Paul: The Falanassi mystics have a saying, that an event is like a stone dropped in a river. The action itself will disappear, but the ripples continue to move out across the surface.
Thus far, this Fate of the Jedi series has dropped an interesting pattern of stones in the river, with new events creating new ripples, distracting the reader and the characters, confusing things by making it hard to understand which way the ever-changing flow is going.
Now, however, the intersecting ripples are forming a distinct pattern of their own on the surface, providing their own unifying narrative--and to add a new dimension to the metaphor, the quickening pace with which the stones are starting to drop seems set to dislodge a whole avalanche of action.
In short, things are coming together in a big way, and at the same time, the action is ramping up dramatically. As they say on Naboo--"Ouch time!" Troy Denning's Vortex is the sixth book in a nine-book series, and it's the best yet.
Readers who enjoy Star Wars action should not be disappointed here. We get plenty of lightsaber fights, and some great action sequences with X-wings and ground assaults, not to mention the first broadside from a Star Destroyer in the series. The characterization is also brilliant, with the movie heroes and the younger inhabitants of the "Expanded Universe" each moving and acting according to their own inner dynamo. The familiarity of these characters when they're written right is a big part of the fun of it for me.
I don't want to say too much about the actual plot, because I'm adamant that it's a far better experience to read a novel without spoilers--it means you react individually to what's on the page, and not to what unhelpful fans with their own agendas have told you to expect.
Suffice to say, Luke Skywalker has some unexpected ex-girlfriend trouble, while Han and Leia prove that they're still the best at doing what they spent most of the movie trilogy doing. Luke's son Ben is also taking after his Uncle Han, in his stressed adventures aboard a somewhat battered starship with a teenage noblewoman from the other side of the spacelanes, though I suspect he's more complex than that analogy might suggest.
As to the bad guys, Admiral Daala is increasingly unhinged, as she finds that pulling the levers of government won't get her what she wants--assuming she even knows what that is. Meanwhile the exiled Sith tribe of Kesh are putting their schemes into motion, presenting a compelling portrait of pride, ambition, and humanity.
Oh, and Kenth Hamner, the deputy Grand Master of the Jedi Order, finally gets his lightsaber out and puts his fighting moves on.
It's really the characters that lead this story, and it's the characterizations that are the most tangible and memorable aspects of the book. Watch out for the cameo Sullustan, the scene with the space-pirate and the bureaucrat, and the one told from the POV of a Force-ghost. But this is also a well-written book in other senses.
I thought the thematic subtext was handled brilliantly--I wouldn't say I understand exactly what's going on here, but I get the sense that the Force mysticism and political strategizing that seem to drive a lot of the plot are being complicated in a very appropriate way by people's personalities, and the philosophizing of Luke's quest for meaning is offset by elegant introduction of one or two alternative metaphors in that scene with the pirate I just mentioned.
There's also an interesting variation in some of the familiar Star Wars motifs, with the classic space-battle imagery adapted to resemble the celebratory fireworks and acrobatics from the end of Jedi. And the descriptive passages are still striking and effective: probably the best visual scene in the novel is the one where two lightsaber blades come cleaving through a blast-door.
That said, there were some things that disappointed me in this novel. I was hoping that Jaina Solo would continue to act with the independence she showed in Christie Golden's Allies, the previous novel in the series, and she certainly starts off on the right vector--a lot of you will have already read the teaser chapter printed at the end of the previous book. She seems all ready to spend Vortex doing interesting things.
Instead, events force Jaina to turn back to the Temple, and she submerges herself in the needs of the Jedi Order, and in other people's plotlines. I don't think this is a strength for her character, and the idea that marriage to Jag Fel will solve the problem strikes me as nonsensical--that would simply append her permanently to someone else's plotline, subordinating her to the demands of an outside agenda as the Queen of the Empire, and that would just perpetuate the problem.
Jaina is a key character for any novel in the continuing saga of the Skywalkers and Solos, as a few of her scenes here remind us--she has to carry a disproportionate burden of the weight of narrative for the younger generation of Star Wars characters. It's important that she has the strength and independence to do that on her own terms.
She's not badly written in this book, nor is she written in an improbable way. It's just that someone... well, someone really needs to throw a small rock at her. Are there any Ewoks around?
But that's a minor quibble, and it's really about the overall direction of the series plot. On its own terms, and as a chapter in the shifting pattern of narrative that is this series, Vortex performs excellently. I give this book a solid 3.75 out of 4, or 94%--it's not my very favourite Troy Denning novel (that's Inferno), but I think it's the best book in this series so far. And it paves the way towards what looks like an interesting collision of events for the heroes of the Rebellion and their children.
One last comment. The advance copy I got hold of had a few typos and spellcheck overcorrections left unfixed, and at one point, what should have been a mention of Jabba's homeworld became a reference to "No.1 Hutta"... can I have one of those, please, with a Number 42 and some jawa juice?!
