Wes: Fate of the Jedi has found its footing.
After starting the series with two lackluster novels, including Aaron Allston's last effort Outcast, Fate of the Jedi seemed to suffer from too much padding and a flimsy, repetitive story. But in came Troy Denning with the third book Abyss and the introduction of a new, game-changing villain that offered some real hope for the series' direction. I am happy to say that Allston has followed that up with a novel that's as good, if not better.
At its core, Backlash doesn't exactly shrug off the formulaic structure of the other books in the series thus far. Luke Skywalker and Ben are still adventuring with yet another tribe of Force-users, another random Jedi catches the crazies with the exact same results as the previous books, and Daala and the Jedi Order are still locked in their bitter PR campaign. But by in large, these events happen within the natural flow of the story this time, and more importantly, actually go somewhere.
In Backlash, Luke and Ben have abandoned their search for clues in why the late Jacen Solo fell to the dark side and what is causing the Jedi illnesses for more pressing matters?tracking down a Sith they encountered in the last novel to prevent her from contacting her tribe and possibly unleashing the dark force the Skywalkers found in the Maw. Her path leads them to Dathomir and a whole lot of awesome.
For starters, Allston tampers with the series formula here by having Han and Leia join them. I hadn't realized how badly the series needed the big three together again until it happened, and it definitely breathed some life back into the characters, even if it was relatively short lived and the Solo end up scampering away to their own adventure elsewhere.
But it's great while it lasts. The aforementioned Sith the Skywalkers are searching for, Vestara Khai, seeks refuge amongst a Tribe of Dathomiri Witches. The Solos and Skywalkers end up trying to help the tribe in their bid to unite with a clan of freed male slaves, in hopes that the Witches will release Vestara to them and they can detain and question her. This relatively insignificant, and often times humorous, marriage between tribes turns much darker when the Nightsisters get involved, and what follows is suspenseful mystery decorated with some great action.
Part of what makes these portions of the novel so much fun is Vestara, who is delightfully sly throughout. The reader is never certain of exactly what she's up to here, but you know it isn't good. When it finally is revealed, it's one of the more satisfying twists in a Star Wars novel. It should be obvious, but it's not, which are the kind of twists I like. I certainly didn't see it coming.
Allston does a great job of keeping the mystery alive throughout and using Ben as the junior detective tracking down clues. I've suspected since Omen that Vestara is meant to be a romantic interest for Ben in this series. I have no idea if that's the case, but I am liking the idea more and more because of the messy complications that would have to spring from it.
There's not much more that I can say about this section without ruining some surprises, so I'll just say the Dathomiri scenes are the most enjoyable in the book.
Unlike the previous novels, the mysterious madness Jedi are suffering on Jedi doesn't play a huge role. I don't think it was even mentioned in the first 90 pages. But like the other Fate of the Jedi books, there is a new Jedi character introduced into the story solely for the purpose of him catching the illness and becoming paranoid. This is easily the weakest point in the novel. It plays out exactly the way the others have, with the Jedi being incapacitated after a short run on Coruscant that doesn't actually harm anyone, and like the others, we're not given much of a reason to care what happens to the character. I guess the only real different is that it happens to one Jedi instead of two this time.
But this time it actually goes somewhere! Again, I don't want to say to much as it will spoil something I think is supposed to be surprising, this time the Jedi going crazy moves the story forward.
Allston's characterization of Daala, the Alliance's newest and bestest Chief of State, continues to be more nuanced and sympathetic than his Fate of the Jedi counterparts'. It may even be more interesting if you're not the sort of person who remembers too much about Daala's history in the Bantam novels (Daala does something in Backlash to incur the wrath of the Mon Calamari, which is kind of hilarious if you recall what she did to them in the Jedi Academy Trilogy. Is there any way the Mon Cals and Quarrens would have stood for her appointment in the first place? To Allston's credit, he makes a brief mention of this through another character without going into the specifics, labeling her attempt at genocide an "attack" as though it was perfectly legitimate...). Golden and Denning seem to have settled for a one-dimensional, arch-nemesis style characterization. Both have their strengths and drawbacks, in my opinion. I have a feeling casual readers will enjoy Allston's more.
