Star Wars: Thrawn

Sometimes I hear about a book and promptly put it on reserve at the library.  Such was the case with Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn.  Thrawn is the charming, brilliant villain of the landmark Thrawn Trilogy, the three books that probably set the path of the Star Wars universe prior to the new movies—and are the major sticking point for me in not wanting to throw out said-extended universe.  But this new book, after the demotion of the other books, writes Thrawn back into the official Star Wars canon, with a prequel set just before A New Hope.  It wasn’t all I hoped for—and was an oddly un-Star Wars book—but was great fun to read all the same.

This book charts the rise of Thrawn within the Empire.  He belongs to a race called the Chiss, who are known only by legend within the reaches of the Empire.  He’s found alone on a planet on the Outer Rim and impresses the Imperials enough to be taken back to Coruscant—where he briefly meets the Emperor, who takes an interest in his career.  From there we watch as Thrawn, and his interpreter/protégé Eli Vanto, work through the Imperial Academy and up through the ranks.  Meanwhile on a parallel path, Arindha loses her family’s mine to Imperial takeover and sets out to wrest power back through rising in the Empire’s political structure.

This was a very good and engaging book that felt…not very Star Wars.  Most of the usual hallmarks were missing.  None of the film characters appeared or even were referenced, save a brief cameo from the Emperor and a briefer one from Darth Vader.  The Rebel Alliance is barely a whisper at this point, and while readers can guess that the Empire is buying up great quantities of a special metal to build the Death Star, that never takes front stage.  In a mostly human Imperial navy there were few recognizable alien species, and with the Jedi gone I don’t think the Force came up even once. Continue reading “Star Wars: Thrawn”

Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays

What if the world you and I are living in is, in fact, a dystopia?  That could (tragically) be the beginning of a review of a nonfiction book, but instead today I’m talking about another parallel universe book: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai.  What if the world we think is real is actually the product of meddling with time travel, and we’re living in the universe gone wrong?

Tom Barren lives in a 2016 that looks a lot like the future envisaged in the 1950s.  Flying cars, high-tech medicine, an endless supply of free, non-polluting energy, universal peace.  It’s all because of a new, energy-generating technology discovered in 1966.  When Tom travels back 50 years to the dawn of his age, he inadvertently meddles in that key point in time–and wakes up to find himself in our 2016.  But then he has a dilemma–because while the world might be happier in his original universe, his life is significantly better over here.

This is one of those books I picked up because it had such an interesting premise–and it largely delivered on the promise, even if it didn’t turn out to be exactly what I expected.  I was so fascinated by Tom’s world and the events that led to its creation.  There was quite a bit of that, although the world is presented more through contrast with ours then by spending a lot of time in it–which kind of makes sense.  For Tom, replicators (or the equivalent) are normal, so they probably aren’t going to come up until he’s trying to make sense of a microwave.  We saw the alternate path of history and how a small shift could change it much more clearly, and that was very cool to explore. Continue reading “Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays”

Book Review: Night of Masks by Andre Norton

Andre Norton and I have a complicated relationship.  It’s sort of like an acquaintance who was really fun a few times, and now you keep trying to become better friends even though they’ve never been quite so fun again.  I love Norton’s Gryphon Trilogy, and for reasons that should suggest a really great author (beautiful writing style, intriguing characters with compelling relationships, complex world).  And…it never quite works out with her other books.  I actually liked Night of Masks reasonably well–but it’s no Gryphon Trilogy.  It may have given me some insights though.

I’d practically sworn off of Norton, but I couldn’t resist this premise: a young man with a facial deformity has the chance at a new life by pretending to be a boy’s imaginary hero.  So cool!  Plus a sci fi setting, a mysterious conspiracy, and uncertainty about who to trust…it all sounds golden.  And it really was decent.  Just not as golden as I hoped.

I think I figured out where the gulf may lie for me between liking (and sometimes disliking) and loving Norton’s books.  Based on Night of Masks, she doesn’t appear to have any sense of humor.  I don’t think there was a funny line in the entire book–and that makes it a little hard for me to love. Continue reading “Book Review: Night of Masks by Andre Norton”

Classic Review: Star Wars, Original Trilogy

I was glancing through old posts, and found it’s been more than five years since I reviewed the original Star Wars trilogy…which was well before all the new developments in the franchise, when the expanded universe was still canon, there were only three movies (that wasn’t a typo) and Star Wars was much less on my mind.

More than any other Classic Review I’ve posted, this one feels like it was really from a different time in my relationship (because there is one) with what I’m reviewing.  As discussed below, I’m still a Trekkie first, in the great debate.  But this kicked off a lot more reading (or rereading) of Star Wars books, and I happen to be in a book club that frequently winds up discussing Star Wars.  And, you know, things happened in the franchise.  So I’m definitely more into Star Wars now than I was when I wrote this.

