Friday, August 19, 2016

Just read: Star Wars Aftermath, Pt. 2: Life Debt, plus novels Bloodline and A New Dawn

From Vicente Guerrero, Mexico (Updated in the U.S. on 8/19/16):

All of this week’s mini-reviews feature new canon Star Wars books.  See February’s post about why I’m reading the new canon Star Wars novels (link), as well as the difference between Star Wars canon and non-canon (now called “Legends”) material from the old Extended Universe.

I’m taking a short break from my usual theology and outdoor skills books.  The mini-reviews below will also be featured on my Goodreads page soon.

Star Wars: Aftermath, Pt. 2: Life Debt

by Chuck Wendig

For my review of Book #1 of the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy, click here.

I wasn’t prepared for how thrilling Aftermath 2: Life Debt would be.  I pre-ordered a copy for delivery on release date and waited, with modest expectations.  Aftermath # 1 was a bit of letdown, even amidst the excitement of reading the sample snippet on Kindle before the film premiere of Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  That first book of the trilogy was a stylistic and narrative mess, although I gave it a generous review on my Blogspot page.  It introduced a bunch of new characters whom, despite their involvement the Battle of Endor from Return of the Jedi, I simply didn’t care about as much as I cared about Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, etc. from the original film trilogy.

In contrast, Aftermath 2: Life Debt may be one of the best canon Star Wars novels yet!  Is this the same Chuck Wendig who wrote Aftermath #1?  The writing flows much more smoothly, the pace is zippier, there are some crackerjack action sequences, the Star Wars humor (and emotional impact, on occasion) is right on, the story and “interludes” don’t jump all over the place, and most surprisingly… The plot and characters are tied into both the new films (including scenes on Jakku and Maz’s castle) AND the original trilogy.  Within minutes of opening the book, I literally did a double take when I realized that Han, Leia, and Chewbacca would be major characters.  Disney’s Star Wars Story Group apparently gave Wendig a longer leash this time around, since obvious spoilers for the The Force Awakens are now fair game.  And even more importantly… After starting out with a bang, it also became apparent that this sequel would have a more coherent storyline(s) than the first book.

Oh, and about that parade of new characters whom I just complained about from Aftermath #1… They are much more welcome this time around, now that they’re familiar to readers.  After all, despite the spotlight-stealing exploits of Han/Leia/Chewie, author Wendig writes from the POV of the Endor war veterans from Aftermath and makes it clear that this IS their story.

I won’t spoil the story here, other than to say that Aftermath’s main characters finally cross paths with Leia Organa, Han Solo, and Chewbacca.  Norrra, her son Temmin, Jom, ex-Imperial officer Sinjir, Jas the bounty hunter,  and Dr. Bones have been hunting down war criminals and the remaining leadership of the mostly-defeated Empire (including my new favorite character, the multi-layered Grand Admiral Rae Sloane). Leia recruits Norra and co. when Chewie gets kidnapped and Han goes missing during an attempt to liberate Kashyyyk.  And of course, the aforementioned surviving war criminals who were spared the destruction of the second Death Star are secretly hatching big plans to regroup and recapture the former glory of Palpatine’s Empire.  The rise of the military junta First Order of The Force Awakens is just around the corner.

There are too many fan-pleasing moments to count.  One of many examples include a revelation about Boba Fett’s armor, hilarious twists on classic lines from the original film trilogy, and even a swipe at George Lucas’ controversial “Special Edition” film alterations:  Jas, while calculating the odds of getting the draw on Han Solo in a barroom blaster fight, assures herself that Han would most definitely shoot first.

Not-so-hidden Easter egg: While reading Life Debt (Aftermath #2), it finally dawned on me that the Aftermath in the trilogy’s title refers to the aftermath of Return of the Jedi’s climactic Battle of Endor, which precedes this story arc.  Apparently, I’m a little slow.

