Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Big City

There is a lake in Central Park. There are a lot of lakes in Central Park, but this was the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassus Reservoir, and it was so almost perfectly still, reflecting like a nervous mirror. Every window we could see in it was gold against black water.

A fountain powered out of the middle of it; a thin, maybe fourteen-foot spike that almost looked frozen. Every fluid ounce of water churned the same. I wondered what it would look like inverted; if someone sank some physics-breaking thing into the water so there was just this bore hole in it.

It would look like this.

My mind was full of underground tunnels and haunted houses and nightmare stuff, because I'd just gone to see Neil Gaiman

My favorite writing advise from Neil was as follows.

"What [my narrative voice] does is say to the reader, 'I'm going to take you into dark and scary places and you're going to be frightened, but it will be okay, because I'm holding your hand'. And then I'll take your hand, and lead you off into dark and scary places. And then I'll let go of your hand and run away.

"This is a narrative tecnique."

On my trip to New York I also saw the Guggenheim Museum; navigated trains by myself successfully; had delicious sushi; saw a car parked at the end of a long line of traffic cones with  a traffic cone on top of it, as if it was trying really hard to make the other cones not notice; saw a loon diving and an egret and what may have been a grackle; heard a Real Live Journalist Who Writes For Time Magazine use the term "Marty Stu" and just assume everyone knew what it was and that it was a real word; and had pumpkin ice cream. 

And that was my city day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Top 10 Favorite Star Wars Books

I give the Expanded Universe a lot of flak. If you've been following me online, you know I've got an kind of passive-aggressive rivalry with Clone Wars, a resounding "meh" toward Fate of the Jedi, and feel rather like I got jipped when the TOR books were neither good nor about characters from Knights of the Old Republic. 
But the fact that I care enough to sling all these acronyms around does show a long-lived love for all things Star Wars. In an effort to remind myself where that love came from, and to do something of a retrospective, I'm going to do some short reviews of my favorite Star Wars fiction. These are the books I'll read over and over again, and the scenes that comes to mind when I think of the EU.
A little less than halfway through writing this, I packed up to move across the country (temporarily), leaving most of my books at home. Therefore, some are quoted directly and some are not. Sorry. The open road calls.
In chronological order: 
1. Darth Maul: Shadowhunter

"Through the hatch's port he could see the Sith's face-- a sight to chill the blood. Then, faintly, he heard the sound of metal beginning to melt and saw a faint blush of red building in the hatch's center.
The Sith was using his lightsaber to melt through the hatch.
Lorn turned and started pulling himself frantically along the corridor he was in. He didn't know where he was going, or how he was going to escape the vengeance of the monster behind him. There was no room for anything-- not even the pain of his severed wrist as the shock began to wear off-- except raw, red panic." 
That's pretty scary. Michael Reaves takes Darth Maul and makes him into what George Lucas wanted the Jedi at the beginning of The Phantom Menace to be-- inhuman, unstoppable entities perfectly happy to bust through doors designed to withhold the vacuum of space. 
I fully admit that I was in the throes of my initial fandom back when I read this book, and would have enjoyed anything with Maul's face on the cover. However, I still respect this novel for its structure too; a fast chase with memorable, flawed characters. It's a chase we know the good guy can't win -- Darth Maul's identity has to remain secret for TPM to work. But there's still this great, horrible tension about whether Reeves (and Maul) are really going to go through with their lurking, unspoken promise to kill everyone. It is, like The Empire Strikes Back, the sort of thing where every time you experience it you have this vain hope that it might all turn out okay this time. 
And it started the grand tradition of Reaves recycling his own characters. I-5, the dented old protocol droid with hidden lasers, comes back in slightly modified form in MedStar, where the reader is treated to the joyous experience of both being surprised to see him, and knowing better than he does where he came from. 
2. Shatterpoint 
"War is a horror, she said.  Her words: "A horror. But what you don't understand is that it must be a horror. That's how wars are won: by inflicting such terrible suffering upon the enemy that they can no longer bear to fight. You cannot treat war like law enforcement, Mace. You can't fight to protect the innocent-- because no one is innocent...
The innocent citizens of the Confederacy are the ones who make it possible for t heir leaders to wage war on us: they build the ships, they grow the food, mine the metals, purify the water. And only they can stop the war: only their suffering can bring it to a close."
"But you can't expect Jedi to stand by while ordinary people are hurt and killed--" I began.
"Exactly. That is why we cannot win: to win this war, we must no longer be Jedi."
There. Musings on the nature of war, all set in a part of the Star Wars universe that is so far from Coruscant that Matthew Stover can make it his own little sandbox to play around with people and see how he can break them. Add Mace Windu as the heart of it all, delivering lines worthy of Samuel L. Jackson while still acting like...a person instead of an action hero. Consider the fact that the page immediately prior to the above quote involved a barbarian Force user removing brain-eating parasites from his troops' heads with his mind...

