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Sunday, 23 June 2013

AFICIONADO CLASSIC REVIEW: 'DEATH STAR' - A NOVEL



STAR WARS: DEATH STAR

A novel by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

Out now in paperback from ARROW BOOKS UK


Reviewed by Scott Weller


“That’s no moon….. It’s a space station.”


Ben Kenobi’s ominous words for an ominous new dawn of Imperial technology and firepower. The appearance of the DEATH STAR in that first mind blowing STAR WARS movie was a cinematic thrill that continues to this day. The mighty battle station, with a prime weapon containing enough firepower to destroy an entire planet, was probably the most significant and dangerous threat to the galaxy’s heroes than anything they, or we as cinemagoers, before or since, had ever seen in the annals of science fiction history. The distinctive death world visual look of the white and grey space station, with that vicious Cyclops eye facing its near dark side, would help give it an evil countenance that would inspire generations of film makers and writers for years to come. The way it was shot on screen, a combination of various matte and model shots, brought tremendous impact in both depth and sheer size, whilst its grey, claustrophobic, barely lit no-escape interior skilfully came to life from the minds and hands of the various behind the scenes craftsmen that worked on the film. Added to that, the vessel was a character in it’s own right and permeated evil with the central leadership inside it-the cruel and unfeelingly sadistic Governor Tarkin, his power hungry deputy Motti and Tarkin’s ultimate servant/bodyguard/lackey, co-conspirator in evil deeds-the Dark Lord of the Sith himself-Darth Vader. And let’s not forget all the other supporting players that worked, and lurked, within the belly of the steel beast, like all the Imperial Stormtroopers, TIE pilots and gunners helping to steer the weapon in all its obliterating objectives. Though Luke Skywalker’s destruction of the planetoid by the end of the movie was well warranted-stopping it before it could destroy his friends- the enigma of the construction of the space fortress, and those beings that resided in it for the period of time leading to it’s construction, shakedown and ultimate destruction due to Imperial foolhardiness and that brilliant shot from a Jedi-to-be, has lived on with fans ever since- all, like me, eager to find out more about it as a beacon of evil in the STAR WARS universe. The later made STAR WARS Prequels would tantalizingly provide some clues-showing us the schematics of the satellite and how the insectoid Geonosians had helped in its coming to being alongside Darth Sidious and his servant Count Dooku, but we wanted more. More, more, more. Now, LUCASFILM and ARROW BOOKS have capitulated to such a mighty storytelling idea, determined to fill in the blanks of STAR WARS history ever further, with respected action/sci-fi adventure, and STAR WARS, genre veterans Michael Reaves and Steve Perry bringing us the true story of the DEATH STAR’s rise to being-a tale full of deadly deceit and power hungry machinations showing the Empire during the deadliest time in it’s history.

Could the book, with such important STAR WARS history to be told, possibly live up to such high reader expectations? The challenge is certainly one that Reaves and Perry, with their strong writing abilities, were determined to give their best shot.

The ominous Death Star!

The first third of the book is by far the best with the setting up of the new characters and their arrival on the in-progress- construction DEATH STAR itself. This section regarding the space station is very interesting and carries on well from where James Luceno’s excellent DARK LORD novel left off, with Wookiee slaves amongst other alien and human prisoners hard at work in bringing it to physical life. The main characters gradually introduced in their own specific chapters, are an eclectic bunch created to mirror our own unusual band of favourite film Star Warrior heroes, but it seems, to this readers limited experience of the EU books at least, that pretty much all modern day writers of the STAR WARS books have struggled to come up with anyone anywhere near as exciting as our original Lucas created heroes. Only some of the Timothy Zahn characters seem to have made an impact and that was nearly fourteen years ago.

