Crosscurrent by Paul S. Kemp
1.5 / 4
An ancient Sith ship hurtles into the future carrying a lethal cargo that could forever destroy Luke Skywalker’s hopes for peace.
The Civil War is almost over when Jedi Knight Jaden Korr experiences a Force vision so intense he must act. Enlisting two salvage jocks and their ship, Jaden sets out into space. Someone—or something—appears to be in distress.
But what Jaden and his crew find confounds them. A five-thousand-year-old dreadnought—bringing with it a full force of Sith and one lone Jedi—has inadvertently catapulted eons from the past in to the present. The ship’s weapons may not be cutting-edge, but its cargo, a special ore that makes those who use the dark side nearly invincible, is unsurpassed. The ancient Jedi on board is determined to destroy the Sith. But for Jaden, even more is at stake: for his vision has led him to uncover a potentially indestructible threat to everything the Jedi Order stands for.
I didn't enjoy Crosscurrent
. Here's why.
To begin with, let's take a look at the lead characters:
Saes Rrogon is a Sith Lord, genocidal and amoral--in his first scene in this novel, we learn that he obliterates small Ewok-like civilizations for kicks. Now, a lightspeed malfunction has thrown his dreadnought forward in time from the ancient past, into the uneasy peace a generation after Return of the Jedi.
Kell Douro is a vampiric serial-killer, a centuries-old alien whose day job is as a hired contractor for the Sith. In his first scene in this novel, he feeds on one of the victims who he keeps in coffin-like stasis pods, in a dark crypt on the lower deck of his starfighter.
Relin Druur is a tightly-disciplined Jedi Master who once tried to train Saes as his padawan and is now trying to destroy him. He insists that there's no causal link between these two parts of their relationship.
Jaden Korr is a Jedi Knight and war criminal, struggling to find his focus in a Galaxy where people like Saes and Kell exist. This sort of angst seems to be what this novel is about.
If this seems unpleasant, unsubtle and contrived to you, then you're feeling the way I did reading the opening chapters.
That said, Paul Kemp writes very well, with a focus on details and dialogue, rather than using longer narrative passages to present sequences of events and ideas; as a result, this novel's prose tends to break down patterns rather than develop them, a style which certainly fits its plotline. The standout passages are the lightsaber katas, each a series of sharp separate moves which combine to form an elegant and deadly whole; this is the best writing in the novel, and again, it's appropriate for the subject-matter.
The problem--a problem I also find with Drew Karpyshyn's Darth Bane series--is that there's little to really enjoy, and the depraved villains are positively offputting. Perhaps we're expected to find pleasure in the character-psychology, the masculine violence, and the continuity references. But for that to work, the reader needs to accept the currencies being traded, stylish moral-relativism and Star Wars continuity references; if you do, then you might have the double pleasure of thinking this book is really cool, and finding that it reaffirms your opinions.
For me, though, this isn't enough to get past the setup.
The middle section of Crosscurrent I did find more enjoyable, at least in relative terms, as Jaden meets up with a cynical freighter captain and his math-genius co-pilot. Khedryn Faal is basically Dash Rendar without the good looks and sex-droid girlfriend, but he gets the novel's best lines, and the best characterization, too; Marr idi-Shael is characterized rather like a Vulcan. Together, they run into the time-travelling Saes and Relin, while Kell follows them in his own pursuit. Had the novel ignored its opening scenes, and skipped straight in at this point, I'd probably have enjoyed it more. The battle sequences, character-interaction, description and locations are excellent.
It helps that Kemp has a handle on the setting, hitting the target most of the time with the continuity references, and the general ambience of the "Galaxy far, far away", and using both to good effect. There's not much that's new here, but this feels like a Star Wars novel in the details, if not in terms of the big picture. Perhaps that's even deliberate - as I said, the uneasy absence of a clear perspective seems to be the running theme of the story, and the handling of continuity matches both the prose and the plot in this respect.
There are, however, odd niggles that could have been averted. The Yuuzhan Vong War is mentioned as if to say that sixteen-year-old blasters are antiques, when the lead characters wield sidearms that have been in production since the movie era, and a YT-2400, another design from the original trilogy, is considered a relatively new freighter. At times, I wonder if this story was originally written for a different point on the timeline, perhaps before the Yuuzhan Vong war.
There's also a weird dissonance about the Sith cannon-fodder: the crew of Saes' dreadnaught is disciplined and militaristic, and Massassi warriors form an articulate and skilled part of the team, all of which contrasts with other portrayals of the ancient Sith--most notably, the crew of their sister-ship that fights in the opening battle, who are the protagonists of John Jackson Miller's "Lost Tribe" short stories. The contrasting emphases are appropriate for the two stories, but the effect is a little disconcerting, and I don't think that can be justified for psychological effect.