3. The Cestus Deception 
"Cloak fluttering around him like some bird of prey, Obi-Wan Kenobi dropped down into the car. The tan-clad Desert Wind soldier was the first to reach him, and therefore the first to go down in a brief flicker of a lightsaber. He stumbled back, the shoulder of his jacket smoking and spitting sparks.
"Jedi!" the Nautolan snarled.
Obi-Wan's eyes narrowed to slits, his courtly manner a distant memory. In an instant he had transformed from ambassador into the deadliest of warriors. "Nemonus," he hissed, then added, "Not the first time you've tried blood diplomacy." 
The appeal of this one should be pretty self-explanatory. Kit Fisto pretending to go dark and fight Obi-Wan as part of an elaborate political ruse amused me so much that it inspired my online moniker. Moreso than the other books so far, I admit that I like Cestus Deception for the characters. The plot is pretty straightforward action, sometimes getting bogged down in intrigue and insectile aliens. But Steve Barnes' Obi-Wan is a spot-on reflection of Ewan McGregor's, Kit Fisto gets a lot of screen time and is established as both jovial and intense, and Asajj Ventress flows through the whole story like an elegant, elegant creeper. Good stuff. Oh, and there's Nate, who has fans.
4. The MedStar Duology 

“Siting in the mess hall and eating a breakfast of grainmush cakes, poptree syrup, and dried kelp strips, Barriss Offee suddenly sensed a disturbance in the Force. The energy of it was that of impending combat--something she had learned to recognize. She stopped and tried to focus on a direction.

“Something?” Jos said. He was sipping a mug of parichka a few seats away.

She turned to look at him. “You said we are well behind our own lines here?”

“Yes. Why?” 

“There is some kind of confrontation happening close by.”

The surgeon looked at his chrono.  “Ah. That would be the teras kasi match. Want to go take a look?”

