Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Coruscant Falls in Star By Star

The New Jedi Order was my first passion in Star Wars literature. Soon after seeing the movies for the first time, I got caught up in this ongoing story about Jedi fighting aliens. About ten years later I’m re-reading the series with a fresh perspective.

I have vivid memories of reading Star By Star on a family vacation to South Carolina,  on a long, hot car ride and a windy beach. After re-reading it over a long period in the fall, I have come to the conclusion that it isn't a good cold-weather book.

This is, obviously, because Star By Star is sad. The deaths of Anakin Solo and of Borsk Fey'lya are some of the most praised, most illustrated scenes in the Expanded Universe.  The mission to Myrkyr consists of teenagers sometimes literally wading through corpses. In the messy, grueling fall of Coruscant, the Big Three and their families are separated and made victims of the terror and boredom of war. In contrast to the idyllic opening scene in the rather dull novel Rebirth, Luke and Mara sit on a beach and watch the world burn. years and many war stories later, is this a good book? Yes. Star By Star is just as engaging and emotionally draining as I remember, but it only works if it works. 

That means that one has to believe in the story, which has slow spots and what might be thoughtlessly sexist asides, in order to feel engaged in it. But I was taken in again.

Star By Star has some of the best prose in the series, and effortlessly effective descriptions of the cool, frightening voxyn. The Jedi battle meld makes the Myrkyr strike team members as close and strong as any soldiers, and the prose becomes less specific and more emotional when the Jedi are deeper in that bond. Obstacles such as stinging gnats are frightening when the teenage heroes don't know what's going on: scenes start out all mud and blood and bugs.

Luke Skywalker gets to be cool, and enjoys flying an X-Wing with just the Force. He's come a long way since turning off his targeting computer on approach to the first Death Star. Danni Quee also has clawed out an important role for herself as the expert on yammosks and the detection of yammosks - the biggest victory in the battle of Coruscant is perhaps hers, since her information scatters a portion of the Yuuzhan Vong fleet.

I remember being irritated by the treacherous senator Viqi Shesh when I first read this book, but now find her merely tiresome and a little sad. In her most interesting moment, she thinks of herself as one in a line of has-been heroes facing the Republic's inevitable fall. Sebatyne hatchmates are still some of my favorite Jedi ever, because they are large lizards who laugh a lot. What's not to love? I expected to have a radically different view of the dark side characters than I did as a teenager, but instead feel pretty neutral so far. Welk's best moment was his reaction to the battle meld: "How come nobody around here ever finishes a sentence?" I had forgotten that Lomi was a Nightsister, and pictured her as a sort of overweight, agreeable sort who also happens to be able to shoot Force lightning.

Poor Alema, though, got treated worse in this book than I remembered. Instead of seeing her as a stuck-up, aggravating character, I now see her very much as a victim of the story. She isn't treated well from the beginning. In the course of the book's massive, bloody first act, she and her sister, who have been leading a defense force on New Plympto, come under attack and disguise themselves as dancers. It's a pointless use of the Twi'lek dancer stereotype, as the costumes never come in handy. 

Her trauma is never really explored. Instead she is cast as a rival for Anakin's affection. Her motives are ascribed to the fact that "she could not bear the burden of New Plympto and her sister's death," but we never see the strength she must have shown as a leader of the resistance. 

Tahiri also doesn't get a lot of development in this book, and is "not fond of any of the strike team's female Jedi," for no apparent reason. and Mara have a lot at stake, and are interesting enough. They spend the book adventuring with their respective husbands. Mara doesn't spend a lot of time with her son Ben, which seemed like an oversight. Similarly, the reader never gets to see Alema's reaction to her sister's bloody death. Leia and Han have a touching, quiet moment that ends with Han agreeing to get the Millennium Falcon a co-pilot's seat that fits Leia, which was a nice, subtle conclusion to the plotline about the Wookiee's death and Han and Leia's subsequent marital issues.

Mara speaks one of the book's grimmest lines, and it's a grim book. When she declares that the Force isn't with the Jedi at their hidden base, the weight of the war begins to really come down on the story. The effectiveness of that, the way the war drains on the characters, was immersive and impressive, and Star By Star still hit me emotionally. When refugee ships slam against Coruscant's shields because they're trapped between the Vong and the planet, it hurts, and Borsk's death is a fist-pumping act of defiance. 

On the other hand, I can see why fans say this doesn't feel like Star Wars. There's an element of hopelessness, and when Han says adventuring isn't fun any more, it becomes less fun for the reader as well. As book 10 in a 19 book series, Star By Star is just beginning the descent into the almost post-apocalyptic landscape of Traitor and Dark Journey. I'm looking forward to them, but I can see why people would put the book down, numbed by the grittiness of a story that puts familiar characters through such terrible things. It took me a long time to read, partially because it's a long novel, but partially because I didn't want it to bring my mood down. My recommendation? Read it in the summer.  

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