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Sunday, 21 April 2013

AFICIONADO CLASSIC REVIEW: THE 'REBEL FORCE' BOOK SERIES


'STAR WARS: REBEL FORCE' BOOK SERIES


All books written by Alex Wheeler

Published by SCHOLASTIC INC.

All book series reviews by Scott Weller

BOOK ONE: TARGET


These reviews contains possible plot spoilers...


The Seventies STAR WARS is back!

With the phenomenon of the last ten years of young/ teenage novel series, including such notable successes as Anthony Horowitz’s STORMBREAKER and Charlie Higson’s Ian Fleming estate approved YOUNG JAMES BOND adventures, it is no surprise to me that LUCAS BOOKS, having hit prior gold with their three long running YOUNG JEDI Prequel series, have decided to return to that publishing arena with an all new batch of tales set within the evergreen-like popularity of the Classic Trilogy-and, to me, this is the era that suits the new Scholastic Books releases like a duck to water.

It may be targeted at young readers between the ages of nine and twelve but, from the strength of the first two books so far, this new REBEL FORCE series have been written in such a way that I think fans of all ages will find them just as enjoyable to read, with a style harkening back to the more fun, more innocent, classic old days of the Archie Goodwin/ MARVEL STAR WARS comics strips that were so beloved in their time, and provided so much excitement to people like me in that very long three year wait for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. These new books don’t have the kind of creative/story restraints that Goodwin and the gang had between 1977 and 1983- they didn’t have the full picture that we do thirty years on- not being able to develop too far in case of contradicting anything being conceived or written by Lucas for the subsequent sequels. With REBEL FORCE: TARGET, there are still limitations, as there is even more continuity to remember, but taking into account what has been developed in the last thirty years since those MARVEL strips, the STAR WARS universe is such a bigger playground to have fun in these days, and author Alex Wheeler has used these restrictions as a positive strength in the story process.

In addition, in the quest to bind the STAR WARS universe together, many of the familiar planets and aliens races from the modern Prequels make their way into these books, from a couple of carniverous Reek’s (one of which takes on Luke), to even a cantina full of creatures like a Dug and a Gungan (Jar Jar haters may want to skip that paragraph when the time comes!!), with author Alex Wheeler able to weave them effectively into the CT narrative, like the rich banking world of Muunilinst (which is well described and has continuity fully maintained with the visuals seen in the 2003 CLONE WARS animated series from Genndy Tartakovsky), and the galaxy core world of Coruscant. Not all of you Classic Trilogy purists out there will like the addition of the Prequel Universe I’m sure, but we’ll just have to face the facts- that LUCAS BOOKS, since the arrival of the Prequels from 1999 onwards, wants their creations to be interlinked with the past, and that’s the way its gonna stay-it would have to take an order from Lucas himself before they ever changed that policy.

To compensate, the author also gets to throw in a few additional popular Classic Trilogy continuity references and cameos that will delight readers, like Captain Thrawn and Crix Madine (before he joined the Rebellion). Even a Krayt dragon gets a chance to add itself to the mix in an important sequence within TARGET’s finale.

Not straying too close to the events of EMPIRE, at least not yet, as this series will eventually cross over all three films pre-time lines, these first two adventures of the series stay the right side of 1978, before THE HOLIDAY SPECIAL!! Relax, people: Princess Leia does not sing!! In a general plot that has some similar qualities to Brian Daley’s earlier 1983/84 LP story REBEL MISSION TO ORD MANTELL, money is the driving factor that the Rebels must get hold of so as to acquire urgently needed equipment and supplies to keep their evolving civil war against the Empire from driving itself into attrition.

Wheeler brings cool nostalgia retro to our regular characters. In many ways the Luke, Leia and Han of the pre-EMPIRE-era are like an intergalactic PARTRIDGE FAMILY in some respects, with two squabbling, one older than the other, brothers in rivalry, whilst the big sister laughs at how stupid they are.

Luke, Han and Leia retain their first STAR WARS personas in an adventure that takes place only a few weeks after the destruction of the DEATH STAR- Luke is still the gosh and golly kid-the naïve farmboy hero, full of exuberance amazed at the new wonders-of peoples and planets- that he’s now involved with. Like all kids of his age, he is trying to find his place in the universe and put his abilities on the right path, any path, to being a Jedi. He’s not a master of the Force yet by any means though he’s desperate to learn (hindering him, though, has been the fact that he has not been in touch with his much missed mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi at all since the all-important destruction of the DEATH STAR), and the book intriguingly shows that, at times, when his friends are in danger, Luke is often extremely hesitant about trying to use his father’s lightsaber (his lack of training as a Jedi also lends itself to some fun, with a classic scene where he desperately tries to find himself in the Force and use its abilities to trick a Stormtrooper into releasing him-a task that he fails miserably during an excellent and hilarious little moment).

Leia is still the touchy, passionately fiery leader, with her heart clearly and determinedly in the right place when fighting for the Rebel cause. Han Solo is still the cynical speaks before he thinks space pirate- the rapscallion, as Harrison Ford once used to think of him (though, deep down, the space smuggler has a whole lot of heart for his friends that he doesn’t yet ant to show) - determined to eventually make it back to Jabba and Tatooine and pay off his debts before he’s a dead man. The relationship between Han and Leia is still as prickly as ever at this point, though Han suspects her true feelings for him. In his dialogue with Luke, there’s also a nice bit between them where they talk about the Force and Obi-Wan, where Han grudgingly admits how he admired Obi’s fighting, and holding his own, against Vader on the DEATH STAR.

