Review: Champions of the Force (Jedi Academy Trilogy #3), by Kevin J. Anderson

NOTE: For some reason, I seem to have skipped reposting this review when I was posting last night. Must have been more tired than I thought.

(Originally posted on Amazon 8/18/2003)

champions of the force

The climactic novel of Kevin J. Anderson’s Jedi Academy Trilogy is probably the best of the series, but in the end it is something of a disappointment.

The book picks up where Dark Apprentice leaves off, namely with yet another super weapon on the loose, this time in the hands of a would-be Jedi with revenge on his mind, while Luke lays in a helpless trance on Yavin 4. Meanwhile, a plot is in motion to kidnap Leia and Han’s third child (Anakin Solo), the Republic finally gets around to moving against that hidden weapon’s research facility from Book #1, and Admiral Daala continues to fail miserably in her Honor Harrington imitation (why does anyone in their right minds follow her?). All of these plot lines lead to that perennial Big Climactic Space Battle, which are a trademark of the Star Wars series. On the plus side, the action works well, the characters are much more interesting, and there’s actually a good deal of humor (more so, IMHO, than in either of the previous two books). However, on the negative side…

To give Anderson credit, he does manage to tie in all the threads he began in the previous two books, which is in some ways a marvel. But the ending feels rushed, and the novel loses much of its steam because of it. Going into the end of such a series, there should be a feeling of tension and excitement, a build-up to the final confrontations about to take place. There is little of that here, just a feeling that we’re finally reaching a conclusion. Anderson does achieve his primary task of re-establishing the Jedi order, but once he has them back he doesn’t really have much for them to do — which is a shame, because that was supposedly the point of the series in the first place. At least he sets things up adequately for subsequent novels.

If you’ve managed to get through the first two books of the Jedi Academy Trilogy, Champions of the Force is an adequate ending. Even if you were wavering on reading the third book because Dark Apprentice was not quite up to snuff, going on to the last will at least satisfy your curiosity about how things turn out. But once you’re finished, don’t expect to want to ever go back to the books again. This isn’t the kind of series that’s likely to occupy a permanent place on your shelves unless you are a Star Wars completest.

Three Stars out of 5 Stars

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Various and Sundry

Well, I think I have now posted all the various reviews I’m willing to see reposted.  There’s actually a few more on Amazon that I skipped, but most of those are either too short to bother with or (for whatever reason) I think need a serious rewrite before I’m willing to archive them here. I think I’m going to mull it over before I decide whether to spend the effort to make them satisfactory or not.

In general things, by now everyone has heard that New Horizons had a computer glitch on Saturday that put it into safe mode. Some people seem to think that the Pluto encounter is now in serious jeopardy. Relax. Galileo had a similar problem days before it was scheduled to enter Jupiter orbit (not to mention major problems with its primary antennae), and those problems were worked out long before it settled into orbit. The problem New Horizons encountered seems to have been resolved and the spaceship looks to be in good shape for its Pluto encounter in 9 days. In fact, JPL now says normal operations will resume on Tuesday. So everything is still looking good for Pluto close approach.

Right now I’m trying to finish up my reading for this year’s Hugo Awards.  So far I’ve been mostly enjoying the nominees this year (moreso in some categories than those from recent years, at any rate) and am still trying to decide how I’m going to vote in several cases. And No, I am not going to talk about the whole Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies controversy here. Frankly, I think its been done to death by now, and the only thing left is to vote your conscience. I’ll probably post my final ballot here when I decide, and perhaps some commentary about why I voted the way I did. But anything more than that… guys, its a literary award with voting rules not much different than a popularity contest. On the grand scheme of things, it means jack shit. There are more important events going on in the world to get all bent out of shape over.

Last… now that I’ve posted all the reviews I’m willing to own up to (for the moment), my attention is going to be on my fiction. I’m still trying to sift through the myriad of stories I’ve worked on over the years. Some are finished; most are not. I’ve got an embarassingly large amount of fanfiction (Doctor Who, mostly; some Teen Titans, some various anime-related), and many, many odds and ends. I’m trying to decide which — if any — are worth posting here. So be forewarned: I’m going to subject you all to my writing, even the stuff I think is terrible. My intent for this blog is to cover my attempts, as anemic as they may be, to both improve my writing and to (hopefully, eventually) become a professional writer. I’ve got a long way to go, tho. Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t. But I certainly won’t do it sitting back and wishing.

Going to sleep now. Too tired to compose any more.

