Monday, September 23, 2013

Star Wars Book Review: Empire and Rebellion: Razor's Edge by Martha Wells

Martha Wells is a new author to the Star Wars universe. It's about time for me to pull apart one of her books and see what she's about. Razor's Edge is a part of Empire and Rebellion, a trilogy of novels set during the years of the first Star Wars films. Well I say a trilogy, I mean a trilogy kicked off by an “unrelated” Timothy Zahn book to draw the Expanded Universe audience back to the era. Well, I say a trilogy plus one, I mean an era that has enough comics and novels to definitively prove that Han, Luke and Leia did not have time to sleep between Death Stars. Well, I say that, I mean I like that scene from “Army of Ghosts” a little too much. In any case, Razor's Edge is set in the general vicinity of Splinter of the Mind's Eye, Allegiance, Choices of One and Scoundrels, though I think I can more definitively state that it is set later than Scoundrels but before Allegiance, giving us a freelancer Han who has come to enjoy Leia's company, a Leia who doesn't know what to think about Han and has come to trust Luke, and a Luke who is still a green recruit with something to prove.

It is with this cast that we embark on the story of Razor's Edge, in which Leia's diplomatic mission – with Han Solo as escort – is attacked by both Imperials and pirates, each of which seems to know a lot more about their movements than they have any right to. It's not long from there before Han and Leia become captives of the pirates, and Luke and Chewbacca are dispatched to rescue them.

If this sounds like a standard Star Wars set-up, you're right, but it does deviate from the mold. Where from one of the long-time Star Wars authors, such as Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, or Aaron Allston this set up would include a story about Luke and Chewie's exploits up until their rendezvous with Leia's group, in Razor's Edge Well slices this side story off like one might trim the fat from the side of a pork chop. I don't use that analogy by accident – while a skilled chef might be able to use that fat to season the rest of the meat, its loss does not greatly hurt the overall dish, and may result in less unnecessary padding. So it is in Razor's Edge, where Han and Leia have no need for Luke to stumble into information about the enemy; they are perfectly capable of finding it on their own.

Unfortunately, without this side-plot, there's really no reason for Luke to be here. Lando Calrissian would actually have been a better companion, if not for the fact that Leia is not intended to meet him for several more years. Luke shows up about halfway through the book, spends most of the time aboard the Falcon, and has one scene where he does something exciting but not particularly memorable. I can't help but wonder if his inclusion at all wasn't a bit of a marketing decision: Luke, Han, Leia and Chewbacca in each book of the trilogy. Come to think of it, Han got his own book in Scoundrels; there's no reason this couldn't have been Leia's book without her brother or future husband, with later books being dedicated to Chewie and Luke. This would give each of the characters some breathing room for once (I expect once I truly dig into the timeline of this era, I will find that every day of this part of the war has been meticulously plotted), plus the fact that I just gave an opening for a Chewbacca book! Okay, Chewie was in Scoundrels, but isn't it about time for a book from Chewbacca's point of view detailing some of the more important events in his life that we don't normally see to be written? It's high time for the foreign friend no one can understand to have his moment in the sunshine, but I digress.

Luke isn't the only reason I think this book would have been better without the added weight of Leia's traditional companions. She spends much of this book with Han, which is largely a good thing. Each has the opportunity to shine in their own type of story. The problem is where they collide. Razor's Edge is trapped between the era it takes place in and the era in which it was written. That means that even though many readers would find any setup for the relationship between Leia and Han tedious, it's actually needed as it hasn't been explored at this stage yet. On top of that, no matter how far it goes, both the author and the reader are fully aware that the couple's first kiss will not happen for several more years. The result of this odd positioning is that out of nowhere there are a number of really awkward scenes of Han and Leia each acting like borderline sex offenders, staring at one another at really odd moments with no explanation, even a moment where Leia yells at Han for being too sexy while he positions not to get a painful cramp during an important security discussion. There's really no way to win here, as some fans would feel cheated were this mini-sub-plot left out completely, and it's clear that this is not the focus of the book.

Another moment where Han and Leia crashing into one another is a bit more literal. Han has a very specific style of heroism about him most of the time. He is an action-comedy character, the one who accidentally saves the day, or does so intentionally in the most humiliating way possible. Even when there's nothing funny about the act in and of itself, it still tends to come at a particularly opportune moment, such as Han's method of saving Luke from the Death Star. Unfortunately, this clashes with Leia's subplot, which is one that allows her to partake in all the action-adventure heroism that is more frequently associated with male characters while not diminishing her role as a woman and a diplomat. All of this can't help but come across as a commentary, intentional or not, on the state of Science Fiction in general, as the writing and portrayal of heroines is a hotly contested issue across the board at the moment. None of the things I've described are problems on their own, but when you add a bumbling hero with a tendency to save people at the last minute to a heroine who tends to put herself in harm's way and is also attractive to him, it's very simple to send the wrong message by accident. It's easy to see the steps that led up to this mistake, which makes it all that much more understandable, but also all that much more disappointing.

The last minor complaint I have about Razor Edge – and one that keeps it from being the 1970s-1990s era Star Wars book it comes close to being – is the humor. While I mention that Han is a bumbling comedic hero, he is still written here as more of the somber veteran than the noble clown. This book about piracy, slavery, death and betrayal could really use some comic interludes to lighten the tone at times, but the “lean cut” I described earlier keeps everything focused on just how dreary and dark things are. There are a few light-hearted or comedic moments, but for characters that lend themselves so naturally to such moments, there are relatively few. Where's Blue Max when you need him, eh?

Razor's Edge is a good book, with some great action. This might be the first time we really see Han and Leia – correct that, Leia and Han – starring in an action novel of this sort, and while Han pulls out all of the stops that you expect from someone who has done this way too many times now, Leia really shines as she is put to the test in every conceivable way. As somebody who owns and loves a wide variety of Star Wars novels, the negatives I pointed out didn't go a huge way toward dampening my spirits while reading, but they did lead to some raised eyebrows and hold me back from considering this to be one of my favorite Star Wars novels of all time. If Ewoks, Wes Janson and dreadnaughts shaped like a lightsaber are essential to your Star Wars experience this might be one to pass over – ditto if swinging lightsabers and mind tricks are – but if you count Scoundrels, Rogue Squadron and Republic Commando as your cup of tea, you won't regret picking up Razor's Edge.

1 comment:

Maurice Mitchell said...

I love swinging lightsabers and mind tricks so I'd enjoy this one William.