Paul: Allies is the second Star Wars novel by Christie Golden, and it's also the fifth book out of nine in the new Fate of the Jedi series, which means it's the middle chapter of the storyline.
Fans often expect the central episode of a Star Wars series to be a bit like The Empire Strikes Back, and that expectation is probably increased this time around, considering that this is the hardcover release that accompanies the movie's thirtieth anniversary.
Allies doesn't disappoint. But, in keeping with the way that this series has developed from the outset, it doesn't do what you'd expect, either. There are no heroes flash-frozen in carbonite here, nor even any arrowhead-hulled space-battleships. The movie references and thematic echoes are generally subtler and more complex. Like Empire, this story includes a dramatic ground-assault siege, a developing romance between contrasting heroes, a lone young Jedi in an X-wing searching for definition, and a central father-child relationship; but they're all presented in new ways, so that most of the parallels only become apparent afterwards.
If you pay attention, though, you'll find that the main themes of Empire are all there; Lando Calrissian gets to be VERY cool; and Allies does the central thing that the original Episode V did so well: it shakes up the storyline, sending it off in new directions, and leaving the reader eager for more. Moreover, the subtle way that the defining motifs are used gives Allies a distinct new identity of its own, making it exciting and unexpected without losing any of its identity as part of the ongoing storyline. I felt this was an excellent way of handling the demands of writing for this franchise, and I was impressed by the ability of a relative newcomer to produce a story that was so fresh, while remaining so palpably Star Wars.
There were some minor technical issues with this novel--a few lines that could have read a little smoother, especially in the first half, and an unnecessary number of spelling mistakes, which really ought to have been caught in the editing process. But these distractions don't really detract from the overall effectiveness of the book, and they're offset by the good stuff: the author, although she's new to writing for the franchise, seems to be a long-term fan and clearly loves the Star Wars setting; and her main strength is in characterization, which means that the characters and the events they're involved in have a real effect on the reader. When these two skills are combined, the result is impressive... most impressive.
The movie themes and movie characters are all handled with confident skill, and again as in Golden's previous contribution to the series, a lot of classic Expanded Universe continuity is lovingly and effortlessly revisited. But where this author's skill becomes most apparent is in the scenes featuring new characters. These newcomers, many of them brief cameos, stand out instantly as individuals but are also very Star Wars in their attitudes and identities, thus establishing unspoken connections within the story, and in the wider pattern of the mythos: a young girl from Tatooine resembles both Tahiri Veila and the two Skywalker movie heroes in several different ways, while a domestic slave's prim professionalism makes a clever and implicit connection between his status and See-Threepio's. Golden's use of a couple of the supporting Expanded Universe characters seemed more cautious, but this felt like it was a careful and dilligent handling of people she didn't quite have a feel for--and other recurring characters were among the very best portrayals in this book, one perhaps above all. More on that in a moment.
Another thing that's impressive about this book is the way that the plotlines are handled: there are four of them, and they interact in very complex ways. Characters shift from one to another, and events entangle and connect. And it all seems natural and effortless.
In what's probably the main story, Luke Skywalker and his teenage son Ben have forged an uneasy alliance with the Sith. Perhaps unexpectedly, Luke allows himself no empathy for these unreliable allies, but I thought this decision worked, and I suspect it should work for most readers. If you see Skywalker as a heroic opponent of bad guys, then you can probably accept that these Sith are not lost souls to be redeemed like Vader, but basically villains like Palpatine or even Jabba--committed to treachery, not to be trusted, and deserving a smackdown when they break their word. On the other hand, if your view of the Jedi Grand Master is more complicated, you might see his lack of compassion as a sign of combat stress, and wonder if his protective attitude to Ben echoes Vader's possessive attitude to his own son, or even Palpatine's perverse control of Vader: is the Jedi Master in need of saving, himself? Either reading works, however, and that flexibility of interpretation is another of this novel's strengths. The Sith too are an excellent portrayal of a ruthless warrior culture, united by their shared heritage and exotic social values, but all individual nonetheless. The cynical but strong-willed Vestara is an ideal foil to Ben's mix of idealistic moral heroism and instinctive sexual attraction, their teenage romance a fun and subtle play on Han and Leia. Gavar Khai, Vestara's father, gets to play Palpatine to her Vader too, but as a ruthless, combat-hardened Saber who also genuinely loves his family, he resembles Luke Skywalker more than the Jedi Master might be willing to accept. Lastly, High Lord Taalan is the real Palpatine figure here, a black-cloaked villain, a survival-of-the-fittest predator armed with the Force as a practical weapon, refreshingly un-mystical in his attitude, dramatically convincing in his psychology: it's been a very long time since there's been such an effective antagonist with a red lightsaber.