Wheeler has indeed done all his homework and managed to weave the character histories into the stories as well as create new situations in which they can show their stuff-Han reveals his reputation for being a feisty card player whilst squaring off against a ruthless Muun money shark named Kenuun, whilst Luke, following in his father’s speedster footsteps, takes part in a dangerous one lap only Podrace with as much danger and double crossing as anything seen in the previous Boonta Eve tournament on Tatooine, in a sequence that’s well described and zings along-taking up just the right amount of pages length before the adventure comes to a climax, with the author deliberately echoing Lucas’s previously established intentions to have the Prequels and Original Trilogy’s having moments/tone poem incidents that rhyme with one another.

Of the supporting heroes, Chewbacca is mostly used as muscle, but anything involving him throwing Stormtroopers or bashing them against walls, or battling Dugs, is okay in my book. In TARGET, Threepio is more like the version seen in STAR WARS and, perhaps, a part hybrid to the version of the character seen in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, too, as he spouts off the percentages of surviving the perilous dangers our heroes soon find themselves in.

Sadly, Darth Vader, well for the present at least, is still stuck out in space and on his way to a rendezvous with the Imperial Star Destroyers- due to the fact that he can’t technically meet Skywalker in the 1990’s onward established Expanded Universe-in fact, we may hardly see him at all in this new series-he may be mentioned a lot or be on the absolute peripheries of the new tales to come-hopefully, the writers will find new creative ways to bring him in at some point...it wouldn’t be the same without the Dark Lord’s menace.

Fortunately, it’s nice to have the Emperor back- he’s just as ruthless, calculating and vicious as ever-perhaps with even a bit of the ROBOT CHICKEN version of the character thrown in, when he almost considers destroying everything about him in the first books opening chapter.

With the aforementioned Darth Vader not fully able to participate, the newly created character of the mysterious Imperial agent, X-7, has been created as a highly dangerous and resourceful new enemy to challenge our Star Warriors, and gets to shine in the book right from his first shadowy appearance. Throughout both books, X-7 is a lethal combo of the best qualities of Boba Fett, the ruthless efficiency of the Ian Fleming created James Bond, and with the personality changing abilities of Martin Landau’s character of Rollin Hand from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. The X-7 spy/assassin is a cool manipulator-a homage, perhaps, to the ever-adapting character of Frederick Forsythe’s book THE DAY OF THE JACKAL from 1976. This “man” obviously has a past that was destroyed or removed from him-I’m sure we’ll find out what that past was in a future book-I’m wondering if he was once a Jedi himself?

Despite their being children’s books, there are some intriguing dark passages within the opening two adventures, and about how X-7, inhis quest to discover vital intelligence and destroy the Rebel leadership from within, manipulates his targets with the greatest of ease before killing them, and getting rid of anyone else who stands between him and his objective. With Luke’s name as the pilot responsible for destroying the DEATH STAR being kept top secret by the Rebels at this juncture, the author makes the most of the assassin trying to find out who the pilot is, unaware that his target is right amongst the very people he has infiltrated in his cover as the ever loyal Han Solo-like hero who’s just too good to be true-Tobin Elad.  

However, the adventure that launches this new villain into the book franchise doesn’t come without a few story snags- X-7 sneaks into the Rebel’s Yavin base a bit too easily for my tastes, despite the writer’s best abilities to bring the sequence realistically to life. And they (Wheeler and LUCAS BOOKS), to maintain continuity with the MARVEL comics (and in some ways facing the same problems that writers like Archie Goodwin had in the seventies), have elected to delay the planet’s evacuation, even in the light of future attack by Darth Vader’s forces, so that the Rebels can still have a base of operations-no particular reason is given for this apart from Dodonna telling Leia that their spies have indicated that it is just not part of the Emperor’s plans yet to attack them. ???? So what was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, then- a party? With such a revelation, and the manner it’s written, the author just about gets away with it!!

All in all, though, this and the following book are excellent introduction pieces of the series-neat and faced past in an engaging style, and, as previously mentioned, our STAR WARS heroes characterization within that specific time frame are well realized. With nicely described action sequences, and some good new villainous characters, too, Wheeler obviously loves our classic saga just as much as we do.

With the first part of X-7 s mission a success, we can only dread what nastiness he has brewing up for our heroes in the next exciting installments.

AFICIONADO RATING: An essential purchase, never boring, and always a fast paced read, here’s hoping future books in the line stay as good. Make TARGET your target for a highly enjoyable STAR WARS read that’s also a terrific piece of nostalgia for the Classic Trilogy, too- a time when heroes were heroes and villains were villains. 9 out of 10


BOOK TWO: HOSTAGE


Dark secrets, lies, inconvenient truths, plots with counterplots, intrigue and betrayal are a firm fixture of HOSTAGE, the second book of the REBEL FORCE series, as the ensemble balance firmly a part of TARGET shifts away to the character of Princess Leia Organa- with the adventure aspects of this new tale firmly in the background.

As the last Royal custodian of her people (a nice nod to the unused ending of REVENGE OF THE JEDI, where she eventually became the Queen to the last remnants of her race), Princess Leia Organa, escorted by Luke, Han and the gang, travel through the asteroid remnants of her dead world of Alderaan and onto it’s surviving sister world of Delaya, where thousands of the late planet’s people are cramped together and suffering as refugees. Leia plans to do everything she can for her race, liaising with Delaya’s central government and people, to have them immersed into the planet’s population-to try and start a new life for them from the ashes of destruction, and, if possible, try to recruit enthusiastic new blood into the growing Rebel forces fighting against the Empire.

Sadly, deception and cruelty go hand in hand on Delaya-by it’s very nature, the opposite of Alderaan-a grim factory world that has for years absorbed the darkness and greed that had never existed on prosperous Alderaan, and now that dead worlds survivors are trapped on an equally dead planet, living in a pit of despair.

