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A novel by James Luceno (2001, Del Rey)
33 years before Star Wars: A New Hope

Chancellor Valorum attempts to curtail the Trade Federation with taxation, while defending against a terrorist organization.



2 stars

Read February 25th to March 2nd, 2002  
    Very slow, often annoying, this book had a meandering plot, and seemed very unfocused.  Still, the joy the author feels at showing us continuity pervades the novel, and some of the setup for The Phantom Menace actually seems to be worth it.

I don't know if it is the author's style, but I found this book very annoying.  Not as annoying as what he wrote in Hero's Trial or Jedi Eclipse, but almost.  It is certainly not the cerebral nature of the book, or all the politics.  Political intrigue really interests me.  Check out the Babylon 5 TV series for political intrigue.  In fantasy, The Mageborn Traitor is fantastic.  In science fiction, look at Conqueror's Pride by Timothy Zahn.  In Star Wars itself, we have the wonderfully political Black Fleet Crisis.  Maneuverings can be subtle and still be meaningful.  Here, they were passionless, and I thought the characters kept talking for no reason at all except to give elaborate and empty speeches.

I think one of the problems with the Prequel books, which also plagues the New Jedi Order to a certain extent, is the idea that we have to follow a vast, sweeping story that progresses across the galaxy, and has galactic consequences.  Instead of focusing on a small group of characters, like the Han-Luke-Leia trio, or Wedge and Rogue Squadron, we get dozens of senators, the Chancellor, another dozen Jedi, and a few members of the terrorist organization Nebula Front.  And I didn't really grow to care about any of them. The author didn't draw me in.

One problem specific to this author is that he seems to think himself quite clever.  He fits in so many references to people, characters, places, events, and so on, that we know of from other books.  The references are not subtle, and are often jarring.  I did appreciate being shown how Sate Pestage was a member of Palpatine's entourage way before he became Emperor, but I wonder if that is likely.  It seems to me that the Emperor's trusted aides would be periodically "refreshed" (or flushed, for lack of a better word...), to keep them from getting the upper hand by knowing too much.  We get to meet the original Jorus C'boath (who was cloned for Heir to the Empire), the Jedi apprentice Vergere, who would appear in the terrible Rogue Planet and later in Luceno's other Star Wars novel, Hero's Trial.  Tarkin shows up here, and we see that he is probably already in league with Sidious in the way he hampers investigations at the end.  We also get to see Master Bondara at work, just months before he battles Darth Maul to the death in Shadow Hunter.  Here, Qui-Gon describes him as the best duelist among the Jedi.  Judging by what happened between him and Maul, I sincerely doubt that.  I am sure there are several other cameos, as well.

The plot of the book focuses on three items, mainly.  One is the hunt by Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan for the terrorists, led by Captain Cohl, who I take it is supposed to be a Han Solo type of person, but misguided.  He was also very boring to read about.  I never got to care about him, not when he was a terrorist, not when he was betrayed, and not when either he or his girlfriend were shot.  Good riddance, I said, every time I thought he had been killed.  The second plot is the proposed taxation of the free trade zones in the outer rim of the galaxy.  This is where the politics come into play, and I found my eyes glazing over whenever somebody started to make a big speech.  The third plot concerns the Jedi as a whole, as they are tricked into several traps in order for the Nebula Front to try and pull off an assassination.

My biggest concern here is that everything happens in the space of one book!  Every single thing that is setup for The Phantom Menace occurs here.  Why?  Taxation seems to have been the main motive of the book.  Fine.  Why do we have to see the "baseless accusations of corruption" that plagues Valorum's office here, too?  Couldn't they have been separate issues?  And Qui-Gon disobeying a Jedi Council order comes as a result of the same plot!  Thus Obi-Wan's line in the movie that his master should have been on the Council.  The Trade Federation also gets its droid army here, and they enter into their agreement with Darth Sidious.  Then we tack on the scandal and suspicious death of King Varuna of Naboo, who is replaced by Queen Amidala in addition to all the rest!  It would have been much more interesting if all these things had not been interconnected.  Give us half a dozen books showing the separate deed and effects.  Setting the stage does not mean that the author has to give us the background of every single throwaway line in the movie!  Although this author seems to think so.  By giving us so much, each one was diminished.  What the author is saying that if Palpatine had not proposed the idea of taxing the trade routes, none of this would have happened... not a single one.  I have a lot of trouble with that.

In the first plot, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan managed to follow Cohl as he infiltrated a Trade Federation cargo vessel.  They affixed a tracking device to his ship and followed when he evacuated the ship.  Cohl destroyed the freighter, and managed to defeat the sensor.  But how could the Jedi be so stupid?  If they wanted to find the hidden Nebula Front base, why did they reveal themselves?  Obi-Wan kept a fixed speed and distance relative to Cohl's ship.  As if that wouldn't seem suspicious?  And when Cohl reveals his shuttle, what does Qui-Gon do?  He reveals his own shuttle!  I suppose it would have been much too simple to remain hidden, thereby not tipping off Cohl.  Cohl would have followed his original plan, rendezvoused with his ship and gone home to the base.  The Jedi would have followed, and the book would have been mercifully shorter.  The whole sequence didn't make sense.  Instead, they see Cohl's ship destroyed in the explosion of the Trade Federation freighter.  Qui-Gon knows that the man is not dead, though, and the Jedi Council mocks him about it for half the book. 

