It’s been more than a month since I turned the last page in Crucible, yet I still remain unconvinced that the novel—Denning’s 13th in the Galaxy Far, Far Away—really signals the retirement of Luke, Leia, and Han. Or at least, I kind of hope it doesn’t.
Let’s start with the positives. First, nobody fundamentally important to the Star Wars universe dies. There are disappointing books, and then there are disappointing books in which one of the beloved figures from the Original Trilogy bites the dust. This book thankfully avoids the latter category.
Secondly, in spite of being a book about Luke, Leia, and Han, Denning creates and gives voice to some fascinating characters. Omad Kaeg is hard not to like; he may be cocky to a fault and incredibly naïve, but his heart is in the right place, and throughout the story I couldn’t help but picturing him as the son that Han would have always wanted (at least, the son without the force baggage who gets killed by his sister.) Then there’s Dena Yos, whose internal struggle to exert a sense of free will against the determinism programmed into her as a biot creation of the Qreph brothers can’t help but solicit mixed feelings from the reader. On one hand, I wanted to hate her. On another, I couldn’t help but sympathize with her struggle for identity. ‘Human,’ she may not be, but there’s a sense that her struggle against deterministic forces mirrors that of the human condition.
Finally, the book is not a bad read. What do I mean by that? Well, there’s an aura of mystery which builds throughout the early chapters, especially as it relates to who the ‘real’ villains are. Having been left disappointed at the apparent lack of resolution from the Fate of the Jedi series, the reveal of Savara Raine as Vestara Khai was welcomed, and it was done in a manner I don’t think readers will initially suspect. Likewise, the slow building of the plotline to embrace the Mortis story arc that was left unresolved in Apocalypse gave me reason to continue reading, and kept me glued to each page as I eagerly soaked up hints to whether or not Luke was actually going to uncover the home of the Celestials.
Those hopes were dashed, however, in what I can only describe as frustrating details as they related to the villains and the plot itself. Denning is a master at working references from across the Star Wars universe into his works, and at first, the idea of Columi villains seemed like a welcomed break from the Vampirish menace of Aboloth cultivated throughout the Fate of the Jedi series. Yet as the novel progressed, I couldn’t help but find Marvid and Craitheus Qreph laughable and just out of place in the Star Wars universe. Their mode of communication and transport—which Denning identifies as “Power Bodies” —was difficult to picture and without a visual basis in previous EU Literature, my mind just kept flashing back to Brain from Pinky and the Brain. That they could wreck such havoc, including incinerating tens of thousands of beings in a strike on Lando’s mining facility, only added to the disjointed perception of ‘goofy’ yet brilliant business executive terrorists.
It is this inability to place Marvid and Craitheus within the Star Wars universe that betrays my greater umbrage with the novel. A decade removed from the high space opera which encompasses much of Star By Star, Denning has turned increasingly towards, for lack of a better description, a sense of force mysticism in his novels. When it comes to the actual plot, this reliance has a tendency to obscure the action in an awkward sense of the phantasmagorical. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy and appreciate characters and storylines driven my spiritual motives, but since when did ‘raw’ force energy cause Han Solo to sprout horns after getting an arm shot off? Or, for that matter, to cause a Mandalorian commando to suddenly become a meth-infused force junkie? In fact, the battle scene within the Base Prime force nexus was almost impossible to picture, as the reader is left with a convoluted description of force-lightning barrages set amidst some kind of mystical forest. Add in the fact that each character can sustain more damage than a Duke Nukem with the cheat codes on, and yes, the novel’s climax did seem a tad unrealistic (even for the Star Wars universe). But mostly, it just left me with a lingering sense of ending from where I started from. Vestara gets away in Ship, Luke and Ben uncover another mysterious force beacon in a backwater galactic wilderness, and one the galaxy ends up down a few Mandalorians. I mean seriously, haven’t we seen this all before?
Despite my complaints about Denning’s force-battle imagery and regardless of my frustration with how the story seemed to act as a dead-weight extension of the Fate of the Jedi series, I’ll be the first to say I didn’t hate Crucible. Many critics seem to have derided the final scene, but I appreciated the nod to both the novel’s beginning, as well as the Original Trilogy, with the Cantina ‘retirement party’ scene. Still, the question remains as to whether we can really trust the idea that Han, Luke, and Leia are retired. Even though Denning has affirmed the ongoing story of Ben against Vestara, as long as the Mortis arc remains shrouded in mystery, and as long as ‘minor’ galactic bad guys keep showing up, I’ll remain skeptical that even elderly Jedi Masters and former Corellian smugglers will be kicking back in places like the Red Ronto for the rest of their days.
5 out of 10 Lightsabers