Despite such noble, inspiring and brave ideals carried within her, and the determination to always do right, things were never going to be easy for Leia once arrived on Delaya, whether returning to her people, negotiating with the planetary governments (who are using Rebel sympathizers donated money, sent to aid the Alderaanian survivors, for their own means instead), or acting in her position as a Rebel Leader trying to win the hearts of her people and convince them to take arms against tyranny. Her subsequent recruitment bid, though subtle, soon draws controversial attention and dangerous, life threatening hatred towards her from a hostile section of her own people, resulting in both Leia and the rest of the deceased Organa household being brought into the firing line and held responsible for the destruction of their planet. To the once noble Alderaanian outcasts it was an event they feel would not have occurred if the Organa household hadn’t gotten involved in the fight against the Empire in the first place.

In desperate times, people do desperate things. For good or for bad, HOSTAGE explores some of these avenues and Princess Leia, always loyal and brave for her friends, the Rebels and her late planet, has to face up to a new series of dangerous and life changing events. It will take all of her resolve and dedication to her people-and she will suffer greatly-even at the hands of an Imperial torturer once again-in her attempts to save them from further suffering, as well as winning more of their hearts and minds into joining her cause in fighting for the Rebellion.

The heroic action and adventure elements of STAR WARS continue, but, like certain parable aspects of security and control shown in EPISODE THREE, the complex story and nature of HOSTAGE, and the characters often trapped within it’s universe, equally mirrors some of the tragic events that have taken place in our own real world over the years-who can forget Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo… To his credit, Alex Wheeler treads a fine story telling line with precision, managing to tell a well structured tale, in a different but equally enjoyable book to his previous TARGET.


Depth in story and character is a strong factor of HOSTAGE’s success, especially with regards to Princess Leia, as Wheeler puts her through the emotional ringer as she faces the tragedy of her people. Additionally, as the tale continues, we find out a bit more about her as an eight year old child in the Royal court and some of her adventures-of how certain events and her own unique character traits have helped shape her into being the Rebel leader she is today- sections, interspread throughout the second half of the book, that are both intriguing and nicely written, and for the first time I began to think more about the character- what it meant for Leia in her position as a Rebel leader as well as understanding just how, despite her great strength of character, she can be so vulnerable.

Immersed in the fantasy of STAR WARS, the consequences of Leia’s previous actions, and those of her father, Bail, as Rebel leaders were not something that I’d previously dwelled on too much in either the films or previous books, but HOSTAGE brings such consequences firmly to the fore with an interesting slant.

No one who makes a deal with the devil can ever hope to make it through unscathed, as several Alderaan refugees soon discover when they conspire with the Empire in capturing Princess Leia in an attempt to have their surviving populace transported to a new world in order to re-build their lives. Those people who betray Leia in the book can be sympathized with and they are not stereotypes. Their actions are understandable and believable. For a book ranged for 8-12 year olds this, like the earlier TARGET, is serious stuff for youngsters to get their heads around and think about, with  mature themes that I thought were quite refreshing-HOSTAGE could actually have been a proper adult hardback release and expanded on.

As with the other book, the main heroes are in the setting stone of events within several weeks after the events of STAR WARS: EPISODE FOUR. Wheeler keeps to his established narrative strengths from TARGET but adds depth to this more singular story. As Wheeler shows the different facets and complicated structuring of Leia’s personality well, our other heroes still have their own moments to shine, and Han has a nice scene with a group of living on the street child thieves that more than remind him of himself at that age-a nice nod to an early version of Solo that never quite made the final filmed version of REVENGE OF THE SITH. Continuity continues to be very good, though I was not previously aware of Delaya as Alderaan’s moon, or of some of the other EU established characters. Nice to have General Rieekan in the book, too, though sadly he’s not in it as much as I’d hoped.

Secret agent/assassin X-7 may not be heavily involved in the books first three quarters, taking a bit of a back story to Leia, but an opportunity is taken towards the adventure’s end that will lead to the next phase of his carefully controlled operation in destroying the Rebel Alliance’s key leadership, and its heroes, from within…

With the emphasis on different characters for the continuing series, may we dare to hope that Artoo and Threepio, who haven’t contributed much to the first two books, might eventually have a tale devoted to them?

And, in a nice nod to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, fans will also enjoy the brief but welcome return of Yoda at the opening- technically, we assume this is his first appearance in the Classic Trilogy before the film events of EPISODE V, as Obi-Wan’s shimmering self appears inside his home to tell him how he has just failed against Vader and how they’ll now have to re-assess their approach to young Luke’s eventual training-this is obviously  a section of the book that acts as a lovely teaser of things to come, as the writer cant do anything to tread on the toes of what has already been established in the next two films, though it’s a nice leading in job. And it’s always nice to have Yoda in the books, anyway, especially this series, making the universe a bit bigger than just the one that’s encompassing Luke, Leia and Han.

The book also asks if there might be more surviving Jedi out there, apart from Ben and Yoda. To discover that answer, you’ll just have to read HOSTAGE to find out. Though fans of Jude Watson’s JEDI QUEST books (also from SCHOLASTIC), and the vast Expanded Universe, will be very happy with developments that take place in this, and future, adventures… but just how does it all pertain to Leia and her destiny as The Other?

AFICIONADO RATING: The worthy new series of adventures for our classic heroes continues. If you loved the old, less complicated and more fun seventies adventures, be they comic or books, then you’ll love this special series and will snap it faster than a Wampa with a Tautaun!!

