21 November 2015

Books: Star Wars: Lost Stars By Claudia Gray (2015)

When Bantam books began releasing Star Wars novels set after Return of the Jedi, I realized that George Lucas was never going to go beyond that last film –though in 1992 no one thought he would do the prequel films as well. Only one book, beyond the novelizations of the A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, had been released, which was Alan Dean Foster’s 1978 novel Splinter in the Mind’s Eye

At the time, I honestly thought this novel was going to the premise of episode five. Years later, I would learn I was partially right. Foster, who had ghost written the original novelization, was handed the script for a Star Wars follow-up, one that was designed as a cheap-to-make sequel had not the original proved such a success. It seems back then, Lucas and 20th Century Fox were hedging their bets and so Lucas had created a treatment that became Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

Anyways, like many a Star Wars fan, I began to collect and read these novels that would eventually be known as the Expanded Universe. But they started to come out so fast, I began to buy them and not read them (something that still happens to this day). But I was also interested in other genres, other books, TV and movies. If I had devoted myself to just reading Star War novels, I may’ve been able to read all them between 1992 and 2012 when Disney acquired the franchise and announced a new series of movies, plus saying the current EU was going to put aside in favor of a new timeline. 

I know some fans were hoping that certain characters and storylines in the EU would make it into what is now known as The Force Awakens. Much like my other beloved franchise, Star Trek, I kind of understand why they’re doing this. Mostly, though, it’s so Disney does not have to pay any novelist rights to popular characters and situations that have molded the EU for 20 years. 

I will also admit, part of the reason I stopped reading the EU was I felt the bad guys threatening our main charterers like Luke, Leia and Han with death was pointless. As a reader, I knew that no writer of any of those novels would be able kill off such beloved people, so when a situation rose where an evil creature pointed a blaster at the head of, say, Princess Leia, I was taken out of the book because I knew, knew, that she would not die. 

Now it’s 2015, and Disney is about to release The Force Awakens in a month, and Disney/Lucasfilm Books have started a whole new Expanded Universe 2.0. Much like the old EU, these books don’t have to read in any sort of order, as they are stand-alone novels. But some will have minor connections to the upcoming new trilogy. 

The new universe began last year with Star Wars: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, which is a prequel novel to the new animated TV series Star Wars: Rebels (also note, the two previous animated series dealing with the Clone Wars are considered canon in this new timeline, even though they came before Disney bought the franchise). Star Wars: Tarkin by James Luceno, Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne, and Star Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp all followed. Again, these are standalone tales that are set before and during and consecutively with Episodes I-VI (and none of which I’ve read). 

Starting in September of this year Disney/Lucasfilm Books began releasing titles under the moniker of Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. These novels would begin adding pieces, some small, and some big to the greater whole of the newest trilogy.  Aftermath by Chuck Wendig, is set primarily after the events of episode VI, but The Weapon of a Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure by Jason Fry, Moving Target: A Princess Leia Adventure by Cecil Castellucci, and Smuggler's Run: A Han Solo Adventure by Greg Rucka are all set within Episode IV-VI (and much like Aftermath, I’ve yet to read them).

This brings me to Lost Stars by Claudia Gray. I admit at first I was not interested in reading this YA tale, even though it was supposed to contain clues that would be explored in The Force Awakens. But I kept seeing reviews that said the book was surprisingly well written, engaging, and fun. So, I thought what the hell. Why not?

Lost Stars gives us a macro view of some of the most important events in the Star Wars universe, from the rise of the Rebellion to the fall of the Empire, but it’s not totally Forrest Gump mashed with Romeo and Juliet and then mixed with Star Wars (yet it is). The novel opens 8 years after the fall of the Old Republic where on the planet Jelucan we meet Ciena Ree and Thane Kyrell. Ree’s family history is she’s part of the original settlers of the planet, while Kyrell was part of the second-wave of settlers. Ree’s generation are generally known as farmers who shun technology (mostly because they’re poor), and live off the land, while Kyrell’s generation are rich and embrace the new technology the Empire is giving them. But both believe the Rebellion to be wrong and know the Empire is right. As they age, they become friends. They train together so by the time they enter the Imperial corps, they become competitive to see whom they can impress the most. But as the Empire tightens its grip on the galaxy, as historical events unfold, both begin to question their loyalty to the Empire. But only one will make a decision that will put them both in opposite ends of a conflict that is tearing the universe apart.