Though I don’t think I’ve actually rewatched the original trilogy since then.  I may have to get out those VHS tapes again…

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The sci fi kick I’ve been on lately has led me back around to Star Wars, which I must admit I haven’t paid much attention to for about ten years–and it had probably been that long since I watched the original trilogy.

First, a little history.  The trilogy was re-released in theaters when I was in elementary school, and me and everyone around me became Star Wars fans.  I read probably 10 or 12 Star Wars books too, but lost interest when it began to feel like every book was basically “let’s mop up the last traces of the Empire…and then the last last traces…and then this last one…”  More significantly, I also found Star Trek.  For me, the fandoms co-existed for a while, but in the end, the traveling turned out to be more interesting than the fighting (I’m convinced the difference really is all in that second word of the names).

All of this is to say that I identify as a Star Trek fan, but I like Star Wars too, and there was a time when I really liked Star Wars.  And lately I’ve been thinking I’d like to revisit the galaxy far, far away.  So, over a recent weekend, I dug out my very old, shiny gold Special Edition VHS tapes of the original trilogy (a very big deal purchase when I was much younger!) and rewatched all three movies over three days.

And you know, they really are wonderful.  The characters, the strange landscapes, the magic of the Force…even the battles.  It’s often the characters that count most for me, so let’s start there.  Remember it had been ten years (or thereabouts) since I saw these movies.  The biggest “change” was Luke.  Han is right when he’s calling him a kid at the beginning!  You can’t see him the same way when you’re a kid yourself.  I think you have to be older to properly see Luke’s character arc, from a whiny kid on Tatooine (he really is whiny in spots) to the serene and confident Jedi Knight.  It’s the classic growth of a hero story, and it’s very well-done.  I enjoyed Han’s growth too, from refusing to stick his neck out for anybody, to General Solo of the Rebel Alliance–but still with some of that scoundrel edge.  The one who grows less is Leia–she’s awesome from the first moment and stays that way, whether it’s blasting Stormtroopers or making acid comments to Han.  I remembered she was great, but I think I forgot just how much so.

I thought other characters were excellent too–Threepio, with his constant worried commentary, gets some of the funniest lines.  And at the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the looming and menacing Darth Vader.  I don’t think I ever noticed before–his entrance gets more impressive with each successive movie.  I wonder if they didn’t quite know what they had in the first one.

I thought the plot rockets forward at a nice pace, and each time I finished one movie it made me want to watch the next one.  It’s fun to revisit all the iconic lines and moments, and my memory of the later two movies may have been part of why I wanted to go on to watch them.  The trilogy is also a great example of a story which is complete unto itself, despite previous events which influence the present.

Which leads me around to the newer trilogy.  I watched that as it came out, and I don’t think I had seen the original trilogy since watching Episodes 1-3.  Rewatching Episodes 4-6 largely brought home to me how irrelevant the first three episodes really are.  I don’t feel like they added anything to my viewing of the original trilogy.  It was a bit interesting to see the references in the original to the past, and to know how they expanded those references, except that mostly I don’t much like the way they expanded them.

If anything, the new episodes hamper viewing of the original; now when Leia talks about her mother, I’m stuck thinking about Padme’s really stupid death; when anyone talks about Anakin Skywalker, it’s now harder to think of him as a heroic Jedi when I’ve seen him as a sulky teenager who, after the age of nine, was never all that likable.  And even though I like Padme, seeing Leia again makes Padme look like a poor imitation.  It’s sad, really–the original trilogy points up how far the new ones fell short, and how we really already knew anything we needed to know about the backstory.

If I was going to get more backstory, I think I’d rather have it about the galaxy, not the individuals.  Star Wars has good character development, but not so much when it comes to races.  The Wookies, the Ewoks and the Jawas are the only ones I can think of who have their species name even mentioned in the original trilogy (maybe Jabba–is Hutt a species or a title?)  There are endless bizarre-looking creatures, but most of them we know pretty much nothing about.  We don’t need to know about all of them–but it would be nice to know about some of them.  I suppose that’s another reason I ended up as a bigger fan of Star Trek; there’s much more scope in exploring different alien cultures than there is in mopping up the last traces of the Empire.

