Wednesday, April 28, 2010

“Backlash”, by Aaron Allston (Century)


The Fate of the Jedi continues

Repercussions from the dark side’s fatal seduction of Jacen Solo and the mysterious plague of madness afflicting young Jedi continue to wreak havoc in the galaxy.

After narrowly escaping the deranged Force worshippers known as the Mind Walkers and a deadly Sith hit squad, Luke and Ben Skywalker are in pursuit of the now-Masterless Sith apprentice. It is a chase that leads to the forbidding planet Dathomir, where an enclave of powerful dark side Force-wielders will give Vestara the edge she needs to escape — and where the Skywalkers will be forced into combat for their quarry and their lives.

Meanwhile, Han and Leia Solo have completed their own desperate mission, shuttling madness-stricken Jedi from Coruscant to a safe haven in the Transitory Mists, beyond the grasp of Galactic Alliance Chief of State Natasi Daala. But the bold manoeuvre has intensified Daala’s fury, and she is determined to shatter Jedi Order resistance once and for all.

Yet no greater threat exists than that which still waits in the depths of the distant Maw Cluster: A being of pure, ravenous dark-side energy named Abeloth, who calls out across the stars to Jedi and Sith alike. For some it may be the ultimate source of answers crucial to their survival. For others it could be the ultimate weapon of conquest. But for all, it is a game-changing — and life-altering — encounter of untold magnitude and a tactical gambit with unimaginable consequences.

Backlash is the fourth book in a projected nine-book series, and one that has – for the main – entertained thus far. Just to get my main concern about the series out of the way quickly, let me just write this: Like all middle-books, it suffers from the expected (and delivered) lack of any conclusions. This is something that plagued the middle books in the previous nine-book sequence, Legacy of the Force, and does make me question the wisdom of sticking to the nine-book formula. In my own humble opinion, trilogies and duologies might prove the better routes to take in the future. That being said, I shall now return to my review of Backlash which is, thus far, the best book in the Fate of the Jedi sequence.

Like every book in the Star Wars series of novels, this one took a few chapters to get in to; not because Allston’s writing is in anyway deficient – far from it, he’s easily one of the best authors that have ever been attached to this universe (I bet he could have done a great job re-writing the scripts for episodes I, II and III, for example…). The problem is the size of the main cast of characters: there are now perhaps too many ‘main’ perspectives, which if you’re starting a novel you need to indicate and (re-)introduce to the readers. We have Luke and Ben Skywalker; Han and Leia Solo; Allana/Amelia Solo; Galactic Alliance Chief of State Natasi Daala; Jedi Jaina Solo and Empire Chief of State Jagged Fel; some Imperial conspirators; and the Jedi under siege in their Temple on Coruscant. For the first 50 or so pages, the perspective of the novel shifted almost every page, which made it very stop-start and difficult to sink in to.

I think what bothers me most about the over-frequent switches in perspective is a comparison with the older novels, such as Kevin J Anderson's and Timothy Zahn's, which had smaller casts. Not by much (the ‘classic’ characters were all still there, of course), but enough that you got a story from maybe 5 perspectives, rather than 10+.

Anyway, that’s really only an issue for the first few chapters as, when Allston finally let’s the story flow, sticking with single perspectives for entire chapters or more, Backlash is utterly gripping and Allston’s prose drag the reader on through events. Whether it’s the tense events on Dathomir, back with the embattled Jedi order on Coruscant, or Daala’s and Fel’s continued troubles with conspirators, if given a decent amount of space, Allston's writing and plotting are exceptional and the reader will find themselves hooked. There’s plenty of action (for once there’s no dogfighting in space, which was overly-featured in previous sequences) and the pace never really lets up; after all, as Jaina Solo says herself in the novel:

“One good thing about the Solos and Skywalkers. We never run out of things to do.”

The Jedi and Galactic Alliance are only slowly coming to terms with the new, greater threat of the new Tribe of the Sith that at last made first contact with the Skywalkers at the end of Abyss, surprised at their different tactics and apparently guiding principles:

“Sith are at large in the Maw... But these do not follow the Sith Rule of Two. They apparently follow a Sith rule of However Many They Need.”

There are lighter moments in the novel, something that Allston does well and in all of his Star Wars novels, and they will make you smile from time to time: for example, when Han gets his hands on a flamethrower, or the single scene written from R2-D2's point of view.

Having referred to previous novels in the series, I should say that reading Backlash put me pleasantly in mind of reading other, older novels set in the Star Wars universe, with the same sense of adventure and excellent approach to action and intrigue. Specifically, and largely due to the setting of Dathomir, Backlash reminded me of Dave Wolverton’s The Courtship of Princess Leia (1995), as well as Roger MacBride Allen’s Corellian Trilogy (Ambush at Corellia, Assault at Selonia, and Showdown at Centerpoint) – this latter more to do with pacing and atmosphere, rather than the same setting.

Overall, Backlash is a satisfying and entertaining read that bodes well for the next in the series, Christie Golden’s Allies (published May 27th), especially given the cliff-hanger ending.

Recommended for all fans of the genre and overall series.

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