following one central plot line can only lead to good things (the X-Wing novels, far from the big three of Luke, Leia and Han, make my case with their higher overall quality).

So, in belated celebration of Stars Wars day (May the Forth) I find myself reminiscing on my favorites, most hated, and overall thoughts on the now out of date universe.

Oh, and since none of this is canon anymore, I have zero issues dropping a spoiler or two.

The Best of the Best.

There are a few books that I think stand out the most; books that would be great on their own, and raise above the Star Wars tag that while it no doubt helped them sell better, hurt them in the eyes of most people when they think about quality.  Interestingly, this short list includes the books that really started it all.

The Thrawn Trilogy – Timothy Zahn- There were Star Wars tie ins before this, but the release of Heir to the Empire marked the first time Lucas allowed someone to tell the story of what happened after the movies.  It was here we learned Leia and Han married, had children.  We get the single most interesting villain in Star Wars not named Vader, Grand Admiral Thrawn.  And we are given the most important Star Wars character to not appear in the movies for the first time, Mara Jade.

But more than just setting the stage, this series is just good.  Zahn has his shortcomings, and relies on certain characters types just a bit too much, but Star Wars is the perfect pallet for him due to the already over the top nature.  Specifically he loves the chess master characters that have full control of everythin;, enter Thrawn.  A tight thriller of a book that could have made a nice blue print for the what followed; intelligent villains, large cast, multiple locations, and best of all, no super weapons.  Recommended to anyone with even a little interesting in Star Wars.

X-Wing series – Multiple authors – As a series within a series the quality varied a bit.  But Iron Fist (Star Wars: X-Wing, #6)these were just fun space adventures.  But what really made them stand out was how far from the main continuality they stood.  Luke makes an occasional appearance but outside of that the main character is Wedge, who had all of three lines in the movies.  And later in the series even he becomes a secondary character.  This series showed how fun the Star Wars universe could be even without the main characters.  It is proof that if done right this reboot can have some good things happen by focusing everywhere in this great big universe Lucas created.

Traitor– Mathew Stover – For long running fans only because this gem is stuck smack in the middle of the huge twenty two book New Jedi Order meta series.  Too bad, because this book looks into the force more than any other book of the series, and plays with the implications of what it can do.  I have been told that the author’s novelization of Revenge of the Sith was also top notch, by my hatred of the prequels kept me from reading it.

Worst of the Worst

Jedi Search (Star Wars: The Jedi Academy Trilogy #1)Jedi Academy – Keven J Anderson –  Ironically the first series I read from the EU, I was given one of the books for Christmas and never looked back.  As a junior high kid I guess I enjoyed it.  When I went back and reread everything about eight years ago, BLEH.

The biggest tragedy is he took the character Mara Jade and turned her from one of the best in the series into nothing more than an object Lando was trying to win.  Later Zahn was forced to save his own creation by suggesting this was an act they were both playing in order to build a back story for an intelligence commission.

But really this whole story was just stupid.  Dumb technology, dumb super weapons (hey a new death star and something EVEN BIGGER!!).  And he couldn’t even think though his own weapons capabilities, his Sun Crusher could have been the most valuable piece of the New Republic’s fleet even without it’s genocide bombs, why destroy the whole thing?  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Bad writing, over the top conversations, and most egregious of all, this one came so early in the series other authors were forced to deal with its canonical nature.

Fate of the Jedi – Starting with New Jedi Order the guardians of the EU realized that the stories were being patch worked all over and it was going to have to stop, so they put large story arcs together instead.  And it worked pretty well for New Jedi Order, and reasonably well in Legacy of the Force (nine books).  But by this third large arc the wheels were off.  I read the entire series.  Mostly because I just HAVE to know where the story is going.  And there wasn’t a book worth reading in it.  Never have I seen so little payoff for such big page space.

If KJA wasn’t involved in so many Star Wars books I would consider this the low point of the series, instead I would say it was fully capable of killing it had Disney not decided to do it on their own.

The Han Solo Trilogy – A. C. Crispen – Do you enjoy silly books full of coincidences and Gary Stu characters?  Do you feel that ever plotline should involve every major character?  Then you would love this.  The entire galaxy revolves around Han in this one; that is all that really needs to be said.  The one, single, redeeming thing that happens is it takes the whole ‘Kessel run in 12 parsec’ thing and twists it around so it no longer is a running joke about distance/time.

