Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Star Wars: Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover

This is probably the longest Star Wars title with only one apostrophe in it, but I doubt it's the very longest -- some of those sub-series stack up titles like Lego, leaving only a tiny square of cover left for a tiny drawing of what Mark Hamill can barely remember looking like.

I've fallen behind on Star Wars novels since I left the SFBC -- I'd read nearly all of them up to that point -- for various reasons too tedious to go into here. But I have a special affection for Matt Stover (author of, most recently, Caine Black Knife, plug plug), so I grabbed his new Wookiebook from the library and ran through it recently.

The long title is deliberate: it's set soon after the Return of the Jedi movie, in a still-turbulent galaxy where not-entirely-scrupulous folks have been pumping out cheap entertainments named things like Luke Skywalker and the Dragons of Tattooine and Han Solo in the Lair of the Space Slugs, stories which this book explicitly states are unreliable and over-dramatized. Shadows has a slight frame story, in which a grim General Skywalker hires ex-spy, ex-Imperial intelligence agent, ex-a-lot-of-things Lorz Geptun to dig up the real story of the planet Mindor, from which Luke recently escaped, killing the would-be galactic conqueror Lord Shadowspawn and about fifty thousand of his minions along the way. Luke is tormented and demanding in the frame story, mostly for dramatic effect.

But then the bulk of the book is a very extended flashback to the events at Mindor, where first Luke and a medium-sized strike force, and then Han Solo and Princess Leia in the Millennium Falcon, and then the popular band of fighter pilots Rogue Squadron and Lando Calrissian with another strike force all got dragged into a fight with Shadowspawn's troops, mostly consisting of waves upon waves of TIE fighters in space. (Plus nastier surprises down on Mindor itself.)

Star Wars has always been set unabashedly in a space opera universe, so I trust no one will blanch when I note that the next planet out from Mindor was recently blown to smithereens, which has made the entirety of space between its old orbit and the local star utterly swarmed with dangerous flying rocks of all sizes. Calculating the necessary size of this rocky, now-dead planet would be a futile exercise, so I don't recommend it. But the point is: this system is dangerous. And that's even before you add in the overwhelming waves of suicidal TIE Fighters and the overlapping interdiction fields, which stop ships from leaping to hyperspace. It gets even worse when, not far into the book, everyone realizes that all of the rocks falling into this sun are setting off ever larger and larger flares -- which will very soon fry all life in the neighborhood.

The planet, though, is worse: Shadowspawn controls a rock-based alien race (called The Melters by what's left of the local population) in the meltmassif rocks of Mindor -- or possibly the infinitely mutable rocks themselves directly, or perhaps both; the book says both things in different places -- besides having the fanatical loyalty of seemingly millions of heavily armed soldiers and his own particular Dark-based powers.

So: there's a big fight, and then another bigger fight, and then a slightly different fight, and so on and on until the good guys win and the book ends. The pleasure of a story like this is the journey, though, so I won't give you any more details than that. It's got all of those well-known Star Wars characters, and they're all supposed to be basically the same age as you remember them from the movies.

Stover has written two of the best Star Wars books: Traitor, set deep in the middle of a long, depressing series, manages to create triumph out of despair; and Shatterpoint, a loose retelling of Heart of Darkness starring Sam Jackson's character, Mace Windu. And I've said before, too many times to count, that this part of the timeline -- the mopping-up-after-the-Empire books, with their serial-style villains and piles of unlikely world-destroying machinery, their happy endings and unabashed swashbucklery -- are my favorite part of the Star Wars book saga. So I'm sad to say that Shadows of Mindor is just OK.

Matt Stover is a tougher, darker, dirtier writer than this book allowed him to be; it doesn't really work to his strengths. The space battles are exciting -- but Stover's hand-to-hand combat is magnificent, and there's very little of that here. And Luke Skywalker isn't really a good central character for Stover's sensibility; Luke is too noble, too centered, too nice. If there are any unexplored niches of Han Solo's career, that would be a good place for a Matt Stover book. Or maybe turn him loose in the wilds of the Old Republic, and let him make a plot from the ground up.

So Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor may be a bit of a disappointment to Stover fans; it's a good Star Wars book, but it's only a mediocre Matthew Stover book. I guess that's the curse of high expectations -- this book was published barely two months after Stover's last original novel, the excellent Caine Black Knife.

Whether Star Wars fans will consider it a disappointment is a different question, though, and I'm less sure about that; I'm not sure I know what Star Wars fans want. (Whether they know what they want is a different question.) I think it has all of the things people want from Star Wars stories: lots of action, spaceship battles, hairsbreadth escapes, a boatload of familiar characters ringing slight changes on their old catchphrases, hissable villains, only the barest hint of sex, hordes of faceless enemies to be mowed down, unlikely and dangerous astronomical objects, enemies who turn out to be allies, a dab of semi-military dash and vim, vaguely witty banter, and not a whisper of any new or startling ideas. Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor is a fine piece of entertainment, from a writer who's often achieved better than that.

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