Fate of the Jedi: Abyss
2.8 / 4
3.6 / 4
Following a trail of clues across the galaxy, Luke Skywalker continues his quest to find the reasons behind Jacen Solo’s dark downfall and to win redemption for the Jedi Order. Sojourning among the mysterious Aing-Tii monks has left Luke and his son Ben with no real answers, only the suspicion that the revelations they seek lie in the forbidden reaches of the distant Maw Cluster. There, hidden from the galaxy in a labyrinth of black holes, dwell the Mind Walkers: those whose power to transcend their bodies and be one with the Force is as seductive and intoxicating as it is potentially fatal. But it may be Luke’s only path to the truth.
Meanwhile, on Coruscant, the war of wills between Galactic Alliance Chief of State Natasi Daala and the Jedi Order is escalating. Outraged over the carbonite freezing of young Jedi Knights Valin and Jysella Horn after their inexplicable mental breakdowns, the Jedi are determined to defy Daala’s martial tactics, override Council Master Kenth Hamner’s wavering leadership, and deal on their own terms with the epidemic of madness preying on their ranks. As Han and Leia Solo, along with their daughter Jaina, join the fight to protect more stricken Knights from arrest, Jedi healers race to find a cure for the rapidly spreading affliction. But none of them realize the blaster barrel is already swinging in their direction–and Chief Daala is about to pull the trigger.
Nor do Luke and Ben, deep in the Maw Cluster and pushing their Force abilities beyond known limits, realize how close they are–to the Sith strike squad bent on exterminating the Skywalkers, to a nexus of dark-side energy unprecedented in its power and its hunger, and to an explosive confrontation between opposing wielders of the Force from which only one Master–good or evil–can emerge alive.
In my review for Omen, I listed the things I expected from a Star Wars adventure: spaceships, aliens, cosmic energy fields, spiritual quests, and adventures…all of which I found lacking in that novel. But in Abyss, Troy Denning brings all those elements back to the table and has managed to pique my interest in this series.
In Abyss, we also see more of Fate of the Jedi’s own personal Sith sect (Kesh Local, Tribe #223) as they attempt to locate the Sith meditation sphere, which had fled from their planet in the previous book. You know, you really have to wonder why they can’t just let the darn thing go. I mean, the ship is several thousand years old. Is it obsolete yet, or what? The sphere has been bouncing between planets, often with no discernible purpose, for two series now. At this point, it’s hard to tell whether there’s a reason behind all of this flitting, or if it really is what it appears to be: a mobile McGuffin whose sole purpose is to lead characters from one planet to another.
Random Sith ships aside, I actually enjoyed Denning’s take on the new Sith villains. These are some seriously messed up folks, which is something you might not have been able to tell from Omen’s white-washed presentation of the tribe. Take the duo of Vestara and Ahri. In Golden’s book, they seemed to have an idealized friendship; two good-looking but platonic buddies in an elite training group. There wasn’t a lot to make them interesting. In Abyss, Vestara and Ahri have been apprenticed to two Sith masters determined to bring about the other’s downfall. Now we find that Vestara is devoted entirely to the Sith, and there are several twisted scenes where she comes very close to killing her best friend because of their masters’ power struggle. This is the kind of situation we just didn’t see in the Rule of Two era, and I’m finally starting to become interested in this brand of Sith.
I also enjoyed Han and Leia’s big action sequence against a squad of Daala’s Mandalorians. It seems a little late to finally bring back the supercommandos (wasn’t this already set up in Millennium Falcon?), but having Han Solo (even an elderly Han Solo) spitting onto a Mandalorian helmet during a knock-down, drag-out fight is just awesome.
Meanwhile, Luke and Ben bring their quest to uncover Jacen’s path to the Dark Side to the Maw, where they encounter a group of beings dedicated to having out-of-body experiences within the Force. Among these mystics lie clues to the new threat facing the galaxy, one that remains tantalizingly hidden in the shadows.
