Medstar I: Battle Surgeons
by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry
Published by Del Rey
Scott's Rating: 4 out of 4
Mike's Rating: 3 out of 4
Nick's Rating: 3.75 out of 4
Medstar I: Battle Surgeons is set 2 years after Attack of the Clones. It is the first book in a two book series.
The Clone Wars continue to rage across the universe and the planet Drongar is the latest location for a battle. The planet is key because it is the home of a rare plant that is used as a drug for a wide range of alien species. Treating the wounded clone troopers on the front lines are the surgeons of the Republic. They include Jos Vondar, a human who has detached himself from feeling for the clone troopers and masks his despair with humor. Zan Yant, a Zabrak surgeon, is his musician friend and roommate. Tolk le Trene is another human female and a love interest for Jos. However, his culture forbids him from marrying offworlders. Also on the team is I-Five, a rare protocol droid with human emotions and feelings (who was last seen in Darth Maul – Shadow Hunter). Shadowing the group is the Sullustian embedded reporter Den Dhur.
A late addition to the team is Jedi Padawan Barriss Offee who is sent to aid the surgeons with her Force healing powers. However, she is also there to secretly investigate reports of someone smuggling the medicinal plant off of the planet and onto the black market. But Barriss soon finds that there’s not only a Separatist spy in their midst, but an even bigger threat on Drongar – one that could possibly push her over to the Dark Side.
The simplest way to describe Battle Surgeons is that it is the Star Wars version of M*A*S*H. You have the characters that use their sense of humor to survive the horrors of war. You have scenes where transports come in and drop off wounded soldiers. You have the scenes in the operating room where the surgeons talk over the soldiers they are operating on. You have the philosophical debates about war. (Reaves and Perry even throw in the old, “War, what’s it good for?” joke.) So many of the key elements of the old TV series are included here. If you like M*A*S*H or E.R., you will probably be quickly engaged by this story.
The two authors do a good job of creating interesting new characters in short order. Most of this story is seen through the eyes of Jos. He has a good sense of humor that makes him appealing. His forbidden love for Tolk also adds a bit of romantic tension to the story which is always fun. His friendships with the other characters help bring them alive, too. I don’t think Zan would have been nearly as interesting if not for his interaction with Jos. The embedded reporter Den Dhur is also noteworthy. With the Iraq war going on, audiences are more and more familiar with seeing the war through the reporter’s eyes. Having him report on the events in the story is another unique perspective on the Clone Wars. It was also good to see the return of I-Five from the Shadow Hunter novel. You get a chance to see his character grow here and he’s a welcome addition. So often interesting characters from older stories are pushed aside unless an author returns and revives them. It’s good to see a little continuity here with respect to him.
Adding a bit of obligatory Jedi action to the story is Barriss Offee. Her inner conflict over using her powers for selfish reasons was one of the more intriguing parts of the story. Her facing off with Phow Ji was one of the highlights of the story, too. I liked the character of Ji. The fact that he was an evil, sadistic murderr but was sanctioned to kill in the name of the Republic was quite a paradox. And the fact that he could take on a Jedi also helped raise the bar for him. I was hoping to see Barriss and Ji face off, but it never really happened to my satisfaction. Anyway, he was a cool character…while he lasted.
This story also delves deeper into people’s perspectives on the clones. Jos learns to look at them as thinking, feeling humans rather than genetically engineered tools. It’s a transition that takes place over the course of the story and has a logical progression. It will be interesting to see how this realization affects what he does in the next story.
I also have to say that I liked the cover by Dave Seely. While the photo covers are eye catching, I still appreciate a good piece of painted Star Wars art more than anything.
There've been a lot of people complaining lately that the Clone Wars haven't had enough in the "Wars" department; lots of diplomatic missions, hardly any big Geonosis-level battles. Those people, I'm sure, will find even more to complain about with the arrival of the Medstar duology. Reading Battle Surgeons, it's almost as if LucasBooks is saying "No action? We'll show you no action!"
On the other hand, another thing it seems everyone wants to see these days is a new X-Wing series. Well, folks, for all intents and purposes, this is our new X-Wing series - no big movie characters, takes place away from the front lines, and anyone can die at any time. And Reaves and Perry, the authors behind two of my favorite Star Wars novels, fill those big shoes quite well. Especially when you consider that even the X-wing series had some battles. The scene on the cover is probably the only action scene in the entire book (not counting a couple Phow Ji melees we only see in holographic replay), and what we see on the cover is pretty much the whole scene.
Does this mean that there's nothing exciting in the book? Not at all. And when it is exciting, it's in a way that most big battles couldn't be, because you care about each and every one of the people involved. Hell, the most exciting part of the whole story involves the possible demise of...a musical instrument. It almost makes you (well, me, at least) retroactively enjoy some of the more epic Clone Wars stories less, because of how much tension and emotion Reaves and Perry extract from so little.
And speaking of emotion, this is where the real core of the book lies. Regardless of the amount or manner of action, the reason the X-Wing series was so good was because you liked the characters as much as, if not more than, the movie characters, and you worried constantly about what might happen to them, because there weren't any preexisting books to tell you which characters would still be around years later. Anything could happen. And anything can happen here, as evidenced by Zan's sudden death, and the deaths of three of the main antagonists.