And a few thoughts on a few others.

I, Jedi – Michael Stackpole – Pretty good, but I remember this mostly for the way it took the entire silly story Anderson told in Jedi Academy, turned it on its head, and made it redeemable.

Razor’s Edge and Honor Among Thieves – Martha Wells and James Corey – I had a bit of Razor's Edge (Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion, #1)hope for the EU due to these two books, after years of bad books a couple of nice stand alones that anyone could enjoy.

The Black Fleet Crisis– Michael Kube-McDowell – I remember like this series, but remember nothing about it.  Anyone know if it was really any good?

Crucible – Troy Denning- The final straw on the continuation of the story for me.  Especially disappointing because I though Denning was one of the better authors still in the lineup, but the book was almost unreadable.  Had Disney not killed the EU, this would have been my last book following the post New Jedi Order storyline.

Final Thoughts

Vector Prime (Star Wars: The New Jedi Order, #1)I have no idea what Disney is going to do with this series now outside of make a boatload of money each day.  But I will repeat what I have said time and again.  Open.. Up.. The.. Galaxy.  Leave the central story and just let it all grow.  Not every story needs a Han Solo intervention.  I want to know how a minor civil war on a back water planet is affected by the presence of a Jedi on vacation.  I want a book that focuses purely on a long running space battle, or a low key espionage mission, or a basic political negotiation.  I want them to go Warhammer on this thing, let each author do what they do best and let me skip the ones I don’t like without getting behind in a series.

Give me Star Wars books I can recommend again and I will be happy.  Plus I kinda missed Chewbacca

Mystery Review: ‘Talus and the Frozen King’ by Graham Edwards

A nice little diversion here, I forgot how readable murder mysteries can be.  And that is Talus and the Frozen Kingwhat Talus and the Frozen King is, a cozy little mystery set in the frozen north of an ice age.  Not a lot more, but nothing less.

Talus is a traveling teller of tales with an eye for detail and an obsession with not leaving the unknown alone.  He is joined on his journeys by Bran, the sidekick who is always a step behind the reasoning Talus is putting forth to piece together all the little puzzles in life.    Their travels have taken them north, into the frozen lands, each searching for something different within the same thing; spirits in the aurora borealis.  But along the way they end up in an isolated little village right as they discovered their king is dead.  And you better believe Talus is digging into this mystery.

Let me tell you what I can’t judge this book on; the mystery itself.  I have no idea how to judge such a thing, have not read a mystery since a small Tony Hillerman run back in late high school.  I saw where a few things were going, was a bit behind Talus a few other times, and was never real annoyed by info being hidden in ways that felt like cheating.  For me it worked, for a die hard mystery reader?  I couldn’t tell ya.

What I did enjoy about this book was a fairly unique setting.  The Frozen King of the title ruled over a village.  A census of his kingdom could probably be done from memory.  A much smaller setting than I am used to reading about, but it worked well for its purpose.   The ice age setting was very different from most anything I have read.  When Talus is eying the ‘riches’ of the king’s home he is looking at shelves with bones instead of the usual riches.  Fire is still precious enough that we get glimpse of many rituals behind it from different places seen through the eyes of Talus.

Likewise Talus was an engaging character, even if he was the most obvious Holmes homage in the world.  Not the literary Sherlock, though admittedly it has been ten years since I last picked up Doyle.  But rather he fits with what most of us think of the man; complete with Bran as Watson.  Eventually we even meet his Moriarty.  I wanted so bad to avoid the comparison, but the more I thought about it the less I was able to ignore it.  It does feel more like an homage than a rip off though, so don’t let it scare you.

What I didn’t enjoy so much was the way the book went Clan of the Cave Bear on us.  Never have felt it particularly clever to drop in small references that seem to pinpoint the invention of ideas.  Talus inventing maps during a murder investigation, when he is a world traveler, didn’t do it for me.  Nor did brothers coming up with checkers out of boredom. It is good enough that we have the world’s first detective, let’s not get overly clever.

A fun little mystery with a different setting, this made a great cleanser between longer books.

3 Stars

Review copy received through NetGalley.

 

 

Tough Traveling – Dark Lord

Tough Traveling jpegEach Thursday, our copy of ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’ in hand, we shall tour the mystical countryside looking for adventure and fun (and tropes) from all over fantasy.