Books for a younger readership, yes, but I enjoyed Alex Wheeler’s two opening tales a helluva lot more than Timothy Zahn’s similar time frame adventure, ALLEGIANCE!! 9 out of 10


BOOK THREE- RENEGADE


Despite all his careful planning, deadly instincts and well trained killing skills, the ruthless Imperial undercover agent/assassin X-7’s attempts to eliminate the naïve farmer turned Rebel hero-the boy who single handedly destroyed the Emperor’s DEATH STAR- Luke Skywalker, have all failed miserably, and time is now running short for him to complete his objectives for his shadowy master, Commander Rezi Soresh. X-7 will have to use greater skill and cunning manipulation to destroy his target once and for all, this time planning to shatter the triad of friendship between Luke, Han Solo and Princess Leia indefinitely from within and strike when Luke is at his most vulnerable, by framing Han Solo for yet another botched assassination bid whilst they are all on Yavin 4-the heartland of the Rebel Alliance. And Solo, the most likely to eventually suss out X-7’s disguise, is the perfect choice for the set-up. Despite all his dealings with them, Han is still very much the outsider-by deliberate choice- to the Rebels and considered a rogue element by many of its members, including its senior echelons-not well known or well trusted- and it is only his friendship with the Princess and with Luke Skywalker that keeps their doubts about him in check. Now, thanks to some additional careful wordage from “Tobin Elad”, a trusted confidante and loyal Rebel, the seeds of further doubt about Han’s character have been well planted, even in the Princess’s mind.

And Han, not liking this air of suspicion around him after everything he feels he’s done to help the Rebels, is equally distrustful of them, and quickly retaliates in his own inimitable style, returning to his mercenary ways and instincts that have so far kept him alive. He and Chewbacca soon have no choice but to escape the Rebel base, and, pursued by an X-wing squadron, jump into the protection of hyperspace and the resuming of their freelance career…broke once more, they’ll have to start from scratch if they are ever to repay Jabba’s debts. Han is more than angry that the Rebels think he has tried to kill his friend Luke and feels betrayed by both them and especially by Princess Leia, who has assigned herself the task of identifying the traitor/attempted murderer amongst them.

No sooner is the infamous Corellian back in the Tatooine cantina than he is quickly hired to infiltrate an Imperial transport and steal a valuable shipment.  But is this all a trap? Who is the mystery manipulator behind the scene of events that Han and Chewbacca will soon become mixed up in? And how is this relevant to the future of Luke and Leia?

Author Alex Wheeler successfully re-introduces some of the more rogue-ish and daring aspects of the Solo character, and some very nice dialogue/retorts, traits which would have been seen before the first STAR WARS movie- the Solo mandate of shoot first and ask questions later is a welcome return- i.e. like the original Greedo scene before Lucas went and messed it all up and changed the smuggler’s ideology in the SPECIAL EDITION!! And two Wookiees even manage to join the Solo party at one point as well-I’m assuming we’ll be seeing them in a later book in the series-another good move by the author to keep things interesting. Now any chance of an adventure linked to THE HOLIDAY SPECIAL?

Meanwhile, with Luke still recovering from his injuries, Leia, knowing how dangerous the situation is on Yavin 4 and that he-the Rebels “new hope”- must be protected at all costs, opts to take the ex-farmboy away from the Rebel base and into safety on a location that only she and Luke will be aware of-going into hiding with no one –not even their recent new friend Tobin Elad (the alternate identity of the dangerous assassin X-7) is aware of their having left until it is too late. The destination is of Luke’s choice, however, and, against his previous words to Obi-Wan Kenobi, elects a return to the desert world of Tatooine-his once home- to attend the funeral/life celebration of his late best friend Biggs Darklighter at the Tosche station at Anchorhead, where they grew up together.

The idea of Luke going back to Tatooine, especially when its linked to the death of his friend Biggs from the DEATH STAR battle, is a good one, as is the return appearances of Camie, the Fixer, Deak and Windy, though the idea that Luke/Windy have managed to have safe communications prior to his arrival and confer about the funeral and the life celebration reunion by his friends that is to follow stretches believability a bit and feels a little too contrived. Surely this contrivance wasn’t really needed-Luke would have gone to Tatooine and, in fact, he does, if the Expanded Universe takes into account the MARVEL COMICS story JAWA EXPRESS from 1979, written by Archie Goodwin (one of our particular faves from that time). Also, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of Imperial Blockade or heavy Stormtrooper presence on Tatooine-with so much activity having taken place there in the lead up to the destruction of the DEATH STAR you’d think the Imperials/Vader (still not in the book series… yet) would be taking more of an interest in it.

On the plus side, it’s nice to see the aforementioned “lost characters” from Luke’s teenage years-all of them act as we remember them , well…seen them but not seen them, in the cut footage from 1976 or the previous MARVEL comic strip, if you see what I mean!!

The Fixer is still very much the early Han Solo type to Luke, whilst Camie continues to be his girl, though a little bit more endeared to Luke now that she has heard the bogus cover stories of his adventures and daring as a smuggler-tales that Luke clearly enjoys spinning whilst Leia (on her first trip to Tatooine) listens aghast as they become more and more preposterous!! This is once more another enjoyable chance to see Luke pre-EMPIRE, when he was still the enthusiastic hot shot in a life of adventure and excitement, not yet beaten down by fate or put on the serious path of destiny, and to his Tatooine friends he’s still “Wormie”!! They are the typical hotheads who either willingly or had no choice but to stay in the home town, and never got the chance to go out into the big wide universe as Luke did. All in all, the essence of the characters from those sequences is nicely rendered by the author and makes you wish they’d be released on DVD in restored quality one day!! Additionally, the Tosche station building at Anchorhead is also well described and conforms to those rare photos of the John Barry created sets- even down to the holo-pool table. There’s even a bar fight homage to the classic old westerns…

None of these previously established “lost” characters would deliberately get Luke into trouble so Wheeler has to create a new character, Jaxson, so as to be to an antagonistic rival to Luke from his youth –with his first appearance at the Tosche station you just know that there’s going to be problems between them straight away, especially when Jaxson, jealous of Luke and thinking he’s a liar, declares that Biggs is a traitor for having joined the Rebel Alliance against the Empire, resulting in a confrontation in which the two then go head to head against each other in a Skyhopper race in the dangerously established needle of  Beggars Canyon, as previously brought to life in Brian Daley’s 1979 audio dramatization of STAR WARS (Episode One: A Wind to Shake the Stars).

