Monday, May 6, 2013

Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void

Dawn of the Jedi 
Images of moons and caverns float through Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void, tying the novel together . More well-crafted than some Star Wars novels, this book delivers on its promise of a strong, uncompromising female hero. Like the core of Star Wars, Void is a story about a dysfunctional family, and although the characters are all new, it still felt like a good solid Star Wars adventure story with heart.

Characters: Lanoree’s Life

Lanoree Brock provides the momentum for the novel. After The Last Jedi (and Revan and Scourge and Crosscurrent etc.), it was nice to see a female lead take charge. Lanoree isn’t kind – she often comes off as vindictive or cold – but she’s admirable and entertaining because she’s always the one doing the saving. She’s analytically minded too, far less poetic and emotional than her brother.

The story follows her search for him. Dalien Brock was presumed dead, but now he has reappeared seeking a superweapon that could either open a hyperspace portal out of Tython, or destroy the entire solar system. She’s joined by Tre Sana, a cowardly but vicious Twi’lek with a mysterious past.

That analytical mind is sometimes taken to an off-putting extreme: when Lanoree thinks about an ally dying, she worries first about how to dispose of the body, and in the various Jedi Academies she “does not allow herself to grow close to classmates.” I became worried during some scenes that the author was pushing the idea that women who take charge are inherently shrewish and cruel, but that wasn’t the case by the end. Lanoree feels a whole host of things, including loyalty, temptation, pain, and regret. In addition, her mentorship with the slightly sinister Master Dam-Powl made for some pleasant scenes of female friendship. The platonic relationship between Lanoree and Tre develops nicely from disgust and pity to camaraderie. In the end, she is powerful and ruthless in an intensely personal way. I think Lanoree will please a wide variety of female fans.

On the one hand, the book is entirely about a woman’s pursuit of a man. On the other hand he’s her brother, and their relationship sometimes feels like Anakin and Obi-Wan’s splintering spiritual fraternity. Dal himself is interesting, with a grudge that he can’t tell from actual hatred, which later becomes that hatred. I do like stories of Jedi who don’t quite fit in, like Scout in Dark Rendezvous, and Into the Void is a less hopeful look at a Jedi who isn’t particularly good at what they do.

Lanoree has some flaws: she shows a little guilt, that emotion that novelist Sheri S. Tepper has called distinctly feminine, and sometimes sabotages herself to avoid confronting her brother. She isn’t a pro at everything: she’s best at athletics and alchemy. I like that she excels in science, and that becomes very important to the plot. (She is described as attractive a few too many times for my taste.)

Her extremely focused attitude got frustrating at times. Lanoree gives no sign of understanding her brother’s perspective. She’s pitying but not compassionate, and I felt like a simple revelation for her such as “he actually doesn’t have the capacity to be good at using the Force, it’s not that he’s just petulant and not trying” might have changed their relationship drastically. A lot of times I felt sorry for Dal and understood why he would develop a grudge toward the Je’daii, a sentiment that Lanoree did not share. Her lack of compromise also did weaken what is generally a strong ending: instead of changing very much she instead becomes more of what she was before. I did think that it worked in the long run: see the spoiler space for more.

These Jedi in Into the Void aren’t the Jedi I’m familiar with: their morality emphasizes balancing on the line between dark and light, and although they seem to consider tipping toward the dark more dangerous than tipping toward the light, some of their alchemical experiments are downright squicky.

Plot: The Hero’s Travels

If you’re familiar with the Dawn of the Jedi era through the comics you can take some of my words with a grain of salt: Into the Void was my first exposure to that time period.

It’s very different from the Star Wars I know, even in the Knights of the Old Republic games: the action takes place inside a single star system, and “sleeper ships” that take slow, generational trips through realspace to reach other systems seemed borrowed from more cerebral sci-fi. It’s made clear that the four or five species living in the Tythan system were transported from somewhere else, and I wasn’t sure how much I was supposed to know about that, because the characters didn’t know much about it themselves. In a way that contributed to a nice feeling of ancientness and mystery throughout the book.

In other places it was anticlimactic: I thought the Tho Yor would be a major plot point until their origin was casually mentioned in a comic book. But this also took me out of the fictional dream a little: it would have been easy for Lanoree to note that she knew what the Tho Yor were without disrupting a sentence. I sometimes didn’t know what the characters themselves knew.