Today’s Tour Topic is… Dark Lord

There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world.  He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour.  Generally he will attack you through MINIONS….

Probably the easiest topc of the tour, here is what I came up with.

DerkThe Dark Lord of Derkholm – Diana Wynne Jones – The easiest of all to pick, this The Dark Lord of Derkholmone comes full circle.  Derk is picked by Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties to be this year’s Dark Lord, with his wife acting as evil entrances.  This means he must make his land just a bit more evil to play the part; the tourists visiting this fantasyland expect full realism.  This means demons, evil creatures, and plenty of evil encounters before banishing the dark lord.

Of course these tours are devastating to the land they visit, and this run as dark lord is hard on Derk and his family, but it all makes one hell of a profit for Mr. Chesney, so what else really matters?

Darken RahlWizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind– I have taken part in my fair share of Goodkind mocking, make no mistake.  I consider reading the series a youthful transgression and the result of not having a good reading support group around me.  When desperate for fantasy it can slip in and seem good.  I recommend the series to no one.

But that first book, maybe it isn’t as bad as the rest.  And Darken Rahl is a Dark Lord, so let’s add him.  He is so evil he bans fire.  Yes, fire.   Got a spell that affects a single color?  Suddenly all red fruit is poison (never trust a big butt and a smile (big props if you get that reference)).  Or maybe that was his evil father, I can’t really remember anymore, evil runs in the family.  He employs a pedophile as his main thug, slaughters mud people without hesitation, and employs a huge harem of S & M mistresses who like to cause pain.  He will rule the world.  He is DARK.

Voldemort –Nuff said.

Chronicles of the Black Company (The Chronicles of the Black Company, #1-3)The LadyThe Black Company by Glen Cook– Wife of the Dominator, she buried him beneath the earth and took over to lead the Ten who were Taken.  I am not supposed to include a women in this list, as Dark Lady has it’s own entry.  But she is the friggin Lady!  I love the first Black Company book so much, and anyone who holds sway over Soulstealer and the Limper earns every ounce of my respect.

Like most dark lords her face cannot be seen, but it is because of a magical beauty that normal people can’t perceive.  She shows as a light to most, leaving nothing but fear.

Lord RulerMistborn- He is a Lord Ruler.  He holds the entire land under his thumb, doesn’t show his face, employs nasty people with iron spikes driven through their eyes, keeps a large percentage of the population in permanent serfdom.  Truly a major power, his rule lasts a thousand years and he created almost everything about current society; up to and including the orbit of the planet.  Religion is based around his rule as well, though he is not a creator.

For me it is his back story that is the strength of the series.  Something others have tried to recreate but I can’t think of anyone who has done it better than Sanderson did here.

Sauron – Included so I don’t get asked why I didn’t include it.  In truth, I could care less about him.  They should have forged the damn ring into a bar of iron and let the eagles finish it.  Not an original idea I know, but there it is.

This one was easy, so next week lets make it a bit tougher.  The topic will be…

Fairground- This is like a MARKET, except it is much , much bigger and planted somewhere right in the middle of nowhere so that everyone can get to it.  There will be rows and rows of TENTS and BOOTHS…

Thanks for stopping by, please add your link if joining in and check all the other travelers lists as well!

Fantasy Review: ‘The Silk Map’ by Chris Willrich

The Silk Map (Gaunt and Bone, #2)Ok, I see you over there.  What do you want?

I am here to help.  Last time you read Willrich you got stuck during the review.  I assumed this trend would continue.

One time does not make a trend.  And I am getting along with this review just fine thank you very much.  I was just gathering my thoughts.

Playing video games while the word document stays blank?

Shut up.  I will have you know I am better prepared this time around.  See this beat up receipt I used as a bookmark?  I also used it to mark favorite quotes I may put into the review.  Like this one.

You see, this is why I needed a poet.  You can say ‘what the hell is that?’ so much more artfully than I can.

Impressive.  Why are you dropping that quote in particular?

Because most reviewers seem to use quotes, who am I to argue? Plus I found it funny.

A theme in this book?

Oh yes.  I enjoyed the hell out of Scroll of Years, and I recall some dry wit; especially in the banter between Gaunt and Bone.  But Willrich turns it up to eleven on this one.  I was laughing throughout the first half of the book, and while things took an even more serious turn in the second half, there was still plenty of dry wit to make me smile.