I simply enjoyed this book. I found all the characters to well written, especially our two star-crossed lovers. I liked that Gray gave us a closer, inmate look at the events of episode IV-VI through different eyes, I like the idea that she had characters asking questions like how weird it was a small rag-tag group of rebels were able to destroy the first Death Star (and even question the oddness of its one weakness). Also, funny enough, why Darth Vader ordered the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive to be disabled at Bespin if the Empire was so sure they were going to defeat Luke Skywalker and the rest at Cloud City (a plot hole I never thought about). The novel does get a bit “fannish” when late in the novel, after the events of Return of the Jedi, a squadron of fighters travels to a planet where some remnants of the Empire is supposed to hanging out, and its only identification is 5251977. Why not just use THX1138 as a name for a planet?

There is, as advertised, a post skirmish with the Empire that has some bearing on The Force Awakens. It's a chapter set about a year after ROTJ that also features the final confrontation between Cree and Kyrell over the planet Jakku, the desert world where Rey lives and where Finn crashes onto (and one can assume the downed Star Destroyer seen in the trailer, the one stuck in the sand, the one where Rey appears to be investigating, is the same one mentioned in this book). There is not much more of a revelation here, just a bit of backstory. Oddly, though, after reading 500 pages of this book, I did not feel cheated that this is the only glimpse into the next film. It seemed a logical aspect within the novel, and not something designed merely to get you to read a YA book. 

Finally, I’m unsure if I’ll continue reading these new novels set in the new canon (that also includes the latest novel Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed which serving as an introduction to the new video game, also serves as another peek into the new movie series). There is much I want to read, both old and new (I mean I have hundreds of unread books just waiting for me here at the house, and each time I add new ones, well, things don’t ever get caught up). But never say never, I guess.

19 November 2015

Books: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014)

When I read fiction –well that’s mostly what I do read- I tend to vacillate between pop fiction and what may be called (arrogantly maybe) literary fiction. Part of the reason is that I want to appear smart. Having only spent two years at a community college, and hating it as much as I hated high school, I’ve tried to make up for it by appearing smart, even though I usually fail at this when conversations deviate into territory I don’t know. Then I become quiet. And then I grow bored when I can no longer supply any more information on a subject.

Anyways, with Wolf in White Van, a novel by John Darnielle, the composer and vocalist for the indie band the Mountain Goats, I felt a bit dumb. Not that I did not understand the plot, but that I could not, for whatever reason, identify with the main character of Sean Phillips. He’s too much of a cipher, too lost in his own pain and suffering. And while the character does not come off as an angry teen, he is clearly more damaged than his physical appearance would lead you to believe. 

“Isolated by a disfiguring injury since the age of 17, Sean Phillips crafts imaginary worlds for strangers to play in. From his small apartment in Southern California, he orchestrates fantastic adventures where possibilities, both dark and bright, open in the boundaries between the real and the imagined. As the creator of Trace Italian - a text-based, role playing game played through the mail - Sean guides players from around the world through his intricately imagined terrain, which they navigate and explore, turn by turn, seeking sanctuary in a ravaged, savage future America. Lance and Carrie are high school students from Florida, explorers of the Trace. But when they take their play into the real world, disaster strikes, and Sean is called to account for it. In the process, he is pulled back through time, tunneling toward the moment of his own self-inflicted departure from the world in which most people live.”

The books conceit is that it's told in reverse, which does take a bit of getting used to. But through the roughly 210 pages of this short novel, Darnielle reveals Sean’s sins. But by the time I got to the end, and thus the beginning, I was frustrated and felt disappointed that I could not feel anything for Sean. I actually felt sorry for his parents. 