And, whilst all this is occurring, we also get the chance to return to the court of the loathsome Jabba the Hutt, who dispatches one of his best bounty hunters, the Trandoshan reptile, and fan favourite, Bossk, onto the trail of Han Solo through the procurement of Luke Skywalker. It looks like the Jedi-to-be’s problems will soon be going from bad to worse!!

As previously with the book series, there are the usual nice links to the upcoming EMPIRE and JEDI films, and some more fun little touches (like Luke on a speeder bike on Yavin, Leia realizing that Luke has survived a later terrible danger on Tatooine, ala later on with Cloud City).

A missed opportunity, though, would have been to have had some flashbacks between Luke and Biggs prior to STAR WARS-as he was attending his friends memorial it may also have been nice to have had Luke meeting with Biggs’ parents as well-something that would give his death a little bit more meaning apart from Luke’s later defending him as a member of the Rebel Alliance.

Intriguingly, Wheeler brings one major part of the book series plotline to an abrupt close, yet interestingly takes it into a new direction at the same time-unleashing an old enemy into future books as a subsequent bonus. A welcome move.

The inevitable double crosses, daring escapes, humour and gusto courage of our heroes is still in force within the series, and this latest entry will prove as popular as ever. RENEGADE may lack the depth of the second novel in the series, HOSTAGE, and feels slightly more orientated towards the younger end of the market, for which it is ultimately geared for (and in that criteria it obviously succeeds), than previously, but it’s still a feel good adventure in the best STAR WARS tradition for readers of all ages.


AFICIONADO RATING: A faster paced read than the previous HOSTAGE, RENEGADE, though feeling a tad contrived in places, is nonetheless a fun little tale within the ever evolving limbo world between EPISODES IV and V, and zings along with plenty of zest and high adventure in its veins to keep the reader occupied. The book once more captures the warm spirit and innocent fun of the Original Trilogy. 8 out of 10



BOOK FOUR-FIREFIGHT


Escaping from the inner demons trying to break through his slave conditioning, and constantly reminded of his bitter failure at destroying his selected target, Luke Skywalker, the Rebel pilot who single handedly destroyed the Empire’s ultimate subjugation weapon, the DEATH STAR, the deadly Imperial controlled assassin, mysteriously known only as X-7, planning to avoid punishment from his shadowy Imperial master, Commander Rezi Soresh, has absconded to a secret base retreat on a far flung moon, more determined than ever that his prey will be destroyed at all costs, and initiating a bold new plan to kill Luke by recruiting a group of skilled space pilot mercenaries from across the farthest corners of the galaxy for a seek and destroy mission against the Rebel hero and his Red Squadron fighter wing. With his selected group quickly whittled down to the best of the best, this team mercenary soon reveal themselves as amongst the most hardened and mercilessly effective pilots operating outside Imperial jurisdictions-and certainly the most varied of characters-alien and humanoid- that the Imperial Assassin has ever been involved with, all with unique talents within a cockpit that should prove more than a match for the Rebel pilots.

Back on Yavin Four-amazingly still intact as a home for the Rebel Alliance (with no sign of any revenge filled Imperial retaliations yet!!)-Princess Leia undertakes a vital diplomatic mission to Mon Calamari space, whilst Luke, with the Red Flight (which also sees our ever popular smugglers Han and Chewie joining its members), are sent on a special mission to the water world of Kamino, home to the master cloners previously seen in ATTACK OF THE CLONES, to investigate why the Imperials have seemingly abandoned their research facility there-a facility rumoured to be a testing site for a dangerous new weapon.

Once arrived in Kamino space, difficulties double for our heroes when the group is soon engaged in battle against X-7’s mercenary space force. However, things don’t go according to plan for either side of the conflict, when a select force from each side ends up trapped on the water planets stilt city, its dark empty streets and eerily quiet and hastily abandoned buildings giving off the feeling of a dangerous situation having occurred, and one that the Kaminoans and Imperials had no defense against.

Stranded on the rain besieged outpost, friend and foe have no choice but to join forces to fight, and try to escape, from the silent, deadly terror that stalks and strikes the cities silent and foreboding corridors, before the deadly abomination that has been created can add them all to its menu of slaughter.

Interestingly, regular REBEL FORCE series writer Alex Wheeler takes the story off into a different tangent to the one I was expecting at its start (in fact, I was actually looking forward to reading a book that was basically one big space battle storyline-Luke’s abilities as a fighter pilot have been rarely used in the Expanded Universe books-well, at least the ones I’ve read over the years!!) Instead, it soon veers off from the concept and then becomes a creepy but perhaps slightly underwritten monster face-off, with some creepy horror moments that wouldn’t have been out of place in ALIEN or JAWS, mixed with an action/adventure story in the best STAR WARS tradition.

With X-7 out of the way for the majority of this adventure-no doubt up to no good in preparation for another book in the series!!-Wheeler instead introduces a replacement combatant for our Rebel heroes to square off against- the mercenary space pilot Div, who, like the Imperial Assassin, also has a past shrouded in mystery.
Despite the early scenes, however, Div’s villainous streak is largely muted through the book, proving not to be anywhere near as ruthless or highly dangerous as X-7, and it soon transpires that there’s much more to him than possibly meets the eye. Though he has some of Han Solo’s smuggling and shoot first ask questions later survival instincts, there’s more of a hint of A New Hope-like scenario to Div's secret past-almost a corrupted version of Luke Skywalker, who, unlike our beloved Jedi-to-be, suffered the depression of the emerging Galactic Empire and didn’t get the lucky and intuative breaks that the ex-Tatooine farm boy later would -an intriguing story element that could be built on with some success if the author brings the character back for a more than likely second adventure, though Div does need some more unique character development if he’s to stand out from our regular heroes.