There are lots of other things I could gush about - Den Dhur, the return of I-Five, the humor, and so on, but you get the idea. This book may not be high drama, but it's great drama. As far as I'm concerned, these guys are storytellers on the level of Zahn and Stackpole at least, and I hope they end up contributing as much to the EU as those two have. It's good to hear that Reaves has a post-III trilogy coming up; let's just hope that it won't be another seven years before Perry returns, as well. In the meantime, here's hoping the next few months go by quickly.
When fans discuss Battle Surgeons, comparisons to M*A*S*H will undoubtedly be drawn, and with good reason. This motley cast of characters uses their sense of humor and draw on each others’ different strengths to weary the tides of battle. You have Jos Vondar, the brooding chief surgeon, Zan Yant, the liberal Zabrak musician, Tolk le Trene, the beautiful female nurse, Den Dhur the cynical investigative reporter, and I-Five, the odd-ball droid with a sense of humor and the occasional anxiety attack. And in the background you Barriss Offee, the Jedi padawan forging her way into knighthood. Together these characters forge a path through the inevitable darkness encroaching on the world of Drongar.
The highlight of this novel was it uniqueness. Much like Mike Stackpole’s I, Jedi, Battle Surgeons (and I’m sure its sister novel) is an experiment with background characters being used as major protagonists. Although there are the expected references to Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, the focus of the book is squarely on Bariss Offee and the Republic doctors. Although I may be in the minority among Star Wars fans, my favorite novels are generally the more introspective ones, and Battle Surgeons delves deep into the characters’ minds.
Jos Vondar and I-Five represent the philosophical debate over what it means to be sentient, whether human, clone, or droid. The relationship between Jos Vondar and Tolk le Trene reveals a forbidden love, highlighting a conflict between culture and self. Bariss Offee struggles with her own thoughts about the Force, questioning her own use or misuse of it in her quest for knighthood. Den Dhur struggles with his own cynicism, and with the fact that his own reporting may have made a hero out of a murderer. And in the background, and Separatist spy struggles with dooming his friends in the name of the greater good. These threads weave themselves throughout the story and lead the characters to important discoveries. I can’t wait to see what the second book holds for us.
Battle Surgeons is not jam packed with action like many of the Star Wars novels. It is more of a character study with internal reflection and soul searching than explosions. If you’re looking for action, you may find yourself bored. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
I was also disappointed to see that Reaves and Perry killed off all of the cool new bad guys. Phow Ji’s death was a little anticlimactic and the elimination of Admiral Bleyd got rid of most of the antagonists for the next book. (I would have also liked to have seen Bleyd and Ji face off. There was certainly a build up for it.) Because of this, I wonder what they’re going to offer up in the next book.
Also, a number of people have complained about continuity errors in the story. To be honest, I could care less. As long as they don’t introduce Palpatine’s three eyed son, it doesn’t bother me if they get the name of Coruscant’s sun wrong. Big deal.
Like I just mentioned, Healer doesn't come out until October! I guess we should be used to big waits between books, but when you look at the schedule for the whole year, it's kinda strange: Cestus Deception and Medstar I within a month of each other, then nothing for three months, then Medstar II, Jedi Trial, and Dark Rendezvous within two months of each other. Damn them.
There's one thing I'm not sure if I should designate as good or bad: the impact of the whole M*A*S*H connection. As the inspiration for the duology it's sheer brilliance, but it made for some awkward moments. Jos Vondar is a great main character, and I wouldn't want them to change him at all, but I found it impossible to read a single line of his without hearing Alan Alda's voice. Again, I'm not sure if that's really a bad thing, just...weird.
Lastly, I'm torn about the cover. It's very well done, and it's nice to see a *cough* detailed rendition of Barriss for once. But, as anyone who reads a lot of comics can tell you, rendering an impact (i.e. Barriss' saber in mid-slice) is almost always a compositional faux pas. It's like drawing a picture of someone getting punched in the face; it's much more visually pleasing to see the moment immediately after the impact, when the fist has completed its arc and the victim is falling backwards, than the actual instant when the fist and face touch. I know a lot of fans were less than impressed with Jon Foster's Force Heretic covers, but Refugee is a good example of this principle; the Ssi-Ruuk is about to fire, Jaina is about to swing her blade. Anyway, it's obviously a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.
When I first caught wind of the Medstar duology, I worried how the authors would pull of not one, but two novels about doctors caught in the midst of the Clone Wars. My fears proved unwarranted, at least for this first book. It took me a little while for the story to draw me in, but once it did, it hooked me for the long run. The action isn’t your typical lightsaber-duel or blaster shootout; instead we see inside the equally frenetic operating theater, and the things shown in surgery rival some of the battles in the field in other novels.
Bowel wounds are never much fun.
Having to autopsy a Hutt. What do you use, a machete?
The horrors of war are too numerous to describe… and Scott’s off-hand reference to Triculus: that’s one mention too many (well, two including mine).