By Troy Denning
Star Wars movies were murdered by their creator. George Lucas molested his first trilogy with CGI “enhancements” as a prequel to his prequel trilogy, which came out of production bursting with too much of one thing in particular: George Lucas. And too much of him meant too much of everything else: special effects, melodramatic dialogue, terrible characters a foolish adult thinks a child would like. The second series had its moments, and it got better as it went along (as it became darker, a lesson Lucas should have learned the first time around), but the adventurous feeling of the originals was lost in elaboration.
It’s the same in print. By 1990, Star Wars fans had to make do with a few primitive video games, board games, action figures and a smattering of novels. The franchise seemed moribund. But in May of 1991 Bantam published Heir to the Empire, the first of Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, which picked up after Return of the Jedi. They remain immensely popular: 15 million have been sold so far. From there the Star Wars Expanded Universe, as it’s known to fandom, exploded. There are now hundreds of Star Wars books in print and more in the works. There are also role-playing games, action figures, encyclopedias, comic books, technical manuals, videogames, videogame manuals and who knows what else.
Star Wars addicts are among the most rabid in the world, and LucasArts regulates the product. Everything that’s happened in a movie or a book is canonical, so anything new must take account of everything old. Zahn had less of this to deal with in 1991. But his Thrawn trilogy sold so well that it begat the Jedi Academy Trilogy, which begat the Callista trilogy, which begat the Black Fleet Crisis trilogy, which begat the Corellian trilogy, and so on. The creative powers that be (some people in a room somewhere, presumably) felt things might be getting a bit stale. Their solution was the mammoth 19-book New Jedi Order series. You know, to clear the air. Then another trilogy, then a nine-book story-arc, and now another. Troy Denning’s Star Wars [franchise] Fate of the Jedi [series] Abyss [book] is the third of nine.
What you get here is what you get with any Star Wars novel: a disturbance in the Force, good guys fighting bad guys, and a hideously convoluted back-story. Don’t be foolish enough to think that you can pick up this book and actually read it. You have two options. The first is to read the previous fifty books that have a direct bearing on the storyline – that means skipping the life story of mute robotic bounty hunter who appeared for two seconds in The Empire Strikes Back. Option two is research.
Go to Wookieepedia, the frighteningly comprehensive Star Wars adjunct to Wikipedia. Star Wars has accumulated trillions of recurring characters since the second Death Star exploded, and a billion more who’ve died; familiarize yourself with all of them. You’ll need to know who Admiral Daala is; who Jagged Fel, Vestara Khai and Olaris Rhea are; who Han and Leia and Luke’s children are (not that they mixed and matched), and which ones died; who all the new Jedi are, including Kenth Hamner (who I kept reading as the pornstar-esque “Kent Hammer”). Political history and interstellar relations are mandatory, as are all the obscure new Force powers everyone seems to be using. Here’s the Wookieepedia entry for something called “flow-walking,” which bears heavily on the book in question (don’t ask me how):
Flow-walking was a rare Force power used by the Aing-Tii monks. It was taught to Jacen Solo by the Aing-Tii, it allowed him to view the past and the future. When one flow-walks, they can only change a person’s perception of the past, but not the past itself.
The Aing Tii used flow-walking as a method of touching the Force by flowing along its currents and reading its intentions. When using this method, it was important to remain attached and anchored in the real world, or else risk loosing oneself to the flow. Users often left a blur when traveling through time.
In 35 ABY, Solo was able to see with his flow-walking what happened when the ship Tachyon Flier crashed, witnessing Raynar Thul as he dragged Lomi Plo and Welk out of the fire. Upon returning to the present and knowing that his mother Leia Organa Solo would later appear at the crash site, Jacen used the flow-walk technique again to leave an imprint of himself for the future, thus connecting Leia to that place and time through the Force.
In 40 ABY, Solo flow-walked back to the Raid on the Jedi Temple to find out what persuaded his grandfather to embrace the ways of the Sith. He also flow-walked into the middle of two of the Jedi High Council‘s meetings.