I am curious why Darnielle did not just set his tale in the 1980s when there were stories of kids whom took their Dungeons and Dragons fantasy from the room to the real world. This role playing game through the mail in time of the internet seems far-fetched (though we are never given an exact time period this story takes place over). Also, while born in Indiana, he grew up in Southern California, close to where I live today. I liked that part of the book, as I recognized aspects of Pomona, Claremont, and Montclair throughout the book.

In the end, I felt I was not smart enough to understand what the themes of the book where, mostly because I have never experienced any of them -even as a person who lives somewhat of a hermit these days. Then again, I don’t experience a lot of things the characters go through in most of the novels I read (with the exception of Stephen King, maybe).

Finally, this book was originally released in September of 2014. I found out about it in December of that year and put the book on hold via the Los Angeles County Library to be picked up at my local library here in La Verne. It took until two-weeks ago for it finally come to me, as the queue for the waiting period was well over 120. I'm assuming the most readers who put on hold at the library where fans of the Mountain Goats (family and friends?) or who knew Darnielle for his years of living here and graduating from Claremont High School. Plus, obviously, the county only ordered one book. Was it worth the wait? Yes, of course, I love fiction and I love smart writers. Perhaps I'm so used to way books are constructed in popular fiction, when something like Wolf in White Van comes along and throws that expectation for a loop, I get defensive (the same way I got with City On Fire as well).


14 November 2015

Books: The Oversight By Charlie Fletcher (2014)

"Only five still guard the borders between the worlds. Only five hold back what waits on the other side. Once the Oversight, the secret society that policed the lines between the mundane and the magic, counted hundreds of brave souls among its members. Now their numbers can be counted on a single hand. When a vagabond brings a screaming girl to the Oversight's London headquarters, it seems their hopes for a new recruit will be fulfilled - but the girl is a trap. As the borders between this world and the next begin to break down, murders erupt across the city, the Oversight are torn viciously apart, and their enemies close in for the final blow."

The Oversight is author Charlie Fletcher’s first fantasy novel for adults (he’s had success in the Young Adult genre) is somewhat a mixed bag of plots we’ve all seen before (Jonathan Strange and Daniel O’Mally’s The Rook come to mind), with a huge emphasis on World Building, while trying to be a quirky and odd. It works, but not until towards the end. But before what we get is an author who is clearly giving us a great amount of detail for the production designer and the costume creator for what he hopes will be a movie adaptation of this trilogy. Then, of course, the other problem lies in a story that really seems to go nowhere. Fletcher spends a great amount of time info dumping us in the beginning, when the young girl named Lucy is released from her sack. Both Sara and Cook are trying to explain to Lucy what she is (a glint, someone who can touch, say a stone wall, and see the history of events that surrounded it), and at times I felt Fletcher was dolling this information for himself, almost trying to convince himself that adults are too dumb to figure out his story. Then Lucy falls through a magical mirror and arrives some miles (hundreds?) from where she started into the hands of circus folks (where one of the heroes, apparently, is named Charlie. Most authors avoid using their own names in novels, mostly because it seems self-indulgent. Here it's ludicrous). For over 400 pages we get very little action, very little in the way of characterization, and some doggy subplot dealing with magicians from the north and south of Britain. Dull and pointless. It's sometimes quirky, and sometimes odd, but all the parts don't move well together to establish a coherent narrative that made you really care about anyone. The only intriguing character is the breath-stealer named Alp. But even he, it, or whatever it truly is, seems like it belongs in a different genre.

Still, there are, though some mysteries which, depending on your point of view if that is either good or really bad: mainly who really is the bad guys here. I mean, yes, there appears to be really bad people here, but I’m confused as to whom to root for, mostly because the everyone in magical alternate 18th Century England seems a bit the same. Yes, the Oversight are clearly the good guys, but the gray areas of others, their motivations, was a muddy as the Thames river here. 

Part of me does not want to continue, as the second book is on order at the library. But I’m hopeful that the second book offers a better story, with some explanations that don’t come across as artificial.