The MedStar books are about characters. It’s not like big, war-affecting things don’t happen in them, but mostly they’re about personal struggles and temptations, and also about what capable people do when they’re bored. The conversations are fantastic, and bit characters shine. Michael Reaves and Steve Perry know that along with the Jedi and the soldiers there are also people in the Star Wars universe who heal or write for magazines or play sports, and he writes about those people and their personal priorities. Yes, they do tend to throw in a lot of jargon (what the heck is parichka?), but I think it just makes the Star Wars world feel all that more inventive and complete. 
It’s hard for me to think of the two MedStar books and the short story (“Intermezzo”) between them as anything other than parts of a whole, so I recommend all of them.
5. Revenge of the Sith
 I bought the RotS novel before the movie came out, and gave it to a friend to hold. I didn’t want anything spoiled. I came out of the movie disturbed and sad (because of the great world-shaking, lava-colored fall of the Jedi Order), and over the next few days got slightly more disturbed and sad (because of the quality of Lucas’s dialogue and Hayden Christen’s acting). 
And then I read the book. And got sad again; but not because of the quality. I was in fact stunned, and think that I haven’t read a novelization in the same way since. I don’t know why all authors who are given a script to work with don’t do what Matthew Stover did; realize that half their work is done for them, and so do twice as much work on the wording itself. However, he also adds dialogue and scenes that make Anakin and company seem more like real people than the movie ever did. You won’t watch it the same way again. There’s a reason that “love ignites the stars” and “this is what it’s like to be...” became common phrases in the fanfic for a while. His writing is charged and steely and pulls no punches, fitting coming from a martial artist. 
6. Coruscant Nights I: Jedi Twilight
     Like MedStar, the Coruscant Nights series was written by Michael Reaves, and pretty much exists as a whole. The character arcs progress throughout all three  (plus one upcoming) books. However, I thought that the first one had the clearest plot that best allowed for a fast-paced adventure story, and also contained the perfect amount of dialogue between interesting, varied characters. The latter ones lacked emotional high points at their conclusions, and sometimes had too much dialogue or block paragraphs or both. 
    However, Jedi Twilight introduces a series which is, in concept, similar to noir mysteries (or episodes of Angel). Former Jedi Jax Pavan (Lorn’s son, if you remember back to Shadowhunter) is making a life for himself in the post-Purge galaxy by working as a private detective. He’s joined by Den Dhur (the reporter in MedStar) and I-5 (Shadowhunter again), as well as a beautiful Zeltron (which is practically an oxymoron) and a scrappy Twi’lek (which fortunately isn’t). Both of the female characters start out as what seem like stock types until their actions explore those types further. The Zeltron is alternately manipulative and innocent, her hedonism warring with her friendship with the men around her who can’t help but be chemically attracted to her. The Twi’lek, a “gray side” Jedi named Laranth, is one of my favourite Star Wars characters. She’s tough and capable, but her life isn’t perfect; the not-quite-love story between her and Jax was infinitely more complicated than most Star Wars relationships, and both fail at multiple times to understand each other or themselves. At one point, Reaves writes that Laranth gave everything she had-- and it wasn’t enough. And, in context, that to me seemed to make her one of the most human characters in the EU. 
    Sometimes the pacing in Coruscant Nights is awkward, and the cameos by Darth Vader seemed to be simply that-- cameos to remind us that characters from the movies do indeed exist in the same universe that the book does. But the group dynamic is great, and I love a good group. And also there are lightwhips. 

    7. Yoda: Dark Rendezvous
      Purportedly about Yoda, this tightly-written novel in fact follows three new characters through a fun, sometimes frightening investigation that does end up shedding some light on the titular Jedi Master without telling the reader much more about him than is mentioned in the movies.

      Personally I think it’s better not to see things from Yoda’s point of view; this way I can continue to think that a slightly more mortal creature simply couldn’t handle it. Instead, we get three new Jedi characters: the scarred Jedi Knight Jai “Hawkbat” Maruk; the precocious Whie Malreaux; and Scout, a Padawan weak in the Force but strong in determination. She’s also strong in red-haired-ness, making her only, what, the hundredth Star Wars female of unusual hue? But I’ll stop there. I do love Scout. Again, I have to love the group.

      This book also has what I realized later are faux-French gothic novel touches, but Chateau Malreaux and its insane keeper are legitimately frightening. Sean Stewart brings gravitas and grit to the Star Wars universe, and despite my first paragraph, it also sheds a lot of light on the Yoda-Dooku dynamic. A thousand-year-old hero who feels every one of those years as acutely as anyone has lost his protege to the dark side, and Yoda’s sadness toward Dooku is only less touching than his persistent belief that Dooku will return to the Jedi. Their dialogue is excellent. Like Stover’s RotS, Dark Rendezvous makes subsequent viewings of the prequels better. 
      8. Soup’s On
      “Soup’s On: The Pipe Smoker’s Tale” is not a book. It’s a short story, featured in Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. It’s about Dannik Jerriko, that guy with the pipe, classy collar, and weird nose in the cantina sequence. Jennifer Roberson, author of various fantasy novels, brings a poetically visceral writing style to the first-person musings of this guy. Turns out he’s a thousand-year-old brain-eating connoisseur of luck, looking to kill the strongest “soup” vessel he can find. Of course he’s going to have his own take on the heroes of the original trilogy. You can probably see the pattern; I love books (and fanfic) that make it possible to see the movies in new ways after watching them. This one certainly does that. It also has beautiful writing, and made me feel a little bit like an Anne Rice vampire was sitting in the cantina.
      9. Jedi Search

