Passing the Torch

*mild Crucible spoilers*

The torch has been passed. The next generation of Jedi Knights have fought beside Luke, Han, and Leia, proving their mettle as defenders of the galaxy against the forces of evil. The heroes of the Rebellion have trained worthy successors and gained new allies who can fight beside the rising cohort of Jedi. Jacen, Jaina, Jag, Tenel Ka, Lowie, Tahiri, Danni, Zekk, Alema, Tekli, Tesar, Doran, Shawnkyr – these are just some of the names of heroes who have risen to the challenge, facing a foe like none previously seen in the Galaxy Far Far Away.

The book that showcased the next generation battling alongside the heroes of the Original Trilogy was published ten years ago. The Unifying Force by James Luceno created an epic conclusion to the Yuuzhan Vong War that had played out in a nineteen-book series.

Now, in 2013 and twenty-two books later, we have come full circle. Again the torch is being passed – except this time Luke, Leia, and Han aren’t stepping back because they have fought alongside young warriors worthy of the mantle. That next-generation cast is for the most part killed off, and the survivors have matured into thirty-somethings with minimal additional positive character development. The generation behind them is remarkably smaller still, with hardly any Jedi and even fewer friendships or alliances. As the Fate of the Jedi series ended, the Jedi Order had essentially collapsed in the absence of Luke’s leadership, and the Lost Tribe of the Sith were barely defeated only after Luke resumed his role as Grand Master.

With the storylines and characters left on those terms, one can’t help wonder how the Big Three will be convinced it’s time to pass the torch…

Last week at io9, Rob Bricken posed the question, “When is the right time to give up on a series?” For years – two decades really, but who’s counting – the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels satisfied a craving inside me much in the way a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup does. The future beyond the Original Trilogy was my chocolate and the written word the peanut butter. Mash them together – delicious. Having read pretty much every book in the Expanded Universe twice, some a lot more, and having the passion to blog about issues in the EU that were important to me has earned me the label of an Expanded Universe expert.

But recently, after a rough period where the stories in my favorite era – the post-Return of the Jedi timeline – stopped becoming escapism and became a chore, I came to a decision and let them go. This isn’t something a fan can decide to do one day. Over time I noticed my instinct wasn’t to rush to read these stories, and that the pages were simply filled with words and not characters or emotions. Eventually the realization struck me that the EU novels’ post-Return of the Jedi future was going down a path I couldn’t follow. That’s when I started really taking note of what many other passionate Star Wars Expanded Universe fans said. For most of them, their fandom wasn’t inclusive of all the books. In fact, many of the prominent Expanded Universe bloggers readily admit they’ve skipped entire segments of its vast library. Suddenly I stopped dreading the future timeline, because it wasn’t mine. I will continue to read, because to me it’s important to stay current and because I still care very much about the future of Star Wars and the Expanded Universe particularly. My excitement lies in the potential for the Empire & Rebellion books and character-driven stories with a smaller scope. Fate of the Jedi and any novels beyond it on the timeline don’t particularly matter to me as a fan.

In the meantime, there’s Crucible. As a Star Wars Expanded Universe expert I expect to be asked about the books. I read the book twice so I could stay informed. So here are my thoughts on the ramifications of this latest addition to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Kay, one of our trusty FANgirl reviewers, has assessed the book on its own terms as a story. As a blogger, I’m tackling the broader implications, like “Who is this book for?”

Have you read the post-Return of the Jedi novels? If you have, you might consider giving this book a shot. If you haven’t, though, then despite what the marketing suggests I’d avoid it. The book relies heavily on set-up from the previous novels.  The denouement, if you can call it that, relies on readers actually understanding the tragic events that have occurred in the Big Three’s lives up to that point for the emotional impact to work.

Did you enjoy what George Lucas created with the Mortis trilogy in The Clone Wars? If you don’t or you haven’t seen it, then you might be fine with the monolith elements of the book, although the mind-trip would be best enjoyed with some Corellian brandy. But if you answered yes, then I’d steer clear. Crucible manages to take Lucas’ Season Three epic mythological trilogy and spin it into something very different. What exactly the novel does is already a source of debate. Regardless, it isn’t Lucas-worthy, or epic or mythological in nature.