In the political arena, the Trade Federation is complaining about the depredations of the Nebula Front, and wants more protection.  Palpatine argues that the Trade Federation be allowed to expand its defence forces in compensation for an increased taxation scheme that they plan to apply in order to weaken the Trade Federation.  Huh?  Anyway, Valorum faces a large challenge in passing the taxation bill, and the senators argue over the merits and downsides to everything. 

I didn't like the way we got inside Palpatine's head here.  The way the author presents everything is completely misleading.  We only get half of Palpatine's thoughts, and that is not fair, when we get the full thoughts of everybody else.  Obviously, while we get to share his pleasant thoughts, regarding Valorum and the fate of the Republic, we never get his darker thoughts.  For the couple of individuals who don't know that Palpatine becomes the Emperor, I suppose this saves the revelation for later.  But since we do know who this person is, we also know that he is reveling in the things that are happening.  All of his discussions are pure babble.  He goes on and on, talking about how the taxation of the free trade zones would affect and not affect the galaxy.  The author is trying to show us how he is playing everybody as puppets, but it is not successful. 

Valorum agrees to hold a summit on the planet Eriadu, at Palpatine's suggestion.  He is the victim of an attempted assassination.  The assassins are traced back to the planet Asmeru, where seven Jedi are sent to deal with the militant wing of the Nebula Front.  It is, of course, a trap, since I am sure Sidious/Palpatine alerted the terrorist group.  The Jedi are captured, but escape with the help of a native population.  The action scenes where they battle the terrorists are so monotonously written that the whole chapter was boring.  The narrative is typical of the way most of this book is written, with lines like "seven lightsabers were extinguished".  Shortly after that, "seven lightsabers were relit."  The author could not have been more dispassionate than that!  In any case, the Jedi win the fight, with help from the uprising of the natives and a Jedi star fighter that was dispatched from Eriadu for the rescue.

For some reason, though, the Jedi who were pulled from Eriadu go back to the Jedi temple instead of returning to the site of the summit!  The Nebula Front hoped to keep the Jedi distracted, but only half the force was lured away.  Even Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan managed to get back to Eriadu before the start of the summit, and they went hopping across the sector in search of Cohl.  What did the Nebula Front gain?  The entire timeline of events is screwed up here.  Yoda hears of the capture of the Jedi at Asmeru, including video feed from their escorts, and by the time the captives have escaped -overnight- and nearly finished the battle, the Jedi have had time to get to a ship, leave Eriadu, travel to Asmeru, navigate the minefield and perform the rescue.

There are also so many contradictions in this book.  They are small enough that they appear minor, but they also occur often enough to prove very annoying!  For example, the Jedi Council met with 11 members, explicitly stated, Adi Gallia being away on Eriadu.  Ki Adi Mundi, Council member, then walks into the meeting.  That would give the Council 13 members, but we know they only have 12.  There are many, many such instances scattered through the book.

On Eriadu, Cohl and his girlfriend, reluctant member of the mission, are killed.  Or so it seemed.  Cohl takes a blaster shot to the chest, shoulder and forehead, and only ends up with a headache.  If stormtrooper armor can't deflect blaster shots, why did Cohl's "armored" underwear?  Rella is killed, but Boiny, the Rodian, also survives a blaster wound.  They go after the head of Nebula Front, Havac.  They know he has smuggled a battle droid into the Trade Federation honor guard, and plans to use it to kill Valorum.  Through Havac's treachery, the Jedi find Cohl's ship, and discover what his hired help was sent to do.  They were meant to watch the four roadways leading to the convention center, and tell Havac which entrance was being used.  The logic in this escapes me, even if was a setup.  Even mindless thugs should have figured out the meaningless act of watching the approach-ways, when they were told that nothing would happen until Valorum was in his seat, not on the approach-way.  And even that "distraction" for the Jedi and police didn't last long enough to do any good.  Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan quelled the disturbance, got inside the convention center, and were able to kill the terrorists before first signal was even sent.

Since Cohl survived the attack on his life at point blank range, he is after Havac for revenge now.  He seems to make the ultimate sacrifice in killing Havac after Havac dealt him a fatal blow.  But when did he grow that conscience?  At one point, he argues against alerting the authorities and the Jedi, but when it comes down to Havac turning on the transmitter, Cohl is interested in saving the Trade Federation delegates?  Why?

