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A novel by John Whitman (1998, Bantam Skylark)
Galaxy of Fear, Book 8
1 year after Star Wars: A New Hope

While studying the cultural garden of an insectoid species, beetles begin to swarm and kill people.



3 stars

Read on July 25th, 2003  
    This is probably the best Galaxy of Fear book so far, and not because of the appearance of Captain Thrawn.

Most of these books have dealt with physically fearsome places or events. This book has that, certainly, but it also had a better fear: of being found guilty of something that was done, but not reported. It's a fear that we all get, but it is normally much stronger in children. Regardless, it also gets much stronger when events start spiralling out of control.

I wasn't sure of Zak's crisis of conscience at first. It starts right away, as he fiddles with the engines while the ship is in flight. After seeing sparks and nearly getting electrocuted, he disappears and doesn't tell anybody. I can't figure out how he thought nobody would notice, though. With smoke drifting down the corridor, and at least one wire in the wrong place, Hoole should know something is wrong right away -why were there no alarms when that happened, anyway? Still, at the very least, Zak should have tried to replace the cable, to make it look less obvious.

It seemed like a huge plot convenience that Zak didn't want to tell anybody about what he did. I've always hated the contrivance that a person couldn't tell somebody something important, because they were constantly being interrupted. If it was really so important, he would have found a way.

However, Zak was so embarrassed and afraid of getting reprimanded, especially since Hoole never believed him about anything in the past, that it's no wonder he kept it to himself. It also sets the stage for the best character development of the series. While it would have been interesting to actually have Zak responsible for the outbreak of the beetles, because he had killed the sheev, I think it was a better story to watch his inner turmoil come to a head, and then go to reluctant relief.

Often it seems to kids that the evidence around them obviously implicates them in whatever they have done "wrong", when to an adult, it is immediately obvious that the small thing the child did could not possibly produce the results they are seeing. So the child wallows in silent guilt, fearing more and more the repercussions, and so becoming more and more reluctant to divulge what they did, until it all comes flooding out at once.

This is exactly the situation Zak faces, as he manages to take the place of the sheev for a day, but is later too busy to kill the number of beetles that a sheev would eat. The beetles kill an Imperial officer, which starts an investigation.

As a guest star in this book, instead of getting an Original Trilogy member, we get the next best thing: Thrawn, currently Captain of a Star Destroyer. Unfortunately, Thrawn is nothing special in this book. He is on the planet to study its art, to learn about its culture, but he has no trouble digging up the sacred garden in order to figure out what happened to his officer. Still, he acts and talks just like every other adult in this series. He should be different, but he is not. He blames the poet Sh'shak for the murder on very circumstantial evidence, since anybody could have been carrying a vibropike. By the way, they never answered the question about who used the vibropike on the man, nor what the man was doing snooping around the gardens so early, with his blaster drawn. While Thrawn does have ideas of his own, most of the time, he reacts to what Zak and Tash tell him, most notably regarding the air vents that allow the beetles to enter his ship. Incidentally, it is his idea to go to the stone building in the garden, yet he chastises the idea later, when they end up going. This is not the mastermind that we know.

The mystery of what is happening is wrapped up early in the book, fortunately, because it is fairly obvious from the start that Vroon is guilty, though I didn't expect the extent of his betrayal, in killing so many sheevs. The rest of the book allows our heroes to react and finally escape from the area, where they can contact the government, which will spread the extra beetles around the planet. They reminded me of the droch from Planet of Twilight, which were harmless as individuals, but became violent in large groups. I can't figure out why they were always attacking Zak, Tash, Hoole and Thrawn, though. There must have been other gardeners, unless they finished those ones off first. More importantly, they didn't seem to be attacking anything outside the gardens, where you would think there would be plenty of fresh meat. But why meat? Vroon said they attack everything. Why didn't they attack the rest of the garden, the plants and trees, which were their natural food source?

For a while, I was wondering how anybody could believe the delicate balance of the garden. The legend of a single dead sheev causing a fatal outbreak of beetles is too far-fetched to believe, but it seemed that the author was leading us in that direction. If that was true, then every time a sheev died, another one would have to be born at the same moment. Still, a normal sheev won't eat as much as an elderly or a newborn, so there must be a variety in the number of beetles in the garden at any time. I'm glad Thrawn dismissed the concept as soon as he heard it!

The style of this book was better than in the last one. The author still ended most chapters with a cliff-hanger, but most of the time, they were true threats, revealed in the next chapter. The most prominent exception, however, was the first one, where Zak meets the insectoid species for the first time. We still get to see that our heroes are the first people to notice things, in standard horror-movie cliché, which is getting a little tiring. Why did the beetles only come through the vent immediately after Zak thought of it, for example?

Still, the heart of the book was Zak's hidden secret, which was truthfully portrayed. Hoole didn't get mad at him (too much, at least right away) for keeping those secrets, and he was able to fix the damage to the ship quite easily. They were also able to keep their identities somewhat hidden from the Imperials, because of the events that followed. Thrawn will be sorry he missed them, but he would be very practical about it, noting that his life was in danger, and that had to take precedence.

Though it had many of the standard clichés, I wouldn't mind seeing something with this honest kind of theme to it again.


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