The X-Files #4: Ruins

The first The X-Files licensed novel, Goblins, was a massive disappointment. However, that doesn’t mean that adapting Mulder and Scully to print was an inherently bad idea. Let’s skip ahead in the series to #4 and open up a much better X-File: Ruins, by Kevin J. Anderson.

Synopsis:

When a well-connected American archaeologist, Cassandra Rubicon, disappears while exploring the lost Mayan city of Xitaclan, the incident becomes a case for FBI agents Mulder and Scully. They are investigators assigned to the X-Files, the strange and inexplicable cases the FBI wants to keep hidden – cases involving the paranormal, the supernatural, and possibly, the extraterrestrial.

Mulder thinks there may be more to this case than simply a missing team of scientists – namely ancient curses, blood sacrifices, and deadly reptilian monsters lost in the jungles since before history.

Scully is, as always, more skeptical and likely to provide the logical explanations for her partner’s unorthodox speculations. Meanwhile, a covert U.S. military commando team has been sent to investigate, and destroy, a strange electronic signal received from beneath the ruins – a signal aimed upwards, at the stars…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Unfortunately, like Goblins, there is simply no way for Ruins to evade the inherent X-Files problem: the preordained conclusion. When the book begins with an alien spaceship being discovered in a Mayan temple, you immediately know that the book’s finale will involve the spaceship either being destroyed or else departing the planet – Mulder isn’t going to actually end up obtaining proof of the alien or supernatural or government conspiracy, any more than Charlie Brown is ever going to actually kick that football. Still, this book puts a lot of effort into at least making the ride to the inevitable conclusion an enjoyable one.

One of the problems with Goblins is that it was just too mundane; hardly even worthy of being called an X-File. A human serial killer who murders people at night using a knife? Not exactly ground-breaking material. Ruins, by contrast, goes all-out in providing a supernatural spectacle: though the villains are still human, they act against a backdrop of ancient alien spaceships and unearthly feathered serpents. The murder mystery might be simplistic, given the lack of possible suspects (though at least they are established as suspects, instead of the out-of-nowhere reveal in Goblins), but it is balanced by action and suspense scenes. With Cassandra stumbling into a suspended animation chamber and a drug lord’s mansion getting blown up by an unwisely selected relic, it’s actually possible to get interested in seeing what bizarre alien esoterica Mulder and Scully encounter next.

The novel also does well to include Scully’s final case report, where she attempts to scientifically explain the phenomena she encountered during the investigation. I know it seems laughable to try and look for a solely scientific explanation in a universe where the paranormal is indisputably very much real, but that’s Scully’s character: she’s the skeptic to Mulder’s believer. It’s part of what makes it feel like The X-Files rather than a random story featuring two people who coincidentally happen to also be named Mulder and Scully.

And when you think about it, doesn’t Scully’s explanation actually make more sense than the “real” one? The feathered serpents are supposedly alien in origin; but given their morphological similarities to snakes and birds – creatures which are the products of evolution on Earth – wouldn’t it make much more sense that they also evolved on Earth rather than coming from a completely different world and just coincidentally happening to strong resemble existing Earth species? Just saying.

All stars are not equal: the biggest difference in my rating system is the difference between two stars and three. While four and five pretty much both just mean “great”, the gap between two and three is a critical threshold. A two-star rating means you should probably go ahead and skip a book, whereas a three-star rating means you might well want to check it out if it sounds like the kind of thing that interests you. Goblins falls on the wrong side of that divide; Ruins falls on the right one.

Final Rating: 3/5

Advertisements

Lies Beneath Trilogy

You’ve seen romance with sparkling vampires. You’ve seen romance with shirtless werewolves. What other supernatural monsters are there left to fall in love with? How about… oh, let’s say, mermaids. Murderous, emotion-draining mermaids with electrical superpowers. Yeah, that sounds reasonable. Time to dive into Lies Beneath, Deep Betrayal, and Promise Bound by Anne Greenwood Brown.

Synopsis:

Calder White lives in the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior, the only brother in a family of murderous mermaids. To survive, Calder and his sisters prey on humans and absorb their positive energy. Usually, they select their victims at random, but this time around, the underwater clan chooses its target for a reason: revenge. They want to kill Jason Hancock, the man they blame for their mother’s death.

It’s going to take a concerted effort to lure the aquaphobic Hancock onto the water. Calder’s job is to gain Hancock’s trust by getting close to his family. Relying on his irresistible good looks and charm, Calder sets out to seduce Hancock’s daughter Lily. Easy enough, but Calder screws everything up by falling in love – just as Lily starts to suspect there’s more to the monster-in-the-lake legends than she ever imagined, and just as the mermaids threaten to take matters into their own hands, forcing Calder to choose between them and the girl he loves.

One thing’s for sure: whatever Calder decides, the outcome won’t be pretty.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The way the first book, Lies Beneath, is set up is very interesting. Usually, these young adult paranormal romances with a human girl and a “monster” boy are told from girl’s perspective. This book, however, is told from Calder’s perspective rather than Lily’s. What’s more, it’s set up like a murder thriller rather than a romance: Calder and his sisters are plotting to kill Lily’s father in revenge for his role in the death of their mother, and Calder approaches Lily merely as a way of getting close to her father. Of course, given the genre, it’s inevitable that Calder falls in love with her and ends up trying to protect her family instead; but this still means that there is a suspenseful plotline involving the murder attempt, which I consider much better motivation to keep reading than another tired old will-they-or-won’t-they romance.

