Book Review: X-Wing Mercy Kill

Mercy Kill (Star Wars: X-Wing, #10)Mercy Kill by Aaron Allston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The original X-Wing novels were a breath of fresh air. Instead of beating the dead horse that was the rapidly tiring saga of Luke, Han and Leia, Michael A. Stackpole (and subsequently Aaron Allston) abandoned the ‘big three’ for the hitherto unsung starfighter pilots of Rogue and Wraith Squadron, and in many ways revitalized a stagnating genre. The cocky Rogues and misfit Wraiths allowed for humour and humanity to be (re)injected into Star Wars, creating a series that was just plain fun and enjoyable. The novels were somewhat superficial, and never truly probed (or attempted to probe) the limits of the genre, but they were Star Wars as it was meant to be; a series that didn’t reject, but reveled in its pulp, and all its cheesy goodness.

X-Wing: Mercy Kill promised a return to this happy go lucky brand of Star Wars, a return 12 years in the making, over which time 31 years had passed in the galaxy far far away, and at first, it appeared to deliver. A promise left unfulfilled. Seemingly picking up where X-Wing: Solo Command left off, Mercy Kill opens to a Wraith operation that features many of the original characters doing what they do best before it jumps to the post-Fate of the Jedi: Apocalypse present. A present in which the Wraiths have been disbanded. Piggy (now going by his given name – Voort) is mathematics professor, while Face is retired and trying to ‘get the band back together’ (by which he means create a completely new band with the addition of a former member, or two, and still call it Guns & Roses… I mean Wraith Squadron).

As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that the first chapter (which is also the free preview that can be found online) is nothing but a flashback (one that will have both an anticlimactic and almost inconsequential effect on the narrative, but I’m getting ahead of myself), and that whatever magic previously permeated the series has somehow been lost. Face and Voort are the only original Wraiths to return, and Face’s ‘behind the scenes’ role as master puppeteer effectively removes one of Allston’s better characters from much of the novel. This also thrusts Voort into the spotlight, a role it would appear, he was never meant to enjoy. Piggy was a great supporting character in the earlier X-Wing novels, and had a good turn as a member of Twin Suns Squadron in Allston’s contributions to the New Jedi Order, but he isn’t up to challenge of the role of ‘main character Voort’, and both his character and the narrative sufferer accordingly.

Bhindi Drayson and Sharr Latt return as representatives of the ‘New Wraiths’ introduced in Rebel Dream & Rebel Stand. However, both characters were never anything much more than forgettable in the first place, and they both pretty much pick up where they left off, serving more to elicit questions of ‘who?’ rather then enforcing any sense of continuity. And then we have ‘The Offspring’ (this is actually fairly pertinent, as there are in fact (spoiler alert) two bands!); Jesmin Tainer daughter of Kell Tainer and Tyria Sarkin, and Myri Antiles scion of Wraith Squadron founder Wedge. While this continuing legacy does enhance the nostalgia, and both Jesmin and Myri are strong enough characters in their own rights, neither are capable of replacing, or of living up to, their forebears. Wedge is pretty much Luke, Han and Leia’s second fiddle (a position once occupied by a suave gentleman played by Billy D. Williams, or maybe, more accurately occupied by a not-so-recently deceased walking carpet), Myri? Well, she’s more of a Tycho Celchu (who is mentioned in the novel, and is therefore relevant). While Tainer was a goofball whose advances towards Sarkin where all the more entertaining due to her initial rejection and eventual acceptance of them. Jesmin can’t embody both her mother and father, and none of the new male Wraiths are able to step up either, and when the loses of Janson and Wedge are added to Face’s reduced role, a lack of strong male characters becomes quite evident. As a result, there is also a lack of sexual tension, once a lynchpin of the series. In fact, there is a disconcerting lack of tension at all among the Wraiths.

The only real source of tension in the novel can be found in the conflict between Voort and Scut. Two aliens raised by humans, they are foils for one another and butt heads from the get go because Scut is Yuuzhan Vong: fanatical, genocidal, extra-galactic invaders who had brought the New Republic to its knees 15 years ago. Voort’s seemingly racist views clash with Scut’s belief that the Gamorrean is unfit to be a Wraith. However, this tension never reaches much of a climax. The squabblers simply sit down, hash out their differences, and agree to disagree; then a couple chapters later they sit down, acknowledge the factors behind their disagreement, and everything is hunky-dory. Not only does the antagonism between the characters never get a chance to have much of an effect on the narrative, the resolution is so contrived that it is incomprehensible that a large chunk of the novel was actually built around said conflict. Furthermore, how is it that none of the other Wraiths appear to have any problem with working with the Yuuzhan Vong? The idea that Voort is the only Wraith unable to immediately accept a Yuuzhan Vong as a best friend is ridiculous; almost as ridiculous as the fact that if Scut’s extra-galactic origins were never mentioned, he would be next to impossible to identify as Yuuzhan Vong. I understand that he was raised by humans, and the message of racial equality is commendable, but what is the point of including alien races if there are no characteristics to differentiate them from humans, or for that matter, any other alien races?

