Capturing that Childlike Star Wars Magic Again in Beware the Power of the Dark Side!

Beware the Power of the Dark Side! (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi)Beware the Power of the Dark Side! by Tom Angleberger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book surprised me in so many ways. Its tone, its insight, its author’s note (this man loves Star Wars so much it makes my eyes misty I swear). He’s got humility, and you suddenly realize how important that is for a writer of licensed material to have. This is a writer I can trust to handle the characters and people close to my heart.

Alright, here we go.

This is unquestionably my favorite book to come out of the rebooted canon of Star Wars so far. Why?

Tom Angleberger loves Star Wars with a child’s purity and passion, but he writes with an ironic insight that captures powerful, subtle layers of characterization and thematic importance, leaving no character untouched by an aside for motivations.

He is a true fan and with that love he gives everyone dignity, credit, and depth. On top of that there’s humor (the footnotes are golden), his prose sparkling with all the wide-eyed horror, cheek, and excitement only a child could experience, yet with the knowing thoughtfulness of an adult.

Let’s get back to that character and thematic insight…

There’s (albeit bite-sized) chapter-long contemplations dedicated to so many characters and events. We see Jerjerrod, not an evil man, but full of fear (and paperwork!), and we see through the littlest people working on the Death Star how easy evil is done by the simplest of actions that seem so very innocent. We see Yoda’s deft pathos, Luke’s anger, how the truth gave Vader a great power over Luke. We see Luke at Jabba’s palace, with the perfect mix of confusion, confidence, and conviction. We see Jabba, a great, evil, vicious heap, the essence of disgust… “Ah yes, now we come to the point where Jabba simply must be described.” We see how Mon Mothma stepped in as Leia’s parents in so many ways, and how the Ewoks can be pretty badass after all (re the Ewok council of war: “Things are said that are not cute.” Bless this fourth-wall-breaking, tongue-in-cheek, I’m-being-very-serious-and-yet!)

There are lines in this book I wish I could save forever. Angleberger has a talent for finding seemingly unconnected events and pointing out the thoughtful irony in them. All said with an absolute minimum of words and a joyous playfulness. It reminds me of what effective characterization can be achieved through the quality of brevity in style.

Return of the Jedi: Beware the Power of the Dark Side! is serious, hilarious, full of heart, pure joy, and thoughtful reflection. I think its magic comes from how much Angleberger loves the material and strove to bring his childhood love to life again, with the wide-eyed wonder that makes the same story new again.

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Heir to the Empire, what a Star Wars novel supposed to look like

Heir to the Empire (Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy, #1)Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ever since stepping into Star Wars, I’ve been dabbling in the (old and new) Expanded Universe books and comics. There’s so much to read about, so many people who truly love Star Wars who’ve written amazing things in it, and right now I’m almost tempted to make a series on my Adventures in Star Wars. Anyway, so far Timothy Zahn is the gold standard for SW novels. Here’s why.

I don’t even know where to start with my outright love for this book and Zahn’s writing. So many licensed books (and sequels) get things wrong. They’re out-of-character, uninventive, and a disrespect to the original story that inspired them. But this book gets it right. It develops familiar characters with dignity and gravity, and invents new, three-dimensional characters that carry a vast presence on the page.

We see Luke Skywalker with the same quiet, serious conviction that defined his arc in Return of the Jedi, but facing new fears as he questions his ability to be the Jedi his masters were, with no one to teach him but his own instincts and grounded morality. We see Han Solo, still as wry and witty as ever, but with the added sense of responsibility for not only his new wife but his unborn children. Leia holds her own, under attack by mysterious assassins, while learning the ways of the Force and her new lightsaber (oh how I wish she would have still become a Jedi in the Disney canon…). Characters are not taken for granted and are written with introspective awareness of their own journeys and their own beliefs. This is everything a Star Wars book needs to be to do justice to the incredible characters that gave life to the original. I am in love.

Zahn’s brilliant grasp on understanding a character’s core spills over into his new creations, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Grand Admiral Thrawn, and the dark Jedi Joruus C’baoth. Foundational characters in the (now uncrowned) Star Wars Expanded Universe. And no wonder. None of them act out of simple hatred or rage, despite playing the “bad guys” of the story. He writes them with a surety of beliefs and conviction, clear and purposed goals, and complex motivations. They are people, with the nuances that come with that distinction.

Zahn is effortless with the concepts that make this story as a whole so vastly well-rounded. He’s got military strategy down like an expert — Thrawn is a real commander, the kind that could lead a successful army in real life… the guy’s a genius tactician, psychologist, and a great leader. The dogfights and battles spark of tangible reality and down-to-earth strategics, with physics a very real presence in so many tactics employed by Luke and others. Zahn’s got economy, he’s got politics, he’s got a stunning imagination for fantastic, but scientifically-grounded world-building (such as Lando’s walking city).

The details here aren’t arbitrary and we don’t get any lame references to nerf nuggets, hit singles, and throw-in-a-holo-prefix to create a world (sorry Heir to the Jedi is still my standard for a bad Star Wars novel). Instead, there’s logistics to Zahn’s worlds, unassuming uniqueness in his invention of terms and customs.

And then there’s the plot and humor. Zahn’s sense of comedy is so low-key and situational. Somehow he makes grand tense scenes like the ones between Thrawn and C’baoth both full of bone fide suspense and dignity, and equal parts squabbling crack. It’s utterly brilliant. The plot doesn’t try to reach beyond itself or be too mind-blowing, but is based on a sense of logistics with the new Republic and the scraps of the old Empire. Han is out trying to recruit smugglers to aid the Republic shipping and economics. Thrawn is recruiting the dark Jedi C’baoth to mentally unify the fleet into efficiency (while planning for his big attack). Elements fall together with insane (and sometimes humorous) genius, and build up with suspense and mystery. It’s small scale enough to feel like the little people that populate Star Wars, epic enough to feel like the largest ILM battle sequences.

The old Expanded Universe might have been scrapped, but to me this stuff is canon. It captures more of the heart and soul of the characters and the story of Star Wars than so many other books, and I only hope they use the template of deft characterization here to define what’s coming in the EU.

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