Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Old Republic: Annihilation

Annihilation by Drew Karpyshyn is a shell of a book, with sketchy characters and action written in dry, stilted prose.

It's rare that I actively dislike a Star Wars novel, but there are exceptions. Sometimes it's difficult to find reasons to praise something when it doesn't attempt to break out of the mold. "Intrepid hero and snarky smuggler destroy superweapon" worked well for A New Hope but it isn't a magical recipe for entertainment, and Annihilation doesn't bring anything new to the table or inject any fun or creative wording into the formula. Unless you're a rabid fan of Jace Malcolm or Satele Shan, you'd probably best be served picked up a different Star Wars book.

I could say that Annihilation is classic space adventure, or that it’s fun, but I don’t really want to. It’s unambitious and bland, unable to sufficiently express its own occasional moments of uniqueness. The book is short and brisk, and could have done with more scenes of people waiting for things, if only to have those people talk about something besides the immediate plot. Annihilation is a void down which occasional ideas drop.

Those ideas show up as author Drew Karpyshyn offers us tidbits of interesting characters, such as a Sith commander cybernetically attached to her ship and an Imperial analytics expert who thinks Sith are too emotional, but these are small parts of a larger whole.

The main character is Theron Shan, who originated in comics. I like Theron – I like that he fights with slicer spikes and climbing gear more often than with a blaster. He is a spy instead of a brawler. However, it is his arsenal more than his attitude that defines him. He fights to save the Republic and to help his friend Teff’ith, but mostly he seemed to just want the plot to move forward.

Saying that Drew Karpyshyn writes white, male, human characters is like saying the sun rises. Karpyshyn was the lead writer for both Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, so maybe it would help to imagine Theron Shan as a customizable player character whose only solid trait is his willingness to jump into missions and poke his nose into mysteries. He spent some time as a Zabrak female in my head.

Other characters include the Twi’lek smuggler Teff’ith; Karrid, the above-mentioned Falleen Sith commander; and Theron’s absent mother, Satele, who seems to have had a fling in between novels and comics, since the identity of Theron’s father is unknown. (The eventual reveal might have been more interesting if I liked the The Old Republic era more. With the exception of a reunion between Satele and the father that starts cliche – “at least in their final moments they had each other” – and ends tense, the family drama was sidelined by both Theron and Karpyshyn.) I was happy whenever Teff’ith was present in a scene because her unique way of talking at least varied the dialogue.

The plot has pretty much two acts: one in which Theron and company are looking for the Sith ship Ascendant Spear, and one in which they’re on it. Arriving at the target so early seemed to slow the story down for me. Theron’s adventures in watching the news and stealing a pass card would probably have been more fun to play than to read: as is they were dry.

The ultimate threat at the end is that the Spear will attack the planet Duros and its orbital cities. This planet hadn’t been mentioned in the first half of the book, and seemed a bit cattycorner to the whole plot.

While the end fight wasn’t what I imagined, a slicer inside a ship linked to a Sith’s brain was not a kind of fight I’ve seen before. However, the writing ranged from bare-bones to clumsy.
Look at this sentence. “…The vessel was consumed in a brilliant white flash, punctuated by the rapidly expanding ring of glowing energy that characterized a massive hypermatter explosion”. It’s a cute nod to the Death Star, and does let me imagine the scene, but the last half of the sentence is also entirely unnecessary. “Expanding ring of energy” is just a bulkier way of saying “explosion”. More efficient, punchier writing could have improved the whole thing.

As far as gender equality and strong female characters go, Teff’ith was a small but essential part of the plot, and Karrid the main antagonist. Both male protagonists end up dressed in their underwear for the final battle, Theron for reasons I do not entirely understand (he was sweaty, and valued cool air over his stolen uniform I guess), which made for some funny moments and reminded me of the Leviathan sequences in Knights of the Old Republic. Although Kerrid is a Falleen and described as alluring, she makes no romantic advances toward the heroes, which could be seen as restraint on the part of the author – this is, after all, the universe that contains Prince Xizor and Darth Talon.

Annihilation kept its female characters from falling into tropes…at least as much as it did so for the men.

All in all I liked Teff’ith, the final fight was memorable for about a day, and the whole adventure was very much in the spirit of The Old Republic. However, Annihilation doesn’t do anything to set it above any other Star Wars novel. The Jedi is very Jedi Masterly, the smuggler is independent and funny, the bad guys are evil and usually arranged in groups, just like in KotOR. The antagonist at the end is annihilated, but so was my interest in the book.

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