Saturday, April 21, 2007

"Betrayal" - Aaron Alston (Arrow Books)

Betrayal is the beginning of the latest Star Wars series, which ushers in (yet another) dark time for Luke Skywalker and his expanding clan of family and friends. This time, the darkness doesn't come from beyond the galactic rim. This time, its source is far closer to home.

Mr Alston - already well known and loved for his previous excellent contributions to the Star Wars universe - starts this nine-part series off with a real bang, throwing the reader straight into the action with Jacen Solo (Han Solo and Princess Leia's son) and Ben Skywalker (Luke's son) discovering a weapons trafficking operation on Adumar - one of the many planets that have pledged allegiance to the fledgling Galactic Alliance. From death-defying free-falls and displays of lightsaber mastery to speeder chases and unreal acrobatic feats, the first chapter alone is enough to grip readers (new and old) with heightened excitement for this most promising series.

While this is obviously part one of a longer series, the novel contains enough to keep the casual reader interested and entertained throughout - be it the thought of now elderly Han Solo galavanting about the universe in an attempt to prevent a looming civil war, or the equally elderly General Wedge Antilles (which people will know from the original movies, but perhaps have missed - he was a member of Rogue Squadron, who rose to general rank) getting the better of some GA operatives tasked with keeping him in check - it's a devious, yet elegantly simple plan, that should raise a smile on even the most cynical reader's face. The dialogue between Antilles and another general, Tycho Celchu is equally entertaining, and shows that while the ideas and events of the story might be serious, this is still meant as entertainment and Mr Alston has a deft wit which he uses very well - never devolving into farce, and never overwhelming us with puns or jokes. A healthy balance.

Over-shadowing everything is the steadily darker path that the aforementioned Jacen Solo is taking. To be honest, his new character is a welcome change from the New Jedi Order series, which portrayed Jacen as whining, prissy and just simply annoying as a philosophically-wracked teenager. While there was some development towards the end of the series (Traitor saw him subjected to horrific amounts of torture), his new coldness and more detached attitude towards human (or, as it's Star Wars, alien) life makes him a much more interesting potential-bad guy. As mentor for Luke's son, though, there is greater possibility for future tragedy - what will become of the son of everyone's favourite Jedi if his teacher falls to darkness? Will he be sacrificed for the greater good, will he be drawn into darkness with his master? Only time will tell.

Expertly written by Aaron Alston, with a perfect mix of humour, plenty of action (on the ground, with lightsabers drawn, and in space) and political intrigue, Betrayal is an excellent start, never letting up the pace and always dragging the reader on. I couldn't put it down, and often found myself reading well into the dawn hours, unable to tear my eyes off the pages. A very encouraging sign of what is to come.
Alston also writes the fourth book in the series, Exile (paperback out now, and review pending) and the penultimate volume, Fury (released later this year). If anyone wanted to dive back into the Star Wars universe, although earlier novels would perhaps be recommended, in Alston's Betrayal they would receive a literary, space opera treat. With enough explaining of backstory, it wouldn't require previous knowledge of the New Jedi Order series, and would no doubt be just as enjoyable (if not more so, as the NJO series did start to get a little too long in the tooth...).
Nothing is set in stone during this first novel, except that the remaining eight volumes will be full of new twists in the Star Wars tale, as the Solos and Skywalkers find themselves split on either side of the escalating galactic conflict.

Watch this space. (A review of the next 3 books - Bloodlines, Tempest and Exile - will be posted early next week.)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Brad Meltzer - "The Book Of Fate"

The Book Of Fate was the second book by Mr Meltzer that I read (first being The Millionnaires) and - as an indication of just how good a writer he is - I have since read the rest of his novels in very quick succession.

The novel focusses on the trials and tribulations of Wes, personal aide to former president Manning. Horribly scarred by a supposedly-failed assassination attempt, Wes has spent the past eight years working for the former president and his family, almost religiously devoting himself to his work and the president's legacy. Then, as indicated in the blurb on the back of the book, close friend Ron Boyle who was thought to have died during the attempt on Manning's life is spotted by, alive and well (with minor plastic surgery), breaking into Manning's dressing room in Malaysia.

What follows is Wes's attempts to discover the truth about what happened on that fateful day, when his life was altered so painfully - he lost all nerve and muscle control down one side of his face. What makes this different from standard thrillers is both the outcome, the reason behind the mystery and the clues available to Wes and his helpers - a gossip columnist from a Florida newpaper, and the aspiring Congressman who got Wes his job with Manning.

After finding a bizarre code scribbled by the side of a crossword filled in by the president, Wes delves deeper into the loyalties of his co-workers and also the impetus of the man who wounded him - who is still alive, languishing at a mental hospital, until someone from his past pays him a visit.

Don't be fooled by the title - this is not really a thriller in the same vein as Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, or any other of the multitudes of founding-father conspiracy novels that have been pushed on the public in recent years. While there is some reference to Freemasons and so forth, The Book Of Fate follows a more conventional thriller style.

The pace is quick throughout, without lacking detail or cutting corners. Meltzer's ability to spin a tale has certainly improved since his first novel, The Tenth Justice (which was also a very enjoyable, cleverly-plotted political thriller). The book fulfils all the hopes anyone might have for a thriller in this day and age - great characterisation, a pace that never lets up, a convincing storyline, a healthy amount of wit, and a great finale.
If there was one fault with Mr Meltzer's writing style, it would be that occassionally he used certain phrases that sound cheesy or out of place but these are usually short and not integral to the story. Thankfully, he only partially succumbs to my biggest bug-bear with thrillers, and that's the emotional aspect of many characters - they seem to only experience the extremes of emotion. With Meltzer's characters, though, we get a wide range of emotions, which not only makes the characters more believable but also makes his books even more readable.
If you haven't tried any of Brad Meltzer's novels, I strongly advise you to start right now. Maybe then his publisher will spend some more time promoting his work.
Also try: James Twining, Kyle Mills, Mike Lawson, John Grisham