Adrick: There is an exchange between Luke and his son Ben at the beginning of Vortex that perfectly sums up my opinion, both of this novel and the series to date. Ben is commenting on the fact that Vestara is yet again playing upon their feelings in an attempt to gain more intelligence for her Sith masters.
"They already did that. How many times do you think they're going to use the same old trick?"
"Until we quit falling for it."
This is Fate of the Jedi in a nutshell. For every potentially interesting advance in plot, for every seemingly intriguing plot twist, we go through the same motions again, and again, and again. In the last novel, we found out that an old girlfriend of Luke's had joined with the malevolent entity known as Abeloth, for reasons mostly unexplained. Instead of finding out more about the entity and her past in this novel, we . . . . see her join with an old girlfriend of Luke's for reasons left mostly unexplained. We also see the rise of an anti-slavery movement in the galaxy, and tensions rise between acting Grand Master Kenth Hamner and the increasingly childish Jedi Council. There is precious little that is unique to Vortex.
It just serves to emphasize the undeniable fact that this nine book "epic" series for Star Wars is increasingly repetitive and uninteresting. It didn't have to be that way. If the books had been organized into stories that could stand better on their own, we could have ended up with nine better, more focused books. For example, at one point in Vortex, a celebrity sabaac tournament is organized by Lando as a cover for the Jedi. This could have been a really interesting story, but most of it happens offscreen. Tahiri's trial is another example. The fallout of her assassination of Pellaeon could have made for an interesting novel. When spread out over the last three books, the drama is less interesting. At this point, I'm not even sure if we should be rooting for her or not.
Three books. Three hardcover novels. The entire Thrawn trilogy would have been told by now, and we're only just now seeing the resolution of certain plot points (the aforementioned Hamner situation) and the protraction of others (Tahiri's trial.) And we still know so little about the threat facing the characters.
And speaking of characters, some of them seem downright unrecognizable. Was Tahiri ever the girl we met in the Junior Jedi Knights series? Her personality has gone through so many changes and roles that now it seems even less three dimensional than it was in the young adult books. Luke has a one-minded attitude toward the Sith that completely belies the inner-truth reading Knight of Return of the Jedi. And Han Solo, at one point, breaks into song. Can anyone seriously picture an older version of Harrison Ford's Han Solo (whose grizzled likeness graces the surprisingly eye-catching cover) randomly breaking into song? No? I didn't think so.
Previously with the Legacy of the Force series, I saw enough good things in each novel to be convinced that the series was finally starting to take off. But at six books in (seven if you count Millennium Falcon), I'm not even sure we've even left the runway.
Wes: If you've read the Fate of the Jedi series up to this point, you probably have a good idea what to expect in Troy Denning's new novel, Vortex. The series has been a slave to its formula since the beginning and this sixth installment is no exception: Luke and Ben Skywalker find themselves on a new planet with a new Force-using sect to deal with, tensions between the Jedi Order and Daala continue to build on Coruscant without really breaking, Tahiri's trial is still going on without end, and there are slivers of plots with reporters, slave revolts, and Mandalorians.
I wouldn't say it feels like the series is going nowhere--just that it keeps insisting on going over and over ground we've already covered. We've been stuck more or less in the same standoff between the Jedi and Chief of State Daala since the beginning of the series, and it's hard to see where Tahiri's story was really advanced in Vortex.
Of the main storylines, Luke and Ben's journey across the galaxy has by far been the most interesting, and this continues to be the case in Vortex. Their alliance with the Lost Sith Tribe still seems horribly contrived, maybe even more so in this book, but their investigation of the monster Abeloth's planet and the places that search leads are really the heart of the novel. There are some good surprises along the way, including one great twist early on I won't spoil here.
As I've said in previous reviews, I think Abeloth is hands-down the best thing about this series. The mystery of this creature continues to be compelling throughout Vortex. Even though it died in Allies, it's safe to assume we learn a lot more about Abeloth and features of its planet, like The Fountain of Knowledge. It also allows for Luke's tenuous alliance with the new Sith to come to something of a head in reaction to what they find there.
Ben in particular really shines in this story. His growing romance with the Sith girl Vestara continues its pattern of betrayals and the occasional glimmer of hope for her. There's plenty of humor here as well, including several moments in which Ben literally made me laugh out loud (his response to... tentacle suckling is priceless).
Unfortunately, the other sides of this story are not as satisfying. For years now, one of the frequent criticisms of the post-NJO Jedi Council has been that they're portrayed as squabbling children. This is a criticism I've mostly disagreed with, until this book. The characterization of the Jedi in Vortex is painfully bad. They spend most of the novel being unreasonable and taking out-of-character actions that are often incredibly drastic. When Kenth Hamner's leadership of the Order is challenged, it's said that the only way to remove him is with an actual fight, and it seems implied this is somehow traditional. Later, when the Jedi seek to create a diversion, they hold a hundred of the galaxy's most influential beings hostage by proxy (it's actually Booster doing it at their behest).
