Monday, April 13, 2009

Review: Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Outcast

The latest in post-RotJ Star Wars EU is a 302 paged book from Aaron Allston entitled Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Outcast (ISBN: 978-0-345-50906-2). Which for ease of use, and general laziness on my part, I shall henceforth refer to it merely as Outcast. Outcast was a fun, fun ride, a continuation of the trend, started by Millennium Falcon, that replaced the NJO/LotF focus on depressing, non-fantasy story lines. Set 40 years after A New Hope, it begins with a tight focus on Valin Horn's situation where he's coming under the sway of what I can only assume is the major plot point of Fate of the Jedi--a plot point which is described on the dust jacket as "a mysterious psychotic break." While the novel itself was a fun read, well-paced, nicely structured, and generally oozing the "feeling" of the GFFA, I was still left with the feeling of something being off.

I must confess something here, even after two reads, I'm still trying to figure out just what the plot is for this story. There's a lot happening, and a lot of characters doing things, but it's not really tightly coupled together with a plot. As stated above, we have this nice defined "A" plot involving psychotic Jedi, and there's the whole peace summit that folks are talking over, and suddenly, we're dealing with three distinct groups, doing three distinct things, none of them really related to what I perceived as the A or B plots from the opening chapters of the novel.

Ultimately I think the problem is in the fact that there's not a clear-cut villain for any of the various plot points which our cast-of-heroes find themselves. The only exception would be the one of the narrative thread bit where the environment itself is the antagonist. We have all these narrative threads--and no true antagonists in any of them. Sure, the protagonists are doing things against people (or the environment) but none of them come across as a threat to the hero; they're just macguffins to get through.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I just enjoy a book more when there's an overarching reason for the novel; when there's a good guy and a bad guy.

In the end, I think what we're seeing here, is what one often sees in the first chapter of a Dean Koontz novel; it's the section where people tangentially related to the plot, but aren't a focus of the story. do things to let you know that bad things are happening.

Speaking of people, the protagonists here are the usual mixture of Star Warriors in the form of the remaining heroes from the movies and their remaining children. In fact, the Dramatis Personae is somewhat... lacking this time around. For the start of a nine-book series, Outcast only features eleven characters in the DP (for comparison, Betrayal had 28 characters listed). What's sadder, is that if they had added just one more character to the DP, then it would've just been a listing of POV characters rather than the list of characters that play a role in novel--and no, they're not the same thing.

But, even then, we can cull our list of characters further, gathering just Luke, Ben, Jaina, Han and Leia as primary--and by extension important--characters.

First, Luke Skywalker, hero extraordinaire, and beloved Jedi Master--actually remembers what it means to be those things. He's wise, he's decisive, and he's not scared of silly soldiers with blasters and itchy trigger fingers. But above that, this book manages to successfully pull off what both LotF and the NJO failed to do: which is remove Luke as the power-house that can solve the problems of the overarching plot in 5 minutes, and thus leave the Fate of the Jedi "A" plot to the little Jedi to plod along until end of the nine books (which I have a bad feeling will feature Luke returning and setting things right). The thing is those earlier stories did remove him as instant problem solver, but they did so at the cost of his characterization. Allston managed to do this, and still keep him as the decisive hero that Luke is supposed to be.

The only thing that left me annoyed with his characterization here was a discussion between Luke and the Chief of State, in which he takes the time to poke at her over her old flame in order to protect his stance in the conversation, but when she attacks Kyp Durron for something he did 30-something years prior and was pardoned by the New Republic for, he doesn't bring up things she did--and was not pardoned for--during the same time frame. It seemed like he was willing to let Kyp get fed to the wolves there. But a single conversation where he doesn't act quite right is better than where he is way out in Left Field in terms of character in 12 out of a 19 book series .

So, after this beautiful handling of Luke Skywalker, we must glance over at his partner-in-crime for this particular novel; his son, Ben. For the first time, I've actually enjoyed Ben's characterization. He's no longer the cardboard cut-out which appeared in the first half of the LotF, additionally, he's coming into his own as a valid character--and an interesting mixture of Corran Horn and Luke Skywalker. I distinctly like the thought of a Jedi who approaches things using investigative techniques (including interrogation ones) rather than just following their whims and calling it the "Will of the Force."