There’s also some much-needed edge added to the story by the fact that the mermaids actually are dangerous. Unlike certain other paranormal romance books I could name, where the vampires only drink animal blood and the werewolves retain control in their animal form and neither ever even think of killing humans, these monsters haven’t had their fangs filed down. It contributes to the drama – though, unfortunately, it is not addressed as much on the romance side as you would expect. Having a murderer as a boyfriend should be a pretty big deal, but it’s mostly glossed over by Lily. That’s fine in this first book, because she starts off ignorant of Calder’s nature, but it spells trouble for my opinion of her character in the sequels.

Final Rating (Lies Beneath): 3/5

The main problem with the second book, Deep Betrayal, is that it feels directionless. In the first book, there was an overarching driving plot: the mermaid plot to murder Lily’s father. But since that was more or less resolved at the end of the first book, the second book needs to come up with a new conflict. It stumbles, however, in making this a murder mystery involving drownings at the lake.

Trying to get invested in this storyline makes one realize things are seriously off-kilter, morality wise. Someone or something is murdering swimmers in the lake, like the mermaids usually do, but it’s not Calder’s mermaid family this time. Because this person or thing is murdering people, the increased attention is preventing the mermaids from murdering people, which is bad. So Lily and Calder have to stop this murderer, in order to allow the mermaids to go back to murdering people like they usually do… which is apparently okay? At least, Lily doesn’t seem to care about trying to stop them from murdering; only the new murderer.

And this is where I start having problems with Lily being way too okay with the fact that her boyfriend is a creature which must regularly kill humans to survive. You might expect that this string of murders might drive home to her the fact that mermaids are predators which take human lives, and cause her to think seriously about whether she should be on their side; but no, Lily seems perfectly content to stick by Calder’s side no matter what. Apparently, she has no problem with them going off to murder people elsewhere so long as they aren’t responsible for these particular murders.

Final Rating (Deep Betrayal) :2/5

You knew it was coming. Every romance series looking to drag out the will-they-or-won’t-they as long as possible in order to wring out every last drop of melodrama eventually falls back on this horrible cliche. It’s the “I have to break up with you for you own good; and rather than tell you this outright, I will invent some lie to make you think I don’t love you any more” plot. I would be perfectly happy if I never again had to read a romance story which relied on this stupid, worn-out crutch of a trope.

This book also has a very weird narrative choice. Up until now, the series has entirely been told from the first-person perspectives of Calder and Lily. As the final novel approaches its climax, however, there are suddenly short chapters from the perspectives of Danny Catron, Gabrielle Pettit, Maris White, and Parvati White. That’s an extremely jarring shift; especially since Gabrielle is a minor character who hasn’t exactly been central to the plot so far. Why exactly are we suddenly inside her head?

Also, it troubled me that Lily’s little sister Sophie doesn’t get any kind of resolution to her plot. There’s been this whole character arc where she’s been worried that her father and sister becoming mermaids means she’ll be left behind. Then she shows up for the climax, and it looks like she’s going to try to force Parvati to transform her – but no, she just sort of stays on the sidelines, and her story arc doesn’t receive any closure.

Even with those problems, though, I couldn’t help but like this one more than the middle novel. The conflict makes more sense, and it’s good to finally have a positive ending after the more ambiguous endings of the past two novels. My brain tells me I should knock it down to two stars for the loose plot threads and jarring perspective shifts, but my heart tells me that it nevertheless felt like a three star experience. I must be getting soft.

Final Rating (Promise Bound): 3/5

Star Wars: Planet Of Twilight

What happens when you give a Hutt a lightsaber? Does anyone still care about Luke’s romance subplot with that Callista lady? And what new spore of madness has the heedless pursuit of the ultimate appetizer unleashed upon an unsuspecting galaxy? All these questions and more will be answered in Star Wars: Planet of Twilight, by Barbara Hambly.

Synopsis:

New York Times bestselling author Barbara Hambly returns to the Star Wars universe to tell a breathtaking tale of a mysterious world where the battle between the New Republic and the Empire takes a shocking new twist….

Nam Chorios is a barren backwater world – once a dreaded prison colony, now home to a fanatic religious cult. It is here that Princess Leia has been taken captive by a ruthless and charismatic warlord bent on destroying the New Republic. Meanwhile, Luke lands on a mysterious planet in search of his lost love, Callista, only to discover the Force is his own worst enemy. But worst of all, as Han, Chewie, and Lando leave Coruscant on a desperate rescue mission, a strange life-form, unlike any the galaxy has ever seen, awakens…a life-form so malevolent it will destroy everything – both Empire and New Republic – on its path to domination.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I went into Planet of Twilight knowing that it had a reputation as being one of the bottom-tier Star Wars novels. And it did not exactly fill me with confidence when there was a malapropism on the very first page:

One of his fellow crewmembers on the New Republic escort cruiser Adamantine found him slumped across the table in the deck-nine break room, where he’d repaired half an hour previously for a cup of coffeine.

Planet of Twilight, page 1

I think the word you’re looking for there is “retreated”, “retired”, or possibly “prepared”, but certainly not “repaired”. (I’ll give “coffeine” the benefit of the doubt and assume that it’s an intentional sci-fi word substitution for coffee, though… “coffeine”? Really?) But, while I feel this is significant because it set the tone for me reading the book, I should really be focusing on major plot and character elements rather than minor (if in-your-face) questionable word choice. So, with that in mind, let’s talk about Beldorian: Hutt crime boss, Dark Force-user, and former Jedi of the Old Republic.