      I didn’t know until long after I’d read them that Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy trilogy was almost as maligned as, like, the Holiday Special. Read blogs, read the Amazon reviews-- somehow, people hate these books. And I don’t get it.
      Mind you, I haven’t read them in a long time. My copy is at this moment about an hour car drive away; it will probably be a six-hour plane ride away by the time you read this. But based on what I remember, I maintain that the Jedi Academy series is awesome. Maybe the writing is bad, maybe the characters are bad, maybe Luke does get put in a coma for a while and Kyp Durron does blow up some star systems. But hold on.
      Picture an old man, so old, he’s alone, he talks to bat-winged birds all the time. He lives on a floating platform thousands of feet up in the air among priceless gases, harvesting tiny bits for himself. He can’t go within miles of people because he can hear their voices in his head and that scares him. He thinks he’s crazy.
      And then one day someone comes to him and says no, you’re not crazy, there are others. It’s okay. You’re gonna be a superhero.

      Picture fissured ground where steam rises up like scalding curtains. This is your planet, this is your environment, it’s harsh and hard and always hot. People die in the smoke. They get lost and don’t come out. There’s always someone in town with burn scars winding their way across their face. Because you have to mine and live and die here; you don’t have the resources not to.
      And one day you see someone walking through the smoke. A man in dark clothes with a billowing cape and thin hips. You think he’ll shy away or scream or burn, but he just keeps coming as calm as can be like the weather’s fine, or maybe there is some desert air but nothing to be afraid of. Nothing he can’t walk through with smoke just floating bronzey-pale past his face.
      And you find out that this guy is Luke Skywalker, hero of the Rebellion or the Jedi or the Republic whatever, it’s the hero part that matters. And you think, this is what being a Jedi Master means. It’s walking through fire looking like you own the place.

      Picture a building older than most civilizations, draped and clutched with moss, tiered, cold. You know it’s Mayan, but you know that what that really means right now is ancient, magical, blood-bought. Also the Rebellion staged its first win here. The remains of the first Death Star came to ground here. The air is hot and humid and there’s a giant planet sinking creamsicle-orange into the jungle on the horizon.
      And there, this hero, he’s going to teach you and the old man and lots of others to use the Force.
      That’s what the Jedi Academy trilogy is. 
      10. The New Jedi Order
      The one with the extraordinarily
      pretty cover is also
      the one where Tahiri's life
      goes completely batty. 
       It's hard for me to pick one NJO novel out of the whole. Without a doubt, Traitor is the best written, and Star by Star the most depressing. When I think of the NJO I think of Tahiri Veila ritually scarred and convinced that she was born a Yuuzhan Vong. I think of fuzzy little seedships clustered around Jedi like tribbles. I think of the Jaina Solo shipping wars, which raged while I watched in tentative confusion from my side of the screen. None of the books were all that amazing alone (except the previously mentioned emotional wringers). But as a whole, they inspired myself and others to see Star Wars as a vibrant, exotic, dangerous world. For those who like aliens, we get the Yuuzhan Vong and their array of biotech, strange words that flew off my tongue in high school as easily as band names; the nomadic Ryn; and a whole family of Barabel. I’m a fan. 
      One last thing before I let you go. Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor isn't on here only because that is a book that doesn't really know what it is. I love it as a parody of camp, the EU, and Star Wars fiction in general. Therefore, it is nigh unreadable (or at best "meh") as a serious story, or at least that is what I took from it. If I ever meet Matthew Stover, I might ask him if that was his intention.
      But it is the power of any one of these books to, no matter where I am on Earth, transport me back to a wonderful part of a galaxy far, far away, a part as familiar to me as summer camp cabins or my own home. I know the smells and the words and the people there. So no matter how much I complain about Star Wars, it all comes back to one soppy, crowd-uniting thing to remember.
      I’m a fan. 

