Paul: No Prisoners is a good Star Wars novel, and it makes me a little disappointed that Karen Traviss will no longer write for the franchise. It’s a fast-paced adventure combining space-navy combat, Jedi skills, and an infiltration mission, told in a way that reminds me a lot of Timothy Zahn’s style of storytelling.
The story is relatively straightforward, and fast-paced. It’s also a tie-in to the Clone Wars cartoon series, so there’s a strong focus on Ahsoka and Captain Rex, which is no bad thing. They’re aboard a Republic warship for a training mission, but when this intersects with a botched intelligence infiltration on the Outer Rim, they have to go in and stage a rescue.
Needless to say, this change of plan reaches the ears of the young man who’s about to become Darth Vader, prompting him to leap out of Padmé’s bed on Coruscant and charge off to help them without a second thought—but he isn’t the only Jedi to show up as the plotlines converge, leading to an unexpected collision of ideals and a thoughtful conclusion. Along the way, we get a wide range of well-told scenes, from a glimpse inside a Separatist cell, to big-ship space-combat and some impressive Jedi tricks—held together by a white-armoured backbone of commando heroism.
There are a lot of things that I rather like about this novel. Ahsoka and Rex are spot-on characterizations, and act almost exactly as I would have expected. It was also nice to see a younger Captain Pellaeon, and other old friends from the Bantam era of Star Wars continuity.
The military ambience is authentic, as are the diversity of attitudes it unites. True, the British-sounding idioms and attitudes are perhaps a little different than the Prussian strictness of the Imperial Fleet in The Empire Strikes Back, but that might be deliberate, and taken on the simplest level, this is high-quality space-navy storytelling, some of the best I’ve read. And it’s not the best thing in the novel, either.
The depiction of the situation on JanFathal, a Republic ally simmering on the edge of revolution, is probably the most surprising and effective of the novel’s varied plotlines—and it loses nothing for being replaced mid-story with martial law and battles by off-world soldiers in the streets of the capital. But that’s not the best thing in the novel, either.
Also, while I did still encounter a little of the frustration I’ve felt in several of Traviss’s previous books (see my reviews of her “Legacy of the Force” novels, Bloodlines, Sacrifice, and Revelation), it didn’t get in the way of the story so much here, and it was offset for me by moments of real wonder.
To explain what I’m talking about, I want to focus for a moment on the novel’s depiction of a group of unconventional rogue Jedi. Traviss has stated in the past that she distrusts the self-justifications of the mainstream Jedi Order, and I did wonder if these anti-establishment characters were deliberately introduced as a version of the Jedi Order more amenable to her own views... but this didn’t bother me in the slightest, and not just because a positive example is generally a better thing than the criticism of others. These were likeable and flawed characters, and the hints of an authorial message were overcome by the memorable portrayal of their leader, Master Altis—a man stubborn enough to extend his scepticism even to his own values. By raising doubts about their ideals, Traviss helped them to seem like stronger and more genuine human beings.
In contrast, I was slightly underwhelmed by the portrayal of the one fully-paid-up member in good standing of the Jedi Order in No Prisoners—the black-leather-wearing knight who completes his transformation into Darth Vader in Episode III. Young Skywalker came across as unattractively selfish and bratty, and it seemed all too easy for him to blame the Jedi Order and its resentment-inducing rules for his own issues.
Probably, this was deliberate; perhaps, it was even meant to excite our sympathy for him as a mere victim of élites and their agendas; but by suggesting that he couldn’t stand up for himself, it did him no favours. There was none of the sense of controlled, predatory danger that lurks in this character, and which would have made him seem more impressive, if not more likeable.
On the other hand, this may not entirely be about the character: Jedi Skywalker’s ‘issues’ are tied up with a much bigger issue, the question of Jedi chastity—and the way that this was handled was about the only thing that I felt was notably off-balance in No Prisoners.
The rule that Jedi must avoid physical and emotional ‘attachments’ plays a relatively important thematic role in the novel, but the genuinely troubling idea, namely that the Jedi Order simply assumes that its members have a vocation, was muddled up with a couple of more justifiable and interesting concepts: the ideal of bodily purity, and the avoidance of social commitments in case they lead to corruption.