The book’s author, Troy Denning, actually addressed early spoilers about this topic on his Facebook page. He explained that there were misinterpretations of his book being spread around the internet. Notably, this isn’t the first time that Denning has had to provide clarifications outside the text of his novels about things that significant numbers of readers supposedly misunderstood, whether it’s explaining why killing the voxyn queen would accomplish anything given that voxyns are cloned anyway, or rationalizing that Jaina’s portrayal as a Killik Joiner was meant to show her mental strength rather than weakness relative to her brother Jacen. In Crucible, Denning relies heavily on the violence and gore to keep the reader wondering on multiple occasions whether the Big Three are meeting their deaths. By the time the book reaches its conclusion, it’s entirely reasonable for fans – especially those familiar with the author’s previous remarks that he had proposed the idea of possibly resurrecting Anakin Solo in the final book of the Legacy of the Force series, and his extensive use of living characters interacting with the spirits of dead characters in Fate of the Jedi – to draw the conclusion that the monolith enables the possibility of bringing back characters from the dead. I don’t necessarily believe that an opening for genuine resurrections actually occurs within the story, nor do I ever want to see that happen in Star Wars. But it was entirely possible within the scope of this book for readers to interpret it that way.

Are you looking for a more space-operatic feel, less violent and more campy? If extreme violence doesn’t bother you, then go ahead and dive into this one. Just wear a face guard and keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. On last week’s Star Wars Bookworms podcast where I appeared to discuss Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void, we tackled the topic of violence in the novels. We agreed that Into the Void is where the upper bar on violence in the books should be.  Before recording that podcast I had reread Into the Void after just finishing Crucible. In my opinion, the former is positively fluffy in comparison to the latter. In addition to Kay’s review here, others, such as Pete Morrison at Lightsaber Rattling, all three reviewers at Tosche Station and Laura at Goodreads, make particular note of the excessive violence in Crucible.

It’s topics like the level of violence in Star Wars and the EU that are exactly why I will continue to read all the books as they come out, even the ones I’m not taking into my personal fangirl canon. On the podcast, each of the panelists had entered the book fandom as teenagers or young adults, and we looked forward to sharing future Star Wars books with our children, nephews and nieces, when they reached the same age – but only if the books kept the spirit of the Star Wars universe, where violent things happen but they aren’t plastered on page after page like the next installment of a horror movie. When “torture porn” is a term I’m learning from reading Star Wars, it’s crossed a line.

Finally, have you been a fan of Denning’s previous books? If you answer yes, read the book; you’ll get his style in spades. If you answered no, then don’t read the book, for the same reason.

Ultimately, the problem with Denning writing another novel with the Big Three, as I see it, is that his writing had diverged too far from the spirit of Star Wars. In the post-New Jedi Order novels, he has evolved the Big Three like D&D characters, eventually leveling them up to impossible power standards so that Luke, Leia, and Han have been left standing where so many other characters have fallen. Leading up to Crucible, the adversaries progressed from a massive Killik hive-mind, to a Second Galactic Civil War and a Sith Lord head of government, to not only a dark-side army spawned from an entire planet of full Sith Lords but also a Force-demon of incomprehensible power. In Denning’s books, Luke Skywalker is the superweapon of the week, a plot device rather than a human being. Although we’re reminded of Leia’s beauty, she follows in the steps of many a female character in Denning-penned books, with brutal injuries and most of her hair singed off; just like her daughter in Invincible, Leia ends up in a bacta tank, delivering another staple of Denning’s writing, the obligatory female character in the nude. As I noted on Star Wars Bookworms, I’m not opposed to nudity in Star Wars, but the trend in Denning’s books is conspicuous. Poor Han, the mere mortal in the mix, endured page after page of strip sabacc torture. I wept for him and Mirta, too, and this wasn’t even a book I care about. So instead of a book that challenges our heroes’ deepest vulnerabilities – particularly their emotions, attachments, and fears – Denning ensures that the characters are literally pummeled into retirement.