But there’s plenty that’s good in Star Wars too, and I think I’m going to do a bit more revisiting.  The new trilogy added nothing to the old one for me, but what I remember of the books did.  I remember Wedge got to be a much bigger character, that Leia became a political leader, that Luke continued that character arc to found a new Jedi Academy, that Han kept trying to balance the general and the scoundrel.  I lost interest eventually in reading new Star Wars books, but I remember I liked several of the ones I did read.  So I think I’m going to track some of them down and see if they’re worth revisiting too!  [Edited to add: many, though not all, really were!  And the Thrawn Trilogy is still canon to me…]

Book Review: Relativity

Still catching up on some of my unreviewed challenge reading from late last year…  My last parallel universe book was Relativity by Cristin Bishara.  Another YA one, it explored how a family and a town can change in different universes.

Ruby’s mother died when she was four; now sixteen, her father recently moved them from California to a tiny town across the country, with a new stepmother and horrible stepsister.  But then Ruby finds a mysterious old oak with a door in the trunk—and going inside takes her to alternate worlds.  What if her mother didn’t die?  What if she had an older brother?  What if the town was a haven for art and science instead of, well, not one?  What if her best friend from California lived in this town instead?  How is Ruby different—and can she find the perfect life?

This was a great one for exploring my favorite parallel universe question—how does one event in the past change everything that follows?  I really enjoyed the exploration of Ruby’s different lives and how different she herself is.  Her desire to find the “perfect” life is very relatable—and heartbreaking, because it’s so clearly a doomed quest. Continue reading “Book Review: Relativity”

Movie Review: Rogue One

rogueone_onesheeta_1000_309ed8f6Apparently it’s movie week on the blog.  I didn’t intend to do a theme around scrappy people with few resources fighting governments, but, well…  Today, from a galaxy far away, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Billed as the story of the Rebel team who stole the Death Star plans, this is a prequel (but not a prequel, if you know what I mean) to A New Hope, set in the weeks just before it.  It’s the story of Jyn (Felicity Jones), daughter of the Death Star’s designer.  We meet her in an Imperial labor camp, imprisoned for vague reasons, from which she is swiftly recruited by the Rebel Alliance.  She joins new characters like Cassian (Diego Luna) and converted Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk of Firefly fame), and familiar ones like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, as they assess the Empire’s new threat.

This was a…different Star Wars movie.  I feel rather oddly about it.  I didn’t exactly dislike it.  It wasn’t perfect but I wouldn’t say it’s bad.  But it wasn’t quite my type of movie either.

More than any other Star Wars movie, this one was a war movie.  Yes, “war” has always been there in the second word of the franchise title, but it’s always been a space opera.  There was always a layer of unreality.  We all know that the stormtroopers will never fire a lethal shot at the heroes, and even though Darth Vader tortured Leia, it didn’t rumple her (iconic) hairstyle.

Rogue One was gritty.  We’re visiting a galaxy that has been ground under the Imperial boot for twenty (give or take) years, and shows it.  It’s visible in the devastated landscapes, the eyes of the rebels, and the layer of dirt on Jyn’s face.  The original trilogy gave us a picture of a fight between good and evil (or light and dark).  Rogue One gives us a Rebel Alliance with infighting and factions, where even the “good” guys do morally questionable things.  Some of this draws out impassioned repudiation, as when Jyn accuses another character of being no different than a Stormtrooper if he’s going to follow bad orders blindly.  But it’s lines like that that stand out in a darker, grayer galaxy. Continue reading “Movie Review: Rogue One”

Book Review: A Crack in the Line

I’m carrying on my parallel universe reading with A Crack in the Line by Michael Lawrence, featuring one of the more unusual alternate life scenarios.

Sixteen-year-old Alaric lost his mother two years earlier in a train accident, following surgery where she had a 50-50 chance of survival.  One day he slips into an alternate version of his house…but in this life his mother survived.  But something else also changed earlier: Alaric meets an alternate version of himself.  Naia is as close to being Alaric as possible–except she’s a girl.  Alaric and Naia begin to explore the differences between their lives, how the parallel worlds work, and mysteries in their family’s past.

This read was a mixed experience.  I liked the concept a lot, and in some places the emotional impact was very well done.  I didn’t mean to read two parallel universe books involving grief in a row; that just kind of happened.  Alaric’s grief over his mother, and the extremely complicated feelings of knowing she’s alive in another universe were well-explored.

I liked the parallel universe mechanics here.  This follows the basic idea of shifts in the key events in the past causing a different present/future.  A lot of versions of that emphasize choice, but this one emphasized even odds.  There’s at least one example where a conscious choice changed things, but the main things (the mother’s survival, Alaric/Naia’s gender) wasn’t really under anyone’s control.  It was just a case of even odds, so universes formed where each option happened.  (It does open the question of whether universes exist for every individual to be gender-swapped…but that’s a bit much to encompass.)  I also liked that it explored multiple changes, instead of just one.  There are at least three key differences between Alaric’s and Naia’s universes, so different results kept happening at different times. Continue reading “Book Review: A Crack in the Line”