25 January 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis: Before the Storm by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

Mass market paperback, 309 pages
Published 1996

Acquired June 2010
Reread December 2015
Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book One: Before the Storm
by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

When I was a kid, I used to devour the Bantam Star Wars novels again and again. I owned most of them (my favorites were the X-Wing novels by Stackpole and Allston), and what ones I didn't own, I would check out from the library multiple times (like Crispin's Han Solo Trilogy). Thus I know I must not have liked The Black Fleet Crisis, as I only owned Book Two, and I am pretty sure I only checked Books One and Three out of the library once. But there's a contingent of posters on TheForce.Net's forums who consider these books the height of the Bantam era, and their comments began to wear on my mind and, starting to wonder if maybe I would like them more at 25 than I did at 11, I kept an eye out for used copies of Books One and Two with intentions of rereading the whole set.

So here I am at 30 finally reading them, and let me tell you, it's a little weird: this is the first "Legends" Star Wars fiction I've read since seeing The Force Awakens. Nothing in this book actually happened, even more than things normally don't actually happen in Star Wars. I kept comparing the choices Kube-McDowell and other Expanded Universe writers made in building up their post-Return of the Jedi universe to that of J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan in Episode VII. The most notable point of congruence is Luke's hermitage: in Episode VII, we learn that Luke has been living as a hermit for years. Here, in Before the Storm, Luke begins to withdraw from the world, starting to wonder if inaction is preferable to action, if Yoda and Obi-Wan didn't withdraw from the galaxy not to hide their powers, but because the longer a Jedi is in the world, the more it asks of him what he cannot give. I mean, maybe this is true... but how boring and how un-Luke-ish. The Luke of this book is a distant, cold, withdrawn figure, prone to using ostentatious illusions on the people who are supposedly his close friends, and that's not something I want to read about. Contrary to the stance Kube-McDowell takes here, Luke should be passionate, idealistic, and above all, active. I get that Kube-McDowell is trying to grow the character, but I think this neglects what makes him appealing. To be fair, I think most Expanded Universe writers who aren't Matt Stover neglected this. This move didn't bother me in The Force Awakens, but that's because there Luke is no longer the protagonist, he's the Obi-Wan figure to Rey's protagonist: this Luke is supposedly a protagonist, and no Star Wars novel should have a wannabe-hermit as a protagonist!

Only a week before I read Before the Storm, I read Cast No Shadow, which I recognized as a Star Trek take on Tom Clancy; The Black Fleet Crisis is very much a Star Wars take on Tom Clancy, full of military logistics and political details. Kube-McDowell has really thought out the way the New Republic might actually work, which I think is why the TFN readers like this book-- that's the kind of storytelling they're all into. But these details don't mean anything if they don't support a good story, and in this volume at least, they do not. Much of the book focuses on Leia's attempts to negotiate with the xenophoic Yevetha, and Leia is written as horrendously foolish. I get that Leia is an idealist, but as of when this book is set, she's been President of the New Republic for five years, and in politics for around eighteen; she wouldn't be this naive, nor could she have gotten this far ignoring the counsel of her trusted advisors as she repeatedly does here. It's poor writing to contrive a political crisis, and it makes the whole plot about the Yevetha and the Black Fleet fall flat. I did like the depiction of Han Solo, the ex-smuggler and ex-general, now stay-at-home dad. Han doesn't come across as put-upon or anything ridiculous like that; he's a former scoundrel doing his best to raise a family. The bit where his general's commission is briefly reactivated really worked, too. (And thank goodness that Kube-McDowell dispensed with the nonsense of earlier EU writers in having the Solos pack their children to be raised by strangers on distant worlds!)

The one thing I did like here was Lando. Despite his awesomeness, Lando rarely got good parts in EU novels, but this one puts that to rights-- and Kube-McDowell does understand what makes Lando tick, unlike Luke and Leia. I enjoyed almost everything Lando did, from breaking into a top-secret office just to ask for a challenge, to "stealing" R2-D2 and C-3PO from the Jedi Temple and his reflection that being trustworthy makes it easier to be a con man than ever! Him, Lobot (!), and the droids forming a little team trying to figure out the mysterious ghost ship that is the Teljkon vagabond is the best part of this book.

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