The New Jedi Order: Destiny's Way
by Walter Jon Williams
Published by Del Rey
Nick's Rating: 4 out of 4
Chris's Rating: 4 out of 4
Scott's Rating: 3.5 out of 4
Mike's Rating: 3.8 out of 4
Warning: This review discusses spoilers from the novel.
The Yuuzhan Vong's jihad against the New Republic has reached a standstill. Both sides are too exhausted, low in numbers, and demoralized to finish the other off. In this turbulent atmosphere, Jacen Solo makes a dramatic return from the dead, with the enigmatic and unpredictable Vergere in tow. With them comes a startling new view of the enemy, and an even more shocking view of the Force.
The New Republic struggles to rebuild on the provisional capitol of Mon Calamari, as an election for a new Chief of State is held and Luke Skywalker assembles a new Jedi Council despite the worry that Vergere -- a member of the Old Jedi Order, and a creature loyal to no one but herself -- might render all his work of the last twenty years meaningless. And despite the support of her family and friends, Jaina Solo continues to throw herself in a self-destructive frenzy against the enemy, joined in her insane fervor by the shamed and humiliated Bothans as they seek to avenge the death of Borsk Fey'lya.
With Jacen's help, the ailing Admiral Ackbar makes a crucial deduction that opens the door to a dramatic turnaround of the war. But time is against the Jedi and their allies. If they can't pull off a military miracle in just three months, an unthinkable secret project from New Republic Intelligence will show the Yuuzhan Vong what genocide and extinction are really all about..
For the past three years the Yuuzhan Vong have laid waste to the galaxy. Mighty heroes have fallen, planets have burned, and Coruscant, the illustrious seat of government for millenia, is no more. The ruins of the great city planet have given birth to Yuuzhan'tar, the legendary homeworld of the Yuuzhan Vong. All hope seems lost for the New Republic as darkness sweeps the galaxy. But from that darkness emerges a beacon of light, a lost hero, a lost son - Jacen Solo.
"It is the turning point."
This phrase echoes throughout Destiny's Way, and it proves true. Walter Jon Williams leads us on a journey that chronicles the restructuring of the New Republic, the rebirth of the Jedi Council, and the return of a lost hero - all leading up to a clash of titanic proportions. At the Battle of Ebaq a conglomeration of Yuuzhan Vong battlegroups rivaling that of Battle Plan Coruscant is wiped out to the last living ship. By novel's end Warmaster Tsavong Lah is dead and the Yuuzhan Vong... well, if there were any Yuuzhan Vong survivors they would be licking their wounds.
Williams must have delved into the layers of EU material when penning Destiny's Way. The book is filled with subtle references to more-obscure content, such as the classic X-Wing PC game. Keyan Farlander, now a Jedi and a general, returns at the helm of a New Republic fleet. We also get to see a variety of ship types instead of the standard fare: Lancer-class frigates, Corellian gunships, and the classic MC80 Mon Calamari cruiser. At the end of the novel we learn what became of the other Super Star Destroyer the New Republic's been hiding - the Guardian.
The book has a variety of battles. Williams gives us small skirmishes and dogfights, grand space battles, lightsaber duels, and even the rare underwater conflict. The submarine battle is awesome, and seems like something straight out of the pages of The Hunt for Red October, but the Battle of Ebaq takes the cake for my favorite scene (even though it's a good chunk of the book).
My favorite parts of the novel, aside from the sprawling Battle of Ebaq, were those involving the Yuuzhan Vong. Shimrra is a veritable monster, and Williams does an excellent job showing us many facets of the Supreme Overlord. We finally get a glimpse into the inner workings of the highest-level of the Yuuzhan Vong government. The Shaper Lord Ch'Gang Hool, High Priest Jakan, Warmaster Tsavong Lah, High Prefect Yoog Skell, and of course, Onimi, who is destined to be a crowd pleaser with his antics and clever rhymes. Also sure to please fans: in Destiny's Way the veil of mystery surrounding what really took place on Zonama Sekot is lifted.