Review: Ebla – A New Look at History, by Giovanni Pettinato

(Originally published on Amazon 3/9/2003)

ebla

Between 1974-1976, nearly 20,000 tablets or fragments of tablets were unearthed at an excavation site known as Tell Marduk, in northern Syria. The tablets proved to be the royal archives of an ancient trading empire known as Ebla, which flourished around 2500 BC but the location of which had long since been lost to time. Because of their completeness, the archives of Ebla proved to be an earthquake in ancient near-east studies, disrupting many long-standing assumptions and forcing a new interpretation of our understanding of 3rd Millennium BC middle east. Most importantly for biblical scholars, it seemed to provide some tantalizing hints at Old Testament connections, including the firm identification of “Eblaite” as a semitic-tongue predating Hebrew and the possible mentioning of biblical names such as Abraham and Sodom. Giovanni Pettinato, who was the first to interpret these tablets and who is credited with having “cracked” the Eblaite language, has had no small role in this shake up, and this book continues with his (sometimes controversial) theories about Ebla and the archives true meaning.

Ebla: A New Look at History is in some ways an update of Pettinato’s previous book The Archives of Ebla, which was published in Italian in 1980 and translated into English (with some revisions and additions) in 1981. In his previous book, Pettinato sought to introduce the archeological finds at Ebla and to make some tentative steps toward casting them into a better understanding of the ancient middle-east. However, The Archives of Ebla was hamstrung by the fact that the finds were (at the time of its publication) still relatively new, and much work had not yet been performed on archival translating and interpretation, to say nothing of the ongoing excavation work going on at Tell Marduk/Ebla. With more than a decade of additional scholarly activity, Pettinato is here better able to place Ebla in context with the more well known ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. He also is better able to back up some of his assertions regarding biblical/old testament connections, a position which sometimes has put him in direct conflict with even the archeological team excavating Ebla.

Pettinato’s book brings the entire state of Ebla studies up, if not to the present, to the present at the time of it’s publication (1991). This makes the book more valuable than most of the other books on this subject, which along with The Archives of Ebla were all published in the first few years immediately after the initial discovery. Besides offering Pettinato’s interpretation of much of the Ebla finds, Ebla: A New Look at History recounts the circumstances behind the discoveries as well as offering a fairly rounded summation of what we know about Mesopotamian civilization at the time of Ebla’s apex. If the book has a fault it is that Pettinato is perhaps a bit too firmly encamped in the biblical-connections field of thought, tending to sell his critics short and asserting as fact which might more fairly be considered as conjecture. But despite this, Ebla: A New Look at History does work as a very readable introduction to this fascinating and evolving subject. While it is in general aimed at the layman, it is aimed at a layman who at least has a passing knowledge of ancient history; therefore, some familiarity with the ancient near-east studies is recommended, but not necessary.

For those interested in archeology and ancient or biblical history, this is probably the best introduction yet published on Ebla and its implications. Highly recommended.

4 Stars out of 5 Stars

Review: Doctor Who – Galaxy 4 (BBC Audio)

(Originally posted on Amazon 3/9/2003)

dw galaxy 4

Galaxy Four is one of those reasons I periodically curse the BBC.

I first heard the audio track of this story back in the late 80’s, when audios of the missing stories first started surfacing in fan circles. The Galaxy Four copy I managed to get was rather hard to listen to and prone to distortion, as much due to the poor general quality of the recording as the fact that it was an nth generation copy from the original. The story was difficult to follow; there were large spaces devoid of conversation (with only the odd sound and the even odder strange electronic noise to punctuate it), and even with conversations there was only so much one could understand without having to resort to visual representation of some kind. Yet, somehow, through all the hissing, static, and ambiguity, it became obvious that a fairly interesting and quick-paced story was there lurking frustratingly just out of reach. Listening to the soundtrack alone was giving it inadequate justice.

Now, more than ten years later and some thirty-five years since its initial broadcast (and twenty-three years after it was wiped from the Archives), the BBC Radio Collection has issued a two CD set of the audio portion of this story, complete with linking material by Peter Purves (who played Steven Taylor in the original). Aside from the tantalizing snippet from episode one that has come down to us, this is likely to be the closest any of us will ever come to the original story in all its glory.
Galaxy Four is one of those tales that is actually pretty simple and straight-forward, unfettered with needless subplots and complications. So much so, as a matter of fact, that I suspect in a later era it would have been a three- or even two-parter. The Doctor and company (in this case, Steven Taylor and Vicki) land on a planet that is evidently about to explode. On the planet are two crashed spaceships, one manned by the humanoid Drahvins, the other by the mysterious Rills. Neither ship can leave due to the damage each has inflicted on the other. The Doctor must try to navigate a treacherous path between the two, and hopefully find a way to get each side to help the other to escape.

