Wednesday, 1 February 2006

Star Wars: Survivor’s Quest

Timothy Zahn
Del Rey
ISBN: 0-099-47263-5

Fifty-odd years ago the Outbound Flight Project departed, a Jedi-led exploration of the uncharted areas on the edge of the galaxy. They didn’t get very far. Ambushed by a fleet of the alien Chiss, led by soon-to-be Grand Admiral Thrawn, the project was destroyed and little was ever heard of it again.

How things can change. After half a century the wreckage of Outbound Flight has been found, and the Chiss are willing to allow the New Republic to recover their dead. Luke Skywalker and his wife, Mara Jade, are despatched to represent the Republic, but to their surprise things are not quite what they seem. Other parties have become involved, from alien species wishing to pay their respects to stormtrooper envoys from the remnants of the Empire. Are their motives as peaceful as they say? Can anyone be trusted?

Arriving at the ruins of Outbound Flight, the Jedi are in for another surprise. With uncertain allies all about them, cut off from the Republic and their friends, they must discover the truth of Outbound Flight and escape the twisted plans of enemies new and old.

Timothy Zahn has a reputation as one of the best authors in the Star Wars universe, but ‘Survivor’s Quest’ is the first faltering step he’s made. Outbound Flight, Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, the Chiss; the typical ingredients of his better works are all present, yet something is missing. Star Wars is about the choices between light and dark, the seductive power of evil and the difficulty of walking the path of good, but that central theme is absent here.

Of course Star Wars is also about explosions, lightsaber battles, blaster guns and diabolical villains, and here at least ‘Survivor’s Quest’ doesn’t disappoint. It seems almost as though Zahn has tried to make up for the lack of depth with an overdose of action, but this all gives the novel a rather schizophrenic feel. The first half of the book is a pulp detective story, with the Jedi sneaking around and trying to figure out just what’s going on. Then, once all is revealed, the lightsabers kick in and the reader may as well leave their brain elsewhere.

Not that I have a problem with mindless action – it’s mindless, tension-free action that upsets me. ‘Survivor’s Quest’ is part of the franchise, so one can always be fairly sure the heroes are immune to serious harm, but here you never really feel as though they’re working up a sweat. The enemy underestimate them at every turn, and though the epilogue explains the villains’ short-sightedness, seeing the heroes wade through wave after wave of doomed mooks does not make exciting reading. In such a case, it’s the secondary characters that stand in jeopardy but here, for once, Zahn’s characterisation has let him down. With a single exception, none of these minor characters have enough personality to make the reader care. Giving names to stormtroopers does not make the reader sympathetic to their plight, particularly when their intentions remain dubious.

While the first act of the book dedicates much of its length to setting up such ambiguity, and allows a little depth to show in some of the characters, it nonetheless manages to avoid any foreshadowing of the inevitable twist. Surprises are good, yes, but only if the reader can look back and say ‘but of course!’. In this case, the surprise comes from out of the blue and falls flat on its face. That there was no way to predict or even suspect what might happen is as poor a piece of storytelling as any Deus Ex Machina.

Speaking of which… The epilogue of ‘Survivor’s Quest’ comes as a serious disappointment. To find out that the Jedi were little more than pawns in a ‘master plan’ renders their choices irrelevant, and the story itself somewhat pointless. It turns the entire novel into some bizarre version of a shell game, but one where there’s a ball under each of the three cups. While it makes an impressive show of the puppet-masters’ machiavellian manipulations, it fails to make an enjoyable read.

Despite Zahn’s undeniable descriptive skills, ‘Survivor’s Quest’ is hampered by nonsensical plotting, an awkward mid-story gear change, and a sad lack of the themes that make Star Wars great. There simply isn’t enough challenge here, for either the heroes or the reader. The novel also can’t seem to decide whether to focus on action or suspense, ends up doing a poor job of both, and earns itself a spot on my ‘genre-confused’ shelf.

This review was originally written for