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Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe December 4, 2014

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Movies.
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Review posted at Netgalley a while back in exchange for a free advance reading copy, but first, a comment about the new trailer. If you don’t know who John Boyega is, go watch Attack the Block. It’s better than any of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. And if you’re bitching about a black man in stormtrooper armor, you’re racist. It really is that simple. The troopers were clones during the Clone Wars, which is why they called them the Clone Wars. They weren’t clones during the good movies, set decades after the prequels, and there’s no reason why they should be several more decades later. Not to mention that we’ve seen Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in stormtrooper uniforms, and we don’t necessarily know that Boyega’s character is a stormtrooper any more than they were. And now for the book review.

It sometimes seems like pretty much everyone is a Star Wars fan, and virtually everyone is at least aware of it, as the book’s introduction demonstrates. But it’s also relatively easy to be a fan. You just soak it up through pop culture. Sure, there are hardcore fans and collectors, but I suspect this book will appeal most to people who’ve watched the movies a few times, maybe played the games or read the books or collected action figures, but never really looked into the story behind the story.

What you get here is a couple of books combined. There’s the history/biography that looks at how Lucas became a filmmaker and how he made the Star Wars films. Then there’s the chapters that look at some of the ways Star Wars has taken over pop culture and modern life, not unlike Jeff Greenwald’s 1998 book Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth. (Different franchise, similar idea.) The way the chapters are integrated isn’t always obvious; we get a few chapters from one of stream then suddenly we’re reading a chapter from the other, like jumping to a magazine sidebar.

Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable read and I expect a fair number of people I know will be interested in it. I’m not the best qualified to judge its factual accuracy because I’ve generally been a casual fan. Since the first movie was released, but still.

The writing is solid and readable, in a fairly casual, breezy style, with one odd choice. People are generally referred to by their last names (Lucas, Kasdan, Dykstra, etc). But Alan Ladd, Jr, whose nickname was apparently Laddie, is Laddie all through the book. Likewise Irwin Kershner, known to friends as Kersh, is usually referred to as Kersh throughout the book. It feels a bit *too* casual.

I have a few factual nitpicks, too. It’s Douglas Trumbull, not Trumball. Forbidden Planet is set on Altair IV, not Altaria. At one point, someone seems to me to be describing Stanley Weinbaum’s classic short story “A Martian Odyssey,” though Taylor doesn’t seem to recognize it. There are a few other errors of dating and whatnot here and there, but the stuff I’ve noticed is generally pretty trivial.

So, yeah, I expect this’ll get a lot of buzz and do pretty well. It’s Star Wars time again.

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Review: Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno October 13, 2014

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
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Another netgalley review, written in exchange for a free advance ecopy.

Well, this is is a bit of an odd book. Is it a biography of a significant character from the first movie, or a novel? Is Tarkin a hero or a villain? And is this book’s existence as one of the new books that tie into the new continuity significant?

I generally enjoyed this when it worked as a novel and not a biography, but there were a few jumps in time and a lot of expository lumps, sometimes in the form of Tarkin talking to another character for a few pages. When the core story of an early attempt at disrupting the construction of the Death Star kicks in, the book becomes a much more entertaining and suspenseful read.

And speaking of suspense… if everyone is the hero of his own life story, that goes for Tarkin as well. Luceno pulls off the neat trick of making Tarkin’s cruelty and evil always apparent, while making you pull for him against the people trying to stop his plans — people who’d be the heroes in almost any other Star Wars story. It’s an odd feeling.

Those rebels get some scenes from their perspective, but I never felt they were fleshed out as much as they could have been. That may have helped with getting the reader to sympathize with Tarkin, because we see much more of him as a person, so maybe it’s less of a bug than a feature.

Trying to look at this as hardcore fans might… I did a little googling before reading the book and found drawn-out discussions about whether Luceno would incorporate this character or that event from the older novels, comics, etc that have now been shunted off into their own timeline. As someone who mainly knows Tarkin from one movie, I can’t say whether this contradicts past versions of Tarkin’s life, but it mainly gives us a period of his youth and a period about ten years before the first film. Some of his career highlights along the way appear, and I get the impression that some of it ties in with the Clone Wars animated series. It strikes me as odd, though, that one of the first novels in the new continuity would be entirely set between the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy, because it seems unlikely any future Star Wars movies are going to draw heavily on what’s established here. No doubt the hardcore will enjoy arguing about any changes that are made, and whether key elements of Tarkin’s past are or aren’t invalidated, etc, but that’s not the kind of thing most people read novels for.

I’m not sure how much this will appeal to other casual fans like me. We don’t get the full scope of Tarkin’s life because it focuses on certain periods and ends years before his death, so it’s not a complete life story… but we get so much of those earlier points in his life that it doesn’t flow like a typical tie-in novel, either. Luceno also assumes that the reader will recognize the names of a lot of alien species, including some I’ve never encountered before.

Another recent SW novel, A New Dawn, had a number of clear objectives and met them: introduce readers to some of the characters from the Rebels TV series; tell an action-packed story that has a similar kind of feel to the original Star Wars; tell a story that works as well for casual fans and newcomers as it does for longtime Expanded Universe fans. With Tarkin, it’s not clear what the objectives are, so I can’t say how well it met them. Enjoyable enough but not what I’d consider a must-read.

Review: Star Wars: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller October 13, 2014

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Review posted on Netgalley, based on reading a free advance ebook for a review:

Probably the most entertaining Star Wars novel I’ve read. Okay, I’ve only read 20 or so Star Wars novels, but that’s because I’ve never quite found what I was looking for. This time I found it. Fun. Remember that movie that came out in 1977? We just called it Star Wars then, not chapter 4 or A New Hope. It was fun. And too much of the Star Wars material since then has forgotten about fun.

That’s not to say this is a lighthearted walk through the daisies. A New Dawn has suspense, backstabbing, corporate intrigue, political machinations, action, chases, and explosions. A lot of work must have gone into the plotting, and how it’s driven by certain characters. Those characters have emotions and inner lives (though there are some whose viewpoints we don’t really get to see as much as we might). The prose flows smoothly, the dialogue works, the settings are described well. Even the villains have more than one dimension. Well, some of them. But the pacing is quick and the prose doesn’t get in the way (a problem I’ve had with some of the other authors I’ve tried), and the overall effect? Fun.

The only other thing I’ve read by John Jackson Miller is his recent Star Trek ebook novella, which I liked well enough, but this has me planning to buy more of his Star Wars work.