Sunday, 2 October 2005

Star Wars: Labyrinth of Evil

James Luceno
Del Rey
ISBN: 0-345-47572-0

The Clone Wars have spread across the galaxy, the Republic’s Jedi-led army in constant conflict with the druids of the Separatist forces. After countless battles and the loss of hundreds of Jedi, the war is finally turning. The homeworld of the Trade Federation is invaded and the Jedi heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker are there to hunt down the Federation’s Viceroy, Nute Gunray. One of the Separatist figureheads and the being responsible for the Invasion of Naboo thirteen years before, Gunray is high on the Republic’s wanted list, but when he stops to loot his most treasured possessions before fleeing he leaves behind a clue that could lead to the man behind the war: the Sith Lord, Darth Sidious.

As the war rages and the extent of Sidious’ machinations becomes clear, Kenobi and Skywalker must find their way through the maze of deception. Can they uncover the Sith Lord’s true identity before becoming trapped in his web?

As the book leading into the opening scene of a movie entitled ‘Revenge of the Sith’, chances are that the answer is no. ‘Labyrinth of Evil’ is hampered by the fact that all of its surprises and intrigues are pre-empted by the existence of the film to follow. Only a reader with total ignorance of Episode III’s content will get much from ‘Labyrinth of Evil’ and it seems likely that the reader of a Star Wars novel would have anything but. As it is, this novel is a placeholder, designed to fill in the gaps for the sake of completeness.

Still, other similar works have managed to overcome these hefty disadvantages and achieve some level of merit. ‘Labyrinth of Evil’, unfortunately, lets the side down. It is a shallow, dull example of style over substance, a Hollywood action movie in literary form. It reads like a screenplay for Episode Two-And-A-Half, lacking the visual element that makes blockbusters entertaining. The gunfire and explosions never stop long enough for the reader to develop an understanding of the characters, while the constant danger in which our heroes are placed has a numbing effect. Even if the reader did manage to overcome paper-thin characterisation and come to care about Luceno’s versions of Anakin and Obi-Wan, there’s only so much one can take.

The result is a novel that fails to engage the reader on any significant level, the fictional equivalent of white noise in your speakers; you can listen to it, but in the end it doesn’t really mean anything. ‘Labyrinth of Evil’ never rises above filler material, and so I condemn it to my ‘Star Wars Completists only’ shelf.

This review was originally written for

Star Wars: Yoda – Dark Rendezvous

Sean Stewart
Del Rey
ISBN: 0-345-46309-9

As the Clone Wars ravage the galaxy, the Jedi Order is weakening. Constant battle, droid assassins and jedi-hunters have thinned their ranks, but it seems as though the greatest threat to the jedi is the nature of war itself. They are changing, adapting to new circumstances, and in doing so they are in danger of forgetting what they stand for.

Amid the chaos and concern, Master Yoda of the Jedi Order receives an unexpected message. Count Dooku, once his student but now leading the insurrection that threatens to overwhelm the Republic, wishes to meet with him. More than likely the treacherous Count plans a trap for his former master, but Yoda sees a chance that must be taken. If he can win Dooku back to the light, the war could be ended without another drop of blood being spilled. Unlike those who doubt his wisdom in trusting Dooku’s word, Yoda can remember the boy he used to be. He can remember the good. And nobody is so old they don’t deserve a second chance…

Filling in some small part of the gap between ‘Attack of the Clones’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’, ‘Dark Rendezvous’ has a lot of difficulties to overcome. Its stars are protected from harm by later appearances, while their subsequent philosophies have also been pre-determined. Such restrictions might be expected to rob the novel of tension or indeed any real purpose, yet Sean Stewart manages not only to prevent ‘Dark Rendezvous’ from irrelevance but keeps the reader entertained throughout. While Yoda faces off against his pupil, their conflict is shadowed in the battle between Yoda’s young escort and Dooku’s protégé. It is this battle that provides the novel with action in a traditional ‘Star Wars’ vein, all flashing lightsabers and blaster-fire. Yet their struggle is not without deeper meaning for in Whie, the gifted but troubled Padawan accompanying Yoda, the author hints at a repeat of the young Dooku’s fall to the dark side just as the old Sith himself struggles with salvation.

‘Star Wars’ has seen more than its share of musings on redemption and the nature of good and evil, but ‘Dark Rendezvous’ manages to avoid most of the well-used clichés and treads fresh ground instead. While Dooku’s fate is inevitable, Stewart’s powerful characterisation grants the Sith the appearance of a tragic hero, somebody with whom the reader can identify. This previously unseen vulnerability, this humanity, makes the reader hope against all reason that Dooku will find his way back to the light and makes his loss all the more tragic when the moment passes unfulfilled. To take a superficial, two-dimensional villain and grant him depth is no minor feat, but for it to be possible to sympathise even as he performs his villainous acts speaks well of the author’s skill. All of the above means that despite the title, this is more Dooku’s story than Yoda’s. Still, the Grand Master of the Jedi Order manages to hold his own. Stewart shows just what sort of individual lies beneath the whimsical behaviour, comic appearance and mangled syntax, giving Yoda a strength and depth that – while not quite matching that afforded his opponent – goes some way towards explaining eight hundred years of survival in a dangerous galaxy.

With such well-rounded and formidable characters facing off, their psychological battle is a tense and thought-provoking one. Once the talk is over and the lightsabers come out, it is almost disappointing; the climax has passed, and any physical confrontation feels awkward and irrelevant. The same applies for their young companions, though the moment of truth is less well handled in that incidence. The arrival of Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker on the scene is a particularly crude touch, an unwelcome intrusion implying a lack of confidence in ‘Dark Rendezvous’ ability to stand up on its own without Star Wars’ central players. Another disappointment is the hurried dénouement, tying up the loose ends with a little too much ‘happy ever after.’ Still, despite these flaws ‘Dark Rendezvous’ remains an enjoyable and atmospheric novel, a quality slice of the ‘Star Wars’ universe delivered with thoughtful care. Blending ‘space opera’ with psychological drama, Sean Stewart has created an arresting character study that recommends his other works. While I go off and hunt them down, ‘Dark Rendezvous’ will find a place on the shelf marked ‘Superior Star Wars’, where it sits in very good company.

This review was originally written for