As before, there’s fine continuity linking the Expanded Universe-in fact there’s even mention of Luke recently learning to swim-perhaps after his adventures in the Archie Goodwin/Carmine Infantino story DOOMWORLD from early 1978 MARVEL comics. I love touches like that-it brings me back to more innocent times related to STAR WARS when I was growing up, when nothing yet had been totally set in stone continuity wise-keep up the great work there, Mister Wheeler!! Old favourites from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK also make appearances here and there, like Brian Daley’s radio play character, Rebel Fighter Commander Narra, pilot Zev Senesca, and distinctive blue protocol droid K-3PO. Artoo Detoo, always lovable, also has a little bit more to do in this story which is most welcome.

Elements of the Classic and Prequel Trilogy continue to be merged together within the series in a style that will controversially either please or offend the die hard fans of both sets of sagas, but there’s no doubt that the interweaving elements are put together with much thought, and with a clearly written enthusiasm by Wheeler. And it’s great to see scenes like Han and Chewie riding flying Aiwha beasts-now that’s a visual moment I’d liked to have seen visually achieved in the movies!! Additionally, it’s nice to see our loveable rogues getting to pilot vehicles beyond the Falcon-and Han gets to show why he’s one of the best pilots in the galaxy –that his abandoned academy fighter pilot experience wasn’t totally wasted after all, and now being used in the right way instead against the Empire and its crack TIE pilots.  It’s a nice change of pace and inventiveness on the part of the author that keeps this series fresh and interesting to read, especially for its target younger readership.

On the Prequel side of the coin, there’s a return to the intriguing, mysteriously alien world of the Kamino, and its dark waters, constantly bombarding thunderstorms and unusual planetary ambience continue to live on in the books pages. Sadly, for such an intriguing race, we only see one member of its race in the tale-and not a benign one, either- who’s really there just to provide crucial storyline information and to push into effect some specific and necessary incidents by books end, rather than appear as a well drafted malignant character throughout the Kamino section of the book (which he could have been). As exposition, he alerts our heroes to the dark forces now lurking on this world, but, at the same time, this annoyingly leads to further unresolved questions about what happened to the planet and its inhabitants that aren’t truly resolved beyond a few simple answers and theories (perhaps the author was restrained a bit here by LUCAS BOOKS). It would have been nice to have found out a bit more of what happened to the race after the events of EPISODE III and before the timeline of this story. From my individual reading, the book indicates that there is only one city on the planet-I thought there were several of them, similar to Tipocca City, seen in EPISODE II. Forgive me if I haven’t read enough Expanded Universe material, but would someone care to fill me in on this?

Probably the most important character of the middle of the book, beyond our stranded principal heroes, is the dangerous stalking creature that lurks the Kaminoan city. The early build up to the unseen force is good, and some of the ideas Wheeler has created linked to the creature, and it’s natural abilities, prove original and well handled (intriguingly, both this and the recent DEATH TROOPERS Zombie Stormtroopers novel have creepy horror ideas which are most welcome within the STAR WARS book saga), though it’s a shame, once again, that there’s not more discovered about it. By the end of that middle section of the book, it becomes a bit more routine with its unveiling- sadly becoming the usual monster on the loose scenario when it could have been a little bit more than that, easily interesting enough to have been the subject of a whole book rather than being a secondary plot- before the tale reverts its way back to its earlier space battle origins as it sprints to a conclusion. On a positive note, though, FIREFIGHT ends in a satisfying manner, with a welcome note of defiance, and a promise, from Luke Skywalker. The saga continues…

Unlike the first two books in this REBEL FORCE series, FIREFIGHT, overall, needed a little more development-possibly one more refined treatment pass. Beyond the monster plotline- a welcome attempt to diversify the books series-the lack of a true villain in the book, which could have helped up the ante tension and adventure-wise, was a bit of a disappointment. I think that the heroes may have gotten out of the situation a little bit too easily. But, as the old adage goes, better to leave the audiences wanting more rather than less. Beyond my own personal expectations, which may have been too high from start, FIREFIGHT will work strongly for its target younger readership, and I hope that this, and the rest of the book series, continues to be a fine success for SCHOLASTIC.

And I still enjoyed reading it a lot more than some of the adult range novels from LUCAS BOOKS!!


AFICIONADO RATING: Not as well developed as hoped, this is nonetheless a fun adventure mixed with action, horror and space battles, with some occasional imaginative, well described sequences- all which I’m sure will be keenly absorbed by its readership. What more could a young STAR WARS fan want! 7.5 out of 10.




BOOK 5: TRAPPED

Is this X-7’s end game against Luke Skywalker?

