The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance
by Sean Williams
Published by Del Rey
Adrick's Rating: 3 out of 4
Wes's Rating: 3 out of 4
BioWare and LucasArts--creators of the hugely popular Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic video game--have combined their storytelling talents and cutting-edge technology for an innovative new massively multiplayer online role-playing game that allows players to create their own personal Star Wars adventure 3,500 years before the rise of Darth Vader. Now #1 New York Times bestselling author Sean Williams brings the world of the game to life in his latest novel, Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance.
Tassaa Bareesh, a matriarch in the Hutt crime cartel, is holding an auction that's drawing attention from across the galaxy. Representatives of both the Republic and the Sith Empire are present, along with a Jedi Padawan sent to investigate, a disenfranchised trooper drummed out of the Republic's elite Blackstar Squad, and a mysterious Mandalorian with a private agenda. But the Republic's envoy is not what he seems, the Empire's delegate is a ruthless Sith apprentice, the Jedi Padawan is determined to do the right thing, and terrified that he can't, the trooper hopes to redeem her reputation, and the Mandalorian is somehow managing to keep one step ahead of everyone.
None of these guests--invited or uninvited--have any intention of participating in the auction. Instead, they plan to steal the prize, which is locked inside an impregnable vault: two burned chunks of an exploded star cruiser, one of which may hold the key to the wealth of an entire world.
Video game tie-in novels have a somewhat uncertain history in the Expanded Universe. On the one hand, we have the Dark Forces adaptations and the Republic Commando series, which provided more information on the story and characters of the game, and were themselves interesting novels by talented authors.
On the other hand, we have Sean Williamís previous attempt at video game adaptation, the ever-so-bland The Force Unleashed, and the only previous MMORPG tie-in Galaxies: Ruins of Dantooine, which is arguably the worst adult Star Wars novel ever written.
So I was somewhat skeptical on beginning Fatal Alliance, with its setting in a brand new era and a bevy of unfamiliar charactersóan unusual combination for Star Wars novels. I quickly discovered, however, that Williams had risen to the challenge of capturing the feel of the still-in-development-game while still providing a well-constructed adventure novel with interesting characters.
I was actually charmed from the first scene, which featured a smuggler-turned-privateer named Jet Nebula (a delightful nineties throwback) capturing a prize that blows up in his face, all the while using stereotypical piratical terms. I was a little disappointed that Williams didnít continue in this spirit throughout the novel, which would have given it a pseudo-historical feel that has been lacking in Old Republic era works recently, but the scene does gets the adventure off to a rollicking start.
Colorful though he may be, Jet Nebula isnít the most interesting of the new characters. Although the game probably dictated the types of characters used here (I think they all represent classes available to players), Williams has made each of them a unique and interesting individual with an equally compelling back story. My favorite is the Imperial double agent Ula Vii, who finds himself playing both sides, Imperial and Republic, for higher stakes than he had ever thought possible.
Fatal Alliance is an enjoyable adventure that serves to flesh out the gameís time period while still remaining its own entity. Itís a well executed tale that I really enjoyed reading. This, more than the original Force Unleashed novel, makes me look forward to Williamsí adaptation of The Force Unleashed II later this year.
Fatal Alliance is the first of at least two novels being released this year in conjunction with The Old Republic, the new MMORPG from BioWare, developer's of 2003's tremendous role playing video game, Knights of the Old Republic. It's also the first story set in this new "cold war" period BioWare has carved out in the Star Wars time line, approximately 3,500 years before the films, and 300 or so years after the events of the previous Knights of the Old Republic games.
If you've played one of these games, you probably have some idea of what to expect from the plot of Fatal Alliance: a group of strangers from different factions who get thrown together, united by a common purpose to save the galaxy. There's a Jedi padawan character named Shigar, a disgraced soldier named Larin, an Imperial spy posing as a Republic political aide named Ula, a Sith apprentice named Eldon Ax, a Han Solo-esque smuggler named Jet Nebula, and a Mandalorian named Dao Stryver.
They're all about what you'd expect, that is to say that most of them are pretty generic. Shigar is your typical padawan, Larin could be a soldier in any of the Clone Wars novels over the last ten years, and Stryver is mostly indistinguishable from previous Mandalorians. Shigar and Larin, who are the biggest characters in the story, actually have less depth than many of the others.
It's a problem I'm noticing more and more in Star Wars novels, but I'll ask it here: why must characters be their professions?
With that said, Ula's role is fairly original and the conflict he finds himself in is interesting, but ultimately feels hollow rather than three-dimensional. Thankfully, Jet Nebula is there to save the day. Yes, the character is just another archetype, but that's okay because it works. It works because Williams breathed life into him. It works because Jet fulfills his role without feeling as though he was cut out of cardboard. He's got some great lines, moments where he displays how cunning he is, and just gets to be all-around awesome throughout the book without it feeling forced. I found myself wishing he was in more scenes, but it may be the character actually benefits from having less page time than the others in the main cast.
Jet basically steals this book. It's worth reading just for him alone.
Luckily though, there are a lot of other really good reasons to read this one too.
Most importantly, the overall story is good. It's not great, but it's good. Readers hesitant to jump into what is essentially a video game adaptation because of previous experiences, like Sean Williams' last foray into the Lucas Art's wing of Star Wars storytelling, The Force Unleashed, can probably disregard those reservations. Because of its role-playing nature, Fatal Alliance skates by without falling into the typical traps of video game conventions. Williams is free to have a plot here that is something more than an excuse to connect twelve kewl action scenes together.