Other characters have a nice showing in Backlash as well. The increasingly precocious Allana has an adventure of her own in Dathomir's spaceport that is a lot of fun. I've enjoyed the way she's been developed over the course of the series, and her interaction with Artoo, Threepio, and her pet nexu make her even more endearing.
I've found Jaina and Jag pretty much unbearable in the first three books?well, that changes with Backlash too. They are more palatable here, perhaps because they aren't together much, but even when they are it seems a lot more genuine and less nauseating. Each gets an opportunity to shine on their own as well with their unique forms of badassedry.
Oh, and Zekk's back. There's really not much of an explanation as to how he survived Invincible or what he's been up to the last couple years, but I suspect this is because Allston was expecting Elaine Cunningham's now canceled novel Blood Oath was supposed to tell the story. Hopefully the Fate of the Jedi authors will find a way to work the details into the series when they've had a chance to adjust.
I didn't find Backlash as laugh-out-loud funny as some of Allston's other books, but there is plenty of humor. It also seems to be a much faster-paced novel for the author, with few scenes going more than three pages without some sort of break.
All in all, this is a great adventure and a terrific follow-up to Abyss. I liked almost everything about it and am now very excited for Christie Golden's Allies.
After the Fate of the Jedi storyline finally took off in Troy Denning?s Abyss, Aaron Allston?s Backlash puts the series back into a holding pattern?fortunately; the in-flight movie is quite entertaining.
The nine-book series format as established by Legacy of the Force saw the same plot points being hit over and over again, with characters always on the verge of discovering the dark secrets of the series but constantly retreating from them. Fate of the Jedi is playing things a little bit closer to the vest; Backlash is essentially a stand-alone character-driven adventure that gives us a nice book to read while saving the big revelations for the many later volumes.
Luke and Ben arrive at Dathomir in pursuit of Vestara, the Sith apprentice introduced in Christie Golden?s Omen. They find she?s quickly gone to ground; in order to flush her out the Jedi must work their way through a scenario that?s probably familiar to many an RPG player: the Jedi and their allies must enter a series of competitions in order to gain information, and when the games turn into an opportunity for a shadowy enemy to attack, they must defend their allies at all costs.
Still, Allston knows how to use his characters. He allows Han, Leia, and the droids to join Luke on Dathomir, and having the full cast together again really makes a difference. Han Solo provides some levity during the darker moments, Luke gets to be awesome while fighting multiple rancors, and the descendants of the film stars get to shine as well. Allana?s subplot with the droids was perfectly suited to her, and, as in Outcast, Ben continues to grow into a promising young Jedi.
As usual, I was less entertained by the Coruscant B-plot. Jedi go crazy, Daala is ominous, Jaina goes to Jag to get things sorted out. Rinse and repeat. Really, if the only Jedi going crazy are the younglings sheltered in the Maw, addressing this problem shouldn?t be too difficult for the Jedi: quarantine the lot, sedate them if they go nuts, and don?t tell Daala. This storyline has been drawn out since Millennium Falcon, before this series even started, and at four books in the initial shock value of having perfectly sane Jedi go nuts is gone.
A random note: at one point Jaden Korr, of Jedi Academy and Crosscurrent pops in via hologram, warning that he believes a clone of Prince Xizor may be at large?in spite of no evidence to support his theory. I?m not sure whether this is a hint of future plotlines or a wink at Crosscurrent?s random clone plot, and I?m not sure which scares me more.
All in all, Backlash is an enjoyable side adventure that uses the main characters in the series well, but those hoping for further exploration of the mysteries introduced in Abyss won?t find them here.