Those continuity points are relatively minor, but just as I was thinking I might end up giving the book a positive review, the ending dived back into the overkill of the setup. Relin descends to the level of his former padawan, reducing the ostensible â€˜A' plot to a violent aesthetic ballet between two angry people who have more problems expressing themselves than the average Massassi brute.
It's possible that Relin might still be meant as the sympathetic protagonist of this novel, but he's also another crazy psychotic killer - it's just that his self-control meant that his sociopathy was subtler for the first two-thirds of the book. This twist is very well-handled, and I realised afterwards that the author left a lot of well-placed cues to set it up. If it's meant to make the reader think that someone like Relin can be cool before surprising us by showing his true colours, then it almost works--it would have done, if the shock value hadn't been so blunted by the general tone, or if the climax had played up the negative aspects of being a scenery-chewing berserker.
Somehow, I think that we're supposed to cheer instead, when Relin's kamikaze hatred destroys a spaceship full of relatively interesting supporting characters who we had no huge reason to dislike.
Jaden, meanwhile, discovers the remains of a secret Imperial base creating Jedi clones. There's a potentially interesting development here about Jaden's backstory, and even for what it means to be a Sith, and clear setup for a sequel; maybe there's even a plotline connection to the new hardcover series, too. The trouble is, to get there you have to follow the characters through a series of schlock cliches (all of which swing on a contrived cynicism about Imperial ruthlessness) and what seems to be a re-used set from Death Troopers. It's hard to know whether this is meant to be cool, or shocking, or subtly poignant, but in the end, even though the climactic lightsaber duel is cool, the actual story just feels underwhelming.
One other thing that's worth mentioning is the cover design, which has to be the simplest I've ever seen on a Star Wars book; the Dave Seely cover painting, showing Relin and Saes fighting, is actually quite dramatic, but the pulp impact of the image is spoiled by the under-designed layout, which - aside from the stock image of the Star Wars title - uses only simple shapes and basic fonts: as a result, it looks rather cheap. The visual style reminds me of mass-market porn and self-published fanfic.
Overall, Crosscurrent is competent, and the prose can be beautiful, but I was alternatively annoyed and bored by the behaviour of the characters, which basically undermined the novel as a whole - the drama of the quest for meaning ultimately failed because it seemed contrived. I'm giving this book 2.8/4 based on the author's clear technical skill and solid handling of the continuity, but the marks that have been deducted are almost entirely on the matter of reading pleasure: as a completed novel, I didn't particularly enjoy or care about it.
Oh, Star Wars and time travel. While it might seem that this particular sci-fi trope, with its reality-altering implications has no place in Star Wars, it has snuck in from time to time. The Empire Strikes Back, for example, has Vader’s actions in the future influencing Luke’s actions in the past—which is arguably what many time travel stories are about.
But for the most part, time travel in Star Wars is usually inconsistently executed and unnecessary. We’ve had flow-walking in the recent novels, the time-shifting Cularin system in the Living Force RPG supplement, and, of course, the would-be-infamous-if-anyone-knew-about-it Droids/Ewoks comics crossover.
So does Crosscurrent break the trend of misusing this rare-for-Star-Wars trope? Well, not really. The idea of transplanting Sith and Jedi into a different era is intriguing, but it might have been more effective if they were transplanted in an era where the Jedi and Sith weren’t already running rampant. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)
In fact, for all the effect the characters from the past have on the present, they might as well not have travelled through time at all. They interact briefly, and then largely go their separate ways. Jaden Korr’s sub-plot involving a Thrawn-authorized cloning experiment gone horribly wrong is completely unrelated to the time travelling Sith. (That experiment, if I understand it correctly, was to combine the DNA of Jedi with the DNA of Sith. That’s like combining the DNA of Lutherans with the DNA of Buddhists—what’s the point? Thrawn, what painting were you studying that made you authorize this?)
That said, Jaden’s descent into the depths of the laboratory the clones have taken over is suitably creepy, and might have been the best example of outright horror in the adult novels if Death Troopers hadn’t beaten it to the punch last year. I particularly enjoyed the delightfully creepy Anzati assassin Kell Douro, who is the most fleshed out Anzati since Dannik Jerriko. But again…this is not really tied into the main story, the one sold on the cover and described on the back of the book.
All in all, I’m not really sure what to make of Crosscurrent. Kemp sets up a lot of intriguing characters, such as a Kaleesh Sith Lord and the salvage jockey Khedryn, and he seems to have a reasonable enough command of the Legacy-era Star Wars galaxy…but nothing is fully developed. The idea of ancient Sith and Jedi coming to grips with a changed Legacy-era galaxy is potentially interesting, but it never happens—they might as well have stayed in their own time for all the difference it would have made in the story. On their own, the tale of the Sith dreadnought and Korr’s discovery of the clone labs might have made for entertaining stories, but here they’re unnecessarily tied together with a poorly executed plot device.