Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Allegiance, by Timothy Zahn

This week I'm dipping, at least for a little bit, back into the world of Star Wars with another Timothy Zahn novel, in this case Allegiance, which is read by Marc Thompson. Readers of my blog may be passingly familiar with Timothy Zahn as I've mentioned him before on the blog and actually have reviewed one of his other books, Scoundrels. And when I was younger and only slightly more foolish than I am now I also read probably Zahn's most famous work, the Thrawn Trilogy, as well as the Hand of Thrawn Duology which followed much later. Overall Zahn has a very good reputation as a science fiction writer in general and specifically in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (which of course is all irrelevant now anyway, but that's another conversation.)

Quality has always been a bit of a problem in the heady days when the Expanded Universe grew free like a kudzu vine, smothering everything with its choking and expansive embrace. Some of the books read as little more than very bad fanfiction which was given the Lucasfilm sanction, if we're being entirely honest, to get another dime out of the franchise. (A favorite example one of my friends likes to bring up is the truly awful Jedi Prince series, which the excuse of being made for children simply does not excuse its numerous sins.) Zahn stands out in this field for creating compelling and interesting storylines as well as depicting Imperial characters, who were all too often depicted as third-rate stage villains chewing the scenery and gloating in being evil for evil's sake, as actual three-dimensional characters with motivations and reasons for behaving the way they do. They may not be terribly good reasons, but they're still good reasons. And with a title like Allegiance, I was hoping Zahn would deliver more interesting characters and situations.

The story is set sometime between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back where the Rebellion, although buoyed by its success in destroying the Death Star, is still a long way away from toppling the Empire and restoring freedom to the galaxy. In fact the Alliance is still in very great danger of falling apart at the seams. The plot starts out with three separate threads which eventually come together into one overarching plot towards the end of the novel. First we have what I consider the least interesting plot, which is Han, Luke, and Leia who are doing a variety of things to keep the Alliance functioning, such as investigating pirate raids on rebel supply lines and playing the careful game of diplomacy among the Alliance's more individualistic leaders.

I say this plot is probably the least interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, thanks to the movies we know what happens to Han, Luke, and Leia so there're protected by plot armor the entire time. They may be in danger, but they'll be alive and well for Empire, as we already know. Secondly, you remember how Luke was still kind of a whiny kid in A New Hope and how Han wasn't really into the whole Rebellion thing in the first place? Zahn really emphasizes that in this novel and while it's certainly true to the characters, it's traits that I don't really enjoy in them as characters. Luke especially is far more enjoyable when he grows into being an awesome Jedi Knight instead of the whiny farm kid from nowhere. And finally Zahn also brings back a really awkward and unfortunate aspect of the old trilogy. See, you guys kind of remember how in A New Hope and in Empire Strikes Back there was that vague, poorly developed love triangle between Han, Luke, and Leia? That was like vague enough to not be fully developed but unfortunately included this?
Which gets really really awkward in hindsight when they decided to make Luke and Leia siblings? Yeah, Zahn brings that vague, uncomfortable sense of awkwardness back with a bit of a vengence. I could also go on about how there's a point where Luke gets out of a situation only because the voice of Obi-wan Kenobi, who apparently read the script, tells him exactly what to do, but on further reflection that's actually not that far off from the movies either so I'll just let it go at this point.

The second plotline involves Mara Jade in her role as the Emperor's Hand, something which old veterans of the EU such as myself would be familiar with but maybe not newcomers. Basically while Darth Vader was the highly public enforcer of the Emperor's will, using the sledgehammers of Star Destroyers and stormtrooper legions, Mara Jade was more like a scalpel. The Emperor used her to infiltrate and investigate all levels of the imperial hierarchy, searching for and exposing treason. While she could act publicly, she much preferred to act clandestinely from the shadows. In this book Mara's investigating a plot which could involve an entire sector government for all she knows. This plot's slightly more interesting, for me at least, but as I also know what happens to Mara in the EU there's that lack of tension as well.

The third plot, and what I consider the most interesting, revolves around a group of five stormtroopers who eventually call themselves the Hand of Judgement. All five of them had seen the Empire do good things for the galaxy, bring about law and order, suppress pirates, help fill the vacuum after the Clone Wars, and all of them jumped at the chance to serve in the Empire's elite stormtrooper corps. However after a massacre on Teardrop, when they're ordered to eliminate an entire village of civilians just because they're suspected of being Rebel sympathizers, they begin questioning if the Empire's still worth serving. After an incident on their Star Destroyer in which one of them accidentally kills an officer, they're left with no choice but to run and question whether the Empire is still worth serving. This was the plot I was most interested in, if for nothing else than it introduces new characters who aren't guaranteed to come out of this alive, and I've always had a bit of fondness for redshirts and their cousins across science fiction, like the stormtroopers. If the book had been more about these guys, with just a little bit less about more familiar characters I think I'd recommend it more strongly, but they unfortunately have to share the spotlight in this instance. 

I do want to compliment Marc Thompson who goes to great lengths to provide unique voices for the characters in the novel. He certainly does a serviceable young Luke and Han Solo impression and while it's a little odd to hear a stormtrooper with a Texas drawl or a vaguely New Jersey accent, it certainly helps to keep the characters apart when you're listening instead of reading. The inclusion of music from the series, as well as sound effects, also helps to make you feel like you're really there in the Star Wars universe and makes it a more complete experience. My only regret is that Thompson, through no fault of his own, really only has one voice for female characters so Leia and Mara Jade ended up sounding a lot alike to me. I know it would probably add to the cost, which they might not be willing to pay as there's a tragically low number of female characters in Star Wars, but I think it would certainly help to have a female voice actor for the female parts in novels, but that's just me. 

Overall, the book is okay, but not great. Like I said, two of the three main plots didn't overly interest me so it was kind of hard to get too terribly invested. There are some interesting character debates about allegiance, as per the title, and what they're loyal to and why they're loyal to the things they are, but it's probably not the best work done on the subject. Zahn's writing is okay, but there were definitely some weak points and I don't think this is the best thing he's produced for the EU. The introduction of new characters and pointing out that not everyone who serves the Empire is blind to its problems certainly adds depth to the series, but there are better examples from this author, let alone this series. 

- Kalpar

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