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A novel by James Luceno (2000, Del Rey)
Book 1 in the New Jedi Order: Agents of Chaos
25 years after Star Wars: A New Hope

Han goes in search of an old friend turned traitor, while the Yuuzhan Vong try to infiltrate the Jedi with an assassin.



2 stars

Read January 14th to 17th, 2002  
    There were some good spots mixed in here, but they kept taking me by surprise.  This book was a task at tedium, intermixed with some interesting parts, though it fulfills some crucial roles.  The quality went up and down repeatedly, but in general, I like where the series is leading.

The acknowledgements recognize the late Brian Daley, who was apparently a good friend of this author.  This book seems to be a tribute to him, because it uses so many of the elements that Daley set up, and bringing up Han's past in such detail from the Corporate Sector days.  

It is very obvious that this author is a fan of the franchise.  He has detailed knowledge of so many of the things that happened in earlier novels, not just the New Jedi Order, but all of the books.  I like continuity, but this author stretched it to the brim.  If we got rid of all the name-dropping from other books, the novel would have been half as long!  At least I got good use out of my Star Wars Encyclopedia!

In fact, a lot of this book seems to be made with the sole purpose of name-dropping, and much of it was taken from things that I really didn't want to be reminded of.  He mentions Hethrir from the Crystal Star, the asteroid race in Return to Ord Mantell (when has a good story been told on that planet?), the Qella ship from the Black Fleet Crisis, and Bria is mentioned way too often for my tastes.  At least Mara ridicules Luke's search for his mother in the Shield of Lies set.  Even when not being reminded about Han's past, we are forced to sit through the backgrounds of Intelligence members and pilots, most of whom came to active service during the Black Fleet Crisis.  At times I felt like I was reading Tolkien, but without the depth!

Add to that the fact that so many of the lines (especially the cheesy ones) were lifted directly from the movies, and I could almost see the author smirking in a self-satisfied way, so happy with himself.  The first one may have been neat, but it was way overblown.

Still, the book was very easy to read.  I really enjoyed the beginning, with Chewbacca's memorial service and the Yuuzhan Vong plotting, and especially the introduction of Vergere.  I don't know why she ejected at the end of the book -I thought she would want to help; maybe she'll return in the next book.  There is a key phrase when Elan and Vergere are talking about the Jedi.  People must "know how and when to use the Force, or not use it", she says, belying her true identity as a Jedi for those of us who remember Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker's search for her in the very boring Rogue Planet.  But for most of the book, she sits around, letting everybody think she is a pet.  Very interesting...  I want to know more!

Han did some real reflecting on life after Chewie's memorial service.  It was really heartwarming to see all of his relatives and friends -even the droids, recalling him so fondly.  It was neat to see this from C3PO's perspective, as he contemplates mortality in a small subplot.  

Unfortunately, Han decides that the way to get over Chewie is to run away, like he's been doing for the last six months.  There were several ways that the author could have taken Han on his road to reconciliation.  Turning towards his family would have been one, and I think that could have been very interesting, trying to isolate them in the face of the Vong invasion, doing everything he could to protect them.  But I don't think sending Han back to his old days with old friends was the way to do it.  It seems to me like the author simply wanted to send Han out on another adventure, and "old days" is just another phrase for "don't tie-me-down days".  

Fortunately, the adventure didn't really feel forced, like it could have.  Unfortunately, it reminded me too much of Han Solo at Star's End and the other books written by Daley, which were alright, but not great, to begin with.  His old friend Roa shows up and plots a course to an unknown place, telling Han that he's hunting down Reck Desh (how did they create that name?), an old buddy who has turned traitor, ripening planets for the Vong to take.  Han goes with them, and they end up on Ord Mantell, just the place where Leia is visiting, trying to set up homes for refugees, and just the place where the Vong will attack next!  Wow, I couldn't have predicted what was happening next!

I don't mind coincidences, but this is a little too much.  It reminds me of the similar coincidence in Specter of the Past, where Han and Leia take a contrived vacation.  Surprisingly, it didn't bother me that Han ended up on the same ship as the Vong spy afterwards.  

The battle around Ord Mantell was told dispassionately, nowhere near as good as Stackpole's battles, such as the ones in Onslaught or Ruin.  The Vong are forced to retreat, but not before they take hundreds of prisoners, including Roa.  Somehow, Han managed to hold onto collapsing railings when that stupid (and ridiculous) vacuum weapon of the Vong sucked at the space station.  He races to the shuttlebay after help from a furred Ryn species, and takes off with a ship full of refugees.  

Somehow, at the controls of an unfamiliar shuttle, unarmed, Han is able to defeat four coral skippers by pulling maneuvers that would shake the Falcon apart.  In previous books, the much more maneuverable X- and A-wings had trouble matching speed and moves with the Vong enemy; how did Han manage it in a full shuttle not meant for dogfighting?  This is where my rating really went down from three to two stars.  He successfully lands the shuttle on Ord Mantell.

While on the space station, Han had met with another acquaintance from his Corporate Sector days.  The guy doesn't tell Han why he is helping him -it can't be just for his own sake- but arranges for Han to go to jail after a bar brawl with Bossk (hasn't somebody killed this idiot yet -after the humiliation at Boba Fett's hands in Slave Ship, it's a wonder).  Then he tells Han where Reck and his Peace Brigade will strike next, so Han boards a ship for Bilbringi, leaving Leia with some pretty harsh words.  By the end of the book, it looks like Han and Leia are going to be separated from their marriage.  That's not like Han.  He didn't even think of her when Ord Mantell was attacked!  That is definitely not the Han Solo that we know, not even from the "old days".