Destiny's Way offers more of my favorite character - the executor everyone loves to hate, Nom Anor. Having escaped the warmaster's wrath after the events of Traitor, Nom Anor finds himself in the court of the Supreme Overlord, where he undergoes a vigorous 'mind-rape' at Shimrra's hands. It is here that Nom Anor learns of the heresy among Shamed Ones and members of the worker caste. He infiltrates a small group of heretics and decides that they need a leader - a Prophet. Later, when events turn sour and Nom Anor unadvertently leads the Yuuzhan Vong to their greatest defeat, the executor abandons his position and goes into hiding amongst the heretics. I don't think we've seen the last of him just yet.
"What are you doing, Executor?"
"Giving Shimrra an itch."
Traitor left me fearing for the executor's life, and Destiny's Way is no exception. By the end of the novel Nom Anor is a marked individual, and Shimrra will stop at nothing to have his head. How long can one run from death before it finally catches up? Hopefully forever.
I applaud Williams for not falling into a common trap - what I like to call 'fan popularity bias'. Too often we see the main characters being forced into situations, often because of their popularity among the fanbase. For example, the majority of fans were counting on a rematch between Jacen and Tsavong Lah. Instead Jaina was the one to put an end to the warmaster's reign of terror. Instead of populating the Jedi Council with all the fan-favorites he included Kenth Hamner and Tresina Lobi, two Jedi with very little prior exposure. Not only does this add to the element of surprise and believability (the main characters can't do everything), it also gives us the opportunity to learn more about second and third-tier characters.
Traitor is a virtually impossible act to follow. But Williams rises to the occasion and delivers a solid, if at times unspectacular, follow-up that ties many of the dangling threads of the last four years together and maintains the accelerating momentum of the series' previous year. It's not a home run, but then this fourth of the five hardcovers wasn't meant to be. The scene is being set for one helluva finale a year from now, and the reader is kept entertained and hooked as the players move into position.
The theme of this book could be summed up in one of AOTC's early taglines: "How will you know when you've gone too far?" Every character in this piece, major and minor, hero and villain, grapple with that question to one extent or another. And it's to Williams' credit that not once do the characters seem false or forced in facing those decisions. Our heroes are our heroes, the way we know them to be, and the villains are consistent as well. Luke shows the most improvement here -- say what you will about Vergere browbeating him, this tough ol' bird was just the kick in the pants our nearly-50-year-old master needed. For a while now, he's been on the verge of becoming an insignificant bit player in the saga he used to be the centerpiece of. Now he's finally starting to live up to his promise, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that trend continues.
Of course, a facet of the NJO that we've all become used to are the 90 degree swerves in plotline and events, and this one is no exception. The "anything can happen" factor is very much alive and well, and the suspense is at times nearly unbearable.
The pacing is excellent, and the reader will likely fly through the 448 pages presented here. Williams tells us just enough to keep the story flowing without getting bogged down or missing something. Even the mere cameos are given a chance to shine. The battle scenes don't disappoint, either. The love for this saga shines through in every book. A fine debut effort in the SW Universe for Williams, and I hope we see more from him.
I think the thing that I'll remember this book for years later is the spectacular battle between the Yuuzhan Vong and the New Republic at the end. Readers have been waiting for the turning point in the war to occur for a long time, and Williams delivered well. It was an impressive finish. And despite my noting that Tsavong Lah wasn't wiped out in the initial attack, I still found myself surprised by his reappearance after the long lull following the main battle. His confrontation with Jaina was pretty cool. Bringing Admrial Ackbar out of retirement was a great treat as well and seeing him use the suicidal tendencies of the Yuuzhan Vong against them was a nice touch. Having Mara Jade go back to her talents as a spy to set all this up was fun to see, too. Lando's new Vong hunting mouse droids are clever little additions.