Sadly there is very little interaction between the newly created characters and the regular film STAR WARS heroes with only a few of them getting the chance to do, with medical man Uli Divini’s encounter with the tortured Leia in the detention block being one of the few cleverly plotted highlights. The new characters range from the interesting (a hotshot TIE fighter pilot, Vil Dance, who suddenly realizes he may be on the wrong side of the conflict after all) to the least interesting (the Force sensitive soldier Nova and the Cantina manservant Rodo did nothing for me). I also found it stretched credibility to have a cantina bar in the station-yes, the Imperials would use some kind of refreshment areas but I would expect them to be realized differently- with the Emperor’s xenophobic attitude to non-human life forms I doubt he would have allowed a Twi’lek like Memah Roothes to run a bar on the battle station (and I can’t help it, but whenever I think of a female cantina bar patron I always think of Bea Arthur-such an indelible impression in my psyche after her appearance in THE HOLIDAY SPECIAL! Do I need professional psychiatric help, I wonder?).

Evil in the name of the Emperor: Tarkin and Darth Vader.

Of all the characters, old and new, it is actually Grand Moff Tarkin and Vader who have the best moments (and you can feel that the writers are enjoying these sections in particular) and its nice, or should I say bad, to see the Imperial side of things on the first film front. The writers also get the chance to have fun bringing us their point of view and fleshing out unseen events from the film and other pieces of the puzzle in the STAR WARS universe at that time in its history, and there is some equally nice expansion of the first film’s supporting characters, like Motti (now with the full name of Conan Antonio Motti no less!!), though sadly some of the other people like General Tagge and Chief Bast who were crying out for more development are sadly ignored in a book of some 400 pages.

As evidenced in their separate and together MED STAR and SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE books, Reaves and Perry’s writing style is always well paced and reader friendly and with so much of the DEATH STAR visuals, interior and exterior, already a part of our collective consciousness not much has to be physically described apart from some of the new environments they’ve created like the prison world of Despayre. They also get the chance to re-use lots of their own characters/weapons/ planets and situations from previous STAR WARS books and comics (as well as now established material from all over the Expanded Universe), including the use of one of their own characters, the aforementioned Imperial medical man Uli Divini, who had been previously in the authors MED STAR series. In fact, of all the newish characters in the book, he’s probably the best one and has the best place in the story itself-everyone needs a doctor in their lives at some point. One other writers weakness: for a science fiction/ fantasy film series that prided itself in not being bogged down in interminable technobabble, there’s a helluva lot of it in this book, almost at modern STAR TREK TV series proportions in fact, most of it regarding the DEATH STAR’s prime weapon and events linked to the fated character of Imperial gunner, Tenn Graneet. And the idea of such a colorful character as the archivist Atour Riten being on the station and seemingly so dangerous as an information gatherer, seemed a bit out of step for the Empire in it’s hiring procedure, especially on such a top secret project as the DEATH STAR.

To my regret, the middle of the book becomes disappointing and less interesting as it goes on, with all kinds of shenanigans that, to me, didn’t feel right. The characters don’t develop much further and the storyline seems to be biding time until the arrival of the captured Princess Leia in the better final third. The idea of the Rebels attacking the DEATH STAR in such a disastrous way before the Battle of Yavin didn’t sit comfortably with me, nor the idea that they would so foolishly sacrifice so many ships and pilots in a battle they couldn’t possibly win even if they didn’t know just how powerful the station was-the Rebels are far too clever for that and would not have wasted lives in such a way (also, disappointingly, the first successful battle by the Rebels against the Imperial Star Fleet, just as the DEATH STAR plans are captured, as mentioned in the first film’s opening crawl, is sadly not even talked about!). Additionally, the subplot between Tarkin and his girlfriend Daala (who is an Expanded Universe veteran character) also didn’t ring true on a personal level. At an earlier stage in his power hungry life, yes, but not at the point when he is Grand Moff Tarkin which, we discover, is a one of a kind title only). Additionally, she didn’t really play any major part in the story-it’s like she’s there just to have her there, really, for the sake of keeping Expanded Universe continuity going- and is soon conveniently out of the adventure before it clashes with any of the film events that take place in the books final third.