The question of identity-of who and what we are, and how that reality can be re-shaped and manipulated- is the primary focus of the penultimate book in the REBEL FORCE series, TRAPPED, featuring our Classic Trilogy heroes, from the continuing pensmanship of accomplished young children’s novel storyteller, Alex Wheeler.
Under orders from the dreaded Darth Vader, three of his agents infiltrate the planet Yavin’s Rebel base defenses during a diversionary TIE fighter attack. Meanwhile, in a kind-of friendly lockdown by the Rebels after their encounter on Kamino (during previous events in FIREFIGHT), Lune Divinian, a space pilot for hire to the highest bidder-friend or foe- and whose latent Force friendly powers and abilities he has deliberately hidden from use, is now being questioned by a frustrated Luke Skywalker for information in finding the elusive and highly adaptive Imperial known only as X-7, a fearsome assassin who has been trying to kill the young Jedi-to-be on and off these past months.
As the Imperial diversion begins, however, Div is quickly kidnapped under the Rebel’s noses and Luke’s bravado in finding him and his captors in the dense Yavin forests soon shines through, though his lack of ability at using the Force lands him in hot water as the enemy ship they are eventually trapped in makes an unexpected jump to hyperspace and they end up in an unknown location surrounded by an Imperial Star Destroyer and TIE fighter pursuit ships. Not the kind of start to a day that anyone would really want!
Meanwhile, X-7, previously escaped from his Rebel pursuers, is painfully discovering that his prior conditioning, which had made him the perfect assassin, is now starting to break down, and memories of a previous life, thought extinguished after mental firewalls were placed in his brain by top Imperial technicians, are starting to break through. Having previously disobeyed his master, the shadowy and thirsty for power Commander Resi Soresh, X-7 returns to Coruscant to confront him. Intriguingly, though, X-7’s mission isn’t about further revenge or retaliation against his Master. Instead, he seemingly wants to find out more about the memories and feelings that have been haunting him? Does X-7 wish to be free from his life as a killer? Or is this all just a further part of the assassin’s plan to complete his final purpose in destroying Luke Skywalker? Soresh soon points his servant onwards to a set of co-ordinates believed to be linked to a mysterious project code-named Omega. Just what is it? And what future destiny will it have for X-7?
Finally, with all this Imperial machination going on, the storm of darkness in the form of the Sith Lord Darth Vader becomes embroiled in all things Skywalker related, as the Emperor’s feared servant decides to keep a close eye on his rival Soresh. Like Luke, Vader is also determined to find X-7 and stop him from interfering in the Dark Lord’s own personal plans for the boy, in a story which has some pre-shading to Steve Perry’s late nineties book SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE (only that was with Xizor, and his Black Sun organization competing for Luke against the Dark Lord).
Meanwhile, events leading Div into helping the Rebel Alliance soon begin to occur, and the full history of his character is revealed-a Jedi who still grieves over the death of his family by the Empire, as well as the rest of the Jedi Order, which has ultimately led him to a new life in which he has had no choice but to abandon the Force. Until now…
As well as Div, it seems the return of the Jedi within the story continues further, as Ferus, the bulky ex-Alderaanian courtier to the Organa household (from book two in the series-HOSTAGE), also becomes embroiled in the action, in order to fulfill his promise to Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi that he will protect and shepherd Luke and Leia to their eventual destinies. Ferus has a more subdued role in the book but, wherever he is, fireworks of the personal and action kind are sure to ensue, especially when his past linked to Div is revealed to the readers, within a complex web of character frailties and very human mistakes. Now, two Jedi -one in hiding, one in a hiding denial- must patch up their emotional difficulties from twenty years previously if they are to help Luke and our heroes in defeating the Empire’s plans. Emotions run high, and failure is not an option in this dangerous time and testing time, as the pair take part in a clever plan to capture X-7 and use him against his Imperial masters. It’s an assignment initiated by our heroes that’s almost like a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE episode (with a few Machiavellian twists here and there), and feels much more a shade of grey in the morals department than the normally black versus white, good versus evil, strategies that have been previously played out in the battle for freedom.
Added to that, the Rebels have a parallel plan to infiltrate an Imperial garrison on Belazura – a planet that holds significance for Div and Ferus- with a weapons development facility in which Luke and the gang must steal some vital blueprints and then, a short time later, destroy it, with the co-incidal arrival on that world of a very special Imperial dignitary…a personage too important to ignore.
However, with identities pursued and revelations rushing to the surface amidst the battles to come, is it possible that the Rebels might be unintentionally ignoring an even greater trap being sprung around them?
This tale of revenge and double brainwashing reminds me a lot of the espionage and thriller elements of the aforementioned MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and also THE BOURNE IDENTITY, with a hint of STAR WARS in the background, rather than sitting comfortably side by side with it. Wheeler, as ever, spins a good yarn, with lots of action (there’s a nice speeder bike chase scenes (as depicted on the book’s lovely cover)), and it all moves well enough, but it just doesn’t feel either epic enough or STAR WARS enough for my individual tastes, and this does not have a plot as strong as earlier books in the series.
Overall, I’ve liked a lot of the Prequel elements that have been inserted into this particular book series-most of the time quite inventively and imaginatively by Wheeler- but the idea of other Jedi in this part of the time-line, beyond and in addition to Luke, not only affects the continuity of the series too much –both established by the movies and other media that have told the Classic Trilogy’s central story and separate stories within it- but also dilutes and diminishes our Classic Trilogy heroes actions further, especially Luke, who, despite early inabilities as a Jedi between EPISODEs IV and V, is still the lead character of all this. I think it would have been better for Wheeler to have had a cut off point in his series plotting in the way he mixed his new characters into the stories, and focused more on Luke in this penultimate book than he ultimately does- to be honest, I would have preferred our original heroes going up against X-7- who’s proved a great addition to the STAR WARS rogues gallery list- without the additional Expanded Universe characters. The all-important finale to TRAPPED disappointed me as Luke should have been a bit more involved in it action-wise but couldn’t because the ramifications of his partaking would have affected Classic Trilogy continuity and Wheeler has had to write around him with other characters-this hampered my enjoyment of the action-packed finale.
Though X-7 has done a fine job of keeping the villains shoes warm, Darth Vader’s arrival in the series after a notable absence is most welcome. In TRAPPED, his presence is subtly felt in its first half but fortunately there’s more of him by its end. Rather than being pushed into the forefront, his slow but sure return is a welcome shot of adrenaline to the series, which I was worried was starting to run out of steam. The significant discovery Vader makes by the books end has me anticipating what will hopefully be a strong finale to the series, and one which I hope doesn’t disappoint (there’s also a few plot strands unresolved, too- I’m assuming deliberately so- that will lead into it?).