I must admit that I was unimpressed with the story up until the end. I felt that most of the book was setup of interesting events to come in subsequent novels. For example, we got a small taste of the New Republic teaming up with the Imperial Remnant. This has a lot of potential for drama in future stories, but it was only briefly touched on here. This is also true with the romance between Jag Fel and Jaina Solo. What will Han and Leia think of their daughter dating an Imperial pilot? This was mentioned a little, but promises more fun in the future. The Shamed One Onimi is built up to have a lot of potential in future books. It will be interesting to see if this character is built up or cast aside later on. So in short, the setup was good, but not what I was counting on in a hardback addition to the series.
A nice addition to the storyline is that of Alpha Red. A Death Star of sorts against the Yuuzhan Vong, it was interesting to read the debate between the characters on whether it was OK to use it or not. This seemed very reminiscent of the real world debate on the use of nuclear weapons. It was one of the few moral debates in the series which I've found interesting. Also, the reappearance of the Jedi Council was good to see, though it is in a different form than I was expecting.
Finally, I really like the cover by David Stevensen and Cliff Nielsen. I like how Jacen Solo is in a pose similar to that of Luke Skywalker on the 'A New Hope' movie poster. A cool touch. I also didn't notice until writing this that Admiral Ackbar is peeking out of the red clouds on the back cover. Way cool.
The hits just keep coming, folks. I was a little worried heading into Destiny's Way, largely because of how much I loved Traitor. When you like something as much as I liked it, the next thing in line not only has to stand on its own, but for many people, it has to measure up to what came before it; they figure there's no place left to go but down. Walter Jon Williams manages, however, to pick up Stover's coattails and not miss a beat. Well, maybe a 1/16 beat, but I'll get to that later. DW seamlessly continues the tradition of huge, sprawling ID4-esque (I like that movie; so sue me) hardcovers. DW also lives up to its hardcover predecessor Star By Star; the War & Peace of Star Wars, which is another big accomplishment. And considering the book is 200 pages shorter than SBS, Williams packs in a hell of a big plot. (Now would be a good time to mention that I took the liberty of waiting to read the eBook Ylesia until I reached its appropriate place in the middle of DW, which further stretched out the plot, not to mention delayed my completion of DW 2 months or so.) Oftentimes toward the end of the book, I found myself reflecting on related events from earlier in the NJO plotline, and was surprised when I realized they'd been in the same book. Much in the same way I, Jedi had two very disparate acts, DW almost seemed to be two smaller stories in one book: the reestablishment of a government, and the battle of Ebaq. Plus, of course, a thoroughly enjoyable subplot in between featuring the shining acme of Thrackan Sal-Solo's career as a Star Wars character.
Let's see, what else?
My comment on Thrackan pretty much reveals one of (if not the) best things about this book; WJW's handling of all my favorite characters. Vergere is every bit as mystifying as Stover wrote her, Lando and Karrde are running around being the kind of suave scoundrels only they can be, and Nom Anor completes (hopefully) his long, downward spiral into the depths of heresy; hopefully now that Shimrra himself wants his head, he'll finally be free of the shackles of his species and will start playing a more interesting part in the overall storyline. Oh yeah, and he outlived Tsavong Lah. So there!
I'm hard pressed to come up with anything bad about Destiny's Way. Some of the scenes, particularly those involving Winter and Ackbar, seem a bit strange. This is likely do to the fact that Williams was unware of Winter's marriage to Tycho, which prompted a rewrite of those sections. Another scene that seemed a bit odd was Luke and Vergere's first long talk. Luke's acceptance of Vergere's theories seemed a bit rushed, but I guess we don't see everything thought that passes through his mind.
While not necessarily a problem with the book, I did have a few questions about the story. Why were the Mon Calamari building MC80 cruisers? One, they take a long time to build, and two, they're outdated. The MC80 hasn't been widely used for years. What happened to the MC90 or the new Star Defenders? However, Williams does give us the new Republic-class cruiser, not to be confused with the Republic-class Star Destroyer. He describes the new ships as being of "the same general class as the Mon Cal cruiser but capable of mass production."