For me, this was at once the most interesting and least satisfying part of the novel. It’s great to see the Fate of the Jedi plot pull itself away from Coruscant politics long enough to give us a good old fashioned spiritual quest, but I don’t think Denning is quite up for the job. The technique used by the mystics to detach their essences from their bodies to explore the infinite realm of the Force sounds like something my grandparents might have taught at a community college meditation class back in the seventies.
To be honest, I think the focus is a little skewed here. I mean Luke Skywalker journeys into the Land of the Dead in this book. This has the potential for deep, Campbellian awesomeness in the literal sense of the word. I think the concept could warrant its own novel, but instead it has to share space with an almost unrelated Sith quest and yet more action and politics on Coruscant, both of which are actually better written then Luke’s journey. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Ben can’t seem to stop making wisecracks at the worst possible moments…actually, Ben makes inappropriate jokes at pretty much any given moment. Did Luke joke about seeing Vader’s head explode in the cave? No. Sometimes a little gravity is appropriate.
Nevertheless, Abyss is definitely a step in the right direction for Fate of the Jedi. The mysteries of the series are defined enough to provoke interest, but not enough to give anything away just yet. Most importantly, it’s entertaining and focuses on what Star Wars does best.
To say I've been disappointed with the stumbling start of Fate of the Jedi
is probably an understatement. After just two books, the authorial team had taken what sounded like a reasonably interesting premise and churned out something that already felt repetitive and lackluster. Going into the third book, Abyss
, penned by Troy Denning, it almost felt as though it was the series' last chance to really get going, or at least, to keep me following along as a reader. But I'm also a fan of most of Mr. Denning's other offerings to the Star Wars universe and was hopeful that he'd be able to correct Fate of the Jedi's
For those of you who want a quick opinion without wading through this whole review: Did Denning accomplish that with Abyss
? Oh yeah. And then some.
Fate of the Jedi: Abyss
is a very good Star Wars book— maybe even a great one. With the exception of Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor
, it's definitely the best Star Wars novel since Fury
More over, it's just a really well-written book period.
Denning makes good use of mystery in this story, never giving away too much at any time. Instead, the plot progresses with one question opening into another, then another, and so on. The unknown is what keeps the reader turning the pages here, which is something I'm always a big fan of.
To give an example of how well I think this novel is plotted out: there are only a couple action scenes in the whole thing, and I honestly didn't even notice until it came time to start analyzing it for a review. That isn't to say that the action that is there isn't stellar— Denning has always been spectacular when it comes to writing combat scenes, and what's in Abyss
is no exception. But the plot is so engrossing on it's own that there just isn't a need for a giant space battle or numerous lightsaber duels.
That's a rarity in Star Wars stories and, I think, a testament to how strong Troy Denning's execution of the plot is here.
He also seems to be drawing on a lot of classic sci-fi themes and scenarios with this book. Almost every storyline felt familiar to me, as something I'd seen done many times before. I don't mean that it's overly derivative or mean it in a negative way at all— the author definitely carries these time-honored plots off and makes them unique. More often than not, Denning uses the familiarity to play into readers' expectations rather than subvert them, but strangely, the sense of mystery here still works, and the atmosphere provided by these classic scenarios make it easy for the reader to feel the tension in this book ratcheting up with each chapter.
As is the case with the first two novels in the Fate of the Jedi
is constructed of three, mostly independent storylines. The book's most interesting thread follows Luke Skywalker and his son Ben as they journey into the Maw on their continued quest to find out what's causing so many young Jedi to catch crazy and to learn what propelled Jacen Solo's fall to the dark side. What they find centered in the anomaly of black holes is a seemingly abandoned space station, and the pair sets about exploring it (see books like Arthur C. Clark's Rendezvous with Rama
and Michael Crichton's Sphere
for stories with similar starts).
The Maw sections feel creepy, and that feeling only grows as the tale unfolds. Denning does a masterful job of conveying a sense of isolation and mystery throughout. You know that there's something evil here and it's only a matter of time before the Skywalker's stumble upon it.