The story that seems to be providing the most consistent framework for this series is the one widely regarded as the 'B' plot, the ongoing attempt by Admiral Daala's government to crush the Jedi Order. Here, this gains in both pace and tension, with assault troops advancing on the Temple--in a move that echoes Attack of the Clones as much as Empire, but the heroes inside the base can't seem to recognize that they're being defined into retreat and rebellion by the Battle of Hoth reference. This sense of distance from the threat, at once helpless and unreal, is articulated for the reader by locating the military action through the lens of a long-range news camera, and through casual, conversational characterization; but it's all setup for the most dramatic impact in the entire novel: in a sudden switch to high-zoom close-up, events take a dark twist for the worse. And the author makes us care.
The next plotline is about rising unrest among the Galaxy's myriad slaves. This is a new narrative that appears unexpectedly mid-series here--albeit one that was set up very well by a scene in the previous novel. In terms of its internal structure in this novel, it's also the plotline which makes best use of this series' tendency to break down its own expected patterns. For a while, mid-novel, this storyline seems to be focusing on Lando Calrissian and Jaina Solo, but it's really developed through a series of short and scattered cameos by new characters, eventually settling into an encounter between an alien news reporter and an underground anti-slavery organization. While this plotline doesn't pull its punches about the wrongness involved, the moral effects are played as subtly as Luke's alliance with the Sith--the idealistic activist is confident that change will come after a violent revolution; but with hindsight, this dangerous moral confidence also connects back to the militant idealism of the Rebellion, and really recaptures that Empire vibe.
At this point, it's worth mentioning Jaina Solo specifically; she moves through all three of these plotlines, and ends up in an orbital dogfight that reminded me of nothing so much as Sacrifice, the last mid-arc Star Wars novel to do the whole Empire Strikes Back thing. She's defining herself as a character, not yet settled on where she belongs, but showing more life and independence here than she has in ages--even while, once again, characterization and actions are used to create extra emotional weight. The key moment of her storyline is a very clever cross-referencing of Luke's reasons for going to Dagobah and his motives for leaving afterwards, with an added twist of Han and General Rieekan. It's also been great to see her bantering with Kyp Durron for two novels in a row, and I hope it continues: wherever she ends up romantically, the interaction between these two is simply a lot of fun--for both the characters, and for the reader.
The fourth and final plotline of this novel is, I think, the one that's written best of all. It sees Tahiri Veila, ex-Jedi, ex-Sith, on trial for murder. The plot is enlivened by her new defense attorney, an excellent characterization of a brand-new character who manages to be colourful and engaging without diminishing the drama and seriousness of this courtroom storyline. I think this is the first time that there's been a proper trial plotline in Star Wars since The Krytos Trap, and it was pretty much flawless on all points.
But the real star here is Tahiri herself, who--if I'm reading this right--is written both brilliantly and deeply. Golden presents Tahiri's thoughts in a very normal, reassuringly ordinary way: she talks about of closure, expresses discomfort with her chafing handcuffs, and shows a firm and sincere determination to behave right--an internal and seemingly authentic parallel to the way her defense-attorney is presenting her to the jury, portraying her as an ordinary hero who's suffered abuse and victimhood and grief. You might even take it all at face value, too; but the reader who knows the character well will recognize a slight falseness in her thoughts, a denial of her more unusual and authentic reactions: Tahiri has unusual attitudes to pain, identity and beauty, and her behaviour here suggests psychotherapy and the pressure of society's rules about how to fit in--the real cause, I suspect, of all her problems. And then, at the end, the storyline spirals down in a dramatic final scene, the closing twist of the novel--something unexpected, because Empire wasn't structured like this--as the true complexity of her identity is revealed, and there's nothing that she can do to fix it. I'll admit that I love this character to bits, and I'd love to see her able to stand up for her own individualism, and tell society to do something rude with itself in an alien language, but for now, this is simply excellent writing. The emotional impact for me was muted because I was following the skill of the portrait itself, but that doesn't mean I didn't feel this deep down (the comparison that comes to mind is the surrealist sci-fi movie Alphaville, which is a huge complement); and not everyone will read these scenes in the controlled way that I did--the finale reduced one of my best friends to tears. Either way, it's fundamentally brilliant.
Overall, I'm giving Allies a score of 3.6 out of 4, an excellent 90%--the same score as I gave to Aaron Allston's Exile, the last Star Wars novel I read that used the themes of Empire and continuity in anything like this way. Almost all those dropped points are for the spelling mistakes, as well.
(As an aside, I should menion that this is the second Star Wars novel, after Backlash, that I've read as an e-book, and I'm really liking the format: note, though, that I'm using the PDF version, and can't comment directly on Sony or Kindle. It's cheaper than a hardcover, easier to get hold of, and the quirks of formatting that I noticed before seem to be solved a bit here. All I'd ask is for a proper cover image. Ultimately, the fact that I'm only mentioning the format at the end is a reflection of how little it got in the way of my reading pleasure.)