      Wednesday, June 15, 2011

      Star Wars: Fatal Alliance

      Halfway through Fatal Alliance, I found myself in the odd situation of being more interested in sussing out what exactly I didn’t like about the book than in what actually happened at the end. I was reading it for the same reason I read half ofTwilight; because I was alone in someone else’s house and that was what I had. 

      I partially blame the reviewers, most of whom said Deceived was better than Fatal Alliance. Their main gripe was the characters, and this was my first point of confusion, because I didn’t think they were worse than the ones in the other TOR novel, anyway...until I got down to trying to describe them to myself.

      Larin Moxla is an ex-Republic soldier who, we are occasionally reminded, is also a Kiffar. She betrayed her company sometime in the past, in a situation not revealed to the reader until late in the book. This poses the first problem; we’re given an unclear backstory on a point-of-view character, which makes her feel baseless instead of us feel curious. Her personality is all over the place, as if it can't decide what soldier cliche to pull out: she’s snarky one moment, laconic the next. 

      Shigar Konshi is a Jedi Padawan, and at first I thought his youth and inexperience would make him a good point-of-view character. But he is neither full of wonderment like Luke, wisdom like Obi-Wan, or arrogance like Anakin (or hero-worship like Mical, or precociousness like Whie, or...). Take these away, and you have a character who looks unique on the surface but doesn’t actually bring anything new to the table. He is in fact rather like diet soda: different from the original, sure, but slimming it down took all the flavor away.

      I flat-out disliked the nervous Imperial spy Ula Vii, and the book’s insistence on keeping him sympathetic simply confused me. His “social awkwardness” (yes, those exact words are used) comes off as far more fawning than cute, and I feel like this type of character was done far more successfully with Kaird from MedStar II.

      Perhaps the most amusing character was “Jet Nebla” (introduced like that, just in case the author thought we would be turned away by a campy name). As an attempt at a Han Solo figure he comes off a lot like a Mal Reynolds figure instead, and his slang-filled dialogue was at least unique to him.

      There were also some Mandalorians.

      So why do I feel very little desire to finish this book? I got stuck around the extended fight scene with...well, I hesitate to call them “the hexes” like they do in the book, so I’ll just call them “those droids like from Cestus Deception except not actually the same ones.” They have multiple legs, can rebuild themselves in funky patterns, and are particularly mysterious and deadly...see, they’re the same ones. Sean Williams’ writing style, which I at first liked better than Kemp’s in Deceived, falls apart during fight scenes. It is stilted, and doesn’t make up for it with detail like Kemp did. Halo novels are like this too, and I’m really not sure why the publishers give action stories to people who can’t write fights. (Who can write fights? Matthew Stover, that’s who, although even he sometimes tries too hard to be clever in a scene where the words should be as straight as punches and as pointed as knives.) 

      The overall impression I was left with was that this book was an attempt at showing what the RPG experience of TOR would be like, which of course is exactly the sort of thing the publisher probably told the author to do. But the result are these very short scenes with very vague characters. I felt like I was back in my text RP days, pounding out my few paragraphs before waiting for a couple hours or afternoons to see what the reply would be. But in that case there was real life between posts, and a pre-established emotional attachment to my and other’s characters. 

      As sad as I am to say it, I didn’t bother finishing Fatal Alliance before returning it to the library.  The characters just didn’t drive it, despite the author’s occasionally charged writing style.

      Just in case you think it’s all doom and gloom around here, my next post should be about my top ten favorite Star Wars books. I need to remember that I can be passionate about them. 

