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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Star Wars 501st: An Imperial Commando Novel

Title: Star Wars 501st: An Imperial Commando Novel
Author: Karen Traviss
Reviewed Format: mass market paperback
Release Date: October 27, 2009
Pages: 474

I won’t even pretend I remember everything that happened in the last Republic Commando book. Big events (Dar has a baby, Fi was brain dead, Sev’s MIA), points of suspense (clones have accelerated aging)--those are easy to recall, but tiny details that set up larger, looming, and very far off in the future plot lines fall away pretty easily: the significance of Death Watch, Arla Fett, Gilamar, etc… The problem with these books is the amount of intricate information and the large cast crammed into 400 some odd pages that beg for sequels and long, satisfying arcs. These are books I definitely need a Dramatis Personae to help jog my memory.

501st did not have a Dramatis Personae.

In a lot of ways, these books remind me of Timothy Zahn’s on the scale of character and growth Traviss writes into her cordoned off area of the Expanded Universe. It makes her books fascinating, but that depth comes at the cost of my attention span between releases which have been teased out too far apart for my tastes. Then again, with more time to write, Traviss has always delivered books I can’t get enough of.

In 501st, there’s so much set-up and introduction of new characters and potential plot lines that it makes me even more upset most of them probably won’t be explored, if at all, by Karen Traviss or anyone. With only one more Imperial Commando book left, I can only guess what gets left behind (Death Watch?? Melusar??). The end of Order 66 was, predictably, with the order to execute all Jedi on command. Etain is dead; Niner and Darman are part of Vader’s new Imperial 501st legion of elite stormtroopers; Skirata’s running a rogue clone daycare; Uthan must tackle the tricky and problematic accelerated aging process; Jango Fett’s sister is under the watchful eye of the Skirata clan and may or may not be legitimately insane. Suffice to say: there’s a lot going on before we even get into this latest book.

To put it bluntly: all of this is still a problem in 501st. This does not detract from the book at all. Let me tell you why.

501st is ultimately a rescue mission. Skirata’s gone uber protective of his boys and can’t stand having Darman and Niner separated from their family, especially because Darman has yet to see Kad with the knowledge that he’s the baby’s father. Jaing’s figured out how to remotely get Dar and Niner’s attention and an extraction plan is set up. This fuels the steady backdrop of the story, it’s the heartbeat that keeps the plot in suspense because it’s Traviss writing and the chances of something going wrong or our--and the character’s--hope of getting out, getting out alive, getting out alive and making it home, getting out and making it home in one piece are slim; if bad stuff’s going to happen, it will happen. The only question is what; when is always at the most crucial, poignant moment.

The suspense of Darman and Niner’s rescue is sustained by the everyday fears and worries of the Skirata clan as everyone attempts to cope with the “end” of the war. Their transition to “peacetime” roles mirrors the Republic’s transition to the Empire: the same, yet different in ways not entirely satisfactory. Skirata has attracted a “colony of the damaged and dispossessed” (p. 346) and the psychology of the characters is a jumbled mess of loss, loneliness, guilt, fear, and uncertainty. Not surprising to me, the dynamics between each of the characters is where Traviss really gets to flex her talent. She’s not just a military writer, she brings an emotional and contrary perspective to each psyche. Traviss even debates the philosophical merits of Jedi vs. Mandalorians with the hypocrisy evident in Skirata’s practices and moral stands. There’s a lot of concessions in this one that I think may attract readers who take arms against the literary “anti-Jedi” stance the Mandalorian culture exudes. I hesitate to claim that with any sort of finality because any concessions made are tempered with the ever-influenced opinion of newcomers finding welcome on Mandalore. Ny muses my point succinctly: “Skirata had spectacular double-standards, and the extraordinary thing was that they convinced her […] But when she stood back, all she could see was how many qualities--and terrible flaws--Mandalorians had in common with Jedi.” (p. 372)

By way of explanation, it isn’t just Ny who begins to notice this but, grudgingly, Skirata himself. Djinn Altis and his ragtag band of hippie, free-loving Jedi make lots of strategic cameos, inserting themselves into the plot and their ideals into the hearts of the entire Skirata clan. With Etain’s death still so fresh, the new perspective is bittersweet, but welcoming all the same.

Really, 501st takes an engaging detour from the action of the Republic Commando trilogy. I found it interesting and necessary: here finally are the psychological exploration we’ve been missing for new characters and relationships flung together over a long, hard war. The actual reprieve of peacetime is reflected in the struggle of each character to deal with the blows dealt them by the Republic and Separatists both. Nothing is answered or resolved; so much is left open for future books. The big disappointment is dreading which threads will have the opportunity to jockey for attention in the next, and last, book: Death Watch, Melusar, Dar and Niner finally coming home, or Djinn Altis.

There’s so much to each of these books I can’t express just how bummed I am that we’re losing the richness of the series. But don’t use that as a reason not to read this one. Knowing there’s got to be plot to forfeit for the next book since it’s now the last does make events a little more bittersweet, but you’re not saying goodbye to everyone just yet. There’s still one more. If I say that enough times, it might make me less sad. Despite that, I can’t wait to see how the series finally wraps up.

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