Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi I wish the entirety of The Last Jedi was like the first 45 pages.

I’ve really enjoyed Michael Reaves and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff’s past tales of Jax Pavan and his merry band, so I was excited to pick up The Last Jedi.  Series hero Jax Pavan has grown from a self-serious Jedi apprentice to appropriately grim, sometimes even dour knight via the Jedi Purge and a stint as a gumshoe. He is a likable and fallible character – more worrisome than his mentors, but then, he does have the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders. Another thing that keeps him from becoming a stock lead (who also happens to know Anakin Skywalker) is the way he visualizes the Force as ribbons of light or islands in an ocean.

The beginning of the novel sets up a lot of questions about time and space, with Reaves and Bohnhoff displaying an enjoyable menagerie of strange beings such as the Cephalons. I do wish some of this hadn’t been shown in flashbacks: it would have worked just as well as a prologue. Reaves – I’m singling him out here because he did it in the first few Coruscant Nights books as well – has a habit of placing flashbacks or three paragraphs of introspection right in the middle of another scene, which often feels disruptive and distracting.

However, parts of the novel absolutely shine, and the ending has a lot of momentum that ends in a showdown that ties most of the book’s threads together as well as giving readers a look into the initial struggles of the rebellions against the Empire.

Laranth Tarak and Jax have settled into a stable relationship: in an atmospheric scene near the beginning they’re tempted to stay on a verdant planet, and it’s clear that they have not only a physical attraction to one another but similar sensibilities and priorities. There are some beautiful descriptions of both the landscapes and how it feels to sense the Force.

But after around page 45, the positive world-building is replaced by something that feels more emotionally manipulative. After a brief battle, the plot sags in the middle. New rebel characters are introduced, but the plot prevents them from actually getting involved in anything for a while. The Last Jedi is longer than any of the previous Coruscant Nights books. (Although it’s not officially billed as a sequel I’m pretty sure that’s just because it doesn’t take place on Coruscant.) The length is mostly because the characters bounce around between surprisingly unexciting encounters with Prince Xizor and some Mandalorians around the middle. Name recognition of other canon events events such as the Mandalore arc on The Clone Wars are not enough to keep this section entertaining.
On the other hand, some activities of the rebel group Whiplash on Coruscant were brushed over when they could have been long scenes, and Whiplash itself loses some steam from having a lot of characters without much going on. I like the shaggy, loyal detective Pol Haus and the serene and talented Togruta Sheel, although their flirtation seems left over and repeated from the noir atmosphere in Patterns of Force.

The book has quite a few female characters who fare better, however, with the last third of the book being almost fifty-fifty in terms of gender. There are women in relationships and women without relationships, women who get revenge on creeps and women who are creeps. The capable Sacha was dismissed by Jax at first on the grounds that a woman, any woman, on the ship would jar his own fragile mental state, so I was glad to see his narrow-mindedness proved wrong when she becomes a significant and sometimes humorous part of the plot later.

Jax’s longtime companions Den Dhur and I-5 are also part of the story, but I felt they were a bit less entertaining than usual: Den is best in social settings instead of big action scenes, and continued unanswered questions about whether or not I-5 can feel the Force are starting to feel both old and overdramatic.

The end picks up a bit with an interesting trip to Dathomir: l like Reaves’ and Bohnhoff’s look at the witches; less evil than the ones in The Clone Wars and less sensationalist than the ones in The Courtship of Princess Leia, we nevertheless get to see both a Zabrak-human mix and a member of the Djo family. The Zabrak seemed pretty equanimous toward a male, more curious than prejudiced, which didn’t seem very realistic when compared to gender biases on Earth but was more welcome as a piece of fiction than Courtship’s Witches trussing up their male visitor.

The novel stays on target with a couple main themes: the price indecision can exact, and how the Force connects to the flow of time. Some of the ideas about time travel were more jarring than others, and Jax seemed to become adept at some pretty drastic Force abilities very quickly, but Reaves and Bohnhoff’s colorful descriptions of what having Force abilities feels like was always worth it. I liked the bizarre alien Cephalons. Reaves’ inclusion of canon characters always feels a bit perfunctory, perhaps because the amount of original characters who might die makes scenes more frightening and because his original characters are perfectly capable of holding a scene on their own.

It’s not a perfect novel, with some odd pacing choices, but the cast of memorable characters that have gathered by the end make up for the novel initially suggesting that Jax might avoid friendly people, and therefore interesting scenes, as much as possible. Reaves and Bohnhoff’s prose is strongest in dialogue as well as in introspection, and some of the most memorable scenes happened inside characters’ heads. Even with the Jedi Order dead, this book is at times a thought-provoking examination of the Force and where its limits might be. The Last Jedi would probably not be a good place to start with the Coruscant Nights series, since the feeling of camaraderie from some of the characters having been together for three books propelled me through the drier parts, but for fans of Jax or of varied and alien characters, The Last Jedi is an enjoyable read that shines the most when it’s letting its characters explore and figure things out.

Read below for some comments including spoilers:

The dividing line toward the beginning of the book is, if it wasn’t obvious, Laranth’s death.  If the scene on Toprawa was meant to work as the emotional analog of the top of a roller coast and propel the rest of the book along, it worked. But in some ways it worked too well, and with Dejah Duare’s death in Patterns of Force also involving Vader I started to think that women weren’t allowed to stick around Jax for too long. Laranth was a character with a unique look and backstory who could have been more than an inciting incident for another character.

The reason Jax rejects Sacha is because her presence reminds him too much of Laranth. Laranth was one of my favorite characters and I was sad to see her go, and the only mention of her “bare shoulders” coming right before her death seemed tasteless. I liked that she informed almost all of Jax’s thoughts in the rest of the book, but she could have been more than the tragic plot point that Padme also became in Revenge of the Sith.  I was disappointed that one of my favorites had died, but I was more disappointed that she was turned from a character into a catalyst.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sad she's gone, too. She should've lasted longer in the book. I mean, why is it always the female love interest that gets killed first? Why can't it be someone else?
    I've only read the 50-page preview, so I could still hope on the rest of the book.