I am of a split mind on the concept of a Hutt being a Jedi. On the one hand, the Force is, in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “an energy field created by all living things”. It therefore make sense that any sentient living species would be capable of producing Jedi. On the other hand, however, it’s undeniable that the idea of a Hutt Jedi just feels viscerally wrong. The simple fact is, Hutts have been portrayed as universally evil. Every single Hutt ever to appear in the Expanded Universe has been some form of gangster, crime lord, drug kingpin, or just general scumbag. (Unless maybe you count Rotta the Hutt, aka “Stinky”, from the Clone Wars movie – but do you really want to remember that?) The point is, since they are generally known for the complete absence of any of the wisdom, charity, nobility, and just general goodness typical of a Jedi, it is pretty much a no-brainer that any Hutt who tapped into it would instantly fall to the Dark Side. But that then raises some uncomfortable fundamental questions about the Force: if it is inherently a good and positive power, would it really allow itself to be used by those of inherently evil nature? One could go with the Unifying Force philosophy – that the Force itself is neither good nor evil, and does not discern between good and evil; that all beings are equal before the Force, and that the Light and Dark exist not in the Force but in the people who use it. Under that philosophy, there is no contradiction: even a wholly malicious race which would use the Force for nothing but evil could still produce Jedi, because they are alive and the Force flows through all life. Just one problem: the Legacy of the Force series states that the Unifying Force is a Sith philosophy, and thus bad and wrong. The “correct” philosophy is that the Force has a living will and that it is good; that the Dark Side is inherently an imbalance, a corruption of what the Force should be used for. One could see a good, living Force granting its power to those with the potential for both good and evil, since the ability to choose evil over good is inherent to free will; but it makes no sense for such a Force to grant its power to those only capable of using it for evil.

Wow, that was a long tangent. I’ll just cut to the chase: the Legacy of the Force series is utter shit, so I have no problem disregarding it. In my view, the Force permeates all life; therefore, it can potentially be used even by beings who are evil from the start, not just those who start off good and fall to evil. So, a Force-using Hutt: fine by me.

Not fine, however, is that he was accepted into the Jedi Order and trained. You’d think they’d have been able to tell that it would lead to nothing but trouble.

Now let’s talk about the main villain, the bug behind the man: Dzym. I found him incredibly creepy and intimidating, the more so the more I learned about him: an overgrown bug masquerading as a man, a hideous vampiric parasite hungering to consume life and even the Force itself, a sentient embodiment of plague… and then I learned his origins.

“It was Beldorion’s greed – or I suppose one could say his gourmandism – that was his downfall. That Kubazi chef of his, Zubindi, was always experimenting with enzymatically enhancing and gene-splicing new types of insects so they’d be tastier, jucier, more fun for Beldorion to eat. Hutts like to eat sentient things, you know. They like the game of chasing them around the plate for a bit. Vile things.

Well, Zubindi finally got the idea of enzymatically enhancing, feeding, raising a droch, mutating it in the dark, far longer than its normal lifespan. Before anyone realized what was going on, the droch had grown, and achieved intelligence, to the point where it enslaved Zubindi. It drained energy from him, but at the same time gave him back strength and energy – which goodness knows he needed, in dealing with Beldorion – in a sort of double vampirism. And in the end, of course, the droch Dzym enslaved Beldorion as well.

It’s certainly a lesson to us all, though I’m not sure about what.”

– Liegeus

Yes, the main villain of the novel is a genetically engineered insect that was created to be Hutt-food. The entire galaxy is imperiled by a sentient appetizer. I’m sorry, but it is simply impossible to take Dzym seriously after that point. For the love of all that is good and holy, the novel is trying to create drama around evil sentient food! It’s the Cowboy Bebop episode “Toys In The Attic”, but not intended as a comedy! It Came From The Fridge!

Excuse me while I take a few deep breaths and try to stop giggling.

This novel also has to awkwardly work around the problem of Jedi Power Creep. You see, in the original movie trilogy, the biggest use of the Force we saw was Yoda raising Luke’s X-Wing out of the swamp on Dagobah, and he was a 900-year-old Old Republic Jedi Master. But in each book of the Expanded Universe, Jedi Force abilities have been made stronger and stronger; to the point that in Darksaber, Luke’s trainees were capable of flinging Star Destroyers around! Of course, since having such absurd abilities makes maintaining suspense rather difficult (imagine how quickly the original Star Wars would have been over if Luke could have just Force-pushed the Death Star into the sun), authors are constantly having to come up with new obstacles to explain why he can’t just solve matters with the Force. First it was Force-repelling ysalamiri, then a Force-distorting Crystal Star, and now it’s Force Storms that ravage the surface of Renat Chorios. If it feels kind of contrived… well, that’s because it is.

A few final things that struck me as wrong: Apparently, sex droids exist in the Star Wars universe. I could have gone without knowing that. And Daala calls Moff Getelles a catamite. No, bad author, bad. And, as you can probably tell by the fact I haven’t mentioned her at all: no, no one does care about Callista anymore.

Still, a Star Wars novel with a sentient appetizer for a villain. What will they think up next? Maybe they’ll combine a Dungeons & Dragons Aboleth and the Smoke Monster from Lost and have the Jedi fight that!

AbelothNotAboleth

Ah ha, ha ha, ha… it’s funny because I’m dying inside.

Final Rating: 2/5

The Tartarus Incident

I find books to read in a wide variety of different ways. Sometimes, I read a review online or have it recommended to me by a friend; in such cases, I usually know going in what to expect regarding the basic plot and the quality of the writing. Sometimes, however, I’m simply browsing a shelf in a library or a used book store and come across a novel with an interesting title or cover illustration and pick it up on a whim, not knowing what glories or horrors may lurk within. Such is how I picked up The Tartarus Incident, by William Greenleaf.