      Sunday, June 5, 2011

      Star Wars: Deceived

      Star Wars: Deceived, by Paul S. Kemp, is a tightly plotted novel, at least in the sense that everything in it seems to have its place. Four heroes are lifted from the incredibly impressive The Old Republic trailers: the masked Sith Darth Malgus, the Jedi Knight Aryn Leneer, the ex-Republic soldier Zeerid Korr, and the Twi’lek Eleena. I suspected that the dramatis personae was supposed to show each of the main classes in the game, but was unable to figure out which one Eleena would be; she is also the only main character whose point of view we don’t get to see from. The book has multiple emotional hooks involving the relationships between Aryn and her Jedi Master, Aryn and Zeerid, and Malgus and Eleena, the latter of which I thought was the most interesting, and also the least explored. Kemp creates in Malgus a Sith in love, and expertly lets the character be cruel and kind in equal measure while keeping the imposing, weighty darkness Malgus showed in the trailer. Unfortunately, however, we never fully understand Eleena’s side of the story. She is devoted to Malgus because he saved her life, but does she approve of his Sith ways? We don’t know, and by the end of the book she becomes something of a MacGuffin. But the four protagonists act and interact, and at the end I felt that they formed a nice core for the book to take shape around. 
      The book sets itself apart from other Star Wars novels in that the stakes are largely internal. There are no superweapons to be destroyed. The set-piece final battles, which are to be both expected and enjoyed, are background to three different moral dilemmas. Zeerid, Aryn, and Malgus each have to decide between light and darkness, and some of those choices pleasantly surprised me. 
      Speaking of battles, Kemp writes fight scenes that I wish I could see on-screen. There was a great moment where characters tossed their blasters aside and started using wrestling moves. The Force-powered battles reminded me of The Force Unleashed or Clone Wars, with fast, creative choreography that had a little too much of a visual component. The prose lost all flourish during the fights, but when I went back and read certain paragraphs like an instruction manual, picturing the moves, I realized Kemp had done his research (or his time on the mats).  
      The prose itself had a nice lilt at moments that reminded me of when I first started writing Halo fan fiction-- every once in a while, Kemp is going to turn to the reader and wink. He’s going to say I’m writing a Star Wars novel-- isn’t that great? Isn’t that hilarious? Phrases like “second-tier Darth” seemed to have fun playing around with language. He carries themes and single phrases nicely throughout sections of the book, something I need to work on.
      Then of course he’d say something like “It had been a symbol of justice for thousands of years. And now it was gone. There was symbolism in that, Aryn supposed.” and I facepalm. 
      Being that this is the first book in the TOR era that I have read, I was curious to see what was going to be different about the galaxy four thousand years ago. (Although this book was published after the other TOR tie-in, Fatal Alliance, it is chronologically first.) It’s nearly a moot point to complain about this, since I could have complained about the same thing back in the days of Knights of the Old Republic and didn’t since KotOR was so awesome, but it bothered me that almost none of the technology in the Star Wars universe had changed over four thousand years. Other cute nods to the original material, such as Han’s spaceship-hiding tactics, seemed trying too hard to be just that--cute.
      I did keep flashing back to some of my favourite Star Wars books and making not-favorable conclusions. I wish Sean Stewart of Dark Rendezvous had described the locations. His Coruscant, as brief as it was, was great. Kemp shows us the Works when it was actually....working, and it’s a fantastic, almost steampunk vision of elephantine industry. However, it had none of the imposing character that Stewart’s House Malreaux did.  I wish Michael Reeves and Steve Perry had written some of the dialogue: they're so great about making characters care about the small things, and giving those characters time to talk. 
      As a final note, it took me way too long to notice that Zeerid’s last name is Korr, and that the other Star Wars novel Paul S. Kemp did was about Jaden Korr. You’re not alone, questionably-related Setele Shan. 
      On the whole, I rate Deceived as not as good as anything Michael Reeves wrote, and better than Fate of the Jedi as a whole. I’m glad I read it but might not have been if I’d bought it. Recommended if you’re curious about the era, or about conflicted Sith.