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Friday, 17 May 2013

AFICIONADO CLASSIC REVIEW (2009): 'LUKE SKYWALKER AND THE SHADOWS OF MINDOR' NOVEL



LUKE SKYWALKER AND THE SHADOWS OF MINDOR

A novel by Matthew Stover


Originally published in hardback in the UK by CENTURY PUBLISHING-2009

Now available in paperback by ARROW BOOKS from 4th March 2010


Reviewed by Scott Weller


NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS!!


I think that Matthew Stover is a Dark Lord, born and raised in the Sith arts!

Either that or there’s a bit of a Dark Lord in his soul that’s been trying to get out of him for years since the release of STAR WARS. That Sith wizadry-his pen chance for the Dark- has certainly been the case in the novels he’s written so far for the STAR WARS Expanded Universe-the grim and depressing story for Mace Windu-SHATTERPOINT- and the even darker analysis of one man- one Jedi’s- descent into villainy that was his movie adaptation of REVENGE OF THE SITH. Surprisingly, however, was the news last year that he would be turning his hand towards something a great deal lighter and hopefully much more fun, writing a grand new space opera adventure for our Classic Trilogy heroes in the best homage tradition to those books that the author had enjoyed in the seventies, penned by the likes of the late, great Brian Daley and Alan Dean Foster, both of whom helped shape the book juggernaut range into the success it has become ever since.

After being disappointed with parts of his overblown SITH adaptation, and feeling previously bogged down reading SHATTERPOINT, which had so much potential at its beginning, I was much more enthused about the idea of his epic new adventure and said so in my AFICIONADO blog at the time of the book’s announcement. However, I knew that Stover’s love affair and affinity for the Dark Side wouldn’t stop with those earlier books. If I had been a gambling man, I should have put some money on the fact that his hidden predilections would return. That’s my conclusion as I read that finally released latest novel, LUKE SKYWALKER AND THE SHADOWS OF MINDOR, which is indeed his deliberate and non-ashamedly bombastic adventure attempting to harken back to a more innocent time in STAR WARS heroism.

It has all the usual ingredients that we as STAR WARS film fans, and a lot of Expanded Universe readers out there, especially those dedicated fans of Stover’s work, will want to read about. Wedge and Rogue Squadron- check. A force of Imperial Troopers- check. Big space battle in the JEDI tradition- check. Luke has a lightsaber duel (of sorts) - check. A mission to destroy a mysterious, impenetrable base for evil- check. Big explosions at the end-check.

And Big is the word for Stover as he tries to make his homage to the classic STAR WARS stories of the past the grandest and most spectacular possible.

Accompanied by front and back cover art that is simply stunning (and makes you want to read the book anyway!), LSATSOM starts off pretty well, too, with an interesting prologue in which a gloomy Luke Skywalker, for the official Republic records, begins to relate what happened on Mindor, charting his involvement in the deaths of nearly 50,000 people on that world...

Six months on from the events after RETURN OF THE JEDI and the book THE TRUCE AT BAKURA, Stover attempts to give Luke Skywalker more character, as the new novel sees him acting as a General in the employ of the Republic, heading up a rapid deployment attack/protection force for Admiral Ackbar. His thoughts and direction as a Jedi unsure, he feels the scars of battle after the events with the Empire and is not sure where his future lies (though I always personally felt that Luke had been cleansed of his previous EMPIRE demons by the time of JEDI’s Ewok celebration knees up, Stover has decided to go the other way-darkness prevails once more!!). Additionally, the Jedi has had no communication with either Masters Yoda and Obi-Wan, or even his father, Anakin, for many months. That Luke is in this way, his attitudes at this time bordering on the once darkness of his father, now makes him a perfect target for a new emerging foe who wants to capitalize on the young man’s abilities for his own dark and twisted ends in conquering the universe. I suspect our little Dark Lord Stover has chosen Luke and this JEDI timeline in general because of the lead characters susceptibility to evil-in the excellent nineties comic strip DARK EMPIRE, set about three to five years after JEDI (if I remember correctly), Luke comes perilously close to the Dark Side-his friends powerless to help- and almost, almost joins the Cloned copy of the Emperor-and probably thought he could have the most fun tormenting Luke and the other characters at this point, whilst their emotional guards are still down from their overwhelmingly joyous defeat of Palpatine and his Empire.

In this start, some of Luke’s dialogue feels a little wrong in the early chapters and I couldn’t have imagined the character or actor Mark Hamill saying the dialogue if it had been a movie. Fortunately, things get better for the character as the books goes into its final third. There’s no change for Luke in the action stakes, thankfully, as Stover continues to build on the lads Jedi powers first demonstrated in JEDI’s skiff battle on Tatooine-in this book Luke’s powers are even greater, too, like a later pretty damned cool scene in the novel where he uses the Force in stopping the Falcon from a violent crash-landing (yes, even the noble ship herself goes through hell in a way worse than when Lando damaged her in the second DEATH STAR!).