Synopsis:

“Somebody get us the hell out of…” This is the last transmission received from Caitlin Palamara’s audit team. What could never happen is now a terrifying fact. The five-person crew of the ISEA audit ship jack-a-dandy has vanished during a routine skip from sector ship Graywand to the planet Sierra. Palamara and the others find themselves stranded on a hostile, undeveloped planet that bears no resemblance at all to Sierra. They’ve lost communication with Graywand, and their drive system is dead. Just when it seems that things can’t get worse, John Wheeler, who feels a connection with a mysterious alien presence, wanders off and stumbles upon the sprawling ruins of an ancient city. The others have no choice but to go after him. The place is more than a little spooky. But there’s no real danger, right? The city is long dead, abandoned eons ago. Right? Wrong. For Caitlin Palamara’s small audit team, it’s the end of their comfortable routine, and the beginning of the interstellar nightmare that becomes known in ISEA archives as The Tartarus Incident.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

This book was published in 1983. I mention this first for reasons which will become apparent. For now, just keep it in mind, okay?

At first, The Tartarus Incident proceeded pretty much as I would expect from a “spaceship crashes on a dangerous planet” story. Malfunction of the hyperdrive, hard landing on an uncharted alien world, ship is damaged, crew are endangered by environmental hazards, so on and such forth. Nothing really groundbreaking; but then, you don’t exactly expect groundbreaking from an obscure pulp sci-fi novel. If the story was truly spectacular, then the name Greenleaf would be as recognizable as Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke, right? The story was at least meeting appropriate expectations, which is to say it was basically competent storytelling.

The first major misstep, I feel, is when crewman Wheeler goes crazy for what seems like no reason. I know the synopsis implies that he “feels a connection with a mysterious alien presence”, but that doesn’t really come through in the text. The way it’s written, it seems that he spots a long-ruined alien city, has flashbacks to his childhood, mopes that he hasn’t accomplished anything worthwhile in his life, and then comes down with a sudden and instant case of Space Madness.

Actually, the first time I read the passage where he goes crazy, I thought that he recognized the decayed city from his childhood; that the hyperdrive malfunction had flung the ship forwards through time to arrive at a point where the planet was a long-dead ruin, and that the realization of this drove him out of his mind.

I’ve been here before, he thought suddenly, looking down at the city. Then, confused, he shook his head. No, that isn’t possible. He looked out at the city and felt other eyes looking out at it with him. The feeling was too strong to deny. He remembered the city as one remembers the place of one’s childhood, forms and shadows altered by time – the perception of the child changed by intervening years to that of an adult.
– Chapter Seven

But no, they are still in the present time; the sense of familiarity is evidently a result of his mind being influenced by the native aliens. This, however, inevitably raises further questions. Why, of all the crew, is only Wheeler susceptible to the aliens’ malign psychic influence? There’s never any indication that he’s notably different from the rest of the crew, that he’s extra psychic-sensitive or anything, and yet he’s the only one to go insane.

Whatever the cause of his madness, Wheeler steals a vital part from the ship’s engines, causing them to begin a self-destruct countdown, then runs off into the city. The rest of the crew chase after him to get the part back, and stumble into a hive of aliens which begin picking them off one by one. They eventually do succeed in retrieving the part and retreating back to the ship, but too late to stop the self-destruct countdown: while there is still time left, the process has passed the critical threshhold and can no longer be aborted.

It was upon reaching this point of the book that I started experiencing my own nagging sense of familiarity: the sense that this story was a decaying ruin of some past glory. Unexpected landing on an uncharted planet, I thought. Crew leave ship to explore. Discover relics of an ancient alien civilization. Attacked by monsters. Ship is going to self-destruct. Try to abort, but have already passed the point of no return. In space no one can hear you scream? No, wait, that’s…

NotTheTartarusIncident

Maybe it’s a coincidence, I thought. This book is pretty old; maybe it came out before the film? It wouldn’t be fair to accuse it of being a rip-off if it came first. In fact, the scriptwriter for Alien admitted to stealing ideas from tons of sources (The Things From Another World, Forbidden Planet, Planet of the Vampires…), so it wouldn’t be all that surprising if The Tartarus Incident came out first. Which brings me back to the beginning of the review. This book was published in 1983. Alien? 1979.

Even if we’re generous to the author and assume that he never saw Alien, that the similarities were mere coincidence, the story can’t help but come off the worse for existing in Alien’s shadow. It’s Alien-lite, the basic story but lacking any of the truly iconic Alien elements like the chestburster which made that movie a classic instead of… well, just another B-grade schlock sci-fi plot about monsters on an alien world.

This book isn’t the worst sci-fi ever; while there’s nothing really original about it, there’s nothing flagrantly offensive either. Even so, I recommend nuking it from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure.

Final Rating: 2/5

Star Wars: Darksaber

What is the worst Star Wars novel? The typical opinions given in response to this question are the Jedi Prince series, The Crystal Star, and Darksaber. Of these, the latter is the only one I never previously read; all I knew about it was what I’d heard in the Counter Monkey video “The Jedi Hunter”. So, I decided I simply had to experience this for myself. Here is my review after reading Darksaber, by Kevin J. Anderson.

