Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jacen Journeys Through the Underworld in Traitor

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 was afraid when I started Traitor. I tend to be wary of my own hype regarding Matthew Stover - can he be as good as I remember?

When he wrote Traitor, Stover was a first-time Star Wars author. Shatterpoint would come out two years later, the stellar Revenge of the Sith novel one year after that. It's hard to tell that Traitor came first. Stover's words bring a beauty and flourish to familiar sights like the acrobatic combat of the Jedi: "A world-whirl of airborne somersault over the heads of two warriors lunging side by side, and their boneless collapse as a single lightsaber slash opens the napes of two necks and unstrings their limbs--" 

The metaphor of pain as a spectrum runs through the book, and color is always vividly described and very important. The beginning and the end parallel each other, giving the book satisfying symmetry and making the creation of that kind of structure look easy. The whole novel is also Jacen's descent to the underworld, in which he returns with greater knowledge. Vergere even tells him that he's dead.

It isn't just the prose that elevates Traitor above its siblings in the series. Stover makes Vergere a morally ambiguous character similar to Kriea from Knights of the Old Republic 2, which also had not yet been released. She manipulates both Jacen and Vergere, and everything she says is true. And everything that she says is a lie. 

Vergere is not of the dark side, but she guides Jacen through it in order to present to him another crucible just like the Embrace of Pain. Jacen is torn down in this novel, and it's fascinating to see the parallels between him and his twin sister as they take their lone journeys. Both use Force lightning; both sacrifice other people to meet their goals, both put on the mantle of the twin gods as a trick.

Traitor has a less complicated structure than Jaina's Dark Journey, but that's part of what makes it so satisfying. The book is essentially split into three parts: Jacen's torture by the Embrace of Pain and the young dhuryam, his journey through the beautiful, disturbing Vongformed Coruscant, and his tenure as Nom Anor's trophy Jedi, faking loyalty to the Yuuzhan Vong gods. The three parts are also indicated by Jacen's perception of pain as different colors, first white, then black, then red. Vergere, Nom Anor, and Ganner Rhysode are the only other main characters. More so than Dark Journey was Jaina's, Traitor is strictly Jacen's story, although Ganner and, arguably, Vergere also change and grow.

I would like to just quote Vergere forever: her philosophy is still vivid and mind-bending. "Does truth come in breeds like nerfs?" The grand unification that both Jacen and Ganner feel at the end of the novel, calling forward to the final book in the series, is a result of her teachings. At the same time, I don't think that her philosophy denies the existence of a dark side. I don't like my Star Wars too morally gray; I think that one of the fascinating things about the Star Wars world is that it is relatively easily divided. Vergere blurs the distinction between the two, though. She says, "This is the shameful secret of the Jedi. There is no dark side." 

"I did not say it was wrong, Jacen Solo." she says earlier. "Am I a moralist?" At the same time, her actions ultimately lead to Jacen returning, changed, to the light side. Vergere is, for now, on the side of good despite, or in addition to, her philosophy.

(It's so ironic to realize that Jacen won't be that way forever, though. He eventually goes to the dark side; the sacrifice of the twins is eventually completed, without Yuuzhan Vong involvement.)

I thought it was strange that Vergere quoted "red in tooth and claw," the famous line from a real-world poem. (A reading of the poem as it relates to the book would be fascinating, but perhaps too long for this post: suffice it to say that one of the first words is "embrace.") Ganner's glorious "None shall pass," is also a bit referential. I remember thinking, when I was younger, that perhaps Vergere had come from our world: it would explain why she would see the Jedi philosophy from such a distance. 

Traitor has great in-universe revelations, too. Stover slips in the conjecture that the Yuuzhan Vong are so fanatical because the Bridge that crossed their world served as an irrefutable proof of their gods. In the grotesque Nursery, we also see that vonduun crabs are armored against amphistaffs because the wild species are natural enemies. Jacen gains the kind of Vongsense that Anakin had through his lambent-crystal lightsaber; it seems like Jaina Solo is the only one of the three children who doesn't have a psychic connection to the Yuuzhan Vong.

There's more to love in this intense, gruesome book, too. (It is gruesome, which give some perspective to the bloody scenes in Heir to the Jedi.) Vergere's shadowmoth metaphor is great and carries through the whole book. The connections to other parts of the Star Wars saga are small but significant: Vergere had known Anakin Skywalker once when he was a young boy at the Jedi Temple, and Jacen believes that "his family history was itself the ultimate argument that the dark side was everybody's affair." Jacen feels the dark side as a "shadow worm," similar to Anakin Skywalker's dragon in Stover's Revenge of the Sith novelization.

 Jacen is the perfect person to tell the story of Traitor, because he had already been interested in philosophy. His questions earlier in the series seem simple and limited, now, compared to Vergere's - but it had to be him who asked them. It had to be him who went through the underworld, who turned himself inside out to truly know his destiny. "He had swallowed himself."

Traitor also made me want to immediately start the next book, although I'm not sure Destiny's Way will be able to live up to Traitor. The New Jedi Order is rushing along now, toward Zonama Sekot, toward Yuuzhan'Tar. 

No comments:

Post a Comment