Jacen Solo, the future Darth Caedus, also flow-walked with Tahiri Veila multiple times….
You get the idea. Or maybe you don’t.
Troy Denning, our tour guide in Fate of the Jedi: Abyss, does his best to help. Here’s an in-text footnote describing why Jagged Fel, leader of the Imperial Remnant (check Wookieepedia for basic hermeneutics), doesn’t trust his fiancé Jaina Solo, Jedi daughter of Han and Leia Solo:
Jaina winced. It was a low blow, but maybe one she deserved. During the Killik crisis, she had made a promise to Jag that she had later broken. Ultimately, her failure to honor her word had resulted in Jag’s exile from the Chiss Ascendancy.
Of course you don’t know anything about the Killik crisis or the Chiss Ascendancy, so back to the internet you go.
Old favorites are here too, at least ostensibly. Denning strains to make everything feel comfortable and familiar, and the result is painfully colloquial. Something makes Leia “as angry as a wampa in a sauna.” Han demonstrates resolution by saying “I don’t need anybody else’s family getting caught in the kind of plasma blast we did” (he’s referring to their deceased son Jacen’s dementia, his turn to the Dark Side, the attendant slaughter of a zillion people and the murder of Luke’s wife). The humor is worse. Han thinks a lecture from everyone’s favorite protocol droid “might just be enough to make him yank out C-3PO’s inner machinery.” Well, golly! And you can’t have foul language in a book kids might read. Sith try to cut your head off? “Kriff!” Best friend gets Force dementia? “Kriff!” Your kid’s frozen in carbonite? “What the kriff?”
Like I said, the plot is paint-by-number. There’s a disturbance in the Force, and Luke thinks it’s connected to Jacen’s plasma blast (see note above). So he takes his son Ben to a sunny place called The Maw to hang out with a bunch of kooks who’ve left their bodies to commune with the Force at the behest of an evil-looking alien with sunken black eyes and tentacles for arms. You’d think after a hundred books, Jedi Grand Master Luke Skywalker would be a little less credulous. The kooks explain: “Only the Force is real…and it’s beautiful….so, so beautiful.”
It’s textbook “I’ve kriffing lost it” stuff, but Luke is goaded into leaving his body behind, turning into a Force presence, and following them wherever they go. They float and talk: “What, exactly, is real?” Luke asked. “My spirit?” “Your Force presence. It’s your true self, a swirl in the living Force that animates your physical body… [pointing to Luke’s body]…It gives form to that.” (Plato wants his royalties.) Luke ends up joining the kooks in a weird Force-purgatory, takes a gander at the “Throne of Balance” (Aristotle wants his royalties), and almost succumbs to the bewitching tentacle alien (Hentai porn makers want their royalties).
Anything to keep the franchise going, I guess. But why’s a Jedi ambivalent about an evil-looking Force demon? Time was, in the Star Wars of yore, having a bad feeling about something meant that something bad was going to happen. True, there’s an exciting light saber battle at the end; lots of people get their limbs hacked off and Denning does a good job with that. Other stuff happens too. There are Sith out there, trying to kill the Jedi, who are also being persecuted by the government; the good guys don’t know what’s going on and they have to find out before it’s too late. This has happened a billion times before. And that’s a kriffing fact.
About ten years ago, in my salad days, I thought it’d be a swell idea to read all the Star Wars novels, since I liked the movies and I wanted to know what happened afterwards. I got maybe twenty books in before I gave up, because except for Zahn’s trilogy (and Brain Daley’s Han Solo Adventures from 30 years ago), every book is exactly the same, save the details. Fans want new books, but because of LucasArts’ iron fist, nothing can be thrown away. Everything that’s old is canonical and everything new, even though it isn’t really new, piles on top and becomes canon, and the cycle repeats itself.
Han Solo is seventy years old, and he’s still scuffling with Mandalorian bounty hunters.
Maybe….read something else?
Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs. He is Open Letters Monthly’s Politics Editor.