Mar 16, 2010

YetiReview: Backlash (Fate of the Jedi, Book 4) by Aaron Allston

20 words or less: Despite some illogical character decisions, Backlash appeals to fans of both the original and prequel trilogies while continuing to build on the groundwork of the series and fix the expanded universe.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Pros: Luke and Ben feature in a worthwhile plot with memorable scenes; Crazed Jedi plotline continues to build slowly but steadily toward an unpredictable conclusion; Fate of the Jedi continues to build a strong groundwork with consistant characterization and few continuity errors;

Cons: Humor doesn't work as well as in previous Allston novels; Although necessary, the youth movement creates frustratingly illogical scenarios;

The Review: The writers and editors of the Fate of the Jedi series might not be Jedi Masters yet but they are getting closer and closer to hitting that wamp rat sized target located in the middle of nostalgia and innovation. Fate of the Jedi is supposed to be a return to the lighter, more escapist fare of the early Star Wars adventures after years of doom and gloom that robbed the galaxy far far aware of its most promising protagonists. While early installments struggled to drive forward the series plotlines and maintain individual narratives, in Backlash, Allston appears to have placed the flailing series on solid ground with the help of the Sith threat introduced in Book 3.

As young Jedi continue to inflicted by an unexplained insanity that makes their fellow Knights appear to be evil doppelgangers in their maladied minds, the Jedi Order struggles to maintain credibility with a government that has been seen Jedi become Sith one time too many. The Order must defend itself from these mentally ill Jedi, the politicians of the Galactic Alliance, and the power hungry moffs of the resurgent Empire. At the same time, Luke, convicted of endangering the galactic population by training these fallen Jedi and failing to control them and subsequently exiled from the Jedi Order, continues to explore the galaxy with his son Ben, hoping to find what caused his nephew Jacen Solo to become the Sith that killed Luke's wife, Mara. After encountering and repelling a Sith ambush in the previous installment, Luke and Ben track the sole survivor to Dathomir, where she attempts to hide herself within the innately force-sensitive, rancor-riding, indigenous population. When they do ultimately catch up to her, all is not as it appears.

Like the previous novels, the main Jedi plotline and the Skywalker plotline are for the most part separate although Han and Leia do jump between threads, providing that nostalgic feeling of reunion previously missing. However, unlike the previous novels, the Skywalker plotline is more substantive, developing the Force witches of Dathomir into a deeper culture than the wasted opportunities represented by the Baran Do Sages of Outcast and the Aing-Tii monks of Omen. As Luke and Ben attempt to capture the rogue Sith warrior, they find themselves in the middle of a clan war between a progressive clan rejecting the matriarchal traditions of the past and the secretive, darkside-wielding NightSisters. Whether it's the inclusion of the Sith element or the depth of the Dathomiri culture, there is a relevance to their actions that surpasses the "after-school special" superficiality of earlier plots. The re-emergence of the Sith as a threat, although a somewhat tamer version than Palpatine's evil incarnate, also raise the stakes of the series overall. It took awhile but Luke and Ben's actions finally matter again.

The second string concerning the political struggles of the Jedi amidst a crisis of crazies is about as strong as it has been all series but rather than being forced to carry the weight of the book, the strength of the Dathomir plotline allows it to slowly ratchet up the tension. While it's strange that major players are still being introduced into the series in the fourth book, the multi-dimensional power struggle appears to reaching a tipping point and it's difficult to predict how it will all play out, something atypical for the average Star Wars novel. After the extended break between books 3 and 4 caused by Allston's unfortunate heart attack, I'm very excited to see the series continue despite some of its flaws which admittedly may be more a result of my departure from the ranks of the targeted demographic than any flaw on Allston's part.

Through the half dozen or so Allston SW novels I've read, the single most notable aspect of his writing is his gift for humor. Despite suffering the aforementioned heart attack, Allston returns to his trademark humor here, albeit with somewhat less impact. Some of the changes that the Del Rey/Lucas Books editors have been introducing into the Fate of the Jedi are storylines that are somewhat lighter in tone. After the genocidal plots of the New Jedi Order icosikaihenilogy (21 books) and the fratricidal plots of the Legacy of the Force enneilogy (9 books), the fans were clamoring for lighter fare. Del Rey delivers this in Fate of the Jedi but unfortunately at the expense of the effectiveness of Allston's humor. In his X-Wing books and his NJO work, the dark comedy stood out in contrast to the bleak situations our characters found themselves in. Like a coping mechanism, the characters seemed to laugh because it was the only way to distract themselves from the death surrounding them. Even the humor of The Empire Strikes Back broke the tension between Imperial assaults and torture sessions. With the lighter tone of FotJ, Allston's writing comes across as almost cutesy, especially in scenes involving the pre-teen Allana Solo and the young adult Ben Skywalker.

This cutesy factor has been one of the largest problems of the series so far and the lack of appropriately aged characters continues in Backlash. Luke, Leia, and Han are considered to be either "too skilled" or "too old" for major action sequences and as a result an unrealistic amount of weight is placed on the shoulders of young protagonists, namely Ben and Allana. In the past the mainstream SW novels have been separated from the YA stories but Fate of the Jedi appears to be catering to both the old guard of the original trilogy and the younger fans of the prequel era. While understandable, this fanboy doesn't like watching his heroes throw their children into danger with terrible parenting decision after decision for the sake of their screen time.

As an example, Han and Leia leave their daughter alone for weeks where she eventually encounters a murderous junker who runs the local chop shop. Ben is given command of a tribe of older, trained warriors whose culture he doesn't understand to defend their redoubt from a rancor siege. And it's not so much the fact that they are put into dangerous situations, it's that they are portrayed as more capable than any of the adults around. It's only a matter of time before Ben is teaching the tribes strategy so basic a Gungan should know them and using his "detective skills" to suss out decades old secrets in days. Under the flimsy pretense of training, the authors marginalize Luke Skywalker to create artificial tension in scenarios where he could easily resolve conflicts with minimum bloodshed. Why would a Jedi let hundreds of people die when he has the power to save them? This illogical youth movement is frustrating at times but unfortunately necessary as the editorial staff has killed off or marginalized the majority of strong appropriately aged characters over the past few years and continually overpowered Luke and Leia.

Regardless of my fanboy criticisms, Backlash is still a worthwhile entry into the Star Wars canon and my favorite of the Fate of the Jedi books thus far. It ends on an enigmatic note that begs for further exploration in Troy Denning's Allies (due out in late May). Despite the younger, lighter tone of the series, Fate of the Jedi continues to present enjoyable Star Wars adventures in an episodic format that allow you to jump back to the galaxy far, far away that you explored in the imagination of your youth for a few hours. It's clear that Star Wars is in a bit of a transition period as LucasBooks attempts to rebuild the universe from catastrophic events of the past few years but I'm hopeful that once the youth movement completes, the character development will be worth it. It should be expected but character continuity has been something that hasn't always made an appearance in Star Wars fiction, so the increased attention in Fate of the Jedi is appreciated even if it creates other smaller problems. If you were a Star Wars fan that has abandoned the series because it lost the escapist elements that made it Star Wars, it might be time to take a second look.

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