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TFN Review: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber

Posted by Eric on January 28, 2014 at 12:00 PM CST

Eric Carrasco's Take


That’s how the Sith-Lord-in-prison novel Maul: Lockdown begins—by immediately heralding its own superficiality. That simple bit of onomatopoeia serves as a disclaimer of sorts: if the opening word appeals to you, the novel might be a bit of fun. If it sets off all manner of warning bells, read no further.

It’s not that Death Troopers author Joe Schreiber’s prose is bad; it’s just lazy. And that’s a shame, since there are moments of brilliance in this yarn. Schreiber doesn’t waste time on Maul’s appearance, his backstory, or his badassery, leaving that to Episode I. He begins his tale in media res, Maul having already infiltrated the space station prison, Cog Hive Seven, at his master’s request. And as Maul pits warring inmate factions against each other in order to ferret out his target, arms dealer Iram Radique, there are passages in which Schreiber proves a more accomplished writer than the rest of his work suggests. Early on, for instance, he writes: “[…] the cryo leak had accomplished what no measure of diplomacy ever could, uniting both gangs in a desperate fraternity of oxygen debt,” perfectly encapsulating the entire prison ecosystem in one nimble, tightly constructed sentence.

It’s in those moments, when Schreiber captures a strange beauty amidst the brutality, that Lockdown shines. Mostly though, he just captures the brutality. This is a story in which Darth Maul crushes a Wampa’s heart with his bare hands, a gang of roving cannibals eats people alive and uses their bones as weapons, and someone kills a guard by “literally ripping him in two, bathing in his blood.”

That’s not Star Wars. Not even close.

I’m not advocating censorship, I don’t love the cutesy, infantilizing moments in the prequels, and I’m aware that this is a book about a murderous villain, but Lockdown so thoroughly misses the Wars’ essence of adventure and excitement (Jedi might not crave them, but I do) as to be unrecognizable.

That’s not merely a function of the book’s R-rating, either. The alien species do not behave as they are normally portrayed (in particular, a Noghri named Strabo, who is a brash, loud killer instead of a reserved, silent assassin), and these characters do not speak as if they’ve set foot in the galaxy we know and love. Sidious wants his apprentice to purchase a uranium-powered nuclear bomb from Radique; The prison’s haughty (and memorable!) warden Sadiki Blirr is mostly spared this linguistic fate, but even she describes her position of power as “bulletproof”; and in a particularly laughable moment, one character even calls a guard “bro”.

It all adds up to a 70s martial arts B-movie. As his sound effects and gladiatorial blood sport imply, Schreiber seems as if he’d rather be writing a screenplay or comic book. But films and comics are visual. We love martial arts movies for the stunts, for that frenetic interplay between a camera’s 24 frames per second and a blurring fist. It takes the virtuosity of a writer like Matthew Stover to capture martial arts on the page, and Schreiber barely tries, going for force over grace in almost every fight. This is less Enter the Dragon, more Kickboxer.

There are memorable moments: a standout opening brawl between Maul and a captive Yuuhzan Vong warrior, an exciting cameo from a death cult led by an ex-Jedi… The premise is ripe for who would win scenarios, and the book pays some off well. Schreiber’s prison, reminiscent of the reconfiguring penitentiary from David Goyer’s unused Green Arrow: Supermax screenplay, is marvelously written—an almost living organism, folding like origami to keep inmates disoriented—and in the final act, the changing prison serves as a very George Lucas-y obstacle for Maul. But by the end, the simplicity of the premise and Schreiber’s deft plotting are jettisoned in favor of a six-way fight (Maul vs. inmates vs. guards vs. a death cult vs. gangsters vs. a giant psychic worm) that is so madcap and complicated it’s farcical.

Scenes on Coruscant between an ambitious Palpatine and his master, Darth Plagueis, fare better, with Schreiber injecting a healthy dose of subtext and gravity to their conversations as they work at cross-purposes, exploiting Maul for their own ends. Their chapters are worthy addendums to James Luceno’s Darth Plagueis, but they don’t rescue the novel, because unforgivably, the book mishandles Darth Maul himself.