Synopsis:

Luke Skywalker and Han Solo return to desert planet Tatooine so Callista can regain the Force and her link and love for Luke. Trio join Leia, Chewbacca, Artoo, Threepio, and new knights. Durga Hutt, galaxy warlord, rebuilds Death Star superweapon as Darksaber. Lovely Admiral Daala and Pellaeon, second to Thrawn, marshal Imperial forces against Jedi.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

“Oh no, not another superweapon!”
– Han Solo

Yes, another superweapon. Because the first Death Star, second Death Star, prototype Death Star, Tarkin Battlestation, Galaxy Gun, Sun Crusher, and Eye of Palpatine weren’t enough. By this point in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the Empire’s insane superweapon fixation is really starting to rankle. One has to wonder how they could afford to build them – especially since, in this very book, Pellaeon says that the construction of Super Star Destroyer Executor nearly bankrupted the Empire (for reference, the Eye of Palpatine was equal in length to the Executor, and the three Death Stars were even larger). And if it strained credulity to imagine that a galaxy-spanning Empire could finance the construction of such massive and costly superweapons, it beggars belief that a single Hutt could afford to do the same. The only possible explanation is the laziness of the EU writers, who were unable to come up with a plot other than “bad guys have big gun, good guys need to blow up big gun”. It is telling, I think, that none of the best Star Wars novels involve superweapons – you never saw Thrawn touching such things, for instance.

The book’s main problem, however, is not the addition of one superweapon too many to the EU; many would argue that that particular camel’s back was already broken long before this latest straw was added. No, Darksaber’s most glaring flaw is how weirdly it is structured, the way is erratically jumps back and forth between too many different story lines. The most glaring example is when Admiral Daala sets her Star Destroyer to self-destruct, beginning a fifteen minute countdown at the end of Chapter 10. We then cut to Mara Jade telling Luke about abnormal Hutt activity, and then cut to R2-D2 and C-3PO discovering Durga stole the Death Star schematics, and then cut to Bevel Lemelisk altering the Death Star designs to produce the Darksaber, and then cut to Luke and Callista touring a comet resort, and then cut to Kyp Durron and Dorsk 81 visiting Dorsk’s family on his home planet… and then, at the beginning of Chapter 18, we cut back to Admiral Daala, with that fifteen-minute countdown still going! Cutting away for one scene might build suspense; cutting away for seven whole chapters only builds laughter, as I couldn’t help but imagine Tenn Graneet’s voice repeating “Stand by… stand by…” the entire time.

It doesn’t help matters that many of the book’s subplots are superfluous. Did we really need to see Kyp and Dorsk 81 going on a road trip to Dorsk’s home? Did we really need to have Luke go to Hoth to rescue some stranded Wampa hunters and have a rematch with the Wampa whose arm he cut off in The Empire Strikes Back? No. Such diversions add nothing at all to the plot of this book. Indeed, this book feels like at least three separate stories combined into one novel, due to the fact that the two main plotlines never actually intersect. In one plotline, you have Durga the Hutt building his Darksaber superweapon and Han and Leia trying to stop him; and in another plotline you have Daala and Pallaeon attacking Yavin 4 and the Jedi there having to defend themselves without Luke’s leadership; and in the third plotline you have Luke and Callista revisiting all the most memorable planets from the film trilogy as Callista tries to find a way to reconnect with the Force. You keep expecting that these plotlines will all somehow tie together into a single conclusion… but they never do! I don’t think Daala ever even heard about the Darksaber; it’s just pure coincidence that she happened to launch her little war at the same time. If it was indeed at the same time; as evidenced by the galaxy’s longest fifteen-minute countdown, it’s extremely ambiguous how the events of the separate plots actually chronologically stack up with one another.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Luke and Callista plotline comes off as especially pointless. It’s really weird seeing so much emphasis is put on their love being a true and destined love, with them even already planning to have children, as anyone familiar with later novels knows he actually ends up with Mara Jade instead. On the one hand, it’s not fair to hold the novel accountable for later developments; perhaps, at the time it was being written, the editorial consensus was that Mara would get paired with Lando Calrissian and Luke would eventually end up with Callista. On the other hand, I think it is still fair to criticize them for trying to squeeze it into this book, thus constantly distracting from the main plot with scenes that go nowhere and accomplish nothing in the context of the story being told, rather than giving Luke and Callista their own book where they could handle their issues while acting as proper main characters in a proper story instead of a series of persistent, irritating footnotes to the main action around Daala and Durga.

But hey, on the good side, Daala is written competently for once. You may have wondered why the synopsis describes her as “lovely”, rather than using an adjective more commonly associated with major villains: “menacing”, “devious”, “cruel”, “cunning”, or so on. That’s because previous books did not exactly treat Daala’s character with the amount of care and respect which would be appropriate for a major recurring villain. To put it bluntly, other books have her behaving in such a cartoonishly, laughably incompetent manner that the novel Death Star was eventually forced to retcon in that she sustained a head injury during a Rebel attack which addled her mind for a time. That’s right, Daala was written so badly that things reached the point where literal brain damage was the only possible way to explain her buffoonery. Happily, her intracranial swelling has subsided enough by the time of this book that she is able to behave with a modicum of dignity. She’s no Thrawn, but at least you can believe that people are capable of calling her “Admiral” while maintaining a straight face. And she gets one of the novel’s most genuinely clever moments near the end, when confronting Callista: she switches her blaster from kill to stun, realizing that a lightsaber can deflect the plasma bolts of the kill setting but cannot block the wide electrical arcs of the stun setting. I must tip my hat to her, and the author, for that.

