In order for a story to be interesting, the stakes need to be high. There has to be a sense that the heroes will lose a lot if they fail. A New Hope introduced a Luke who could lose his life or his adventure, a Leia who could lose her planet, a Han who could lose his freedom. As the Expanded Universe has grown out past Return of the Jedi, those three have gotten stronger and stronger – and their sense of invincibility robs Crucible of any bite.
Billed in promotional material as a good place for new fans to start, it
really isn’t. Although explanations of some concepts abound, I felt
that other events would have a lot more weight if I’d cared for Legacy of the Force or Fate of the Jedi.
If you liked Luke’s characterization in those books and care about Ben
and Vestara, this is for you. If not, it’s not. Add in Mortis, and it
becomes a teetering tower of original trilogy, Clone Wars, and Expanded
Universe references with an unstable cast.
Jedi healing trances and encyclopedic explanations of past events also defuse the book’s sense of urgency. Despite Denning’s insistence that Our Heroes aren’t infallible, injuries as severe as eyes needing to be replaced are shrugged off. I got the sense that the book was largely reactive, counting on the lasting power of the Big Three, and especially after a relatively creative standalone like Into the Void, Crucible seemed to be trying too hard to check all the Star Wars boxes. Do all cantinas really remind Han of Chalmun’s?
Cyborgs and father-son relationships are passed over equally casually. For all that Crucible is bloody, it doesn’t get frightening until the end, when I legitimately wondered whether one of the Big Three would die – and whether it wouldn’t be better if they did or didn’t.
When Han shrugs at a supernatural transformation, it makes me ambivalent too. No matter where the Big Three go, Denning doesn’t write them as particularly empathetic. Han goes from thinking his wife is dead to wondering whether retirement will be boring in a few paragraphs. To his credit, Han has gotten a little genre savvy – when someone offers to bring back your dead wife, you don’t say yes.
The text also repeatedly says that the antagonists, the brothers Qreph, are geniuses, but doesn’t show it. At best they are like Batman villains, with a pain-filled sabacc game as their most inventive moment. As much as they pride themselves as being Calumi, they have no alien culture either.
Speaking of bad guys, I thought that clones of classic-trilogy characters were pretty passe in the EU. Tim Zahn lovingly mocked his own Luuke on the Star Wars blog for April Fool’s in 2012, but here Denning plays it straight, giving Han a disposable sidekick Leia without her own agency.
It colors my experience that I bailed from post-RotJ stories for reasons such as this, but I can’t wrap my head around a Luke who expects a teenager to “pay for her treachery.” What happened to all his defining moments of mercy? I guess he lost that trait along with his nephew Jacen.
The last battle is bizarre and cartoonish, with fights blurring into balls of light. Maybe it would have worked better on screen, but as is it feels like Denning had just gotten tired of writing fights. The physical and metaphorical become one and the same, with luminous beings fighting shadows, and it’s hokey or showy or a little bit of both.
The novel has its nicely tense moments (though having too many instances where Our Heroes seem to survive things that would kill people in our time, with our medical technology, dilutes them) and the idea of something that can grant any person the Force could be used in lots of interesting ways.
Ultimately, I ended the novel realizing that I’d be dissatisfied if the Big Three died and even less so if they didn’t. It was certainly a difficult task for Denning to make either one of those scenarios work, but the lukewarm middle ground the novel treads on feels shallow and silly. The Star Wars heroes have, it seems, exhausted the variety of bad guys they can face. In the end the book borrows far too much from the “it was all a dream” ending of The Clone Wars’ Mortis arc, though, and the stakes are never higher than Our Heroes being inconvenienced by a couple of alien geniuses who are neither genius nor alien.