Monday, January 31, 2011

The Return To Shadows Of The Empire! The Novel Tells A Different Star Wars Story!

The Good: Some interesting concepts, Fills in the gaps adequately
The Bad: Character and plot issues that are repetitive or redundant, Simple read
The Basics: More average than extraordinary, Shadows Of The Empire, the novel, fills in a Star Wars gap, mostly by recycling characters and ideas.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a space adventure took place that was one of the greatest films of all time. That film was The Empire Strikes Back (reviewed here!) and it was such a magnificent movie that when the film series it was a part of returned for the next installment, the plot was a natural continuation, but the characters were anything but. Indeed, if one objectively watches Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!), vital characters like Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian and even Darth Vader have very little in common with who they were prior to that film. So, how did the characters get from the end of the one film to the beginning of the other? The answer is Shadows Of The Empire!

It might seem like I have already milked this particular cow, whatwith writing a review of the graphic novel of Shadows Of The Empire but herein lies the genius of George Lucas and the creative people working under him; they created a multimedia experience with various parts under the same name and it is only through experiencing all of those parts that one gets the entire story. So the graphic novel Shadows Of The Empire tells the story arc of Boba Fett working to get Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt and Luke Skywalker's tribulations when he reaches Tatooine. But Shadows Of The Empire, the novel by Steve Perry fills in the same timeframe in a different way, focusing on Leia, Lando and Chewbacca's efforts to recover Han and a fiendish plan by a new alien to thwart Darth Vader and become the Emperor's new right hand. As well, there was a video game and it is when one uses all three mediums that one fills in the story of the missing months between Han Solo's freezing in carbonite and the rescue we witnessed at the beginning of Return Of The Jedi! But for the novel, Shadows Of The Empire is a good, but not great or truly original story in the Star Wars universe.

Darth Vader, troubled by his inability to turn Luke to his cause, recuperates from his wounds while trying to restore his place of favor with the Emperor. However, Vader has serious competition, in the form of Prince Xizor, a ruthless crime boss who runs Black Sun. Xizor has the ear of the Emperor and seeks to become his right hand, using organized crime the way Vader utilizes the Imperial military. Xizor and his assistant, Guri, hatch a plan to kill Luke Skywalker, to curry favor and revenge himself upon Vader for the genocide Vader ordered upon his homeworld some time before.

At the same time, Lando and Chewbacca's attempts to prevent Boba Fett from delivering the frozen Han Solo to Jabba the Hutt fail and Leia joins them. While the Rebellion works to steal the plans for the second Death Star, Leia decides to try to negotiate with Xizor for Solo's life and she and Chewbacca accompany Xizor's assistant, Guri, to Coruscant. There, Leia attempts to not be seduced by Xizor, get Han back and survive, all the while Xizor uses her as bait to lure Luke to Coruscant so he can be easier killed for the Emperor!

Shadows Of The Empire does what it needs to do, but Perry takes some serious liberties, especially with the character of Princess Leia. Leia, so much of a prude in the first two Star Wars movies that it seems Han Solo never has a fair shake at her, is suddenly happy to get busy with a reptilian crime boss far more repulsive than Han ever was. This is a bit of a stretch and readers who are attentive to character details are more likely to read this and roll their eyes than say "oh, that's cool." Conceits like this make the reader wonder why Perry and Lucasfilm bothered.

But there is no conceit - not even Leia getting captured by Xizor and needing to be rescued (wasn't there a movie that involved pretty much that?!) - that is as contrived and terrible as that of Dash Rendar. Rendar is a scoundrel who pretty much takes Han's place for Shadows Of The Empire. Instead of fully developing a redemptive arc for Lando Calrissian, Dash Rendar, who has done some work for the Rebellion since the Battle Of Hoth, pops in, annoys Leia much the way Han did and buddies up with Luke . . . much the way Han Solo once did. In addition to offering momentary confusion for Leia about her feelings for scoundrels, Rendar essentially wisecracks and is cynical the entire time and when Shadows Of The Empire is over, the reader truly is left without a care as to whether or not they shall ever see or hear from him again.

But what Perry and Shadows Of The Empire - in this medium, at least - do well are the characters of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Skywalker is both adapting to his new hand and dealing with the emotional ramifications of learning that Darth Vader might well be his father. Because he cannot confront the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda with that information (given that those conversations happen on-screen in Return Of The Jedi), Luke is on his own and is given a brief arc to wrestle with the implications while training more in the Force. This, naturally, gives him a decent chance to wrestle with controlling his anger and the book does a good job of exploring that.

As well, Perry is given the opportunity to explore both Darth Vader and the Emperor in a way that makes both more consistent and interesting. Vader, on Bespin, pretty much gambled everything by appealing to Luke to join him and crush the Emperor. Palpatine, knowing this, is looking for his replacement and Xizor offers him a decent chance to replace Vader. Palpatine playing Xizor and Vader off one another works quite well because it establishes what the prequel trilogies illustrate: there can only be two Sith at a time, a master and apprentice or else the apprentice will seek to overthrow the master.

Darth Vader, though, is given the chance to do two things that he never was in the original Star Wars films: he sets in motion the idea that it is reasonable and more than just to save his son that he would turn against the Emperor and that he is not all-powerful and can be outmaneuvered. The joy of the Vader arc in Shadows Of The Empire is that try as both might, the Emperor and Vader end up stuck with one another and Perry captures that sense that both are disappointed by that well.

The novel Shadows Of The Empire is filled with space battles, double crosses and intrigue to be expected from the best science fiction and they are adequate in that regard. Given that most of the space battles happen in regards to rescuing Leia from the Empire, there is more of a feeling of "we've done this before" to it. There is some comedy - C-3P0 flying the Millennium Falcon - but it is definitely sublimated to the overwhelming sense that the Empire might be moving towards its definitive end game and that makes for good reading!

Shadows Of The Empire is remarkably simply written, such that a young adult might be able to read it without any trouble. Perry's diction is unchallenging and the story reads like a pulp novel most of the time. Still, it does what it sets out to do, which is to bridge the gap between The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. It does that, but some of us were hoping it would do that and more . . . or just a little better.

For other science fiction novels, please check out my reviews of:
Imzadi By Peter David
Neuromancer By William Gibson
Revenge Of The Sith By Matthew Stover


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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