08 February 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis: Shield of Lies by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

Mass market paperback, 340 pages
Published 1996

Acquired 1996/97(?)
Reread January 2016
Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis, Book Two: Shield of Lies
by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

There are probably lots of Star Wars novels that follow three (or more) groups of characters having adventures in different parts of the galaxy. This is, as far as I know, the only one to admit that they are so unrelated that instead of bouncing from focal character to focal character, the book handles each character in one go. Of the book's 340 pages, the first 100 are in a section called "I. Lando," the next 100, "II. Luke," and the last 140 are "III. Leia." I can kind of imagine why you might want to do this-- even though the stories are happening simultaneously, they impact each other minimally at best-- but it has a negative effect. Jumping from plot to plot gives your story an (admittedly, artificial) energy, while sticking with each for a long stretch highlights just how little happens in it.

The Lando section was my favorite, but that maybe says more about how much I didn't like the other ones than how much I liked it. I mean, Lando continues to be the only interesting and active protagonist in this series, and reading about him at work is always enjoyable: I like how Kube-McDowell shows his slippery gambling mind in action. His repartee with Lobot is nice, Kube-McDowell has a good handle on the droids, and the mystery unfolds reasonably well: except that it's sooooo slooooow. I would be hard-pressed to explain how Kube-McDowell stretches wandering around a spaceship to 100 pages.

Luke's part was my least favorite. His search for his mother with Akanah has the potential to be interesting from a character perspective (even if we know that, as this book was released pre-Revenge of the Sith, he can never actually find her) but instead we are presented with the world's slowest search, accompanied by Akanah moralizing at Luke a lot. And many of the seeds for the Jedi pacifist morality that ruined the early New Jedi Order books were apparently sown here.

Finally, there's Leia's part, which continues the implausibly out-of-character depiction of her from Book One. Except that, while there she was making bad decisions, here she decides to make no decisions. Again, it's hard to account for how Leia constantly not making up her mind about things can somehow be made to last 140 pages. There's potentially something interesting here, about how you transition from being a group of terrorists to being a functioning state: as Rebels, Leia and company could attack whoever they needed to get the job done; as the New Republic, they don't have that luxury. But whatever is interesting here is buried, very deep. Though I did like the idea that the government of the New Republic has to be purposefully inefficient, because of the fear of the Emperor. (Kube-McDowell was right in 1996 about the fact that Palpatine would assume power by legitimate means.)

Kube-McDowell write good space battle scenes-- there are a couple here featuring the Fifth Fleet, as well as the one that opens Before the Storm-- with the choreography, logistics, and tactics well worked out, but his insistence on political realism undermines them, as none of our protagonists participate in them, all being back on Coruscant. Sure, that makes sense, but this is Star Wars, and these space battles would be ten times as good if someone I cared about was in them. Weirdly, the pivotal action scene that closes the book, the kidnapping of Han Solo, is over in about half a page, and none of it is seen from Han's perspective.

There is one saving grace to the whole Leia plot: Admiral Ackbar. Ackbar is a total badass here, the only character who knows what needs to be done and does it. The scenes where he befriends Plat Mallar, the only survivor of a genocidal Yevethan attack on the planet Polneye, as he recovers and then decides to enlist in the New Republic Navy, are a real highlight of the book, one of its few.

One final observation: "Leia was able to hold the meeting down to two hours" proves that Star Wars is fantasy if nothing else does.

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