These many small problems prevent a plot, which at first appeared to have potential, from ever really taking off. An overabundance of ill introduced characters confuse the plot, which is weighed down by becoming overly complicated instead of complex. There are too many tangents that don’t tie in, too many possibilities that are ignored; what could have been a streamlined clash of master-plans augmented by a couple twist/surprises is instead a choppy series of operations and predictable outcomes. There are flashes of brilliance, and glimpses of what once made the series so enjoyable, but in the end the potential of the plot doesn’t translate into a strong narrative as opportunities are missed, and imagination appears to be lacking.

The promise simply adds to the disappointment as expectations remain unmet. To be blunt, Mercy Kill just doesn’t belong in the X-Wing series; it’s jokes are flatter, it’s characters – flatter, and it’s narrative? You guessed it: flatter. They are all simply pale imitations of the simple, yet well executed concepts that made the nine previous novels enjoyable reads, and in the end, that’s all Star Wars X-Wing: Mercy Kill is: a pale imitation of an X-Wing book. What was once a breath of fresh air has now become as stagnant as the adventures it originally broke away from.

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Book Review: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor

Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor (Star Wars)Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Harkening back to the origins of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor departs from the seriousness and melodrama that have plagued the more recent Expanded Universe publications in favour of a fun-filled rip-roaring good time in the galaxy far far away… mostly.

Taking place six months after the Battle of Endor, Matthew Stover’s latest contribution to the Star Wars cannon attempts to recapture the fun and youthfulness of the original trilogy, and for the most part, succeeds. Instead of trying to be a great work of fiction by delving into the darkest recesses of the human psyche, and over analyzing the ethics of using the force, Mindor is true to the essence that was Star Wars; a futuristic, extra-galactic offspring of a space-opera and a western. If anything, this is the book’s greatest strength. Rather than trying to be something it is not, and suffering from the identity crises that has consumed both the Legacy and the Fate of the Jedi series, Mindor accepts that it is Star Wars, and revels in it. This may mean that the novel doesn’t have the depth of a great work of fiction, and will undoubtedly not be the greatest prose you have ever read, but at the same time, it doesn’t spread a novel or two’s worth of action over nine books.

Besides, the seeming simplicity of the plot doesn’t belie the fact that the novel is fairly well written, and has one of the best villains since Grand Admiral Thrawn. In addition, Mindor still manages to achieve a level of depth through a subplot that focuses on Luke Skywalker’s loss of innocence as he struggles to find the place of a Jedi in a galaxy that tends to be a darker than the average shade of grey. In a sense, it is the last grasp of the naive farmboy introduced in Episode IV, as he comes of age and embraces his destiny. All in all it is a fun, well conceived adventure that still manages to get serious, but not so serious as to stagnate in its own melodrama.

Sadly, the novel is not without its faults. Although Stover’s characterisations are some of the best in the EU (on occasion he even surpasses Timothy Zahn in this regard), at times, mainly with Han, he losses his way. For the most part Luke, Leia, and Lando are spot on, while Stover’s C-3PO may be even better than Anthony Daniels’. However, at times Han Solo went from being the cocky scoundrel of the movies to a practically unrecognizable character. Worse, voices have been given to both R2-D2, and Chewbacca, creating dialogue that is interspersed with ‘Arrowrowr Reghar’s’ and ‘Bleep Bloop Bleep’s’ that would be out of place in a novel for pre-teens. On the whole, the characterisation is one of the novel’s strong points, its just sad to see it fall apart so badly 10% of the time.

Stover’s prose suffers in a similar fashion. Most of the novel flows well and is both engaging, and exiting. However, at times, such as the second half of chapter two, the whole narrative falls apart. In a way it captures the essence of a movie too well and feels more like a script or screenplay than like a novel. Not to mention that many of the problems with characterization previously mentioned pop up in scores at this point in the narrative. Then, for another chapter or so at the halfway point, the story grinds to a standstill and becomes incredibly boring and repetitive. The ship is eventually righted, but once again this problem should have been easily avoidable with a good editor able to correct the glaringly obvious missteps in what was otherwise a better than average narrative.

The only true weakness in the novel is the Shadowspawn/Blackhole plot involving the transfer of consciousness through the force. In my opinion, the over reliance on super weapons/borderline ridiculous force powers instead of creating well conceived antagonists has been one the main detriments of the Star Wars franchise. Shawdowspawn/Blackhole is a brilliant tactician and a powerful force user, who may have been capable of being in the same league as Darth Vader or Thrawn as one the franchises best villains. He does not need a ridiculous and unoriginal transference of consciousness plot to make him more compelling, in fact, he would be more compelling if he simply relied on mind control and/or brainwashing. It just requires too great a suspension of disbelief, especially when Blackhole fails to effect it. Twice. An occurrence within the narrative itself that alludes to its implausibility, as well as its ineffectiveness as a plot device.[ Blackhole fails to effect it. Twice. An occurrence within the narrative itself that alludes to its implausibility as an effective plot device. (hide spoiler)]

It was disappointing to see these relatively minor transgressions derail what is, for the most part, an enjoyable, well written adventure. Yes its refusal to pretend to more than simply a Star Wars novel prevents it from ever being great literature, but were it not for those gaffes, it could at least have been considered a superior work. However, said gaffes are just too numerous to ignore, degrading Mindor’s status to simply one of the better Star Wars books. It may not measure up to Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, and isn’t at the level of Stover’s other Expanded Universe contributions, namely Traitor, but its does manage to capture the essence of Star Wars (which is saying a lot) and is very good… if only 80% of the time…