This is a story of appearances and first impressions. The Drahvin, a race of beautiful women (evidently cloned, which means that this is one of the earliest SF stories of any kind to deal with this concept), may not be as peaceable and helpless as they seem, nor the Rill as malevolent and evil as the Dravhins claim. Appearances can be deceptive, and just because someone carries a pretty face does not mean they are your friend, nor does repulsive alieness automatically denote an enemy. It is a person’s actions, not their mien, that count. What is on the inside is much more important than the out.

William Hartnell is as cantankerous as ever as the Doctor; you can’t help but like him, even when he’s being condescending towards you. Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki is adequate as the traditional female companion in semi-distress; no great character revelations here, but at least she only has to scream once. Peter Purves’ Steven Taylor, on the other hand, plays a major role in the events of the story, at one point acting almost as the decisive man of action. Steven Taylor is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked companions ever (exacerbated by the fact that large swathes of his tenure no longer survive), and it is nice to see that he is at last starting to get some of his due. Stephanie Bidmead is good as the ambiguous Maaga, leader of the Drahvin; one does wish that this character or her cloned sister had made another appearance in the series, but alas that was not to be the case. William Emms script is crisp and fast-paced and keeps the listener wanting to hear more, although there are one or two minor points that I thought ill-conceived or not thought-out properly (why is Maaga still obsessed with using the Rill spaceship to escape, when she finds that the Doctor and friends have a spaceship of their own? I can think of a few reasons, but none are adequately explained in the story). The acting itself is all around decent and only slightly campy.

As for the linking material provided in Peter Purves’ narration, it does serve to hold the story together, much more satisfying than the unnarrated cassette tape I remember listening to in my car. But make no mistake, this is not a Big Finish production; this story was originally produced as a visual presentation, and this fact is constantly apparent as you listen. There are a couple of points that probably could have used additional narration, and when we finally do get to the Rills practically no description of any kind is provided for them — their robotic Chumley servants actually get more description than their masters — and in my opinion, this is probably the single greatest problem with this edition. But these are minor complaints at best. Overall, the story is presented well, and is a fun if nostalgic trip back to the early years of the series.
Highly recommended.

5 Stars out of 5 Stars

Review: Cloak of Deception, by James Luceno

(Originally posted on Amazon 4/12/2003)

cloak of deception

Lately, I’ve become more convinced than ever by the argument that George Lucas erred when he decided to make the story of the Fall of the Republic as three movies; he should have made it a television series, or at least three separate mini-series’. The reason? There is far too much going on around the characters, far too much subtle nuance coloring motivations and actions, to adequately cover in a handful of two-hour snippets. Thankfully, at least, there are the novels to fill in the gaps, and I’m pleased to say that Cloak of Deception does so admirably.

The novel is arranged something like a Ludlum thriller minus the phonebook-like page count: bad deeds are afoot, some not very nice people are either manipulating or being manipulated into positions for unknown reasons, an audacious plan is set in motion the purpose of which we do not know, and it’s all up to Qui-Gon Jinn and his padawan Obi-Wan to gather up the clues and save the day. The action starts from practically the opening page and it never really lets up, and it all leads up to an ending that is as thrilling as it is clever. If you like action-filled stories, it’s hard not to like this one. The writing is well done and even has a somewhat droll sense of humor to it, and the pace keeps you guessing long enough to want to turn that next page.

But how does this all connect with my first point? Well, along the way we get a good dose of the machinations and tensions going on within the Republic, especially those centering around a certain Senator from Naboo. One of the really nifty aspects I like about Cloak of Deception is that it attempts to maintain the fiction that we really don’t know that Palpatine and Sideous are one and the same (which we are not suppose to “officially” find out until the third movie). This gives the story a certain degree of mystery, a “what the hell is this guy up to?” quality that is curiously missing from the first two movies. Politics plays a major role here, and the action is a symptom of something going on that is much larger and far more ominous than most of the characters know. You can’t fill all of this in over a mere two hours; you can only skim the surface and gather up the chunks at the top, and unfortunately the movies suffer somewhat because of this. Still, as I said, at least the novels are there, and Cloak of Deception fills in a lot of the sorely needed background behind The Phantom Menace. Overall, a very good entry in the series.