But this isn’t a comedy, in fact the base of the story is rooted in tragedy  Events at the end of Scroll of Years have put a serious strain on the protagonist relationship, and one could argue their quest is for the greatest prize of all.  Love, parenthood, and everything.  Joined by Snow Pine, known as Not A Boy in the first book, they are tasked by the great monkey sage to find the legendary iron silk worms; said sage will in turn help them with their own problems.

Oh, its one of those epic quest books?  Bleh.

Yes, it is.  But it isn’t.  Well okay it is, but with a very real reason.  A geas from a demigod is a bit different than one from a king.  Less coincidence filled for one, as obviously the demigod will have leads that make more since than the average mortal would.

No, I enjoyed the questing aspect of the book.  It is no different than the first, a sword and sorcery tale with a  touch of weird.  It is a mystical land, and very lyrical.  Stopping to tell a story is a common occurrence; but in a land where words have so much power this isn’t a problem.  Once again the weird side of the tale is just strange enough to turn heads, but nowhere near where things could go.  A magic carpet, living writing hidden in scrolls, a great sage in the shape of a monkey buried under a mountain are all just strange enough to give a mystical feel without completely crossing into WTF territory.

Ahh, I fell for this last time. You build and build, but I feel you are about to drop the hammer.

Unfortunately yes.  The first book was short and sweet, polished and concise.  This outing is quite a bit longer, and while that is just fine on its own it lost some of its focus along the way.  The fact is I got confused a couple of times, and even a reread of whole chapters didn’t clear things up.

We have gone over this; it is ‘I before E except after…’

Ya ya, very funny.  As I was confused about a passage I got to point out the info may all be there, but I wasn’t seeing it.  After all it obviously made since to the author and an editor.  But if I read a passage twice and still can’t figure out what was going on I gotta put some of it on the book.  There was a desert scene early on that I really couldn’t make heads or tails out of.  It was the most egregious, but I lost track of the thread near the end as well, and it just got frustrating.

So it is a book I am torn on.  It is funny as hell, richly imagined, and a continuation of the series that worked in most aspects.  But a few confusing passages really hurt my enjoyment at times.  Still a series I am enjoying though, and one I will continue to follow for each and every book.  Willrich has built up a lot of good will for this reader.

3 Stars

Review copy provided by publisher.  Quote pulled from unedited advanced copy and may have changed by time of publication.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Lascar’s Dagger’ by Glenda Larke

Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a series to boot, is always cause for celebration. Larke writes a traditional kind of fantasy, not the elves and dwarves sort, but the type that relies on a refreshingly original created world, engaging characters and a story that compels right from the first line. And it doesn’t hurt that she has a wonderfully vivid writing style.

So why does this one not quite set me on fire? I think it’s because there are so many elements that feel very unoriginal, not to say tired. Parts of the world feel like just another pseudo-medieval setting, the parts that involve the patrilineal kingdom with the cold-hearted king, the playboy prince and the resentful but plucky princess, doomed to marry some hideous older man for political reasons. Yawn. And I’m always deeply suspicious of kings who have precisely two children, one of each gender. In a hereditary monarchy, there should be hordes of hopeful heirs, legitimate and otherwise, in every generation, or else an extremely good reason why not.

Other parts of the story are well up to Larke’s creative standards. The unusual physical world, with the continents clustering inconveniently around the polar ice-cap. The importance of the spice trade. The uneasily united branches of the prevailing religion. And the dagger of the title, a creepily semi-alive weapon. I’m a sucker for sentient ironmongery.

The main character of the story is Saker, low-born but now a pretend priest and spy, working undercover for his religious mentor while supposedly tutoring the royal children. And here’s another problem. Saker is a likeable enough character, but he’s made out to be some ultra-smart, ultra-devious guy, when the entire book is no more than a catalogue of his mistakes, where he’s taken in by one smarter, more devious character after another. Gullible is his middle name, and while I excuse his entrapment by the lady (he’d have to be super-human to resist, frankly), the rest of it just makes him look stupid. And I have to wonder why his mentor sends him off to tutor the prince and princess in the first place, a position he seems spectacularly unsuited for.