Qui-Gon and the other Jedi had to be pretty pretty sloppy -or very naive- for the events in this book to work.  Every time somebody tells the truth, the Jedi can sense it.  However, every time they are lied to, they don't notice!  The man who tried to lead the Jedi on a wild-goose-chase after Asmeru got away with it for a short time, and it was only because of luck that he was caught.  Cohl's thugs lied to the Jedi about not knowing anything about the attack on Valorum, and nobody tried to use a mind trick on them?  And Havac tells Qui-Gon that the droid transmitter is on the sniper and is believed, when the transmitter was actually in the same room with them?  Very sloppy work.

The part where Cohl and the others were able to sneak down onto the planet also felt false.  Rella commandeered an entire customs ship without anybody else knowing about it?  Surely the customs agents knew that Valorum's life was at stake, and that the Nebula Front would try to sneak into the conference area.  Cohl's group would have failed if the customs agent had sacrificed herself, like she was supposed to do as part of her job of protecting the planet.  But I guess she was just a flawed person, and I can't fault her for that.  It just seemed like she didn't do anything a proper customs agent would.

But the thing that gets me the most is the fact that if Havac hadn't hired Cohl for that job, he could have succeeded and survived, without anybody being the wiser.  All he needed was a sniper on the upper level.  The sniper didn't attract any attention at all until Qui-Gon arrived (and the Rodian died a silly death).  The others, from Cohl himself to the spotters around the conference center, all attracted attention to the fact that something was going on, and made the Jedi more suspicious.  If he had simply hired the sniper, the Jedi wouldn't even have been present.

The big twist, which is supposed to make us think this book is a work of genius, is that Havac and Sidious were not after Valorum after all!  They wanted the Trade Federation to raise their force field so that the modified battle droid could turn around and slaughter the Trade Federation directorate, which it did.  A message from Darth Sidious pulled Nute Gunray from the area just moments before the shooting started, however.  The ironic thing about this is that it was Qui-Gon's assault on the sniper that caused the events to be set in motion.  Thus the Jedi are now forbidden to intervene in trade disputes in the future.  Huh?  I can see the reasoning, but exactly what kind of relationship does the Jedi Council have with the Senate?  What do the Jedi do?  It seems that they only act when asked by the Senate, and the rest of the time, they sit around and meditate.  Sounds like a dull existence.

The final part of the book seems tacked on in hindsight.  Valorum has to be enmeshed in scandal by the time the movie opens, so some physical money that was taken from the Trade Federation freighter at the beginning by Cohl ends up in a blind account which invests in Valorum shipping, owned by some of his relatives.  The courts find him not guilty, I think, but the appearance of the conflict of interest cripples him, putting him ready for impeachment by Queen Amidala.  Yawn...

From the beginning of the book, I began to wonder why we needed an introduction to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, and the others.  It is as if this is the first time we've ever met these people, and they get a very dry description of who they are, and what they represent.  Typically, even in the Han Solo Adventures, we didn't get such a description.  I don't understand it.  We know these people -that's why we are reading the book in the first place.  Not because of the author (in fact, I would try to avoid him in the future), but because the Star Wars label graces the cover.  He goes on at the beginning of every other chapter with a short introductory passage.  In a movie, it would be like seeing the planet from orbit, or cruising over the city until we come to our characters.  Here, though, it was very distracting, especially after visiting the planet for the third time.

The book was very unfocused, weaving its way through murky plot points.  It gave us too much description of incidental things, irrelevant backgrounds, and way too many people (along with their history).  I felt like we were stopping the story, near the beginning, every time we met with some new character, even very minor ones.  Every time a character made a speech, or was entrenched in a dialog, it was as if the author was holding up a big sign, saying "look!  Setup for Episode I!"

I've done a lot of complaining about this book, but I found that I didn't dislike it as much as some others, like Hero's Trial and Rogue Planet.  One reason, I think, is the character of Obi-Wan.  Even though he simply reacts to a lot of the things that are being said, he is very much in character.  His humor is in the forefront.  In The Phantom Menace, he tells his master that "the negotiations were short!"  Here, he expresses his dry wit again, by mentioning, as they were about to crash into a lake, how he thought Qui-Gon was being metaphorical about getting wet!  I also enjoyed some of the continuity that was shown, especially with other books.  Even though Nute Gunray had only a cameo here, combined with the appearances he has in the other prequel stories like Shadow Hunter, it almost makes up a story of its own.

I am ready to put this author in the same category as Kevin J. Anderson, whom I started to loathe by the time Darksaber came out.  Although that author had good stories to tell, he told them with a terrible style.  In an interview, he once said that he writes in a single draft.  Unfortunately, I can tell.  Isaac Asimov said he did the same thing.  He could get away with that -Anderson could not.  But at least he had good stories to tell.  This author wanders, with barely a thought to what comes next.  The stories do not seem well planned, the plots very simple, and I hate his writing style. And that is perhaps the problem.  I found it lacking passion, written in "monotone", almost robotic.  Political thrillers and machinations must be done skillfully in order to be successful.  This was certainly not the case here. 

After rereading this review, I think maybe I should bring the rating down another notch!  But I think I'll let it squeak by, just barely.


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