The book's story centers on a mysterious something found in space that survives a transport's apparent self-destruction, and the emergence of some very deadly droids called "Hexes" whose origins and motivations are unknown. The Hexes represent a threat to the galaxy that ultimately causes the Empire and the Republic to form an Alliance to destroy them. Yes, we just did the whole Sith-and-Jedi-alliance thing in Christie Golden's Allies a couple months ago, but it's not anywhere near as contrived as it was in Fate of the Jedi's latest novel, or as it may sound in my mini-summary. Without saying too much, the manner in which Williams sets the conditions for this alliance and brings it into play makes for a convincing union between two opposing forces rather than forcing them together.
Although the world of The Old Republic as detailed here is definitely a believable extension of the known Star Wars universe, reading Fatal Alliance on its own might prove confusing to newcomers to the era. Iíve been keeping up with the story updates on The Old Republicís website, so I was pretty comfortable with the setting, but I think fans of the Tales of the Jedi or Knights of the Old Republic comics and videogames might be a little lost. Considering how much has changed in this era since those stories took place, a little more background in the beginning of the novel would probably have been helpful.
Williams does have a tendency to use combat obviously intended to invoke gameplay in order to fill page space. Itís not nearly as pronounced here as it was in The Force Unleashed, but early in the novel the pointless combat description detracted from the character and story development. In contrast, a few of the characters engage in political and philosophical discussions during the pitched final battle, which detracted from the excitement of those scenes. Williams is clearly working harder to strike a balance between fight scenes and character development, but itís not quite struck here.
That said, I was definitely interested in the characters of Fatal Alliance, and would have liked to see a little more resolution involving their storylines. Itís possible that they will show up again, either in The Old Republicís future comic or novel tie-ins, or even as NPCs within the game itselfÖbut Iím more than a little tired of seeing characters set up for theoretical future adventures that never pan out. We still donít know what happened to Ruins of Dantooineís Finn Darktrin or Dusque Mistflier (Who? Exactly.) or Sev of Republic Commandoóin fact, the entire Commando series is currently left in limbo. Itís just annoying.
While the story is generally strong, problems arise in the execution. At first glance, a Star Wars novel that spans more than 400 pages will probably be a welcome sight to those who have grown frustrated with the increasingly thin hardcovers that have been published of late, but I'm sorry to say that the pacing in Fatal Alliance is terrible. The first eighty pages drag horribly. Then it starts to pick up and we're treated to a really great action scene that is ruined by going on for chapters and chapters. Later, there are three or four chapters spent with the characters falling to a planet from a planet's upper atmosphere. Dragging it out like this completely kills any sense of immediacy going into what should be a final, exciting battle.
The story can basically be divided into three acts: Introduction to the characters, the events on Nal Hutta and the discovery of the discovery of a new enemy, and then the final battle which takes place in another star system.
Structurally, I would have liked more of a mystery running throughout the novel and I think it could have benefited from more galaxy-hopping to get where it ultimately goes. There were a lot of characters that could have been better explored if there were more things to do rather than long periods where nothing much seemed to happen, and I think the dynamics between them would have been far more interesting. A faster paced story would have helped all the way around.
The buildup to the final battle is really drawn out for far too long, only to have the fight itself fizzle out in an unsatisfying way. It's not so much the resolution to the story being disappointing as the execution of it. Hexes are first portrayed as nearly impossible to kill and then not all that dangerous despite no real advances in combating them and a lot more of them showing up. There were also some promising conflicts between characters, and in some cases within themselves, that really went nowhere.
Ultimately, the great possibilities in the Jedi/Sith alliance aren't realized and it's not very satisfying, especially where Ula's divided loyalties are concerned.
Being the first story in this time period, one would think that this would be accessible to almost anyone, even a reader with little to no knowledge of the Expanded Universe, but Williams does surprisingly little to illustrate a clear picture of the galaxy and what's going on. This is made confusing by the Republic's enemy being identified as "The Empire." If all you've ever seen are the Star Wars films, I imagine this is going to be fairly confusing, and even if you're someone who has read every other novel, I'm afraid you won't truly understand everything that's going on unless you've been following The Old Republic news as it's been coming out.
Instead of feeling like a new era in Star Wars, or even the previous Knights of the Old Republic games, the setting of Fatal Alliance feels like a strange amalgam of the Prequel and Original Trilogies. Much of this isn't really Williams fault, as this is clearly where the game developers are going with their story, but it still left me with a muddled portrait. There's no real explanation for why the Republic and Empire are fighting, or in this case, not fighting since it's a "cold war". This decision is probably = more for MMO purposes than anything. Still, we have no idea what the Empire's motives are or what they want, or even what has happened. There are mentions of the "sacking" of Coruscant and a vague treaty, but that's about it. I was able to follow it as I've been keeping reasonably informed on the video game updates, but I'm certain I would have been lost otherwise.
There was also nothing in Fatal Alliance that makes me want to play The Old Republic MMO. Not because of any flaws within it, but because there's nothing presented in the book that I feel the need to explore further or experience that way.
In the end, this book succeeds as a story but fails as an advertisement. Which isn't really a bad thing, in my opinion.
Blood tank. Thatís all Iím saying.
Pretty sure Norman Bates' mother makes an appearance.