Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Fate of the Jedi: Omen

Today's review is for the second novel in the Fate of the Jedi series, entitled Omen (ISBN: 978-0-345-50912-3). The premier Star Wars novel by author Christie Golden, Omen clocks in at 236 pages (not counting the 15 page or so preview of the next novel). Ms. Golden is a rather prolific writer, especially in the category of media tie-ins where she's done work for that other space franchise and Warcraft. So, with both of those factors (i.e. that she's never done Star Wars but has done media tie-ins) in mind, I delved into novel quite ready and willing to forgive minor characterization and continuity issues that may have sprung up.

Alas, I have once again been betrayed by my mere expectations of performance.

And not for the better. But more on that later.

For, there is something that desperately needs to be brought up here. Which is I'm Henry VIII, I Am. Now, the reason for this, is that the bridge to this song from the 1st and 2nd verses is thus: Second verse, same as the first. Which, sadly, is a fairly accurate description of this book.

The plot has 3 main pathways: crazy Jedi, Luke and Ben's spirit journey and the other plot point. The crazy Jedi path reads pretty much like a duplicate of the path from Outcast in which a Jedi goes bonkers, ranting and raving and then is captured. Since nearly a third of the novel is dedicated to this, it feels derivative and unoriginal. Worse, it feels like a rehashing of the the first quarter of Outcast.

But that still left us with 2 plot lines in which to get excited about. Or it would if one could get excited about Luke & Ben's little journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, I couldn't. Again, a plot line needs something in which we become invested in it. It needs an element of suspense or danger, or just something which means we get emotionally invested in the characters; it was this something which I found lacking in this plot thread.

Ultimately, I did find the 3rd of the threads compelling. I was excited to read about the character, and wanted more of it. Which is scary--the information focusing exclusively on the nominal bad guys of the series should not be the most compelling and emotionally involving of your plot lines. There's something off about that, and that fact damages the rest of the book.

The reason for the compelling nature of this 3rd plot line can be attributed to the main character which inhabits it: Vestara Khai (a Sith Tyro and apprentice). She's probably one of the better characters introduced lately. I enjoyed her a lot more than any of the young Jedi apprentices that we've seen recently, and sadly, I'm more interested in knowing what happens with her character than I am about the mental-break-down Jedi.

Of course, Vestara gets only a short amount of the book focused on her. We also have Cilghal, Jaina, Jysella Horn, and Luke and Ben Skywalker to look at. Overall, Ms. Golden has a firm hand on these characters. In the broad strokes, she gets their personalities and major character quirks. In general, she does a good job.

But she falters in the fact that it doesn't read quite right. For example, she has in one scenario, where Ben and Luke are enjoying a meal together this line: "But right now, they were simply two bachelors eating dinner and talking, and formality had gone out the air lock, and Luke didn't mind one bit."

This is fail. Major, utter, fail. First, Luke is fundamentally a farmboy. That is one of the defining aspects of who he is, he was raised in what amounts to a backwater city, on a farm. To be blunt, he's a redneck hick, who fixes his own tractor and likes to shoot and drive fast. While I was not raised on the farm itself, my grandparents were the equivalent of Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen. Additionally, my dad was raised in one of those backwater towns. It's instilled in me that you eat properly, and you don't talk with your mouth full. It's not a matter of formality, it's a matter of respect. Likewise, my sons get in trouble for doing so.

Secondly, it just doesn't ring... true that a father would think of him and his teenaged son as two "bachelors." That phrase has certain connotations, the least of which is that they're on the prowl for the next proverbial piece of meat--and I'm not talking about the nerf everyone seems to be eating in this book. Additionally, the use of the word is simply wrong there. Since I am married, I can never again be a bachelor. It is an impossibility for me to be one. I can be a widower or a divorcee, but I can never again be a bachelor, as by definition it is either a human male who has never been married, or in general biology, a male who has not mated. Of course, this two things could all be my own biases flowing through, but it was a rather shocking turn of phrase, and knocked my suspension of belief on its head.

Ignoring the Skywalker boys, I have two other character complaints. The first of these is related to Jysella Horn. I cannot call it a characterization issue, as she has had no characterization prior to this point. But, she and her friends call their little clique "The Unit" and they continue to use that phrase well into their mid-twenties. Which seems a bit childish, or juvenile to me. I realize that in the Star Wars galaxy 80 is the new 40, but I did not realize that that implied that 20 was the new 13.