So, in conclusion, Darksaber is overstuffed with unnecessary plotlines, riddled with cliches and logical flaws, and just generally poorly conceived and executed – like the titular weapon, it was a shoddy derivative of a better idea which was doomed from the start. But is that enough to make it the worst Star Wars novel of all time? In my opinion, no: the Dark Nest Trilogy and the Legacy of the Force series are worse. And I’ll probably eventually get around to doing reviews explaining why.

Darksaber: the best that can be said about it is that it’s not actually the literal worst.

Final Rating: 2/5

Star Trek TNG #5: Strike Zone

Many and varied are the types of Star Trek novel. The vastness of the setting allows for a great many different stories, and even genres of story, from comedy to horror. It is so rich that it even allows for meta-narratives: books which are themselves commentaries on the type and nature of stories told within Star Trek. Let us consider Strike Zone, by Peter David.

Synopsis:

Deep in the uncharted regions of our galaxy, the Kreel, a primitive, warlike race have stumbled upon weapons powerful beyond their wildest imagination. The Kreel have used those weapons to attack their most bitter enemies, the Klingons. Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise are called in to mediate the dispute by ferrying diplomatic teams from the two warring races to the source of their conflict, the mysterious planet where the weapons were discovered in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, and discover the origins of the super-powerful weapons. Before the entire galaxy erupts into full-scale war…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

There are a great many things I enjoyed when reading Strike Zone. The premise itself is endlessly fascinating: the consequences of a relatively low-tech species gaining access to weapons technology far superior to that of any of their neighbors, completely upsetting the local balance of power. Iain M. Banks coined the terms “outside-context problem” and “excession” for this in his Culture novel Excession, which includes a similar scenario.

I also like the idea of a cache of potentially powerful alien technology, fraught with malfunctioning or just outright booby-trapped devices such as the self-described “extremely stupid weapon” which makes an appearance near the end of the novel. Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers is an excellent portrayal of a world where brave and foolish individuals attempt to salvage mysterious advanced technology which is often as dangerous as it is valuable.

And I even like the idea of one element to a test of intelligence being to see if the subject will think to simply to ask politely. It strikes me as a startlingly simply yet ingenious (but ultimately not foolproof) method of testing an applicant’s maturity and manners; a test other than the done-to-death “show mercy to an apparent enemy” or “abandon the test to aid an apparent bystander in need” which seems like a clever way of separating the more cultured races from the more violent and barbarous ones. Though this is then unfortunately immediately undermined by the Cognoscente saying they wouldn’t have done the same for the Kreel, indicating the “test” was rigged to produce the outcome they desired and therefore irrelevant.

Unfortunately, that’s the exact point where Strike Zone falls apart: the ending. The point of the novel seems to be to criticize the trite “everything was just a test by an ancient race of all-knowing, all-powerful, yet incomprehensible aliens” resolution, which has been the basis of far, far too many Star Trek episodes over the many series – indeed it was used no less than three times in the very first season of the Original Series, in the second episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” and then again in “Arena” and “Errand of Mercy”, and I shudder to think how many times since. Picard himself acts as the mouthpiece to denounce this tired old trope:

“NO! I have had it! We have had it! All of us! We are sick to death of mysterious Alien races who think they know better than us! Who think that we’re little white mice to run through mazes for their amusement! We are not test subjects! We are not guinea pigs! You, all you blasted ‘superior’ races, have the fall to arrange these massive, insane tests and act as if your ability to manhandle us makes you better. It does not! We have come this far, not because of beings like yourselves, but despite you all! Despite all those throughout history who have called us barbarians and sought to judge us. We have brought ourselves this far and we’ll bring ourselves further still. And you can keep your tests to yourselves! Is that understood! We will not be threatened! We will not be pushed! We will not jump through hoops, and we will not, repeat, not, be subjects of tests anymore. Do you understand? No . . . more . . . tests!”
– Jean-Luc Picard

This impassioned speech, however, unfortunately falls somewhat flat; because though the novel is attempting to criticize the all-powerful-alien deus ex machina, its own ending relies on that very same deus ex machina to explain all the questions and tie up all the loose threads. There’s no need to come up with an explanation for why an advanced race of aliens would leave an easily-accessible armory filled with intermixed useful and sabotaged weapons; it’s just part of an incomprehensible test. And there’s no need to come up with a resolution which handles the problem of the new power imbalance between the Klingons and the Kreel; sufficiently advanced aliens just use their magic powers to take all their toys away and restore the status quo.

The novel also has a Wesley Crusher plotline, because of course it does. However, it is happily not another unbearably trite “Wesley saves the ship!” plot, but a rather more fresh and compelling story about Wesley coming to terms with limitations, failure, and loss. So no stars have been deducted on Wesley’s account, thereby sparing this book from complete worthlessness. So at least it’s not as bad as it could have been.

Final Rating: 2/5

The X-Files #1: Goblins

Recently, in response to the prayers of fanatical fans (“X-philes”, if you will), the classic supernatural conspiracy series The X-Files was resurrected for a new TV series. There was a period of years, however, when no episodes were being produced, and fans of Mulder and Scully seeking new and exciting adventures were forced instead to turn to licensed novels. Books such as Goblins, by Charles Grant.

Synopsis:

Opening the X-Files…

Meet Mulder and Scully, FBI. The agency maverick and the female agent assigned to keep him in line.

Their job: investigate the eeriest unsolved mysteries in modern America, from pyro-psychics to death row demonics, from rampaging Sasquatches to alien invasions. The cases the Bureau wants handled quietly, but quickly, before the public finds out what’s really out there. And panics. The cases filed under “X.”