Of the other characters, Ryke the prince is the standard template for princes in fantasy, only interested in hunting, whoring and himself. Mathilda the princess has an even more limited range of interests – herself and… erm, that’s it. And yes, of course, it’s a horrible situation, young woman forced to marry evil older man for the good of the kingdom (and a lucrative trade agreement), but we have heard it once or twice before. Sorrel, the widow coerced into virtual slavery by Mathilda, would be more interesting if she stopped whining for five minutes. Yes, life’s really tough living in the royal palace with all your comforts provided, isn’t it?

Ardhi, on the other hand, the original owner of the eponymous dagger, is a truly fascinating character. More of him, please. Saker’s religious mentor, the Pontifect, is also interesting, and I also enjoyed the few moments onscreen of light-hearted nobleman Juster (although he reminded me somewhat of Maldynado from the Emperor’s Edge series; actually quite a few of these characters reminded me of some other book).

The plot is a little slow to get going, although that’s typical of most fantasy and isn’t a problem. It takes time to paint in the backdrop before the action starts. Once it does, though, things take off spectacularly, and the second half of the book is a fast-paced romp as Saker and pals stagger from one disaster to the next. Beneath the veneer of entertainment, though, there are some thought-provoking themes – of slavery, for one thing. Several of the characters are, in various ways, compelled to do things they desperately don’t want to do. This ought to make me more sympathetic towards them, but somehow it feels more like a plot device and therefore loses its emotional impact.

This fell a little short of my expectations. It felt uneven, the characters failed to engage me, the plot, while executed with all the author’s flair, seemed a little contrived. Political machinations are less interesting to me than well-rounded characters. However, the writing is, as always, excellent, and the foundations are laid for the next two books in the series to venture out of the familiar world of kingdoms and organised religions into more exotic settings. I’ll certainly be reading on. Three stars.

Nathan has reviewed this too: read his opinion here.

Dystopia Review: ‘Astra’ by Naomi Foyle

AstraOn second thought, let’s not go to Camelot.  Tis a silly place.

Well I finished Astra.  Didn’t think I would.  I was so excited to start it but ended up putting it down and reading two or three other books instead.  I didn’t really expect to pick it back up because I wasn’t enjoying it all that much.  But on a whim I regrabbed it, and I am pleased to say that it got a little better in the last third.

Just not enough to save it for me.

Perhaps it is the nature of dystopias, something I have certainly struggled with lately.  I put some of this on me, picking up a book from a sub-genre I just don’t seem to enjoy.  There is a certain amount of disbelief required that I don’t seem to have the ability to give.  But there is a certain amount of silliness in Astra that runs contrary to the message it is trying to convey, and I can’t seem to get over it.

Stop trying to make fetch happen.  It’s not going to happen!

Some of the language conventions were the first to get to me.  This is a post war Earth we are dealing with, and there are some major illusions to our current world.  But there is also the suggestion that a variety of English is still spoken, and it isn’t the main language of ‘the island’ that the story takes place in.  Cutesy turns of words like ‘airpain’ for airplane would drive me nuts, and don’t even get me started on ‘borno’ movies.

But those are minor things.  To me the suspension of belief I struggled with the most came from the basic set up of the book.  This is a future based upon a green peace utopia.  Love of earth is number one, communal living is the norm, and even food relies on not harming a single thinking creature without specific permissions.  Yet in this future an entire generation is convinced to give their children a shot that turns them into complacent drones of the state.  I know full acceptance of authoritative government is the norm for the genre, but a 99% acceptance of such a drastic measure within a single generation doesn’t compute to me.

Throw in a slow moving plot that didn’t hold enough interesting ideas to justify the pace (chants and bead weaving just don’t do it for me) and I checked out.

If you can’t say anything nice…

It’s a shame because there were a few things this book did well.  I have never seen a book play with notions of sexuality quite like this.  Everything taboo about it is removed and it is in fact taught and encouraged as a healthy part of growing up.  It was hard to drop all of my western notions and wrap my head around this, uncomfortable reading but presented well.  And after a long and often unnecessary set up the book did get more interesting at the end.  Of course it involves everything falling apart and the true nature of the benevolent government coming out, perhaps this is the only way a dystopia can go.

Chalk this one up to personal disconnect, but this was a big disappointment for me.

2 Stars

Review copy provided by publisher.