Friday, February 25, 2011

Review: Knight Errant by John Jackson Miller

Around a thousand years before the Star Wars movies, in a time of a waning Old Republic which has been in a kind of “dark ages”, pulling back and allowing many warring Sith Lords to take control of outer-rim territories; Kerra, has been left behind enemy lines struggling to remember what it means to be a Jedi Knight. The story begins in the territory of one such Sith Lord, Daimon; and wow, is he one crazy lunatic. What a brilliant idea for a villain though; he literally thinks he's God. Everyone is a figment of his imagination, and they must all talk to him as though he already knows everything there is to know in the universe. But later on we get to see his frustration at not being able to directly control people - that Force persuasion isn't enough for him, he believes he should control it all. But he also believes that any obstacle is just something he himself, in his ultimate wisdom, put in his way of achieving his ultimate goal - whatever that is. His homeworld is a totalitarian state where the people believe the suns orbiting the world are their lord's eyes, watching them at all times. Statues of him speak at various points, proclaiming the dawning of a new day in Daiman’s name as well as summoning people to his presence. Kerra is trying to find a way to put an end to his tyranny, but it seems a near impossible task - until she happens across Narsk, a Bothan spy for Daiman's brother Odion. Narsk was in possession of a stealth suit, and once Kerra “acquires” it from him, she uses it to infiltrate Daiman's temple. It's here that both she and Narsk, who is now in Daiman's custody, learn of a trap that Daiman is setting for his brother - to draw him out and destroy him. Daiman recruits mercenaries to help him spring the trap, including Brigadier Rusher and the crew of the Diligence, a scorpion-like craft that is a merging of other ships into this one design. Through a series of misadventures, Kerra and Rusher wind up retreating from the battlefield together, along with a group of refugee children who were caught in the crossfire. Rusher flees into another sith's territory - hoping to find someplace safe to dump off his unexpected and unwelcome passengers. The Dyarchy seems like a good place until Kerra’s investigations show the people of the planet to be completely uncommunicative. A pair of Sith twins, reminding me of a twisted version of what might have happened to Luke and Leia if they had fallen into the hands of the Emperor, are behind it all – completely controlling the will of people and erasing any will of their own. But even as Kerra realizes that separating the twins removes their power over the populace, a newcomer comes on the scene – Sith Lady Arkadia. She is unlike any Kerra has met before; she seems almost normal, treating her people with respect and allowing them freedom to learn and have families, so long as their jobs are ultimately to the benefit of her society. On the frozen world of Syned, under domes which protect the people from the hostile airless void, they harvest a fungus which has many purposes, from a fuel and food source, to a deadly poison. Still, Kerra starts to believe that here her refugees will at least be safe there just looking to find a lesser of evils so she can get back to her real mission. But when Arkadia gives her the kind of intelligence she’s been looking for on why there are warring Sith factions, as well as a means to completely send all the Sith into disarray – will she take the mission even if it means going against her Jedi code? I absolutely loved Knight Errant, the latest Star Wars book release from Del Rey; everything about it from the writing and the characters to the setting and plot. The opening of the novel sets the right tone, introducing the reader to the hero in a very different way; as the one who's skulking around and only partially behaving as we have been trained to think a Jedi should. The ability to turn things on its ear is something that I feel like John Jackson Miller is especially good at. I found Kerra to be a very engaging Jedi Knight, not really at all like anything I feel like I've seen before. She's young and driven, not inexperienced per-se but still learning the difference between Jedi teachings and the realities of a universe where a person will need to decide what must be done, and also draw the line that they're not willing to go past to accomplish those ends. She’s focused on her task and less empathic towards others at the start of the book, but still a Jedi at heart. Mostly I just felt like I had to let go of some of my own preconceptions of what I thought a Jedi should be, or how I think a Jedi should respond to a given situation. The Sith Lords were endlessly fascinating; expanding on an idea I feel has only been touched upon elsewhere; that there were all different kinds of Sith Lords. To me, even though they've carried different names, they've all seemed relatively the same - but not so in Knight Errant. Each society is different, completely unique, and very compelling to read about. Another thing JJM really managed to do with this era was make me understand why and how the technology of the Star Wars universe winds up feeling like it remains the same from the The Old Republic era through to the movies. There is a massive stagnation brought about essentially by this Dark Ages period - the holonet throughout most of the outer rim has been taken down, Sith lords dominate many different areas, so much of the galaxy is in decline - and the Jedi aren't really doing more than holding the line. I can see how not only were things stagnant, in many ways the whole galaxy was moving backwards, losing the knowledge they previously had. The fleshing out of this whole time-period has been great so far, and I look forward to more. The action was what I expect from a Star Wars novel, with multiple battles and a spectacular final location; like a lightsaber battle taking place during the Hoth battle in Empire Strikes Back. If I were to have any complaints about Knight Errant, and they're really rather minor, I'd say they are these. First, I could tell that this story was based on a few arcs that the author had planned for the comic series - they play out very much like comic book arcs. I'm a big comic fan, so that didn't bother me, but it sort of leads into my second complaint. Sometimes it felt like information was being given to the reader of the book in a comic-book way. Like I was being told information that would have been "voiceover" work in panels showing me scenes from a particular world. This continued with conversations, where characters would be engaging in dialogue, only to have it switch to a description of what was being told to a character, instead of just having characters speak the words. I'm a fan of dialogue - so I'd rather see the characters interact with each other and play off of each other than have the information just passed along to me as expediently as possible. Still, none of those things kept me from completely enjoying Knight Errant. It's one of the best Star Wars books I feel like I've read in ages, very original, very different from anything else I've read any time recently. If I wasn't already completely sold on picking up the comic, I would be now, and I only hope that Miller is given a chance to write another book in this series.


Michael Offutt said...

I'm totally buying this book now because of this review. The description that the author has obviously gone to in differentiating the Sith Lords drew me in. The idea of orbiting suns being the eyes of God watching you is pretty awesome I have to say.

Sally Sapphire said...

Sounds interesting. The Star Wars novels have been hit or miss for me, but I like the concept behind this one.