Star Wars movie fans-- If you’re looking for the perfect place to jump into the new canon novels, this is it!  I literally lost sleep from the excitement of reading this book on opening week.  The Star Wars: Aftermath novel trilogy concludes on January 31, 2017 with Aftermath: Empires End.  The wait is gonna be unbearable.

Verdict: ***** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, **** for non-fans

Star Wars: Bloodline

by Claudia Gray

Though this story takes place after the Aftermath novel trilogy, this novel feels like it’s missing some key backstory from that time period.  The obvious reason: Author Gray didn’t have access to the events of Aftermath (or alternately, was forbidden by the Story Group to reference them).  The downside of this limitation is that Leia Organa, the main character, is constantly reminiscing about scenes from the Star Wars original film trilogy, as though nothing else had happened in the years that have passed.  Had I read it as a non tied-in standalone novel (or had I not started reading the Aftermath trilogy first), I would have enjoyed Bloodline more.

Another barrier I had to enjoying this book was that the plot was more political than action-oriented.  Had I known that from the start, I would’ve approached this novel with different expectations.  The action set pieces may have seemed less disappointing… Particularly the boss battle (with an unremarkable villain) clocks in at barely 2 ½ pages long.

That being said, this book won me over by the final chapters. I naturally started caring more about the fate of the characters when it finally dawned on me that this is more of a character-driven novel than an action yarn. And Leia’s political motivations for concealing her true heritage (read: secretly being the daughter of the deceased Darth Vader) made for some engaging reading.

This story certainly has its moments.  My motivation to resume reading my Kindle copy of Christie Golden’s previous Star Wars novel, Lost Stars, has been restored.

Parental advisory: In addition to a higher volume of PG rated language than I’m accustomed to in Star Wars novels, Bloodline depicts more alcohol consumption than any book in recent memory.  Not that this would offend many people, but it’s excessive to the point of seeming lazily repetitive.  For what it’s worth.

Verdict: **** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** for non-fans

Star Wars: A New Dawn

by John Jackson Miller, Narrated by Marc Thompson

This review is primarily of the reading/production of the audio version only, not the book itself.

As an audio book, A New Dawn is top notch.  The story is less impressive, though a decent diversion.  Fans of Kanan and Hera from the Star Wars Rebels TV show on Disney XD will especially love this.

Narrator Marc Thompson has quite a knack for making a merely okay story engaging, and also at creating a sense of urgency and excitement during the action scenes.  He is a genius at making each character come alive.  The voice renderings of Count Vidian and Zeluna are a little over the top and a bit annoying, respectively, but the other characters are unique in a good way.

The action sequences are enhanced with occasional flourishes of John Williams’ orchestrated Star Wars musical themes and realistic sound effects.  The zip-lining scene is one of many standouts.

The best part of the story for me is the introduction of a young Rae Sloane, my favorite character/villain (so far) of the Aftermath novel trilogy.  The to-be Grand Admiral Sloane even references Count Vidian’s “Forget the old way” line during an introspective moment of Aftermath: Life Debt.  If anything, this book may be worth a read/listen if only to learn more about Sloane’s early military career.

This isn’t a solid recommendation.  But overall, this audiobook makes for an entertaining listen.

Verdict: *** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, *** for non-fans

Star Wars: Obi-Wan and Anakin

By Charles Soule, and illustrated by Marco Checchetto

Other than the beautifully illustrated long shots, there are few reasons to pick up this pre-Episode III, standalone graphic novel.  The main story is of little consequence.  The Anakin/Palpatine flashbacks are a bit more interesting, but they don’t add anything significant to Anakin’s backstory than what we already know from the films.

And I realize that this is a comic book, but it’s too comic-booky for my taste.  For example… It’s downright bizarre to see recognizable Star Wars film characters like Jar Jar Binks and that albino horn-scarf dude from Jabba’s palace wandering aimlessly around a seedy bar in “Coruscant, Sub-Surface Level 2685,” like a bunch of distracting background extras.

Verdict: This isn’t the Obi-Wan comic you’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.

 ** (Out of 5 stars) for Star Wars fans, * for non-fans

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