But everyone’s going to encounter Into the Void with a different level of information, and perhaps in this way it works for both fans of the comic and newcomers. It certainly made me care a lot more about the Dawn of the Jedi era than I had before, which was none at all.

Newcomers are also introduced to little Easter eggs from the Dawn of the Jedi era like a different use of the word “Padawan” and those first-draft concepts of dark and light, Ashla and Bogan.

I have a love-hate relationship with ancient aliens, in this case the ones called the Gree. Although a sense of ancientness gives the stories an atmospheric, dusty grandeur, I’ve read enough Star Wars and Halo and Mass Effect novels to see that ancient aliens are a go-to plot point for transmedia projects, and all of the ruins start to look the same.

The plot revolves around matter that is dark scientifically and morally. The era it’s set in works against the novel in a big way in this case: a lot of the suspense is lost when you realize that although the book is set thousands of years in the galaxy’s past, the main threat is the destruction of the Tythan system, which is present and unharmed in later Star Wars material.  Luckily the story of Lanoree and Dalien is entertaining and gripping enough on its own. For a book featuring no characters I was familiar with, Void felt like Star Wars.

The Writing: Nuts and Bolts

Most of the novel switches between the past-tense ‘present day’ and present-tense flashbacks to Lanoree and Dalien’s Je’daii training and what lead to his disappearance. The flashbacks feed the reader information slowly and really help to deepen the characters of both Lanoree and Dalien, but didn’t come together at the conclusion in as dramatic a fashion as I had hoped.

The writing is pretty much exactly what one would expect from a Star Wars novel most of the time, with few frills and sometimes lacking in varied physical description. The dialogue is sometimes elevated and poetic in a way that works for the tone and the era, but occasionally descends into smarmy around the end of the novel. There’s a lot of “calling a rabbit a smeerp” , with “tygahs” being by far the silliest offender. Some action scenes toward the three-quarters mark feel like filler but don’t run too long.

The story also gets props for leaving the heroes’ parents alive. Another cliche Lebbon dodges is meaningful dreams: may of Lanoree’s dreams are clearly stress-dreams instead of anything prophetic, but still feel relevant.

There’s hints that the book might be darker fare then usual, with some violence and language that surprised me, but that feeling doesn’t really manifest until the conclusion, which was gory but answered a longstanding mystery in the book. The answer was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be, but the more I think about it the more disturbing the scene was. It’s no more gory than some scenes involving the Yuuzhan Vong in the New Jedi Order, although context makes it feel more emotionally wrought. See the spoiler space for more.

The hardback of Into the Void also includes a short story called “Dawn of the Jedi: Eruption”, which is also available in the May 2013 issue of Star Wars Insider, and a comic, “Down of the Jedi: Prisoner of Bogan #2”, mis-marked as #1. In “Eruption” I could tell that Jon Ostrander was used to working in a medium where he didn’t have to describe things in prose, since it’s even scarcer than Lebbon’s. The story itself is a likeable crossover between a tough Lanoree and one of the comic characters. The comic was a bit difficult to follow what with it being #2 but the art was vivid and realistic and made me rethink my mental images of the way the characters dressed in the novel. (There’s also an excerpt from Crucible.)

Together, Into the Void, ‘Prisoner of Bogan’, and ‘Eruption” succeeded in painting a picture that got me interested in the Dawn of the Jedi era in a way I hadn’t been before. A strong but not blandly powerful female character very much helped, as did the atmospheric Je’daii Temples and landscapes.  Lanoree inhabited my head long after I put the book down, as I thought about how she saw the world and the choices she had made.


The longer I thought about it, the more the scene with the alchemical flesh stuck in my mind, in both good and bad ways. The scene was disturbing, and perhaps it was supposed to be. Ultimately, it’s another scene where Lanoree saves herself. She does so by fabricating and replacing her own heart, changing the chasm/void within herself so that it’s not something her brother can distract her with any more.

Into the Void stood up to my usual attempts to wring worrying symbolism about gender roles out of it. The ending is completely unlike Jubal Charn’s victory in Shadow Games, which comes from her being controlled by a man, or the main female in Coruscant Nights getting killed off as an inciting incident. Lanoree wins her final fight by using her own love for her brother, as well as her sword, as an offensive weapon, and I love that.

Although Tre’s fate was effectively saddening, I liked the gender role reversal: Tre’s story was like Mara Jade’s accelerated into one book, from reluctant accompaniment of a hero to dying of a medical problem.

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