Once Luke has performed a miraculous crash landing of his own, on a piece of his shattered Republic cruiser, on the planet Mindor, after a devastating sneak attack by enemy forces in the system, his friends old and new quickly decide to mount a rescue operation against the Dark Forces that have drawn him into this vicious new trap. And, knowing Stover, it won’t be plain sailing for any of them. As the book goes on, the rest of the main characters we know and love, like Luke, are also brought to life with equally varying degrees of success- some better than others…

Han and Leia have some good sequences and dialogue together for the first two thirds of the book and its nice to see Leia back to her biting, sharper STAR WARS/ EMPIRE self at it’s beginning, though sadly, by the end of the book, Stover has run out of things for her to do (she’s not yet at the stage where she’s proficient as a Jedi, anyway) and pretty much has her captured and enslaved in The Dark, awaiting rescue from her brother.

Now that Han Solo is a kinda Rebel Leader and shacked up with Leia, it must be very difficult for writers to bring him to life and make him grow-his character had successfully closed by the end of JEDI, and, apart from the expected wisecracks and devil-may care, improvised heroics, there’s not much more depth that can be added to the character-kudos to Stover for trying his very best, though. Here, Solo still has traces of the comedic from JEDI, but some of Stover’s darker (yep, it’s that word again!), candid, perhaps a little forced humour works well for the ex-smuggler, with him and Chewie having some equally good moments to share. There’s even a nice attempt to show things from Artoo’s point of view, too -very rarely done by writers- which is nice to see. After the absence of the entire Wookiee plotline from his REVENGE OF THE SITH movie adaptation, Stover proves that he can write for them- well at least one of their kind- in this new book.

Threepio is used to his strengths as a Protocol/communications droid but, as with other authors who don’t really know what to do with him (even Timothy Zahn showed some sloppiness with Golden Rod in the Thrawn Trilogy!!), he’s not really in the book enough-only George Lucas seems to know how to make the most of this eternally popular character!! On the brighter side, JEDI’s under-used General Lando Calrissian has the chance to shine in certain moments and continues to show why he was chosen to be a Rebel general, with some of the guile, cunning and strength he must have showed at the aforementioned Battle of Taanab.

It’s here, at the halfway point into the rest of the book, that the final battle with Lando and the Republic forces against heavy Imperial Forces in and around Mindor and the Taspan system begins, and, in homage to JEDI’s film battle, is equally grand, full of gravity wells, asteroids, dangerous flare and radiation activity thousands of battling fighters and numerous starships, even a space-worthy floating volcanic weapons platform!-all of it suitably STAR WARS, and Stover has taken great pains to describe it all- his enthusiasm clearly shows (the land battle between the blaster/hand to hand fighting Mandalorian Troopers and the baddies is also of note and pretty darn good!) - but there were times when I was a bit lost as to what was going on, and some bits I found hard or a bit of a chore to read-over described, and full of STAR TREK/Tom Clancy technobabble- ultimately both elements were very distracting and annoying at times. To me, a blaster is a blaster-I don’t need to know what it’s made of, or the history behind it! I’m sure a lot of this material was either new or part of the Expanded Universe that the author has to stick with that I’m not quite so well familiar with-there were a couple of times when I thought a glossary at the front of the book may have helped. Heck, some illustrations of some of the story’s key action scenes would have been quite a nice accompaniment (and we’re not talking children’s book illustrations here- something of the quality of Jan Duursema or Chris Trevas would have been quite nice –in fact, I think this novel would make a rather fine comic book adaptation from DARK HORSE in a couple of years time-I can see it running at least as a six issue mini-series).

For me, despite its crowd-pleasing grandness and big stage conflict, the books ultimately biggest weakness is the key element that should have been its best. Despite the interesting look as seen on the books back cover jacket (and donning a hat that looks like the one abandoned from the costume concept for father and son Boba and Jango Fett from ATTACK OF THE CLONES), opening baddie Lord Shadowspawn ultimately doesn’t come across as an outstanding villain at all, deliberately conceived by the author as merely your average jumped up thug who’s good with some swords and a bit of Vader-like banter, whilst a puppet master pulls the strings behind him.

With the difficulties of finding new enemies, Stover manages to create a further new villain and initiate a new, complex sense of evil against the nature of the Force-the Way of The Dark. It’s a brave and highly detailed attempt at creating something different that Stover himself will probably develop further in the inevitable book sequel, and I applaud him for trying to do new things, but the overall villain of the piece is just notmemorable enough to be a STAR WARS icon in a way that the Emperor, Darth Vader and the rest of the Dark Side of the Force have become, though Stover does his best and throws a few twists and turns before we find out who his real identity is, which provides the very link to the seventies STAR WARS adventures of books and comic strips that the author was ultimately aiming for, and to emulate in a more sophisticated way…(and no, I’m not telling you who it is, either!) It’s a clever but ultimately disappointing reveal and, apart from the popular Yuzhan Vong race, I doubt we’ll be getting any more great new villains to fight the Skywalker family for the foreseeable future…

On the plus side, though, the environment our key villain/s resides in is obviously a fun homage to how the Emperor’s cave looked in the original, and sadly aborted, post production drawings for the REVENGE OF THE JEDI that never was...

