Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: "Star Wars - Death Star" by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

I have to admit to being a bit skeptical when this novel came out - at first glance, it seemed like one of those "Untold Tale" types that suffer from either too many or too few continuity plugs, and which ultimately overcomplicate the original story to the point where you're really better off without it.

But Michael Reaves and Steve Perry have actually done quite a good job here by exploiting a legitimate gap in the narrative: the Death Star is already complete and operational when "A New Hope" begins, so the novel starts with the station still under construction and runs all the way through to the Battle of Yavin.

What makes this book so interesting is the fact that it omits the Rebel perspective entirely, and only occasionally focuses on familiar faces like Vader or Tarkin. Instead, Reaves and Perry assemble a cast of no less than nine protagonists, all original characters whose separate plotlines intertwine while staying just outside the scope of the film's main events. Sometimes they even influence those events in subtle ways - for example, the attempt to rescue Princess Leia succeeds in part because librarian Atour Riten secretly overrides the security locks on the detention center elevators.

This sort of thing isn't revisionism per se, but it's still an attention to minutiae that probably wouldn't justify an entire novel. However, as it turns out, the book's not really about the Death Star at all. Which is fortunate given that you probably know what happened to it. Rather, it's about a group of people either in service to the Empire or indifferent towards it, their exposure to the true monstrosity of Palpatine and his servants, and their response. Reaves and Perry stress that none of our protagonists think the Empire will ever use the Death Star (theoretically, its mere existence is enough to end the war) but of course, they're proven wrong. And in the aftermath of Alderaan's destruction - finally given due gravitas - the various clusters of characters start to come together and form a conspiracy. And while they're not the most profound bunch, our heroes are sympathetic enough that I became invested in their stories, which is more than I can say for about ninety percent of the Expanded Universe's population.

"Death Star" is a welcome alternative to the traditional depiction of the Empire as a faceless, anonymous hive-mind mass represented by singular villains like Vader or the Emperor; there have been "street-level" stories about the Empire before, but the perspective was always from the outside, someone who was victimized by Imperial aggression. This may actually be the first story in over thirty years that humanizes the Empire. And that's no small feat indeed.