Unfortunately, he's still not a character that just screams HERO the way Luke did during the early years, and Anakin Solo did during the early NJO. Still, his character is a lot more sympathetic and generally good, than the little StormTrooper which was Ben in LotF.

Speaking of good little Jedi, we next get to look towards Jaina--who is anything BUT a good little soldier in this novel. She's a perfect example of her mother's wit and fire and well, rebelliousness in relation to authority. Additionally, she seems to finally be over her soap-operatic ways and Mando-adoration and has thus settled into her role as Sword of the Jedi. But, still, she lacks that special something which would make her the Hero of the story, but she's much closer to having it than Ben, or her LotF incarnation.

The final duo of our primary characters are the perennial couple of couples, Han and Leia Solo. This was the same Solo couple that we got in last year's Millennium Falcon novel; loving and happy, and willing to do just about anything for a friend.

I do feel the need to bring out one additional detail that Outcast needs praise on, and that is the fact that long-time Jedi Master Kenth Hamner actually gets a personality above and beyond "Stern Master #2." Yes, he has that whole retired military officer thing going for him, but just how he interacts with others, including (or maybe especially) Jaina, display him in a much more.... personable light.

Settings are slim here. We get Coruscant, Kessel and Dorin, home of the Kel Dor and the prequel-era Jedi, Plo Koon. Of those, both Kessel and Dorin get decent descriptions, and emphasis on the alienness of the planets as opposed to such terrestrial planets as Corellia.

Now while dealing with the Theme of this novel, I have to start and wonder if that sense of disquiet, that "not rightness" that I felt while reading was intentional. The book was titled "Outcast" and there were numerous references to being exiled, and leaving things behind. I have to wonder if the author intentionally built what should be, and on the surface is, a fundamentally sound Star Wars story but structured in such a way that when one thinks about it, it leaves you with a sense of disquiet. As if the story itself is an outcast from the greater narrative which is the expanded universe--or at least our expectations of that narrative.

Which in turn leads nicely to the lack in that narrative, that absence of a Campbellian Hero, which has been at the crux of how everything has played out since the last Campbellian Hero was forcibly removed from the narrative. We're still dealing with the ramifications of the Anakin Solo-shaped hole in the narrative; we're looking at the fact that the narrative exiled itself from the Hero's Journey which is at the root of Star Wars.

We're missing things here, things are separated from how they "should" be. Even above and beyond Luke's exile from Coruscant, this is a book, a narrative, that has exiled itself from the morality play roots of Star Wars. Outcast is a Good vs. Evil story with no defined evil, and no defined Hero to fight that evil. Just a cast of protagonists, going about doing things they feel they need to do. It's not Campbellian, if anything it is episodic operatic drama; a literary version of a daily soap opera or procedural police drama from American TV so to speak.

It's not bad per se, but it's not classical Star Wars either. And that separation, especially coupled with narrative threads that should be Star Wars is what lends itself so well to that disquiet, that sense of disconnectedness with the narrative, that I felt while thinking about the story.

As unintended end result of editorial influence on the author to have XYZ happen in the book, and nothing else, it works. If it was intentional on Mr. Allston's part (whether due to editorial influence or not) it is utter and sheer genius.

And on that note, I feel it might be time for my final thoughts on the novel, and my final thought has to be that I liked it. I liked the way that the absence worked with the greater narrative, but above that I liked the fact that I actually enjoyed it while reading. Sure there were an issue or two that made me stumble over the narrative. I'm not entirely certain how well I enjoy the characterization of Tahiri Veila here, or how much I enjoy the thought of Tarc coming back into the overall storyline. on the flip side of the coin, I did enjoy seeing a handful of secondary, non-Jedi characters during the Kessel scene.

In the end, I have to give this a 3.8/4. All the good things done right here, far outweighs the few bad things--and even on just the chance that that sense of disquiet I felt while reading was intentional makes me all sorts of happy.

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