This really doesn't sound much like Jedi to me.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the Jedi's reactions to things which should elicit an aggressive response are muted. The big "Jedi Temple under siege" cliffhanger we were left with at the end of Allies fizzles out without any real action being taken. The way in which it's defused is fairly lame and over the top, and the reason for Han being the one to do it is pretty thin (I'm not sure how Han and Leia were even allowed to go to the Temple considering there are armed Mandalorians surrounding it and they couldn't get there in the last book, or why they'd bring their eight-year-old granddaughter there, considering a young woman was just executed on the Temple steps by these Mandalorians and the potential for a firefight seems pretty high...), but you do get to see someone get kicked in the crotch, and that always makes for good entertainment (see: the success of America's Funniest Home Videos).
In the last novel, a young Jedi named Kani Asari was shot dead when she went outside to speak with the Mandalorians who had surrounded the Temple. The Jedi do nothing in response to this. They act as though one of their own wasn't just killed at the Temple by Daala's thugs. Kenth Hamner's early POV scenes don't mention anything about it, despite the fact the girl was his aid. Kani's murder isn't even mentioned until page 170, and that's from the POV of a reporter who recognizes the Mando who killed her, not from a Jedi.
This seems to me a conflict that should provoke a more aggressive response from the Jedi, or at least a strong one. Instead, they save their aggressive reactions and outrage for disappointments with Kenth Hamner's leadership.
The actions and reactions just feel off throughout Vortex. I still don't understand why Daala would bother sending Mandalorians to put down anti-slavery protests on a system no one has even heard of. I don't see how it would be damaging to her, but obviously using armed mercenaries to stop the protests with lethal force would. It makes sense if Daala is supposed to be insane--her previous incarnation certainly was--but is this one supposed to be?
On the plus side, the introduction of a Sullustan Senator named Luewet Wuul is another in a long line of quirky, well-written alien characters Denning has created, and the scene with this old friend of Lando's is as funny as you'd expect. I'm still holding out hope that Juun, Tarfang, and the Squibs will all make an appearance before this series is over.
I do feel like Saba Sebatyne's importance to the story and Jedi Order is being vastly overstated in Vortex, however. Somehow she's become the leader of the opposition to Kenth, which essentially means leader of the entire Jedi Order except Kenth. I can't say more without ruining some of the novel's big surprises, but it would be nice to see some of the other Jedi (Masters and Knights) do something in this series.
Hey, remember when Kyp Durron used to be important?
Jaina Solo continues to get lost in the shuffle as well. She's in the series, but it seems like the authors don't really know what to do with her at this point. Her excursion with Lando in Allies really didn't amount to much. I won't even get into the resolution of her break up with Jag, as it is pretty disappointing and completely predictable. Another meaningless wrinkle in the story.
The aforementioned Tahiri plotline isn't bad-- in fact, it's pretty good. Her Bothan attorney, Eramuth Bwua'tu is an interesting character, and I enjoy the suspense in wondering whether he's actually a senile old goat who's going to walk Tahiri into the gas chamber (or whatever they use for capital punishment in Star Wars... probably something with lasers) or if it's all an act and he has some secret, genius plan to get her off. It just doesn't really put us in a different place then we were in Allies. Placed in one novel, I would thoroughly enjoy it--stretched over several though, it just feels like we're idling.
The action in Vortex is what you've come to expect from Troy Denning, which is fast-paced, well-described, a little brutal, and a lot of fun. It's best in the Luke & Ben sections of the story, which provides a lot of good lightsaber combat and a big final battle. Sadly, this fighting puts the story in the same place we were at the end of Allies as well, which again, is one of the major problems of this series.
I was a little underwhelmed by Han and Leia's attempted rescue of the Horn children, who have been imprisoned in carbonite since the first two books of Fate of the Jedi. It was surprisingly dull and the tension Denning tried to provide felt kind of forced. This is especially disappointing since the author writes Han Solo as well as anyone.
There was another battle the series has been building up to for three books that finally happens in Vortex, but we don't see much of it and it has little importance in the end. Again, I'd like to say more, but probably shouldn't.
Denning's descriptions are vivid, making it easy to feel transported to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. The imagery he uses for Abeloth's planet really adds to the sense of mystery and danger around the character, and there are some beautiful descriptions of Pydyr and its Islands as well.
All in all, Vortex is a good read. I wish I could say it's as good as Abyss, Denning's previous book in this series (which I thought was outstanding), but it's not. Still, the pacing in this novel seems just right, the action is thrilling, and there's enough humor in it to keep things fun. It's just a shame some bad characterizations and feelings of deja vu mar it.