The Zabrak is perceptive and alert, which perfectly befits him, but he’s too talkative and too colloquial, even when he’s speaking with Sidious. He’s highly physical, and a fearsome combatant, but gone are the flips and handsprings, the poetry in motion that made Ray Park such a joy to watch. In The Phantom Menace, Maul is a force of nature—a tiny devil born to kill Jedi—but by making him a more cerebral character, Schreiber removes Maul’s elemental power. Darth Maul should be a whirlwind of horns and red and black and death. He should be all id and instinct—an animal. Here, he is very much a man, and not a particularly interesting one. Compounding this, Maul hides his Sith Lord identity by eschewing both the Force and lightsabers until the book’s final pages, and even then he uses a makeshift saber and not his own dual-bladed staff. If your subject is a layered character like Batman, by all means, remove his cape and cowl and show me that strength comes from the man, not the suit. If your subject is Darth Maul, a character who is well liked almost exclusively for his tattoos and his sweet, sweet double-bladed lightsaber, then let him use his lightsaber.

For those fans who want a little of the old ultra-violence in their Star Wars, and for Darth Plagueis completionists, this book might have its moments. For everyone else:

5 out of 10

Justin Bolger's Take

If you're looking for a novel that captures that carefree, swashbuckling spirit of adventure Star Wars is primarily known for, you've come to the wrong place. But if you're looking for a gritty, desperately violent tale of survival offering a fascinating glimpse into an charismatically enigmatic character who captured the world's imagination the moment he ignited his red double-bladed lightsaber in the trailer for The Phantom Menace, then you, like me, are going to LOVE Maul: Lockdown.

Author Joe Schreiber's third trip to the galaxy far, far away delivers the same kind of kinetic and brutally bone crushing, sinew ripping, gory journey into the heart of darkness not usually seen in Star Wars fare that Death Troopers and Red Harvest, his previous novels, are known for. Lockdown follows the first apprentice of Darth Sidious on a mission to infiltrate a prison in search of a weapon his master craves. In this prison he will be forced to compete in barbaric bloodsport for the entertainment of the galaxy's gambling underworld.

Sometimes, it’s great to get into the mind of the bad guys. Bad guys are cool. And they don’t come any cooler than the Sith. Luckily, Lockdown features Darths Sidious and Plagueis as well, providing an extension of 2011’s superb Darth Plagueis while crafting a worthy and dynamic story of its own. Watching Darth Maul’s unknowing manipulation at the hands of both adds an unforeseen and intriguing layer of intrigue to the novel’s proceedings.

But there’s another element to the novel I wasn’t expecting but was very happy to see nonetheless, one I found to be even more interesting than the behind the scenes scheming of Plagueis and Sidious. And that’s a newfound understanding of and sympathy for the character of Darth Maul. I know it sounds odd amidst death matches and blood and gore, but allow me to explain.

There’s another writer, J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) who often speaks of his theory that there are five kinds of truths. One you tell to casual acquaintances, one you tell to your general friends and family members, another you tell to only a few people during your entire life, and yet another you only tell to yourself.

But it’s the final truth, he says, that provides the most interesting drama. It’s the truth that you never admit, even to yourself. Lockdown makes it clear that the fifth truth of Darth Maul is that he loves Darth Sidious. To Maul, Sidious is his father. He admires him, he reveres him, and desperately desires to please him in the way a child seeks validation from an absent parent.

But as we’ve seen before, love of any kind is a dangerous emotion for a Sith Lord to have, and reading Lockdown in this context balances the brutality of the novel with a sense of tragic sentimentality. Every savage action Maul undertakes here is to gain the approval of a father who will never give it to him because he sees him as nothing more than a means to an end.

(Side Note: Watch the Maul episodes of Clone Wars again with this in mind, especially “The Lawless”, Obi-Wan isn’t the only one who has his heart broken on Mandalore…)

Maul’s devotion to Sidious is seen consistently in the moments where he apprises Sidious on the progress of his mission. He eagerly reports his successes, and is extremely disappointed when he fails to gain praise from Sidious. It’s also, more effectively seen in the internal thoughts of Maul, who regularly thinks back to his training, recalling pieces of Sidious’ advice like a son drawing strength from memories of a caring father.

It’s this novel’s remarkable ability to balance the fantastically bloody aspects of Lockdown with a subtle and surprising poignancy that elevates the material above its basic premise.

While it isn’t the kind of Star Wars tale you may be used to seeing, it fits in perfectly with the galaxy George Lucas created. The potential of this galaxy isn’t always capitalized on, but Joe Schreiber seizes upon it here to craft an engrossing narrative that kept me entertained, engaged, and thinking about the book long after I'd finished it.

If you’re a fan of the Sith craving a more physical journey to the dark side of Star Wars, Maul: Lockdown is the perfect story for you.

9 out of 10

Related Stories:

TFN Interview: Maul: Lockdown Author Joe Schreiber

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