Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Shadows of the Empire (Steve Perry, Bantam Books, 1996)

Well, readers, here's something a little different for us here at Paperback Perils.  I've mentioned in the past that my girlfriend Gina reads a lot of Star Wars novels, and I've given her a few tentative nudges into the realm of the Star Wars books I was reading as a kid - before the release of the prequel trilogy and all that.  Her main area of interest in the Star Wars universe is the formation of the Old Republic, the rise of the Jedi Order, and then the history of the Sith and the Dark Side of the Force.  My main interest in the Star Wars universe is what comes after RETURN OF THE JEDI and the various side-stories of characters you see for two seconds in the movies.  So among the books I've bought her to show her my side of the Force, besides the anthologies detailing the stories of the bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and the stories of the hangers-on at Jabba the Hutt's palace, is this one, a novel set between EMPIRE and JEDI.

I still vividly remember when this book came out, because there was a huge multimedia campaign - the book, video games, action figures, model kits, trading cards, etc., all promoting this story.  I had a couple of the action figures in the "Shadows of the Empire" line, and I remember building the model kit of the ship Virago.  She hasn't read it yet, and I decided it'd make an interesting change of pace to go back and re-read it after almost 20 years.

The novel focuses on the power struggle between Darth Vader, who should need no further introduction, and Prince Xizor, the head of the Black Sun criminal syndicate and Vader's sole rival for the favor of the Emperor.  Xizor has an additional, personal stake in the game, in that he blames Vader for his family's deaths about a decade prior to the events depicted here.  Xizor desires to supplant Vader at the Emperor's side, and ultimately usurp the power of the Emperor himself.  Learning that the Emperor wants Luke Skywalker alive or dead, and determining that Vader wants the boy alive, Xizor sets to work having Skywalker captured, with the intent of delivering his corpse to the Emperor.

Meanwhile, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian -- I feel like I really shouldn't have to introduce anybody, right? -- are working to find and rescue Han Solo, frozen in Carbonite and on his way to Jabba the Hutt's palace.  Aiding them is Dash Rendar, a smuggler and hot-shot pilot, who's just in it for the credits - a line we've heard before from another smuggler and hot-shot pilot.

Xizor quickly sets his sights on Leia not only as bait to capture Luke with, but as a personal conquest as well, a feat within his grasp due to his alien pheromones.  But will his immediate, physical desires interfere with the long game he's playing for galactic power?

Books like this, and revisiting the "Tales of the Bounty Hunters" and "Tales from Jabba's Palace" collections make me lament what the Star Wars universe has become in recent years.  There's a richness here, and an incredible degree of continuity maintained for years by a dozen authors or more interconnecting their works with each other.  And now a lot of that is being swept under the rug and filed away as "nope, doesn't count."

I like the Vader we get here, when we're treated to scenes from his perspective, much more than the Vader that developed over the course of the prequel trilogy.  The Vader on display here is much more in keeping with the now-outmoded "samurai" interpretation of the Jedi, a man of honor who lives by a code, albeit one fueled by rage and despair.  He's given hopes and goals that make sense within the context of his character, and a clear path he's taking to accomplish those goals.  This is the Vader who ultimately tossed the Emperor into a reactor core, and this novel develops the path that led him to that act in a way that's fully believable.

This review is not meant to be Lucas-bashing; I recognize that he has his ideas for where the story of Star Wars should go, as is his right as creator, and I also recognize that much of my preference for the Expanded Universe provided in fiction written prior to 1999 can be chalked up to nostalgia.  This is the Vader I had first, so I cherish it more.

I really liked the political thriller aspect of Shadows, the emphasis on the "game" Vader and Xizor are playing as they compete for the Emperor's favor, believing that their subterfuge goes under the Emperor's radar, when he is in fact encouraging them against one another to ensure he winds up with the strongest and shrewdest second-in-command.  The contrast between Xizor's breezy self-assuredness and Vader's secret self-doubts makes their contest that much more compelling, and I at least found myself rooting for Vader against the decadent criminal.

Even more rewarding is watching Xizor's arrogant conviction of his own superiority set the dominoes in motion for his eventual downfall.  Just following him through minor miscalculations or making advances off assumptions that ultimately snowball out beyond his ability to return from.

On the side of the heroes, we're treated to very vulnerable versions of the characters we know and love from the original trilogy: Luke is struggling to master his connection to the Force and wondering if he has what it takes to become a Jedi Knight, while Leia is striving to find a balance between her personal feelings towards Han (and Luke, whom she does not yet know is her brother) and her need to serve the greater good of the Rebellion.  Lando is working to regain Leia and Chewbacca's trust after being forced by Vader to betray them.  They're all profoundly vulnerable in a way that makes their accomplishments over the course of the novel that much more rewarding.

We also get a few scenes setting up things we see later in RETURN OF THE JEDI: Luke constructing a new lightsaber, Leia acquiring the disguise and thermal detonator she uses to bluff her way into Jabba's palace.  It's a nice couple nods to the film without being overpowering.

The only real weak point is Dash Rendar - he's very clearly a temporary surrogate for Han Solo, and so never really feels like a full character in his own right.  He's Han Solo with the cockiness cranked up to the point where it grates.  I think the novel would have been stronger if he didn't feel so much like a straight clone of Han Solo; I liked the back story he was given, that his family was banished from Coruscant and he was kicked out of the Imperial Navy after a brother accidentally crashed a freighter into a building owned by the Emperor.  I also liked the arc he got after he believed he'd failed to stop a missile from destroying a ship full of Bothan allies; but the character overall felt too much like Han Solo for my tastes.

Overall, revisiting this novel nineteen years after first reading it was very enjoyable; being older and, I like to think, wiser now, I feel like there was a lot more nuance that I picked up on this time around.  It wasn't perfect, like I said I thought the character of Dash Rendar weakened much of the book, but the intrigue between Xizor, Vader and the Emperor was excellent and I found it enriching to the cinematic material surrounding the novel.  There's some suggestions that a sequel was being set up, as neither Xizor nor his assistant Guri die on-screen, and there are a couple passages that suggest their was some intent to bring them back at a later date to seek revenge on Skywalker.  While this does not appear to have happened to date, I've read enough pulp literature to know you can't keep a good villain down.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent review! I enjoyed Shadows as a kid, and have been recently revisiting the expanded universe books from the '90s in the build-up to Episode VII. Always loved Tales from Jabba's Palace, too.

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    1. I love Tales from Jabba's Palace - Gina's not a fan, because most of the hangers-on at the palace are such horrible individuals that she doesn't feel like she can root for them in their own stories. She liked Tales of the Bounty Hunters much better (and I can't help but feel robbed by the "canon" origin of Boba Fett given in the prequel trilogy after reading his story in that), and I haven't sprung Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina on her yet.

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