4 Stars out of 5 Stars

Review: Darth Maul Shadow Hunter, by Michael Reaves

(Originally posted on Amazon 4/12/2003)

darth maul

Essentially, this novel is one long chase through the bowels of Coruscant, as Darth Maul attempts to track down and destroy a con artist and a Jedi/Padawan pair who have stumbled onto some very important information regarding impending plans by the series villains (as it happens, the invasion of Naboo). As an anti-hero Darth Maul is somewhat engaging if rather single-minded and humorless, and his pursuit of his quarry is actually quite interesting. But the highlight of this novel are the actions of those he is pursuing. From the moment Darth Maul is on their tail you know how this will end (after all, we’ve seen The Phantom Menace), but of course the characters don’t know that and how they meet the threat from Maul is actually quite heroic. I don’t want to spoil the ending, of course, but I will say that Maul does not come out of this as victorious as you might think, and there is a sliver of hope for the forces of good. But in the mean time there is Maul with that vicious two-bladed lightsaber of his in the way, and believe me you don’t want to be in HIS way.

Overall, a nicely done bit of spaghetti space-western.

4 Stars out of 5 Stars

Review: The Approaching Storm, by Alan Dean Foster

(Originally posted on Amazon 4/12/2003)

approaching storm

Alan Dean Foster is an author long connected with the Star Wars universe. After all, he ghost-wrote the original novelization (a fact which for years was pretty much an open secret in fandom), and was also responsible for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the very first ‘original’ Star Wars novel (and to many fans a classic, even if it was superceded by The Empire Strikes Back). Foster, I understand, originally had plans to write more SW novels, but shelved them when Lucas forbad the publication of additional original novels after Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, a position which continued for some ten years. But now that the original novels are a mainstay for the Star Wars universe, Foster was invited back and has now produced his take on the ‘first’ trilogy.

Although billed as an exciting prequel to Attack of the Clones, The Approaching Storm does not fill in the gaps to that film as much as, say, Cloak of Deception does for The Phantom Menace. The story is more formulaic than original, and for that it unfortunately suffers. Obi-Wan and his Padawan Annakin meet up with another Jedi/Padawan pair, Luminara and Barriss Offee. The four of them are tasked with keeping the planet Ansion from seceding from the Republic, an event which would thereby set in motion a chain of events which would see other planets doing the same. Opposing them is a Hutt and his majordomo, while behind those two is the same shadowy galaxy-spanning conspiracy that is the backdrop for the entire first set of films.

The problem with the story is that the plot is rather more haphazard than it should be. The Jedi and their Padawans spend most of the novel journeying across Ansion in search of a band of nomads in order to promote a peace treaty between opposing factions among the planet’s population. Along the way they encounter one obstacle after another, from storms and natural predators, to double-dealing traders and tribal politics. In this way, the story is more of a quest novel than anything, with the Holy Grail being their sought-after peace treaty. But the problem with this is that at times the book seems to wander aimlessly, with the author searching for yet another challenge to pit his characters against after the previous one has been vanquished. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible way to tell a story, but as a narrative it does get awfully repetitive.

What saves the novel, though, is the heavy dose of characterization Foster provides, something for which Foster is rather good at. We learn quite a bit about Annakin and Obi-Wan, and especially about their relationship leading into Attack of the Clones. In this way we come to see even more that the coming fall of Annakin into Darth Vader is going to be an event of truly tragic proportions, as someone who is basically a good kid is forced by circumstances to be molded into something quite evil. A hint of what is to come can be found in The Approaching Storm, and it’s made even more insidious by the realization that, under the circumstance of the deteriorating Republic, there are some very sound reasons why anyone might choose the path that Annakin is destined to trod. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here… Anyway, the new Jedi/Padawan pair that Foster creates is also quite interesting, and I for one would look forward to seeing them again in another novel in the future (as Foster clearly sets up). My only real complaint here is that the nominal villains of the story, the Hutt and his majordomo, are rather lackluster and pathetic, almost tacked on as an afterthought as an excuse to send the characters gallivanting across the countryside and to literally provide fodder for Jedi lightsabers.

Foster has written better, but that isn’t to say this book is not worth your time. If you’re a fan of the first trilogy, this is an acceptable pit stop while waiting for the third film to come out.

3 Stars out of 5 Stars