The hunt for the Rebel spy/saboteur aboard the station also ultimately, and highly annoyingly, doesn’t get anywhere fast, either, and the destruction of the Star Destroyer in the DEATH STAR docking bay is a wasted opportunity for drama and excitement. In fact, very little information is revealed about the sequence of events leading up to Princess Leia’s recovery of the data tapes (though, to the writers credit, there are a few nice continuity nods to Brain Daley’s STAR WARS radio drama) and I was expecting more-in fact, the recovery of the stolen data tapes seems to be very low key considering their importance-with all the different, and conflicting storylines over the years regarding the tapes  in comics and books(in some stories there are two sets of data tapes), perhaps the writers decided just to steer clear of it as much as possible. I was also expecting the story to be altogether bigger encompassing, not just the Imperial view (though it was the writers prerogative to keep the book to the side of the baddies pretty much just on the DEATH STAR itself), but more parts of the Empire linked to the station's construction. And would it really have harmed the book to have had some kind of cameos from Rebel leaders Mon Mothma or General Dodonna somewhere?

On the plus side, continuity with the existing characters at that point in the STAR WARS universe is well kept, with all the players in their rightful places, and Vader, in particular, remaining the nasty, clever, adaptive, seeing how the tide goes lackey of the Emperor and to Tarkin. The writers also get the chance to sort out any bugging continuity problems history-wise in the STAR WARS saga through tantalizing moments about our film heroes being on the DEATH STAR that they could actually have expanded further on, especially in the Imperial hunt for them on the station, and I was dying to read a fun little scene that may have explained who the guy was that had previously talked to one of the Stormtroopers in the Obi-Wan/tractor beam conversation/distraction moment (the “new Xp-16?”“Yeah, some guy was telling me about it. I hear it’s quite fancy” moment)-I’d hoped we’d get a nice kind of in joke linked to one of the newly created characters, like the wheeler dealing rogue Ratua Dil. Alas, it was not to be. The use of our favourite film heroes in the book, like Han and Chewie (in a flash forward scene (you have to read the book to find out how this is done)) was obviously going to be sparse- this is the Empire’s doomed story after all- but the finale, linked and weaved around the DEATH STAR battle with old and new characters, is well plotted. However, I was left wanting just a couple more scenes with them, that’s all...

There are also noted attempts to fill in the gaps as to why characters didn’t do certain things in the film (like why Tarkin didn’t send out the vessel’s full compliment of thousands of TIEs to wipe out thirty Rebel fighters in the final battle) and why Vader didn’t realize he was torturing his own daughter, but in the latter’s case it isn’t really necessary and ultimately doesn’t add much to the story or character anyway. This need to tie up any loose ends of plot (i.e. how the small thermal exhaust port came to be, and how it took so long to build the station after the events seen at the end of EPISODE III) is a nice idea and handled in some cases better than others but, ultimately, when it comes to the movies, I’m not bothered too much by this. As Mark Hamill once said about examining the story’s plot holes: “it’s not that kind of a movie”. In some ways I think the Expanded Universe people try too hard to make the live action films fit into their realm, when I feel it should be the other way round.

By the book’s conclusion nothing really major or unpredictable happens with our new characters- all they can do is react to events and they can’t interfere much with the already established story as seen on film. There are some colorful touches and clever little additions, new insights and add ons into established history along the way but, overall, you know the story isn’t going to go anywhere and the final chapters detailing what happens to the new motley band of reluctant heroes/escapees, though, as previously mentioned, paced more than adequately and integrated well with events during the trench battle, I found enjoyable but less than totally thrilling.

Though not their best works, Reaves and Perry have weaved a generally good read in DEATH STAR and merged continuity and the Expanded Universe realm into the story in a satisfactory manner, but I get the feeling that so much more could have been done, on a more epic scale, with such a promising and ingenious idea.

Despite the talent involved, and with so many of my expectations not totally fulfilled, I can’t say that DEATH STAR is one of the greatest books in the overall LUCASFILM book range.  But if you are able to add it to your collection without damaging your pocket financially, and are interested in seeing how Reaves/Perry fill in the blanks then it’s worth a look.

AFICIONADO RATING: A quirky “anomaly” in the STAR WARS book universe-not a must-have essential purchase, but a great holiday season read. 3 out of 5.

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