Of the other new characters Stover introduces, there’s Nick and Aeona-the latter being the best, with some nice little bits of interplay with Han Solo before she takes over his belovedFalcon. I’m afraid the character of Nick, who I can’t reveal too much about without spoiling the plot, didn’t do much for me, although the idea that he knew some of the Jedi Knights and met Anakin Skywalker (a deliberate nod, I thought, to the STAR WARS cut scene in the Yavin rebel base where Red Leader tells Luke how he once met his father when he was a boy!) was a welcome reference to the Clone Wars era. In particular with these new additions, Stover, I felt, tries to give the characters a more modern-ish feel to them, parts of which work and others don’t.

There’s also an intriguing new ex-Clone Trooper character named Klick, and I liked the scenes involving him and his fellow black clad Stormtroopers-sadly they were not used enough in the book for my tastes. And let’s not forget a neat little re-introduction for the eighties MARVEL COMICS universe character of Fenn Shysha-a Mandalorian Super Trooper who once had the hots for Princess Leia when she was on the search to rescue Han Solo during the comic period set between EMPIRE and JEDI-a very cool move by Mister Stover which I applaud, nicely bridging that MARVEL Universe I enjoyed so much as a kid into the Expanded Universe…

Interestingly, and quite probably a first for a STAR WARS novel (at least that I’m aware of), Stover also brings a strong dollop of satire into the book, including some interesting little digs and black humour/observations on Hollywood and the way books, screenplays and films are created and promoted these days (even the modern blockbusters come into the firing line!!), as well as the celebrities and the world of the super agent/publicists, and how stories about people, especially heroes and their heroic deeds, can be changed and be manipulated over time-possibly for the worse-in  influencing people to do things in the modern world we live in. There’s even some subtle, fun pops at the STAR WARS universe (the films, the spin-offs, the merchandise) and its fans in general-albeit in a non derogatory and merry way-as to how we all see Lucas’s creation, it’s characters and what we, ourselves, have ultimately wanted the saga to be over the years. Though I applaud him for trying to do something new here, I personally thought Stover may have been a little bit too clever for his own good in this respect (and I’m not saying that because I’m a fan). The author even manages to work in the title of REVENGE OF THE JEDI in a way that none too pleases Luke Skywalker!

I’m very sure I’m in the minority here, but, in general, three books in and Stover’s writing style is one I find difficult to read and occasionally trying, especially in the aforementioned parts relating to the villains lair and the physical mental powers that he/they command. Sometimes he over writes and has an ability to say things in fifteen words when ten would have been more sufficient- I feel the book could have been shorter and perhaps edited a bit. The clean, crisp and efficient writing style that I enjoyed with Daley and Dean Foster isn’t there. Those authors had, I feel, a more relaxed and more accessible prose not loaded down with so much description/ information/attitude about the Expanded Universe characters and technologies. In the early seventies, there was a blank canvas there to be used and very few restrictions from LUCASFILM as to what could and couldn’t be done. In some ways, with this publishing juggernaut, I feel that LUCAS BOOKS have become just too big and that their universe has so much continuity and detail that has to be kept that it has become very restrictive for authors old and new-and for newcomer readers like me- that can be quite trying. The company may, in some ways, have become the victims of their own mighty success and now have to try and find new ways/areas of topping themselves that haven’t been done before-no easy feat when the range has been going for over fourteen years and spawned so many books.

All in all, despite his brave, well-intentioned attempts to pay tribute to, homage and improve on this type of story-telling genre, LUKE SKYWALKER AND THE SHADOWS OF MINDOR simply doesn’t pay off in matching the crisp but effective narratives of those classic SW books of the late seventies. I felt that Stover tried too hard in places, that parts of it were just overwritten and that the book was trying to be more than it actually claimed to be.

AFICIONADO RATING: A more enjoyable use for our Classic Trilogy heroes than their previous appearance in Timothy Zahn’s first ALLEGIANCE novel, but Stover’s work doesn’t match Zahn’s far more satisfying, and earlier, Thrawn Trilogy books, which have now become the benchmark for the STAR WARS Expanded Universe. Can those three books ever be topped?

Though there are some very good ideas and moments in this new book, and it is not the slog that Stover’s earlier SHATTERPOINT novel was, LUKE SKYWALKER AND THE SHADOWS OF MINDOR is hardly the ultimate tribute to the work of the seventies STAR WARS authors that I was hoping it would be.

Ultimately, the novel is a good spend as an entertaining vacation read, and fans of Stover's will greatly enjoy it, but it’s not the classic addition to the range that it should have been. 7.5 out of 10

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