For instance there is a scene where two female Twi’leks are erotically dancing with each other for the entertainment of a customer. The word “erotic” is actually used in the story, and the highly suggestive nature of the scene seems a bit much for a book for ten year olds. Plus there also illustrations in the book and that scene in particular get’s a picture. It’s not the most detailed picture, but there’s definitely two Twi’leks entwined together and one of them is in a thong. Kid’s material?

From the Roqoo Depot Conspiracy Report on Denning’s Scoundrel’s Luck, which ties into Crucible

Considering the gratuitous violence and sexualization in a book plugged as a launching point, it’s worth wondering what a new fan, a Disney executive, or Kathleen Kennedy might think if they picked it up. Luke, Leia, and Han are as unrecognizable by the end for their motivations as much by their physical deformities.  To borrow a phrase from Timothy Zahn, Crucible certainly doesn’t create any compelling reason for Kathleen Kennedy to not put the Star Wars bus in reverse and back over the post-Return of the Jedi era of the Expanded Universe with the new Sequel Trilogy movies, or for fans to cry too hard if she does.

This is remarkable, considering that Denning has gone to quite a bit of effort over the years, sacrificing story and good favor within the fandom in the process, to create books that ensure his next writing effort in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Denning stopped being a storyteller somewhere in the Dark Nest series and became a writer, one who wanted to lock in his next paying gig. This is the very reason I think the Star Wars Expanded Universe should reconsider long runs with authors. Reaves, Traviss, and Denning are examples of authors who started out well and eventually bled more from the fandom than they brought into it. Even generally well-liked authors such as Allston and Zahn have under-performed with books like Mercy Kill and Scoundrels. Writing a Star Wars novel shouldn’t be expected or a career; it should be a privilege, which is exactly the dynamic that made Darth Plagueis so spectacular, well-regarded, and successful. Fans should be able to be excited about the next book, without experiencing overwhelming dread, or even underwhelmed malaise, for what an author has done previously in the franchise.

Which brings me back to the io9 article about fans dropping series after a long run. Series are a double-edged sword. To some extent, fan loyalty can sell books that might not have otherwise sold. But if the fans come to believe that the creators are just churning out product and counting on them to buy it blindly, as opposed to continually crafting stories that adhere to the brand and fans feel they can gladly recommend to a friend, then positive loyalty can turn into the most damaging kind of negative word of mouth.

Going forward we’ll undoubtedly get more book series from Star Wars. There is one important lesson to be learned from the current post-Return of the Jedi timeline, which has included four series, capped off by Crucible’s inability to actually stand on its own. Here it is:

A series must end true to its own story, rather than looking ahead, and it has to be able to stand on its own merits, rather than needing validation looking backward from later stories.

At the end of the New Jedi Order we saw the first hints of the books starting to sacrifice the denouement in one series to set up the next one, when Jaina gave Jag the shove off at the very end of The Unifying Force to enable the plotline of Dark Nest. In that trilogy, Luke Skywalker wrestled back the torch that had been passed forward in the NJO. Dark Nest is generally unpopular, still talked about on places like Tosche Station’s #WaruExpress recap and Hollywood.com’s Expanded Universe Google chat hangout for the manner in which it diminished the post-Return of the Jedi timeline’s potential. The Legacy of the Force series had a strong idea in concept but failed in execution, with two writers invested in a ‘shipping conflict and the third promoting an anti-Jedi agenda. Denning nearly wrote an emotionally stunning conclusion with Invincible, then he spent the final pages setting up the next series instead of providing meaningful closure to the previous nine books of storylines. After LOTF had pitted twins against one another and torn the Skywalker family apart, the Fate of the Jedi series did not allow the impact of those storytelling decisions to settle or the audience to make peace with it, but instead reopened raw wounds with Force-Purgatory spirits of the slain characters Mara Jade Skywalker and Jacen Solo. Fate of the Jedi and now Crucible are desperate, heavy handed attempts to show the readers what the stories that came before actually mean. In doing so, they fail to respect the emotional and financial investment made by the fans. Perhaps the rationale for using the same authors repeatedly is that they don’t have to get up to speed, but the fact that they were already invested in the universe has been one of the primary hindrances to exploring the GFFA from fresh perspectives.