If you read Omen
, you know that Luke and Ben journeyed to the Maw to see the "Mind-drinkers"— a group Jacen visited in his mysterious five-year sojourn. I'm not going to say much about what father and son actually find there. The book relies heavily on mystery and I want to preserve that. But the Mind-drinkers seem to transcend physical form much like Lyle Bland's "transmural journeys" with Masonic magic in Thomas Pynchon's postmodern sci-fi classic Gravity's Rainbow
(Well... it's sort of sci-fi).
Again, without giving too much away here, all I can say is what the Skywalker's find is pretty great and Denning creates a chilling space adventure that explores more than the living universe.
What's even better about this storyline though— it connects to the main plot! It almost seems like a novelty after Outcast
, but Luke and Ben's mission in Abyss
actually has a purpose to it, and they even get some tangible information about Jacen and his time in the Maw instead of just someone telling them where he went next to open up Luke and Ben's next adventure.
Though there are certainly some terrible discoveries, Denning seems intent on maintaining an aura of ambiguity throughout the Maw sections that will delight some readers and frustrate others. All in all, I found it to be one of the more intriguing and satisfying Star Wars stories I've read in a long time.
And the second plotline of Abyss
is almost as good. When we left them in Omen
, Vestara and the Lost Tribe of Sith on Kesh were headed to the Maw to destroy the Skywalkers ('cause they're Sith and that's what Sith do.) Well, along the way, Ship
(the Sith meditation sphere that seems to think everyone it encounters is an idiot) gets loose and leads the Sith to a dangerous jungle world where the plant life has all sorts of terrible ways of killing them. On the planet, they meet the world's sole, kindly inhabitant who protects them and makes them feel wonderful, casting the Sith under her spell and blinding them to her obviously malevolent intentions.
Basically, it's every episode of Star Trek I've ever seen, only with Sith beamed down to the planet rather than the crew of the U.S.S Enterprise (though I should probably admit I've not watched that many episodes in my life). The result is a frightening tale that I found just as gripping as the Maw plotline, if not more so in many ways.
The new Sith are more palatable in Abyss
than they were in Omen
. They're ruthless the way Sith should be, and the internal power struggles between them add a nice complication to an already dire situation. Vestara too seems better developed here rather than generic, mostly because Denning is showing us who she and her Sith cohorts are rather than simply telling us about them.
But what really makes the jungle storyline, and Abyss
as a whole such a wonderful book, is the introduction of a new, enigmatic villain. I really can't describe how much I enjoyed this new character and the life he/she/it(?) breathes into this series. The character in question appears in two of the book's three stories (again, I'm not going to say how...) and seems to be something of a game-changer for the Fate of the Jedi
This is without a doubt the best villain introduced in the Expanded Universe since the New Jedi Order and I hope it holds up when all the layers of mystery are peeled away.
I do have a fear that some readers will find a few descriptions of this character to be comical (the phrase "stubby arms" might be a poor choice of words) but it worked for me. I found the imagery Denning provided and the character as a whole more than creepy.
It's not often that a character is so terrifying that you're actually afraid for the lives of the other villains, but somehow, Denning manages to instill a real sense of fear in this part of the story that made it thoroughly enjoyable.
The Coruscant storyline, which has thus far been the most substantial in the series, is actually the least interesting in Abyss
, though there was still a lot to love in it. If you've read the preview at the end of Omen
, you know that Raynar Thul is back, answering a lot of lingering questions by fans after his one sentence write-off in Betrayal
. Maybe now that Elaine Cunningham's Blood Oath
has officially been axed, Denning can bring back Zekk as well.
This section of the story revolves around the insane Jedi and Chief of State Daala's increasingly combative approach to dealing with the Order. It starts off a little rocky when, in the book's weakest moment, Denning actually telegraphs which two Jedi are going to catch the Dark Sides in a completely arbitrary way. While it's a little annoying to see another pair of Jedi go crazy and be stopped without any real damage done (just like books one and two...) the storyline in Abyss
at least ends up going in a new direction.