The other plot, which I enjoyed much more, was that of the Yuuzhan Vong religious caste trying to figure out the Jedi, and trying to remove them from the scene.  We have seen the political factions fail (but at a high cost to the New Republic), and the warrior caste also fail (at an even higher cost).  Now we get to see the religious caste fail (at apparently no cost to the New Republic).  With this book, the Vong are appearing to be more and more like the Zirzh from Timothy Zahn's Conqueror's Trilogy.  After one failure, each commander is relieved, sent to an inconsequential job.  How does that make sense militarily?  Curiously, Nom Anor (from Vector Prime, and earlier, from Crimson Empire II) doesn't get this treatment.  He is simply "not held in favor" like he used to be.  The Vong seem to be very arbitrary about who they demote.

The religious caste allows the New Republic to win several battles, allowing an agent to "defect" from the Vong.  This makes it seem like Elan is really defecting, though thankfully, it doesn't convince everyone.  She has held inside her some short-lived microbial weapon that she plans to exhale into a room full of Jedi.  She has the ultimate bait for them: the cure to Mara's illness.  Luke and the other Jedi, of course, must take the chance that she's telling the truth.  

Elan is allowed to take her pet with her.  Vergere is a companion, but even Elan doesn't know what Vergere is, really.  I really want to know more about what happened to her in the last fifty years!  The two are taken from stronghold to stronghold, but are attacked at every step of the way, even on Wayland, where the Noghri now live.  There is obviously a traitor in the midst of the New Republic Intelligence.  

I really enjoyed the talk of the Vong from the Intelligence point of view.  I think they may be setting up for Allston's books, which I understand will include Wraith Squadron.  They discuss whether the Vong could have actually come from another galaxy, or could they be from an unexplored part of our own?  They also discuss who could have possibly attacked the Chiss, as was reported in Ruin and hinted at in Vision of the Future.  I liked the speculation a lot, and hope we get some answers in the near future.

The climactic chapters, where Elan is taken aboard the Queen of Empire highliner (the same ship Han is on) and everybody is fighting for her, begin to redeem this book, but it was too late by this time (and the last few pages just brought it back down).  I was really interested when the Intelligence agents were mostly killed, and inadvertently left Elan in Han's lap (though I was not interested in his Sabaac game).  His attitude towards her was spot-on, written just perfectly.  He wasn't interested in keeping her alive, except that somebody he knew took a blaster shot to protect her.  That's the Han Solo that we know.  I also liked the ooglith unmasker that was presented in this section, a very neat and obvious predator of the ooglith masker.  I really liked that.

Han's escape (because of Luke, Mara and Leia's timely arrival in another dispassionate battle) was also well written.  He goes after Elan after she is taken by Han's nemesis Reck, and he figures out that Elan was an assassin just by looking at what she had done.  For Reck and his Peace Brigade took it upon themselves to recapture the "defector", and Nom Anor had to send in a warship to make sure this didn't happen.  Things got a little out of control for the Vong religious caste, and Elan chose to accept help from the wrong man -Han Solo.  Reck ends up dead, and so does Elan, succumbing to her own poison.  I was wondering if Vergere would reveal herself when Han caught on, but for some reason, she escaped.  I know that we can't have pre-Empire Jedi hanging around, like Ikrit from The Golden Globe, but it would have been interesting.  Instead, Vergere is more subtle, which is also very nice -she mentally tells Han about the airborne poison, without him knowing where the thought came from.

The denouement brought us back to lackluster, reverting to the style of the middle of the book.  We get a made-up conflict between Han and Leia, even as he is reconciling with Anakin about Chewie's death (important point number one).  Han leaves for more adventure (and presumably rescue of Roa) with his new sidekick, the Ryn called Droma (I wonder if he's related to Ulic Qel-Droma?).  Don't we have enough species now, without introducing yet another?  I certainly hope Droma doesn't become a permanent character.  Somebody mentioned that he might be the new Jar-Jar for the expanded universe.  While I don't mind Jar-Jar, I really dislike Droma.  

This book focuses almost exclusively on Han, for the most part ignoring the next generation.  Let's give him and the others, who are getting older now, a rest and take up with the new generation.  They have been fully established; let them inherit the galaxy.  There are not many characters to deal with in this book, so it's hard to say anything about character development.  Han developed -or should I say undeveloped?  The others were mere backgrounds.  As for Mara, she's healed by the tears that Vergere produced and gave to Han.  It's almost an afterthought, but it's important point number two.  

It was good to see Han reconciled in a way that I am sure many people will be happy with -as long as he's reconciled by the end of the duology.  I was never a fan of Han Solo, and only marginally enjoyed the two trilogies centering on him.  But this felt like an excuse to go adventuring again.  I really enjoyed the other aspects of the book, however.  It's too bad they were not touched on often enough.  This book was much more focused than the others in the New Jedi Order.  Though we get a couple of battles, there is no sense of galactic urgency, and for that, there appears to be a hole in the book.


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