Something out there is killing people, remaining invisible and unseen by human eyes until it strikes with deadly force…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

This book’s title is a lie. Based on the title and synopsis, you would expect it to be a story about Mulder and Scully investigating killings performed by supernatural monsters. In fact, there is only one “goblin”. And it’s a human, not a goblin at all.

When it comes down to it, there’s an inherent problem in writing an X-Files story; namely, that the audience already knows how it’s going to end. Mulder and Scully are going to survive, but without any concrete evidence; the immediate evil plot will be foiled, but the greater conspiracy will continue. Faced with that, the most an X-Files novel can attempt to do is at least make us enjoy the ride – provide us with plenty of thrills and twists along the way to the inevitable conclusion. Unfortunately, Goblins fails at that.

The book seems to want us to treat it as a mystery. Once it becomes clear that the goblin is not a magical monster but in fact a person, a super-soldier produced by and working for the Special Projects Office, the natural inclination is to try and guess who it might be. Could Aaron Noel, owner of the local tavern and last person to speak to the victims, have secretly stalked them after they left his bar? Could Todd Hawks, the police chief who can shift smoothly between acting like a dumb hick and a smart cop, hiding his true murderous personality? Is Elly, the old woman who sees goblins everywhere, unable to see that the real monster is within herself? Nope! It’s a character so minor that she only appeared in a single paragraph earlier in the book, during which she spoke two sentences and was never referred to by name.

Ladies and gentlemen, every single line spoken by the goblin up until her reveal:

“Guys are on the road. Rush hour, you know?”
– Chapter 8

“I’ll tell him. Watch your back.”
– Chapter 20

…And that’s it. Not exactly a revelation on par with the identity of Keyser Soze, is it?

Given the extremely minor presence of the goblin’s human identity in the story, how then does Mulder ultimately uncovers it? By carefully piecing the clues together, or by setting a clever trap to tick the killer into exposing herself? Of course not. It’s because the goblin speaks to him and he recognizes her voice. Best of luck to you, the reader playing along at home, in recognizing the goblin by the sound of its voice from the printed text.

In terms of plot, the book is similar to the episode “Sleepless”. Both deal with a soldier, enhanced by a secret government program in order to have superhuman abilities, who subsequently goes insane and starts murdering people. Unfortunately, any comparison reveals Goblins to be a shallow imitation, devoid of anything that made the episode interesting. For one thing, the motivation for the murders. In the episode, Augustus “Preacher” Cole underwent surgery which removed his need for sleep; years of being tormented by the memories of atrocities committed by his squad in Vietnam, without the release of sleep to process the trauma, understandably resulted in him becoming unbalanced to the point he became murderous and suicidal. In Goblins, however, whatever process was used to give Madeline “Maddy” Vincent chameleon skin-changing powers just happened to coincidentally also make her homicidal, for plot-convenience reasons. Then there’s the selection of the victims. In “Sleepless”, Preacher targets people he views as guilty due to their involvement in the project: his fellow super-soldiers who committed war crimes, and the doctors who performed the surgery to make them that way. In Goblins, however, Maddy just hangs out in a bar and kills men at random, for no adequately explained reason. And finally, there’s the method of the murders. Preacher kills in strange and interesting ways using insomnia-induced psychic mind-control powers. Maddy… stabs people with a knife.

Finally, you might notice that I haven’t said anything about the subplot of Mulder and Scully being teamed up with two younger apprentice agents – Webber and Anderson, or “Sculder and Mully” if you will. That’s because they, and indeed their whole plot, are boring and irrelevant. As the show itself learned when it tried to bring in Doggett and Reyes, we’re in the story for Mulder and Scully, not any other random FBI agents..

Overall, Goblins is nothing but a monster-of-the-week story, and a poor one at that. The truth may be out there, but my advice is to go looking for it in a different novel.

Final Rating: 2/5

Star Wars: The Crystal Star

For my inaugural review on this blog, I shall begin with a classic, of sorts. When Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise, they announced that they’d be jettisoning years of Expanded Universe continuity in favor of developing their own movie universe. Longtime fans were furious over the loss of extremely popular works and characters such as Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy and Luke Skywalker’s wife Mara Jade. But there were also plenty of bathwater being thrown out with the baby: novels nobody would be in a hurry to shed any tears over. One of them is a book frequently cited as candidate for worst Star Wars novel of all time: The Crystal Star, by Vonda N. McIntyre.

Synopsis:

Princess Leia’s children have been kidnapped. Along with Chewbacca and Artoo-Detoo, she follows the kidnappers’ trail to a disabled refugee ship, from which children are also missing. Here she learns of a powerful Imperial officer with a twisted plan to restore the Empire. Meanwhile, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are cut off from Leia by the death of a nearby star, which has caused a disruption in the Force. They have gone to the planet Crseih to investigate a report of a lost group of Jedi. Instead they find a charismatic alien named Waru whose miraculous healing powers have attracted a fanatic following. As Leia follows the path of her children across space, Luke and Han draw closer to the truth behind Waru’s sinister cult. Together they will face an explosive showdown that will decide the survival of the New Republic . . . and the universe itself!

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The Crystal Star’s problems are myriad, but probably at the core of the issue is that it doesn’t really feel like it belongs in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars has always straddled the line between science fiction and fantasy: space ships on the one hand, Force mysticism on the other. McIntyre takes things a bit too far in the fantasy direction. I don’t think the Star Wars universe was exactly crying out for the existence of werewolves and centaurs – sorry, I mean “wyrwulves” and “chironians”. And then there’s Waru.