But it did crystallize for me the larger problem with the Mad Jedi plotline— there's no reason to care about any of these characters. There's been no investment in them. The only ones who have lost their minds who we even sort of care about are Valin and Jysella, and that's only because they're the children of Corran and Mirax— characters we care about care about them. That's getting pretty far removed. There's been no real attempt to build the Horn children as characters on their own before suddenly going crazy.
When you contrast this with the characters that were being developed in the early parts of the NJO, the difference is startling. By the third book, new characters like Wurth Skidder and Ganner Rhysode made a far greater impact in only a handful of scenes. When Wurth sacrificed himself by book 4, it hurt. When Daeshara'cor died in book 3, the only one she was really in, it hurt. The writers gave us reasons to care about these people and what happened to them. They seemed far more complex than the one-dimensional characters we're seeing in Fate of the Jedi.
That isn't to say that Denning didn't write the two Jedi in question in a far more interesting way than Golden did in Omen
— he did. But the truth is, any one of these characters who have come down with this Force-illness could die in the next book and it would have absolutely no impact on me at all as a reader.
With that said, the characters we do care about are in near-perfect form. There's really very little I enjoy in Star Wars more than reading Han and Leia as written by Troy Denning. The interaction flows so naturally between them and the characterizations are superb— and it's just a lot of fun. The relationship between Han and his granddaughter Allana, however, is my favorite of the entire novel. It's really great to see that side of Han Solo, and the dynamic between them is both touching and hilarious.
The interaction between Jaina and Jag in this side of the story has also made a turn for the better in Abyss
. Rather than the disposable, syrupy-sweet scenes in Outcast
, there's some actual conflict here that's woven into the plot. While the reasoning for Jag's somewhat scummy behavior is pretty flimsy (and makes very little sense...), the fact these two are actually interesting in this books is a step in the right direction.
Some of the plot wrinkles involving Daala and an overly-theatrical media gambit by Jaina are a little hard to swallow in this section, and familiar continuity issues rear their ugly head with the entrance of a Mandalorian force hired by Daala to spy on the Jedi.
I already mentioned in my Outcast
review how Fate of the Jedi
doesn't match up with James Luceno's Millennium Falcon
, in which Mandalorians are already policing the streets of Coruscant and hunting rogue Jedi, so I won't harp on it long, but the problem is compounded in Abyss
. Now we're actually seeing it months after it was supposed to happen, and characters like Han and Leia who were already informed about Daala's Mandalorian task force in Millennium Falcon
are somehow shocked about it in Abyss
Obviously, there was some miscommunication or change in plans about how and when to introduce the Mandalorians into the story, and the clumsiness of it all is more than a little distracting.
Thankfully, the conflict between the Mandalorians and the Jedi is entertaining enough to make the hiccup worth it and I look forward to seeing what comes of it in the future.
I should mention that there were several moments in Abyss
that I was surprised by the attention paid to continuity. For example, in the Maw sections of the story, Ben remembers "Shelter," the secret Jedi base where the Order was hiding children during the Yuuzhan Vong War, and recalls the gaudy yellow color its interior was painted. This was a one-line description of the base back in Greg Keyes' Edge of Victory: Rebirth
and it's the sort of detail I seriously doubt resides in Continuity Overlord Leland Chee's "Holocron." Which means Denning either remembered something as minute as the ugly color shelter was painted from his work on the NJO, or he went back and looked it up— either of which, I appreciate as a reader.
Hats off to Mr. Denning.
is a great read that I couldn't put down. I've had a chance to read it a couple times over the last few months and actually enjoyed it as much, if not more, the second time, which is surprising for a story that seems to trade so heavily on the unknown.
While I still have reservations about this series and fear the premise may be headed nowhere, Denning has certainly steered it on the right track and I find myself very much looking forward to Aaron Allston's Backlash
as a result.