March 06, 2006

Dark Tide

I'm going to continue on with reviewing the New Jedi Order books today (I reviewed the first book, R. A. Salvatore's "Vector Prime" a while back) with the 2nd and 3rd books of the series, a pair called "Dark Tide" ("Onslaught" and "Ruin") written by Michael Stackpole, who also wrote much of the very good X-Wing series.

"Dark Tide" is similar in quality to the X-Wing books, which puts it at the top of a very large middle-tier quality category among Star Wars books. It is definitely a cut above Salvatore's book, which is pretty average. In this book, the invasion forces of the Yuuzhan Vong continue to advance into the galaxy, picking off planets as they move closer to the core worlds and Coruscant. The aliens are not really associated with the Force, which means Jedi can only use the force indirectly against them. They are also skilled at hand-to-hand combat, giving them somewhat of an edge against a typical Jedi trying to fight with a lightsaber. So why don't some Jedi break down and use blasters? I guess that's not how it works.

The book follows Jacen, Jaina and Anakin, the three children of Han and Leia who are all very strong in the Force. Luke and Mara are also prominent, with Mara still somewhat weakened from trying to fight off a disease the aliens infected her with (a plot line that started in Salvatore's book and will presumably be resolved later in the series). Luke is morphing into a Yoda-like grandmaster figure, though he has nowhere near the amount of support and respect, so the Jedi are splitting into factions with various interpretations of how close to the dark side they can go without going over (like the Showcase Showdown on "The Price Is Right").

Leia is a peripheral figure, and Han is non-existant, still hitting the bars back home trying to get past the death of Chewie in "Vector Prime". That leaves a lot of space for some of the strong, new characters, who are interesting to follow because unlike the Skywalkers, you don't know whether they will survive. Corran Horn plays a big role here, and he's turned into a good character under Stackpole's guidance (first showed up back in X-Wing as Stackpole's character, if memory serves). He's trying to follow in Luke's footsteps, but he has new and different challenges to face, along with plenty of ethical problems and light side/dark side issues. Anakin is developed a lot here, and he is definitely the strongest in the Force of the new generation of Jedi. He is more interesting to follow than the twins (Jacen and Jaina), and I'm looking forward to his continued progress.

Plot-wise, this pair of books has the good and bad aspects of X-Wing. The good is the strategy and tactics of combat as each side tries to get a leg up on the other. Stackpole does a good job with the chess match of combat and war, even down to battles between individual fighters, whereas with most other authors (except Zahn) it is only vaguely described or a confusing mess. The bad is the lack of a compelling enemy. The Yuuzhan Vong are a bit like the Kzin in Niven's famous (and endless) Man-Kzin wars series. Very aggressive, sometimes to the point of stupidity, not open to negotiation, Spartan-like warrior culture, no real hate-able charismatic leader. Major bad guys seem to be introduced only for the satisfaction of seeing them killed off. The Vong are a little smarter than the Kzin and a lot more powerful, but still, a lot of parallels.

There is still a chance for a major villain to emerge in this series. Maybe the Bothan in charge of the New Republic, but he's not evil, just amazingly petty. Maybe a supreme leader among the aliens, but three books in, and I don't see any sign of a Thrawn-like villain. Maybe a Jedi goes dark and gets all Emperor-like, but I don't see that happening. Without a compelling enemy, this series is going to suffer and nothing will get into the top tier with Zahn's books. Right now, the aliens are like a stirred-up nest of fire ants. Clearly threatening and numerous but not unusual or compelling.

So far in the New Jedi Order series, I'll put "Dark Tide" at the top, clearly a cut above "Vector Prime" but not close enough to the best Star Wars expanded universe novels I've seen, unfortunately. I will definitely read anything else Stackpole has to offer in this genre, because he's getting better, given this book is as good or better than X-Wing while being handicapped by having to fit in an overall mediocre story arc (so far).

Posted by Observer at March 6, 2006 04:40 PM

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