26 June 2014

Return of the New Jedi Order, Episode XIV: Conquest by Greg Keyes

Mass market paperback, 291 pages
Published 2001

Acquired 2001(?)
Reread May 2014
Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Edge of Victory I: Conquest
by Greg Keyes

Year Two of the Invasion (Month 2)
This book gets off to another rough start, where the man who blew up the Death Star tries to convince you that taking action against aggressors could somehow lead to the Dark Side. But roll your eyes and get on to the next scene, because after that this book is brilliant. Seriously, Top 5 Star Wars books, easy. Greg Keyes completely inhabits and understands Star Wars in a way the previous New Jedi Order writers haven't. No, I'm not saying he knows his continuity (though he does and I'll get to that in a minute), I'm saying he knows what makes Star Wars work and he's able to replicate it without making a slavish copy of the original films. (We should note that this is a skill that even George Lucas lost sometime after 1983. Probably the only other writers to possess it are Matt Stover and John Jackson Miller.) This book gives us a young man, uncertain about his place in the universe, and plunges him into a desperate adventure with group of unlikely comrades. Okay, that seems obvious, you say, but if that's obvious then why do most Star Wars writers insist on giving us "political" "thrillers"?

Young Anakin Solo disobeys Master Luke Skywalker's order to go to the Jedi Academy on Yavin 4 because he insists it's under threat from the Yuuzahn Vong. A couple of awesome action sequences later, and he's crashed in the forest with a criminal, a crazy former TIE pilot, and two kids for company, trying to rescue someone important to him. Along the way he demonstrates his basic goodness, learns some valuable moral lessons, meets more awesome characters (some of whom die), listens to mystical prophecies, and saves the day with style. It does not get any better than this!

Extra points should be given for the fact that this is the first book where the Yuuzhan Vong feel like a real civilization. A lot of this is due to Vua Rapuung, the former warrior who befriends Anakin, and is poignant, hardcore, and hilariously deadpan all at once. But there's also the various Shamed Ones and our glimpses into the mind of Nen Yim, the young heretic shaper. This book transforms the war against an unstoppable aggressor into something more meaningful and difficult.

This is the first book in the series to make me care about Anakin Solo as a character. Keyes does this partly through just being better at writing than Salvatore, Stackpole, Luceno, and Tyers, but also he's obviously the only NJO writer to actually have read the Junior Jedi Knights books. Keyes threads Conquest with characters from this series, giving Anakin's life an emotional depth-- but just like the original Star Wars works if you haven't met Luke and his adoptive parents before, so too does Conquest (I only read the first JJK book). Is Master Ikrit the greatest Jedi Master of all time? Signs point to yes. Is Anakin/Tahiri one of the few ships I could ever admit to having? Um... I guess so. (I don't think the book quite succeeds in rationalizing why we haven't seen Tahiri and Ikrit since the NJO began, though-- Anakin has been back to Yavin 4 multiple times since the death of Chewbacca, yet he's never talked to Tahiri about it? We've never even seen him avoiding her? But that's more a critique of the other NJO novels than this one; it's amazing how this book reveals the extent to which Anakin was a blank cipher in the other books.)

I remember being this the point, seven books in, where The New Jedi Order finally clicked for me, the point where it started to work and cemented itself as something worth reading. Though I am enjoying my experiment in rereading the series with all the ancillary material included, it does exacerbate the early difficulties of the NJO-- this is the fourteenth installment! If Conquest hadn't been as good as I remembered, I might have given up here, but thankfully it was excellent, and for the first time in this reread, I am avidly anticipating going onwards.

Let's close by quoting this adorable but keenly insightful bit where Anakin is watching Tahiri as she falls asleep, reflecting on the fact that he's not seen his best friend in a year and something... something is different:
By the faint orange light of the gas giant outside, he could make out traces of her features, so familiar and yet somehow different. It was as if, below the girl's face he had always known, something else was pushing up, like mountains rising, driven by the deep internal heat of a planet.
     Something you couldn't stop even if you wanted to. It made him want to hang on and run away at the same time, and in a mild epiphany he realized he had felt that way for some time.
     As children they had been best friends. But neither of them was a child anymore, not exactly.
     His arm had gone numb from her weight, but he couldn't bring himself to shift, for fear of waking her.

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