AFICIONADO RATING: Not one of the best books in the REBEL FORCE series, but as a general adventure story set in the STAR WARS universe it works well enough, and is plotted with energetic zeal and action that young readers/fans will definitely enjoy. And Vader’s in it-that helps a lot! 3.5 out of 5


BOOK 6: UPRISING

On the cold, barren wastelands of a dead planet in the Sixela system, a terrifying plan for revenge, conquest and annihilation has been set in motion by a grand master of evil.
Ex-Empire commander Rezi Soresh, once a prestigious officer and loyal servant to the Emperor in all his dark biddings, is now a wanted man- not just by bounty hunters or stormtroopers, but by the only man capable of putting dread in his own equally black heart-Darth Vader! With his best assassin, the conditioned X-7 now dead, and his prior ambitious plans for power and glory in destroying the Rebel Alliance now laying in tatters, Soresh is on his own. But his mental powers and ability to strike back from such defeat have not yet been compromised. Despite his pariah-like status, his new plans of evil and destruction are wide encompassing, and ready to strike at the very heart of both Rebellion and Empire.
Primarily, these plans will also shepherd his revenge against Luke Skywalker, once Soresh’s target for assassination and now further guilty by association for the death of X-7. Even now, Soresh can’t believe how this simple farmboy with basic Jedi skills and a seemingly simple, naive nature could have thwarted his and X-7’s previous complex plans for his demise. And worse, this boy is now responsible for the position Soresh has currently been landed, though he is now in an ideally situated position where his presence can be used to trap two further birds with one stone, including the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, who, more than ever, is determined to hunt down Skywalker for himself. And Soresh knows that it will be that determined focus that will lead to the Sith’s undoing whilst he prepares to restore his once unique power base and re-claim himself in front of the Empire whom he has previously served so diligently and faithfully with his schemes of murder, extortion and chaos. And, despite his desire to kill him, Skywalker may yet prominently figure in those plans, whether he likes it or not…
Alex Wheeler wraps up his ambitious six book REBEL FORCE series with an enjoyable and spirited adventure romp which zips along at a fair old pace and is once more deliberately written to remind me (and you out there) of the kind of tale that would have been done in the classic MARVEL comics style of the seventies, prior to the cataclysmic personal drama of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. This tale of UPRISING has no wastage in its telling, no loose ends that aren’t tied up, and watch out, in its dangerous climax not everything is what it seems and not everyone will necessarily make it out of the explosive finale alive…you have been warned!
Of all the original classic characters, Leia (who was also the star of my favourite overall book of the series-HOSTAGE ) remains the best written and in character of our heroes- I could imagine Carrie Fisher saying some of the dialogue in her A NEW HOPE portrayal-and she has some cool action moments, with a lovely introduction set on a Rebel mission to a Royal palace on the planet Nyemari, and, as usual when our trio, with Chewbacca, are involved, it all goes horribly wrong!
Kept to the sidelines in the previous TRAPPED, Luke comes more to the forefront of this book, and has more heroic things to do, which is good news. Once more, Wheeler can’t tread too far in developing him before the events of EMPIRE- which is a difficult writing line to tread- but he pulls it all off okay.
UPRISING is very much back to basics in the way its firmly set in the Classic Trilogy-this time there’s very little referencing of characters, planets and technology to the Prequel Trilogy, which is a good idea (that kind of stuff was handled well for the middle books)- with the exception, of course, of the JEDI APPRENTICE books series characters, which Wheeler had previously written for, the two former Jedi’s now known as space pilot Div and the bulky ex-Alderaanian servant to Leia, Ferus-both of whom play an important part in this final installment as it nears it conclusion.
Anyone hoping, as I was, that Darth Vader’s cameo appearance in the previous tale would lead to a full on role throughout UPRISING will be a little disappointed, as he’s only in one section of the book, but I can say that the author does the character proud for what he’s involved in, with Wheeler bringing out the best (well…the best worse ) qualities of the Dark Lord in every way, in a moment that the book, and the last several novels, have obviously been carefully building up to. The STAR WARS saga comes alive when Vader is in it, and this section, even if a mere eight pages, is very good.
Beyond Vader, Soresh, previously on the periphery of villain-dom in the first four books, comes to the fore with UPRISING, and is the ultimate moustache twirling villain with the “I’ll tell you everything I’ve planned before you die” type characterization, but that doesn’t matter- this is the kind of pulp character environment of which STAR WARS was happily born from, and is to be enjoyed.
To counter-balance our baddies, there’s more of our favourite supporting hero characters, like Generals Willard and Dodonna, though its also nice to see the venerable Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi get a little bit to do in this one as well, though most of his material is linked to important conversations with the character of Ferus, the Skywalker twins shadowy protector, who feels conflicted in wanting to tell them, especially Leia, the truth about her real parentage and their overall important Jedi lineage.
As the story intensifies and the trap for our heroes is set, Wheeler continues to find new ways to create rip-roaring space battles and action sequences that will continue to thrill the younger readers. And as it reaches its finale full of twists and turns that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood action film, everything is soon back in its rightful place character and revelation wise by its conclusion as the trilogy begins its well handled lead in to EMPIRE.
With UPRISING’s successful closure, will there be any more REBEL FORCE series books? Well, I can’t answer that, though I’d be very interested to know how they’ve gone down with readers, especially those who are still discovering the Classic Trilogy.
I suppose the situation will, as ever, depend on the final sales figures when they’re all tallied in, but there’s still plenty of fine potential for further pre-EMPIRE stories which could prove intriguing to see realized, and I think Alex Wheeler has more than a few compelling tricks up his sleeve creatively for our characters that should prove intriguing for fans of all ages (and there is at least one plot strand to one of the Expanded Universes characters that may possibly be left open, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is!). If his next saga for George Lucas’s classic creations continues as well as this series of six totally enjoyable books has, then I’ll certainly be along with Wheeler for the ride!
AFICIONADO RATING: The first two books of the REBEL FORCE series were, by far, the best written, but UPRISING is a fine ending to the overall saga. Special acknowledgement to Wheeler for writing all six books which have, despite a few awkward bumps here and there (primarily to keep continuity with the Expanded Universe), held up well when read as one big adventure. 8.5 out of 10 



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