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A novel by Timothy Zahn (2004, Ballantine Books)
20 years after Star Wars: A New Hope

Luke and Mara encounter mysteries and hostilities while investigating an Old Republic vessel destroyed long ago in Chiss space.




Read February 17th to 22nd, 2006  

There were a lot of things to like about this book, but the writing style had several drawbacks. After reading the dreary prequel novels, very few of which I have actually enjoyed, getting back to Luke Skywalker, even without Han and Leia, is a wonderful thing. The authors of the expanded universe, especially Zahn, really know how to characterize the main characters. Zahn has set up a very engaging and energetic tale, with lots of action, excitement, deception, and internal politics among various groups of people.

While I like complex investigations, and characters trying to figure out what is going on, all throughout this book there were way too many potential solutions being discussed. Every time Luke or Mara are confronted by something even remotely suspicious, they go through ten or twelve situations that could explain what they encountered, and they go back and second-guess everything later. This seems more like the author trying to give the fans every possible solution to a potential problem, to mislead us, and to keep us from saying "but couldn't they have done ...  (whatever) ... instead?" I found that the way Luke and Mara presented all of the possible information at once, offering up new theories before the old ones were made, was rather annoying, especially at the beginning, when they didn't know anything at all!

The plot begins by having Luke and Mara being called to Chiss space because the Chiss have found the ship Outbound Flight, which Thrawn destroyed in the days before even the Clone Wars. Luke wants to see the ship because its crew consisted of several Jedi Masters and their apprentices, among others. The plot gets interesting when an alien race comes aboard, to pay their respects to the remains on the ship, because the Jedi freed them from their tyrannical masters, the Vagaari. But things start going wrong on the ship, an Imperial group also shows up (complete with stormtroopers), and everybody is suspicious of everybody else. Also, there is the person who stole the original message to Luke and Mara in the first place, Dean Jinzler, who shows up as an "ambassador" from the New Republic.

I have always had a problem with the Chiss race as depicted in Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, and later in Refugee. The Chiss are afraid of an enemy that they have been tracking, and which they know are extremely dangerous and will someday invade the galaxy. The reference is obviously to the Yuuzhan Vong, first seen in Vector Prime. But they did nothing to prepare for this except create a supposedly safe haven in a globular cluster. From what we saw in Refugee, the Chiss were not in the vanguard of the battle, and did nothing to stop the Vong, nor did they hinder their entry into the galaxy. In addition, the Chiss are not written very differently than humans, in this story. At least in Refugee, they were given different values. Here they were, in effect, humans with blue skin and red glowing eyes.

My memory of the events that occurred on Niruaun in Vision of the Future are vague at best. A rereading of that book is highly recommended before reading this one. It turned out that Soontir Fel was not working with the Chiss at all, but the Empire of the Hand, a group of rebel Chiss who once served under Thrawn. I can't figure out how Fel ended up on the Chiss homeworld in Refugee. I wondered if the tension that we saw between the aristocra of the Fifth Ruling Family (Formbi) and the military might be a sign of things to come in the Chiss near-future. I do not recall mention of the Empire of the Hand in Refugee, so possibly it re-merged with the Chiss. However, I do not see any reason that this would happen, by the end of this book. I also argue against the idea that Thrawn only attacked the New Republic to make them into a stronger fighting force, for the forthcoming invasion. The Heir to the Empire trilogy is very clear about Thrawn's attitude towards the New Republic. Luke and Mara spend too much time thinking about Invasion, when in Vector Prime they were caught completely off guard.

Luke and Mara make a lot of assumptions of authority on the Chiss ship as it approached the Outbound Flight. Every time there is a crisis, they contact the command deck. If these were New Republic ships, I can see them doing this, but even then, they would get in the way. But here they are guests and passengers; why are they allowed to go into all sections of the ship and do their own searching for saboteurs? The Chiss were supposed to be a very private race, so why do they allow such freedom to aliens? I would have also liked to see some sense that Luke and Mara became more intimate than simply cuddles at some point on this trip of several days. Nothing explicit would ever show up in a Star Wars book, but something more suggestive would be nice.

I suspected, after the Geroon was shot, that he did it himself, and that perhaps they were actually out for revenge, rather than to pay their respects. They just seemed to be too naive to actually be that naive! I did not suspect that they were actually the Vagaari themselves, but I suppose I should have. Luke, at one point, actually considers that a splinter group of the Chiss might have been the Vagaari. It turns out that the Vagaari were essentially destroyed by the Jedi on Outbound Flight, and wanted some of the weapons systems and destroyer droids that were housed on board the ship.

Yes, destroyer droids! I liked all of the references to the prequel movies, references that could not have been made in earlier novels for obvious reasons. There is mention of Trade Federation, the appearance of two destroyer droids, Luke wonders about intimacy among Jedi, and others.