All throughout the NJO series to date, we've been dealing with relatively minor league bad guys in the Yuuzhan Vong. All of them quite important, of course, but not really the central villain. Here the YV's Emperor finally is unveiled in Supreme Overlord Shimmra. And while his debut isn't really all that bad, it's a bit underwhelming. I don't know -- as evil as the YV have been so far, I guess I was expecting Satan himself in the role, and got Scott Evil instead. Competent, smart, not afraid to whip out a gun or lethally punish a subordinate, but still...."the diet cola of evil. Just one calorie. Not evil enough." And by the time you get to the final scene with Shimma, without giving anything away, you're left not knowing what to think of him.
Where the HELL is Ben Skywalker? We've seen the kid maybe twice since his birth over a year ago, and he barely rates an offscreen mention here! Look, I know he's just a baby, but we're talking the Grandson of Skywalker here! (Side note: I know people don't really want to read about diapers or teaching Ben how to walk or talk, but I'm sensitive since I have a two-year-old nephew.) It's bad enough Han and Leia had to miss out on their children's formative years (and we all know how much they've regretted it since). After all they went through to get this kid, must Luke and Mara miss out on parenthood too?
The story held up throughout, but near the end it felt like Williams was juggling just too many subplots, and ended the book with one climax too many. One particular denouement featuring Jaina and Tsavong Lah, while adequate, could have been done a little better IMHO.
Vergere's death bothered me on several levels. First of all, could the destruction of a single A-Wing really destroy an entire moon base and thousands of Yuuzhan Vong warriors? I have a hard time buying it. I can accept it happening on the Super Star Destroyer in Return of the Jedi because it hit the bridge of the ship. However, Destiny's Way made this A-Wing blowing up equivalent to a nuclear bomb going off. It seemed a bit too easy. Second, I had hoped all along that Vergere would end up being the bridge between the prequels and the classic trilogy. She could have told Luke a lot about what the Jedi did in the Old Republic and everything we learned in Episode I. However, instead of telling him about the Jedi, his parents, and more, she got into yet another moral debate about the Force and whether it's OK to fight the Yuuzhan Vong. I felt really let down. I guess I'll have to wait until "Tatooine Ghost" comes out to get to see Luke and Leia learn about their family.
Finally, there's been a lot of hype leading up to Jacen Solo's destiny being tied to that of the Yuuzhan Vong. I really hope there's a decent payoff to this. A number of times in the New Jedi Order I've seen interesting end up falling flat or being dropped altogether. Hopefully this one will go somewhere.
Getting back to that 1/16 beat, there are some things about the book that kind of irked me. First of all, it seemed about once every five pages someone's heart "leapt" in this book at some frightening or surprising event. Not only is that particular phrase a little overused, but I always thought "his heart leapt" was a sign of something positive happening. Secondly, there were a couple little details in Williams' writing that didn't really fit in with what has gone before in SW literature. The most notable instance is on Ylesia, where I distinctly recall Jacen shooting his X-wing's lasers while the wings are closed, which is supposed to be impossible. There were other things like this in the book proper, but they escape me at the moment, and you get the idea anyway. This kinda stuff is pretty forgiveable for a first-time SW writer, but considering how many new writers the NJO has brought into the fold, mix-ups have been delightfully rare.
In the end, all these nitpicks are just that, and while the book would be better without them, I would be foolish to let them seriously tarnish my opinion of such a well-written and enjoyable book. Especially when it took me three months to read it.
Shimrra - not a pretty sight. Parading through backed-up sewage is pretty gross too though.
Jaina Solo locked on permanent PMS mode for pretty much this whole book. Somebody get "The Sword of the Jedi" some Midol! :(
I think the reaction that Chris is going to get from female readers on the above comment can be defined as "ugly". :)
Okay, the regular grutchins were bad enough. Now we've got 6-meter long grutchyna? Give me a voxyn any day.