Additionally, why "The Unit?" I mean, Jagged Fel came up with better phrases and names than that for his date. Couldn't one of these four have at least a bit of creativity? Maybe the "Big Guy" whose defining characteristic was "big, slightly dumb brute," but no, everyone in "The Unit" is just a mere cardboard characters that were needed for what is effectively a juvenile-reader trope.

But speaking of Jag's creative naming brings me to the other complaint: why do Jaina and Jag go through so many hurdles in order to have a date? Let's look at this, the two lovebirds arrive at a restaurant, walk inside the restaurant together, and then jump through a dozen hoops in order to go somewhere else for dinner (or was it just an implied booty call)? He's the leader of the Empire and the son of an Imperial Baron, and she's the daughter of Princess Leia and General Han Solo--they should be used to a little bit of aggressive journalists and seeing their names in the sludgenews. Above that, they knew that the reporters were going to report on their movements, and the fact that they were having a date with one another. They weren't even hiding that, so why all the cloak and dagger nonsense again?

Now, as I stated earlier in this review, I was expecting some minor continuity errors and things of that nature. What we got instead was a proverbial slap in the face of continuity. I almost wrote a few hundred words here about the Jedi Temple, but realized that it's just as easy to say look up the history of the Temple of Wookiepedia and then re-read the fifth paragraph of page 10. Then 2 pages later, she speaks on how the Jedi Temple was "home" and how it was a "special place" for every Jedi, when earlier works have made it clear that their home base were Yavin IV and then Ossus. Luckily, that was the worse offense in regards to continuity flubs--or I just stopped looking for them after page 15.

The theme here was non-existent. I could not find one. There was nothing in this book that screamed (or whimpered for that matter) "Hey! I'm a lesson!" There were a number of short fights, but again, there was no HERO who struggled against overwhelming odds. There is nothing ominous about this novel, and only 1 literal possibility to explain the title. I have literally nothing to put here, and to me it seems that this was merely media-tie-in writing at its worst; it feels as if the author did not have a story to tell, she had a series of events to describe.

All that said, this was still an enjoyable read. It probably won't be one of those novels that I consistently return to, but it was well-paced, the style and tone works wonderfully with Allston's and unless Denning makes changes to his, will work well with his. And I'm interested in this new character--though I'm left wondering about the rather specific age that she's been given. Especially in how it relates back to Ben.

Now, here's the sad part. Taken entirely out of context, and by itself, I would have rated this book an acceptable Star Wars novel. Not as odious as some, but a bit better than others. Unfortunately, it has two major strikes against it for me to do that.

The first is that it cannot be taken as a stand alone novel, it must be compared to the novel immediately prior to it since this is part 2 of Fate of the Jedi. In that it fails. It reads like a repeat of the first novel for too much of the book. I constantly had the sense of "been here, done this" which is a horrible feeling for a brand new hard back novel. This leads me to actually dread the next book, because I fear my brain will stop repeating I'm Henry VIII, I am and start repeating This is the song that never ends...

The second strike against it is that it is short. At 236 pages it just did not feel like enough content to justify a hard-back price. It is noticeably thinner than any other hard cover novel which I have paid more than US$25 for. That coupled with the fact that one comes out of the novel feeling as if large portions of it are mere rehashes, is horrible. If the Powers That Be had built this series the same way that they had done Legacy of the Force, with 3 hardcovers and 6 mass-market paperbacks, this wouldn't be an issue. After all, a lot can be forgiven, especially size-wise, when one has purchased a $7-8 paperback as opposed to a nearly $30 hardback.

This is sad, because this wants to be a good book. It wants to be the fun escapism that one expects from Star Wars. Unfortunately, it is lacking. It's lacking cohesion as the three plot lines only tangentially touch. It's lacking a traditional protagonist/antagonist structure, as we still do not have a Campellian Hero, and worse, the most compelling character is our erstwhile villain. It's lacking because it feels more like the YJK than the Black Fleet Crisis. It's lacking, because it's just not enough story to warrant a $27 hardcover.

In the end, I fear that this can only receive a 0.8 out of 4.

Finally, and this had no bearing on my review score, but I despised what happened on the last page. Just utterly annoyed me to no end.

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