When Crucible was announced last year at San Diego Comic-Con, the disappointment from EU books fans was notable, and I expressed my view that the decision was tone-deaf to the fandom. Having now read the book, and seen the other fans’ reviews begin to come in, it appears fans’ worst apprehensive sentiments from a year ago unfortunately have come true. And one of two things happen when fans feel they aren’t being listened to – they get angry, or they just stop buying.

On the upside, we do have some new contributors in Martha Wells, James S.A. Corey, and Kevin Hearne about to infuse new storytelling ideas into the Expanded Universe.


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5 comments to Passing the Torch

  • Dom

    Nice review. It’s one thing if violence in these stories serves a real story function or pushes the character into a hero’s journey or emotional journey. It’s another thing if it’s gratuitous, a la Game of Thrones. I think Crucible had its moments of using violence to show that the characters are aging and suffering, but Denning doesn’t really go the next step of showing us the emotional consequences. I agree, it just feels like they’re getting pummeled and then move on.

  • Mary

    A thoughtful and considered review. Several sentences caught my attention, and saddened me terribly:

    1. “In Crucible, Denning relies heavily on the violence and gore to keep the reader wondering on multiple occasions whether the Big Three are meeting their deaths.”

    Violence and gore? Did I miss those parts of the core Star Wars philosophy, or have I only imagined that Lucas downplayed those aspects of his universe? Knowing that they are prominent themes in Crucible has already diminished my interest in reading this book.

    2. “When “torture porn” is a term I’m learning from reading Star Wars, it’s crossed a line.”

    “Torture porn” and Star Wars exist in different galaxies. A mash-up of the two is just…wrong on so many levels.

    3. “Poor Han, the mere mortal in the mix, endured page after page of strip sabacc torture. I wept for him and Mirta, too, and this wasn’t even a book I care about.”

    Combined with your comment about “obligatory female nudity”, and trusting your opinion as I do, this is the point at which this book lost its appeal entirely. Star Wars stories used to be positive, showing triumph over evil without lingering on violence, torture, and barely-concealed or questionable sexuality. EU books seem to be picking up speed, rolling down a steep hill away from family entertainment, down to something very different at the bottom where overt gore and sexuality are presented as okay for a general audience including children who see the Star Wars logo and instantly “want.”

    I used to think that Star Wars would never stoop so low.

    Is that really what legions of fans want to read?

    As I considered your review, it occurred to me that the creators of recent EU books and series have been working pretty hard at hammering nails into the EU coffin. Was this intentional? Was there a decision at some point to wind down the EU until it became a discard to make room for the new future of Star Wars? Is this all part of a grand plan? I don’t want to believe that mainstream Star Wars fan tastes have been manipulated like that. I prefer to think that the decline of the EU has happened because the folks who planned its route weren’t aware that their navicomputer was sputtering badly and broke down entirely sometime during the last two nine-book arcs. Perhaps it, and some droids purchased from the same disreputable dealer, created bad algorithms that led EU creators to the wrong conclusions about what people want to read.

    At the very least, the state of EU affairs – Disney-Lucasfilm ownership and future plans notwithstanding – still appears to be the result of over-thinking (or second-guessing) the EU audience, and perhaps also the misguided notion that although Lucas’s philosophy worked in 1977, it is probably out-of-step with today’s info-byte sensibilities; too “good” to be palatable for audiences accustomed to shock and violence in entertainment.

    Whatever happened to: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”

    Where has the courage gone to persist with the positive-messages in Star Wars that so spectacularly attracted world-wide legions of fans?

    Star Wars: A New Hope certainly worked. The Empire Strikes Back was even better. Return of the Jedi wrapped the OT without tossing integrity out the window. There was a definite continuation of the spirit from those movies in the early EU books. Then someone, somewhere, in an ivory tower or small dark cubicle, allowed dark changes to creep in and the EU was driven to the brink of extinction. Placement of blame and responsibility are irrelevant now. I hope that the best parts of the EU – and there are many – find a champion or two who ultimately overtake and repair or replace that ill-fated navicomputer. I agree that there may be hope with new authors’ contributions to come, but if the original Star Wars spirit remains elusive, then Threepio has been right all along.

    “We’re doomed!”

    From your review:

    “And one of two things happen when fans feel they aren’t being listened to – they get angry, or they just stop buying.”

    I would add, “or both.”

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