Once they arrive on Outbound Flight and find survivors, the Vagaari reveal themselves, and most of the mysteries from aboard the Chiss vessel are resolved. However, two more problems crop up. The first, of course, is the fact that the Vagaari are intent on destroying Outbound Flight and all aboard, except for one intact dreadnaught, which they steal. They have a huge number of troops, and it takes a significant portion of the book to overcome them. The point of view is split between Luke and Mara, who demonstrate such incredible Jedi powers, which completely amaze the Vagaari, and the Imperials, four elite stormtroopers led by the officer Chak Fel. This section of the book was very, very fun to read.

The other problem is the way the survivors treat the Jedi, and those who were born with Jedi powers on their own ships. Palpatine's Empire lasted just over twenty years, while the people on board Outbound Flight have had 50 years to develop their own culture. The mysteries became more and more intense once Luke and Mara boarded that cluster of ships, but a lot of it was never answered. They obviously didn't like the Jedi's "holier than thou" attitudes, and from what I've seen of the prequels, I agree. Mara, however, did not reassure them that she and Luke were any different. From her Imperial military training, she treated them like people who knew nothing: the Jedi give orders, and non-Jedi follow orders. If gentle Luke had been in that room, they might have had their beliefs shaken. However, he never had an encounter with the council that we are aware of.

We never get a real answer for why the survivors dislike and distrust the Jedi so much. The answer must obviously lie in the novel Outbound Flight, and the author does not want to give away too much by this first-published novel. I also want to know why we did not see any aliens on board. Luke and Mara, who are ever-conscious of things like that, didn't even pose that question. The novel successfully does what it set out to do, however, as I really want to know what happened, so will likely read the prequel to it soon! Related, but not to the crew of Outbound Flight, is the question of who taught the Chiss the Basic language in the first place. They called these people "the visitors", who apparently arrived even before Outbound Flight.

While Luke, Mara and Fel are battling the Vagaari on Outbound Flight, which was a nicely complex battle, reasonably written, the Vagaari leader Etosh was stealing a dreadnaught. The next battle, as Luke and Mara board the stolen vessel and take it over little by little, was pure Star Wars, although it also had a complexity to it that would have been better seen on-screen. Several of the tactics that they used required a lot of words, when a movie would have just shown us a cool jump from one plate to another in a river of fire (anticipation of Revenge of the Sith?), or the final destruction of the destroyer droid. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan didn't have enough time to try all of the stunts used here, when they encountered the destroyers in The Phantom Menace. Still, the New Jedi Order is definitely much stronger than the Jedi of the Old Republic, probably because of a lack of limiting traditions. Luke didn't know anything when he started the Jedi Academy. The new Jedi have incredible control over the Force and can do really outrageous stuff! I liked how they were always able to calmly figure ways out of their situations, without ever being outgunned -only outsmarted at some points.

The title of the book could either refer to Jinzler, whose sister was onboard Outbound Flight, or to the Vagaari, who now quest to dominate this region of space once more. Likely it refers to both. Jinzler brings a non-Jedi view to the ship, and actually does very well as an ambassador. He had great suggestions for getting out of the situations with the wolvkils, though I am surprised that he couldn't convince Evlyn to come to the New Republic, but maybe he can give some education as he joins the Outbound Flight on their new home (assuming that it survived the Yuuzhan Vong attack). Is knowing your parents and sibling, and communicating with them also against the Jedi code? I always thought so, but perhaps I am wrong. Anakin got to keep his last name, after all, and I'm sure others did, also.

And the reason for all of this to take place at all? The Chiss knew that the Vagaari were gaining strength again, but their code of ethics do not permit them a first strike. This is why Thrawn was exiled in the first place: he took action against an enemy before they attacked the Chiss. So Formbi set up an elaborate plan to draw the Vagaari into attacking the Chiss on the way to see the remains of the ones who defeated them fifty years ago. Somehow Talon Karrde's friend from Vision of the Future, Car'das, had seen the Vagaari and informed Formbi of what they looked like. Car'das' role in all of this remains completely unclear, as he knew that Outbound Flight had been found eight weeks before the message was sent. Why did he want Jinzler there instead of Luke? I doubt we will find out in the prequel novel. Formbi's plan worked even better than he hoped, and nearly cost him his life!

I did not find that there was enough of a denouement to the book. Luke just lets the Force-sensitive girl go without learning why the others distrust her. Did he at least rescue the two quarantined Force-sensitives?

I have some complaints about the writing style, as well. While the book was a lot of fun to read, it did not have the grand and epic quality that recent post-movie books have. Compare the dialog and action description here to what we saw in Star By Star, Destiny's Way, or The Final Prophecy, and this one comes out lacking. Much of the dialog is very odd or stilted, with people avoiding making full sentences. Still, as I have said, it was fully engaging, and I was very happy to return to Luke and Mara, who are probably my favorite characters, from here through the New Jedi Order. I also like the idea, between this book and Tatooine Ghost, that not all of the characters need to be present in a Star Wars novel.

My final comment is a huge amount of praise for the cover of this book. Mara is drawn absolutely beautiful, and there is a lot going on. The busy ones were always my favorites in the New Jedi Order, and this continues the trend. Even the back cover has a lot of detail, which makes even the cover worth staring at for some time, in addition to the story within.


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