Wes: The penultimate novel in the Fate of the Jedi series, Ascension by Christie Golden, offers more of what we've come to expect thus far, for better or worse: Luke, his son Ben, and Sith Apprentice/Ben's love interest Vestara Khai visit worlds with Force-sensitive groups, there's political unrest and conspiracies on Coruscant, and Han and Leia are set about doing busy work, wedged into plotlines that seem unimportant and in which they have little impact. What is slightly different about Ascension, however, is its structure. The first fifty pages are spent on the planet Kesh with the Lost Tribe of the Sith--an oddity for the series, but a much needed one considering how little we've seen of what's going on there over the last few novels. Unfortunately, Ascension does little to shed light on the goings-on of the Sith in that time, and instead adds more confusion about how their plans have taken shape in such a relatively short period of time.
The other irregularity in Ascension's composition is that the political wrangling actually consumes most of its pages, including a rather large chunk of the middle. In fact, this book is probably more focused on galactic politics than any previous Star Wars novel. The power vacuum left by Daala's ousting from the Chief of State's office in Conviction creates opportunities for more than one of the series' ambitious factions, leading to some cutthroat schemes and a bafflingly silly game of musical chairs for the position of ruler.
There are 3 different Chief of States in this novel, not even counting Daala. Two of them are newly elected Senators, having just arrived days earlier, the other has never held elected office before at all. This doesn't even bring up that the two Chief of States previous to this were Daala and Jacen, who were removed by force, and Palpatine's reign wasn't that long ago. How would anyone take the GFFA seriously? How are we supposed to? This is outlandish even for a fantasy sci-fi series like Star Wars.
On the plus side though, none of this is as preposterous as Daala becoming Chief of State to begin with.
Moff Lecersen and Senator Treen's long-running conspiracy unravels in a fairly unsatisfying way, appearing to have little impact on where the story ultimately ends up. More perplexing, however, is the sudden revelation that the Lost Tribe of the Sith has infiltrated all levels of government and even formed their own media empire. How did they manage to do this? There's no explanation given. We know the Sith have only been able to leave Kesh for two years, yet somehow they've managed to get Sith Lords elected to the Galactic Senate from other worlds. Did they trick entire populations into thinking they were one of them and manage to win elections to each planet's highest office in that time? Or did they just show up on Coruscant and say, "Hello, I'm Senator Whatsit from planet Whateverz--where's my office?" We even see one of these Sith on Kesh at the beginning of the book, giving the appearance that he managed to get elected to the Senate in a matter of days. I'm hoping Troy Denning takes some time to explain just how this all happened in the last novel, as it remains more than a little confusing to me how people who were riding on "Uvaks" two years ago could accomplish such a feat.
The Skywalker side of the story is pretty flat, overall. Instead of Vestara choosing between her father and Ben, that choice is taken from her in an extremely anticlimactic fashion. Luke's return to Coruscant is similarly disappointing. The series first novel, Outcast setup certain expectations for this storyline, that Luke would discover the reason for Jacen's having fallen to the dark side and "prove" his innocence to the courts in order to return to the Galactic Capital. Instead, with Daala now gone, Luke just kind of strolls in high-fiving his posse at the Temple. The Jacen plotline is completely dropped, as are all the requirements Luke was supposed to meet that were explained to us in detail at the beginning of the novel. Whether it's the case or not, it gives me the impression that the writing team didn't have a clear picture of where they were going with this story. It's certainly not a very satisfying way to end Luke's banishment from Coruscant, which has been a major plot point of the series, and in many ways the catalyst for much of what's going on.
Luke, Ben, and Vestara spend most of the novel searching Sith worlds for that wily "Ship", the Sith Meditation Sphere, and the Lost Tribe, whom they believe are helping the monster Abeloth. Along the way, they have a pretty cool but completely fruitless visit to Korriban, and I found it interesting that Golden's descriptions of the One Sith's hiding place was almost word-for-word identical to Troy Denning's in Inferno:
And standing at the mouth of this grim canyon was the ancient cloister Rak'k had promised, a complex of domed towers enclosed behind a high stone wall. Clinging to the wall exterior were remnants of a blue tile facade, each patch depicting an eye or claw or fang. At its base lay pieces of discarded machinery--portable deflector shields, depleted power core casings, antique laser cannon mountings.
The complex, an ancient cloister, was encased by a high stone wall. The domes of the towers within were visible over the enclosure. The wall had seen better days. Once it had been covered in blue tiles, a sort of mosaic. The few tiles that remained depicted unsettling images--fangs, eyes, claws. Detritus that looked to be decades old was propped up beside the wall, and the pieces of odds and ends?depleted power core casings, portable deflector shields?had also seen better days.
Then she went to the gate-a four-meter slab of durasteel flaked with red scales of corrosion-and stood for nearly a minute without announcing herself.
He followed the wall down to the gate, a four-meter slab of durasteel. This, too, showed red flakes of corrosion.
There are a couple other instance of this, but I think you get the point. Now, before anyone gets the wrong impression, I'm not for a second accusing Christie Golden of plagiarizing Troy Denning here--they're working in a shared universe, telling a story together, and describing the same place. Could she have used different descriptions besides "slab," "flake," "red," and "corrosion"? Certainly. I admit it does seem a bit lazy to me. But mostly, I bring it up because here we have an author who wanted to know the details of something previously established in the Star Wars universe and actually did the work of looking it up. So hats off to Christie Golden for her meticulous research.
While Golden seems more comfortable writing the Star Wars universe than she did during Omen, and the writing is certainly better than her previous Star Wars efforts, her tics are still present in Ascension. She uses words or phrases in strange ways at times that hit the ear all wrong, and the dialogue that doesn't always ring true. It's difficult for me to take seriously Sith Lords who say things like "For shame!" or "For the love of the Dark Side!", and I really can't picture Han Solo using words like "beholden."
What's good about Ascension is some of the character stuff--more specifically, my three favorite Expanded Universe characters showing up from out of nowhere and being awesome. I'm not going to say who they are, as I don't want to ruin the surprise, but Golden does a good job capturing their nature and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they show up in Apocalypse as well. I was very excited to see them, and freely admit that most of the points I assign this book in its rating has to do with their appearance.
Other characters are kind of a mixed bag. Jaina has a nice heart-to-heart with Vestara after a traumatic moment in the story that I thought was nice, though, as usual, she doesn't do much else in the story. I was pretty disappointed with the role Tahiri has taken on, as I'd like to see her do something noble again rather than be the body guard of a would-be emperor. She is quickly becoming the most butchered character in the EU.
But the biggest disappointment by far in Ascension is Abeloth. After creating an original and genuinely interesting villain, we learn that her goal is... to rule the galaxy.
Ascension is an eventful novel, but there's nothing here to really get excited about. As a means of building suspense for the conclusion of Fate of the Jedi, it largely fails, doing things we've seen done many times before--then doing them some more.