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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

AFICIONADO CLASSIC REVIEW: 'ALLEGIANCE' - A NOVEL BY TIMOTHY ZAHN


STAR WARS -ALLEGIANCE

A NOVEL BY TIMOTHY ZAHN

Paperback published by ARROW BOOKS (2007)

Reviewed by Scott Weller

Timothy Zahn’s work on the STAR WARS books are right at the top of the saga’s literary tree, and his three THRAWN trilogy adventures would, in their own right, completely re-energize that non-film fiction universe in 1995-these were the first litmus tests papers to see if there was a market for both new STAR WARS book fiction and more merchandise in the build up to the saga’s then upcoming Twentieth Anniversary. And the books were brilliant-quickly lapped up by an eager audience all over the world. In fact, nothing has really topped these books since. With such success comes the need for more of such quality, and there’s an old saying- once you’ve reached the top the only step after is to plummet downwards. Though this hasn’t quite happened with any of Zahn’s books since that mighty first trilogy, none have since matched them for storytelling, characterization and, above all, the STARWARS feel that he re-created and ushered in-it was due to his work on those three books that our re-energized love for the saga began again. SURVIVORS QUEST, OUTBOND FLIGHT, and numerous other stories, as well as two later Thrawn flavoured Duology books, have all been enthusiastically created reads, but still not quite up to par with his 1995 work. Sadly, Zahn’s newest book, ALLEGIANCE, does not break that trend, either…

Starting off with the movies, and Zahn’s normal trademark- a Star Destroyer in the blackness of space- the core idea of the book- five renegade Stormtroopers calling themselves The Hand of Judgment break away and escape to the outer world systems dispensing justice on behalf of the Emperor as they feel that their Superiors within the Imperial Navy are getting out of control, against a backdrop between EPISODEs IV and V, with the story soon involving our favourite Rebel heroes- is a great premise (and Zahn’s attempts to make the Stormies more efficient, believable as a fighting force, and interesting, proves good in parts (it also reminds me of a day in the life of a Stormtrooper-esque DARK HORSE comic book short story a few years back)), but by the story’s end, I still felt it could all have been bigger in concept and scope than it actually was.

Additionally, our Original Trilogy heroes (and villains, more on this later..), though written highly in character for the period the story is set (Luke is still the naive farm boy adventure, Leia is the serious Rebellion leader, Solo is cantankerous and a reluctant part of the Rebellion-and he is really beginning to fancy Leia!), are severely shortchanged in favour of EXPANDED UNIVERSE favourite-the Zahn created Mara Jade- and these new Hand of Judgment  troops who will probably be working with the character in future Zahn stories.  Jade, naturally being the authors own creation, has all the best moments in the book (include her taking on a pirateer army, a duel against an AT-ST, and a brief but intriguing moment where she almost comes to blows with Darth Vader), acting as the Emperor’s Hand, a hybrid Jedi/female James Bond type figure on pursuit of enemies of the Empire-which I’m sure her character’s fans will lap up but which was a plot line I thought quite dull at times, whilst our Lucas created heroes continue contributing very little indeed-they don’t even really need to be in the story, shoe-horned in presumably because they have to be-like Anakin and Obi-Wan’s presence in Zahn’s previous OUTBOUND FLIGHT adventure. My hopes for my favourite characters, in this time frame of the Saga, to shine under Zahn’s pen sadly never materialise. Luke, in particular, suffers the most and has barely anything worthwhile to do-he comes across almost like the whiny kid in THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY and I got the feeling he was kept out of the way so that his character never damaged future continuity. You could argue that Zahn has written for his character the most in his previous books but this story is still part of the saga called THE ADVENTURES OF LUKE SKYWALKER. Perhaps Zahn felt he would be limited in what he would do with them all between the established movies, which is a bit of a shame as I thought a writer of his caliber would be able to think a bit more outside the box and have them in a story that was a little bit more deserving and epic of them. Joining Luke, but on the unused villain’s side, is Darth Vader. Zahn hasn’t really written for Vader in his books and I was hoping we’d get some real meat out of his dialogue and action for everyone’s favourite Sith Lord. Instead, Mara steals his thunder, too. A shame, as, for what we do get, Zahn writes for Vader well, fleetingly in the story as a bookend (starting with his literally looking at a computer information terminal about Skywalker-hardly an amazing intro for such a supreme villain). I’d like to see Zahn write a book on Vader during EPISODEs III and IV –now that would be a worthy read. Fortunately for me, the book picks up the pace thankfully by its end, though, as I mentioned earlier, it is sadly not a real page turner in the way his Thrawn books were in the nineties, and Mara Jade’s character has never set me on fire (though she was good in that first trilogy). The use of space pirates in the STAR WARS saga is also now getting a bit boring; they have been done to death as a story device-time to find something more interesting. And the lack of Vader continued to trouble/annoy me. Also missing on the hero’s side-no Threepio and Artoo-it seems to me that Zahn always had trouble putting these beloved characters into his novels and in this case that fact is more than obvious.

On the plus side, however, the books takes the effort to try and tie up loose ends of the saga regarding which Imperial Stormtroopers are clones and which are conscripted, coming in from the Imperial Academy. There are also nice cameos appearances from General Reikaan and Mon Mothma, and Admiral Ozzel, with Zahn creating a plausible explanation as to why the latter is with Darth Vader on the Executor in EMPIRE. Also, let’s not forget the mentions of organizations like the Black Sun, the 501st (those fan guys must be smiling!), as well as the usual necessary tie-in’s to other novels and the original films.

Even Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi’s ghostly voice gets a chance to be heard, though sadly more as a convenient plot contrivance than anything else, and he says more to Luke in this book than he ever did in EMPIRE. Obviously using the techniques he learnt from the spirit of Qui-Gon and Yoda, Ben talks to Luke a lot in ways I thought were out of key. I always got the feeling that there wasn’t much communication between Luke and Obi-Wan in the three year gap between STAR WARS and EMPIRE, and only in the truly gravest of circumstances. As in the comics, I always felt that his communication with Luke was more subtle... a feeling of his presence guiding Luke rather than actually talking to him. In ALLEGIANCE, Ben, in my mind, was starting to resemble old Herbert from the FAMILY GUY spoof!

As the book comes to its finale, all the pieces are back on the board in their original places before being moved around a bit, and the only real developments are with Zahn’s own characters. Let us hope that any future Zahn books set within the Original Trilogy universe will see a bigger and better emphasis on our cinematic heroes - AND MORE VADER TOO!

AFICIONADO REVIEW RATING: Though Zahn is ever the professional science fiction/ STAR WARS writer, what would have been a fine short story is sadly a bit of a dull read. The book may seem more relevant to readers in the light of the individual Clone Trooper-like personalities of THE CLONE WARS TV series, but, in honesty, there's nothing very special here-though there's hope for better future books in the series… 6/10

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