In the end, I was left with a slight sense that the novel was attacking the wrong thing.
Perhaps that wasn’t the author’s intention: it could have been intended to reflect the logical veiwpoints of the characters involved—a confused teenager, an illegally-married knight, a clone commander who finds philosophy unrealistic, and some openly critical Jedi radicals; if you dig a little, you could even produce a reading of this novel that connects their confusion over moral purity to the mess they’re in as Palpatine’s dupes in the Clone Wars. All the same, this reviewer feels that it would have been possible to make the criticism more nuanced: Master Altis, especially, could have given the Jedi Council’s attitude a sympathetic presentation, even while he stands against it.
On the other hand, this didn’t wreck the novel for me, either, or even come close, and that’s important.
Overall, this is all minor stuff—I enjoyed this novel more than any Traviss book I’ve read since Hard Contact. And I don’t think Mandalorians were mentioned once in this book, which shows that Karen Traviss definitely doesn’t need that prop to write a good, proper, Star Wars novel.
Additionally, given the criticism that Traviss has attracted from some quarters over her handling of the complex and weighty backstory of the franchise, it’s worth emphasising that there are only a few minor—and I really do mean minor—continuity quirks.
Yes, characters occasionally fail to mention things that they might be expected to know based on their detailed backstory, or else they act in ways that conflict with their behaviour in novels set later on the timeline; and this might niggle fans with a retentive memory for trivia, or particular interests in certain topics. For example, s65horsey, who some of you might know as a Mod on our Jedi Council message-boards might, be disappointed by the lack of references to the Corellian Jedi of the Halcyon family, whose name could have come up once or twice in the discussions in this novel.
On the other hand... most of these omissions were probably made knowingly, for the sake of narrative clarity or due to the fact that Clone Wars continuity is rather in flux. The casual reader is unlikely to notice any of these (and really, that’s the point), and even obsessive fans might think this simplification is beneficial or justified—it’s simply a matter of personal taste. There’s nothing here that’s as obvious as the complete re-imagining of established eras of the Old Republic that Drew Karpyshyn seems to enjoy, and no shocking mischaracterizations.
Another thing that struck me as unusual about this novel was the lack of clear descriptions, especially in the space scenes. This isn’t really a weakness—it’s not easy to write detailed “movie-camera” descriptive passages within the tight character POVs that Karen Traviss uses to such good effect. Once again, many readers might think the payoff is worth it.
Of course, for a book that’s linked to something as visual as the Clone Wars cartoons, this novel felt oddly abstract at some moments—but perhaps that subtle dissonance is appropriate, because the best moment of all in No Prisoners is the moment at which the perceptions of readers and characters alike get transformed in a very unexpected way.
One of the Jedi—one of Master Altis’s self-confidently counter-cultural heroes—has to use her Force skills to reach out into the computer systems of a warship, and suddenly, as she wraps her aura around these alien pathways, she finds her entire perspective and attitude flipped around, losing herself in the new perceptions and sensations of power and sensors and circuitry—and the sheer exhilarating difference of the new perspective.
This was in many senses the climax of the novel, and also the most stylistically elevated passage—the shifts in tone that express the change were subtle but wholly effective. This also represented the moment when this novel, carried along with the character, leapt beyond its limits, and became something more: something that was perhaps strange, but also exhilarating and surprising, suggesting possibilities beyond the frame of the character’s expectations and assumptions.
It was, in short, Star Wars.
Overall, No Prisoners is a story that stands up solidly as an adventure novel, as Star Wars, and in the specific billet of being a Clone Wars TV tie-in. Moreover, it shows the emotional, intellectual and narrative range that Karen Traviss is capable of writing across, and it serves as a massive rebuttal to an easy cliché that’s accepted in some parts of the Star Wars fandom: this novel loses nothing when it ventures beyond the limits that its author has, unfairly, come to be associated with.
A solid 2.9 out of 4, or 72.5%.