In a way, I actually respect that Waru was an attempt to do something different. Following Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy, many of the Expanded Universe books became painfully formulaic in an attempt to imitate his success: an ex-Imperial and a Dark-side Force-user would team up to use some type of superweapon to destroy the New Republic and re-establish the Empire. As novel after novel came out with plots cobbled together from the same cliche, the EU grew to be a ridiculous parade of secret Sith apprentices to Darth Vader and the Emperor wielding powerful but heretofore-unused Imperial superweapons like the Darksaber, the Sun-Crusher, and the Eye of Palpatine, just to name a few. So The Crystal Star gets credit for attempting something new and different: an interdimensional alien with incomprehensible anti-Force ability – a precursor to the Yuuzhan Vong of New Jedi Order, in a way. It’s just a shame that what came out of this attempt was Waru.

Waru’s name, as any weeaboo could tell you, is Japanese for “bad”; and what an apt descriptor for his execution. Waru’s powers are incredibly poorly defined: has some kind of “anti-Force”, but it’s never made clear what exactly this entails. While Luke Skywalker loses his connection to the Force in the novel, this is implied to be due to the influence of the titular Crystal Star rather than Waru’s anti-Force, whatever that may entail. Likewise, he is apparently dying from lack of energy, yet wastes what energy he does have healing people at Hethrir’s command, except when he arbitrarily decides to eat them instead; and despite his motivation for working with Herthir apparently being to find a way to return to his home universe, he seemingly demonstrates that he always had the ability to do so any time he chose at the end of the novel. His personality doesn’t help matters any. Though he is described as some kind of Lovecraftian abomination against all that is sensible, a giant slab of golden scales and gelatinous flesh which constantly oozes slimy ichor and is bigger on the inside than out, the effect is completely undermined when he goes and starts speaking Basic. He seems far too human-like to really be an incomprehensible alien being from a completely different universe with fundamentally different laws. Matters are not at all helped by his departure: rather than engaging in thrilling battle with the heroes, he just up and declares that he’s had enough of this tomfoolery and goes sulking back home like a petulant child.

“You did not keep your promise, Hethrir. You did not give me the child. You did not give me the Jedi. I owe you nothing. I am hungry, Hethrir, I am hungry and lonely and dying, and I want to return home.”
– Waru, to Hethrir

One way it unfortunately does not deviate from formula is the kidnapping of the Solo children. Every villain in the Expanded Universe seemed obsessed with snatching up the kids, usually to turn them to the Dark Side of the Force and mold them into proper heirs of Darth Vader; and even when the villain wasn’t interested in them from the start, they’d inevitably find some way of stowing away and getting dragged along on the adventure anyway. It makes sense that they’d be main characters in, for example, the Young Jedi Knights series; but they are painfully shoehorned into every story, whether they fit or not. Apparently, every Star Wars author believes that readers are endlessly fascinated by the juvenile antics of the pre-teen Solos – or, more likely, there was an editorial mandate that they be included in every novel to capture the youth demographic.

The part of the novel that skeeves me out the most, however, is undeniably the Ghostlings.

Ghostlings, you see, are a humanoid race from a low-gravity world. As a result, they are ethereally beautiful, but also fragile: even a light touch from an ordinary-strength human can bruise their flesh and break their bones. And yet, despite this fragility, they are sexually fascinated by humans; indeed, they long to engage in sex with humans even knowing that to do so would kill them. Go ahead and let that sink in for a few moments.

“I was fascinated with your kind. I followed, I teased…you are so exciting!…and I thought, it might be worth it just to partake of a human, even as the last experience of my life.”
– A Ghostling, to Han Solo

Yes, you read that right. A whole race who are incredibly beautiful, but die if you have sex with them, but are so enamored of humans that they want to have sex with you anyway. In Star Wars. Star Wars contains a race of beautiful but fragile humanoids who literally want to be fucked to death.

Childhood status: ruined.

Most aspects of The Crystal Star were wisely ignored by all future writers in the Expanded Universe, and some authors even seemed to take a sadistic glee in eradicating elements introduced by it in as mean-spirited a manner as possible: for instance, the New Jedi Order series goes out of its way to mention that centaur-girl Lusa was savagely torn to pieces by voxyn and that the entire Firrerreo species was driven to extinction when the Yuuzhan Vong conquered the world where they’d found asylum. And yet, despite the effort to disregard or purge all that had been spawned in the pages of The Crystal Star, the Ghostlings of all things were allowed to go on to make a further appearance – in the children’s series Episode I Adventures, no less! You see, Sebulba, in addition to cheating at pod races, also sold Ghostling children as slaves to a Hutt for use in her pleasure garden. Being a children’s book, so it doesn’t get explicit about what kind of “use”… but given what’s been said about Ghostlings’ only main defining traits, you can go ahead and draw your own conclusions.

Yes, that was really canon. Are you still upset over the Expanded Universe being declared non-canon? Because personally, I’m ready to make like Waru and depart in a puff of disgust.

Final Rating: 2/5

Introduction

Hello, world.

I have decided to start a book review blog in order to share my opinions on some of the many books I’ve read. I enjoy primarily science-fiction and fantasy, so those will be the types of books most often reviewed, but anything is fair game. Barring any unforeseen delays, the blog will be updated with a new review each Sunday.

Agree with my review? Disagree? Don’t be afraid to leave comments. And if you’d like to help support my writing, feel free to drop by my Patreon, https://www.patreon.com/ProfMorbius, and make a pledge.

Hoping to hear from you,

Prof Morbius